Three Airplanes

That’s what we keep telling Abby about our upcoming trip to Ohio – that we’ll take 3 airplanes and then we’ll see Nana and Papu waiting for us at the airport. She repeats it back and when I ask, she promises to sleep on the plane. Likely story.

We are inching closer and closer to our departure date and I’m feeling those familiar pangs of anxiety about a full day of travel. There’s no way around it, it’s not easy to travel to or from Tbilisi. I dream of a day in the future when there is a direct flight to the U.S. For now, we’ll leave our house at 2:30am and travel for about 26 hours to make it home. We have terrible luck when it comes to these long hauls (missed flights, lost strollers, canceled flights) so I’m preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

One of the most daunting things, besides packing for 3 months, is all the paperwork and procedures that go into having a baby while posted overseas. The State Department has this very useful Pregnancy Guide. It’s 37 pages long, with a ton of information and links to help you understand the process of med-evacing, receiving per diem, adding a new baby to your travel orders, and obtaining the baby’s passport and visa. The passport and visa keep me up at night – so many steps that we need to take right away while we’re in the newborn haze of limited sleep. I created my own checklist of everything we need to do with references to the guide and other documents we used with Abby. So much to worry about it, but it will all get done eventually.

When I’m not worrying about leaving or packing, we’ve been enjoying the cooler weather around here and our last few weeks with our friends. We’ve also been embracing fall around our house with some baking. Abby loves to help in the kitchen, so we made some of Justin’s Aunt Diane’s famous pumpkin bread and my family’s pumpkin cookies.

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Waiting for things to bake is the hardest part

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Bounce house fun

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Sopo (Abby’s amazing nanny) has been outdoing herself lately with Abby’s hair. I’m going to need a few tutorials before we leave so I can keep this up.

Now we are in the final countdown – time to say goodbye to friends and prepare for the land of Target, Dairy Queen, and traffic laws!

La Vida Lopota

For Labor Day weekend, we joined some friends and their kids at Lopota Lake Resort in the Kakheti (read: wine) region of Georgia.  The drive took about 2.5 hours and despite some very windy roads, it was relatively easy. A friend tipped us off that we should specifically request ground floor rooms in the S building, which we reserved several weeks in advance. Alas, when we arrived those rooms were not available, but the L building, right next door, suited us just fine.  I do recommend the ground floor rooms because of their great patios and you get to avoid the stairs!

Although the weather had cooled a bit, we still took advantage of the multiple swimming pools right away. The food at dinner was decent, but a bit overpriced. The restaurant decorated their walls with bottles of wine (full bottles, which is important to this story).  JR asked the server for a glass of that specific type of wine and the server hesitated, saying “Oh. I will have to check if we have that.”  We all looked around bewildered because there were dozens of bottles around us, including one within arms reach by  JR’s head. The server returned a few moments later to confirm that unfortunately, they did not have that type of wine available.

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Oh well, he ordered a beer instead.

The next morning after breakfast the air was a bit cooler and we noticed that some of the other guests’ children were bundled up like it was full blown winter.  I think it was maybe between 65-70 degrees?  The weather did not keep us from a last dip in the pool!  We only stayed one night so we didn’t explore all of the grounds, but there was plenty to do and we will definitely visit again next year.

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We spent the rest of the weekend relaxing at home. Our friends from down the street came over for a farewell dinner – they are headed back to the U.S. for a few months.  Abby and their daughter, K are best buds and I was really sad to say goodbye!

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One last hug!

On Monday, Abby helped me make cookies.  She was quite impatient waiting for them to  bake!

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We closed out the weekend with a sunset bike ride.

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The Secretary, My Mom and a Baby

Secretary of State John Kerry visited Tbilisi on his way to the NATO Summit at the beginning of July. JR and I weren’t involved in the logistics of his visit, but it was really interesting to see just how much goes into every detail of planning a VIP visit at the Embassy and in the city.  Embassy employees were invited to a short meet-and-greet with him before he departed and we went to see him.  I had no idea I was such a huge John Kerry fan until I saw some of these pictures.

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My smile could not be any bigger. Clearly, I am smitten.

After a fun 4th of July weekend (that included my first trip to the Hard Rock Cafe in Tbilisi – we now have a Hard Rock here!), we only had to wait a few more days for my mom’s second visit to Georgia.  I already wrote about us ditching her immediately so we could enjoy a quick trip to London, but luckily she had 2 full weeks here so we were able to spend some quality time together.

We went out to dinner with friends and my mom – who is a pickier eater than me (and that’s really saying something) – shocked us all by trying quail.  One minute we’re chatting and the next I look over and she’s nibbling away on some grilled quail.  I was impressed!  She said it tasted pretty good, but I’m not quite ready to try it myself.

