concluding the travel school project

This story/blog needs an end. In many ways though, I feel like we've opened doors and widened horizons. Sure, we miss family, friends, pets and home. It would be sad if we didn't miss the life we have. But, for all the quick strangers and fast friends' paths we've crossed (Bullingtons & McGriffs) who've asked us who we are, where we are from, and what we are doing, hopefully we've shared seeds of a different way of schooling and our kids have had the opportunity to see different ways of living. 

Explaining "virtual school" in a simple way and finding basic words to manage an often non-fluent conversation, stripped the concept down and most often we heard the response, "we'd never be able to do that in... France, Italy, Spain, England".  We have so much gratitude and praise for the two virtual school programs. Baldwin County Virtual School (BCVS) and Decatur City Virtual School helped us seamlessly jump into the start of the second semester of the school year.  Both virtual schools did a great job with their curriculum. The school work was challenging.  Our kids had to adapt and gain skills that they typically don't use in regular bricks and mortar school.   They had real online teachers for each subject, and from the start, they were provided a course syllabus for each class. They had to grow in self reliance without a teacher standing in front of them. Note-taking became extremely important. Learning how to read and digest class material was important. There was constant stress of finishing and staying on pace. All done well by each student in the end.

For celebrating the accomplishment of school being finished for the term, we had an end-of-semester class party -- Mediterranean style. Pizza and cake on the beach with a rock skipping contest. It was bittersweet. Our time all together in Nice came to a wrap a few weeks ago. Both families started their journeys back home, flying in different directions in Europe.  The McGriffs wrapped up in Venice and the Bullingtons have toured the UK for the past two weeks. 

Often I was asked, what is your favorite thing you've done or seen? My answer was uncertain because we hadn't made it to the end. But now at the end of the journey,  I'm still not sure I have a one favorite thing.  It has been a 4 month experience that fits all together. It's the Travel School Project. In the spirit of reflection, now that we're packed ready to go home, I asked each kid what they enjoyed the most out of the experience-

The travel opportunities. We could take trips and work around our school schedules. I got to go places and see things that otherwise I probably would have skipped because of time and monetary restrictions.
— Wilson
I got to look at the world from a different perspective. I got to see how other people live. In many ways we are different, but I also saw similarities. I can look at the world with new eyes now.
— Anne Lois
It makes me realize how special my home really is.
— Abigail

This time was a blessing. We are thankful for safe travels. We've met interesting people- some investing time in us. We are truly thankful for our traveling friends and for our family and friends back home that have sent love notes, emails and texts while we've been away. We return home tomorrow, travel weary and ready to be home. Ready for hugs and face to face time with others. Life is short. Life is good. 

Paris- seeing the b-list

"The B-List" or "The Accidental Victor Hugo Complete Tour " were my Paris subtitle choices. Paris was a huge marker, side-trip for the Travel School Project. It had been inked into our calendar since we headed to Europe. Friday, May 6, 2016, was a confirmed date for Wilson and Camille to take their AP US History test at the American School of Paris. An endeavor that all 4 parents played a part in making happen. A direct 5 1/2 train trip from Nice to Gare de Lyon the day before, allowed for test studying, picnicking and card playing. The two moms' nerves were high (we kept our cool) about logistically getting the kids to the school on time (8:00am) and through strict security. We had everything we needed, we just knew we'd rather be past the test part of the weekend. 

Our home bases for the weekend were 2 apartments in Le Marais district (3rd and 4th arrondissements). A new area for the Bullingtons, Le Marais, is known as the famous Jewish neighborhood. It's in the city's core and oozes with "Old Paris" charm. Much of it is pedestrian friendly and packed with beautiful boutiques. I'm pretty sure I overheard Anne Lois vowing that she needed to come back one day with an empty suitcase to fill!  Once we were partly situated, we met back up for a walk and dinner.   Falafels were calling our names.  We hit the most famous falafel place, L'As du Fallefel, for a street food dinner experience. There's a constant 1/2-a-block line for this hand-held meal. Our group had mixed reviews, but overall it was delicious and we now all know about a good falafel.

