December and Christmas Break

With our girls doing homeschool this year, our schedules are way different than we are used to. They are enrolled in an online program with teachers, tests, and daily due dates. They need to stay on track, but the hours in which they do it are more flexible. However, one of the big downsides is that the schedule itself is relentless. It is tough when you fall behind because you have no choice but to make up your missed work to move forward in the course. They were only given two days off for Christmas and two more for New Years. Which made a quick day trip to Caesarea right before Christmas the perfect idea. We met up with some church friends in the gorgeous city that lies halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa (about a 45 minute drive for us). Caesarea began as a Roman city around 20 BC and, since then, has had as many conquests as the different countries, religions and cultures that have inhabited Israel in the last 2500 years…which is a lot. Needless to say, the ruins left today are steeped in history and stories, most of it Roman.

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The above entrance is right as you come into the National Park and its beautiful! Considering that these ruins are as old as they are and weren’t excavated until the 1950’s and 60’s, they are looking pretty amazing. The ruins also include a hippodrome, theater, old homes and palaces and aqueduct as well as a beach, upmarket harbor shops and dining.

After seeing a really well-done video about the history of this place (the only kind of history lesson my kids will happily sit through!), we ventured out to explore the grounds. We wandered all around the ruins of Caesarea’s homes and palaces, imagining what life must’ve been like all of those years ago. Its incredible to think of how advanced the Romans were!

The hippodrome was right off of the beach. The homes closest to both were the nicest and most expensive real estate back when these walls were inhabited. That certainly hasn’t changed in the last 2000-plus years! We held impromptu foot races (perhaps slightly similar to races done back then?!? haha!) from one end to the other but were completely winded at the halfway point- those hippodromes are much bigger than they appear.

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After hearing our voices lift and echo in the huge theater and then grabbing a delicious lunch in a restaurant right off the water, our last stop was the ancient aqueduct a short drive up the road.

Our Christmas festivities began in earnest shortly after our visit to Caesarea. We made and decorated our favorite Christmas sugar cookies. I brought back Christmas sprinkles and large bags of powdered sugar from my trip to the States in early December. You can’t buy either here and they are absolutely essential to delicious Christmas cookies.

We made many trips to Carmel Market- one place I definitely wish we could take back with us when we are done here. The kids don’t love coming with me to the market because the smells can be tough, but I don’t have a particularly sensitive nose so it doesn’t bother me much. However, when we were gathering candy to make our gingerbread houses with, they all were absolutely thrilled to come! We made a big stop at the famous gummy vendors there and brought home a huge haul of all sorts of gummies, candy, wafers, and cookies. We should’ve taken a picture of just that! Our gingerbread houses turned out so cute this year. Dad and Tessa paired up on a shuk with a fruit seller, candy, and clothing shop inside. Lauren did Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and Taylor did a candy shop and house. Kate did a cute little village that didn’t hold up very long because we didn’t have gingerbread, and biscuits just aren’t as sturdy!

Under the ruse of Christmas shopping, Tessa and Dad took off for several hours on a scooter ride one afternoon. They took that bad boy (above and behind Tessa) out for a ride all the way to the airport north of Tel Aviv! It puttered and died about a mile from home, but they had the best time just hanging out together. This is the boardwalk that lines the beaches here and its so nice and well-maintained. It feels like almost everyone here either owns an electric bike or scooter, so you need lots of space everywhere to ride around and this is the perfect place. Those scooters are the best way to get from Point A to Point B and so fun to ride!

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These flowers above are the closest thing you may see to Christmas decorations around Tel Aviv. Its not celebrated at all here and is like any other day of the week! We have an apartment building under construction right next to us and they were working just like every other day. It’s definitely strange, to say the least.

Our branch president and his wife are the best! They have lived in Israel for almost 3 years and know all of the ins and outs and give so much to our branch and the people in it. They have a yearly Christmas tradition that they’ve been doing for the last 17 years (and they’ve lived all over the world, literally) of inviting a big group of friends from church to their home on Christmas Eve for dinner, the recitation of the Christmas story and a white elephant exchange. Its so great to have a place to go on this night when you’re not living close to family. You immediately feel bonded to people in a place and situation like this.

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Tessa and her self-proclaimed best friend (the cutest little girl below) both randomly opened the cutest little gifts with crayons and coloring books- perfect for them. They were so cute and excited about what they got. The rest of the gifts were a mix of really funny and really awesome things that we laughed and “fought” over. The winner went home with some real German pork sausages and cheddar cheese- two items that are hard to find and/or very expensive in stores here. Then, the kids and even the adults dressed up and re-enacted the Christmas story. We read scriptures, sang songs and worshipped in our own way, remembering why we really celebrate this special season.

That night, we stayed up way too late with happy anticipation for the next morning. We got our tree this year at Carmel Market and while its not a traditional pine tree (also impossible to find here because, trust me, we tried!), it was perfect for us and we loved it. Its branches weren’t sturdy enough to hold more than one decoration so it was pretty bare, but it made for a memory of our Christmas in Israel that we won’t soon forget.

Take a peek at that lovely wrapping paper, which I also picked up at Target in North Carolina. I got the biggest roll I could find and when I went to put it in my suitcase, it was waaaay too long. Determined to make it work (and knowing I wouldn’t find another option in Israel), I cut it in half with my hotel knife and stuffed it in my bag! Our neighbors in our building here are from Manchester, UK and aren’t around much, but they were here for Christmas. So, we brought them some of our delicious cookies and they gave the girls these Santa hats and some yummy British candies.

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Christmas morning magic follows wherever you live! These girls weren’t totally convinced that Santa would find us here in Israel, especially since we don’t have a chimney, but he pulled through in the end. We informed them that Santa was told to give us a simple Christmas this year because we ultimately have to bring everything back with us in the same bags we brought here (two checked bags each). So, he got really creative and surprised everyone with a Disney cruise!!! We go at the end of April and could not be more excited about it.

