Weekend at Lake Ohrid

Continuing to cross places off of our Balkan Bucket List, last weekend we drove to Ohrid, Macedonia.  So we loaded up the car (and I mean loaded -we still haven’t mastered packing light with Abigail in tow) and drove about 4 hours to Lake Ohrid.  Our inn was located in the old town, which was very neat for walking and sight seeing, not so great for driving and unloading your car.  I nearly cried when the lady at reception told me the parking spot was very, very far away.   Luckily, JR is a great sport and he did all the unloading, and then went to park our car.

In spite of the parking issue, I highly recommend Vila Mal Sveti Kliment for lodging in Ohrid.  The room was small but adequate and very comfortable.  In the future, we’ll try to get rooms that have a separate bedroom/living area, or are a bit larger.  It’s kind of hard to do much when the baby goes to sleep at 8pm, and we are whispering and hanging out in the dark!   The Vila makes their own wine, and had a nicely stocked mini bar.  Unlike the US, I find mini bar prices here to be very reasonable, so we took advantage by drinking wine in bed to the light of our iPhones while Abby snored up a storm.   I’m not cut out for room sharing with that one.

Here are some pictures from our weekend:

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Romance in Paralia?

No.  The answer is no.  But our hotel room really was intended for L-O-V-E.  Check out this bedspread in our suite!

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We decided to visit Paralia, Greece for the 4th of July weekend.  Paralia is pretty much the closest decent beach for us, about a 4 1/2 hour drive going through two borders, Macedonia and Greece.  That drive can be a bit longer if you make 3 2 wrong turns.  (I’m directionally challenged and we’re buying a GPS with a European chip).  Luckily for us, Abigail continues to be an excellent traveler.   We made a pit stop to feed and change her, and then continued on our way.  And to my absolute delight, the gas station in Macedonia sold Snicker’s Ice Cream bars!

The weather was beautiful and as always, we love the beach.  It was extremely crowded but still nice to get away!  This was the view from our hotel balcony.

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Oh, and there was a man selling donuts on the beach.  Let me repeat that for you.  This fellow (and many more just like him) walked around the beach selling fresh baked, big-as-your-face donuts for 1.50 euro.  Aces!

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On the recommendation of the hotel staff, we went to a restaurant a few blocks away called Poseidon.   We had a nice family dinner on the beach.  If you can’t tell, Abigail is hidden away in the carrier and she let us have a peaceful meal, for which we are very grateful.

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This was our first beach experience as a family and it was quite different than what JR and I are used to.  Usually JR and I are out all day enjoying the sun, water and drinks with a possible break in the afternoon for a short nap before dinner.   Like everything else now, Abigail dictates our schedule and we only stayed out a few hours during the day and underneath the umbrella for most of it.  Even though it was a very different experience, we loved sharing the beach with her for the first time.  JR took her to get her feet wet in the Aegean but got a little excited and put her in up to her chest.  She didn’t enjoy it as much as JR did, so the experience only lasted about 20 seconds.   We’ll do better next time.

And a few more cute pics of Abby at the beach.

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By the time we got home on Sunday, she was tuckered out.  But she can’t wait to visit Greece again!

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Valentine’s Day in Bulgaria

We did Valentine’s Day a little bit differently this year.  We traveled to Bansko, Bulgaria, a popular ski resort town, for a weekend of fun with a group of friends.

Traditionally, JR and I make lasagna (truth, he normally makes it) and we watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  The first time we celebrated Valentine’s Day, we’d been together for about 4 months.  JR was not so much into making things official, so no girlfriend title had been bestowed upon me.   When he talked to his family about me, he was very casual and didn’t provide many details.  In fact, one of the only things he shared with them was that my favorite movie was Crossroads (not entirely true, but I do love that movie) and I’d never seen Lord of the Rings, so he didn’t see us staying together for very long (muahahha, little did he know!)

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Anyway, back to present day.   We got up Friday morning and picked up our friend Katie to make the drive to Bulgaria.  JR and I are always excited to add a new country to our list.  We only had a few problems with directions, and we only made two stops (this was a real feat considering Katie and I are both pregnant).

