Our Summer Adventure to the South Island with BaBa and NuNu, Part 1

Yes, yes, yes. This is really outdated. But if I don’t get it down, how will I remember? (My memory is terrible, which is why I’m always busting out my phone and snapping photos of everything.) And it was such a great trip that took us to all sorts of wonderful places, it might actually be timely for someone who is on it and planning their summer holiday now. So read on for our island-hopping adventures with my folks, the infamous BaBa and NuNu.

They arrived on Boxing Day of last year. We were so excited for their arrival, but the irony is that I couldn’t for the life of me find the email with their itinerary to know when they would arrive in Gizzy! Good thing that the airport is a mere 10 minute drive. So we did what we could: showed up for the first arrival of the day. They weren’t on it.

Sad superhero.

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We had some time to kill before the next flight so we went on a hike: Te Kuri Farm Walkway at the end of Shelley Road. It’s a good, solid hike, that takes us about 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete. It’s super local and family friendly, but best attempted when it’s been dry for awhile. Once you get above the tree line, which happens pretty quickly in a kind of intensely steep way, you get to enjoy the views of the bay the whole time.

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Back down, it was time for us to try to pick them up again. And lo and behold, there they were, BaBa and NuNu, de-planing! After a brief settling-in period, it was al fresco dinner time.

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They’d brought with them some Christmas gifts for us and the kids, and even brought with them some gifts that we’d purchased for the kids and had sent to them. So it was Day 2 of Christmas!

Behold, BaBa in cardboard reindeer antlers that I’d made for Thora’s Christmas assembly.
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Dec 27: Tolaga Bay

We grabbed some yummy sandwiches from one of our favorite shops in town, Frank and Albie’s, and then motored 45 minutes up the coast to Tolaga Bay, a great destination on the East Coast. We took in the historic wharf, something that never gets old, especially when there is activity like their was this day: brave people diving off the pier into the water, and lots of fishing and the gutting of fish right there. Captivating!

Check out what it means to try to take a group photo with Auric. There are more examples to come. Many more.

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We had a bit of rain and had to eat lunch in the car. But it cleared up a bit for us to take a stroll on the beach, where we met up with some people exercising their horses.

Getting to know a foal.

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Getting to ride a horse!

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Sidenote un-related to their visit but something I want to mark for posterity: December 27th, 2013 was the day they were introduced to Tintin, one of Sean’s favorites as a kid.

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Okay, back to the visit. BaBa and NuNu took a few days and ventured over to Rotorua. While they were enjoying the magical colors of Waiotapu and relaxing in the Polynesian Spa, we were playing with new toys.

Walkie-talkies and Bananagrams, at the same time: “ccckkkk. Split! Over.”

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We also took a spin up to Loisels to visit our friends who were camping there. Loisels is a beautiful bay just a 30 minute drive up the coast.

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BaBa and NuNu returned on New Year’s Eve and we were happy to get to celebrate NuNu’s birthday with her.

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January 1st: a walk up Kaiti Hill

Posing in front of the Captain Cook statue and illustrating what a farce it is to try to get a group shot with Auric.

02The gals are a-walkin’ while the guys are a-lookin’. Typical.

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Behold, Hip Grandpa(tm)! He wears shades (light-sensing transition lenses)! He wears his hat backwards (so it won’t blow off, he claims)! Cargo shorts! He’s hip!

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I always think that if my folks and my kids were to start a band of some kind, this would have to be the cover of their first cd.

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On the first of the year, Gisborne pulls out all the stops and puts on a pretty great fireworks show. We walked down and across the river and waited for it to get dark. While we waited, we played with some of the glow sticks and novelty flashlights that NuNu brought for the kids. They were perfect! Finally, it got dark, a helicopter did a fly-over (was that part of the show?) and the fireworks show started! Fun!

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January 2nd: Tolaga Bay Beach Races

We’d missed this the year before, still being quite new that many events passed us by without us realizing. So we were grateful to get to take my folks to what is a quintessential East Coast experience. People rock up around 11. The festivities get started a good 45 minutes after they’re scheduled to start: you know, East Coast Time. You can bet on the races, but you can’t pick your horse. The announcer was a hilarious old-timer, taking the piss out of his mates, and calling the races. There were hotdogs and fizzy drink (soda) and hot chips (fries) and candy floss (cotton candy). And there is nothing quite like the sound of the hooves of 2 dozen horses sprinting up the beach at you, nothing quite like the feel of it as the vibrations rattle your ribcage. It was the perfect day for this annual event. It was the hottest day of the year so far and we were happy to be at the beach being a part of the scene.

