Low Country low down and some German roots

July 19-July 29

The term “Low Countries” is used to describe three countries in Europe that have most of the land area below sea level: Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. (When I was in school, we called them the “Benelux countries”, but I heard more people call them the low countries there.) Ironically, because all of the mountains to the east of these “low countries” make travel times longer than they looked like they should be on a map, we couldn’t figure out how to include Luxembourg in our trip without too much travel. Instead, after Belgium, we opted to go from Amsterdam to Northwest Germany where Karen spent summers as a child and where a couple of her aunts still live.

This post will be heavier on pictures and lighter on words because I’m trying to catch up a little on the blog since I’m over a month behind.


Our last couple of days in France were in the middle of a historic heat wave, and the trend continued the next day as we took a couple of trains to Bruges, Belgium. With temperatures at or above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, we didn’t feel like doing much besides hiding in the shade and catching a movie at our Airbnb. The only pictures anyone in our family took were two like this from Karen of the canal near where we ate lunch:

She’s currently planning to get a duck to go with our chickens when we get back to Chicago.

In addition to the duck pictures, James did have a few pictures on his phone for the day, but they were like this:

Everyone in the family besides me frequents this boredpanda site when they’re killing time. Because James and Charlie don’t have wireless data on their phones (only wifi), they’ll sometimes save a few articles to look at on travel days.

Charlie was looking over my shoulder as I wrote this and has requested that I now share his two favorite recent memes. He likes dogs:

Thankfully, the heat wave broke after our first night in Bruges and we were able to see the city starting the next day. Here are some pictures we took during our walking tour:

Family photo! Isn’t my family beautiful?
Same spot minus the family. Bruges is also beautiful.
Another canal, one of many.
Famous belgian waffle dough modeled by our tour guide Pascal. (He happened to be Dutch, but had been living in Bruges for about 5 years and we thought he did an excellent job.)
One thing we learned from Pascal is that this famous “Lovers Bridge”, prized place for romantic pictures, was actually made from tombstones robbed from a nearby graveyard. Bruges went from being a wealthy trading center to a dirt poor backwater when their river access to the ocean silted up. It remained that way until people realized it was spectacularly beautful and tourists might enjoy visiting.
Right behind that bridge was this opening for toll guards to raise a chain across the river in order to force boats to pay a toll. James and Charlie are wondering if they could start up the business again.
View from the Half Moon Brewery tower with famous clock tower in the middle.
Also shared by our guide: the location of the best Belgian Waffles in all of Bruges. If you’re ever there, visit “Arlecchino by John- Gelato & Waffles”
Henry likes them
So does James. If you’ve never had them before, what’s special is the extra sugar in the dough, which carmelizes on the outside, giving a sticky/sweet exterior while still staying soft on the inside.
Here we are on the second day. We went back three days in a row. John definitely recognized us and asked us how our trip to Ghent was when we came back on the third day.
Final Pascal recommendation: the Beer Museum! I got to “sample” 4 different beers for $10 and he gets a free beer for every 4 tourists who show up. I got a cherry and then a dubbel, tripel, and quad, so four samples was quite a lot by the end of it. (Percent alchohol of about 4.5%, 7.5%, 9%, and 11%.)

Our second day in Bruges, we split up a little with Karen touring a museum, Henry sitting on a bench to sketch, and me, James, and Charlie taking a tour of the Half Moon Brewery. Here are a few pictures of the day.

Even though Belgium is famous for its beers, the brewery was the only one that actually operated inside of Bruges proper. They had a lot of items on display like this with the old materials they used, but everything had since been replaced with more boring and modern vessels and pipelines.
Speaking of modern, our tour guide was exceptionally excited about the pipeline they’d constructed to bring the beer from the downtown brewery to the bottling site 3km outside of town. (That saved them from having to truck stuff through the non-truck-friendly streets.) From the graphic above, you can see it has 5 smaller pipes inside the main containing pipe. Rumors exist that some of the pipes stop at bars and private homes for tap-ready beer, but those are unfortunately untrue.
James and Charlie joined me on the tour both “to understand beer better since Dad likes it”, but also (primarily) because kids got a soda (famous Fanta!) instead of beer at the end. I got a tripel this time.
After the tour was over, the other two joined us and we ate at the brewery restaurant. Henry was initially daunted by the dimensions of this burger, but it proved to be no match for him.
Also in Bruges is this famous Madonna by Michaelangelo, which was seized by both Napoleon (returned after his Waterloo, Belgium defeat in 1815) and the Nazis (returned thanks to the work of the “Monuments Men” during World War II.)


Our third day staying in Bruges was actually spent day-tripping to the nearby city of Ghent, which we found to be equally beautiful along with less touristy, although as mentioned above we saved our waffle-dedicated stomach space for Bruges after we got back.

See? Beautiful. Here’s the clock tour and main square.
Ghent also had canals everywhere.
And cool murals!
This mural included a sculpture.
And a big castle!
The best part of the castle was that the audioguide was legitimately funny because they had a comedian do it. If you’re in Ghent, it’s highly recommended.
James liked it, even though, he doesn’t usually like audioguides. Karen captured this candid and completely non-staged smile by me, possibly of the guide discussing yogurt sell by dates.
Charlie, however, skipped the audioguide, although he did listen to this part about the toilets. Aiming for authenticity, he did so while sitting on the toilet. (He’s watching me now on a train and says it wasn’t actually authentic because he’s still wearing his pants.)
We did a canal cruise too, although no one but me could hear the guide, so everyone else was bored.
Ghent from the top of the castle.


After 4 nights in Bruges, we took a couple of trains to Amsterdam, staying there for 5 nights. We had a great Airbnb a little bit west of the central city and really enjoyed our time there. Here are some pictures from our first day:

The highlight of the day was the lakeside beach about 25 minutes walk from our place. We like Airbnbs for lots of reasons, but in this case, the host was extra helpful about suggesting where we should go (including here!)
Side view, courtesy of Karen
As we walked home around the lake, we found a place to feed birds. Definitely a recurring theme.
Downtown Amsterdam around 8pm, in search of stroopwafels. As I think I’ve mentioned, James is on a mission to have a pancake or waffle in every country we visit.
The verdict: OK? More like an OK cookie and not in the same league as Belgian waffles. James, Charlie, and I got McDonald’s later because we were still hungry. (County 32!)
Even though the waffles disappointed, we definitely enjoyed the views.
I started the day with a nice run across some canals and through Vondelpark. More on Vondelpark in a bit.

For our second day, we thought it was important to rent bikes since bike riding is iconically Dutch (I’m 1/8th Dutch!) and Amsterdam is maybe the best city in the world for biking. Our destination was “Waterland”, which took us back in time to farming canals and fishing villages just a few miles north of downtown Amsterdam:

After spending 25 minutes or so biking through the city to the central train station, we caught this free ferry across to the north side. James had a seat behind me, but everyone else biked the 26 or so miles round trip.

Here’s a better view of the bike James and I shared. His main problem was the wind made him cold, so he stole Karen’s sweater.
A brief stop to take pictures of the swans (next). Note James’s overlong sweater.
Swans! This is just a few miles outside of a major city.
Our lunch stop had, of course, a playground opposite it.
Fewer pictures of the ride home because there were brutal headwinds. The 13 miles took us over 2 hours to finish. We were exhausted and very glad to return the bikes to the rental shop and walk again, although overall it was a great day.

At the end of the very long bike ride, we had a bit of a respite from city street bike lanes meandering through Vondelpark, a wonderful example of a big city park which included a playground with attached beergarden. Here are a few more pictures from our time in the park over the next few days.

One of many bridges and water features
The same bridge, but fancy
Don’t worry, it was only a few inches deep
We fed a lot of ducks here
James happened to be wearing his “hexagons are the bestagons” shirt for this visit to the hexagonally tiled garden.
Part of the booze-enabling playground. (Squint to see the slide tower through the trees.)

