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Today’s garden visitor…

Early this morning, Bill let Arran out to do his business. Arran immediately alerted to the ivy covered fence on the right side of the yard. It was very early– not even 6am yet– so it wasn’t a good thing that Arran was barking so assertively. Bill brought him back inside, but Arran remained obsessed with getting outside.

I prefer to let the dogs out, if they want to go out. I’ve cleaned up too many accidents to know that it’s not a good idea to deny them the chance to pee when the need arises. But Arran and Noyzi were both still fixated on the fence line, and I didn’t want them to piss off the neighbors, so I went over to see what the issue was. There, I saw it… a humongous spiky hedgehog, curled up by the fence. It’s daytime, and hedgehogs are nocturnal animals, so I figured it might be sleeping. Still, I’m not interested in having a dead animal in my yard, so I got a shovel and gently pulled it out for a better look. It took a minute or two, but I finally saw it breathe. So, after I took a photo for posterity, I put it back where I found it, and shooed the dogs back inside.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a hedgehog in my German backyards. The first time we lived in Germany (2007-09), I had to rescue a hedgehog from the jaws of my then beagles, Flea and MacGregor. Later, when we were still living at that house, I discovered an enormous hedgehog raiding the trash. My guess is that it was the same one I saved from my beagles. I see from Facebook, that happened in August, too…

Dated August 19, 2009just found an enormous hedgehog raiding the trash… good thing my hounds were inside.

I last saw a hedgehog in our garden in October 2020. I noticed that it lived under a platform in our yard. For all I know, this is the same creature, as according to my reading, they can live up to 7 or 8 years in the wild. I also read that August is when hedgehogs in this latitude usually give birth. Some babies are born in July or September, but in Germany, at least half are born in August. For all I know, this is a female hedgehog who is about to have babies. I sure hope she moves, though, because I don’t want my dogs trying to eat her. She’s very spiky. Or maybe it’s a he. I don’t know.

I remember seeing hedgehogs in the 70s, when my dad was stationed at Mildenhall Air Force Base in England. We moved back to the United States, and I didn’t see them again until years later, when Sonic the Hedgehog became a popular video game and people adopted them as pets. I don’t think hedgehogs are as popular to own as pets anymore. But they sure are around in the European wilderness, especially in Germany… I never saw one when we lived in Jettingen. There, we saw lots of field mice, which Arran was occasionally able to catch, even when he was on his leash (which he almost always was, since we didn’t have an adequately fenced yard). They are good to have in gardens, because they eat bugs. For that reason, I welcome our cute visitor. I’m always amazed at the things I learn as a result of living over here.

Hedgehogs were never really an issue for us in the USA. Over the course of 20 years and many different homes, we’ve had snakes, squirrels, deer, wild ducks, turtles, mice, rats, chimney swifts, groundhogs, toads, coyotes, moles, foxes, chipmunks, rabbits, and all manner of birds. But wild hedgehogs are strictly a European thing… kind of like slugs. I know there are slugs in the USA, but I never saw so many of them there as I have here. They are huge, and pretty gross. I remember our first German landlord used to put out bowls of beer to attract the slugs and drown them. I don’t take those steps myself, because I love beer and hate to waste it on killing slugs. Also, beer attracts bees, who also end up drowning.

I’m still kind of shocked by how big that hedgehog is. I’ll bet it’s a female who’s about to give birth. I’m not going to turn it over and try to look for the telltale sex organs, though. Like I said… lots of spiky quills! It’s already Monday; I don’t need any wild animal related mishaps today.

ETA: I just checked where I left the hedgehog, and it’s moved. So that’s a good thing… Hope it finds a less dangerous place to be.

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Operation Mr. Sandman: Bill tries the “Kokoon NightBuds” sleep device…

Well, it’s another dismal weekend weather and pandemic wise, here in Germany. Since COVID-19 numbers are so high, and it’s cold and drizzly outside, I’m sitting here watching dog grooming videos on YouTube, giving Arran and Noyzi a thrill.

Bill has had trouble sleeping for as long as we’ve known each other, and he is chronically exhausted once the sun goes down. He is not willing to use drugs for sleep purposes, but he’d done everything from getting a sleep study done (resulting in a diagnosis of “poor sleep hygiene”) to putting weird holographic stickers on his temple and forehead. I am constantly picking up ear plugs that he puts in his ears, I guess to drown out my snoring. He says I don’t keep him awake, but I know I snore sometimes. So does he!

The ear plugs always fall out of his ears when he tosses and turns, and wind up being sucked up by my vacuum. He’s also used white noise machines, and every night, we run a fan so he can zone out.

A few days ago, Bill got a package he had been eagerly anticipating. It’s a sleep aid device called Kokoon NightBuds, which he discovered from a Facebook ad. With a 30 percent discount, Bill paid 179 euros for this innovative gadget with ear buds. The Kokoon ear bud/headphone devices come from a manufacturer in London, and were developed with the help of sleep scientists. He did not have to pay any customs fees when it arrived. There’s a handy app that works with Bluetooth technology to help improve sleep quality. Prior to his receiving the ear buds, the company sent Bill a questionnaire to assess his sleep style and give him some tips on getting better sleep. According to the Kokoon folks, Bill is a “morning lark”. I could have told them that without a questionnaire!