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The action at Tologa Bay today. #eastcoast

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There was downtime in between each race, when you could cool off in the water or have a game of rugby with your dad. I managed to capture this perfect sequence of Auric’s version of rugby, which at the time just meant that he’d punt the ball to you. He was a little Dan Carter at 4 years old.

03Thora has perfected the art of multiplying herself in a panoramic shot. She’s pretty pleased with this ability.

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After a few hours, we packed up and headed back to Gisborne, stopping off to introduce my dad (a life-long, serious runner) to a friend, Ron Robertson, who we know because he’s the grandfather to our kids’ friends, but the running world knows him as the fastest 70 year-old… in the world. He and his wife were wonderfully gracious hosts as my dad took in Ron’s stories and they even found out that they have friends in common. After a nice chat over a glass of wine, we were back home, readying ourselves for our first venture to the South Island!

January 3: Queenstown (via Napier, Christchurch)

Rather than flying out of Gisborne, which means we can connect out of Auckland or Wellington, we found less-expensive flights to the South Island via Napier. So we drove the 3+ hours south to Napier and caught our flight to Queenstown (with a short stop-over in Christchurch). We landed in Queenstown, through the dramatic mountainous runway (yikes!), picked up our rental car and were off to our motel, the Alexis Motorlodge, very close to downtown Queenstown. (I highly recommend staying here!) Here’s the impressive view of Lake Wakatipu from our balcony.

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Here’s a nice panorama from outside BaBa and NuNu’s room.

01We were well-located to go on runs (running the couple blocks down a steep hill connected us with a recreational path that circled the lake), and walk into town (we could go the scenic way through the Queenstown Gardens or we could go express, down Frankton to Coronation Drive).

03Here we are taking the scenic way through the Gardens. Again, posing in a photo with Auric is pure joy.

01 We wandered into town looking for a late dinner. We’d forgotten how south we were; it was 8:oo and the sun was still up. Like really up. After checking out the guidebook, for a few places that looked good, we made our way to Ferg Burger, only to learn how incredibly, one might say impossibly, popular it was. We were all starving and couldn’t wait in the 80 minute line, so we found our way to Winnie’s Gourmet Pizza Bar. And thus began The Unintentional Carb Binge Tour of the South Island 2014 ™. (Sorry, that isn’t the most flattering photo of Sean; he’s mid-bite, I think.)

05The kids had a little play at the waterfront playground at 9:30 at night on our way home. And this isn’t a trick with the brightening feature on Instagram. (I may have brightened it a touch to make their backlit faces visible, but the “truth” of the photo is still there, I swear.)

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It’s only slightly darker now because of the cloud coverage.

06January 4th: Te Anau

The next day, we drove to Te Anau (tay AH-now), where we would base ourselves for the night before our BIG ADVENTURE, one of the wonders of the world, Milford Sound.

Beautiful scenery along the way.

08The waters of Lake Wakatipu are an incredible turquoise color.

After settling in at our motel in Te Anau, and then hitting a gourmet sushi food truck, Fjordland Food Truck, we set about figuring out the best hike or walk we could do to enjoy the afternoon. We could’ve done an easy walk around Lake Te Anau, but that might’ve been a little repetitive after awhile. Instead, we were encouraged to do the Circle Trek off of Lake Manapouri. What appeared, at first, to be a 2.5 hour moderate hike, was described as longer and more strenuous, the further we committed. By the time we were taking the boat across Lake Manapouri, our friendly captain Mike thought, after looking us over, that we’d be lucky to make it in 4 hours. Great!

He were are boating to the beginning of the trek.

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Auric’s ears perked up. “Sorry, how long of a hike?”

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At the small, wooden dock that leads straight into the bush, we said goodbye to Mike, with the plan to meet him at 7pm, 4 hours from then. He’d be waiting at the dock, but we had his cell phone number in the event (likely, he thought) that we were going to be longer. What had we gotten ourselves into? A 4-hour hike with the kids? Our kids, Thora especially, are pretty great hikers for their age, but Auric’s little 4 year-old legs still get tired after a couple hours of walking. Were we making a big mistake?