Skimming over test taking details, Elizabeth took Wilson, Camille and Pete to a hotel close to the school. We had concerns over early morning transportation options in Paris. That plan helped  alleviate fears of travel logistics and put everyone in a better frame of mind. On Friday morning,  Elizabeth got them admitted through tight security and then patiently waited for the next several hours in Saint- Cloud. My girl's had the chance to work on school work until we were all back together for the afternoon.

Once the big test was finished, we had the rest of the weekend for sightseeing. This is where the subtitles fit into the story.  Because we've both been to Paris several times and it was crunch time to make it to new places- the b-list, the two families split up for their own daytime agendas, but worked to eat dinners together.

The Bullington's b-list included:

  • Les Invalides (Napoleon's tomb) and Musee de l'Armee
  • Versailles (better part of a day trip to tour the Palace and Gardens)
  • sunset Eiffel Tower/Seine walk
  • Victor Hugo's house (he wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Miserables)
  • Centre Pompidou
  • Pantheon (many French greats are buried here- including Hugo)
  • Shakespeare and Company Bookstore
  • Notre Dame (a. mass was in service, b. setting for Hugo's famous book)
  • Musee des Egouts de Paris (a. that's long for Paris Sewer Tour! Yep. I've curiously always wanted to tour it, b. the sewers offer escape in Les Mis)

That's the Paris weekend "B-List Tour" or the "Accidental Victor Hugo Complete Tour" overview. We logged 14 walking miles on Saturday and 10 walking miles on Sunday. Our feet were sore and our bodies weary. The weather was gorgeous and hot- very unusual and unlike any of my other times I've been there.  

Paris is special and my motto still stands true, "there's never enough time in Paris. Never.".

Berlin juxtaposed

A scheduled dad week with a trip-on-a-whim plan landed us in Berlin a week and a half ago. A new place for all of us with the exception that PB went in college one year after the wall came down ('91- he said it's changed since then).  Berlin was on our side trip request list since planning our trip to France. I was so excited that we could make it happen. It was an easy under 2 hour direct flight  from Nice. We found a perfect hotel, Pension Peters, that had a room for 5 available. A room for 5 is rare in Europe. I called it my camp cabin because the kids were in twin beds lined up against the wall in front of the big bed. On our first morning, the hotelier recommend that we start out with a boat tour of the city. It was a perfect start in a big city. I was beside myself taking photos- the lines, shapes, colors, organic, inorganic, old, new was pumping my photo blood. I realized early on in our exploring that Berlin had so much to compare and contrast. The old versus new- history, walls, wars, economy, culture, etc. 

In Berlin, the ugly and bad things are quietly laid to rest. Most are not acknowledged. The city that once had a "death strip" for 29 years dividing it into East Berlin and West Berlin has very little physical presence today. Berlin doesn't capitalize on the ugly facts. We had to search hard for the landmark sights of modern day history's past. Like the sight of Hitler's bunker- the place that he killed himself when his control was crumbling and the Nazi book burning. One is a parking lot and the other is an unmarked window on a library plaza. 

We visited the German History Museum, ate currywurst under the tracks, walked in the street market, toured the Pergamon and ate wienerschnitzel in a beer garten.  Trying to balance the  past and present, we had several meaningful conversations  with the kids. There's a dark and disturbing past to ponder and digest and a seemingly healthy and thriving economy to understand.  Berlin has made 2 contrasting sides seamlessly  blend together. The Berliners have a pleasant outlook on life. They deserve a change for the better and we enjoyed seeing a slice of it as it's still changing in front of the world.  

Cinque Terre Trail Photos- by Anne Lois

story and photos by Anne Lois

One of my favorite things that we have done on this trip is definitely hiking in Vernazza, Italy. When I get back home, it will be one of my favorite memories looking back on this amazing trip.  I absolutely loved seeing the green, blue, and orange colors as we ventured down the first part of the memorable hike.  Every once in awhile, we would pop around a corner hidden by trees and be shown an amazing view.  Cacti lined the edge of the steep rocky cliffs that led down to the blue water. As far as we could see there were endless grape vineyards and clumps of multi-color houses lining the ridges.  It was truly amazing to have the opportunity to see the clear blue waters and feel the cool crisp air.  From the first hike from village to village we stopped on the trail for ice cold granitas, lemonades, and fresh squeezed blood oranges. I really think that there was no better way to spend a day.