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The drive there took about 6 hours.  We had lunch and then napped before meeting up with everyone else for dinner and drinks.  The next day, JR treated me to some quality time at the spa – I had a relaxing massage and facial.   We rode the gondola up to the top of the mountain to check out the view, which was beautiful. Even though we were at a ski resort, neither of us skied. Obviously, I couldn’t, and I’m not sure if JR chose to sit out in solidarity, or because these mountains looked a bit different than any ski resorts in Ohio.

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Gondola ride up. Only the top of the mountain and the ski slopes had snow.
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I had no idea paraskiing was a thing – looked terrifying!
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Saturday night we had a big group dinner, complete with a birthday surprise for Katia!
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We drove back on Sunday and didn’t get lost once. It was a really fun weekend and very cool to visit a new place.

Travel Tips for Paris

I have no idea how helpful this will wind up being, but I wanted to share some things we discovered (some through research, some through trial and error, and others through dumb luck) that would have been useful to know ahead of time about sightseeing in Paris.

Paris Museum Pass. The pass can be purchased for 2, 4, or 6 consecutive days. It seems like a lot to pay up front. We bought the 4 day pass for 54 Euro each. It includes many of the major sights – Notre Dame (entrance to the church is free but climbing the towers isn’t), Versailles (probably the most expensive sight), the Louvre, the Pantheon and Les Invalides. The Eiffel Tower is not included. To figure out if it made sense for us, I wrote down all the things I knew we wanted to see, and added up their individual cost. That was significantly more than the 54E for the pass. Then I had to try to arrange our itinerary to make sure we could see all of those sights on 4 back-to-back days. This made for a really busy schedule, and a lot of planning and walking. For us though, we felt it was worth it.

The pass will allow you to avoid a line at some attractions, but not all. It’s also not always clear when that’s permitted and when it’s not, so watch carefully for signs and don’t be afraid to ask around.

Saint Chapelle. We didn’t visit on the day we were scheduled because the line was too long. We went back the next afternoon and saw another couple skip the line with their museum pass. There was NO sign indicating you could do this. So we walked right past everyone in line outside. Once you got past the ticket window, where we just showed our passes, there was yet another long line to get inside the church. Up ahead, we saw a somewhat marked path for museum pass holders, so we were again able to bypass a very long line to get inside. This was a favorite stop for both of us, and it’s not to be missed.

Versailles. We had every intention of being on an 8:15am train to Versailles to beat the crowd. Well, we slept in. Then we got on the wrong train. And then we picked the WORST station to turn around at because it took an hour. So, by the time we got there the line was insane. JR was confident we didn’t need to wait in it, because of our pass, but we were repeatedly told that the long line was for ticket and pass holders. And so we waited. FOREVER. Probably 90 minutes? And the truth is – I feel like this is something you aren’t supposed to admit – it kind of sucked. It was far too crowded to enjoy any of the rooms. We felt like we were cattle being herded from room to room.  With us being literally shoulder-to-shoulder with people moving through the different rooms, there was no time to appreciate it or truly look around. And the crowd around us seemed just as annoyed as us. My advice would be either MAKE SURE you can get there by say, 8:30am (doors open at 9), or a later time in the day to skip the crowds.

Notre Dame. We stayed on the island right beside Notre Dame on the River Seine, Ile St. Louis, so we walked past it almost every morning. The first morning we did our visit there. The church opens at 8am and the towers at 10. There was hardly anyone at the church when we arrived at 8:30, and we didn’t ever see a line that early in the morning. We spent an hour in the church, and it was nice because it was not crowded at all. Around 9:30, we walked outside and got in line for the towers. That line probably had 25 people in it, although it started to grow steadily after we joined. By the time we made our way up the tower and looked down at the entrance to the church, there was a pretty long line just to get in. So go early!

