Austin Texas

Jim and I have had a wonderful time in Austin, Texas visiting my wonderful niece, Jane, her sweet husband, Ben, and their two darling daughters. I have been dying to meet my grand-nieces and they more than exceeded my expectations in cuteness. The three-year-old has a rich vocabulary full of wonderful expressions like “Actually, that’s going to be a problem” or “But, Mom, we could do it as a special treat.” She loves books and is creative and imaginative. The eight-month-old is a sweetie with an easy-going personality. It was fun to spend time with both girls, as well as reconnect with this dear family. 27364318135_e587f99af1_z.jpgIMG_1835.JPG

Jane is an excellent ambassador for Austin and showed us all of the best places to play, eat, and hike. Austin is a cute city with a relaxed atmosphere, full of great restaurants. We poked around the stores in the funky South Congress neighborhood, an icon of Austin, and ate Tex-Mex cuisine at Torchy’s Tacos. Also went to a fabulous BBQ place and a Tex-Mex/Hawaiian place on Lake Austin. We ate Amy’s ice cream TWICE because it was so amazing. Can you tell we ate our way through Austin?



We filled up the few minutes between eating with fun hikes and beautiful scenery. 27293898011_604080a201_z.jpg27331306126_83da6b6e26_z.jpgIMG_6791.JPG27364387015_edfd64dd66_z.jpg

We had fun doing Face Time with cousin Lydia and we also reconnected with my other niece, Jane’s sister, over Face Time. Clifford felt a little camera shy.


All of us were happy, and a few of us were more exhausted than others. FullSizeRender.jpg



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Day Nine: Barcelona

There are reasons I prefer traveling without a group, but one thing I like about being on a tour is that everything is very well organized and there’s no time spent standing in line for tickets or time lost making decisions. Figuring out where to eat and what to do next gets exhausting, and it’s so much less stressful to just go where you’re told and enjoy the wonderful experience they organized for you to do. Today the coach picked us up from the hotel and a wonderful guide entertained us as he showed us his beloved city, Barcelona.

The greatest influence on the city was, without a doubt, Antonio Gaudí. With his beautiful, strange, and mathematical architecture, this artist changed the city by not only leaving his design stamp on Barcelona, but also by drawing other artists who added to the visual appeal. Every building, every bench, every street light is beautifully designed. Gaudí used recycled materials like broken pottery and integrated his deep Christian faith and his love of nature into all his works. He was always pushing the edge of what was possible, (from an engineering standpoint), to create his art.

This is Casa Batlló. The roof is supposed to represent dragon skin because St. George (who killed the dragon) is Barcelona’s patron saint. The balconies are carnival masks, and the exterior walls are covered with colorful broken glass.


We went to the highest point in the city, Parc de Montjuïc, and gazed on panoramic views of the city.


Recently UNESCO made Park Güell severely limit the number of people in the park at a time. This has made seeing Gaudi’s unusual and whimsical garden vastly improved, because before the garden was a swarming mass of people, and now, one can take a leisurely picture without jockeying for position.



We also toured the spectacular cathedral, the Sagrada Familia. What an opportunity to see a cathedral that is IN PROCESS of being built. Gaudi left drawings and models so the work could continue after he died, but these were all burned in the Spanish Civil War. Groups of artists, engineers, and architects have continued his work, and as it gets nearer completion, so many people have caught the vision and now money is no problem. It will be finished by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death. The kids looked up in wonder as they entered the colorful forest-like space. It’s like nothing they’ve ever seen before, and even the cynical father of one of my students was deeply moved.IMG_0804.jpg


Later, the Newfoundlanders we’ve been traveling with, had a special initiation ceremony for the adults in our group, making us honorary Newfoundlanders. We had to pass certain challenges which involved, (among other things), answering questions in their dialect, some drinking, saying the name of their province correctly, and kissing the Newfoundland flag. It was hilarious and moving. I’ll surely sleep on the plane home because we didn’t get to bed until after midnight, and had to leave at 3 a.m. for the airport.