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The girls also got some cute new swimmers to wear on the cruise as well as a couple of Polaroid cameras to capture their favorite moments from now until then ;) And anytime its warm enough to wear swimsuits outside on Christmas day is a gift in and of itself!

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Love this sweet girl so much! Her personality keeps us all on our toes.

Brian got a full two weeks off of work, which was another gift! Wow, it was so nice to have him around. We also relented and leased a car for our last few months here. Which has already proven to be totally worth it! We love being able to go somewhere at the last minute (although we don’t drive if its within a 30 minute walk because parking here is a nightmare). Most of us got hit with a very severe cold over the break, so we spent a lot of time resting and relaxing. When we weren’t doing that, we were exploring Tel Aviv more and more, which usually lands us back at Carmel (see above and below for evidence). Yom Tov is one of our favorites and we love taking visitors to eat here. Its so nice to sit outside, eat delicious food, bask in the glorious weather, listen to the bustling market and literally pick up and move your chair out of the way when a car happens to drive by. Its life here! Wild.

I was able to give a talk in our little branch at Christmastime and because it tells so much of our life and experience with Christmas here, I wanted to include parts of it as well as my testimony so that I can always have it. I’ll paste it below.

This was our first Christmas as a family living here in the Holy Land.  I don’t think anyone of us anticipated what a different feeling there would be in the air during this season as we sought to celebrate the birth of Christ.  The traditional decorations of Christmas trees, tinsel, mistletoe, talk of Christ and even Santa, and that united feeling of serving others is much harder to find.   However, because of that absence, it caused me to think more deeply than I ever have about the reality of Christ and his birth, not too far from where we all are right now.  I have never felt a more profound conviction that Christ was born to be our Savior and to live a life here on Earth that would teach us how to better live our own. I have loved that feeling and the chance to focus on eternal truths more than I ever have before at this time of year.

Christmas can mean something different to each one of us in this room, but the simple reality is that it is about Christ’s birth and no life has had a more significant impact on mankind than His.  I was able to attend the Jerusalem Center Christmas concert a couple of weeks ago with several other members of our ward. I was struck by the fact that a good portion of the audience members appeared to be Jewish.  The most powerful part of the evening for me was when the choir sang “Silent Night” in 12 different languages. A song about the miracle of Christ’s birth in that place in the presence of so many people who may not recognize Him as their Savior and in so many different languages stopped me entirely and filled me with so much love for a perfect man that does not separate us according to borders, languages, religions, or cultures.  He only feels pure love for each one of us, no matter what.  That is the greatest miracle of all and surely a reason to celebrate.

I have asked myself lately what this means for me?  How can I take this feeling and apply it to my own life?  I can remember Him. I can reach out in service and love to those around me regardless of reasons why we may be different.  I can show gratitude for the things I have that are some of the biggest blessings or gifts that I have been given from Him.  

I know as I seek to honor Him during this time of year, I will feel the Christmas spirit more and more.  One of my favorite memories of Christmas as a small child happened when my Dad went out and bought 10 cooked turkeys.  There were 11 kids in my family, but we all piled in our big car together and drove around after dark and delivered these turkeys to families in our ward that were in need.  We put the turkey on the doorstep, rang the doorbell, jumped in the car and sped away before the person could see who had dropped it off. As a child, I thought it was great fun to hide our identity while we helped others.  But, the next week at church, a sweet man came up to my Dad and said that he knew the turkey had come from us and he began to cry. He said that it was an answer to a prayer and that if we had not brought it to him, his family would have nothing to eat that night and they had managed to stretch it to last for a full 5 days of food.  It completely changed my feelings, which were already good, to a feeling of knowing that Christ knows who we are and what we are in need of and that He can help us to be angels to each other. We can surely honor Him as we ask, “who is in need and how can I help?” and move forward with courage knowing that He needs each one of us. We all need each other.

Instead of making the traditions and decorations the focus of this season, we can make Christ the focus of this season and really, the focus of our lives.  We can open our hearts to the sweet whisperings of the Spirit, telling us that we are loved and loved without measure or end. We can also begin to understand that this same love extends to everyone on this earth.  I do believe that this is Christ’s most important message.

I came across a Christmas thought this week that I wanted to share:

It says “God could have sent His son to live with a wealthy man and a perfect woman but He didn’t.
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He picked Joseph who was hard working and humble and probably nervous.
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He picked Mary who was simple and imperfect and probably overwhelmed.
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He picked people with average lives and extraordinary hearts.
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This gives me hope that what God values is simple and available to every one of us.
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It’s available to me and to you, and it’s available because of Him. (credit: Jody Moore)

I want to share my feelings about the one gift that we can give to Him. It is our free will.  When we turn this- even our extraordinary hearts as the thought says- over to Him, it is the only thing that we can give Him that is truly ours to give, that doesn’t already belong to Him. I know that He can make more of our lives than we can do on our own.  Its not necessarily done in our schedules, but in the depths of our testimony- in our hearts, and in our minds and in the way we treat those around us. He can change all of these things to a higher perspective and to allow us to see the eternal nature of everything we say, do and think.  I have a firm testimony of this truth. As we seek to give gifts during Christmas, I hope to be able to commit more fully to turning my will over to Him, knowing that it will grant me much more joy than any worldly gift could give.

Lastly, I want to share a quote from Elder Uchtdorf “While the Christmas season is typically a time for looking back and celebrating the birth of our Lord, it seems to me that it should also be a time of looking to the future. Let us look forward. Let us prepare for that blessed day when He will come again. Let us be as wise as those ancients who watched for His coming. As His disciples, let us have in our hearts and minds the words of John: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” And may we look steadfastly forward to that blessed day when the resurrected Christ will walk the earth again as our Lord, our King, and our blessed Savior.”  

