Monday, January 26, 2009

Bay of Islands

The Hole in the Rock (from helicopter)

We headed out of town this past weekend for an impromptu trip to the Bay of Islands. (Because, clearly our 10 day trip to the US was not enough traveling for me. And also, because the travel website is way too exciting and I couldn't help researching every hotel/motel in the North Island and planning an immediate trip.)

I settled on the Bay of Islands, because of its close proximity (3 hours drive North, although it took 5 hours on the way up because of traffic). We stayed at Admirals View Lodge, which looked like an American-style motel on the outside, but was only a few years old, spotless, and had a kitchenette. It was on the edge of the town of Paihia, the biggest town in the Bay of Islands (there are also Russell and Kerikeri), and Paihia was packed this weekend - the town is just filled with hotels and motels and lodges, and this particular weekend most had no vacancy.

By our first night, Lilly (and her parents) were on a big tour bus headed to the Treaty of Waitangi Grounds for its evening show. And as the bus stopped at each hotel and motel and hostel, we realized that she was the only child on the bus. In fact, the next-youngest people on the bus were me and Jon. But we weren't intimidated: this little lady is well-behaved and enjoys all entertainment. Aside from a little trepidation on Lilly's part by the loud noises and "fighting" outside before the real show started inside (i.e., Lilly shouting No! No! and holding on to us tightly), she sat excitedly on our laps in the front row and proceeded to clap enthusiastically at the end of each song (she actually initiated the clapping for the audience on most songs!), and dance throughout the performances. An hour and a half later, at about 9:30 pm, she finally fell asleep, missing the last two songs - but she had a wonderful time.

The weekend also included a bus tour of Russell, which was the first town inhabited by the British about 200 years ago, and it was also the first capital of New Zealand for a short time. It also has fame for being filled with brothels back then. Now it's a sleepy little town that you access via ferry, with the oldest church in New Zealand, and a very cute place to visit. As we got on our 1 hour bus tour, it hit us again: this time, we were the only people on the but under the age of 60. We crossed our fingers that Lilly would behave, and actually enjoy the tour, and of course, she did. At one point we arrived at the highest point of the city to take pictures, and she was so precious, dancing around. It was a tour worth taking.

During the afternoon, Lilly decided she was not in a napping mood, so we drove North, planning to visit Kerikeri, about 30 minutes away. However, when we drove into the town, Lilly was sound asleep, so aside from making a short stop at a chocolate factory, we kept on driving North. We ended up in the Karikari Peninsula, which is the most North you can get without driving onto 90 Mile Beach (which is about 60 miles actually, and is unpaved beach that is said to be dangerous to drive on with a regular car). Anyways, we drove and drove, with nothing in sight, and finally came upon a vineyard. We stopped for a tasting, and then drove the 2 hours back to Paihia. It was dinnertime, and Lilly was sick of being in the car, and we decided on a restaurant on the water that boasted an huge aquarium. We walked up hoping that they'd have room at the last minute at 7 pm, and they not only sat us immediately, but Lilly was sitting right in front of the aquarium - she was thrilled. It was an enjoyable dinner out, as Lilly's chicken and french fries came out quickly, as did the ice cream sunday she ordered later, and there was live entertainment, and Lilly made sure to dance in front of the guy singing before we left.

On our way out of town the next morning, we decided to... get on a helicopter and do a tour of the Bay of Islands!!! Jon had wanted to the whole time, and we had decided against doing the 4 hour boat tour (didn't think Lilly would be happy for that long!). The helicopter tour was just 20 minutes, and Lilly was free. So, I told Lilly we were going in a helicopter "just like Annie" (when Annie goes to meet President Roosevelt). We all had to put on lifejackets (since we were flying over the water), and Lilly gladly put her arms out to have them suit her up. It was unreal walking out to the helicopter, with the top thingie (what's it called?) swirling above us, and sitting inside (it was just a 4-seater, so it was a private tour!), and putting our headphones on (including Lilly!). It was very exciting, and a great end to the weekend.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Confessions from a Weary Traveller

We did it. We not only survived our last minute flight over a 10 days ago, had the busiest social calendar for a week, and shopped til we dropped; but for the past 24 hours Miss Lillian Grace Sherman and myself flew by ourselves back to New Zealand by ourselves. (Jon went back a few days earlier; and can I mention he debated me for a split second for who had it harder today?!)