Most of her visit was spent as “Nana”, which is all she really wanted, although she also enjoyed some lazy afternoons at the pool.  On her last weekend, she helped me (okay to be fair she did most of the work) host a turkey dinner at our house for a few friends.  I ordered a turkey back in the fall before we had plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we spent both holidays with friends and didn’t need to prepare our huge bird.  I had no idea when we’d use it and this seemed like the perfect time, especially considering I’ve never cooked a turkey.  We had a minor crisis when we realized the “turkey bag” I thought I had was actually a cellophane bag and those are apparently not the same thing at all.  The bag burst and we thought our turkey was doomed, but my friend Elizabeth came to the rescue with an extra bag that was in fact designed for cooking a turkey, and we were able to enjoy a wonderful dinner!

My mom would have been content to spend all of her time in our little gated community just enjoying Abby’s company, but we made a last minute decision to drive to Kazbegi, home to Mount Kazbegi and the small village of Stepantsminda.  The drive took us just under 3 hours, which would have been a bit shorter but we had to stop many times for cows in the road.

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We checked into Rooms Hotel and had a picnic lunch on the patio, enjoying the perfect weather and gorgeous views.  JR and I wanted to see the famous Gergeti Trinity  Church, which sits high on a mountain overlooking the city (I never know the distinction between a hill and a mountain.  I’m from Ohio, so they all look like mountains to me).

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You can hike up to the church, or drive in your own car or pay a taxi or guide to take you.  Surely you can guess that I was not interested in the hiking option.  Instead, we hired a guide to ride in our car while JR drove us up the mountain. It was a really rough drive.  Our poor car and my poor stomach.  But the church and the views were absolutely worth it.

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We met up with my mom and Abby back at the hotel for some relaxation and dinner before heading in for a peaceful night of sleep.  Or so we thought.  Apparently, it was the opening night for a brand new club on the other side of the valley and the thumping base played ALL.NIGHT.LONG.  I’m not kidding, you could still hear it at 8am. We woke up a little grumpy but wanted to enjoy a few more hours at the hotel, so we had breakfast together and then spent over an hour at the indoor pool.  Abby’s attitude towards pool time is hit or miss (heartbreaking for this former Orrville Otter and my husband, a Black Oak Swim Club record holder) but she was totally into it!  She “swam” up and down the pool and jumped into our arms over and over again.  I was sad to check out and look forward to another visit, hopefully without the club music!

Before we knew it, it was time for my mom to head home.  Our goodbye was a little easier this time because we know we’ll see her again in about 11 weeks, when we head back to Ohio to await the arrival of baby #2 in December!

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London!

JR and I just got back from a wonderful quick trip to London.  I don’t think London gets enough credit – all the parks and green space, the fascinating history, the people are exceedingly polite, and for JR’s benefit, there are pubs on almost every corner.

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JR was also appreciative of the “people respecting the queue” since it’s sometimes lacking from our everyday lives abroad.

My amazing mother perfectly timed up her summer visit to Tbilisi so that JR and I could take off for a few kid-free days.  Traveling to Tbilisi takes 3 flights and a LOT of time.  She left Cleveland around 7:30pm on a Sunday, quick layover in DC, a 9ish hour flight to Munich + a 9ish hour layover there, and finally she landed here at 4am local time on Tuesday!  As a show of our appreciation, we promptly left her in charge of Abby just 24 hours later. In case that wasn’t enough to deal with, Abby started feeling sick right before we left.

We took a quick trip to the med unit and left with a Nebulizer and some breathing treatments.  Hey Mom, welcome to Tbilisi, here’s our sick toddler, we’re out!

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(Abby was fine, just a bit of a cough that went away after a few days.)

Really, all that quality time with Abby was the highlight of her trip.  My mom made friends with everyone she met, people on the plane, the electric cart driver at the Cleveland airport (no really, they’re on first name basis), and all of our neighbors. She kept herself busy holding picnic lunches in our yard, making Froot Loop necklaces with Abby’s friends, fruit popsicles and bead bracelets, and the list goes on and on.  I have no idea how we will entertain this child now that she is gone!

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Meanwhile, we had a beautiful 3 days in London and probably my favorite trip there to date!  We saw Book of Mormon (hilarious, highly recommend), visited Westminster Abbey and the Churchhill War Rooms, wandered around Carnaby Street and through the parks, and did a day trip to Oxford (and a walking tour there with entirely too much walking, in my opinion).  JR’s favorite parts were the history of Oxford and, of course, enjoying a pint in J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ favorite local pub, The Eagle and Child.

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British food doesn’t get the recognition it deserves and we probably ate more than was necessary.

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Can’t wait to go back!

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Family, friends and Dairy Queen

I’m always a few weeks tad behind, but here are some highlights from our R&R in Ohio:

  •  Being around friends and family reminds of just how much I miss them. Life is great in Georgia, but I had so much fun while we were home.
  • The radio. You don’t realize how much you miss it!  There were so many great songs on the radio, but most importantly, I’m a full-blown Belieber now.  If you aren’t listening to Justin’s Bieber’s “Love Yourself” you are missing out.  I also love this cheesy “Stand By You” song by Rachel Platten. I was driving alone singing that song and having an emotional moment and thinking how much I loved JR and I would totally stand by him, and as the song says “I’d walk through hell for you.”  But then I thought to myself…eek.  Hell would be so hot.  My feet would burn so quickly!  So maybe not quite that much?