I love that we know, in our church, that He has come, He lived on this Earth, He died for us, and He was resurrected so that we too could be resurrected one day to live with Him.  I love that we know that He will come again to this Earth and bring love and joy to so many who may not have had a fulness of it in this life- all burdens will be lightened by a loving God who knows each of us personally.  He loves us, He has always loved us and He will always love us. I know this and I am so grateful to celebrate all of this and the life of His Son during this time and to have the opportunity to focus on what He has done for me and the gifts He has given me that have made my life so much better.  I cannot wait for the day when I will stand and see Him again. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.



Jordan Desert - Part I

Have you ever been to a place that was so different from anything you’ve seen that you struggled to take it all in? Wadi Rum is that place for us. When I came to Israel to visit Brian on a work trip last December, we stayed here for one night and took a short tour. We knew right away we hadn’t scheduled enough time for this amazing desert wilderness and vowed to return someday. Little did we know that we’d be back with our four girls in tow less than a year later! We were supposed to have our dear friends from NYC, the Rileys, join us, but they had some unexpected news at the last minute and had to cancel their trip. We were SOOOO sad not to have them here because we love them so much. Tessa cried when I told her their girls, Scout and Fern, weren’t coming. But, we are grateful that they found out before they left, which hopefully made it easier on them.

We flew down to Eilat early Friday morning (alarms went off at 4 am to make the flight) and then drove to the border of Jordan, about 10 minutes away. After going through customs and entry, we walked across the border and got a taxi into Aqaba, on the Red Sea. We picked up our rental car there and started the hour drive into the Valley of the Moon, a very apt nickname. We stayed at Sun City Camp, famous for their space-like, dome-shaped guest rooms.

We flew down to Eilat early Friday morning (alarms went off at 4 am to make the flight) and then drove to the border of Jordan, about 10 minutes away. After going through customs and entry, we walked across the border and got a taxi into Aqaba, on the Red Sea. We picked up our rental car there and started the hour drive into the Valley of the Moon, a very apt nickname. We stayed at Sun City Camp, famous for their space-like, dome-shaped guest rooms.

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I mean, if you’re going to have people sleep in the desert, their rooms might as well look like this, right?? :)

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After eating lunch at the camp and dropping our things off, we got back in our car and decided to go for a desert drive with just the six of us. There are no “real” roads, only different variations of tire marks snaking their way through the desert, so we tried as best we could to stick to those. We found some fun dunes to stop at and let the girls run around and jump off the huge hills of orange sand. They didn’t last long in their shoes, as their feet sunk deep into soft sand. So, we got rid of the shoes and just ran around jumping, rolling, climbing and sliding all over the place.

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See what I mean about those “roads”….yeah. Not really going to see traffic signs out here. Well, we were driving around and went up over a hill into some rather deceptively deep sand. We had a four-wheel car, but the sand proved too much for those wheels and we got stuck. Like really stuck. Brian tried to get us out several times but to no avail. Luckily, we weren’t far from another camp and one of the locals saw us (I’m sure it happens a lot more than he’d like!) and he waved at us to stop trying to get out ourselves. He ran over and he and Brian dug the tires out as best they could….still nothing. Meanwhile, the kids and I were in the car, helplessly watching. After a few minutes, Tessa mentioned that she had said a prayer for help and thought we should all say one together. I want to remember her sweet request and how we all knew that it was the best way we could help. Next thing we knew, another local with a truck drove up and he had a tow rope, which he connected to our car. It snapped once before working, but eventually he was able to pull us down the hill and out of the sand. Phew! Tessa’s prayer worked. :)

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Our girls were dying to ride camels again. It was one of their favorite things we did in Morocco a couple of years back. Getting on a camel is kind of like riding a rollercoaster, so if you’ve done it before, you know what’s coming and it makes you laugh in nervous anticipation. Hence, these cute pictures below- lots of squeals and laughter.. You get on the camel’s backs when they’re laying down and then they got on their front two feet first, which quickly propels you forward and then they get on their back two feet, which pushes you right back and upright. It’s awesome.

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How about that backdrop?!?! This place really is like being on another planet- its unreal.

How about that backdrop?!?! This place really is like being on another planet- its unreal.

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And, after a barbecue dinner where they cook the meat entirely in an underground pit, we were out for the night in this magical setting. Tomorrow’s adventures would require a good night’s rest…

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Jordan Desert - Part II

Our jeep tour the next morning was a bit delayed due to the very rare appearance of rain. But, because of the moisture in the air, we woke up to the most stunning scenery. It looked like it had snowed on the tops of the hills and huge swaths of fog surrounded the mountains. Literally other-worldly. I have seriously never seen a place like this. We waited out the rain and then got started. They put you in the back of a pick-up truck, where there are two rigged and cushioned benches (soaked from the rain the night before) to sit on for the ride. Our tour was 3 hours long and because it was quite chilly, we all wore jackets. Thank goodness Mom packed about 4 cold-weather layers, because I’m pretty sure every one of the kids donned them by the time we were done here. ;)

Does looking at camels in the desert ever get old? Yeah, I didn’t think so either.

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We also made a quick stop here, where our guide pointed out, a scene from “The Martian” was filmed. We took some time to let each of the kids recreate this picture from the movie, below.

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Ha! Fun memory for all of us. Across from us was another place we recognized from the movie. This valley below. Feeling like we spent actual time on the set as well as Mars today.

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Our next stop was in this little area between the rocks where the famous petroglyphs are. These drawings of antelopes and humans date back to the 8th century BC and are watched over carefully by the several hundred Bedouin that still live and thrive in the Wadi Rum.

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This place! Our guide last year said he knows this vast desert like the back of his hand. It’s his home and he knows where all of the rooms are. You totally get this feeling when a local shows you around because there are no maps, no roads, only places that they’ve seen a million times because they live here.