But the week was filled with all kinds of revelations, big and small, and the fact that Lilly has made it back to New Zealand (and to school today, 3 hours after arriving, no less!) in one piece (although thank goodness 2 year olds don't remember their life experiences - this one was a doozy!) is considered quite the miracle. Here are just a few things we discovered this week...

  • 10 days ago while we backtracked the same flights that we had taken 7 months ago, we discovered for a fact that the baby we came to New Zealand with, is no more. She is actually a beautiful young lady, a little girl, and has grown up in every way comparable. From the physical - her hair is so long now, and she's gotten about 5 pounds heavier and 5 inches taller (this was especially apparent as she struggled to push Jon and I out of our seats as she slept long-ways between us on the flight) - to all the new skills she's picked up since moving here. She can now walk and run (which is actually a bad thing in airports!), open any door (including locked ones), uses more words and signs to express herself, is "going" on the potty regularly (and loves to tell us she has to "go" when the seatbelt sign is "on" and we're not allowed to get up), and can wash her hands independently. On the way over 7 months ago, she watched Elmo; now, although she still loves him, she prefers High School Musical and knows the buttons on the portable DVD player. She also LOVED her personal TV on the flight, and discovered that Hannah Montana can make her spontaneously laugh harder than anything else! She has gotten over her picky eating, and tried a little of everything we ate. At one point during the week, I was eating a huge piece of chocolate cake, and Miss Lilly Lou was eating my salad - with ranch dressing - using her own fork. She is truly her own little person now, and while we've definitely appreciated each new skill along the way, it really did hit us comparing the "before" and "after" on the two flights 7 months apart.

  • Our intentions of seeing everyone we wanted to in Atlanta in just 1 week was completely an out of reach goal. We saw only our immediate family and best friends, and even that was completely exhausting. We had plans every single daytime, afternoon, nighttime, and often met up with people after dinner as well. Lilly was in the car more than she was in a house. She napped on the run, we ate the majority of meals in restaurants, and rediscovered what traffic *really* means.

  • Our other goals for the week were also unattainable. Such as, eating restaurant Mexican food (STILL can't believe I'm going a full year without an authentic tortilla chip or real salsa!!!). And buying things in my favorite stores - don't get me wrong, I shopped here and there, but the High School Musical barbie dolls that were on clearance at Target were never purchased because I was going to go back "later" and get them - and later never came. I never bought the shampoo I wanted to buy (but oddly enough ended up with the conditioner), never got my nails done (on the last day it was a choice between nails and sanity; I made the smart decision), and never ate Spinach Artichoke Dip.

  • I DID manage to eat at most other restaurants that I wanted to - twice at J Alexander's, twice at Brookwood (although once was take-out so I don't think it counts), and I had NY style pizza at Rays, ate at Atlanta Bread Company, ate French Onion soup twice throughout the week, twice had Zaxby's (mmmm love those grilled cheese sandwiches!), once at Cheesecake Factory, and twice at Cafe Intermezzo. I ate my weight in salads - and wasn't fooled that they were healthy in any way, but there is just nothing like an American salad - I've truly missed iceburg lettuce.