It was pretty dense bush with muddy, washed-out stretches of the path. There was one uphill section that was blocked by a massive tree trunk. That obstacle took us a good 5 minutes to figure out how to overcome. We were working hard, up the thickly forested hillside, always cresting a rise, thinking we were at the top (“We’ve got to be getting close now!”), only to find that there was another treeline up ahead. 90 minutes turned into two hours, which turned in two and half hours and we still had no real clue that we were near the top. And then, suddenly, there was ridge, and a cliff, and we approached. Exhausted, this is what we saw:

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Did we make a huge mistake by embarking on this hike? No! It was arduous, and a bit of a slog through essentially muddy, uphill woods (I’m sure it’s great when it’s been dry for awhile), until it was all of a sudden magnificently rewarding. This is the hike with best reward that I think I’ve ever been on. The hike was work, but the reward was literally breath-taking. Once we got to the top, I remembered talking with Mike in the boat on the way over. I think we were all feeling a little overwhelmed when hearing him describe the difficulty of the trek and how long he thought it would take us. One of us suggested that if it looked like it was beyond our capabilities, we could always just turn back and not do the whole Circle. “No. You can’t do that. Just call me if it’s taking you longer than 4 hours.” I remember thinking, longer than 4 hours? We had minimal bottles of water and snacks and little bodies equipped with loud, whiny voices. More than 4 hours? I’m so grateful than none of us suggested to turn around. To think of the beautiful and unforgettable surprise we would’ve missed!

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The four of us at the top: the kids, my silhouette husband, and myself! (BaBa: “You’re backlit.” Me: “It’s okay. I can brighten it up after the fact.” Not always, apparently.)

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Where the dirt ends is literally a sheer drop. I was not a fan that part.

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BaBa and NuNu!

19After about ten minutes at the lookout, eating our granola bars and apples, we began our march down, down, down, out of the woods. With a little quick-stepping from BaBa (Life-long Distance Runner) and Thora (Girl of Boundless Energy), we met Mike at exactly 7pm! (I inherited the Running-Late Stress Gene from my dad and so he and I were quite pleased with our punctuality.) We greeted Mike. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so happy to see a small outboard motor boat on the end of a short wooden dock. (Did I mention that there were several times when we thought we’d lost the trail?)

After Mike deposited our cheery but tired crew on the other side of Lake Manapouri, we collapsed into the car and then drove into sleepy little Te Anau for dinner. Except Te Anau isn’t so sleepy at 7:30 on a Saturday night in the summer. Seriously, we had the hardest time finding a place to eat! One place was so busy they just kind of turned us away without even giving us a wait time. Yikes! Thankfully the staff at La Toscana were happy to oblige our tired and famished crew. They sat us at an outside bench that is meant for sitting and waiting for your table over a glass of wine. However, without our asking, our intrepid server added this unofficial, outside table to her already full list of tables and served us bread and water out there and gave us menus. She took our order out there, and then mercifully, a table opened up and she moved us in. Our food arrived promptly, hot and delicious, and we dove into the second stop on the The Unintentional Carb Binge Tour of South Island 2014 ™.

And you might think: Oh, there’s a good group shot with Auric in it. But then I’d remind you that he’s pinned in there and also that there are three other attempts at this shot, all with NuNu in various states of Auric-wrangling. A joy he is!

01 The kids devoured their promised sundaes that accompanied their meal. They earned it. They were total champs!

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We staggered out of La Toscana, exhausted and satisfied and ready for the day ahead: Milford Sound!

And here is where I will pause, to let you stop reading, rest your weary eyes and rejoin your life. (I’m grateful for all of you readers who spend your time connecting with my stories!) Stay tuned for part 2 where our family of thrill-seekers continue on their journey. Spoiler alert: Milford Sound DOESN’T disappoint.

 

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The ex-pat life is a lot of metaphors.

03It’s strange, this whole ex-pat thing. My inner monologue is sometimes a chaotic crowd of voices as the new intersects with the old. Each trip to the grocery story, I try to blend in, while off the shelf I pull item after item, each one reminding me that I’m in a new place (manuka honey, courgettes [zucchini], SuperWine biscuits [they’re cookies, and there’s nothing “Super” or wine-related about them so why are they called this?!?]). I relish in the good life that this new place offers (an excellent work-life balance, an easy-going pace, a sunny disposition), while clinging to the memories of the faces of the people I love who are too far away. I take pleasure in what still–remarkably–feels new, (the rolling green hills, the crashing of the surf, the white cliffs of Young Nick’s Head, the birdsong of the tuis and fantails and blackbirds) but hate that I still–remarkably–have halting conversations as my foreigner’s ear struggles with the Kiwi accent.