Where to stay. A friend recommended that we try to stay on the Ile St. Louis in the center of the city near Notre Dame. A quick search of hotels showed it to be a very pricey location. JR suggested that we try to rent an apartment since we’d be staying for a whole week. We reasoned that an apartment would give us more space, allow us to possibly eat-in a few meals, and hopefully would be more affordable than a hotel. We used airbnb.com and found the perfect place. Well, minus the fact that it was on the 4th floor with no elevator, which really kills your legs after a full day of walking around the city. But we loved the apartment and felt like we picked a perfect spot.

Rick Steves’ Audio Tours. Another friend suggested that we download Rick Steves’ Audio Tours for our iPhones. We downloaded his app first (which is free) and then downloaded his Historic Paris Walking Tour, the Louvre, and Versailles. We really enjoyed having these to listen to while we explored the city. It saved money on getting the audio guides, and it gave us some interesting tidbits that we wouldn’t have known. I highly recommend checking out his website to see what other locations he has available.

Vaux le Vicomte If you are interested in visiting Vaux, there are some tours that leave directly from Paris or you can travel there on your own. We took a 25 minute train ride from Gare de Lyon to Melun, and then we were able to get a taxi right outside the Melun train station. It was a ten minute (and to JR’s chagrin, 20 Euro) cab ride to Vaux from the station. The staff at Vaux called for a cab pick up when we were done with our visit.

In general, we had difficulty using our credit card at the train station and metro stops. It was very hit or miss. Those machines would accept cash, but only coin. This was fine for the 1.70 Euro metro ticket (a great deal) but for longer trips, we needed the ticket window to be open to use our credit card. It caused us to miss a train because we couldn’t get our ticket purchased in time. We found the city to be quite walkable, we’d either walk all day, or take the metro to one destination and walk everywhere from there. The only time we took a cab was in Melun.

Also, eat as many crepes as you can from the street vendors. You can’t go wrong with a nutella and banana crepe!

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Vaux le Vicomte

This post is pretty gushy, so just a warning if you want to click out and pretend you never saw it.

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I loved studying French in high school. I think 2 years was required, a third year was recommended if you were headed to college, and French IV was completely optional. There were maybe 8 of us in the French IV class. By my senior year, I had enough credits that I could leave school at noon and be done for the day. The problem was that French IV was only offered 8th period. Faced with that choice, I left school every day at noon and went to one of my part time jobs for a few hours (waitressing for the lunch crowd at a cafe) and then returned to school faithfully every day (okay, almost every day) for 8th period French class. I loved the class, and I absolutely adored my teacher.

I’m not certain if it was in French III or IV, but we did projects on a location in Paris, and I either picked or was assigned Vaux le Vicomte. It’s a chateau located outside of the city, built from 1658 to 1661 for Nicholas Fouquet, the superintendent of finances for King Louis XIV. Unfortunately, the good man Fouquet tried to impress the King and others with his fancy chateau and instead wound up making the King jealous, and suspicious of how he was paying for it all. Fouquet hosted a grand party to celebrate the chateau, and while the King celebrated with him publicly, behind his back he made plans to have him arrested for using public funds. Shortly after the party Fouquet was arrested and imprisoned for the rest of his life (19 years), and the King confiscated furniture, tapestries, and even the orange trees from Vaux le Vicomte. He was so impressed with the chateau that he also had the team that built Vaux Vicomte get started on his own, slightly more famous palace, Versailles.

So things did not turn out well for Fouquet. But this beautiful home was built and I was in love with it. My 18 year old self firmly believed that I could get married there some day, and my independently wealthy husband-to-be would fly all of our family and friends to France to join us there. Clearly, it didn’t work out for me, although Eva Longoria pulled it off. (Sort of. She’s divorced now so I’m not sure if it counts).

The point of this story – because I swear there is a point – is that I loved this place and dreamed about seeing it in person. Yes, my dreams were a bit far-fetched. But only 10+ years later, it happened! When JR and I first began making travel plans, I asked him if we could take a day trip to see the chateau and he was excited about it.

Not only did I finally see Vaux le Vicomte in person, but I just felt so lucky to be there and to be living this life that we’re living. There is really nothing in my life that is how I pictured it might be, back when I was daydreaming in school. Well, that’s not true. The specifics are way different (I don’t know that I knew what a Foreign Service Officer was back then. Or where to find Kosovo on a map.) But the big picture stuff – I’m married to a truly wonderful person that I love with all of my heart, I have amazing friends and family, and I’m going to be a mom soon – that stuff all came true, even though the road to get here has been very different than I imagined.