  • While I was hesitant about the little lady and I travelling by ourselves, Lilly was the BEST traveller in the world yesterday. And what I mean by that is, Lilly didn't just hold her own in the 3 airports, checking in twice, changing flights, going through security twice (although there was the one breakdown during the second security that she and I BOTH had), customs, immigration, picking up luggage by ourselves, and arriving to Jon safely and happy. But moreso, in our traveling yesterday, we could not have encountered ruder, more unhelpful people. Seriously. As we were putting our things through security in both the Atlanta and San Francisco airports, people were not only NOT helping the single mom with the toddler (us), but they were cutting ahead of us, moving our stuff to the side to get themselves through quicker, and the employees were at the same time *not* helping us and also "helping" by moving half our stuff far away from where we were on a bench down the hall (how was I supposed to collect everything that way?) and rushing us to re-pack everything. It was truly an experience. And every other line we were in throughout the day, anyone who *could* have cut, did; every person who could make a rude remark did; every person who could have let us go ahead of them or opened a door didn't. It was quite the experience. Oh, and let me also mention that there was not a chicken finger kids meal (or ANY kids meal) to be found in any of the airports we were at. Lilly ate Starbucks fruit at the Atlanta airport (the other option was a hot dog stand, not acceptable for a 2 year old!); and in San Francisco, there was Japanese and Mexican (neither which had a kids menu or anything Lilly would eat), so I ended up finding a bagel for her. And all the "family lines" that Jon and I have encountered over the past few months of travelling, did not exist this time around. Even with NZ customs, when we were put to the front just 2 months ago when returning from Fiji, did not exist today when I was by myself with Lilly - we were at the end of a long line (with our two heavy carry ons and without the stroller, which is not allowed to be picked up until baggage in NZ) about to pass out, with Lilly more than restless waiting on line, while again, people cut in front of us. Oh, and the puppy dog backpack with a leash (so that she could walk independently when she wanted without running into the men's bathroom or away from mommy) was a great idea, except for the multiple people we walked by who made rude comments about my restraining my child (and I doubt if these people had made a 24 hour international flying adventure by themselves with a two year old). But as always, I would much rather Lilly be the amazing one and have the rest of the world frustrate me. Because she was amazing - she even pooped in the public toilets, ate well, slept decently when possible, watched Hannah Montana, and amused herself for hours with the latest gossip magazines.

  • Lilly is the Princess and the Pea. She could NOT get comfortable sleeping on the plane - even though she had her seat and half of mine to stretch out across. She wasn't happy unless she was pushing me completely into the aisle, and tickling the guy next to her in her sleep. Seriously, the guy next to her was minimum 300 pounds, and Lilly managed to poke him constantly throughout the flight, while both awake or asleep - after awhile I stopped trying to intervene. But as I was saying, Lilly could not get comfortable, but still managed to sleep 2 hours on the 5 hour flight and about 8 total on the 13 hour flight (although a few of those were restless tossing and turning).

  • We were completely overstimulated in Atlanta - from the huge restaurants and stores, to all the options everywhere we went. My Target experience was completely overwhelming (yet exciting), and while perusing Ingles, I couldn't believe all the choices in every single category. We were also slightly confused the entire time, because at this point we've gotten used to Blue Top Milk in a rectangle container, not the traditional whole or 2% gallon of milk. But nothing was taken for granted - my excitement over croissants with honey butter or ketchup or salads did not diminish throughout the week. And I totally enjoyed my Sam Adams Lights more than I can explain.

  • While I haven't really watched TV since I've been in NZ, and barely watched it in the week back (aside from catching up on the latest season of Rock of Love: Tour Bus), I did realize that when bored I can get into any show. On the international flights, which come with your own TV and hundreds of options, I discovered Samantha Who, the new 90210, and Brothers and Sisters - none of which I would watch on regular TV even if I was back home, but watched a minimum of 4 episodes of each. And a note on Brothers and Sisters - it was the most depressing show I've ever seen in my life, but somehow drew me in to keep watching more. It was actually a little stressful watching their lives!

  • I did miss New Zealand a little bit while being back in the US, and really did need this week away from it to develop an appreciation for all that is here. Actually to be honest, I was starting to hate everything Kiwi, and the week away made me realize the US is not all that far after all, and the next 5 months will be much more bearable with this one week break. It was actually nice getting stressed about seeing everyone in Atlanta, and knowing that we'd be back to our simple NZ lives for a few more months.