This clanging of old and new is mostly manifested as I take in the local beauty of Gisborne and then immediately imagine sharing this with a friend or family member from my old life.

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The view from the top of Old Hospital Hill.

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The view, 2.52 miles from our house, on my hilly, Riverside Road run.

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A carpet of wildflowers along the Riverside Road run.

“See? This is what it’s all about!” I imagine telling them. “Can you believe this sun? Can you believe that endless blue water and sky? Isn’t that sheep-dotted hillside the most charming thing you’ve ever seen?” I think the question deeper down in the roots of those fantasies is the question, “Don’t you want to live here too?”

Despite that discordant soundtrack that accompanies my life (occasional harmonious strums of a harp, followed by an out-of-tune violin, and then punctuated with a grand piano falling out of a second story window), we’ve settled in to this life, even if it is the life of a newcomer, perpetually reminded of how new we are. In fact, we’ve settled in so much that we’ve bought a section of land, the one in the picture below, on which to build a home. (Queue the piano.)

01The people here are warm and welcoming and we’ve made great friends. But I inevitably butt up against a thin, transparent bubble that reminds me that I’m the outsider. I’m reminded of it when I can’t understand someone on the phone. (You’d be surprised how hard Kiwi English is to decipher when you have no visual clues and you’re straining to hear over a less-than-great connection.)  I’m reminded when I don’t know the name of a cultural icon or when I still have to look twice at the money to make sure I’m paying correctly. Or when a car is parked the wrong way on a residential street and I have the briefest of panic attacks as I immediately look for other reassuring clues that I am indeed driving on the correct side of the road.

I’ve become deft at dismissing this everyday strangeness. But when I find sameness, I embrace it. The other day, I was chatting with some friends and we were commiserating about the struggle of getting our kids to listen to us, particularly when trying to get out the door in the morning. We laughed and joked and I exaggerated and dramatized a scene between the kids and I, and they laughed and it was the best. thing. ever. “You’re not the only one,” one of the ladies said. What I heard was, “We’re the same.” Despite the Kiwi slang and their celebration of the Queen, at the heart of it, we are the same. It’s the sameness that makes the sun brighter and the soil warmer and the water more refreshing.

And so, like a stem of a plant that has been cut and then is set down in a favorable location, a little sunny, a little wet, the roots will grow without asking permission. And that is what has happened to us. We like it here. And even though there is that mostly invisible bubble that encapsulates me wherever I go and whatever I’m doing, there’s a lot of time that I see right through it. I don’t see the glare. I don’t see the rainbow iridescence. Maybe the bubble is weakening. And maybe one day it’ll burst and there I’ll be, laughing with friends or on the beach with our family or out for a run on the country roads and there will be an explosion as a seam tears the bubble apart and the skin snaps away from itself and claps to the ground and I’m unprotected and exposed, but part of it. A part of this place. And it will be as much of home as I’ve ever known.

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Our first visit from Sean’s parents was a surprise for the kids

Given how curious-bordering-on-nosey our oldest is, a surprise of this caliber was substantial. But it was a success. The kids had absolutely no idea. The plan came together rather quickly. Sean and I were already planning to be in Auckland for the Auckland marathon over the first weekend of November. Our good friends here in Gizzy offered to look after our kids for the 30 hours or so that we would be away. Meanwhile, my in-laws were planning on a visit for sometime in early 2014. However, upon looking at flights, they found that it was cheaper to fly in a few short weeks in order to travel over the low season than to book in advance for the high season. So they sprung it on us: “What if we meet you Auckland?” they said. “And what if we keep it a surprise for the kids?” Yes! and Yes!

On the day before the race, Sean and I flew up to Auckland and were met by Sean’s parents, who’d arrived a few days before us. We had a lovely dinner before retiring to our rooms to get as much sleep as we could, which turned out to be not a lot, before the next morning’s early start.

Sean was running the full marathon and its unpleasantly early start time meant that he needed to catch a 4:45 am ferry over to Devonport, where the race started. I followed shortly behind him, my half-marathon starting about 30 minutes later. I snapped this as we queued-up for the ferry in the pre-dawn hours.