The Kokoon NightBuds strap around the back of Bill’s head and play soothing background noise to help him sleep, as it also monitors how long he sleeps and judges his sleep quality. He’s been using the NightBuds for a few days now, and is enjoying checking out the evolving data they collect every day. My husband is a real gadget geek, so the NightBuds are right up his alley. Below are some photos that show how this cool invention works. I have also made a very short YouTube video that shows a little bit more about what’s in the box and how it all works.

So far, Bill says the Kokoon NightBuds have helped him sleep better. As a bonafide geek, he also enjoys getting the sleep data every day. The buds come in different sizes, which are included. Bill uses the mediums, which were pre-loaded on the gadget.

Pretty nifty!

I notice that the Kokoon over the ear noise canceling headphones are available on Amazon, and it looks like it gets mixed reviews there. I didn’t consult Amazon before I wrote this post, so I have only reported what Bill has said about using this device.

For the record, Bill is using the NightBuds, which he says are not capable of noise canceling. However, he says they can be used for audiobooks, watching YouTube, or even answering the phone. And if you set your phone with an alarm, you will hear it through the buds. The Kokoon itself doesn’t have an alarm on it.

Personally, I don’t have trouble sleeping, so I haven’t tried them myself. I also don’t like to wear ear buds because I have small ears and I usually find them uncomfortable. But Bill says the NightBuds are comfortable for him, and they do come with a variety of included sizes for best fit.

I’m not being sponsored for this post… I just think this is an interesting gadget and wanted to share Bill’s experience. And since it looks like it might snow today, I don’t have any big plans for an outing. Maybe soon, the sun will come out, and we can go dine outside after we show our vaccination proof…

Sheesh, COVID-19 really sucks. I really hope we can enjoy some normalcy soon. But in the meantime, maybe we can help Bill sleep better. The featured photo is one rare instance in which Bill took a nap with Arran, device free.

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Part 14… Time to go home!

I want to thank those of you who have been following along.  I hope these posts weren’t too dull.  I think this may be the last one of my Scotland/England series.  To be honest, by Saturday, Bill and I were feeling a bit fatigued and just wanted to kill time.  Also, the weather wasn’t so great on Saturday.  Originally, we were going to go to Bury St. Edmunds and walk around.  We did drive there and started to park, but Bill realized that he didn’t have enough change to prepay for the parking.  Also, the weather wasn’t conducive to walking around.  It was cold, windy, and wet.  So we decided to drive to Ipswich, which wasn’t very inspiring either, although it did look like they had a lot of ethnic restaurants there!

Actually, I would have liked to have walked around Bury St. Edmunds.  There are a lot of impressive churches and it looked like there was a big park there.  I bet we could have found a cool pub or something.  When we decided to turn around from Ipswich, I initially said we should go back there.  But then I remembered my sister mentioned the Bird In Hand pub, which is right outside the gates of Mildenhall Air Force Base and around the corner from where we lived.  In the interest of nostalgia, we decided to have lunch there.

I enjoyed a local beer from Bury St. Edmunds…  I also had the Old Speckled Hen when we were on the Hebridean Princess.

Bill soaks up the atmosphere at the Bird in Hand pub.

My sister says it looks the same as it did in the 70s.

The beer taps weren’t working when we first walked in the pub, so our first beers came from bottles.  In retrospect, we probably should have stuck with the bottled stuff.  I could tell this place is very popular with Americans.  They had lots of American style military awards on the walls, along with video gambling and darts.  Bill and I had burgers, which were okay, but nothing really special.  After lunch, we went back to the inn and decided to pick up some beer and watch TV…

I bought a few childhood favorites to bring back to Germany.  I love British sweets!

 

Bill went to tell the hotel folks that we had to leave early in the morning and we needed to know what to do with the room key.  They were kind enough to give us a tray of food so we’d have breakfast!

They even gave us a portable fridge and toaster!  That came in handy for the beer we bought at the local grocery store.

Some of my friends made fun of the Weetabix, especially since we were leaving Easter Sunday.  

 

One thing I forgot to mention in the previous post is that you can meet some interesting people in British pubs.  On Friday evening, we sat in The Willow House’s bar and ended up talking to a couple who were visiting Watton.  The male half had a relative who had owned another inn in town and later sold it.  They had wanted to check it out, but it was closed.  So there they were in the only other pub in Watton.

The guy had been a prison guard in Britain, while his wife, who was about my age, was telling me about her obsession with Dallas and J.R. Ewing as portrayed by the late Larry Hagman.  By the time we got the pub, the two of them looked like they’d been there awhile.  It was too bad.  I would have liked to have heard a few British prison stories from the guy, who also told us about his relatives in Islay in Scotland and how he’d once gone there, told the bartender his family name, and the bartender called up the guy’s relatives.  They showed up at the bar and partied with him.

Later, we chatted with a British couple who had moved to Norfolk from London and brought their adorable Staffordshire Terrier with them.  I enjoyed a little canine attention as they chatted with Bill about Korea and Japan.  Yep… Brits are a friendly lot!  We sure appreciated their hospitality when we visited Scotland and England for two weeks!