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We stopped at this natural rock arch that was surrounded by tourists taking pictures of it from below (safely on the ground). We decided we needed another vantage point and scaled the sketchy rock path up to the top so we could walk across the arch together. We all made it up and then Brian hurried back down to catch us in action. Such an awesome memory of being high above and looking all around- and what made it more fun is that all of the tourists below, once they saw “little” girls braving the arch, decided they might as well give it a shot. So proud of these girls that aren’t afraid of a little adrenaline!

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Made it to the rock shaped like a mushroom and got to pet some free-roaming camels just across the way. We also went to a canyon where we could shout whatever we wanted and hear it echo a million times off of the rock formations. We made it back home after our 3+ hour tour through the Wadi Rum, not much worse for the wear for being bounced around in the cold for hours :). We packed up our stuff and headed to our next stop: PETRA!!

Petra was the capital of the ancient Nabatean kingdom in as early as the 4th century BC. Their descendants still live here as bedouins and you can see their tents on the ridges high above the ancient buildings. They are the only people allowed to settle and sell wares inside of Petra so you’ll hear and see a lot of that going on- from donkey and camel rides to jewelry, food, decor and all other kinds of souvenirs. When you first arrive at Petra and buy a ticket to enter, you’ll walk for about 30 minutes through peaceful and narrow canyons. It’s a sort of get-ready-for-what-you-will-see-soon sort of atmosphere and then all of a sudden, the majestic Treasury emerges. It is truly wonderful, as in one of the wonders of the world…and rightly so. The intricate details that have been carved out of red rock throughout Petra are unbelievable in their design, detail and scope.

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After spending time exploring near the start of Petra, we walked further in to the theater, ancient tombs, temples and homes before deciding to hire donkeys for each of us to get us to the Monastery quickly. We knew we had to be back in a few hours to catch our flight from Eilat, so we had to save time where we could and this was worth it! Riding the donkeys up the steep and slippery steps for about 30 minutes was equal parts nerve-wracking and thrilling. Those donkeys ruled the path! They did not wait for anyone to step aside or go faster- they would just mow right on through whatever was standing in their way. Yes, thats the nerve-wracking part!

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Side note: Lauren has been totally obsessed with gymnastics and the Olympics lately. She’s watched hours of footage and flips, jumps and cartwheels all over the place all day long. She’s taken to doing handstands whenever she can as well. See above for reference ;)

The Monastery is different, but no less impressive than the Treasury. Not as many people venture this far in to Petra (its about a 2 hour hike from the start), which makes the sight of it that much more valuable. We got off our donkeys and walked for the last few minutes up to it.

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The girls LOVED exploring all of the nooks and crannies and talking about what they thought each room was used for as well as looking for interesting shapes in the colorful walls.

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Overlooking the Monastery and the infamous port-a-potty (story below).

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I hope these girls remember what it felt like to be in this magical place and the effort that you take to see something as special and unique as this. And, then, how that effort is totally worth it.

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On the hike down are the most incredible views…

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Backing up a bit to tell a story I want to remember: Once we reached the Monastery, the girls left to explore further with Brian and I sat down on a bench by a little cafe. I felt the beginnings of a migraine and wanted to relax and take it easy. I’m glad I had already seen the Monastery because I didn’t get much out of it today as my migraine got worse and worse. I had stupidly forgotten not to bring any pain medicine with me and didn’t have my wallet either (not that you could buy pain meds up there, or even a Diet Coke to wash it down with!). I listened to the tourists all around me for anyone that spoke English and who then, I would have explained my headache and asked if they had any medicine. I was desperate and my pain had reached head-exploding levels at this point. If not treated quickly, I get nauseous and throw up when migraines hit and I began to feel that coming on as well. I slowly stumbled up the hill and around the back of the cafe to the only toilet around, a port-a-potty. It was being cared for by a bedouin woman who was charging 1 Jordanian Dinar for entry (equal to 2 USD). I had nothing and so I sat down in the sand by the toilet and I could feel the color draining from my face and the sweat pouring as the urge to vomit was coming on strong. I proceeded to throw up all over right in front of her (poor woman!) and she, speaking zero English, sweetly handed me some toilet paper. I felt a little better after that and returned to my bench, where a few minutes later, Brian and the girls returned. We started the hike out and about halfway down, we again hired the donkeys to take us all the way to the Treasury (no way I would have made it on my own because my energy was totally zapped). They dropped us off and we walked the rest of the way out- about 45 minutes- to the ticket gate, where I lost my stomach all over again. I got some medicine at a local pharmacy and passed out for the first part of the ride back to Aqaba, where we would return our car and taxi to Eilat for our flight home. Brian had to race back to make our flight on time and we literally made it through our car return, passport control in Jordan, then entry to Israel (no quick feat) and then to the airport in the nick of time. It was sort of amazing the way the timing worked out so perfectly. Despite a rough time for me in Petra, the trip to Jordan was nothing short of amazing. We would all highly recommend coming here!

Thanksgiving and Tessa

Two of my very favorite things happen during the month of November- Thanksgiving and Tessa’s birthday! Tessa turned 7 on November 7 this year and we really enjoyed loving on her all day long (not that we don’t do it every other second of every day because she is the baby of our family). I remember thinking on that day seven short years ago, that I may just have her in the car on the way to the hospital and was scared out of my mind of that little fact. It didn’t end up that way (thank goodness!), but she came to the world about 45 minutes after arriving at the hospital, post-epidural (also, thank goodness!). We’ve all adored her from the very start and even though she is by far the sassiest kid ever, we still cannot get enough of her cute face and hilarious Tessa-isms.