And of course we visited a few museums in Amsterdam as well, although we realized too late that the Anne Frank House has a one-month-plus waiting list:

The Rijksmuseum was very cool and definitely worth a visit, but the highlight for James and Charlie was this interactive exploration game they gave to kids, where they gave them missions to find answers based on the guide. Occasionally, Karen and I were annoyed with their need to rush on to the next place before we had a chance to see the art. (Henry went off on his own and read every single exhibit caption with lightning speed, which is his normal MO.)
Here they are at Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, immediately after which they bolted off in search of the next site in their game and I spent 5 minutes trying to figure out where my family disappeared to in the crowded museum.
If I have to know that this painting of a creepy, muscular Jesus exists, so do you. The Holy Family by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, c. 1528 – c. 1530
The following day, we went to the Van Gogh museum, which had this paper-based exploration guide for kids. Similarly engaging, though. (Tickets were sparse here too, but we were able to snag the last time 4 days after we looked.)
Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette.
Bedroom in Arles

Germany: Heusenstamm, Betzdorf, and Siegen

The final places we’ll visit in this post aren’t really tourist attractions, but rather places (and people) from Karen’s childhood when she spent much of her summers visiting family in Germany. We started by leaving Amsterdam around 6:30am in order to catch a few trains for the Frankfurt suburb of Heusenstamm where we met her Tante Marienne for lunch. Marienne is Jorg’s mother, so maybe you’ll again note the familial resemblance to James? (Jorg was also instrumental in helping us set up this meeting–thanks, Jorg!)

She and Tante Edith were leaving the next day from Heusenstamm for a Danube river cruise and we were hoping to catch Edith for lunch as well, but she wasn’t able to make it south from Betzdorf in time to see us. (Edith didn’t have a cell phone, so we couldn’t coordinate anything complicated.) Instead, we crossed paths and stayed at her home in Betzdorf for a couple of nights after picking up a key from her friend at the jewelry store. (In German, “dorf” means village, and the boys and I definitely found it to be a cute little village.)

Karen’s Oma’s old house. Her bedroom had that top window.
There was a VERY big hill to get up to Tante Edith’s house.
We stretched out once we got there and very much appreciated the hospitality! Karen and I had visited with Henry in 2010 and the house was exactly as I remembered it.
View of Betzdorf from Tante Edith’s living room.
Downtown Betzdorf. That cool structure is just a bike ramp to the second level of the shopping structure.
We made a little trip to the nearby town of Siegen. Here we are after tiring ourselves out climbing to the top of the hill there.

The next day, we continued on to Switzerland, which will be another post. Here’s our country count up to this point:

  • 8th, 9th, and 10th countries of our trip
  • Me: 57 countries (including 32 eating McDonald’s) (no new countries, but added Belgium and Netherlands to the McDonald’s list!)
  • Karen: 54 countries (no change)
  • Henry: 24 countries (he’d been to Germany in 2010, so only +2)
  • Charlie: 19 countries
  • James: 16 countries

A Tale of Two Cities

July 12-July 18

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

OK, I’m not going to continue with the whole thing, but I thought quoting Dicken’s opening sentence to the book that I used to title this post would be a fun way to start since I’ve learned so much about London and Paris over the years from reading. To highlight something more recent, here was a fun moment for James during our brief couple of days in London:

After some deliberation, we’ve decided he’s a Ravenclaw. We just finished reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (book 5).

For me, the highlight of London was Bletchley Park where I took this picture of Alan Turing’s desk:

He probably could have used more light.

Turing gained more attention recently through the 2014 film, The Imitation Game, which one reviewer called “one of the most important stories of the last century [and] one of the greatest movies of 2014.”

For me, besides the opportunity to learn more about arguably the most impactful work in all of WWII, I enjoyed learning more about Turing in particular (there were thousands of other people involved in codebreaking, but he was the most famous) because it recalled phrases from my Electrical & Computer Engineering days like “Turing Complete”, “Universal Turing Machine”, and “Turing Test”. The museum didn’t cover those concepts, but Turing certainly left a legacy far greater even than the codebreaking work to which he was central. (It’s long, but if you’re on the nerdier side, you might enjoy this novel by Neal Stephenson, half of which is a historical fiction centering Turing and the events around Bletchley Park. “Long” and “nerdier side” are qualifiers for most of his books, so I’ve of course read all of them.)


Besides those highlights, after arriving in town very late the night before via a delayed train from Scotland, we only had a couple of days in London. Knowing we were planning to spend the second one at Bletchley Park, we spent the first rushing through some of the big sights. First, here’s a before and after of James being punched by an ancienct Egyptian fist:

I checked and he wasn’t seriously injured, but “the punch” does foreshadow how everyone was left feeling after a day of rushing from place to place after a too-short night of sleeping. The pictures above are taken from the astonishingly packed-with-historic-relics British Museum, and on the day we visited, it was equally packed-with-British-schoolchildren and other tourists. (Including us!) To illustrate, here are Charlie and James in front of the Rosetta Stone:

Sure, it’s maybe the most famous thing there, so you might expect that part to be crowded, but look behind–every nook and cranny was equally full of people!

Here are the rest of us, exhausted by all the people right before we left after an hour:

Henry, briefly, was able to find a quiet section on the top floor, but was then quickly inundated by schoolchildren. They weren’t the data-stealing Dutch kind, though, so he was able to text us an update and arrange a rendezvous.

After evacuating from the crowd, we tried to raise our spirits with some excellent ice cream, but as you can see from this progression of pictures, the boys were getting tired:

Picadilly Circus!
Buckingham Palace!
Hyde Park (the original)!
Natural History Museum!
End of Natural History Museum! (About to fall over!)

At this point everyone was exhausted, so we took the tube back to the hostel. It was rush hour, though, so we experienced even more crowding, which explains why the boys had no interest in leaving after dinner to join me and Karen in another walk around to see the city:

River Thames and The Eye! This is also the point where Karen stopped acquiescing to my concerning selfie habit.
Obligatory picture of Big Ben, after which we had another solid hour of walking to reach over 24,000 steps for the day.

Bletchley Park

I said that the Bletchley Park trip was a highlight for me, but the entire family enjoyed the second day in the London area more than they did the first. Here are a few more pictures of the experience:

The British spy service purchased this entire mansion and grounds for the work. Somebody needed better purchasing controls.
The boys were given these really great “spy” assignment books to guide them through the museum. The staff seemed unconcerned when I informed them that the kids were German citizens, which seems like a real problem with operational security to me.
Listening for codes
One of the work areas for officers
“The best tomato soup outside of Beye School.” (He said it started to taste less good at the end.)


The next morning, we took the Eurostar across the chunnel to Paris. James was extremely excited because it was his birthday and he’d planned out the day:

  • Special train to Paris, where they’re celebrating Bastille Day for my birthday
  • Eat a baguette (one of his favorite foods)
  • Eat a crepe (one of his other favorite foods)

He has constructed a mission for himself to eat a pancake (or similar) in every country we visit, so he checked that off the list on the first day in Paris:

The rest of us had burgers. Also, Orange Fanta in Europe began our trip with near mythical status, but has since lost its shine a little.
From the top of Montmarte! With Lemon and Sugar.
He toyed with eating non-bread foods: here’s dinner, but the “steak” he and Charlie ordered from a kids menu, was actually a dry ground beef patty and generally disappointing.
Speaking of disappointing, these are all over Paris and we also spotted “French tacos” in Belgium and the Netherlands. We’re not sure why they exist, but felt offended for our North American brethren.

We spent the next few days visiting some of our favorite sites without going too fast–this was my fifth time to Paris and similar for Karen. In fact, because we would prefer to see things that are also new to us, we weren’t planning to stay for 5 nights, but we found a nice (and affordable!) Airbnb so thought we could rest a bit. Here are a few highlights from our trip. (Not captured is Charlie’s macaron cooking class, which included normal sweet ones as well as blue cheese and foie gras, which he made me eat.)

The boys dubbed this Rodin classic, “The Why”, because it reminded them of this internet meme. (Actually “Jean de Fiennes” from “The Burghers of Calais”)
Henry called me a weirdo for trying to take pictures of butts. (“The Mature Age” by Camille Claudel.)
He had similar concerns about “The Kiss”.
So of course one correct answer is, “a teenager who is frequently embarassed by his father.”
Karen and I caught an excellent concert at Sainte-Chapelle, which somehow I had never visited in those four other trips. There was a string quartet, mostly accompanying a really great soprano.

The first image is by the River Seine right after the concert and the second from the next morning from the same spot facing the other way. We stayed 5 miles north of here, so it was a long but memorable run, although I could have done without having to climb up and down Montmarte at the end. (I went around to follow a canal on the way in.)

We visited the Conciergerie because Marie Antoinette was kept there prior to her beheading and we were trying to cover some interesting French Revolution facts with the boys. They had this cool augmented reality tablet, though, that mostly focused on medieval history which they really enjoyed.
Charlie approved of Whistler’s Mother, but found the audioguide for kids “annoying” and generally did not enjoy the Musee D’Orsay because “it was full of art”.
James appreciated this old train station clock, but was similarly unimpressed.
James was instead obsessed with getting a great picture of the Eiffel Tower. (He thought I did a good job with this one from our river cruise.) He’s our most prolific photographer and I’m really glad we thought to give him Karen’s old iPhone for the trip.