  • I can't say it enough how nice it was being around our family and friends! Especially since it had been a year and a half since our last visit to Atlanta. The fact that I got to see Lindsay and Deborah and Melanie on numerous occasions; that I got to relax in my parents house without it being a major holiday weekend; that we got to hang out with Jon's family for multiple get-togethers... Thank you to everyone we saw for making us feel so at home!!!

Friday, January 9, 2009

There's No Place Like Home

We needed this so badly; we didn't even realize how much until we got here.

It's not that New Zealand has been horrible or anything; we're living in a gorgeous house on the water, where Lilly is having the best time at preschool, and we've been able to travel more than a family with a two year old should. It's been hard adjusting to all the little things about New Zealand that are different; because while NZ is very similar to the US than, say, China, everything is still relatively different. Instead of whole milk, it's blue top milk; instead of diapers, it's nappies; instead of driving on the right side on the road on in the left side of the car, it's opposite. So many things are called different names; so many foods are just a little different than expected; so many experiences to get used to. But we have, and we've done a good job at figuring it all out. For the past 7 months it's been such a surreal experience, like Alice in Wonderland, with everything being upside down but yet it kind of became normal after awhile.

Except, it's been just the 3 of us. And most of the time, the 2 of us, with Jon working long hours. Jon's parents came over in August, my dad and nephew came over in October, and my sister and nieces came over last week; but it's been hard being so far from family and friends overall. I especially have missed my mom, who I am so close to (and feel even closer with somehow now that I am emulating our relationship with my own daughter), and who doesn't like flying at all, especially the idea of 2 long flights to get to New Zealand. Having my sister at our house for Christmas and New Year's made me realize even more how homesick I truly am. So, I decided to look into coming in the next month or so; but then realized with work that my schedule was too crazy to be traveling then. And as I sat feeling sorry for myself in Random Foreign Country, I got an idea...

It's not the first time we've done something crazy but it probably takes the cake as being the most outlandish. Sure, we decided at the last minute to surprise our families 5 years ago by just showing up at Thanksgiving when they thought we were in Charlottesville. And a few days after Lilly's first birthday, we decided to leave the next day for Disney World. So we've done this before.

But to book a flight from New Zealand to the US at noon, and get on the flight at 7:15 that night? Yeah, kind of drastic and dramatic but in some ways, kind of easy. We didn't have to worry about making a million plans. Just threw all our clothes in a few suitcases and left. (Assuring with work that it was ok, of course. And amazingly, being home-based, I can work anywhere!)

Oddly enough, while I figured that everything could go wrong with no planning, it actually was the easiest traveling ever with Lilly, not that she's ever been a bad traveler. She watched Hannah Montana and Little Mermaid on her own tv; ate the 2 wonderful airplane meals that are served on the international flight (wonderful in the fact that it's actually decent and free, compared with the big fat nothing that is served domestically these days), and slept 6 hours on the first flight and 3 on the second. 24 hours after we arrived at the Auckland airport, we were in Atlanta hugging our families.

Sure, it seems a little crazy. But the moment I woke up with morning, I felt such a relief to be back home, even if it is just for a week. I haven't been to Atlanta in 18 months, and to be back in my parents' house is amazing - this is where I grew up from the age of 10. And it was definitely feeling surreal last night on 2 hours of sleep and jet lag and having not been here in so long, but today it feels wonderful.

Lilly is having the best time already; hanging out with Grandma and PawPaw until late last night, and playing with NoNo and Grandpa today. As for us... we went to the grocery store this morning and were amazed (literally... you should have seen me running excitedly down the aisle to chase down some Sam Adams Light, Pampers diapers, and half and half).

We've gotten so used to things in NZ that it's strange being here, and remembering how many products there are in the US. Or even just being in my parents' house, and my mom (a true packrat) having Every Possible Thing A Person Can Imagine - from every Sesame Street character, to a child's potty, to extra toothbrushes, to 7 million different types of sweets and snacks. Even Lilly was amazed, wandering through the 3 floors of my parents house like it was some giant playground - and of course every room just happens to have a million different toys for her to play with. If I were ever in a natural disaster, I'd like to stranded at my parents' house - they really have it all. Which is such a contrast to living in New Zealand and a) having much more limited options at the stores and b) not having much anyways b/c we're just there for a year.

