Spring Trippin' Part 1....Amsterdam & Belgium

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I was SO excited for this trip.  I'd worked really hard planning it and had a hell of a time finding accommodations in Copenhagen and Stockholm.  Not just because of pricing, but also limited choices...I almost had to book a hotel! (eek!)  lol
Our first stop was Amsterdam...and by far the most unique of the trip.  We rented this amazing houseboat right on the canal.  This thing was just bad ass.  I fell in love with it online and it was even better in person.  What we weren't prepared for...it was COLD!  Here I was thinking I'd get to see the fields of tulips!  Yeah, no.  We were a few weeks too early.  Now, I was totally all for a break from the Saudi heat...but man, we just weren't expecting this.
Amsterdam is such a unique city.  I just fell in love with it...even toying with the idea of what it would be like to live there..but, the abundance of "coffee shops" made me think twice about raising the kiddos in a city like that.  Oh sure, you think there is nothing wrong with coffee shops....hence my quotation marks.  Coffeeshops in Amsterdam are happy places...oh yeah, as almost all know...weed, hash and even shrooms are legal there.  So, the coffee shops line the streets and just walking past you could easily get a second hand high with the fumes wafting out from inside.  It was really pretty impressive.  And of course, you have the Red Light District...and yes, we went.  It was a rainy, cold night and we decided to grab a bike taxi to take us home.  We thought...hey, why don't you just drive us down the famous street?  We won't get out...but I mean, we gotta see what its all about!  So, we headed off...we deftly kept the girls looking out the one window that looked over the canal in a constant search for swans...while the hubby and I peered the other way.  A whole block full of establishments...window boxes on display and each containing a barely dressed young girl.  And that was it.  Okay.  Check.  Saw it...moving on.

Speaking of bikes...I was totally in awe of the bikes!  Everyone of every age was on some form of bicycle.  They would be piled up all over the city and there was even a HUGE parking garage...for bikes only!  No matter what the weather was like...they were all out there.  It was so fun to sit on our houseboat and just watch them go by.  And...I guess this goes hand in hand...but nearly every person was fit!  You had to look really, really hard and for quite some time to spot anyone overweight...and 9 times outta 10....they were tourists.  yah, so.
The buildings are everything we hoped they would be...crooked, leaning, multiple colors, narrow...just stunning.  We were pretty lazy on this trip.  One we didn't want to leave the houseboat and two, well, it was fun just to wander around.  The food there was ok, nothing amazing...EXCEPT for the tomatoes.  Seriously.  Holland makes their own version of a cherry tomato and it is unlike anything I've ever had.  Sweet and bright red...I should have turned into a tomato after the amount I consumed.  You can't find them anywhere else either...which makes me want to cry.

views from our houseboat and one from a lovely little place we had lunch

one of the many cafes (note the signage), my gorgeous, yummy tomatoes, Matt found a lovely dutch lady, and me chillin' on our houseboat...despite the freezing temp

cold or not...we enjoyed the outdoor market (and then scrambled to find a warm place for lunch!) the lovely canals and amazing row houses

can't forget the meats and cheeses!  and more awesome architecture 

a killer night shot, a pic of our houseboat from the outside, the girls trying on the famous wooden shoes, and more pretty row houses

it was too cold yet for the tulips to be in bloom everywhere, but I managed to get some at the local market :)

We did decide to take a couple of day trips while we were there.  The first was to Belgium.  Yeah, we straight up headed over to another country for the day.  They have this famous town called Brugge.  Old and quite with a cute little canal running through the town.  It was calling to me.  So, we rented a car and headed off.  Girls content in the back with movies and Matt and I enjoying the countryside.
We arrived in Brugge and had to force ourselves out of the car.  It was COLD!  Girls weren't too happy, but we told them they could go up a tower...so, yeah, that works everytime.  I think if we had been there a few weeks later it would have been jaw dropping.  To say the least it was just lovely.  So old...cobblestones, quirky buildings...just wow.  We took a boat ride and the girls really enjoyed that.  Had a nice little lunch with some killer Belgium beer and of course sampled the chocolates and waffles!  Really wish we could have spent more time there...loads more we could have seen.  Would definately go back.

chocolates and waffles!

hot chocolate was perfect on this freezing day!!  Matt had to sport the Smitty shirt (for my brother)...he was half frozen after I finished taking the pic!

loved the architecture!