Our drive to Norwich Airport on Easter morning was a delight.  Very few people were on the road, so we had no trouble getting there.  Getting through security was a breeze, though we had to pay 10 GBP each as an “airport improvement fee” and the machine wouldn’t accept Scottish money.  Don’t worry, though, you can pay with a card.  We had English money, too.

The flight to Amsterdam was smooth as silk and took 35 minutes.  The flight from Amsterdam to Stuttgart was also smooth as silk and took an hour.  It was super easy getting to and from England and, now that we know Bill has left side driving skills, flying in and out of airports without train connections is a possibility!  However, because we chose to check our carry ons for the sake of taking up less overhead bin space, Bill ended up leaving his tablet on the plane in Stuttgart.  Fortunately, someone turned it in to lost and found.  He went back to the airport and got it after paying a 10 euro fee.

This is a curling iron…  You can pay and curl your hair.  It was in the bathroom at the Norwich Airport.  I had to take a photo because I had never seen something like this before.

So ends my two weeks of fun and vomiting in Great Britain.  I hope to be back sometime soon, though at this point, it looks like our next trip may be to Ireland.  Stay tuned!

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Part 13… Mildenhall 38 years post PCS…

It may seem odd that out of all the places I could visit in the United Kingdom, I’d want to visit Mildenhall.  Mildenhall is a market town in Suffolk.  It is also home to an Air Force base that has been home to many Americans, including my own family.  My father’s last assignment as an Air Force officer was at Mildenhall.  He was the base engineer there from 1975 until 1978 and we lived in base housing.  Since I was born in 1972, I was just a little girl when we lived there.  I really don’t have any memories of living in Hampton, Virginia, which is where I was born.  I also don’t remember much of Dayton, Ohio, which is where we lived before we went to England.

Although I have been fortunate enough to travel all over Europe and beyond, I hadn’t been to Mildenhall since we PCS’d in 1978, when I was almost six years old.  I have been trying to get back there, though.  Two years ago, when we lived in Texas and Bill was finishing his Army career, we took two Space A trips.  I was kind of hoping we’d wind up at Mildenhall, but we went to Ramstein instead.

When I started planning our Scotland trip and we realized we’d have a few days afterwards to go somewhere else, I decided we’d finally get to Mildenhall, even though it’s not near Scotland and isn’t exactly known for being a tourist destination.  For me, it was exciting to visit again and see my old stomping grounds!

On March 24th, Bill and I said goodbye to Staffordshire and set off for Norfolk, the county next to Suffolk.  As a native Virginian who grew up near Virginia’s own Suffolk and Norfolk, it was a little weird to be going to the original ones in England.  Especially since once we got there, I noticed how much England’s Norfolk and Suffolk looked like Virginia’s Norfolk and Suffolk.

Unfortunately, Bill got my stomach virus, so the drive down there wasn’t as smooth as it could be.  We ended up having to pull off the road once so he could throw up.  I had chosen to book The Willow House, a bed and breakfast in Watton, a little village that was on the way to the airport in Norwich.  Although at the time, I was kind of sad we wouldn’t be able to stay closer to the base, I have to say that now that we’ve been to the Mildenhall area, I’m glad we stayed further out.  Mildenhall is very built up now and traffic is pretty bad there.

The Willow House in Watton.

Basic accommodations.

Thursday night, Bill and I were recovering from our run in with the stomach bug.  We had dinner at The Willow House, which has a pretty nice pub.  The portion sizes were huge and neither of us came close to finishing our meals.  On the other hand, I had a good rib eye steak, which was a nice change of pace after a week of so much fresh seafood.  The Willow House also has a nice selection of cask ales, which Bill and I appreciated as beer lovers.

Cute pub!

Bill’s huge jacket potato, which he said wasn’t quite cooked all the way.

 

My steak.  this came with chips, too.  It was way too much food, but the steak was good.

 

An example of breakfast at The Willow House.

The accommodations at The Willow House are pretty basic, but reasonably priced.  For years, my uncle ran the The Natural Bridge Hotel and Conference Center in Natural Bridge, Virginia.  They have “cabins” there.  Basically, they are little buildings with six to eight rooms in them.  The Willow House only has one building with rooms, but it really reminded me of the Natural Bridge Hotel cabins.  The Willow House has plenty of free parking and offers a great breakfast.

On Friday morning, after a good night’s sleep, Bill and I were both feeling fine again.  We had a big breakfast in the inn’s charming restaurant, then set off for Mildenhall.  Bill had set the GPS to find Tolley Cobbold Street.  If you click the link, you can get the backstory on why finding that street was on my bucket list.  The short version is that legend has it, that street was named after my late father, Charles P. Tolley.  I wanted to see if the street was still there 38 years after we PCS’d.

We got to Mildenhall and found Tolly Cobbold Street.  At first, I was a little disappointed.  Tolly Cobbold is the name of a beer that was produced for centuries in nearby Bury St. Edmunds until the brewery ceased production in 2002.  I was looking for Tolley Cobbold Street.  Unwilling to be let down by not finding it, Bill and I drove around some more and found the British school where I went to kindergarten.  We found the main drag, which features beautiful St. Mary’s Church and a charming little market square.  We also found our old house, which I easily recognized because it’s base housing and there’s a big field behind it.