Vernazza, Italy- a tribute to the salad days

18 years ago, PB finished business school in Chicago and we packed our bags for a 7 week European adventure. During parts of the journey we had family and friends meet up with us. So many fun trip memories.  I refer to this time period of our marriage (pre-kids, living in Chicago and the nomadic trip to follow)  as the "salad days". Light, carefree, youthful, inexperienced- and it felt so right. One location of that long-ago trip, offers my mind a vivid snapshot of what the "salad days" looked and felt like- Vernazza, Italy.  

Think pre cell phones, caveman email, non-existent social media, hotel reservations made by a phone call or fax and an Italian seaside village barely brushed by tourists. We were visiting the Italian Cinque Terre area (5 centuries old seaside villages strung together by rugged walking paths) for a few nights by word of mouth.  We camped out in the unairconditioned attic rooms of  Albergo Barbara  in Vernazza with Joe and Marilyn.  We hiked along the Ligurian sea, weaving through vineyards to visit the neighboring villages. It was enchanting and like magic the homemade focaccia and lemon granitas kept us fueled.   

In the middle of my then and now, a devastating mudslide hit the village of Vernazza on October 25, 2011. Thirteen feet of mud slid down the hills created by heavy rains. The mud filled every crevice. Paralyzing heartache. I remember hearing the news. You can find video footage from it. Slowly over time, the town cleaned, rebuilt and reopened. They have many photos throughout the shops and train station. There's still debris and even rusted metals scattered along what's now named, "the new beach". It's mildly barricaded off, but one waiter asked if I went there to look after we had a conversation about life in Vernazza pre-muslide. Intrigued, the kids and I climbed trough the tunnel and climbed around for a few minutes before the sensation of feeling unsafe hit all of us. 

I am certain that I've always dreamed of going back. Living in Nice placed me within close proximity.  So, I emailed the same hotel. Got a 2 night reservation for 2 rooms- one room in the attic and the other for the girls and me. We took an easy 4 hour multi train journey on Thursday and hiked all day on Friday. We blazed 10 miles of coastal trail fueled on cappuccinos, focaccia and lemon granitas. Our group was blissfully happy. Carefree and breathing fresh air- it felt so right. My hippie child (I won't use names) was in her own youthful world. She was barefoot, dirty, making homemade bows and arrows, and spears for fishing. It quickly became a happy place for all of us and I am satisfied knowing that they now have the same love for Vernazza planted in them. 

Interestingly, there's been an active American expat group helping with the restoration projects. Have a look if you're interested

Right in the center of the first photo, you can see the attic rooms and our room with the green shutters opened.

two families' train trip to Barcelona, Spain

Last week, the Travel School Project hit the road- or tracks rather! We traveled by train for the better part of Sunday to Barcelona, Spain to spend a few days unplugged from virtual school. It was our group's first overnight trip traveling together. An adventure that had us all excited. Both families have traveled independently to Barcelona in the past, but it's been a few years for each. Barcelona is one of those European cities that you visit, leave and want to go back.  It has stayed on the top of the group's travel request list. Wilson and Camille were itching to use their Spanish language skills. They've taken 2 years of it. Never mind that Barcelona has the Catalan language too. That's an aspect blended in that can leave an entire group lost. To me, the city has a Gothic and Bohemian mix. It's playful, authentic and richly steeped in the visual arts. A goldmine landing spot for a few days of out-of-the-classroom/textbook learning. I think it's a city for the 5 senses- sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. We crammed in what we could- plus each mom catered to individual requests. Our feet hurt, we slept like rocks and scarfed as much tapas down that we could. Once again leaving us, wanting to go back. 

Examples of outside of the classroom learning Barcelona style:

  • forms of government- yes, there's Barcelona but what is Catalonian? Why is there a recognizable push to be something different? They have their own yellow and red striped flag that shows up in several of the photo below.  

  • architecture/building- a big one in Barcelona. Antoni Gaudi is the city's mastermind of Catalan Modernism. A creative genius. His work has a unique style. We visited several of the now World Heritage sights. The most famous, La Sagrada Familia, has been under construction since 1882. This is my 3rd time to visit the cathedral project over the span of 18 years. I marvel at the progress every time. Definitely an amazing place to see while still under construction. 