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Tessa’s list of things she wanted to do on her birthday included Taylor’s famous french toast for breakfast, a picnic on the beach for lunch, tomato soup for dinner, playing Playmobil with her sisters and eating cake! None of the above was too much to ask, so we checked everything off of the list! We ate schnitzel and falafel sandwiches for lunch on the beach while playing in the warm sand (loving this warm winter weather!!). Because everyone except for Tessa decided to not eat sugar for the month, I took Tessa to a cupcake shop and let her pick out her favorite flavor- cookies and cream- which we brought home and made sure to sing as loud as our sugar-free voices would allow. Love her and this smile so much and we have furthermore outlawed the talk of her getting any older.

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Tessa has loved reading lately, so we made a quick pit stop at the bookstore on the way to get her cupcake and rustled through the shelves to find the extremely minimal selection of English books and bought a couple of them for her gifts.

 

Another of our family’s favorite holidays is Thanksgiving. One of the hardest things about living abroad is missing the feeling in the air during these times of year. I miss the turkeys being sold, planning and searching for the best new recipes I’d like to try, those last-minute runs to the store for missing ingredients, mashed potatoes, gravy, and most of all…pie! But, this year we were looking forward to having the Becks, our friends from London, visit on Thanksgiving Day. There is nothing quite like seeing familiar faces when you live so far from friends and family and these two faces are some of our favorites. We were so glad our paths crossed again, and especially on this day. Because we live in an apartment that doesn’t have a fully stocked kitchen, and has a tiiiiiny oven, plus the general lack of any traditional foods we love on the stores shelves during this time of year, we decided to make it an Israeli Thanksgiving! We took the Becks to one of our favorite places in Tel Aviv, Carmel Market!

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I had done a bit of research beforehand to make sure we collected the very best of what we wanted to buy. We walked through the damp streets taking in the wildness of this place. I love it.

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This hummus place (above and below) was the highest rated hummus in the market. And, can you get over how awesome the colors and the windows are on the store?! We picked up some pita (some of the best we’ve had) and hummus (also delicious) here and then went to find some turkey…shawarma. After stopping at a couple of different places that didn’t understand why we just wanted meat and nothing else, we finally found a place willing to sell us some of just that. We also nabbed some delicious dried mangoes and pineapples as well as ingredients for a Greek salad and some of their delicious local strawberries to round out our dinner.

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Free falafel for these girls while they served and packaged up our turkey and tabouleh to-go. They aren’t totally sold on it yet…we are working on it. :)

Free falafel for these girls while they served and packaged up our turkey and tabouleh to-go. They aren’t totally sold on it yet…we are working on it. :)

We brought all of our dinner back here to our terrace and ate to our heart’s content. Different from a traditional turkey dinner, but full of fun memories and still totally yummy. Ryan also picked up some baklava, but seeing as we were still off sugar (and maybe don’t love the pastry), it took the place of “pie” that night. All food aside, we had the best time catching up with the Becks and seriously love their company. Can’t wait to see them again!!

As we reflect on the many things we have been given at this time of year, its hard to grasp the magnitude of the innumerable blessings in our lives. Some of the things we are most grateful for is our family, the gospel, friends, this land that we get to call home for a while, our health and the adventures and lessons that lie ahead.

Galilee, Upper Galilee, and the Golan Heights

It has been an adjustment to have church on Saturdays now instead of Sundays. At first, I thought I wouldn’t like it, but I’ve totally changed my mind. Its pretty great to have a “day off” after the Sabbath before heading back into the work week. So, we have been really loving having Sundays all to ourselves while we live here!

For our first weekend adventure, we decided to head to the Sea of Galilee, two hours northeast of Tel Aviv. We headed out right after sacrament meeting so we could maximize our time there. Brian found the cutest cabins on a farm, called Vered Hagalil (Hagalil means “the Galilee”) that we checked into and let the girls run around their “backyard” and play on their hammock for a bit. Then, back to the car for a quick drive over to Capernaum, “The Town of Jesus”. Jesus had been rejected in his own Nazareth and came to reside here in this fishing village on the northern side of the Sea of Galilee. He only lived here for about one year, but it is where He began His mission and chose 5 of His disciples (11 were from Galilee and only Judas Iscariot was not). Needless to say, it is an extremely important part of His life and where most of the chapters in the New Testament are based.

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All thats left of the village of Capernaum is some ruins, and it appears much smaller than it would have been in Jesus’s time. In fact, there were about 15 fishing villages off of the Sea of Galilee back then, but the only city that has flourished is Tiberias since then. Below is our first up-close look at the sea, which we realized is actually a huge lake :). It is shaped like a harp, so the locals call it Lake Kinneret (translates to harp).

 

We didn’t realize they only take cash upon entry and we left all of ours back at the hotel. We were so sad to miss this special place and started to walk away, but the guy at the front office stopped us and told us to just go on in with no charge. It was such a nice gesture and we were so grateful. After seeing Capernaum, we wanted to somehow put our toes in the water. So we drove around and found a pretty trail that led along the water and stopped at a beach area. We all got to to touch the water where so many of Jesus’s miracles were performed and the girls then loved playing in it and collecting little shells for a while.

This is one of the cabins we stayed in. The farm village that it is in was huge and so peaceful. The girls loved running around and playing outside and then rinsing off in the jacuzzi inside! Vered Hagalil sat right north of the Mt. of Beatitudes, so we ventured out to explore all over that area.

It was seriously so peaceful up there. This was right beyond where we stayed and overlooking the Sea of Galilee. They had these beautiful and strange-looking white plants all over the hill as well as a Carmelite monastery. It was so quiet and peaceful- we could totally understand why Jesus would come up here to relax or to gather his thoughts and then deliver such powerful sermons.

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After Brian and I walked around for a long time, we came upon this area that had a ton of what appeared to be cow bones. They were really old! We knew the girls would totally get a kick out of seeing these huge bones, so we decided to get them up early the next morning to join us on our walk.