Our second day trip was to head out to the town of Zaanse Schans.  This was an absolute must because we all wanted to see real windmills.  We rented a car and headed off.  Today would be THE coldest day of our trip.  The wind was blowing and the temps were near zero.  COLD.  But, it was worth braving the elements to see these beautiful windmills in action.  The little town was so quaint, I can only imagine how pretty it would be once spring actually showed up.  We wandered through old buildings, saw the inside of a windmill in action, and watched the making of the famous wooden shoes.  After a much needed warm lunch, we headed back into Amsterdam and our lovely little houseboat.  We toyed with the thought of touring Ann Franks house, but when we saw the HUGE line we changed our minds.  Besides, not sure I wanted the girls seeing those photos just yet...they are still so young and innocent!  ;)

All in all, it was a great start to our Spring trip.  I really wish the weather had been a bit warmer and we could have seen the famous tulips, but well, I'm just happy we were able to go and that we all had a great time....
Next stop....Copenhagen!!


A New Life...in Austin, Texas

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So, here we are...all moved in and settled in our new home in Austin, TX.  We've been here just over 3 weeks now...though it seems so much longer for some reason.
There is SO much for me to catch up on, but I figured I would start with the most recent and then work my way back over the last few months.
It wasn't easy trying to find somewhere to live...I mean, my husband decided to go for Austin for a few different reasons:  Its number 10 on Forbes fastest growing cities since the recession, its a great place to be for his work, his family is close by (for the first time in over 10 years), we have friends here, and well, why not?  I began doing my research trying to figure out the best areas in Austin to live...and there are quite a few.  My biggest consideration was the schools.  I wanted the best for my girls.  After that, we just wanted somewhere nice and maybe near the lakes.  
some of the homes near the lake

We finally decided on a place called Steiner Ranch.  It's actually not really someplace Matt and I would have normally looked at...it's a huge master planned community...and well, the hubby and I usually prefer a bit more of an eclectic neighborhood...something with a bit of character.  But, the schools were supposed to be great, we had friends close by, and the lake was just a short drive away.
And...that's where we are.  I finally found a house to rent and thanks to some amazing friends helping out, we landed it.  (its not easy trying to rent a house in the US when you are living in Italy!)  
Next came organizing our shipment from California plus a bunch of items I ordered via Amazon to help restock our house.  
As soon as we got here, we took off running...there was so much to do!  We had to get the girls registered for school, get our new Texas drivers licenses, run errands, get school supplies...etc etc.  It was chaos for awhile.  
We've got a bit of a routine now...the girls are loving school, they have gymnastics twice a week and dance once.  We've hung out with friends on the weekends, and I've managed to get back into working out again!!  (whoo hoo!)  
Steiner is...interesting.  Loads of transplants from California, the Carolina's and other states...  The majority of the women (and men) here seem very fit.  The first day of school we walked the girls over to campus and I was amazed at the amount of women in workout clothes.  Runners, bikers, tennis...never seen such a group!  (and it made me want to hurry up and get my butt in gear too!)  You see people on bikes and running all over the community.  Sometimes it can seem a bit Stepford Wifey...but I've met some really nice ladies so far.  Even the kids are fit here!  Not very many kids fit the category of obese ..at all.  
The area here is hilly and green so that makes me happy...I love me some green!  Downside...it takes a LONG time to get anywhere.  We live towards the back of the community, so just to get to the main road takes about 10 minutes.  And the traffic...oh the traffic.  Talk about having to plan your day!  I don't even attempt to leave the house to run errands till after 10am.  Its about a 30 minute drive to get to any shopping centers (except HEB (grocery store) and Target) and the girls gymnastics.  So, that's taken some getting used to...at least I'm in charge...got my own truck to drive!  :) 
The homes here are very nice and well kept, ranging from apartment areas to huge monster homes.  There are 3 community centers, a golf course, restaurants, and a grocery store, plus other retail shops and businesses.  We are 10 minutes from the lake.  People are super friendly too...always waving and saying hello to each other (such a change for us).  And you can't beat the Texas hospitality...there is always someone willing to help you out no matter where you are....its pretty impressive.  And I don't even mind being called "mam".  Love the manners here.  :)
I'm not sure if it'll be our forever place to stay, but for right now...its just fine.  I mean, we're stateside...my girls are in activities again...I can drive and ride my bike...it's good.  Real good.