  • math- geometry in it's architectural glory.

  • history- Columbus sailed to the Americas for Spain. He returned to Barcelona to to report of the new land to the King and Queen. Host city of the 1992 Summer Olympics.

  • art- the main Pablo Picasso museum. Put together in chronological order. I've claimed it as my favorite art museum for years. Abigail especially enjoyed taking it in because she was too little to appreciate the last time ('12).  Gaudi's work throughout the city is covered in mosaics. Art pad drawing on the go. 

  • food culture- The Boqueria market. Ahhh- I may have eaten octopus for breakfast! It was a delicious ordering mistake- (I'll blame it on the Catalan language barrier). Outside of the Boqueria, we ate, ate and ate tapas. Spices in Spain are a delightful contrast to the bland French food palette. 

  • current events- football craze, refugee crisis, tourism and financial economy

  • language- Wilson, Camille and Elizabeth carried the non-Spanish speakers. I was shocked by Wilson's complete conversation in Spanish with our cab driver from the train station to the hotel. 

  • music- Gaudi's acoustical designs, subway and park artists


the big one- market day in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

Photo eye-candy from our 30 minute Sunday morning rural drive from Avignon to visit what's known as the grandaddy of the French markets in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. I was warned several times that parking is an issue. The town is surrounded by water and the market is popular. We found a free spot for the little car and beelined straight in. Goodness gracious! Antiques, fresh produce, baked goods, clothes, hats, flowers, soap, toys..... they had it all. We looked with wide eyes, had a picnic lunch with a duck, bought some soaps and meandered the morning away. 

Provence Road Trip- Avignon & Les Baux


Early in the dark of Saturday morning, we put Wilson on a plane headed to Amsterdam. He was graciously invited to join his granddad, Joe, for a week long tulip gazing river cruise. So off he went leaving PB with his 3 girls. We opted for a weekend long road trip to Provence.  Setting our base in Avignon, we drove about 2 1/2 hours in a small, stick-shift rental car. I drove and PB navigated. Rusty- I haven't driven in 8 weeks and never-mind it's been since high school that I drove a manual car. We survived and thoroughly enjoyed our road freedom! I loved seeing all the spring blooms, buds and fresh green along the highway.

Avignon was calm and relaxed (oh almost forgot, they were having a union strike/all nighter at the Palace of the Popes). We toured the the palace our first evening before dinner.  It's the largest Gothic palace built for a newly elected Pope from the 14th century who did not want to live in Italy. It was the seat of the Catholic Church- moved from Rome for about 100 years. 

Then, the famous bridge- Pont Saint-Benezet. It's famous now because of a nursery rhyme song. We had a Raffi tape when the kids were babies, so they knew about this bridge. When it was built in the 1100's, it was strategic- one of three built across the Rhone during the middle ages.

Les Baux

We mostly drove the scenic country roads home to Nice on Monday.  We did a one hour quick stop in St-Remy-de-Provence. That town quickly impressed us. I definitely put it one my short list of places-to-rent-a-house one day. It is the town where van Gogh was hospitalized for cutting off his ear. He then painted like a mad man for his mental therapy. 

Continuing on the scenic road, we stopped at a pull off area for a steep foot climb to a lookout over Les Baux. The panoramic Alpine view was stunning and the prominence of Les Baux in the distance was impressive. Les Baux is basically a high perched castle ruin with a medieval town at its feet.  It was not at all what I expected. So well preserved, we traversed the ruins and enjoyed several of the setup medieval crafts and skills needed back in the day. We finished noting all of the educational enrichment we covered- art, history, science, language and math. Wow! Travel School road trip score!

a dad week- eze and monaco photo highlights

*If you only check out one of my photos below...... look at the last one. It shows Monaco setting up the bleachers for the Grand Prix. It's real people.

Last Wednesday, PB landed in Nice at lunchtime! Man, we were so happy to have him join us. We had meals planned in the neighborhood, close by sightseeing adventures and a weekend road trip to Provence. 