So I think it will be a good week back. Just a little bit of "normalcy" (which feels surprisingly unnormal now that we've gotten used to Alice's Wonderland) to get us through the next 5 months in New Zealand. And now... I have to get back to work! (Aren't laptops and vpn's wonderful?)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Happy Kiwi Christmas

In NZ, it's not Merry Christmas, it's Happy Christmas. And as the seasons are opposite, it's now summer here, so when we wore our velvet and wool to church for Christmas mass, everyone else was in shorts and sundresses. And there is just nothing like hearing the Kiwi Christmas Carol on the radio; I'm sure if you're from here it's a nice tune, but we certainly didn't develop a full appreciation for it.

But it was Lilly's third Christmas of her life, so we were excited. She had officially turned 2 and a half 5 days before Christmas, so we were excited about her first Christmas that she would actually understand a little more about what was going on. For the first time, Santa didn't just wrap up some of her old toys; Santa decided that, since Lilly was such a good girl, and was living in a random foreign country, that Lilly needed to get some things she'd really like. Oh, and Santa also likes Lilly to celebrate Hanukkah as well, so for the few days before Christmas Lilly started getting her eight days of gifts. Including, a small basketball hoop, the High School Musical 3 sountrack, and on Christmas morning, a tricycle.
Lilly also loved our Christmas tree, which was 3 feet tall and decorated with cheap ornaments from Warehouse (the KMart type store). Except, we bought ornaments that look like presents, and so Lilly methodically removed each one, and disappeared into the closet with it. She'd unwrap it carefully, find only styrophome inside, and go back to the tree for another one. By Christmas day, there was only one ornament left: the one that we brought from the US that she couldn't destroy.

Although Lilly didn't fully appreciate everything about the holiday season, she got to know Santa pretty well. She met him about 4 times this year, through different Christmas parties, and of course, the mall. She wasn't impressed each time, but once he gave her a piece of candy or a present, her face transformed and she started smiling and waving, and frankly, flirting with him. This girl knows who to be nice to. A few days before Christmas, when Lilly and I were wandering around the mall, we saw Santa in his chair and we started walking by him. I slowed down for a minute to point him out, and we were about to move on again, when all of a sudden Santa Clause himself got up from his post and ran across the busy mall to say hi to my little girl. And give her 10 pieces of chocolate. It was truly magical; does this type of thing happen to everyone? Lilly absolutely loved the attention, and blew him a million kisses in thanks.
Yet, Lilly also grew a great appreciates the Hanukkah rituals. She was absolutely thrilled with the idea of the Menorah, and singing the song for lighting the candles. But I must admit, after we lit them, she tried to blow them out, and then made us sing "Happy Birthday" a few times. So, it's a little confusing to a toddler who loves celebrating birthdays.

After all the buildup of teaching Lilly about Hanukkah and Christmas, about Santa and Jesus, and a mention of Hanukkah Harry, after opening our advent calendars of chocolate for twenty-odd days (Lilly's was High School Musical, while Jon and I had Santa calendars), we were excited as it grew closer to Christmas day. Until... 3 days before Christmas, Lilly got a horrible stomach bug. And it went strong for about a week. So, Lilly was feeling horrible and her parents were exhausted. But Lilly still managed to put out cookies and milk for Santa (and carrots for his reindeer); but being Lilly, she also swiped a cookie for herself. :)

She's back to 100% now though, although she's now getting over a case of pink eye. And she still had an great time between Christmas and New Year's. Her cousins Lyndsey and Julianne were in town with my sister Colleen (more about their vacation here later), and Lilly loved spending time with them. But we missed out on taking amazing holiday pictures because Miss Lilly Lou was under the weather.

Anyways, we wish you all a "Happy" Christmas, and Happy New Year.