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  • JR had a week long training in DC, and on his way to Ohio he stopped in Gettysburg, PA for the night and toured the battlefield next morning. There’s a great tour guide program that allows you to pay a very reasonable fee for a private, certified guide who you pick up and they’ll actually drive your car for you as they show you the sights.  He said it was one of the best historical tours he’s ever been on and highly recommends it.  http://gettysburgtourguides.org/guided-tour-rates/
  • My grandparents wanted to take all nine – yes, NINE – of their great-grandchildren to Build-a-Bear for Easter.  I do not totally understand the pull of BAB, but kids love it and it’s insanely expensive so hooray to the company owners.  A $35 limit per kid was set, but of course my Mom was all “well, if Abby needs something additional I’ll just pay for it.”  Mmhmm.  She’s 2, I don’t think she actually needs anything.  Abby picked out a cute cat that we like to think reminded her of Annabelle and enjoyed the stuffing process.  Then it was time to shop for accessories.  My Mom would not hear it when I insisted the cat did not need an outfit because she’s a cat.  Next thing I know, I’m buying TWO pairs of sparkly flats for the cat.  Two, because she has 4 paws of course!  Okay, but it was all worth it when Abby put on these fake glasses and danced around the store. 
  • We had our first ER visit.  The day before we left, Abby had a cough in the morning that sounded much worse when she woke up from her nap.  My mom thought it sounded like croup, and we didn’t want to take any chances before traveling so we made our way to the nearest Urgent Care.  Which was closed.  At 4pm on a Saturday. What is the point of an urgent care??  That left the ER as our only option for her to be seen that day, and ultimately I’m glad we went.  The doctor agreed that it was probably viral croup and gave her a dose of steroids before sending us home.  She seemed totally fine the next day, thank goodness!

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  • American roads and highways.  After driving in Tbilisi for several months (think Mad Max Fury Road meets Mario Kart) we were amazed with the driving. Nobody driving the wrong-way on the highway, everyone in their lanes, stopping at lights, even blinkers for goodness sake!  At our first 4-way stop in Ohio, another driver politely waved us on and JR said “Can you believe how nice that man was? This is amazing!”
  • Many people we meet think we live in the state of Georgia.  Even though I always try to say “we live and work overseas in Tbilisi, Georgia” hoping the “overseas” part will tip them off, we still confuse people.  A nurse at the doctor’s office asked if I was local and when I said “No, I actually live overseas in Tbilisi, Georgia, near Russia” she said “Oh, so you drove up here then?”  Well, not exactly.  JR had a similar encounter where he told someone we live overseas in Georgia and she replied,”Goodness, I bet the South is having better weather than we are right now.” It’s understandable that strangers are confused, some of our own family and friends still think we live in Russia.  To be helpful, see the map below.  Georgia borders Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and the Black Sea.

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  • The Price is Right.  Enough said.
  • We have some really nice grocery store options here, but there is still something that blows my mind when I see the cereal or bread aisle at Buehler’s.  So. Many. Options.  Also, every single fruit or vegetable is practically without blemish. It’s overwhelming and amazing.
  • My sister came home the first weekend we were in town to see us and take care of some wedding planning.  I was super excited for cupcake tasting with her, and I also went to her florist appointment.  The wedding stuff made me nostalgic for my own big day, so I made my whole family watch our wedding DVD – the ceremony and the highlight reel – just to get everyone in the spirit!
  • At one point JR was looking at our credit card statement and said “How many times have you been to Dairy Queen?”  I told him to stop judging.lay-off-me-im-starving-gif
  • I was on the hunt for a pair of sandals for our nanny’s son.  One night JR said, hey we have some down time, why don’t we run to Target and you can get the sandals and I can pick up some beer. Note that this was my first trip to Target in about 9 months.  $204 later, we walked out of the store with a six-pack, no sandals, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I really, really needed.

That sums up our R&R –   family, friends, Dairy Queen, explaining where Georgia is located, and overspending.  It’s a long haul to return home but we’re grateful for the opportunity to do it.

We’re Back!

We made it back to Tbilisi last week and our return travel was light years better for everyone involved.  There were some struggles but overall, it was a much, much better experience.  Looks like my sister can still have her wedding in October!

There were many advantages to the return journey.  For one thing, we flew out of Cleveland at 6:15 p.m., as opposed to our Tbilisi departure which was originally scheduled for 5 a.m.  JR and I were able to sleep in and take our time closing up the suitcases, and then we enjoyed a nice Easter lunch with my family.  Abby even had a nap before we left for the airport.  We all started out in better moods, and much more rested.