But before we did all of the above, I'm putting it down in the blog for the record (even though I'm really trying to suppress the memory) my required and assigned medical appointment at the OFII (French Immigration Office) last Thursday morning. Truth be known, I had no idea that it was a final requirement of the French visa process. I was bothered for a few days upon receipt of the appointment by email. I had lots of dramatic and detailed public/socialized medical heath clinic visions (I'll blame the nurse in me). All made me want to buy a plane ticket back home and forget about the visa need. But after some quick online research, (thank you Google) I read a few testaments and realized it wasn't so scary. My appointment was at 8:30am. Paul went with me and the kids stayed home to work on school. We left them with lunch money- I had no earthly idea how long it would take. After a cab ride there, a long line in a plain unassuming hallway, then a security, paperwork and passport check- I found myself waiting in queue for the exam. I passed! Including a chest x-ray to evaluate for TB. I was out of there in 45 minutes with my official stamp added into my passport. 

Now, I could let the fun plans begin!

We had a reservation for a dress up dinner, hard-to-get-in spot Thursday night. I had a reason to celebrate. On Friday, the kids worked on school until lunch, then we set out by bus to a hilltop town called, Eze-le-Village. Existing since ancient times, Eze caps a high peak above the coastline. Today, it survives off of tourism. From there we rode a bus to Monaco to give PB a whirlwind pass through. He loved it. The fast luxury cars were still there! I love how the crowd lights up  when they hear a loud engine rounding the corner. We left Monaco by train, and stopped off in Villefranche for a cozy dinner at sunset. They were filming a movie right outside of the restaurant's doors. I could see it from my chair. Anne Lois had to get close and stood outside of the door to watch them shoot a scene. Not sure the day could have been any more perfect.

small signs- Spring in Nice, France

We are all still donning our coats daily and running down to the beach in hopes of seeing sun bathers. I know the pollen is coating everything back home in Fairhope. So shouldn't we see the same here in Nice? Are we not paying attention? Every single day seems to have the same high and same low. The other day, Ab and I went on a walk looking for signs of spring. They were small. But, I can tell that our clothes layers are lighter. Our smiles are brighter. The days are getting longer. And the tourists are more numerous (we don't count ourselves as one of those). It's slowly warming up and I can't wait to see all the beautiful Mediterranean, summer weather loving plants shine soon. We're pretty sure spring has sprung here! 

We're almost halfway through the Travel School Project. Here's a summary-

grandparent week

Just as we returned late by train to Nice from our Florence trip, PB's parents had arrived the same day via plane from Jerusalem. They rented a modest studio apartment right around the corner from ours for the week.  PB had one day with all of us before he returned to Fairhope. Our week was fast, relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed. We crammed in school sessions, sunsets, shopping, eating and regional sightseeing. As much as J&M have traveled the globe, they hadn't been to Nice before. It was a treat for the kids to show them around. 

Our longest excursion was taking a 45 minute bus trip from Nice up above Monaco to La Turbie. A smallish town not heavily touristed. It holds the ancient Roman ruins known as Trophee des Alpes.  It was built as a trophy high on a hilltop for all to see by land and sea by emperor Augustus. The Romans declaration that they had conquered and ruled the lands- opening roads from Rome to Spain. The ruins have a long history of decay and stone removal/repurposing, but in the 1920's it underwent significant restoration thanks to a US investor- Dr. Tuck. There is also a simple but beautiful one room museum on site. 

Now- the truth. That day we needed new tram tickets and the machines would take our credit cards. No problem. Walk to the bus office, get tickets. Take tram to bus stop. Ok. Get off at tram stop, but where are the buses? Down the hill out of plain site. Ride bus. Kids argue as we get to the ruins (no good reason). Finish and we're having meltdowns (4 out of 6). Mom to the rescue. Buy some snacks and perk them up. Just sometimes (many times) photos don't reveal the truth. 

As our moods began to lighten, we trekked back towards Nice via bus down to Monaco to get on the regional train. I voted to get off a stop before Nice in Villefranche-sur-mer for dinner. It was sunset and a perfect way to end the day in a picturesque riviera village.  Wilson looked hard for a nice dinner spot. It was tricky. But he found a small and charming local restaurant that we all enjoyed. Afterwards, we joked and laughed our way back to the train station walking under the full moon's light.

It felt like a slice of home was with us for a week.  

Under the Dome, Florence- ver. II (Wilson's story)

Question: What do tourists do when they see a massive structure?