Beyond those brambles is the field that backs up to our old house on base.  In my day, there were cows there.  Now there are horses.  I’d rather gaze at the horses.

 

Me in Mildenhall as a little girl, looking at the cows from our yard.


Tolly Cobbold Street

 

Tolley Cobbold Road!

I told Bill I wanted to drive into our old neighborhood.  He was reluctant because we didn’t have a visitor’s pass.  However, I noticed that the guard shack near the neighborhood (which I don’t think existed in 1978) was standing wide open and unmanned.  I kept pressuring Bill, so he finally relented…  And then, I saw it.  The sign… Tolley Cobbold Road (instead of Street).  As I snapped a picture of it, I had to wonder how many Air Force folks looked at that sign right next to Tolly Cobbold Street and wondered if it was a typo.

My old school.  I went to kindergarten here with a bunch of British five year olds.  My mom said she sent me there because the school day was longer.  I’m glad she did it, even if she did it for kind of selfish reasons.

Our old English house… the first one I have memories of in my lifetime.  I sent these pictures to my sisters, who were much older when we lived there and they confirmed that my memory hadn’t failed me!

I was a little sad to see all those trash bins under the gazebo.  

Scenes from around Mildenhall.  I hear they are planning to shut the base…  That makes me sad, especially since its been built up so much now!  And they like Americans, too… right?

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Part 12… An unplanned night in Glasgow and off to see Avenue Q…

Despite my stomach bug, I still love Scotland.  I was inspired to make this video with pictures from 2016 and 2012.

I mentioned in prior posts that we meant to head to Stoke on Trent the day our cruise ended.  I didn’t plan for getting a stomach bug.  Sometimes your best laid plans don’t work out and by the time we reached Glasgow after our messy ride in a taxi cab, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to go anywhere in England that evening.  Our cab driver dropped us off at the Hertz rental car office near the Glasgow Central Train Station.

Let me just say that both the cab driver and the folks at Hertz were just wonderful to deal with.  I looked like I had been run over by a truck and felt even worse.  I had a bag of soiled clothes (explained on my main blog) that needed to be disposed of and a sour look on my face.  My stomach was cramping; I had diarrhea; and probably stank of shit and vomit.  But they all treated me with great kindness and compassion and for that, I am very grateful.

Bill explained to the folks at Hertz that we needed to delay our rental for a day because I needed to go to bed.  The manager of the Hertz office took one look at me and concurred, then helped us book a hotel room at the Hallmark Hotel, a place just around the corner.  One of his co-workers drove us to the hotel; the Hertz guy had even tried to haggle the price on our behalf (that old Scot thriftiness at work).  Unfortunately, the Hertz guy had booked us using his phone, so he got the dates wrong.  They didn’t have a record of our booking and there were no standard rooms left.  We ended up paying a lot for our one night stay in a mediocre hotel.  At the time I didn’t really care much, though.  I just wanted to go to bed.  Besides making me erupt from every orifice, the virus also made me very sleepy.

We were on the first floor, but I barely made it up there even using the elevator.  Once we got into the room, I decided to take a shower.  The only towels in the bathroom were hair towels.  I didn’t care.  I turned on the water and sat down in the tub while the water came down on me.  And then I hurled again.

Once I was finished cleaning up, I crawled into bed and fell asleep.  Bill went out to find me fluids and ended up at the Glasgow Central Train Station, where new cruise passengers were waiting like we were the week prior.  He came back with Milk of Magnesia and very strong ginger beer.  I didn’t try the Milk of Magnesia, since I read that it was a laxative and I sure as hell didn’t need one of those.  Later, he went out and got me some Coke and 7Up, then took himself to dinner while I snoozed.  He also emailed the folks at the Shawgate Farm Guest House in Foxt, which is where I had originally booked us.

Our room at Shawgate Farm Guest House.

The toilet and shower were a little tricky.

I’m pleased to say that I felt a whole lot better the next morning, though I still had stomach cramps and diarrhea.  Bill walked to the Hertz office and came back with a nice car for us.  The manager had upgraded us to a larger car with an automatic transmission and even took off 35 GBP because of the hotel error.  We were blown away by and grateful for how kind he was to us.  If we ever need another rental car in Glasgow, he will definitely get our business.

Once we checked out of the hotel, Bill set about driving on the left for the first time.  I think we were both surprised that he handled it seamlessly.  It took several hours to get to our hotel near Stoke.  As long as we were there in time to see Avenue Q at the Regent Theatre, all would be okay.  Driving from Scotland to England gave me an odd sense of deja vu.  At times, I felt like I was on either I-95 or I-81 in Virginia.  It’s easy to see why my family ended up settling there once they left the British Isles.

Shawgate Farm Guest House…

Our lodging near Stoke turned out to be further away from the city than I’d originally realized.  It took awhile to get there, mainly due to us getting to town as school was letting out.  It was interesting to see all the kids walking home alone or with their parents.  One little girl looked upset as she handed her dad a note.  Maybe it was from her teacher?

Kids coming home from school.

I saw a cheeky ad for a hand car wash.  Its slogan was “Best hand job in town.”  Sex sells.