These were our judges. They gave us thumbs up if we accomplished the challenge or thumbs down if we didn’t.IMG_0820.JPG

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Day Eight: Provence to Barcelona

We visited Carcassonne Castle in Provence today. It’s like a little village surrounded by layers of thick walls. It was fun to explore and we had delicious (French) onion soup, and a bean and a yummy regional bean and sausage dish for lunch.

IMG_0746.jpgIMG_0728.JPGIMG_0713.JPGIMG_0736.JPGIMG_0744.JPGIMG_0749.JPGIt was a three hour drive to Barcelona, but our previously-wonderful bus driver took a wrong turn and it turned into a five hour drive. The Tour Director kept telling him that it wasn’t this way, but he wouldn’t listen to her. So after an hour of city traffic we turned around and headed the direction we came. It was very frustrating. The kids learned that travel doesn’t always go the way you planned. We didn’t have dinner until 8:30 and got back to the hotel at 11:15 pm. Too late for me. It was stressful to take the metro with a group of 24 kids. Additionally, Molly and Josh spent a much-deserved night to themselves, so Jim and I were alone moving the group through the crowded station. Terrifying. If I lose one of these little ducks following me, I’m doomed. The kids aren’t used to trains, and one lost his balance close to the tracks as he wrestled his friend. I’m also worried about one of my girls who has fallen in lust with a Canadian boy from the other group. With the ability to text, it’s easy to arrange a secret rendezvous. More gray hairs.IMG_0756.JPGIMG_0754.JPG

But I’m really happy to be here. Because I’ve lived in Spain, Kelly’s lived in Barcelona, and we’ve visited the city a number of times, it feels comfortable. It’s like when you go back to Disneyland and remember some things, but have forgotten others and a joyful memory returns. It’s familiar, but special. I had forgotten how much I loved hearing Castellano, which sounds more proper and musical than Mexican Spanish. I haven’t been to Spain since I learned French, and the surprise was being able to understand  the Catalan language, which is a mixture of French and Spanish. We were in a small paper shop and the two owners were trying to teach me Catalan. If they said it in Catalan, I could translate to Spanish, but I couldn’t go from Spanish To Catalan. New goal: language number five. 

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Day Seven: Provence

We started off the day at Tarascone Castle, which was built in Medieval times. Because it’s remote, and not well-known, we had the building to ourselves and the kids loved exploring the different rooms, and winding staircases, and enjoying the beautiful views from the roof. The other group leader got into a fun sword fight with his boys who had bought wooden swords.IMG_0639.jpgIMG_0618.jpgIMG_0625.jpgIMG_0629.jpgIMG_0631.jpgIMG_0636.jpgIMG_0638.jpgIMG_0649.jpg

On arrival in Arles, the other group leader’s wife slipped and fell. She was taken to hospital in an ambulance. She has a broken ankle, but will recover.IMG_0650.jpg

Our Tour Director studied in Arles, and pointed out all the buildings that Van Gogh painted, and took us to where he was hospitalized after cutting off his ear. We also visited the amphitheater, which is a mini version of the Colosseum. I only wish we had more time to spend in this cute village. 

See this painting?


It’s of this house:


This is the hospital where Van Gogh was committed when he cut off his ear: 


And the painting of the same:


Downtown Arles:


The arena where gladiators fought to the death. (Roman leaders believed if you gave the people bread and blood they wouldn’t revolt.) 


We toured the Camargue Nature Reserve next in our coach. We have an Italian coach driver who is very sweet and I’ve loved listening to him speak Italian, and using my toddler-level language skills. He was an expert at finding the wild Camargue horses and the flocks of pink flamingos. Typically there are thousands of flamingos in this preserve, but the Mistral wind came up and the birds were hiding. We still saw a lot of them, and the students were amazed to see them FLY, because the ones in zoos don’t, and they didn’t know they COULD. We’ve had beautiful sunny weather most of the trip, but our luck ran out in Ste. Marie de la Mere. It’s a cute beach town with gelato shops and cafés, but it was cold and windy today. Dinner in Nimes, where the denim cloth was invented (de Nimes = denim).