Answer: They are willing to spend money and wait in long lines just to climb it.

When you look out over the skyline of the historic city of Florence, Italy, the innumerable towers, churches, and other historic buildings from the Renaissance are all dominated by one of the greatest and most important architectural structures ever. This cathedral, so iconic and important that it simply goes by Il Duomo, or the Cathedral in English. The reason for this building's importance, however, is not its beauty, or scale, or location, or even the Renaissance artwork created by masters such as Donatello, Michelangelo, and Ghiberti. The Duomo is important because of the massive dome that sits on the colorful marble sourced in the nearby mountains. When construction on the original gothic cathedral began in 1296, Europe still had both feet in the dark ages, but as construction moved forward, so did the continent. The architects had created a beautiful basilica that evolved over the one and a half centuries as Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance slowly crept out of the shadows; the Florentines wanted to cap off their masterpiece with a beautiful dome. There was just one problem- a dome had not been built since the fall of Rome almost 1,000 years before. Luckily, Florence was home to some of the greatest minds that the world has ever known. Even without the knowledge the Romans had accumulated over centuries, an architect, named Brunelleschi, reinvented how to build a dome. Now Brunelleschi's dome is a beacon of knowledge, faith, and the Renaissance that thousands of tourists visit every year. Naturally, they all want to climb it, and of course I was in this majority.

While my family and I were walking enjoying gelato and other Italian fare we noticed one peculiar thing: the usually long line for the 463 step climb to the Cupola Santa Maria del Fiore, the official name for the apex and viewing platform of the dome, was nonexistent. Quickly realizing that now was our best chance to make the climb, my Dad, Paul, my sister, Abigail, and I headed through the side entrance of the cathedral while my mom, Kelly, and my other sister, Anne Lois stayed on the ground. The climbers made it partially up the first series of stairs and part of a spiral staircase before being impeded by a slowly moving line that moved single-file up towards our goal. When we emerged from the spiral staircase into a small room, we started to wonder how high we were and how much further we had to go. We were about to find out. That room led onto a three-foot-wide walkway that wrapped around the interior of the famed dome. The stone walkway is supported by ornate stone beams that were not very convincing. With only a railing and a plexiglass wall that prevented you from falling, but still allowed you to see the entirety of the dome, and a little less fortunately, it allowed a clear view of the cathedral floor. We made our way confidently around the walkway until suddenly we came to a halt halfway between the two doors that cut the dome in half. The delay was not all bad though- it allowed us to admire the frescoes and stained glass overhead; but, they could not hold our attention forever. Eventually, my eyes slipped down to the dizzying gap between us and the horde of tiny tourists that swarmed like bees on the cathedral floor. My eyes quickly snapped up but even the ongoing battle between demons and angels above could not distract from the long drop to the floor below. Inching back, I hugged the wall and glanced over at my dad who empathetically looked back as he came to the same realization. A nerve racking twenty minutes passed by as we wished the line would continue to move forward. Finally, the line moved forward and we stepped safely through the portal that bestowed a renewed sense of security to those who passed through. We then endured a slow second half of the climb because from that point on there was only one path for both up and down. Finally, we completed the last portion of the climb where the stairs were more related to a ladder. Coming out of the trap door on the cupola, we witnessed the breathtaking view of the surrounding city. I knew without a doubt that it was well worth the climb (time spent under the dome included). Not only the view but the inner passages and architectural features of a building that were never meant to be seen by the public eye were amazing to witness. Without a doubt, the Duomo is an architectural marvel and a treasure. 

photos by Wilson and Paul

Florence- version I (Kelly's photo share)

My version of Florence is best told by my favorite photos. A return for all of us, we stayed in a well located and nicely furnished apartment. It had a beautiful terrace on the front that faced a preserved church from the middle ages. 6 days, 5 nights. We took the relaxed tourist mode instead of our usual cram-it-all-in mode. The kids got school work done in the mornings and we'd set out for sight seeing in the afternoons. The Italian food was YUMMY! That was definitely a highlight of each day. All of us have a Florence story to share. Stay tuned for the next few blog posts and enjoy the share from the Kelly's view. 

train stop in Pisa

This week has been our Spring Break Week in Florence, Italy. We journeyed early, in the dark before daybreak to the train station in Nice on Monday. Early in our trip planning, I made a request to PB that we make a visit to the Leaning Tower. PB had been as a little boy. Other than that, it was a first and he was seeing it with fresh eyes.