For our final day in Paris, we split up, with Henry and Charlie opting to stay at the Airbnb (ostensibly to at least partially do homework) while Karen, James, and I took a very long tour to UNESCO World Heritage listed Mont-Saint-Michel, which was probably the number one site Karen wanted to see in France. Until the day before we went, we’d been planning to travel to Rennes and see it from there, but rearranged our travel plans in Paris, so the 14-hour bus tour from Paris was our only chance to make the trip.

I was skeptical that it would be worth it–it’s a tourist magnet and the day was over 100 degrees, but we had a great time and several weeks later James still rates it his favorite day of our trip. Here are a few pictures of the day.

Approaching the island from our tour bus. (I sat next to Sharon, an intrepid world traveller and recently retired banker from New York City who gave us advice for our Africa leg and, surprisingly to me at least, has seen Pearl Jam in concert all over the world almost 40 times. She was going to catch them two nights in a row in Amsterdam the next week.)
Crossing the bridge to the island. Picture taken by Drew, a Virginian recent college grad who left his family in Portugal and decided to tag along with us for most of the day.
Being by the sea, we of course saw these guys again. Charlie was safe at home in Paris, though.
Karen made all her dresses for this trip because (a) she’s awesome and (b) she wanted pockets.
See? He had a good day. (The two stops for ice cream probably helped.)
View from the top
The interior is full of this cool gothic architecture. Which makes sense, because it’s over 1,000 years old.
This big wheel was used to raise food up from the shore.

Two last views from looking up:

After adding France, here’s our family country count:

  • 7th country of our trip
  • Me: 57 countries (including 30 eating McDonalds) (no change)
  • Karen: 55 countries (no change)
  • Henry: 22 countries
  • Charlie: 16 countries
  • James: 13 countries

Traveling fast and slow in Scotland

July 4-11, 2022

I’m posting this Scotland update more than 3 weeks after leaving the country because we’ve been busy. Not necessarily busy with traveling, so much as busy trying to plan out future parts of the trip. It’s counterintuitive, but for the cities we’ve only been staying in for a day or two, I’ve felt like I’ve had more time to write than I do when we’re staying for 4-5 days somewhere.

That’s because during longer stays, we’ve been focusing on planning out the next legs of our trip. After longer stays in Paris, Bruges, Amsterdam, and Zurich, I’m happy to report that we’ve now got plans through the first week of October. I’m behind on blogging, though, so let’s get back to Scotland.


We started with an early morning ferry from Belfast to Southwestern Scotland, followed by a bus to the city of Glasgow. Neither Karen nor I had been there before, and had only planned one night as a stopping point after a long day of travel, but we really loved the place. After one of the cheaper lunches we’d had in a while (yay!) we let Henry stay back at the hotel (teenagers need space sometimes!) and went with the two younger boys to the People’s Palace museum, which included a bunch of interesting exhibits about the history of life in Glasgow including this hands on example of what it was like to wash clothes in a “steamie” or communal laundry facility:

Scrubbing hard!

Speaking of the history of life in Glasgow, here’s the Glasgow subway, which we thought looked like it came from the 50’s. (It was actually built in 1896, the fourth oldest subway in Europe, and only has a single loop around the city going clockwise and counterclockwise.)

Maybe not from 1896, but I’m guessing maybe older than me?

I’m not being fair to Glasgow, though, because it’s actually a lively and modern town of over 600,000 (the biggest in Scotland) and it had one of the best museums we’ve seen, housed at the University of Glasgow. The university, founded in 1451, is gorgeous and was the home of such famous names as Adam Smith, Lord Kelvin, James Watt, and Joseph Lister.

We were there primarily for the Hunterian Museum–more about the main museum in a bit–but one of the things Karen was most excited to see in all of Scotland was the Mackintosh House. The house was built in 1906, but is famous for the work done to it by the architect/artist couple Charles and Margaret Mackintosh. First, though, does this look like it’s over 100 years old?

(I thought brutalism started a little later than 1896.)

This is, of course, not the original house, but does have the same shape–if a different facade. The university demolished the original in the 1960’s to make room for student housing, but saved the interior and made detailed measurements before constructing this replica attached to the art gallery a couple of decades later. (Seems like they could have put the student housing next to the art gallery instead, but what do I know?)

It’s a really striking home with artful consideration across every inch, although I’m not sure what it would have been like to live there–in one room they tried to make all the horizontal surfaces at the same levels so the chairs seemed too low to me and the desk too high. Looks nice, though. Here are some pictures:

Although we visited the museum to see this house, it was actually much smaller than the main Hunterian Museum, which was enormous and eclectic, and based on donations in 1783 upon the death of William Hunter, a pioneering obstetrician and collector of interesting things.

The younger boys enjoyed playing drums with a guy who just happened to be there that day in the children’s section, but some of the most interesting content was what Hunter had acquired as “spoils” of British exploration and imperialism during that era. There was a lot of material from Polynesia and the Americas in particular. Aware of this legacy, the museum had recently undertaken a project to “decolonize” the collection, tapping a diverse set of community members to consider a range of elements in the collection to debate and discuss how one might think about these pieces from a modern perspective. I didn’t take any pictures of those arguments, but I liked this 1674 map of the world from China:

Printed with woodblocks by a Jesuit father for a Chinese emperor.
Henry photobombing in the background. He reads every single caption of every single exhibit.

In the upper part of the main gallery, they had a lot of exhibits from medical history including Lister’s successive attempts to create better and better sterilization practices for operations, launching the change in practice used everywhere today, and a bunch of the instruments created by Lord Kelvin. I knew Kelvin as an important physicist, primarily because his name is on an entire temperature scale, but didn’t realize that he was basically one of the greatest engineers of all time. My favorite was this harmonic analyzer, which he used to understand changes to atmospheric temperature and pressure.

A few days later, the temperature near us was over 313 K, a local record.
Here’s the entrance to the museum, just because I think it looked neat.


After spending most of the day in Glasgow, we took a short train to Edinburgh. We stayed at a pretty typical hostel with all of us staying in a single room with two triple bunk beds, but the memorable thing to the boys is that the only other guests at the hostel were a group of about 80 Dutch high school kids. Because the wi-fi didn’t work in the hostel, the boys theorized that it was because these kids were hogging it. Weeks later, whenever someone mentioned Dutch kids (as we did while in Amsterdam), their first association was that Dutch kids like to hog wi-fi.

Of course, these kids were in Edinburgh because it’s gorgeous and has a rich history. Here are a couple of shots to illustrate the beauty:

The castle, which marks the end of the old town and overlooks the rest of the city
Even the playgrounds have spectacular views
Close together in a close.

This last picture is one of the many “closes” or private alleyways that lead downhill from the main strip of the old town. The most interesting one, Mary King’s Close (named after the merchant who operated there), was “closed” to have a government building constructed on top of it in the 1700’s. It was then rediscovered a few decades ago and opened in 2003 as a tourist attraction where you can see how people lived in Edinburgh 400 years ago. (No pictures are allowed in the tour, but you can see a few at the link above.)

Speaking of history, although Adam Smith was based out of the University of Glasgow, he did some of his seminal work and lectures in economics in Edinburgh. This statue was enough to get Charlie to even smile for a picture:

He’s a total nerd for economics, although I need to do a better job adding it to our homeschooling curriculum.

Speaking of history and culture, the number one export of Scotland is of course Scotch whisky (no “e”) and I’ve enjoyed drinking it occasionally ever since my brother and I first visited in 1999. A big part of why is because while in Edinburgh, we took part in the cheesy “Scotch Whisky Experience” which had a Disney-style barrel ride (including animatronic back country distillers) that dumped you out at the end for a free tasting.

I was excited to return and was not disappointed. This time around they had upgraded the tour to include a holographic ghost (fancy!) and I paid a little extra to sample a whisky from each of four of the main regions–my favorite is Highland.

I’m in the barrel!
There’s the hologram.
They had an enormous collection of bottles, which is probably the main legitimate attraction.


Coincidentally, my whisky preference aligns with the next part of the trip, because the following morning we rented a car and headed for four nights in a rented farmhouse in the Scottish Highlands. One of the most beautiful regions in the world, we’d been planning this portion of the trip around the availability of the cabin so we could have a place to rest a little with more space (three bedrooms!) for our animal-loving kids. It didn’t disappoint.