Our hostess at the Shawgate Farm Guest House was a pretty lady named Nina who had a five month old infant.  She lit up when we told her we live in Germany.  It turns out she is German and hails from Frankfurt.  She showed us to our room with its charming canopy bed and bidet.  The Shawgate Farm Guest House also had lots of mama sheep outside, guarding their babies.  I got a kick out of how they all bravely came forward, bleating at us indignantly, even though we were well behind the fence and were no threat to their lambs.

These were some protective mama sheep!

We ended up skipping dinner because we didn’t really have time to eat and I still had no appetite.  But we did get “blue boxes” at the theater, which offered snacks and cheap wine.  I drank one cup of wine and gave the other to Bill.

Avenue Q was fabulous!  I related to it on many levels.  Not only is it a wickedly funny show, especially for overeducated housewives like me, it’s also got kind of a nice moral to it.  We’re reminded that tough times don’t last.  At the end of the show, they even threw in a hilarious reference to Donald Trump.  We also ended up with front row seats, which was awesome.  For once, I didn’t have a tall person sitting in front of me.  I had been worried about parking and it was a bit of a challenge until Bill found a nearby parking garage.  Then he spent several stressful minutes trying to figure out how to park and pay.

Our view of the stage.

 

Our breakfast at the guest house was very good, though I was still a little fragile and could barely manage half of it.

On another day, this would have been awesome!

 

I wish we could have spent the second night at the B&B.  Though Stoke is not a very pretty town, the B&B is located in a lovely rural area.  It would have been nice to take a couple of walks around there.  They only charged us half of the first night’s rate, because they couldn’t rebook it due to our late cancellation.  I wasn’t expecting them to give us a break and really appreciated it.  Not all innkeepers are that understanding.

Unfortunately, Bill started showing symptoms of the virus early Thursday morning, so we beat a hasty retreat and made our way to the town of Watton in Norfolk.  We would be staying there for three nights so I could explore Mildenhall, the town where I lived when I was very young and where my first memories were formed.

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Part 1… What the hell am I doing in Scotland again?

Beautiful sunset on the first night of our cruise.  We were near Greenock.

In November 2012, Bill and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary in Scotland.  We did two five night cruises on Hebridean Princess, a former car ferry turned tiny luxury cruise ship.  That ten night cruise was mostly marvelous!  We were bowled over by Scotland’s charm and beauty and the fantastic personal service we received on Hebridean Princess.

On that first trip, I felt a real kinship with Scotland, which is where a lot of my forebears hailed from before they ended up in the Rockbridge County area of Virginia in the 1700s.  Not all of my people were Scottish, but as I’ve been studying my origins, I’ve found out that it was once home for quite a few of my ancestors.  I can only guess why so many of them ended up in Virginia when they did.  One thing I have noticed, though, is that Rockbridge County looks a lot like Scotland, only with less water and lower mountains.

Of course, I have also discovered roots in Germany.  In fact, it turns out I have more German ancestry than I initially realized.  Some enterprising members of my extended family have done genealogy work and left it available for slackers like me and I have found ties to places like Rhineland and Hessen… and even Karlsruhe!  Germany also has a special place in my heart, but I live there now, see it most every day, and was badly in need of a change of scenery.

Also, we had a bit of a tragedy on that first Hebridean cruise that kind of ruined the last day for us.  Our sweet old bagel (beagle/basset hound mix) MacGregor became very ill while we were away and while we were on the Princess, we got the devastating news that he needed to be euthanized.  Fortunately, we were able to get back to North Carolina to see MacGregor and get him properly diagnosed.  We ended up taking him to NC State, where he had an MRI.  Sadly, he had a highly malignant tumor invading his spinal column that we hadn’t known about.  Nothing could be done for MacGregor; so we said goodbye to him December 18, 2012.  A month later, inspired by the beauty and splendor of Scotland, we named our next rescue dog Arran, after one of our favorite Scottish islands discovered on that first trip.

For three years, I pined to go back to Scotland and try another Hebridean cruise.  The ship carries only 49 passengers.  The food and service are impeccable.  It’s truly all inclusive and very, very Scottish.  Last year, I steered my mom to a cruise on Royal Crown, the ship Hebridean leases every summer for its European river cruises.  Mom spent two weeks on Royal Crown and had a fantastic time.  When she visited us in July 2015, her stories about her cruise reminded me that it was high time we took another voyage.  I saw a prime opportunity when we got notified of a special offer for the brand new “Spirit of Scotland” tour offered from March 15-22.  This would be a cruise focused on touring whisky distilleries.  A whisky expert would be onboard.  And if we booked early, we’d even get a discount.  I made a proposal to Bill, who had a ball on our first cruise.  The prospect of drinking whiskies all week was a great incentive for him to say yes to the boat.

One thing I did differently for this cruise was booking directly with the main office in England.  I sent an email to Johnathan Moffat, who I think is in charge of UK sales… Anyway, we quickly got somewhat familiar with each other through emails as I arranged the trip.  Though Hebridean cruises charges a fee for paying with a credit card and only accepts payments in pounds sterling, I think we may have paid less by booking through the UK instead of through the North American sales office.  Also, the UK office didn’t charge us for taking the coach to the Greenock cruise terminal.  On our first cruise, booked through a broker in the United States, we paid $80 for Bill and me to ride the bus… This time, it was included in the price of the cruise.  That’s something to keep in mind if this blog encourages anyone to book a cruise on Hebridean Princess.