While we were walking around the grounds, I just kept thinking of this quote from Sweet Home Alabama.

It’s funny how things don’t turn out.
…Yeah, it’s funny how they do.

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J’aime Paris

Way back at the end of July, we made the spontaneous decision to spend a week in Paris during the holidays. We had no idea of the big changes coming our way over the next few months, but the tickets were booked and we were going to spend New Year’s Eve in Paris! JR and I have both been to Paris before but we wanted to experience the city together. Plus, I wanted to work on my French language skills long dormant from my high school classes.

As our departure date became closer, I told JR I would spend some time loosely researching the sights we wanted to see and making a plan. Well, once I started I couldn’t really control myself and the next thing I knew, we had a 9-page detailed itinerary that had us hauling butt all over Paris to see as much as possible.  I am so my mother’s daughter.   We stayed on the Ile St. Louis and had a wonderful time.

Paris in pictures.

Notre Dame

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Eiffel Tower

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Les Invalides

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Rodin’s The Thinker

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Saint Chapelle

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View of the Louvre and Siene

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Gardens at Versailles

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My favorite crepe maker

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Sacre Coeur on New Year’s Eve

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Christmas Markets and Arc de Triomphe in the background

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Catching up

I had a wonderful visit with family and friends in Ohio for almost 2 and 1/2 weeks.  Unfortunately, I didn’t take many pictures – the only ones I took were of the delicious food I enjoyed! I joked with my mom that I spent most of my visit napping and eating. It’s not really a joke, because that’s basically what happened.

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Before I left for Ohio, we celebrated our first Thanksgiving abroad with some of our good friends. We had turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and so much more. We were even able to watch the Macy’s Day parade and some football so it actually felt pretty similar to being at home!

The next day, I woke up early to catch my flight(s) home. As soon as I landed in Newark, I could smell the McDonalds. You don’t realize how much you miss it until you can smell it, and my nose led me to a large order of fries and a fountain Diet Coke with no ice. Pure bliss! Plus, I was able to use my debit card for the first time in months, which felt super exciting. That same debit card would later get me into trouble at Target, Old Navy, Sephora, and various other places. What, it’s Christmas!

Thanks to my Mom, I was scheduled for a doctor’s appointment while I was home so I could meet my OB (selected by my Mom, of course) and have another ultrasound. Everything went well, and my mom and sister were able to see the baby and we took pictures and video for JR. They showed us some images in 3D which frankly alarmed me, but I was assured the baby will look better in person.

Lest you think that JR spent that two weeks pining away for me in Kosovo, he was actually in Bangkok for work. I like to think he was still pining a bit. I’m trying to convince him to do a guest blog and write about this trip, but considering how motivated I’ve been to blog myself, this is looking less and less likely. To summarize, he stayed safe during the protests and he enjoyed all of the markets and local vendors.  His suitcase was 22lbs overweight on his return flight because of all the presents he brought back!

Now that we’re both back home (home is such a funny word to me right now, because I feel like I have a few homes!), we are back to work and getting ready for Christmas. JR excels at wrapping presents and traditionally wraps his own once I put them in a box, so he’s been hard at work on that. Our CLO office and friends here have planned several fun holiday events. So far we’ve had cookie exchanges, a silent auction, a door decorating contest, and an Ugly Christmas Sweater competition on Friday. Also, one of our friends is having a Winter Solstice party tonight, so we’re headed over there shortly.

I can’t believe Christmas is next week!   I mentioned we have a lot of presents, right?

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R&R

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Soon I will be leaving for my first R&R (rest and recuperation) trip back home. Here’s my very basic understanding of how R&R’s work in the Foreign Service.