The better moods were quickly changed when we checked in at the American Airlines counter for our first flight to Chicago.  The attendant told us our bags could not be checked all the way to Tbilisi, so we’d have to pick them up at baggage claim in Chicago and RE-CHECK them before boarding our flight to Istanbul.  This meant that instead of just going to our next gate in Chicago, we would have go to baggage claim and wait for our bags, then make our way to the Turkish counter, recheck our bags, go through security again, and then find our next gate.  JR repeatedly asked them why we had to do this but they just said that since American Airlines didn’t have an “agreement” with Turkish Airlines, we would have to get our luggage to Turkish ourselves.  JR didn’t think there’d be enough time in Chicago to do all this but we figured we’d deal with the problem as best we could when we landed.  And deal with it we did.

As soon as we landed in Chicago, we hustled to baggage claim.  JR paid for two luggage carts, and even then it was difficult for us to maneuver because I was pushing Abby in her stroller while JR had to push one cart with each hand.  The first thing we had to do was find a spot to open Every.Single.Bag and rearrange our items because the weight limit for American Airlines, which we had planned for, is 50 lbs, while Turkish Airlines only allows 44 lbs per bag.  Thankfully we had enough extra space in our last two bags that we didn’t have to throw away anything (I was really fearing for my 5 packages of bacon and 4 pounds of frozen cheese at this point, but they made the cut!).

Next we had to transport ourselves and said luggage from Terminal 2 to Terminal 5.  Easy peasy – we’ll take the tram!  Oh wait, you aren’t allowed to take a luggage cart on the tram.  After the first employee said it couldn’t be done, the next one said they’d make an exception for us and she also helped push one of the carts. Upon arriving at Terminal 5, we were greeted by a lengthy but not terribly long line at the Turkish counter.  At this point Abby was asking for water, she had finished her sippy cup and we didn’t have any bottled water with us.  There wasn’t a vending machine in sight.  Since we had a 2.5 hour layover, we assumed we’d have time to eat dinner and relax before boarding.  But like most things when traveling, we were wrong.

Once we rechecked our bags, we had about 90 minutes left so we felt pretty good about the situation.  Until we saw the largest security line JR or I have ever seen.

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I was a tad unhappy.  So much for our leisurely layover, at this point we were concerned we wouldn’t make the flight.  I felt especially bad for Abby.  We use the layovers for her to run around, stretch her legs and burn energy, and she was confined to her stroller almost the entire time.  She was not pleased.  By the time we collected our things from the security checkpoint, we heard the last call for our flight over the loudspeaker.  I told JR to run ahead so they wouldn’t close the doors on us.  We made it, but we were annoyed and frustrated. Running through airports is becoming a family tradition.

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The great news is that the flight itself was pretty great.  We settled in to our seats and Abby started playing with the in-flight entertainment system.  We fed her while we waited for dinner service (huge thanks to my Mom who helped out by packing us peanut butter sandwiches, grapes, apples and cheese – this was way better than all the snack/junk food we packed ourselves).  We’ll always try to remember to bring fresh food with us from now on. Shortly after we ate, we laid her down between us and like magic, she fell asleep.

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She slept off and on this way for several hours (so did we), and then she started getting uncomfortable.  We could tell she needed to stretch out a bit more, so I moved to the window seat and JR took his Kindle and walked around/stood in the galley while Abby and I slept.  It was really  nice, I was able to stretch out some more and she was laying flat across the aisle and middle seats. We probably slept like this for almost 3 hours.  She rolled off onto the floor at one point, but she barely cried and was quickly asleep again. In fact, we woke her up when we had about 45 minutes remaining in the flight.  #MAJORWIN.  The overnight flight made a huge difference.

Our layover in Istanbul was just over 2 hours.  It’s a crowded airport with not enough seating.  Not my favorite.  Our time passed quickly enough and finally we were on our LAST flight home.  We landed in the pouring down rain and freezing cold, but all six bags, although wet, made it and we were safely at home about an hour later.

My general advice on flying with a two year old:  Don’t do it.  Okay that’s probably not fair, everything worked out fine in the end but definitely be prepared for a less than relaxing journey!

 

Never again

Picture this.  It was 11pm on a Wednesday night and JR and I were headed to bed.  We were leaving for our R&R back to the States on a 5:15 a.m. flight, so we had our alarms set for 2:30am, and motorpool scheduled to pick us up 45 minutes later.

JR received this text message:  We’re sorry, your flight from Tbilisi to Munich has been canceled.

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Awesome way to start our R&R.

I called Lufthansa directly while he phoned the Embassy hoping to reach one of the ladies who handles travel arrangements.  While the Lufthansa guy was telling me we needed to wait until Friday to fly out, JR had much more luck with Khatuna from the Embassy’s office.  It took almost an hour and several phone calls, but she was able to reroute us on a flight to Warsaw at 5:50 a.m. and then a connection to Munich that would put us back on our original itinerary.  Huge thanks to the travel office for helping us in the middle of the night. An additional flight was not desirable, but manageable.  The catch?  One of us needed to be at the airport 3 hours prior to our departure to confirm and pick-up our tickets from the Lufthansa counter. Since the entire flight to Munich had been canceled we knew that others were probably trying to catch the Warsaw flight and we did not want to lose our new tickets.