Pisa once was a major sea port player in the medieval times. It was close to the Mediterranean and had the protection of being upstream by the Arno River. The city used its wealth to build it's few landmarks including the tower. Eventually, the port silted up and it left Pisa in the dry. 

The tower was built over two centuries (starting in 1173) by several different architects. It started leaning at the start and somehow with each architect's turn to fix the problems it has successfully stood un-toppled. It leans at a 15 foot vertical axis angle. In 1990, it was closed for a massive restoration and head-scratching ground strengthening attempts. Because of their success, it is open now for climbing and the city is happy because it relies on its tourists $'s. The tower's neighboring cathedral is stunning. Galilleo was born in Pisa and it's chandelier is said to have inspired him on astronomical theories while watching it swing in the church. 

Our stop off was easy and quick. We left our luggage in the luggage check at the train station, took a cab to the tower area, walked around, visited the cathedral and all but mom walked up the tower. In the next to last photo you can see the family waving down to me as I sat with the backpacks- someone had to watch the stuff! We sat down for a lunch then chugged back to the train for a 30 minute ride into Florence. 

The Hunt for the Perfect Baguette

story and photos by Anne Lois

For each amazing dinner at the apartment, a baguette is on the top of our market list.  We usually get up each day ready to search for ingredients throughout the market. Somedays (like today), the man we like to call the "baguette man", wasn't around. So we headed off to find another bakery or rather a boulangerie.  Today we wanted something different to eat with dinner. We went looking for a new option.  As we walked down the windy streets we came across this little bakery with a wood burning oven inside.  We decided it looked great.  Each of us ordered a lunch that we could take back up to the apartment to eat too, and my mom ordered a beautiful baguette.  We paid and waved au revoir to the man running the bakery. We walked back towards our apartment, happy we had found another great place that we will definitely revisit. 

Castle Hill Sunset Walk

First, I must be honest about our Monday. It was an all day school day. I had two mandatory breaks declared. Once, at lunch time for a big grocery run (totally needs to be shared in it's own story) and again before dinner. At sunset we went on an exploration walk up to Castle Hill. There is no castle. Just history of a former medieval fortress. But now, it's a public park area and best known for its vista views of Nice and the port. It was fun at sunset. I loved the fact that we walked from our neighborhood and worked our way down to the Promenade des Anglais. Probably backwards for most. I have many photos to share. Hard to cull it down- my sanity in day long school days is enjoying my creative outlet, fresh air and laughs with my kids.  

Monte Carlo, Monaco day trip {short film}

A 20 minute train ride to the second smallest country in the world, we visited Monaco on Friday. You may know it for it's famed casinos and car races (yep, we walked on the motorway). Ruled by a prince, the country is tax free and a sovereign nation (that explains the wealth oozing everywhere). We toured the cathedral where Grace Kelly wed the Prince ('56) and where they're both buried, visited the Musee Oceanographique where Jacques Cousteau served as director and walked to the outside of the casinos to drool over the many fancy sports cars within our reach. We also grinned big knowing we were where Uncle Andrew proposed to Aunt Debbie. It was a great day that we share in a short film. 

the daily grind- the butcher

by Wilson Bullington

Have you ever heard the bone-splitting, cracking, whacking, and smacking sound that a giant meat cleaver makes when it descends on what you thought was an already dead and defenseless piece of meat? Most people just go and grab some already cut and packaged pork chops from the meat section in Publix, but in France things work a little differently. As you walk down the street, any street, in Nice you are bound to find at least one, if not many, butchers. How could you not take the opportunity to buy some raw and strangely appetizing meat from one of the abundant shops? Of course, the first step is to pick out which butcher you want to buy from- which butcher has the most locals? the cleanest shop? what about the best looking meat? Next, dive straight in and test your French pronunciation of some familiar and unfamiliar products- from sausage to the entire pig's head or even cheval (horse) a French delicacy. Then, watch as the butcher reaches into the case, grabs the meat and one of his many knives, and voilà. Now all that is left is to pair your fresh cut with a nice wine and invite some friends over.