Your posting determines how many R&Rs you receive during your tour – I think the norm is one R&R per two years. Kosovo is considered a hardship post, and so officers and their EFMs (eligible family members, that’s me!) are entitled to one R&R per year. That means that JR’s work will pay for one airfare ticket for each of us to the designated R&R location – which for Kosovo is London – or to anywhere in the U.S. If you wish to use your R&R ticket to visit some place different, you can do that, but you have to pay the difference in the ticket price.

You can take R&R for as long as you like, obviously subject to your vacation allowance and how much time you can spend away from the office. You do not get any special leave or paid time off while on R&R, so you are using up vacation days when you go. Or in my case, going LWOP (leave without pay, because I haven’t been working long enough to accrue any paid time off). It seems like the standard length of an R&R is two weeks, but again, it’s up to the officer and their family.

There are a few other restrictions to keep in mind, but we have heard that if you have extenuating circumstances, there may be exceptions to these rules. You can’t use an R&R ticket until you’ve been at post for six months, and you can’t use a ticket in the last six months of your tour. You must use one ticket per year. So really, with us arriving in mid-May 2013, we couldn’t use our tickets until now, but we have to use one of our R&R tickets by May 2014.

A nice perk is that we don’t have to use our tickets at the same time. This is especially helpful for JR & I, because we plan to use his first R&R ticket to allow him to fly home when the baby is born. My flight at that time will be covered under the med-evac (I’ll do my best to explain the med-evac later). Basically, this meant that I have an R&R ticket to use or lose, and I’m only going to be here until late March, 2014. I’m also thinking that as I get further along in the pregnancy, international flights will be less comfortable/desirable.
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When we looked at the calendar to decide when it would make the most sense for me to visit home, we considered other factors like JR’s work and travel schedule, the holidays, and whether or not I could visit a local ob/gyn while I was home. For a while it looked like my trip may not happen due to ongoing budget issues and pesky paperwork details, but we got the final approval a few weeks ago!

So while yes, I could technically use my ticket to visit Florida, California or even Hawaii, if you know me, you know where I’m headed – O-H-I-O!!!

More London

Our first stop Friday morning was to walk across the Tower Bridge, and then take a tour of the Tower of London. The Tower is guarded by Yeomen Warders, more commonly known as Beefeaters, who are retired members of the Armed Forces and technically their job is to guard prisoners of the Tower. Now they act as tour guides, and we had a really enthusiastic and funny guide to show us around. We saw Traitor’s Gate, the spot where Anne Boleyn was beheaded, and the Crown Jewels. In a stroke of pure genius, they have those moving sidewalks (people movers, like in airports) that move slowly past the Crown Jewels display so that people can’t stand in front of each item forever and prevent others from seeing things. So smart, those Brits!
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After that we started the bus tour to see the the city. One unexpected sight while in London was the amount of signs promoting the NFL and people wearing NFL jerseys. There was a huge promotion of the NFL going on in the days leading to the game on Sunday where San Francisco was playing the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium. One of the tour guides on the bus was explaining this game to the tourists and remarked that San Francisco was playing the “Jacksonville Jackals.” JR corrected the tour guide and said that they’re actually playing the “Jacksonville Jaguars” but he then went on to say “it doesn’t matter, the team’s rubbish anyway.”

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We saw several street performers – playing bagpipes, guitars and other instruments, but I was most impressed by these guys. I could have stared at them for hours! Seriously, how do they do that?

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We also did a walking tour called “Ghosts and Gaslight”. Our tour guide was fun and showed us around to several local pubs while telling us legends and ghost stories.

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JR tried a Sherlock Holmes Ale at this stop.

On our last night, I still hadn’t found my cheeseburger. I knew I needed to visit an American establishment to ensure I got what I wanted, and JR made quite a fuss when I suggested Five Guys. So, I convinced him to let us eat at the Rainforest Cafe (he’d never been to one before). Oh how I will pay for that choice. First, even though we went at a random time, it was beyond packed with kids running around screaming. JR kept saying “why are we eating at a Chucky E. Cheese in London??” I didn’t even care because my dinner was so delicious, and I followed it up with a fantastic dessert. I was also excited because they appeared to have fountain soda, which we never get here in Kosovo (or really in Europe anywhere). I had 3 Diet Cokes with my dinner and enjoyed each one. Free refills, hurrah! Until our bill came. We were charged 2.85 pounds PER Diet Coke.