The next step for me is to start exploring more of this unique city.
(the photos on this post are off the internet...I haven't gotten around to taking my own pix yet...)

birds eye of our commnuity

the entrance to our community

the community center in our neighborhood of Bella Mar (this is just a 10 min walk from our home)


Land of the Free...I'm Home.

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I apologize to those of you who may have thought I fell off the face of the Earth....but so much has happened in the last few months...
To begin:
It wasn't supposed to happen this way...but in my heart I truly believe everything happens for a reason...so, here I am, back in the States...home.  Well...sort of...
I guess the trigger was pulled when my mom's visa to Saudi didn't come through as planned...I knew better than to get my hopes up...but well, that's sort of a pitfall of mine.  We had everything booked...flights, trips, planned events..it was going to be wonderful.  But, there she sat...bags packed and no where to go.  Yeah, well....enough right??
So, after talks with the hubby and thinking about family and all the other many things going on we decided...its time to go home, for good.  My darling husband would stay and finish out his work in Saudi, but the girls and I would head for the land of the free.  It was quick...and I didn't get time to say goodbye to most of my friends in Saudi...for which I'm sorry, but well, things just happen a certain way sometimes and you just have to go with the flow. 
With a happy heart, I called my grandmother (a still young 89 yr old) and told her the good news...if she'd have us, the girls and I would love to stay with her for awhile.  I always regretted how short our time was together the last time I was there, so this time I wanted to stick around awhile.  The girls were so excited to see their GG (great-grandma).  Took us three planes to make it back to the States plus 5 suitcases, two car seats, three humans and three carry-ons.  That was fun.  Not. 
But we made it and spent 6 wonderful weeks in Ohio. 
the girls and their GG
 My mom came to visit there instead (no visa required) for four weeks and four generations had an absolute blast together.  Spring was in full bloom and I realized I'd never lived anywhere that had a spring like this...the colors were just incredible!  We got to spend time with family, attended my cousins graduation from Ohio State University where the President of the USA gave the commencement speech, and the girls even got to go to gymnastics twice a week!  (which the loved so much!)  We were all together for Mother's Day as well...which was a first in a very long time.  So, yep...I was totally stoked to be back in the States...
Ohio State U graduation
mother's day...3 generations...love
Now, I sit here in Texas.  I'm staying with my in-laws for a total of 5 weeks.  For the first two...we were blessed that Daddy was able to come and visit.  The girls were missing him so much.  So we had the whole family together for two weeks...and just this past Thursday he headed back.  Countdown begins with 56 days left till we are whole again.  So far, we've had a great time here in Texas...the girls got to hang out with their cousins and visit the American Girl Doll store (where Sara stated to her aunt "this is the best day ever!!")  we've visited friends, took the girls to a wild animal park where a zebra attempted to take the bag of food from my baby's lap!  Girls are signed up for gymnastics again here, and they are swimming almost everyday in Opa and Oma's pool.  (hubby's parents)  It's really nice to have family to spend time with.  :)