At this point it was midnight.  We had the option of all 3 of us leaving our house at 2am and waiting much longer at the airport, or one of us could drive to the airport right then, pick up the tickets, and drive back home and (hopefully) get a bit more sleep. I drew the short straw, so I cranked up the Taylor Swift and made my way to the airport in search of the Lufthansa counter – which doesn’t exist. Because of course it doesn’t. I talked to security and waited in a back hallway for the “office” to open.  Once the staff did arrive I waited while they had a chit chat and a cup of coffee before they were able to assist.  I was fading fast when they printed the tickets, but I was in a great mood because we had managed to overcome this big hurdle and surely we’d have smooth travels ahead.

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Our flight to Warsaw was uneventful.  The last minute change somehow gave Abby and JR premium class seats, and he very kindly allowed me to sit a few rows back and sleep most of the flight while he dealt with Abby.   We were late leaving so we landed at 7:20 – the exact departure time of our next flight.  The airlines sent a representative to meet us and a few other passengers and they rushed us through customs, security and the airport to the waiting plane.  This time we all had premium class seats and once again, we foolishly thought the worst was behind us.  Who would have thought the Polish have the best customer service?

In Munich, we found a small play area for Abby and spent over an hour there letting her burn off some energy.  It was relaxed and we were feeling good. We took our time walking to the gate for our next flight, and on the way we heard our names called over the loudspeaker.  I was confused because we had more than 40 minutes until take off, but we picked up the pace and walked up to the gate agent.  She kindly informed us that JR was not booked on the flight.  Abby and I had tickets, but during all the changes earlier the previous night/that morning, somehow JR was added to a Lufthansa flight leaving several hours later.

I was panicked.  That’s actually an understatement, I was internally freaking out.  For weeks now we’d been operating under the new plan with all of us flying together to DC.  To have this sprung on me moments before we were supposed to board was not okay. As JR calmly explained the mix up to the gate agent, I was going through our carry-on bags and separating our things in case we couldn’t fix it.  After what felt like forever (but was probably only 5-10 minutes) they acted like he would be able to go with us, but the other employees were insisting that Abby and  I  board immediately or we would miss the plane.

I pushed Abby as slowly as I could, but before long we were at the end of the jet way and the flight attendants were asking us to board.  I told them I was waiting for my husband.  Again, this wait felt like forever because I truly didn’t know if he was going to be allowed on the plane.   I’m not sure I’ve ever been so relieved to see his face as I was when he finally appeared.

Now came the hard part.  The 9 hour flight with an almost two year old.  We settled in and hoped for the best, and to her credit, she did really well until about the last 2 hours.  But that last two hours was really awful.  We tried every trick we knew to get her to sleep or at least calm down. She was exhausted (at this point she had probably slept for a total of 3-4 hours the whole day, and it was still Tbilisi time for us, so about 10pm and well past her bedtime).  She was screaming and crying and really could not be consoled.  She would snuggle up and close her eyes, but less than a minute later she’d be at it again because she couldn’t get comfortable. She kept saying “night night, night night” and I felt like the worst mother ever, because my poor kid just wanted to be in bed sleeping.  Although I had though it to myself several times, this was the first point where JR and I actually said aloud to each other “never again.”  We are never, ever doing this again. (Note that my sister is getting married in Ohio in October, so never again means we’ll have to find a way to cancel or relocate her wedding).

We finally landed, and bless the kind people who sat around us and told us what a great kid she was and how she did so well on the plane.  Seriously, I was so tired and stressed and just plain sad in that moment that their nice words nearly made me cry.

DC was the final stop for JR, and I started to mentally prepare myself for doing the final leg of our journey solo.  I thought we’d have more time together, but quite quickly after we left the plane we had to head in opposite directions.  We said a quick goodbye and then Abby and I made our way to customs.  I had to take her out of her stroller for her passport picture, which she hated.  Then we waited at baggage claim for our 3 checked bags.  When I had pictured this part of our trip I thought JR would still be with us, but since he wasn’t I had to make do and I gave Abby my iPhone to watch videos while I waited on our bags and loaded them on a luggage cart.

Pushing the luggage cart and stroller simultaneously was no easy feat, but we managed.  We rechecked our bags and made our way through security and then to our gate. We only had about 20 minutes before boarding so we used that time to buy some water and stretch our legs.  The plane was outside on the tarmac and as I took Abby out of her stroller, another passenger offered to help me.  I think he meant help with my bags, but at that moment Abby tried to take off while I collapsed her stroller so I asked him to grab her hand so she didn’t run under the plane.  He held on to her while I put the stroller on the luggage cart and I thanked him profusely.  Meanwhile, JR was in another part of the airport waiting for his luggage that never arrived.  He had work meetings the next day, so as soon as he made it to his hotel he had to run out and buy a shirt, tie and pants.

The flight to Cleveland was only 50 minutes.  50 minutes!  We can do this, I thought.  Then we sat on the plane for an hour waiting for fuel.  Never again, I said to myself for the 100th time that day.