05The course was pretty flat and fast. I felt great running it. I couldn’t help but snap a few photos along the way, though. Here is the kapa haka group that sang us passed the 11k mark. I had less than half to go, now.

06This was the view of downtown Auckland. I just had to get over there, by way of the Harbour Bridge.

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This group of drummers encouraged us up the incline over the bridge. Once over the bridge, we’d only have about 4 kms to go.

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We finished in one piece! Here is Sean finishing the full marathon. He’s my hero.

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09Sean was a bit worse for wear, completing the marathon in under 4 1/4 hours. I was the exhausted and sore version of elated. In fact it was my happiness at the end of this race that foolishly planted the seed in my head to try my first full marathon, the one I completed recently. Looking at this picture, I can’t help but think how naive I was. So, so naive. (Wink, Natalie.)

After a shower and a little rest, we went for a late lunch of tapas at this little food court in downtown Auckland.

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Then it was back to the hotel to pick up our bags and then off to the airport. Once back in Gizzy, we dropped Sean’s folks off at our house before picking up the kids from their friends’ house. We told them that we had a surprise for them at home. Once home, I pretended that I couldn’t find the key to get us in and told Thora to knock. She looked confused. Who would be on the inside to let us in if we were all standing out here on the porch? But who opened the door but Grandma and Grandpa! It was beautiful how happy the kids were, after they overcame their confusion.

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03Once the surprise had dissolved into a low-grade happiness, the kids and grandparents settled down to read stories.

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And we began planning the itinerary for our vacation with them.

Our first bit of sight-seeing was the historic wharf at Tologa Bay, just under an hour’s drive north of Gisborne.

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Then we were off to Rotorua. We spent a wet afternoon at the impressive Rotorua Museum, located in the Government Gardens.

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44The next day, we drove across the Waikato region, to Waitomo, near the North Island’s west coast. We’d visited the breathtaking and impossible-to-overhype glowworm caves back in April with our friends, The Doyles. We wanted Sean’s parents to get a chance to see them as well. So we sent the kids and the grandparents on a Spellbound tour. If you want a sense for the stunning beauty that they saw, click on the two previous links.

Meanwhile, Sean and I saw this as an opportunity to try something that we couldn’t do with little kids, namely, a black water rafting trip with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. I’m glad that we got the chance to see the glowworms at their extreme with Spellbound, since this tour was less about the wonder of the glowworms and more about having an adventure while seeing glowworms.

Despite seeing fewer glowworms, we had a lot fun. It was intense at times (jumping backwards off of small waterfalls and drifting along a river of cave water in near blackness, except for the green pins of light on the cave walls and ceilings), absurd at times (losing my balance and flipping off my inner-tube more times than I’d like to admit), cold at times (we were floating in cold, cave water for three hours) and strenuous (jumping between rocky platforms over rushing water). It was impossible to document the experience with a camera. They took some photos of us prior to going into the cave. Here we are, each having our first try at jumping backwards off of a 10-ft high platform. This was meant to prepare us for jumping backwards over a rushing waterfall in a dark cave.

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152Here we are about to go into the cave. So long natural light. See you in a few hours.

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After 3 hours in the cold water, we were happy for some hot chocolate while we waited for the kids and grandparents to return.

10The kids and their grandparents joined us after their tour. We all had lunch and then we drove back to Rotorua via the Kiwi House in Otorohanga. We remembered this from when we stopped here with the Doyles. We got to see a lot of wonderful native New Zealand birds, most prized of all, the Kiwi. Since the kiwi is nocturnal, they are kept in special low-light enclosures behind 1-way glass. Because they are so light-sensitive, photography isn’t allowed. But you can see some photos here.

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5145Here’s a bird that we had no trouble documenting. In fact we remembered this creature from our first trip here with the Doyles. We all had memories of it following Thom around and squawking relentlessly at him.

48And guess what it’s name is? Thora. Yes, of all the names, this Spur Winged Plover shares her name with another girl who has a lot to say.

46Here she is, doing her thing.

11On the drive back to Rotorua, we had the chance to admire the Waikato landscape, green and hilly.

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The next day, we went to Wai-o-Tapu, a 20 minute drive south of Rotorua. The name means Sacred Water. It is famous for it’s geo-thermal activity (there’s a geyser that they set off once a day), as well as unbelievably colorful spectrum of Mother Nature’s palette in the form of mineral deposits in the water and rock.

