Our first home leave was fun, busy, and expensive, so basically exactly what we predicted. We were all ready to leave Kosovo (although right now I’d give my right arm for some fresh bread from our little bakery) and our travel home was uneventful. From the time we set foot in Ohio, we had a pretty crazy and ambitious schedule. Of course, nothing could stop me from getting a strawberry margarita as soon as possible. Oh wait – the first time I ordered one the restaurant did not have a liquor license for Sundays, and the second time I tried the server told me they were all out of strawberries. Soul crushing but I did eventually have one and it was everything I had hoped it would be.
Only a few days after we recovered from our jet lag, it was time for Abigail’s first birthday party (only 2 weeks after her actual birthday)! We had a family party at my grandparent’s house and it was simple and perfect. She was totally uninterested in her cake, but I can assure you she has since come around to the idea of sweets!
The following week JR, Abby and I set off on a little American road trip. We figured if we could do the same through Eastern Europe, the U.S. would be a breeze. Our car (generously loaned to us by JR’s dad) was so ridiculously full I wasn’t sure we would make it out of the driveway. That’s what happens when you will be on the road for more than two weeks and some of your family members, who have smartly chosen to fly, use you to haul their extra stuff (if you know my mother, you know this included a box fan, because she can’t sleep without one). We started off with a night in Dayton with JR’s family and to pick up his dad, who rode with us to Gatlinburg where we met the rest of my in-laws. We rented a large cabin about 20 minutes from the city, and it was perfect for our big group – 11 adults and 8 kids from ages 1-12. Each of the 3 levels had two large bedrooms and bathrooms, and living/family room space with TVs, pool table, foosball table, and an awesome theater room.
JR’s brother and sister-in-law (A & S) live in South Knoxville and love kayaking and rafting, and offered to take the whole family on a white water rafting trip (many thanks to my sister-in-law Joanna who stayed behind with the little ones!). It was so much fun. We had perfect weather and such a nice afternoon with everyone. We spent the rest of the weekend relaxing, making meals together, watching the kids play, and a little bit of time exploring Gatlinburg (it was very crowded over the holiday weekend).
We had a little scare at the cabin when we saw a copperhead snake laying in the pathway where the kids were chasing each other with water balloons, which led to a scramble to get rid of said snake and the loss of a kitchen knife. Despite the deadly snake scare, it was hard saying goodbye – JR’s family is big and spread out, and it’s really hard to see everyone, but we always have so much fun when we do and it’s especially fun for all of the cousins to play together. We definitely hope to repeat this trip again in the future!
After Gatlinburg, we spent two nights in Knoxville with A, S, and their daughter Katie, who is 5 months older than Abby. JR went to college there and was happy to be back, even for a short visit. We were able to meet up with two of his friends and their son, and we spent the rest of our time watching Abby and Katie play in the pool and run around the yard. The second night of our stay was the toughest of the whole trip. Abby woke up around midnight screaming and crying and could not be consoled. JR handles these moments far better than me, I didn’t know what to do. I felt terrible because she was waking up the whole house (they also have a one-year old), and it seemed like nothing would settle her down. I told him we needed to get in the car and drive. He said, drive where? I was like, I don’t know, to a hospital?! Clearly something is wrong! Obviously nothing was wrong, she was just having an off night and I don’t handle lack of sleep well. Eventually, he was thankfully able to get her back to sleep.
The rough night meant little sleep for all of us, and a less than ideal start to the next morning. The biggest problem was that was one of the only days of the entire road trip that we had a really tight schedule. We had to drive over 5 hours and make it to North Carolina in time to visit with our friends and put Abby down for a nap, all before meeting my Dad and other family for dinner at 5:30 that evening. Although she did fine for the first part of the drive, the last 2.5 hours were torture. Ideally we would have been able to stop and take a long break, but we just couldn’t and I felt terrible for her (and us).
Thankfully, she crashed for a long nap when we made it to our friends’ house and we were able to relax for a bit before we had to leave for dinner. Our visit with my Dad and family was short, but I’m so glad we were able to see them while we were there. We also had breakfast with them the next morning before starting our drive to Florida.
Even though we wanted to drive 6-7 hours that Friday, JR and I were determined to have a better travel day and let Abby dictate our schedule. Let me just say, thank you Cracker Barrel! We stopped there after her morning nap and it was great. We took turns inside at our table, ordering and waiting for food, while the other person played outside on the porch with Abby. She waved at everyone, rocked in the tiny rocking chairs, and walked all over. We were there for at least an hour, and it was well worth it. She was perfectly content to get back in the car after that and even took a long second nap. Just outside of Jacksonville, we saw an exit with a few hotels and decided we should stop for the evening. First we tried the Hampton Inn and Suites – I ran into the lobby to ask if they had suites available, and if I could see one first because it was pretty critical for us to have a room that had a separate place to put her pack n play so we didn’t have to go to sleep at 8pm with her. It wasn’t until I checked out the third hotel – a Fairfield Inn and Suites – that we found a room set up that would work for us and we called it a night.
Saturday was our final leg of driving and we were so excited to see the beach, my family, and to hand Abby off to another adult. Ha. Just outside of Sanibel Island, we stopped at a Publix to stock up on groceries for the week. Abby was thrilled with her ride.
We failed to consider just how full our car already was, so the final stretch of our drive was ridiculous as I sat in the back seat covered in groceries. We seriously could not have fit one more item in our car! Finally, we were driving over the causeway and onto Sanibel Island. My parents, brother and sister arrived less than 20 minutes after we did, and we settled into our condos (we rented two ground-floor beachfront condos that were next door to each other). The set up was perfect and we had the best week. We rented a canopy for the beach and set up our chairs, along with a small plastic baby pool and toys for Abby, and relaxed every day.
We know how fortunate we are that we were able to spend a week there together, and especially that we had 4 other adults with us who were fighting over Abby gave us a much appreciated break. Even better, my mom had offered to fly Abby back with them as a lap-infant, saving her (and us) from a long return trip back to Ohio together.
A highlight of the end of our vacation was SUPPOSED to be a a Garth Brooks concert, which you may recall I’ve basically waited all of my life to attend. Well, Garth’s team failed to consider the Stanley Cup in their venue selection and this led to the concert being completely canceled since Tampa’s hockey team made the finals. It still hurts to discuss. I sent Garth a strongly worded message on Facebook but he hasn’t replied yet and the whole horrible situation has completely changed my opinion of him.
We finally made it home (no thanks to me – I probably drove a total of 4 hours of our 16+ hour return trip and constantly asked “are we there yet”) and used the next few days to do finish our consumables shopping, which included two separate trips to Wal-Mart and 6 full carts and a trip to The Party Shop in Wooster to pick up JR’s 17 cases of beer. Not kidding on that one. We had two of the nicest, slowest older gentleman handling our pack out on this end, and even though it was only consumables and 300lbs of UAB, it took them almost the same amount of time as it took the Kosovo movers to pack up our entire apartment.
As one last American hurrah before our departure date, JR and I spent a long weekend in German Village, where we lived in Columbus before we moved. We rented a fantastic apartment on AirBnB and enjoyed eating and drinking at our favorite places and meeting up with our friends for dinner and a comedy show. It was perfect, but a bit bittersweet for me because I loved our life in Columbus before starting on this crazy foreign service train, and it reminded me of the things I miss. I’m incredibly grateful for the time we were able to spend at home, reconnecting with everyone, and especially for Abby to have that time with our families, it was worth the busy schedule and extra expenses!