It was snowing and freezing when we touched down in Cleveland, but I didn’t care.  It was great to see my parents waiting for us.  Abby fell asleep in her car seat on the ride home, and barely woke up when we changed her and put her to bed. My mom and brother took the monitor so I could sleep as much as possible, and I actually felt well rested the next morning.  Once I showered and ate breakfast, I settled on the couch and watched Abby light up as she played with my parents.  She kept running to them and hugging them, calling for them anytime they left the room.  All I heard all day was “Nana!!  Papu!!” And pretty quickly I thought, yeah, we’ll do this again.

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Hello, Gorgeous

Isn’t she lovely?

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I am finally – FINALLY – the proud owner of a Kitchen Aid Mixer!

JR was completely against this purchase since I first brought up the idea approximately forever ago. The truth is I didn’t have much going for me to justify the expense. I’m not exactly known for my skills in the kitchen and in our previous apartments, there was nowhere to store another big kitchen appliance. So I let my dream fade away for a long time, but then our neighbors started showing up at our door with freshly baked goods. Breads, hot pretzels, scones, you name it, Rachel bakes it (she has an awesome food blog: http://www.tastychao.com). And you know what she uses?  A Kitchen Aid Mixer. Suddenly, JR started to see the light. Or he just wanted me to shut up about it.  Either way, our very own mixer arrived via Amazon and we are BOTH loving it.

The new mixer timed up perfectly with our newest Netflix obsession, The Great British Bake Off. Although neither of us are big fans of cooking show competitions, we watched Season 1 of this show and highly recommend it. It was enjoyable and relaxing, and made us want to bake! The competitors were all so friendly to each other and it was a definite change from the normal American reality shows. Only one season is available online, so once we were finished we tried to watch other cooking shows like Iron Chef and and Chopped, but the yelling and hysteria didn’t do it for us.  We just like watching friendly Brits bake in the English countryside.

The very first recipe I tried with my mixer was a knock-off Macaroni Grill rosemary bread. It didn’t look exactly like it should have, but it tasted delicious. And I made bread – from scratch!

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Inspired by Rachel, we made soft pretzels. So good. And not as hard as I feared, although it’s tricky to cook them all the way through without burning the tops and bottoms.

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In the 3-ish weeks we’ve had the mixer we’ve also made pizza dough, pumpkin bread, cupcakes, and strawberry muffins. I’m in love!

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Lest you think I’m suddenly a baking pro, there have been some failures. Some big ones. I tried to make a strawberry layer cake and when I went to flip it onto the cooling rack, it completely fell apart. I’m a work in progress.

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We took a break from the kitchen the other weekend long enough to make a day trip to Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin. There is a small museum that includes his childhood home, pictures, some of his personal belongings, and even his private, armored train car. The entrance fee was around 10 lari and included a tour guide. Our guide was Giorgi and he was really great, patient in answering our questions and saving me from knocking over an exhibit while I was holding Abby (oops). It’s hard to describe the feelings towards Stalin in Georgia, particularly in Gori, given his notorious place in history. As Giorgi explained, it’s not that they’re celebrating the man but rather they recognize the large role Stalin played in world history and especially the country of Georgia.  We thought Giorgi did a great job of presenting the basic facts about his childhood, rise to power in the Soviet Union, and the dark side of his leadership.

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Word of warning – the museum is not heated and even on a mild day in February, it was frigid inside.  It was so cold we could see Giorgi’s breath during the tour.

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Stalin was apparently very afraid of flying, so he used this train car to travel to Potsdam and Yalta to meet with the Allied leaders during World War II. The train car is bullet proof and included its original furniture and fixtures.

After walking through the museum and Stalin’s train car, we finished the tour at his childhood home. The small house, where Stalin’s parents rented a single room, stands in its original location with a monument-like structure built around it. Giorgi opened the door and invited us to look around the inside, which he said remains just as it was when Stalin lived there (I’m a bit skeptical). Abby was not content to stand within the small roped off entrance, so Giorgi lifted the rope for her and invited her to climb right up onto Stalin’s bed. Weird, but we went with it long enough to take a photo.

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Again, I’m not sure I believe this was really Stalin’s childhood bed, but pretty weird either way.  

Rockin’ out in Sighnaghi

Finally, our first trip outside of Tbilisi!  Last weekend, we left Abby with her nanny so we could visit Sighnaghi and spend a night away.  We left Saturday morning around 10am, and we had an easy and uneventful 2 hour drive. We rocked out to the CDs I bought JR for Christmas:  The Essential Michael Jackson, Phil Collins’ Hits, Tracy Chapman Collection, Garth Brooks Ultimate  Hits, and perhaps most importantly, I Will Always Love You: The Very Best of Whitney Houston. 