The donkey and ponies really liked when we fed them carrots.
The owner told us that the donkey talked all the time–just like the donkey in Shrek–but we didn’t hear him too much.
Down the road from our cabin.
Random waterfall in the park near our cabin in Glen Garry.
We went running near the River Garry. Charlie only smiles for economists.

The only flaw of the cabin was the fact that wi-fi was a little spotty (and non-existent one day), even though there didn’t appear to be any Dutch kids in our presence. Luckily, they had an extensive library of DVDs to borrow, so after we explained to the kids what a DVD was, we spent a couple nights watching Braveheart, which everyone enjoyed. (The other nights they also enjoyed The Naked Gun and, in the same vein, Hot Shots!)

Inspired by cinematic battles, we thought we’d check out the site of a real one, so on our second day headed to near Inverness to see the museum for the Battle of Culloden. That’s where, in 1746, the Jacobite army of Charles Edward Stuart (known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”) was decisively defeated by a British government force. Since “Jacobite” refers to people who wanted James II to be king and we were visiting with our sons James and Charlie (we let Henry be a teenager and stay home), we had a lot of fun pretending the tour guide was talking about our kids as we learned about the battle. Mostly fun at least–Charlie seemed a little incompetent, which wasn’t fair to our Charlie, who is awesome, if occasionally incapable of smiling for pictures.

Where many Jacobites were bogged down in an actual bog and then killed.
We didn’t look too hard, but didn’t see Nessie in the loch. We did, however, enjoy a t-shirt in Edinburgh with a cartoon Loch Ness Monster and the caption, “The important thing is that I believe in myself.”

For our final day in the highlands, we let the boys relax at home under Henry’s care with instructions to do homework while Karen and I drove off to see the Isle of Skye. (This happens to be the day the wi-fi was completely out, so they only did as much homework as they could eke out with Henry’s hotspot.)

Our main destination in Skye was Dunvegan Castle, which is the historic seat of the Clan MacLeod (and also the hero of the movie Highlander!) We mostly were just looking for a place to visit as we enjoyed the natural beauty that Skye is famous for. We enjoyed the day:

Entrance to Dunvegan
View of Dunvegan from the bay. They had boats for rent to go look for seals, which we would have done had the kids been with us. Instead, we grabbed lunch at the cafe.
The clan would go to battle with this 4th century “Fairy Flag”, which they believed let them miraculously snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Probably from Syria or Rhodes originally, they had conflicting stories of the origins, but my favorite was that it was a parting gift of the fairy bride of one of the clan chiefs when she had to return to her people.
The castle had several beautiful and well maintained gardens, which Karen really appreciated.
One of many beautiful views from our drive.
Black Cuillin mountain selfie
Pioneering mountain climbers (not inclusive of all depicted)
Eileen Donan castle, which we only stopped to take a picture of.

After our time in Skye, we headed back to Edinburgh and caught a train to London. The train was very delayed, which we’ve collectively decided not to discuss further, but we got there anyway.

Because I already counted the UK in my last post, our family country count remained the same:

  • 6th country of our trip
  • Me: 57 countries (including 30 eating McDonalds)
  • Karen: 55 countries
  • Henry: 21 countries
  • Charlie: 15 countries
  • James: 12 countries

Returning (to Ireland)

Kids and their humor

Our time in Ireland was the site of multiple returns, most notably to the place that Karen and I met, but I’ll start this post with a different kind of return. First, meet Steven Seagull:

Photo credit James Niksch (age 7); he says he used zoom, so his life wasn’t in quite as much risk as you might suppose

We met the dreaded Steven during the first week of our trip in Tallin, Estonia. He’s famous there for being really aggressive at going after people’s food. (He has that name because Estonian people have a funny sense of humor.) Unfortunately, during our encounter, it wasn’t our food he went after, but rather Charlie’s finger. Thankfully there was no permanent damage, but he did have a red mark for a few hours. We don’t know what Charlie did to deserve this, but it turns out the seagulls weren’t yet done with him.

<Warning: potty humor section. Skip ahead to the next red text if you’re too fancy for that sort of thing.>

Seagulls can travel very far, but I don’t know if it was Steven exactly who got to us in Dublin, Ireland. More likely he was employing some sort of international seagull communication network, possibly headquartered in Brussels. What we do know is that Charlie was again deliberately and maliciously targeted by the seagull community.

Historic O’Connell bridge over the River Liffey. It was here, in this exact location, that the attack occurred. James (morosely contemplating the horror of it all) appears here because Charlie was too distraught for comment.

While he was minding his business, simply paying attention to our guide during a walking tour of Dublin, a flock of seagulls bombarded our location and Charlie got poop all over his sholder.

When it rains it pours: immediately afterwards, James informed me that he very urgently needed to go to the bathroom. So, the three of us rushed away from the walking tour to find a bathroom to use and also clean up a poopy hoody. The closest was McDonald’s, but I had to buy some french fries to get the bathroom code, so on the plus side my count for places I’ve eaten McDonald’s in is up to 30 countries now!

We eventually rejoined Karen and Henry as they were finishing the tour at Trinity College, where Karen was secretly hoping they might consider attending someday. Here they are thinking about it:

You’ll note Charlie took off his sweater, but I think we were able to get it clean

Anyway, back to poop: As you might guess with three boys (and I’ll admit, me too), potty humor is a favorite in our family. (Karen has learned to live with it.) In addition to my protracted seagull story, Ireland has been a great place in that regard!

As a first illustration, here was an exhibit at the Dublinia Museum, which was focused on the early history of Dublin and its founding as a Viking outpost:

The exhibit included a very graphic soundtrack of flatulence and groaning. The boys were impressed.

As a second example, here is a caption describing an old woodcut in the Galway City Museum. Pay special attention to the final sentence:

Photo credit James Niksch (age 7). He made sure everyone in the family read this.

In case you’re a visual learner, here are James and Charlie pointing to the described image:

I feel like the description was exceedingly accurate.

</End of potty humor section. If you skipped past it, you’re no fun.>

Where it all started

Back to the topic of “returns”, Dublin will always be a special place for us because it’s where Karen and I met. I woke up the morning of June 3, 1999 and saw her in the bed next to mine on the top bunk in a room at the Avalon House Youth Hostel. This time around, we tried to stay there again, but unfortunately it closed a couple years ago. Instead, we took a picture from the front door.

Those are the beds behind us. My brother Paul is sitting on the bottom of mine.
Photo credit Henry Niksch (age 14)

After that, we went to the Bad Ass Cafe, where Karen and I had lunch the day we met. It was famous at the time because Sinead O’Connor had worked there as a waitress. This time, there was still a tiny little plaque on the stairwell of the renamed Bad Ass Bar commemorating this fact, but otherwise it was completely changed. At some point, they’d changed the decor to make it look like a “traditional” Irish bar to appeal to tourists and the menu became more touristy as well. It was almost a total disappointment, but the waiter really loved our story of having eaten there the day we met and brought out three free enormous dishes of ice cream for the boys.

Photo credit Paul Niksch (age 19, now older). Karen was a vegetarian, so gave me her ham.
The windows still looked the same at least.

To complete our (generally very boring for the kids) trip down memory lane, we also visited Christchurch Cathedral, where we once ate fish & chips on the benches outside. Our kids don’t really like fish & chips, so we just took a picture.

Photo credit Matt Niksch (age 22, now older)
Henry was getting annoyed with all the pictures we had him take.

Besides our tourism and reminiscing stops in Dublin, we also took the train to Galway in the west and stayed there for a few days. Karen and I had a couple of nice parent-only dinners there, but the highlight for everyone was probably the Aran Islands/Cliffs of Moher bus/ferry trip we took on our last day. It rained most of the time and ended up being a pretty long day, but we saw some beautiful sites. Here are a few of the pictures I took during the trip.

Dunguaire Castle
Typical countryside. Some of these stone fences are over a thousands years old.
Burrens flowers
View from Corkscrew Hill
Inis Oírr view
Inis Oírr castle
He does this pose everywhere
Charlie says, “HELP!”
Rainy Cliffs of Moher
Slightly seasick on the ferry
Cliffs of Moher! It finally stopped raining 15 minutes after we arrived.

Suprisingly good time in Belfast

After Galway, we had a longer travel day: back to Dublin before catching another train to Belfast in Northern Ireland (which is technically in the United Kingdom and another country, but I’m putting it here in my Ireland post!) Besides the length of time spent traveling, it was frustrating for the boys because we’re trying to do as much of their schooling as possible on trains and we’re quickly learning that train wifi isn’t as reliable as we’d like. Here they are trying to work hard.