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The only people we could wrangle out of bed at 6:30 am were Lauren and Tessa! I’m so glad they came along (even Tessa still in her pajamas!) and they were so excited to find the bones we told them about the night before. We went on a really long walk all over the hillsides and then back up to our cabins to eat breakfast altogether.

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After leaving Galilee, we drove up to the Golan Heights to make a stop at the famous Nimrod’s Fortress on Mt. Hermon. The fortress is a medieval castle that overlooks all of the Golan Heights and was built with the purpose of guarding a major access route to Damascus against armies coming from the west. It was huge and had a ton of different view points as well as things to explore inside.

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Its always amazing to learn about history that you don’t know much about and to discover places that are so old- built in 1229! The area is under Israeli occupation since 1967, together with the Golan Heights, but the international community sees it as Syrian territory. And when you’re this close to Syria…you might as well get a better look!

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We drove over to Mt. Bental, which has great panoramic views of the Golan and even Syria. It is also the sight of a battle fought during Israel’s war for the Golan. There are bunkers open to visitors at the very top where you can see really far in all directions…it was kind of cool to be able to look right into Syria!

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Just beyond this farmland below is Syria.

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Last stop for the weekend was Lake Hula, where an estimated 500 million birds migrate from all over Europe, Africa and Asia. The birds stop over for about a month before they head to their final warm destinations for the winter. We didn’t see a ton of different birds (I think we probably just missed the high season), but we rented a golf cart and some binoculars and tried our hardest to see as much wildlife as we could.

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Tessa was definitely the most excited bird watcher. They have you take identification pamphlets so you can figure out exactly what you’re seeing and she loved flipping through and matching the birds with their name and picture.

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Our first road trip in Israel included a lot of driving and seeing things we’ve read about in the scriptures our whole lives. Can’t wait to see more and more of this amazing country!

We Live in Israel

When we stepped off the airplane in Tel Aviv, we immediately felt the warm air rush over us. It was pretty cold in London, so it felt nice to shed our winter jackets right out of the gate! We were met by a service that quickly ushered us through customs, helped us collect all of our bags and got us to our van that would take us into the city. We rented an airbnb for our first couple of weeks after trying and trying to find a permanent place from NYC, but kept coming up empty-handed. It was near the “Lincoln Center of Tel Aviv” and about a 15 minute walk to the beach. Most of the buildings here were built in the 60’s and have only been refurbished on their interiors. Our building looked a little run-down on the outside, but it was pretty nice inside and perfect for what we needed. We got right to work exploring around us with a yummy shawarma dinner and walk to the beach to put our toes in the sand and water! So good. The sand was like walking through piles of flour- the softest I’ve ever felt. And, there was a playground right there, which the kids loved! We all put our toes in the salty water and got so excited for our new home by the beach.

Brian took the first weekend off of work, so we could get set up with phones, a car, food, and other details that go along with moving to a new place. It was so nice to have him around! Because he’s traveled here so much, he already knew a lot about how to get around. And, because things are NEVER easy when you move, Tessa threw in what we thought was a broken arm on day 3. After two long trips to the ER, we were told it was just a contusion…phew! There is something about going to the hospital in a foreign country that just throws you right into the mix of things!

Brian took us to the local Carmel Market on the first Friday we were there- which, turns out, is the worst day to go because its hours before Shabbat begins and it is totally nuts! We were shoulder-to-shoulder the entire time and it was super hot out. Little did I know, this place would become my main grocery store over the next couple of weeks and I soon realized that you do not ever venture there on a Friday! Despite all of that, we found the best place to grab a late lunch at M25 Meat Market, as recommended by Ottolenghi. I had the most interesting basil and cilantro Asian salad that I already cannot wait to go back and get again. It was all soooo good! The food here tastes super fresh and the combinations are always so interesting that it makes for the most delicious experience.

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This is the area we lived in at first, near Rothschild. See how run-down the buildings are? You’d never guess how nice (and how crazy expensive!!) they are.

This is the area we lived in at first, near Rothschild. See how run-down the buildings are? You’d never guess how nice (and how crazy expensive!!) they are.

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Our first Shabbat in Tel Aviv, church was supposed to consist of us watching Conference from our homes, which was so nice. We had only seen one session so far and it was great to catch up. I was in a totally different place and state of mind versus when it actually aired and I’m positive I gained far more than I would have otherwise, because life was feeling pretty tough right then. More on that later…

The next Saturday was district conference at BYU Jerusalem! We were so looking forward to taking our kids here for the first time…the campus and the setting are so beautiful! We had a short women’s session that me and my girls got to go to and then they fed us the yummiest lasagna for lunch while we sat downstairs right off of the lawn. This place is seriously so special.

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Some shots overlooking the Old City.

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We made the most of our trip to Jerusalem and took the girls to explore after conference. We walked through the old market, grabbed dinner and some gummies, stopped at the Western Wall and ventured over to a view of the Garden of Gethsemane. I know we are going to make a lot of memories in this amazing place.

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After feeling extremely overwhelmed with the grocery situation here, Brian asked one of his coworkers, Hilla, to take us to the market and show us how/where to shop. I want to back up a little so I remember all of this though.

The grocery stores in Tel Aviv are tiiiiny and the food is so different from what I’m used to back in the States. It’s hard to find good produce there and the stuff on the shelves is in a totally different language, along with looking mostly unfamiliar and being crazy expensive. To say the least, I was having anxiety about feeding a family of 6 under these conditions. I would have to ask for language help any time I went shopping and because the ingredients were so different, my meals would have to be very simple. In our first week, our branch president’s wife, Sarah, generously offered to take me to a huge, nice grocery store about 40 minutes north of the city one day. I was so grateful for her help- she literally spent the entire day showing me what was what and then took us to her home and to their beach (they live about 30 minutes north of us in a suburb) and then fed our family dinner! It was a massive help and I was so grateful.