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Important backstory:  Years ago, when we were living in German Village, our car was broken into and my immense, treasured CD collection was stolen.  I’m still sad about the injustice.  It had almost every CD I’ve ever owned, from every phase of my life and some of my more questionable musical choices. From Green Day’s Dookie to Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation and Get a Grip, Bon Jovi’s Cross Road and These Days to Tupac’s Greatest Hits and Nelly’s Country Grammar, all the Garth Brooks CDs, and almost everything from Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw.  Maybe the bigger blow was the loss of my mix CDs, labors of love from high school through college and law school, CDs and songs that instantly brought me back to a certain place and time and held tons of memories.  I could go on and on about this, but the point is, I lost all of my CDs and the few that JR had kept with mine.  Since that time, too broken-hearted (and cheap) to replace them, I’ve only purchased a handful of new ones:  All of Taylor Swifts albums, several Glee soundtracks, Guns N Roses Greatest Hits, and the Rock of Ages movie soundtrack.  Not exactly easy listening for JR.  It’s never been a big issue because we rarely drove in Kosovo, but now in Tbilisi we drive to work and almost every day, he complained about my beloved Taylor or Glee.  So I decided to put him out of his misery and I bought CDs from some of his favorite artists for Christmas. The end.

Sighnaghi was quiet, chilly and beautiful.  We stayed at the Kabadoni Hotel and our room had a great view of the valley and mountains.  I’ve heard good things about the spa, but we didn’t try it this time.  The town is quite small so it didn’t take long to walk around, and we made our way to the walking path along the city walls.  There were a few towers you could attempt to climb up, but the stairs were not in good shape.  JR the adventurer went up while I kept my two feet safely on the ground.

 

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Walking the city walls, and pictures from JR’s climb up one of the towers

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Please ignore my ridiculous face in this picture.  I was joking about how I see all these people on FB/IG doing this sly, closed mouth smile at the camera, and I said I should try that instead of my normal big teeth, lots o’gums grin.  And well, you can see how well that worked for me.  BUT – it’s a beautiful picture of the mountains – those are mountains, not clouds! –  in the background.

We went to Pheasant’s Tears for dinner and wine.  The server asked “Do you trust our chef, we do not have a menu?” and I felt a little panicky.  I smiled and said, “Sure, but I mostly like chicken and bread.” She brought out several wines for us to taste and once we picked our favorites, we did not have long to wait before the dishes started to appear.  Fresh Georgian bread, cheese and yogurt, spinach with caramelized onions, vegetable bean stew, khinkali with potatoes and onions (my favorite!), and some delicious chicken.  It was so much food, and it was really good.  The restaurant was cozy and inviting and the service was excellent.  We will be sure to go back.

In the morning we had a quick breakfast at the hotel, took one last long look at the mountains, and then made our way back to Tbilisi.  It was the perfect choice for a night out of town, and I think we’ll try to go back in the summer!

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View from our balcony 

 

 

When in Rome – Part 2

Catch up on the first part of our trip here.

Day 4
We were very excited about the first tour we booked – a visit to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s.  We used our credit card rewards (plug for Chase Sapphire -we love that card!) to book the tour and it didn’t reveal the name of the company.   Normally we would prefer to do a fair amount of research and check reviews before deciding on a tour company, and in hindsight, there’s a reason we do that.  City Lights ran this one and it just wasn’t the best fit for us.  We had to be at their office at 8:00am, and they offered some pastries and coffee before we walked a short distance to the Vatican Museum entrance.  Our tour included early entrance, and while we didn’t really wait in line, there were a ton of people standing around and our tour guide often looked frazzled and confused.  They gave us headphones but unfortunately we could not hear her well and it was hard to follow along.
By the time we finally started the tour, Abby was no longer interested in sitting in her stroller or being held.  You can’t exactly let a toddler run free in a museum, so we tried to contain her as much as we could.  When we realized the guide intended to describe EVERY.SINGLE.PIECE of art in each room, we skipped ahead and waited for the group at the Sistine Chapel.  It was wall-to-wall people in there, but we found a small corner in the back where we could let Abby walk around.  By the time the group caught up with us I was kind of over it.  We were on our way to the final stop,  St. Peter’s, and just before we went inside the guide informed us that strollers weren’t permitted. She pointed out an area that we could go to and check our stroller (its worth noting this was a spot we had already passed and it would have been nice if she’d mentioned it at the time).  It seemed like more of a hassle so JR and I took turns going inside while the other one stayed outside with the stroller and Abby.  The church did not disappoint – truly beautiful.  Then it was a race against the clock to find lunch and return home so Abby would hopefully take a long nap for us.  We stopped at Likeat for sandwiches to-go and they were AM-AZING.  Highly, highly recommend eating there.  Super cheap too.
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Inside St. Peters, and Abby is over it.

We had spent so much time near Piazza Navona so that night we ventured over to the Trastevere neighborhood for dinner.  We stopped for wine first (of course) and miraculously, the server offered us a high chair for Abby!  We traveled with our TotSeat, but she is just so wiggly and into being down right now that a legit high chair made a huge difference for us.  We went to Dar Poeta for dinner, which came highly recommended.  It was perfectly good pizza, and affordable, but I wouldn’t say it was the best ever.