We’re putting off thinking about finding a new homeschooling plan

So as we arrived in Belfast in the late afternoon, no one was particularly happy and I wasn’t expecting too much. I wasn’t impressed with Belfast during the same trip 23 years ago when I met Karen. In retrospect, I’m thankful for that, because Paul and I left earlier than we were originally planning and the timing was right for me to end up with an awesome wife out of the change. That’s why, though, I was pleasantly surprised that we had such a great time in our couple days this time around.

First off, we put our train problems behind us when we found an excellent Nepali/Indian restaurant and had a great meal:

After that, Karen and I took a stroll around town while the boys relaxed in the room at our cool hostel. The next morning, I had a great run before everyone else woke up and then we went to the excellent Ulster Museum, which had a range of exhibits ranging from ancient Irish history to local Belfast history to an interactive science center for kids.

Trying to finish his assignment from the train!
Global Village Hostel common area
No pot of gold at the end, I ran there to check
Pretty bridge view south of our hostel
The Ulster Museum also had these cool Game of Thrones-inspired dragons from a wrap party for the film crew (much of it was filmed nearby)

The Troubles

The highlight for me and Karen, though, was a three hour “Conflicting Stories” walking tour we took about “The Troubles” between the Catholic/Republican community (who want the north to be part of the Republic of Ireland with the rest of the island) and the Protestant/Unionist community (who want the north to remain part of the United Kingdom) in West Belfast. The tour, like West Belfast with a 26km-long fence, was split into two halves. The first half was with a Republican member of the Provisional IRA who had been released from prison after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The second was with a Unionist former officer in the British Army and security services whose father and brother had both been killed by the Provisional IRA. Both told their stories and encouraged us to listen with an open mind. (The conflict and The Troubles were an issue outside of West Belfast, having an impact including thousands of deaths across Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and elsewhere, but this tour focused mostly on West Belfast.)

One thing that stood out to me was that in this very identity-driven conflict, both sides seemed to be more aligned to aspects of that identity than the broader group they were affiliating with. As an illustration, here is a train sign in Dublin, the capital city that our Catholic/Republican guide wants for his home:

You can see that Gaelic/Irish is always first.

One thing you notice quickly while visiting the Republic of Ireland is that written and spoken Irish is the first language on any official government communication–train signs like this, announcements on buses, etc. All students across the country are required to learn it in school from a very young age. And yet, it is the first and primary language of only a very small minority of people (mostly in smaller communities in the west), and almost everyone we spoke with was at best indifferent about the language. Many mentioned their schoolhood struggles being forced to study it and were quite happy to avoid it as adults.

Contrastingly, our guide was extremely focused on his “Irishness”, a central part of which was the use of the Irish language, which he demonstrated by the way he greeted anyone he saw in the community and by a story he told about being proud that his granddaughter was doing poorly in her English studies in school. When I asked him about what he thought of the future of the language, he acknowledged that he didn’t think it would ever be the main language for most people in Ireland, but appreciated that it was recognized in the 1998 agreement.

Similarly, our Protestant/Unionist guide shared with us that first and foremost the people of his community saw themselves as proud citizens of the United Kingdom. To illustrate this, here’s a picture of Shankill Road, one of the main roads in the Protestant/Unionist community:

See all the UK flags? They were everywhere throughout the community.

Both guides emphasized that even though these two communities live side-by-side, they share very few cultural practices, with no Protestants on the Republican side and no Catholics living on the Unionist side. In both communities, it’s almost taboo to have any kind of relationship at all with people from the other side. This wall (“Peace Line”), which is 42 feet high in some places, helps maintain that divide and also prevents the throwing of rocks and worse things like grenades, from one side to the other. It has 6 gates which all close at 7pm every night:

Our Republican guide continued to maintain that while there is currently peace, he is very actively invested in a hope that the entire island will eventually be a single country. (His preference is peaceful, but didn’t rule out other means.) Besides the political/cultural divide, one of the main reasons he gave for the cause he supported was the economic segregation that characterized much of British rule of Northern Ireland, which he compared to South African apartheid, with the vast majority of economic opportunity going to Protestants. (The examples here were primarily historical, but he suggested that this remains a problem.)

He was excited about the fact that Sinn Féin, the political arm of the IRA, for the first time received the most votes in Northern Ireland’s recent parliamentary elections and hoped that this, along with some of the border changes caused by Brexit, would help lead to a unified Ireland. (Although they won the election, they are still working on trying to form a government, which might or might not happen.)

Conversely, our Unionist guide struck a mostly a pessimistic tone, saying he thought it would be 3-4 generations until both sides could learn to live together again. His tour focused heavily on the lives and stories of many innocent people whose lives were taken by indiscriminant IRA bombings. Many, many people lost family and loved ones to the violence that characterized The Troubles, but one thing that gives me hope is the fact that likely very few lost as much as him, with both his father and brother being innocent victims. (He said his father was killed for being a Protestant electrician working in homes in a Catholic community.)

As you might expect, the recent events that excited our Republican guide made the Unionist very unhappy, especially the election of IRA members to parliament. He told us specifically and directly that several of those politicians were exactly the same people who had killed people with bombings and that this would obviously be too much to take. We found out later that this wasn’t really true; he was talking about the organization as a whole being involved in bombings–none of the actual politicians seem to be the ones who committed the violence. He did say, however, that there was no way most people in his community would be able to accept being governed by IRA members and that the peace agreement would probably fail if the newly elected parliamentarians were able to build a coalition to govern.

I’m hoping Northern Ireland continues to have peace, but left the tour very concerned about those prospects and hopeful for further breakthroughs. (My hope is that the resignation this week of Boris Johnson as the UK Prime Minister might make this more possible, but I think no one really knows.) I hope as well that my writeup was clear enough to share something useful with you, since I’m by no means an expert!

The day after our tour, we said goodbye to the island and caught a ferry and then bus onwards to Glasgow, Scotland. With Ireland and the UK (which I’ll count here), our family country count is as follows:

  • Me: 57 countries (including 30 eating McDonalds–yay for bathroom stops!)
  • Karen: 55 countries
  • Henry: 21 countries (he and Charlie both spent a day in London in 2012)
  • Charlie: 15 countries
  • James: 12 countries

Fjords, Friends, Family, and Trolls

Norway is well-known for incredible natural beauty, and after 9 days here, we can definitely testify to that. We’ve also found it to be an incredibly welcoming place, although our first day didn’t start that way for us.

We began a couple hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in the university town of Tromsø. After a long trip including a 6-hour layover in Oslo, the airline lost James’s bag, and the guy at the Hertz counter was just missing for 30 minutes when I arrived tired to get the car. We then had bad GPS instructions into town, and as we were buying groceries for a 10pm spaghetti dinner cooked from our farmhouse Airbnb, I was told that beer sales after 8pm aren’t allowed in Norway. It was a long day that Henry says we should promise to never talk about again. (Sorry, Henry.) As a palate cleanser, here’s Henry chasing a pigeon:

Adding Tromsø to a lifelong avocation of chasing pigeons across 6 continents. You’re never too old to chase pigeons.

I realized later that they were really serious about the no drinking thing because Sunday morning at 10am, the police were pulling over every driver crossing the main bridge and making them do a breathalyzer test to check for sobriety. The legal blood alcohol maximum here of 0.02% is one fourth the limit of Illinois. As a palate cleanser to that story, here’s me having a $20 beer.

To be safe for driving, I ran a half marathon after drinking this beer.
Ølhallen is the oldest pub in Tromsø, attached to the northernmost brewery in the world.

As I’ve shared before, we primarily came to Tromsø so I could run in the northernmost land race in the world, the Midnight Sun Marathon. I had a few leg issues in the runup to the race, so downgraded from the full race to the half marathon, but it went really well, and I ran one of my fastest halves at 1 hr 52 min! (Since most races are in the morning, I probably won’t switch to the pre-race beer as a normal strategy. It was a nice birthday treat, though!) Charlie also had a great time running the 4.2K “minimarathon”, finishing in 27:55, and now wants to find races to run during the rest of our trip. (“Running is fun!”)

11:23pm and halfway through
Ready to start, although he didn’t like the “dance party” warmup.

Besides the race, Tromsø is a cool place, with the northernmost university in the world, and is the 3rd biggest city north of the Arctic Circle behind Murmansk and Norilsk in Russia. Highlights for the boys were the “Polaria” museum, with great underwater views of seals in their aquarium and the little Troll Museum, with beautiful art and interesting stories of Norwegian mythology and folklore.