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After our time at Wai-o-Tapu, we visited the beautiful Redwood Forest. The air was the cleanest I’d ever smelled, what will all the oxygen production happening in there. It’s free admission makes it the best way to spend a couple hours in Rotorua. They have a variety of different hikes for all-comers.

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Then it was back to Gizzy. Having returned on Saturday, we were in town for the second day of the Gisborne Garden Show, a tour of some of the more impressive gardens in the Gizzy. My in-laws are garden-lovers and so we jumped at the chance to “have a nosey” in some of these gardens.

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During Brian and Beverly’s visit, we ate really well when we were at home, especially because we had Brian, our professional guacamole-maker churning out his specialty almost every night.

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108When it comes to value in terms of kilo/dollar of protein on the East Coast, you can’t beat green lip mussels. One night we had mussels in a white wine and garlic sauce, on top of shredded zuchinni “pasta.”

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We spent a lot of their visit traveling around the North Island. But when we were in Gizzy we easily slipped the grandparents into our normal routine. The kids went to school and then we all re-grouped for the afternoon activities and then dinner. It was a lot of fun having them around, participating in the hubbub. The kids got to show off our garden:

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… and Grandma and Grandpa got to play rugby with Auric in the front yard, including witnessing him standing at attention for the National Anthem. (You might not understand what he’s doing here until you look at the picture below and see Auric’s hero, Richie McCaw, the captain of the All Blacks, and where he stands in the line of players.)

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Source: Phil Walter/Getty Images AsiaPac

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Then it was off for a weekend in Taupo (“TAW-po”). Just before we reached Taupo, we stopped at this little lookout of the Waipunga Falls off Highway 5.

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Once we dropped our stuff off at the little bach we rented for the weekend in the nearby town of Turangi, famous for its trout fishing…

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…we drove the 3o minutes back into Taupo for dinner and a walk around the lake.

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The next day, Sean and his folks would tackle one of the nine Great Walks of New Zealand, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This is a view of the mountains that they would climb the next day.

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The next morning, Sean and his folks were gone by the time we woke up. The kids and I had a day to fill and started it with treats of crepes and hot chocolate down by the marina where the Mighty Waikato river empties into Lake Taupo. We admired the boats docked there before heading off to the humble and yet plentiful grounds of Lilliput Farm and Petting Zoo, a little drive out of town. The grounds are surprisingly big, and around each bend is another climbing structure or play equipment, up-cycled from some unlikely sources.

Here we met our first friends, the pigs. This little piglet very quickly wriggled out of its pen and proceeded to follow us around, nibbling up the food pellets that Thora and Auric inevitably dropped. And falling in line with Auric’s previous response (his terror at the friendly Pukeko that we met at Paradise Valley Springs with his Aunt Natalie last year), he was very troubled by and mildly scared of this persistent piglet.

123 124Finally we walked up a gentle rise that was apparently too steep for his little legs and he turned back. What a relief for Auric!

Up high in the mountains, this is what Sean, Brian, and Beverly were doing:

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Meanwhile, back at the farm:

128 130 133 132There were all kinds of farm animals and the grounds just went on and on.

131It was midday and the weather was warm and sunny so after we’d seen all there was to see at Lilliput, we stopped into the AC Baths, a large public aquatic center. Sadly they were in the middle of a re-model so we only had access to the outdoor lap pool. But we had a great time regardless. The lifeguards, wanting to make it fun for the kids who were there, pulled out an inflatable slip n slide and covered it in soap, which made it extra slippery and hilarious. Auric stayed pretty close to me, but Thora joined the big kids as they took turns running from the pool deck, onto the long, inflated runway, and then off into the pool.

Following that, it was time to head home and meet up with Sean and his folks. They were back at the bach when we got there, tired but happy to have accomplished such a grueling and yet rewarding hike. Sean and his folks had some apple slices left over from their hike, so we fed some friendly horses trimming the grass in a nearby paddock.

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Then it was off to an excellent dinner at the Tongariro Lodge.

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The next morning, I had a short run around Turangi, and captured this quaint shot of a couple fly-fishing.

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During our last day in the Taupo region, we saw some more of the Mighty Waikato River. The first stop was Huka Falls:

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Then we raced to the Aratiatia Dam and made it there just in time to see the midday dam-raising and to see the drama of the rushing water as it filled the river.