So, once we had decided to go, I started making plans for our trip.  I knew we’d need at least one night in Glasgow.  Sure, we could have arranged for the coach to pick us up at the airport in Glasgow, but I knew I liked Glasgow and wanted to see it again.  I also wanted to see Avenue Q, a very irreverent musical currently touring the United Kingdom.  Originally, I had planned our trip to start in Belfast, since Avenue Q was showing there the weekend before our cruise was to start.  But we discovered Max, our dog sitter, was not going to be available at that time.  The earliest we could get to Glasgow was Monday, March 14th.  That would give us one night in Glasgow.  Although I like to try out new hotels, I decided to book us a room at the Carlton George, which is where we stayed the first time we visited Glasgow in 2012.

I have become a big fan of Carlton hotels.  So far, Bill and I have stayed in three of them and they have all been very comfortable and convenient.  Two of the three, Carlton George and Carlton Square (in Haarlem, The Netherlands), even offer free minibars.  That means free booze!  The first time we stayed at Carlton George, I went cheap and booked a basic room.  This time, I booked an executive room, which gave us access to the very nice executive lounge on the seventh floor.

Realizing that our cruise started and ended on a Tuesday, Bill decided to take off work the rest of the following week.  He’s worked very hard in Germany since August 2014, so his boss was very agreeable to the idea of him burning up some leave.  The plan to take the rest of the week off worked out perfectly, since Avenue Q was going to be playing in Stoke on Trent the week following our cruise.  It was on the way to Mildenhall Air Force Base, which is another place I’ve been dying to see for many years.  My father’s last assignment was at Mildenhall and it’s where most of my very first memories were formed.  I wanted to go back there and see it again.  Our initial plan was to spend one night in Glasgow, the week on Hebridean Princess, two nights in Stoke, and three nights in Mildenhall.

Next, I booked our flights.  I chose KLM because it offered the best connections and most reasonable prices.  Our inbound flight came into Glasgow, but I wasn’t sure which airport we should use for leaving the United Kingdom.  I originally toyed with trying to use Stanstead Airport, but the flights I found that worked for us were obscenely expensive.  I dreaded the idea of using a London airport, since I knew Bill would be driving and probably freaking out over that.  Then I discovered the lovely Norwich Airport, located not so far from Mildenhall.  Then I realized that our flight would be early on Easter morning, so instead of staying near the Air Force base, I chose lodging in Watton, which is on the road to the Norwich Airport.  That turned out to be a very good decision.  We had a wonderful drive to the airport this morning.  Seriously… if you’re headed to Mildenhall or Norfolk in the UK, you should consider using the Norwich International Airport.

Once the trip was planned, Bill started working out so he could get back into his dress blues.  We remembered from our first cruise that folks on Hebridean Princess get a huge kick out of US military uniforms!  Speaking of which, I know I have a lot of military readers and many of them have kids.  I want to state upfront that Hebridean Princess is pretty much an adults only cruise.  Kids under age nine are not allowed and, to be very honest, I highly doubt most youngsters would enjoy the cruise.  At age 43, I was among the youngest of the passengers, if you get my drift.  However, it is a fabulous cruise for couples, especially those middle aged and older.  It’s also a great cruise for single travelers and elderly folks, as long as they are active and able bodied.  The ship does not have any elevators and many of the excursions involve walking.

Another thing I want to mention is that the fares for Hebridean Princess are pretty steep.  However, Bill and I have now done three cruises on the Princess and have yet to have a bill to pay at the end of the trip.  When they say it’s all-inclusive, they really mean it.  You pay your fare and literally don’t have to pay another dime when you’re on the ship.   Only a few things are not included in the fare and they generally involve library wines or items from the gift shop.  So yeah, once you’ve paid, you really are a guest in every sense of the word.

A beautiful sunset over Oban… taken on the last night of the Spirit of Scotland cruise.
 
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Ten things I learned in Scotland and England…

We’re home at last!  And boy, did we have ourselves an eventful trip!  Since we were gone for almost two weeks and a lot happened, I’m going to do something now that I usually do after I write up my vacations.  I’m going to type a list of ten things I learned on our most recent trip to Scotland and England.  I’m doing that now because I know some readers would prefer a quick and dirty recap and I have a feeling this trip report will consist of many moving parts.

Even though Bill and I have been to England and Scotland before– and I even lived in England at one time in my life– we always learn new things when we travel.  And this trip taught us some truly surprising things.  We spent the first week on a whisky cruise on Hebridean Princess in Scotland.  The cruise focused on visits to whisky distilleries, though we also had a few non boozy excursions.   Next, we went to England and caught Avenue Q in Stoke on Trent and visited my old stomping grounds near Mildenhall Air Force Base.  We had an unforgettable trip that I’m itching to share with everyone.  So here goes.

10.  Apparently, Scotland has its own money.  Yes, it’s true.  Even though Scotland voted to remain a member of the United Kingdom, more than once, we ran into problems when we tried to use Scottish bills in England.  In fact, this morning Bill tried to pay a fee at the Norwich airport with a Scottish note and it didn’t work!  He quipped that he’d have to find a “non-Confederate” note.  But, just so you know, Scottish money is legal tender in England.  It’s just that they don’t seem to see it that much or something.