James is smaller than a Forest Troll
Northernmost Lutheran cathedral
Boats and mural
Arctic Cathedral across the Tromsø Bridge
Morning concert in a public square
Seals at Polaria

After Tromsø, we caught an early flight through Oslo to the west coast city of Bergen, which used to be one of the most important trading cities in Europe, home of the old Norwegian capital and a big outpost of the German Hanseatic trading league.

More importantly to us, it is also currently home to Karen’s cousin Jörg, his wife Jeanette, and their daughter Jule, and they were kind enough to host us for our 3 nights in their huge home 30 minutes outside of the city. After Jörg met us at the airport and showed us around town on a rare sunny day, we had a huge barbecue feast at their home, and the boys were delighted to stay in separate rooms for the first time during our trip. Thanks, Jörg and Jeanette!

James is looking away from the sun, but if he was looking up, you would see he probably looks more like Jörg than he does me! Genetics is fun.

In addition to the hospitality, the highlights for us were probably the excellent Museum of Natural History, and (for me and Karen) a walk from the house to the local beach.

Whales at Bergen Museum of Natural History
Neighbor’s trampoline!
The local path near the house
Beach at the end of the path
Taken for website name alignment and Charlie’s constant requests to try our coffee. The kid doesn’t sleep enough as is!

After our last day in Bergen, Jörg dropped us off downtown to catch an early boat/fjord cruise to the town of Flåm. As we explained to the boys, fjords are long, deep, narrow valleys carved by glaciers and full of water, and western Norway is chock full of them. In fact, they cover most of the coastline, with over 1,000 along the country’s coast. As we sailed our 5.5 hours from Bergen, we went through the “King of Fjords” or Sognefjord and mostly took a bunch of pictures.

View from the back of the boat
30 minutes into the trip, we passed the bridge we used to get to Jörg and Jeanette’s house
Kviknes Hotel in Balestrand, built in 1877
Entrance to Aurlandsfjord
Same place + selfie with James! (He still looks like Jörg)

After the cruise, ending through Aurlandsfjord, we arrived in the early afternoon in Flåm. We were a little tired from an earlier start, but after some nice pastries, thought we could try the “easy” “1-hour” hike to a waterfall on the map provided by the tourist office. My use of quotes there should let you know that neither of those facts were true.

It started out quite easy, almost perfect on a pleasant and sunny afternoon. When we saw the sign up the hill for the waterfall, Henry elected not to join us, but we assumed we’d be up and back 15 minutes later. We of course returned over an hour later after at least 1,000 steps that took us halfway up the mountain. We did, however, get this view out of it:

Not easy, but definitely worth it
Very proud to have completed the hike!

Afterwards, Karen and I had a relaxing drink in the local beergarden while the boys played screens in the hostel room. After a taco dinner, we relaxed for a bit by the water during the low-key local Midsommer celebration, which included a bondfire and people eating cake.

…along with tossing rocks into the fjord

The next morning began with a 6.5 hour train journey to Oslo. The first hour was the special “Flåmsbana” train, the steepest standard train in Northern Europe, with 20 tunnels and a ridiculous number of scenic valley and waterfall views.

After that, we did the last 5+ hours in a normal train and kicked off two things: our 3-month Eurail pass, providing unlimited train travel in Europe until late September, along with school! I gave the boys assignments in history, math, English, and Spanish. (The latter will mostly be Duolingo until we do language classes in South America towards the end of the trip.) They grumbled a little, but mostly liked it.

When we arrived in Oslo, we checked into our Airbnb, watched an episode of Obi-Wan on Disney+ (I have a Chromecast that we just plug into any non-ancient TV) and then headed off to meet my friends Kjersti and Shahbaz for another Barbecue! I met Kjersti in Prague more than 23 years ago while backpacking through Europe after college, and she invited me to stay at her place in Oslo when I visited a few weeks later. While there, I also met her boyfriend Shahbaz, who took me rollerblading around the city. (It turns out that was one of the last times for both of us!)

We’ve stayed in touch via Facebook and it was fun to catch up now with families, including their two daughters. It was Charlie’s birthday, so in addition to prepping an awesome dinner, Kjersti made a cake. Thanks, Kjersti!

He had many slices of chocolate cake. Note Henry diving out of the way on the left.

For our final day in Oslo, it was hot, so we’d planned to catch a ferry to a local island and hang out at the beach with a picnic lunch. It was a Saturday and everyone else had the same idea, though, so we instead relaxed from a city beach, without the ferry with its one-hour wait. Still nice. Afterwards, we found some swings and the local castle before heading home and putting the kids to bed.

That was supposed to be the end of the day, but we’d missed one of my favorite sites from my 23-year-ago trip, The Vigeland Park, with the fascinating and often bizarre sculptures of Gustav Vigeland. Karen and I were planning to make the 20-minute walk over in the morning before catching our flight, but we were worried about predicted rain and potential airport delays, so instead yanked the kids out of bed for a surprise “bonus” visit.

The 10 pm Norwegian summer sun made for some awesome colors and the late hour also made it fun for both me and the kids. I’m lucky to have such a fun and spontaneous wife who came up with the idea to blow-up bedtime for the opportunity. Here are some of the pictures:

That’s the real sky in the background.
A rare family shot from a fellow tourist from San Jose

So that wraps up Norway! With this visit (pre-Ireland, where we are now), our counts are as follows:

  • Me: 57 countries (including 29 eating McDonalds–I added Norway!)
  • Karen: 55 countries
  • Henry: 20 countries
  • Charlie: 14 countries
  • James: 10 countries (double digits!)

How to live out of backpacks for an entire year

I’ll get back to our actual travels in my next post, but I wanted to share some details about our stuff. In addition to the questions about leaving home that I addressed in this note, I’ve had a lot of people ask what one packs for a one-year trip.

Clothes and luggage

Karen, James, and Henry rushing to a train. Charlie is occluded by the Henry eclipse–more on Henry’s mass later.

As you can see in this picture, the basic idea is everyone gets a backpack that has all of the clothes and everything else you need to bring for an entire year. Henry, Karen, and I also have smaller backpacks that work as daypacks when we’re not traveling and otherwise act as places to store expensive, fragile, or important stuff. (I’ve got 9 passports in mine because everyone else is a dual US/German citizen. I did, however, get to go with them in the “EU Citizens” line when we landed in Frankfurt and it was super nice.)

The backpacks are pretty big, but small enough for airplanes. Mine weighs 44 pounds, Karen’s 37 lbs, Henry’s 26 lbs, Charlie’s 22 lbs, and James’s 15 lbs. (James says it feels like a heavy-ish school backpack.) The waist strap loads most of the weight on the hips, so it’s not awful to walk 20 minutes in these, but more than a mile or so and the boys get annoyed with us.

In terms of what goes inside, you basically pack the same thing for a one-year trip as you do a one-week one. I’ve got 7 t-shirts, 7 pairs of socks & underwear, 3 pairs of pants, 3 pairs of shorts, 2 hoodies, running clothes, a pair of sandals, and swim trunks. I also have a backup pair of shoes because Karen and I learned in a prior trip to Asia that it’s really hard to find size 13 shoes in most parts of the world. (We’d have to pack more clothes if we were going to colder places, but are planning our destinations to avoid that!) Every few days, our Airbnb then looks like this:

Note the packing cubes, which are essential for keeping things straight!

Speaking of the old backpacking trips Karen and I used to do, we love to read and would often start a trip with maybe 10 books each weighing down our packs. As we traveled, we’d exchange, donate, or leave behind the ones we’d already read, making space for souvenirs or anything else we wanted to buy.

Our kids read even more than we do, but luckily we don’t need to worry about books adding to that weight total above:

The Kindle is Henry’s most prized possession. (My initial draft said “might be” and he told me to make it clear that it is, without a doubt.)

Because they read so much, we also subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, which lets us check out 10 books at a time for $9.99/month. I mostly don’t like the books that are available with this plan (except for this one!), but Henry and Charlie find plenty and frequently go through several books a day.

I say mostly above, because there’s a huge and awesome exception. When we travel, we prefer to use Lonely Planet guidebooks to plan our trips and every single book in their catalogue is part of it. Right before we flew from Finland to Norway, I just returned the Finland guide and downloaded the Norway one.

Speaking of technology, that’s most of what goes into the smaller backpacks. Our family travels with 5 laptops, 5 phones, 5 Kindles, 3 Nintendo Switches, and 2 tablets. With all of that technology, this is what it looks like when we have to charge everything. These little things, from Epicka and Zendure, are awesome because the have travel plug converters built in and can charge 6 thing each at a time.