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Day Six: Provence

Our hotel is near my favorite French bakery chain and Jim and Josh were kind enough to make a run for my beloved strawberry tart, but, unfortunately strawberries are out of season, and I had to settle for raspberry tart. (Still delicious.) Molly asked what kind of pastry he brought for her, and he said « Escargot », meaning it was SHAPED like a snail, but she didn’t think snail pastry sounded yummy and didn’t eat it.


In other miscommunications, at dinner the waiter served Josh a salad with dressing, but Josh can’t eat dairy. The Tour Director (who is Belgian) said « No, he can’t eat that, it has diarrhea! » She also told the kids the password to the wifi was « belleguarde » and added « Just like it sounds. » Right.

We are in Provence, famous for its lavender fields, which apparently were planted to keep out the rats. In Avignon we saw the Palais des Papes where the Popes moved the seat of Christianity in the thirteen century and created the Great Schism. I knew the song « Sur le Pont d’Avignon » but didn’t understand why they were dancing on the bridge. It’s because no one could walk across it anymore because half of it kept washing away in floods, and the last time they didn’t rebuild it. So, it’s only half a bridge—good only for dancing on.


At the Pont du Gard the kids were able to hike, throw stones in the water, and play around the beautiful roman aqueduct. They loved this part of the trip. The aqueduct is an engineering marvel, changing height only two centimeters from one bank to the other.IMG_0588.jpgIMG_0599.jpgIMG_0606.jpg

These small dots are my kiddos in the shadow of the aqueduct.

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Day Five: Nice, Provence, France

Our next stop was Provence which, among other things, is the world’s biggest producers of flowers. Thus, French perfume. We toured a perfume factory where some of the girls were excited, but a large part of the group felt sick because the smell was so strong. Perfume is made from the roots of plants, but it takes years for them to grow to maturity, and THEN the root is dried for six years, and THEN it’s ground into powder to remove the essential (smelly) oils.IMG_0447.jpg


We are staying in Nice.  It’s easy to see why this is called the « Côte d’Azure » (the Blue Coast.) I’ve seen beautiful water in California, Greece, and Albania but this was another level altogether.Wow! The water is indescribably beautiful.The beach itself was made of little rocks which had just been dumped yesterday to rebuild the eroding coastline. I’m thankful for our sandy beaches in Ventura. There is a gelato shop in Nice that even the Italians voted #1 in Europe. We didn’t go there, but we went to one that is supposed to be just as good, and it truly was the best gelato I’ve had. I’m happy to be in France. For  me, there are few things better than having someone understand me in another language. Casual conversations with the grocery store clerk, the hotel receptionist, and the waitress in the café are a complete joy for me.


The students are learning so much! They are eager to experience everything, and one of them makes a point of thanking me every day for taking him on the trip. One of the students tried her first cappuccino and liked it. IMG_0522.jpgIMG_0476.jpgIMG_0505.jpg

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Day Five: Monaco

Day Five: Monaco, and Nice, France

My brother, Scott, (who died years ago), lived in Monaco for a time, and years ago I planned a student trip that included Monaco so that I could see what he loved about it. That trip didn’t work out, and we were rerouted to Venice instead. THIS trip didn’t include Monaco at first, but was added at the last minute. SCORE! Monaco has no income taxes because the casino makes so much money. There are four national languages. It has fabulous panoramic views from the whole city. It’s filled with the kind of people who own yachts. These are only four reasons why Scott liked it.

The city is beautiful, but what the kids liked the best were the expensive cars: Bentleys, Mazzeratis, Rolls Royces and more. We saw the patriotic changing of the guard. Small country, large pageantry. We went to the casino, but couldn’t go inside—partly because of the age of the kids, but also because of the many clothing and other restrictions. We walked past a Volvo dealer and the tour director said « On the right is the car dealership for the poor people in Monaco. » A student piped up « I want to be a poor person in Monaco! » We saw Grace Kelly’s grave and also the location of her tragic fatal car accident. 


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