I spent $14 in Diet Coke. Oops. JR’s face looked something like this.
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Overall, we had a great trip and hope we can visit again soon!

‘Ello, Ducky

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I can’t even remember where it started, but in college my friends and I would say “Ello, Ducky” with a British accent. I think it was a combination of our trip to Salzburg, Austria, and wishing we had accents and trying to pretend we did, and also our obsession with the classic Amanda Byne’s film, What a Girl Wants. A certain someone’s college boyfriend constantly reminded us, “You’re not British.” Apparently fake accents are only fun for the people doing them. Anyway, that was in my head the whole time that JR and I were in London.

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We also said this to each other often during our trip. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a great movie.

For certain posts throughout the world, the quality of local medical care is such that they med-evac (medically evacuate) FSOs or their dependents to that location. London is the med-evac point for Kosovo, and that’s where they wanted to send me to get some standard tests at the end of the first trimester. Because I was considered on official “med-evac” status, my flight and hotel were covered, but we had to pay for JR’s flight. It saved us a decent amount of money for him to fly on a separate flight, so we planned to rendezvous at London’s Heathrow airport. We also decided, since we would already be in London from Wednesday to Friday, to extend our stay by two days and leave on Sunday (the hotel and any costs for extending the stay were paid by us).

We arrived at Heathrow on Wednesday afternoon, and while waiting for a cab, JR was having some flashbacks to his last visit to London during a study abroad semester in Wales his junior year of college. Something tells me that first trip to London – all carefree and young – was a bit different than this visit with his pregnant wife!

We took a cab to our hotel, and after checking in, I was determined to find a pub with a cheeseburger. He was excited to visit a pub for different reasons. Unfortunately, the British aren’t known for their cheeseburgers. We had a decent meal, and then went back to our hotel for naps. We found a great italian place for dinner – garlic bread, delicious. We passed by at least 100 bars advertising champagne and cocktails and I was quite disappointed that I couldn’t partake!

The next morning we woke up early for our appointment. It was walking distance from our hotel in a residential neighborhood. I was very, very nervous. I mean, I spend my life in a perpetual state of nervousness, but I was almost sick with worry. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long and the ultrasound tech called us back to the room to get started. In prior ultrasounds, you really couldn’t see much (well, JR said he saw the flicker of a heartbeat, but I really didn’t. I faked it for the doctor though, because I felt like a terrible person since I couldn’t see it.) This time, as soon as the image came up on the screen, it looked like an actual baby. Holy cow. We were able to hear the heartbeat, and take video of the images. It was a huge relief and a happy moment for us.

The doctor, who goes by Mr. instead of Dr., met with us briefly, told us that everything looked great and they just wanted to do a quick blood test and then send us on our way. The whole thing lasted less than an hour, so we had an entire day to check out the city.

It was sort of a last minute trip, which meant we didn’t really budget for it, and holy cow, that was a mistake. I mean, the city was very neat to see and we had great weather, but I was kind of put off by the crazy high prices for everything. We’ve become used to the lower prices of of food and drinks in Kosovo. And although we lived in DC, where the cost of living is quite high, the majority of the sights are free admittance.

So imagine our surprise when we walked up to the London Eye, excited to take a spin, and tickets were 18.90 pounds each. JR did a quick conversion in his head (the perks of being married to man who likes to budget) and we realized it would be $61 USD for both of us. Where I come from, you can ride a ferris wheel at the local carnival for two bucks! We wanted to make the most of our visit without breaking the bank, so we did a bit more research to figure out which places we were most interested in seeing, and we bought tickets for a hop on/hop off bus tour of the city.

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London Eye that we did not ride.

We did have one major splurge during our trip. We bought tickets to see The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre. It was such a great show. The performances and music were so cool to see live, and we were really glad that we treated ourselves to it.

Some more pictures, and another post about our trip to coming soon!

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Me and Big Ben

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Westminster Abbey

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Churchill

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Lion King!

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View from our seats