Finally, on phones, we’ve been really happy so far with how Google Fi has worked for us. It’s unlimited data and texting in most countries in the world for $45/phone. We have that for me, Karen, and Henry, and it also lets us turn our phones into hotspots so we can get internet on all of the other devices. (Calls are $0.20/minute, which is reasonable, but why we prefer calling people on WhatsApp, which is free.) For Charlie and James, they use old phones that Karen and I used to use, without cell service, but they work on wifi and they have phone numbers that I got from Google Voice that they can still use for texting friends. (In James’s case, his friend’s parent.)

Anyway, that’s my quick-ish rundown. If you have any other questions, please drop it in the comments!

All about that boat, about that boat, (then an airplane)

We finally started our trip around the world! We began in Stockholm, Sweden, because we had flight credits from our aborted trip two years ago and that was the cheapest destination we could get to on Lufthansa. Karen and I had both already been to Stockholm, but we were excited to be able to take the boys. We’ve had a great first week visiting Sweden, Estonia, and Finland, and are now traveling to Norway.

Leaving from O’Hare

Stockholm, Sweden

As my post title suggests, boats were a big theme for the first week, starting with our home for the first three nights, a late 1800s sailing ship named the Af Chapman. It’s docked on a quiet island in the middle of Stockholm and our “family cabin” for this converted hostel had five bunks at the very stern of the ship.

Our morning breakfast spot at the bow, with pastries I grabbed from a grocery store a mile or so away

In fact, the entire city of Stockholm is a bunch of islands grouped together, so we had to cross so, so many bridges anytime we wanted to walk anywhere. And we walked everywhere. As we left our hostel for the last time on the way to our ferry to Tallinn, Henry said, “finally, our last time on this bridge!”

It was a pretty bridge, though. I don’t think he really had an excuse to choke Charlie over it. This pose has been (playfully?!) recreated several times already in our first week.

On our first full day, our first tourist stop was, you guessed it, a boat. We went to see the incredible Vasa, which was the most powerful warship in the world, boasting 64 cannons, when it launched in 1628. It only maintained that status for about 20 minutes, though, because while trying to keep it fast for the demands of an unreasonable king, they built it too narrow, and it tipped and sunk after the first strong winds of its maiden voyage, right in the Stockholm harbor. There it lay for 333 years, an embarrassment so great that the king had the masts cut down, because the harbor was shallow enough that they originally kept sticking up after the sinking.

The entire exterior is covered in these intricate carvings, which were originally painted in bright colors.

The boat was rediscovered–incredibly well-preserved by the mud and salt water–in 1956, and was carefully raised to eventually be displayed in the museum we visited. The museum, of course, had a whole section about how this happened, but Karen and I were almost equally impressed with the little Swedish girl who explained this to us.

Puckish, maybe 9-10 years old, and sporting a quarter-shaven head, mohawk, and a fur sweater we think she may have trapped, skinned, and constructed herself, she appeared–seemingly with no parents–and started explaining everything to us in perfect English. The English part isn’t all that unusual for children all across Scandanavia, who often start in early elementary, but we’ve been speculating about this child’s entire backstory. Did her parents buy a membership and just drop her off there every weekend morning so she can live her best medieval life and pretend to be a tour guide? Rather than being dropped off, does she simply sail there on the boat she constructed by herself? Alas, she skittered away when Karen complimented her, so we may never know, but we have evidence of at least one super cool child in Sweden.

Next, we stayed on the same island and visited the Skansen open-air museum: a very cool place with a zoo and a bunch of historically accurate buildings with actors who populated the buildings in authentic clothes and were there to answer questions about their historic roles. Charlie, who recently realized he loves Monty Python and the Holy Grail, decided instead to ask everyone he sees, “what’s the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” Almost everyone answered with a reference to the movie (“do you mean an African or European sparrow?”) and when he asked one woman why they knew, she said, “of course, we are European, Monty Python is part of our heritage.” The kids are suddently very curious about Eurovision as well.

The best part of Skansen, though, was that we happened to stumble into an annual event that was started with the wedding of Crown Princess Victoria in 2010. Once a year, they host a “drop-in wedding” day, where couples can just show up with a “certificate of no impediment” (which proves they’re not related) and $150 and do a casual no-planning-required wedding with their friends and family. They do hundreds a year (this was the first year back after 2020 and 2021 pauses for the pandemic) and we saw dozens of happy couples as we toured the park.

Our next day revolved around yet another ferry, this time about 45 minutes away to visit the idyllic island of Vaxholm.

Our island to the left, the “fun” island we visited the day before, which also boasted an amusement park to the right, with a ferry similar to the one we were on in the middle.
You might imagine they’re playing “war” with the artillery gun, but actually they were checking on the baby seagull that was trapped in the middle.

Our final day in Sweden, we did a tour of the opulent royal palace and walked the old city, Gamla Stan, before catching an overnight ferry for Tallinn, Estonia.

It turns out these kinds of statues embarrass our children. We therefore like to continue to point them out.
Gamla Stan: Touristy, crowded, overpriced, and more than a little kitschy. Still great, though.


Karen fell in love with Tallinn 18 years ago while visiting with her mother and sister, so made a point of adding it to our plans to make sure the boys and I could experience it too. I’m very glad she did. In addition to the charming old city that survived the world wars, it was walkable, and by far the cheapest city we plan to visit in this Scandanavian leg, which has otherwise been a budget buster.

Hey there. Don’t mind me, just enjoying the view and the cheap food.
Tsungel, an outdoor-only Mexican restaurant specializing in a big drink menu with a live DJ and a bunch of old busses painted and framing the seating area. Maybe as indoor seating? It was in the arts district as you might expect.

Also, we had a nice Airbnb where the owners, Jevgeni and Katti, went out of their way to help us out. When he heard our dismay that the apartment didn’t have a washing machine like we thought, he volunteered to pickup our clothes and have Katti wash them, free of charge. He then made two additional trips to drop off the clothes because a couple of items were accidentally left out. I’m going to just assume all Estonians are as nice as them, because they were total lifesavers.

James is on a mission to eat pancakes every day of this trip. I promise you that it will break, but not yet! This was at a Russian restaurant and both the sweet and savory ones were great. It was brunch, so I had a beer with mine.

After a couple of days in Estonia, we reprised our boat theme and took yet another ferry to Helsinki, Finland. (This time only a couple of hours instead of overnight.)


From one ferry to another: as soon as we arrived, we tossed our bags in a locker and took a tram to another local ferry to see the UNESCO World Heritage island fortress of Suomenlinna, which was a delightful place to pass a couple of hours before going on a “free walking tour”. This is a thing that we also did in Tallinn–you join with no upfront commitment, but “pay what you like” at the end assuming the guide was good. Ed, an Irish transplant who moved from Spain to be with his Finnish Kindergarten teacher girlfriend was excellent.


As my class at UChicago would recognize, Finland is actually kind of a famous country for good educational outcomes, and after Ed mentioned some aspects of their approach I chatted with him a little between stops about teacher recruitment policy. I’m hoping I didn’t cause other folks to think he was too boring for the money!

We finished off the day with the boys staying in our Airbnb while Karen and I went to grab dinner like adults by ourselves. I had reindeer meat, which is a little tough but a nice novelty. The boys didn’t complain, though, because (1) they got to play games while we were gone and (2) we found a Taco Bell and brought it back to the apartment. My kids are classy.

Which they obviously get from me, because I went and grabbed McDonalds for breakfast this morning. This allowed me to increase my count of countries I’ve eaten McDonalds in to 28 total. (It’s often a quick place to eat and be sure the food is illness free while also taking advantage of good bathrooms.)

At the end of our first week, that brings our lifetime countries visited count (prior to Norway) to the following:

  • Me: 57 countries (including 28 eating McDonalds)
  • Karen: 55 countries (although I’m 3 years older, so if you pro-rate it, I think she’s beating me)
  • Henry: 19 countries
  • Charlie: 13 countries
  • James: 9 countries (he’s excited to break double digits with Norway!)

How to leave your home and travel for a year

We’re leaving for a year! Finally, after over a dozen years of planning! It’s exciting! Right?

Well, of course it is. It is now, at least, now that I’m writing this from Stockholm, a couple of days into our trip. The last couple of months, though, were really stressful. When you’re a family of five living in a community for 18 years, there are a lot of ties you need to cut and/or preserve. That’s not to mention planning for the actual trip. Here’s a rundown of some of the biggest things we’ve been focused on for the past few months.