cousins and dolls

Since I'm an early planner, I had already booked part of my summer trips back in December.  Therefore, in three weeks, the girls and I will be heading for Italy.  It will be a great month long trip followed by meeting up with Daddy in Prague. 
It's been such a whirlwind...
Would I change anything?  No, I'd do it all over again...I would just try to be better prepared for the ups and downs of living in a place like Saudi.  I made some amazing friends, the girls had wonderful experiences, and we got to partake in many fantastic trips.  I must say, coming back to the States was almost culture shock in reverse.  I started jogging a bit in Ohio and I would just smile and think of how wonderful it was to be outside, without the abaya..doing what I want.  And then getting to drive!!!  And coming and going as I pleased!  Not to forget just how awesome it was to go shopping at Target!!  lol  I had to hold myself back at the grocery store and not buy every single thing I saw.  I reminded myself that the items would be there the next day...and the day after.  After not setting foot in the states for over 9 months, it was pretty surreal.  Now I'm getting back into the groove of things, but I still find myself in awe of the wonderfulness of living in a place with such freedom.  If nothing else, Saudi has taught me to really appreciate what you have in life and have a little more patience with the people and things around you... 
But!!  This isn't the end...we still have many more trips planned and other events...I plan to continue to help those thinking of making the move to Saudi in any way I can.  And I'm going to keep blogging about our life and travels...so one day, I can publish it all into a book for my daughters to keep forever. 
I'm still behind on travel posts and the hubby promised me some more posts about Saudi that we didn't get around to publishing yet. 
I'm so thankful and blessed for this life...much more to come...  :)


Out and About in Budapest...

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To state again, I was pleasantly surprised by just how cool (not talking temp here, though cool is stating it mildly...cold) Budapest really was. One of the days we spent across the Chain Bridge on the Buda side.  We got to see the changing of the guard, wandered the streets, cautiously walked through underground tunnels which had creepy looking mannequins and Dracula's tomb (not really, but still spooky), had great food, a stunning small church where we were able to warm up for a bit, stopped at a cool looking bar and had warm drinks in the glow of the red lights, walked in the cold rain, and just flat out enjoyed the whole day! 
Another amazing day was spent checking out Hero's Square, ice skating and another incredible lunch.  This was the girls first time ever on ice.  (Matt's second, I believe)  The hardest part was that there were no barriers to hold on to as you skated around.  Thankfully, there was a little kid area (and beginner area) where the girls and Matt took some lessons.  The girls spent A LOT of time on their bums, but they really had a great time.  Mommy just spent time taking pix.  ;)  
One night we went to see a traditional Hungarian dance.  The girls loved the dancing part, but weren't really thrilled when it was just the orchestra performing.  Matt and I enjoyed the whole thing.
Near the end of our trip, we ventured out on the coldest day yet.  It was so cold (ok, I live in Saudi, so give me a break here) I had to put sunglasses on to protect my eyes from the cold air instead of the sun. We had Lily wrapped up like the kid from A Christmas Story.  ;)  We headed over the bridge and to a small island (mommy shivering all the way) where we found a park (and thankfully some mulled wine)...the girls had a blast, but when the mulled wine was gone, it was time to head back!  
We ate at three fantastic sushi restaurants including the famous Nobu.  I don't think I can ever get enough sushi.
It seemed that no matter where we went in the city, we found beautiful places to visit and incredible restaurants to eat.  We'd go back again for sure!

on the Buda side...we chose to walk up...and some pix from the tunnels

cool coffee shop

underground and a beautiful church

        walking in the rain...a great restaurant and you can get a gas mask if you need one!

so much fun!

Hungarian dancing and sushi!  And some incredible open face sandwiches from a local deli

Hero's Square, the museum, and another killer food joint

freezing our butt's off in the park!!  :)