9.  Driving on the left isn’t so hard.  Bill was very nervous about trying to drive in the United Kingdom.  As it turned out, it wasn’t bad at all.  We had visions of Clark Griswold style driving mishaps when we first considered driving in the UK, but Bill did just fine!  And now he has a new skill to brag about.

We did not have any encounters with Eric Idle in England.

 

8.  There are many roundabouts in England… more than there are in Germany.  Fortunately, none we encountered were as bad as this one.

I heard there’s a really scary one in Swindon, though…

 

7.  My old house in England still looks the same as it did in 1978.  We drove to Mildenhall Air Force Base, which is where my dad did his very last assignment as an Air Force lieutenant colonel.  I was almost six years old when we left England, so it’s where my earliest memories come from.  Very surprisingly, it was easy to find the housing area where I once lived and the house my family lived in.  I sent a photo to my much older sisters who confirmed that I got it right.

6.  But Mildenhall itself is very different…  There are some things around the base that are the same, but I was very shocked by how many more people are there and how much housing there is.  Also, I was surprised by the traffic!  Forty years ago, Mildenhall was surrounded by small towns and lots of open space.  Not so, now.

5.  The story my mom told me about the street named after my dad was not bullshit…  And I will write an updated post about that eventually to explain everything.  Suffice to say, I found the street supposedly named after my dad and having seen it and noted where it is, I believe my mom’s tale was truthful.

4.  It’s not a good idea to drink from the same cup, especially among strangers.   Even though I am supposedly “overeducated” with master’s degrees in social work and public health, sometimes I still do really stupid things.  I did something dumb on this trip and ended up in deep doo doo.  On a related note, toilets in the UK are kind of weird.  It takes practice to be able to flush them effectively.

3.  Scotland is as beautiful in March as it is in November…  I managed to get some gorgeous photos on this trip.  I also got lots of video, which I hope to turn into a new YouTube film.  I will be busy for the next couple of weeks!

2.  Haggis can be delicious!  I don’t remember liking haggis that much the first time I tried it, but this last time, I thought it was very tasty.  That was quite a surprise for me.  I don’t know if it was because of the chefs on Hebridean Princess or just because of my Scottish ancestry.  😉  Having written that, I think haggis will be one of those dishes I sample only when I am in Scotland among people in kilts and surrounded by whisky.

1.  A cruise on Hebridean Princess is a marvelous, yet expensive way to see Scotland.  Okay, I knew that already, but it was reaffirmed on this last trip, even though I got hit with a stomach bug on the last day.  I will explain more about what happened as I blog… or, for those who have strong stomachs and high curiosity, there is a rather graphic account on my main blog.  I promise to keep the account on this blog more or less PG rated.

Anchors Aweigh!

Now, on with my trip report!

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anecdotes, Military

On being a young American kid in Europe…

My very first passport photo before we moved to England.  I was about three years old and two feet ten inches tall.   I was born in Hampton, Virginia and my parents moved us back to that area when I was eight.  I grew up in Virginia and it’s now “home”, but I don’t miss it that much. 

As I was watching the dogs outside this morning, I had a sudden thought about being an American kid in Europe.  I spent part of my early childhood in England at Mildenhall Air Force Base.  We lived on the base, but I went to a British school instead of the American school.  My sisters went to the American schools.  At the time, living in England was perfectly normal to me.

I didn’t know I was in a foreign country, although I do remember my mom and sisters explaining to me that we were Americans living in England and that it was a “different country” than where we came from.  At that time, I didn’t have a concept of countries, though.  England was simply “home”.  I still have vivid memories of the primary school where I attended kindergarten with British and a few other American kids.  My mom told me she sent me there because the school day was longer and it kept me out of her hair.

Our backyard in England on Mildenhall Air Force Base bordered a big field with cows in it.  I was fascinated by them.  To this day, I still hate wearing shoes… and I love livestock.

We moved back to the States in 1978, when I was six years old.  At that point, I had spent half my life in England and it was really the only place I remembered.  I have only the vaguest of memories of our time at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

Even though I’m American and was finally back in the United States after three years abroad, it didn’t really feel like my home.  It felt like a foreign country.  The time I spent as a small child in England changed me somehow, even though I am very much an American.  I guess living in England made me more aware of the world around me.  It definitely gave me a perspective that a lot of my peers didn’t have, although quite a lot of my peers were also military brats and a few of them had also lived abroad.

 

Me and my mom going to high tea at the Swan Hotel in Lavenham, England.  This photo was so fascinating to me that I used Google Earth to figure out where we were.  This hotel is still open and there’s a chance Bill and I might book a room there in March.  It depends on how nervous he is about getting us to the airport on Easter morning.

For some reason, I was thinking about kids who are born abroad and spend their formative years in another country.  They go to school with host country nationals, probably learn to speak the local language.  It’s “home” to them.  Then they move back to the country where they’re really from and it somehow feels “foreign” to them.  Even though they are among their people, they are different.  They were different when they were abroad, too.  They weren’t locals and weren’t likely to stay there longer than a few years, but they were mingling among the locals and got to see things through their eyes.