The House and our stuff

We’re coming back to our house at the end of our trip, so are renting it out while we travel. The renting part is pretty straightforward because we’re paying a management company to find the renter and manage everything while we’re away. It’s still stressful, though, because we hadn’t found a renter by the time we left, so Karen is still texting the agent from Stockholm about the latest, although we know it will get rented eventually. At least the showings are now easier since we’re no longer trying to live in the house.

And those showings were just a small part of the hassle of the house the last couple of months. Mostly, it was Karen’s constant task to pack everything up progressively and put most of our stuff into the crawl space in the back of the house. (A few weeks ago, when she took down all the wall hangings, James indignantly asked, “are we just going to have to live in a boring house for the next 10 days?!”) She fit almost everything into the 10′ x 12′ x 4′ space with an astonishing feat of three dimensional packing. For what didn’t fit there, we rented a small UHaul and moved to my parent’s basement a couple weeks before we left. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

We also had to leave our pets: the five chickens we’ve had since the start of the pandemic (donated to a local woman who was excited to get started with grownup hens) and the foster dog, Shelby, we’ve had for the last 6 months.

They’ve been trying to pet the dogs here in Stockholm too

Money and work

It’s no exagerration to say that I gave 10 years notice that I was leaving my job. During my interviews, when asked how long I’d stay if hired, I said I was leaving, for this trip, in the summer of 2020. I then continued to remind my managers of the not-so-imminent impending departure every year. So, luckily the transition was several years in the making, especially with the extra couple of years the pandemic added to our well laid plans.

In fact, we’ve been planning the trip for 14 years now. It was Karen’s idea when Henry was a baby, so among other things, we’ve been saving up for most of that time in order to spend over a year on the move without any income.

That’s probably the biggest positive of our pandemic delay–the chance to save up a little more funds and consequently spend a little more time than originally planned in more expensive places like Europe. We’re definitely on a budget, though, and were delighted to learn that we could get 3 months of unlimited train travel for the whole family for $3,300. Our accomodation, mostly Airbnbs, are all at least $100-150/night, so our budget is definitely looking forward to the second half of the trip where we’ll be staying in more inexpensive places in Asia and South America.


One big reason we’d planned the trip for 2020 was to time it to be Henry’s 7th grade year. We figured most kids would appreciate missing the middle year of middle school, and the academics aren’t so rigorous that we were overly concerned. Of course, now with the delay, Karen and I will be his 9th grade instructors and Henry very much wants to keep up academically with his friends.

Thankfully, his high school, Oak Park River Forest, has been incredibly helpful. When I reached out to the department heads for each of the subjects he was scheduled to take, all of them shared plans for what they’re covering so we can give Henry comparable lessons. The math department did even better and set him up as a student in their online class so he can do the exact same Advanced Algebra as his peers.

In terms of the actual “school year” and “school day”, we haven’t exactly figured that out yet, but are hoping we can do a lot of the work during the aforementioned train times. Charlie and James will be doing 6th and 3rd grade, but the standards they’re supposed to learn are pretty straightforward with lots of online resources.

Actual travel

And, of course, none of that even gets to the fact that we have to plan the actual one-year trip too. The rough plan, which will likely change some, is to spend about 3 months in Europe, 3 months in the Middle East and Africa, 4 months in Asia/Oceania, and 3 months in South and Central America.

We’ll mostly try to do most of the planning 1-2 weeks in advance, but because we’re starting during the high travel season in Europe in the summer, we’ve been trying to plan out our hotels/Airbnbs and trains/airplanes for that first 3 months ahead of time. So far, we’ve got 23 hotels/Airbnbs booked and about as many trains, planes, and rental cars planned out. (We’re planned through mid-August as of now.)

So, to summarize, it’s been a lot of things to think about! We’ve had a great last few days in Stockholm, though, and are grateful to final have this opportunity!

We came, we saw, we ate, I ran

Just a quick post, almost two months later, but I wanted to capture here our first flights since the pandemic started. Here’s just me and Karen on our way to Rome at the end of March:

Flight to rome
Recovering after
And here’s the traditional crash (briefly) in the bed after the transatlantic flight

It was only a brief rest, though, because we were only in Italy (without the kids!) for a short 72 hours. Our first night and then Saturday, we walked all over and took in some of the sights of the city. Saturday afternoon, we went to the Vatican and took a tour of the museums before heading over to a fancy dinner in Trastavere.

St Peter's Square, Vatican City
St Peter’s Square, Vatican City
Raphael's School of Athens
Raphael’s School of Athens, Vatican Museums
One of 8 courses at Zia
One of 8 courses at Zia

Sunday morning was the marathon! I ran with 10,000 other people through central Rome. The first half or so of the 26.2 miles covered neighborhoods that Karen and I had already walked through. I was excited to finish in 4 hours and 5 minutes, which was a personal best by at least 12 minutes. (This was my third marathon ever.)

Waiting to start!
Waiting to start! Masks on at the start and for the first half mile or so.
9 miles into it
9 miles into it. Doesn’t that guy to the right look SUPER Italian?
Passing Piazza Navona, only a couple miles left
Passing Piazza Navona, only a couple miles left

Karen proudly slept in while I ran my race, but we ate some pizza in a park afterwards and then went out for a second fancy dinner before flying home the next day! Both of us have visited before, so we didn’t feel bad about skipping a few of the big sites, but we’re definitely planning to return with the boys, likely in September.

Speaking of our trip, we leave in 2.5 weeks! Our first stop will be Stockholm. I’m planning to post something here roughly every week, posting more frequently to Instagram. Next week, I plan to write about some of the logistics of taking a one year trip around the world while homeschooling three kids. (As a preview, the logistics are mostly annoying.)

Since this is intended to be a family blog and I’ve only shown me and Karen so far, here is a recent shot of the boys with their fancy easter baskets at my parents’ house.

Easter 2022
Easter 2022. Only one egg stayed missing.

Marathon Madness!

I wasn’t sure if I’d ever run a marathon. It’s something I toyed with briefly in my late 20s, but shin splints and long hours of work quickly put it out of my mind.

That was until I turned 40 and decided to do a half marathon to mark the occasion. Here I am finishing that race in Maine in 2016:

The Rail Trail Half Marathon, Augusta, Maine

I did one every year after that and was about to run my annual half for 2020 in Oakland, California when the pandemic hit. Realizing we’d have to postpone our trip around the world, as a consolation I decided to run my first marathon in the fall. The regimen and repetition of the training was a comfort to me for those middle months of the year as the pandemic stretched on.

Of course, unfortunately no marathons were held that fall, so I just made one up to run by myself. Karen dropped me off at a park in Indiana and I ran the 26.2 miles home. I picked the same day that the Chicago Marathon would have run in October for my “Chicago Marathon” and ran past 5 of Noble’s schools, so someone from our sports team followed me and made this cool video to commemorate the event. (Thanks, Anna!)

In 2021, I finally ran the real Chicago Marathon:

22 miles into it. Honestly the lowest point of the race.

Even though I look in pain there, my training was good and I felt fine a couple of days later. Good enough that I thought I ought to squeeze one more big race in before we start traveling for a year this summer. I’d been eyeing the beginning of April in St. Louis over the boys’ spring break, but had to look for something else when we changed plans for that weekend.

Then, I got an email about $500 flights to Rome. We haven’t been on a plane since Jan 2020. But…in my search for marathons to replace the St. Louis one, I’d briefly noticed that the big one in Rome was on March 27. I’d assumed it was out of the question. Maybe not? (Obviously not.)

So, Karen and I are going to Rome for 4 days while my brother Paul and his wife Özlem come and watch the boys. It’s kind of a crazy thing to do, but crazy like we’re used to doing. It feels good after this long pandemic, which we’re hoping will stay manageable.

To make things even crazier, we’d already noted a cool opportunity at the beginning of our “big, big trip”. We’re starting off in Stockholm on June 10 and realized that on my next birthday, 8 days later, there was going to be the “Midnight Sun Marathon” north of the Arctic Circle in Tromsø, Norway. It starts at 8:30pm and even though I’ll finish after midnight, I’ll have daylight the whole time. Since all of the training will happen before we go, it somehow works. More of the good kind of crazy. Charlie and Karen are planning to run the shorter race there too.

So, even though I’ve never really been a marathon runner, that’s how I’m going to end up doing 3 of them over the course of 10 months. I’m excited for how memorable the races I’m running are meant to be. In fact, this article puts all 3 on a list of the 23 “World’s best marathons in 2022”. I won’t really have time to train after Tromsø, but can’t help but think how fortunate I am to get to do all of this.

(Cross-posted to mattniksch.com)