Budapest at Christmas & New Year's

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We initally wanted to go to Prague or Vienna, but with sticker prices coming in at $250-$300 per night for rentals we had to rethink our plans.  A friend mentioned Budapest.  I said, where??  Isn't that like Eastern Europe??  My hubby on the other hand went bonkers.  So, I started my research and was I ever surprised.  Not only is it a beautiful city, but my god was it reasonable!!  We scored a beautiful two story apartment for 1000 Euro..for 2 weeks!  Including Christmas and New Year's.  Yeah, that pretty much sold me.  
I couldn't wait to get there.  The Christmas markets, decorations, snow (well, for a day).  It was all I wanted for Christmas.  On the advice of yet another friend, we booked a Christmas morning brunch at the Four Seasons.  It was incredible.  The food, the mimosas, the food, the mimosas.  
Speaking of food...there wasn't a single restaurant that we ate at that we didn't like.  From traditional Hungarian food to sushi.  Home runs every time.  We had an absolute blast.  
So, in this post I just wanted to focus on the Christmas stuff.  I'll post more about being out and about in Budapest.  The markets were flat out awesome.  I couldn't get over the booths that were preparing food.  And all the cute little handmade gifts.  The absolute best find were the rolls and rolls of Poppyseed rolls.  It didn't even occur to me that I would find them there.  Why is it such a big deal?  Well its a special treat that I only ever got at Christmas when we visited my grandparents in Ohio.  (which was maybe every other year...increasing to much longer stints away.)  Its not always easy to find the ingredients you need to make them, so it's not something we ever got very often.  These rolls scream Christmas to me and best of all, it made me feel connected to my family.  So, yeah...happy me.
We had a huge scare on Christmas Eve though.  It's tradition in our family to get dressed up and have a huge Christmas Eve dinner.  That day we were just wandering through the markets getting last minute stocking stuffers for Santa to put in the girls' stockings.  At 2:30p, they started to shut down.  And....cue panic.  Oh my god!  We don't have ANY food for dinner and most importantly wine!!!  Matt and I sot off in separate directions.  He hunted down wine and I went scrambling for food.  (some how we managed to keep the kids with us)  I wasn't the only one.  The large booth in the pictures below (with the yellow lighting) was still open and people were barking out orders.  I scored some killer looking pork and a couple of sauerkraut dishes.  But, hubby wasn't having any luck with wine...so I darted into a bar (dragging Lily) and asked the bartender if he would sell me a couple of bottles.  What a nice man, he did.  In about 20 minutes we managed to salvage Christmas Eve dinner.  It wasn't what I had hoped to make, but hell, I was just happy we had food!  
Christmas morning arrived and Santa had found us in Budapest.  The tree wasn't overloaded with gifts, but the girls were happy with what they received.  Then it was off to brunch.  Everything was really lovely.  We even got to Skype family and they watched the girls open some gifts.  Happy day.
For New Years, well, we could have hung out in the square and partied with all the people, but instead, we put the kids to bed early, watched sports bloopers on TV and totally missed the midnight mark.  Ah, but we had champagne.  Not a total loss.  :)
All in all, it will definitely be a memorable Christmas and New Years.     
Christmas Market

The Four Seasons Hotel and the one day of snow

Inside the Four Seasons

 Christmas Eve, Morning and my beloved poppyseed roll

Christmas Market

around town


Yanbu Flower Festival 2013

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Its that time of year again.  The lovely flower festival was in Yanbu.  Just as beautiful as last year and we really had a great time.
I went first with my students as a class field trip along with the other second grade, first grade and third grade classes.  They had a blast (of course they'd have fun anywhere that wasn't in school, right?)  We went early in the morning and had the place to ourselves...for a bit.  Then a bunch of Saudi boys schools showed up, and well, we didn't stay much longer.  All the students got a flower to take home with them...talk about a bunch of grinning faces!  
Next, I went with my family.  We went in the early evening and stayed just long enough to see the lights come on.  I had promised the girls we would buy them something...little did I know it would be two more chickens!!  (we now have a grand total of 7)  These little dyed baby chicks just stole my heart.  I couldn't help it...just too cute!  
I really loved the huge flower festival sign they had out front this year.  Really cool looking.  We just had fun wandering around looking at all the booths.  We weren't hassled at all this year (though I did have a hat on)  Had a bite to eat, bought a couple of plants, and well, that was that.  Still I'm always glad when we attend these things.  Its fun to be out and part of the community.  :)

One of the other classes from the field trip

aerial shots courtesy of the landscape department of the Royal Commission

the girls with a mosaic photo of the King.

a mix of fresh flower and real flowers were used.  

not only were there baby chicks, but also ducks, rabbits, fish, birds, mice and hamsters!  

Our new additions....Rosie and Paddy  :)

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