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When your parents forget to pack crayons, you get to play with a pen at dinner.
Day 5
When looking at the weather report for Saturday which said 100% chance of rain all day, we rescheduled our Colosseum tour for Tuesday morning hoping for no rain.  We contacted the tour company, Walks of Italy, in advance to ask whether or not the stroller would be useful there, and they advised against bringing it.  Since we then planned to just take our Beco Gemini, we took a cab to the Colosseum to save some energy.  The tour was great, and Abby was mostly okay with being held, although we let her run around when we had the chance.  Eventually she passed out while we were walking around the Forum.  The whole morning was very cool.  The sights definitely lived up to my expectations and I thought our tour guide was fantastic.
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Colosseum fun
That evening Helen came back to babysit and JR and I returned to Hostaria Pantheon for my favorite table and view in Rome!  Look familar?
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Date night
Day 6
JR really wanted to visit the Capuchin Crypt so we made our way there.  It was not my favorite thing.  Bones of deceased monks arranged in patterns and designs, like chandeliers.  Weird.  Abby wasn’t into it either, so we made a speedy exit and let JR take his time checking it out. It took a while to walk there from Piazza Navona, so on our way back home we decided to grab sandwiches from Likeat again. Seriously, excellent food!  For dinner we ate at a well-reviewed restaurant near our place, Mastro Ciccia.  I ordered the four cheese gnocchi and it was good, but JR didn’t care for his meal and overall it took way too long to get our food.  I wouldn’t recommend it.
Day 7
Since our Vatican tour was less than ideal and we raced back to the apartment afterwards for Abby’s nap, we decided to go back and spend a leisurely morning in the square in front of St. Peters.  We bought picnic supplies at the market and then walked to the square to people-watch and relax.  The weather was gorgeous and Abby had so much fun running around.  We had high hopes to get a good nap our of her that afternoon, but she refused to play along.  I knew if we put her back in the stroller she would pass out, so JR and I went back for a third time to Hostaria Pantheon (we are creatures of habit!) and enjoyed some wine while she slept.
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Hanging out in front of St. Peter’s
Thursday was our final night with Helen babysitting, but when she arrived Abby was very upset and didn’t want us to go. It was really hard to leave and we didn’t make it very far.  We walked about 50 yards to a nearby bar so that I could go back and occasionally listen outside the door for her, and text Helen constantly to see how she was doing.  Once we knew she was settled, we went to Campo de’ Fiori.  We didn’t have a specific restaurant in mind, but in the touristy areas there are always restaurant workers standing outside cajoling you into eating at their place. This one particular guy was hilarious.  He walked right up to us, and as we tried to dodge him he was like, “Guys listen, I know this sucks.  I HATE my job.  I really do. But could you just look at our menu and let me talk to you about it for a minute?”  We went along with it but we were still planning to walk away when he said he’d throw in free champagne if we sat down.  Sold.  It was actually a great meal and there were a few musicians playing in the square in front of us, so we were happy with our choice.
Day 8 
We visited Basilica San Clemente and enjoyed one last view of the Colosseum on our way there.  JR wanted to see it since the present Basilica was built before the year 1100 and beneath it is another 4th century basilica that had been converted out of a Roman nobleman’s home.  There were even earlier layers so you could literally go back over two thousand years in time depending on how far down you went!  Afterwards, we had every intention of getting Abby home for her nap but that little trickster passed out in her stroller at like 11:30am.  It just so happened that we were steps away from an Irish pub, so we forced ourselves to have drinks and an early lunch while she slept.  On our way home we passed through a square where a woman was feeding pigeons.  She offered Abby and I some food so that we could play along, and we enjoyed the bird watching for a bit.
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For our last dinner we went back to Trastevere with no set destination in mind.  Anytime we saw a relatively open square with space for Abby to run while we could be close by with drinks, we didn’t pass up the opportunity.  There were street performers making huge bubbles and it was a big hit with Abby.  A great night to cap off a wonderful week in Rome!
Our return trip/flight was relatively smooth.  I mentally broke the day down into 4 2-hour parts (waiting to board in Rome, flight to Istanbul, layover in Istanbul, flight home) and that helped me relax.   It’s worth noting that the Rome airport was very disappointing considering the great reputation of Rome itself.  There was one small snack place before you went downstairs to our gate.  It was incredibly busy with people everywhere and a grand total of 16 seats for people to sit in while waiting for boarding.  In contrast, the Istanbul airport has been majorly upgraded since we last passed through and our layover there was quick and easy.
Side note – on our way to Rome we also stopped in Istanbul.  I walked into the restroom and the only one open was the very last stall.  I looked inside and actually said out loud “Oh. Only Turkish toilets.”  Which, I mean that makes sense since we were in Turkey, so what can you do?  OF COURSE, on my way out several other stalls were open and I saw they all had regular toilets.
Traveling with a toddler proved to be challegning at times but we wouldn’t change our experience for anything.  We loved Rome and will definitely go back some day.