When Hilla heard about our grocery dilemma, she offered to show us the ropes here in Tel Aviv as well. She spent a couple of hours showing us her favorite places to buy chicken, beef (all from butchers that cut or grind up your meat right on the spot) and vegetables as well as flowers, fruit, cheese and bread. I realized how massive Carmel Market is and how much this place would help me save a ton of money and be the foundation for getting most of what I need. Ah, I cannot tell you how helpful this was! She took us to one of her favorite brunch spots at the end and we had one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever eaten…sweet potato topped with sautéed mushrooms, a fried egg, and chimichurri. Sounds crazy, but it was incredible!

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Hilla showing us how to find the best stuff and avoid getting overcharged. I’ve been back a bunch since and I totally feel like I’ve got this down for now. Although hauling a week’s worth of food to our home walking for 15 minutes is something I’d still like to solve- wow!

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Brian took us to a nature reserve on a Sunday night and even though we could not for the life of us find the beach entrance, we watched the sun set from atop these gorgeous cliffs while listening to the water lap below us. The sunsets here are unreal. We followed that by a trip to Ikea, which sounds crazy, but I have a new appreciation and love for that place!

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After about a week and a half of being here and working with a local realtor, we began to get nervous about actually finding a permanent place to live. We kept coming up short— stuff was either too small, too expensive or too far from work. Finally, something brand new popped up and I rushed to check it out one morning. After spending HOURS looking at places online, I was hopeful this would work out and not just because it was right on the beach ;) Brian wasn’t able to come, so I just took the little girls with me. I was so glad we held out because this apartment was like hitting the jackpot! It was perfect for us and I couldn’t wait to tell Brian!

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This is the view of the beach from our terrace- isn’t it amazing? We feel so blessed to have found a place like this. Its brand new and just absolutely perfect for what we need. We want visitors!! :)

Because of homeschool, our schedules are very flexible. Which mostly means that we get to go to the beach every single day. The weather is unusually warm (in the 80’s), so we make sure we cool off in this beautiful water. There has been a lot of sand castle building and book reading (by me) going on too! Tessa was so nervous about leaving her floaties behind, but she has become the best little swimmer since being here. The sea is really shallow and the waves are small, so its kind of like a giant swimming pool- perfect for learning to swim well.

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While we all feel like we are getting into the groove of life here, there have definitely been some really tough parts. Its easy to gloss over it and just talk about whats great- which is a lot, but I want to remember all of it because its been so stretching. For one, you just cannot get everything you need at the stores. They don’t sell products I’m used to, so I modify a lot and only cook recipes that I know I can get ingredients for. Another is the language barrier- English is not spoken on the streets or to me (until I ask if they know it and most of the time they do), which can feel really isolating most of the time. I hesitate to strike up conversations and even the depth can only go so far when there is that divide. There aren’t people from our branch here in Tel Aviv (they mostly live in the suburbs) so we don’t have a lot of friends, and we spend every waking moment with just each other for company (which can be really really good and sometimes really bad). We feel really far from family- which is a big thing. It is often lonely. I’ve had some low moments (just keeping it real!) and I ask myself at least once per day what the heck we are doing here! But, I also really see the value in seeking the good in hard situations and the growth that happens when you’re constantly challenged. I already feel like my mind is getting sharper because I am navigating issues all of the time. I love Tel Aviv, but it doesn’t feel like home yet. I know it will work its way into our hearts in a way that London and NYC have, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. I am grateful for this experience though, and I know it is going to continue to be life-changing for our family.

Istanbul, Turkey

A 10 hour layover in Turkey gave me a chance to hit the highlights of Istanbul. I don’t love visiting a country without doing much research before, but this quick tour was opportunistic.

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The Blue Mosque … massive, impressive, and being repaired. Scaffolding on site like these always hurts a bit but I did love walking around its gardens and eventually visiting the courtyards.

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The mosque was closed for most of the day (muslims only) and then opened to the public for a couple of hours. I appreciate the fact they let tourists in to visit something special and a place of worship.

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From my naive POV, the courtyard was much more beautiful. Inside was less impressive but more importantly an active worship site for muslims.

Below is inside the Magia Sophia, a separate mosque directly east of the Blue Mosque. It was massive and also beautiful. It was a bit difficult to capture on my camera. It was so crowded, I would get bumped each time I pointed up to get a shot of the massive dome-shaped structures.

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What as most unique inside the mosque, were the chandeliers that hung low, connected by long chains that reached the top of the ceiling. The effect worked, making a massive structure feel a bit smaller and comfortable.

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Istanbul was beautiful but I will admit all the muslim countries are starting to feel more and more similar. Almost difficult to differentiate beyond the large and numerous mosques inside the city.

Londontown!

After our week-long visa delay in NYC, we weren’t sure we would still be able to squeeze in a visit to London. But, Brian managed to pull it off and we got to visit one of our very favorite places in the entire world. Our huge van picked us up eeeearly in the morning at our hotel in NYC and we loaded our 30-plus bags in and headed to the airport for our flight. So excited to be visiting our old stomping grounds again, I don’t think anyone even minded getting up at 4:30 am.

We landed late in the evening at Heathrow and Brian whizzed right through customs, but the rest of our passports got flagged because our old UK visas were never cancelled. So, we waited forever in the holding area while Brian grabbed bags and rushed to make it to a luggage storage store literally seconds before they closed. He barely made it, begged them to stay open until a porter was able to bring the rest of our stuff (he could only lug 2 bags with him), and safely got all of our luggage stored for our trip. We only brought our carry-ons into the city. We finally got to our hotel in Belgravia, where we crashed hard after a long day.