I think sometimes the first place you remember as a child is a place that really leaves an imprint.  I have always been kind of fascinated by England, though I haven’t spent a lot of time there since we moved back to the States in 1978.  We went to London in 2009 and I remember being questioned by the customs people.  They wanted to know if I’d ever been there before.  I told them I used to live in England.  That piqued their interest, until I told them I lived there as a young child in the 1970s.  Then it was okay.  I suspect there are a lot of Americans like me, people who lived abroad when they were kids and kind of feel like their childhood home is actually “home”.  I think my mom thought of England as home, too.  She said she cried all the way back to the States when we had to move.

My parents kept in touch with my dad’s British secretary from when we lived in England.  Before my dad died in 2014, they went back to visit her a few times.  She visited them, too, and even became friends with my Granny.  In fact, I saw her right before Bill and I got married.  I remember her fondly.  Before we left England, she asked me when I’d be back to visit.  I told her I wasn’t coming back until they built a bridge across the Atlantic Ocean.  She reminded me of that when I saw her last.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve flown across the Atlantic Ocean since 1978… or really, 1995.  I never took another trip abroad until I joined the Peace Corps.

My sisters cautioned me against marrying a military guy.  They saw my mom’s life as an Air Force wife and how it didn’t make her very happy.  I mostly enjoyed being an Army wife until Bill retired in 2014.  The lifestyle took me in a direction I wasn’t expecting, but I’ve been around the military my whole life.  It’s kind of second nature to me.  I didn’t have the globe trotting experience my sisters had because my dad retired from the Air Force when I was six years old.  But I definitely made up for that as an Army wife.  I eventually had roots when my dad retired, but now I’m not sure if I’ll root anywhere else.

Hebridean Princess in November 2012.  We’ll be back aboard in March.

In March, Bill and I will be going to Glasgow, Scotland to catch a cruise through the Hebrides.  We have decided that after the cruise, we will visit my old childhood stomping grounds, possibly with a stop in Stoke On Trent so we can catch a performance of Avenue Q.  If we do make it to Suffolk, Bill will probably have to acquaint himself with British driving.  I know it makes him nervous, but I feel confident he can do it.  If my parents could do it, he certainly can.  And who knows?  We may even move to England at some point.  The expat life definitely suits us.

I spotted this sign in Edinburgh.  My maiden name is Tolley.  My married name is Crossen.  Seems like a clue from the past.

I always thought I’d put down roots somewhere and raise a family.  That lifestyle is apparently not in the cards for me.  My expat career started with my being a very little kid in England and mingling among Brits.  Then I went to Armenia as a young woman and worked with others who also later became expats.  Seriously, a lot of my old Peace Corps friends are living abroad.  Now I’m on a second Germany tour.  I have no burning desire to move back to the United States anytime soon.  If I could, I think I’d stay abroad for the rest of my life.  We’ll see what happens.

For now, I’m really looking forward to going back to England and seeing somewhere other than London.  London is amazing; don’t get me wrong.  But it’s not what I remember about the first childhood home I actually remember.  Besides, England, Ireland, Scotland, and even Germany is where my people were from in the first place.

We lived in England when this happened…  

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Hop dilemma…

So Bill and I really do want to take a hop.  It’s a good time to take one because he has all this time off and is still being paid.  However, he’s also still job hunting and probably should keep plugging away at that task.  There is no telling how long it will take for him to get work, though I hope his looming unemployment won’t go on for too long.

We’re trying to decide if we want to risk taking a trip.  If we do take one, he can still look for and apply to jobs as long as we have Internet access.  But what if someone wants to interview him?  Again, if it’s over the phone or even via Skype, he could probably do it if he had to.  But an in person interview might be tough… and then there’s the issue of the money we’ll be spending.  There’s food, lodging, and boarding the boys.  And there’s the fact that we want to get out of this house and that will involve spending money too.

We probably shouldn’t take a trip… but boy do we want to.  And the time is right, even if there are a number of issues that may make traveling unwise.  I want to go to England and Ireland in the worst way.  But I don’t want to be broke.  So we may have to wait on this plan…

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England next month? Dare to dream!

So Bill is about done with the Army and has until July 1 before he’s unemployed.  In these last weeks, he and I have been thinking about going on another Space A trip.  Once July 1 rolls around, he will be a retiree with less priority on Space A trips than he has now.

We both want to visit Ireland and there are regular trips to Mildenhall AFB that leave from McConnell AFB near Wichita, Kansas.  If we can get to Mildenhall, it wouldn’t be too difficult to get to Ireland.  We could just take a train to the Welsh coast and then hop on a ferry to Dublin.  Of course, when it comes to Space A travel, one must stay very flexible.  It could turn out we start this trip and end up somewhere totally different.  Or it could turn out we end up nowhere.

Bill has a job interview this week.  If it goes well and they offer him a position, we could take this trip as a way of saying goodbye to Army life.  If it doesn’t go well, maybe we won’t…  We probably shouldn’t spend the money.  But travel memories are precious and can’t be repossessed.

It’s fun to think about it.  I would love to take one last trip before we become civilians.  And it seems fitting that we would visit Mildenhall, since that’s where my dad ended his Air Force career.

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