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DAY ONE- TWO: We forced ourselves out of bed our first morning (jet lag is real!) on a very typically English cold and rainy day and walked to grab a late breakfast/early lunch across from Harrod’s. We waited out the rain while walking all over Harrod’s and then got ourselves to Queen’s Theater, where we had tickets to see Les Miserables! The show was amazing- although Tessa thought it was “so annoying” that they only sang and there was no talking. LOL. I’m sure I would’ve had similar thoughts when I was 6. It was still wet and yucky after the show, so we got home and ate some Indian food close to where we were staying. We checked into our airbnb near Paddington, where we’d be for the rest of the trip. On Sunday, we got to go to our old chapel on Exhibition Road to watch a session of conference. To be honest, we were a little bummed we wouldn’t be able to attend regular meetings because we were looking forward to seeing so many old friends. However, the session was great and we were able to catch up with the Checketts afterwards, who are the mission presidents there now. Brian stayed back to check out the renovated Victoria and Albert Museum (it was boarded up the entire time we lived there and its gorgeous now!)

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DAY TWO: Freddie! Tessa and Freddie were in the same class at The Vestry Preschool in Maida Vale. They really loved each other and she has always talked about wanting to visit him again. Plus, they have some shared memories playing together at the park across from our our flat, so thats where we met up. Tessa got to play with a dear friend and we got to go back to our legitimate favorite part of the city…St. John’s Wood! It was SO nostalgic and happy being back where we used to live!

After getting off the tube in SJW, we excitedly pointed out all of the things we remembered and loved and even stopped to get some warm quarkinis at the Bread Shop on the way to St. John’s Wood Park to meet up. Once Tessa and Freddie spotted one another, they ran so fast and embraced for a full minute! It was the sweetest meeting of two little friends. They played while I caught up with Freddie’s mom and then we had to race off to meet Brian in Regent’s Park across the way. Brian’s phone had run out of batteries though, and we could not find him in the park. We didn’t know at the time that his phone wasn’t working, so we walked all over and ended up in Queen Mary’s Rose Garden, feet from where he was sitting on a bench waiting for us. We never saw each other though! Frustrated about not being able to connect, we headed off to eat dinner at Nando’s in Marylebone with just the 4 of us. Brian had to buy a charger, get his phone working again, and by the time we got ahold of each other, we were both headed back to our place for the night.

Queen Mary’s Rose Garden is the best place to take a gorgeous walk. The roses were still blooming all over and the park was sooo green. It was stunning. We smelled the roses (literally), chose our favorites and relaxed on a bench there while the sun set.

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DAY THREE: Brian and I got up to do a long run in and around Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. We trained for a marathon together on these paths and it was so nice to be back seeing so much of the same scenery after two years away.

There were several times when we all made verbal lists of things we wanted to make sure and see and Borough Market was at the top of everyone’s. So many good, yummy memories! We explored our favorite market where we indulged in delicious custard-filled donuts and then hot ham and mozzarella sandwiches. We then walked over to the Tower Bridge, past the Tower of London and tubed to Big Ben (sadly, covered in scaffolding). We walked down Whitehall over to Trafalgar Square, where we hung out for a while just taking it in. This was always one of our favorite places in London and the weather today was amazing. So, we took advantage of just being outside in this glorious city. We made a quick stop in the National Portrait Gallery, where we split with Brian and Kate. They wanted to stay longer at the museum, and we wanted to take a bus from Trafalgar, through Piccadilly and Oxford Circus and down Regent Street (the best ride- and we even nabbed top deck front seats!).

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We got out at Notting Hill and I stopped at my favorite cafe in the entire world, Ottolenghi. That place is a-maz-ing. I got a medley of their unique salads, a dark chocolate cookie and a slice of their molten chocolate cake for Kate. We sat by the flower stand on the High Street while we all nibbled on my salads and ate the most delicious cookie of my life (sorry, Levain, Ottolenghi has you beat by a mile!). After that, we walked down Portobello Road admiring all of the shops and made our way to the famously adorable Biscuiteers shop, where we met back up again with Kate and Dad.

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We had a dinner with our friends, The Beesley’s, later that night, but we had some time to kill and the girls needed some “kid friendly” stuff after all of that walking. We found a nearby park, where they were able to play and run and climb. London has the best playgrounds and they’re surrounded by the most gorgeous neighborhoods. I could walk around this place all day long every day and never tire of it. We walked over to Nando’s to meet our friends and had another delicious dinner with them…it was so fun to see them again and to catch up on the last two years and hear about all that they had going on.

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DAY FIVE: Our last day in London was actually spent outside the city. We rented a car and drove to the Cotswolds near Cambridge. We love this area and its a close drive from the city, so its justifiable on such a quick trip. It’s also one of the most gorgeous places on earth. ;) This day, the weather was unbelievable—a local even said it was the prettiest day he’d seen in the area in years. We drove to Stow-on-the Wold, parked our car and rented bikes for all 6 of us. We biked through Stow-on-the-Wold and over to the Upper and Lower Slaughters through the most gorgeous scenery. Man, this place is like nothing else. The quaint cottages, little streams, bridges, horses, green rolling hills and huge estates made this bike ride pretty unbelievable.

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In the Slaughters, there is this huge descending hill that ends in this water-covered pass. If you’re on a bike, you can bypass the water via a little side path, but these girls decided that wasn’t going to be good enough for them. They rode through as fast as they could and as many times as they could, getting pretty soaked by the end. It was the perfect sunny time of the day and we were totally alone out there. It was a pretty perfect moment with lots of laughs and memories.

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The weather, outside of that first rainy day, was perfect. We ate a lot of our favorite Hob Nobs, Digestives, and Cadbury Bars as well as a multitude of other delicious things. We walked a lot and saw a ton. This quick trip just re-confirmed what I already knew…London is such a magical place. There really is no better way to describe it. I thought I was over you, but I just don’t think I ever will be. We were so grateful to get to go back!