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Our last stop was the Huka Honey Hive, where we tried all sorts of honey products like lotions, wine, mead, and around a dozen different varieties of honey.

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We had another day back in Gizzy before Brian and Beverly headed back to the States. We spent a couple hours walking around the Eastwood Hill Arboretum.

147We had a great time with them and we hope it’s not long before they find themselves back on New Zealand soil!

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Our Epic Stateside Trip, Part 5: San Francisco/Pleasanton

We were exhausted and travel-weary when we left New York and flew west. We landed at SFO and were met by our old friend, Joe, and his daughter. Joe started out as Sean’s friend from their days with Tucson Magpie Rugby club. (Of course, now he’s “our” friend.) He lives in a suburb of SF with his family and we were thrilled to get to spend about 30 hours with them during the final leg of our Pocock Family Summer Tour 2013.

We started with a little hanging out in San Francisco. Here’s Auric and Logan at a playground, burning off some of that air-travel energy.

08 We then met an old colleague of Sean’s from his NYC days, Megan, and her husband, Nick, and their adorable baby, Oliver. It was great catching up with them, but I managed to get ZERO photos of our visit. (I think, by this point–our last night on U.S. soil– I was officially over-whelmed by this trip.) And they’re an unbelievably photogenic family to boot! Anyway, we had a nice catch-up over yummy food.

Of course, what I do have photos of is the outside antics of three bored kids after they’d reached their limit of good restaurant behavior. Here’s Auric launching the paper airplane he’d made, wearing the newest addition to his collection of MTA t-shirts. (I know the “A” looks photoshopped on; however, I promise that this photo has not been doctored.)

02After a great catch-up, we said goodbye to Megan, Nick, and Oliver. Joe then drove us to their home in Pleasanton, where we were met with open arms and a bottle of wine by his wife Lori. After sorting out the kids and putting them to bed, we stayed up and chatted with Joe and Lori. It’s been ages since we’d seen them. It was fun to re-connect after so long.

The next day started for me with a short run around their neighborhood, after which, we walked into town for the big Fireman’s Muster. And what a Muster it was. I’d never seen such a mustery Muster!

03Ever since his trip to England when he was just two and seeing the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, Auric has had a fascination with marching bands, Marching Guards, he calls them. So this was his look of fierce concentration as he watched the marching band prepare for their performance.

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07He caught me looking at him, so then I got this photo of a VERY happy boy. Firetrucks and Marching Guards, what could be better?!

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05One of the activities at the Muster was getting a chance to spray a real firefighter’s hose. Auric took the Michael Jordan, tongue-out approach to fire-fighting.

02It took a little while to wear off.

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04And of course there was face-painting. At this point, he’d never seen an Iron Man movie. Instead, in Auric’s mind, this was Iron Giant. If you haven’t seen it, rent it. It’s great!

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On our way out of downtown Pleasanton, we admired the antique fire vehicles.

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Back at Joe and Lori’s place, we had lunch. And then I spent some time on the phone with the airport and airlines once I realized that my wallet had fallen out of my purse underneath the seat in front of me during our flight the day before. After many calls, we reached a lost and found office that did indeed have my wallet! That called for celebration. The kids and the dads played outside and Lori and I had a delicious (and wallet-finding victory) glass of wine. It was a beautiful, relaxing couple of hours. The afternoon was warm. The summer light was long and generous through the full canopy of trees. It was the perfect way to cap our trip that was so full of great visits with the people we love. The bottom half of this picture captures how we spent a lot of the afternoon, fetching toys out of trees, fetching the balls we threw into the tree to retrieve the other toy, and so on. It was ridiculous and funny.

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We got an early table at a Mexican restaurant back in ever-charming downtown Pleasanton, our request since good Mexican food is hard to come by in New Zealand. We had a great meal before packing our suitcases into their van and heading for the airport where we would catch an overnight flight to Auckland.

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The day after we arrived home, I got an email from Joe. It had the subject line, “Miss me?” and a photo of Toothless, the toy that had been Auric’s souvenir from the Toys R Us in Times Square. After all of the drama surrounding Auric’s choice of Toothless (the very public meltdown), and his subsequent bonding with Toothless, I couldn’t believe we’d left him in San Francisco.

12But the story has a happy ending. Amidst all the activity that comes with trans-hemispheric travel, Auric failed to notice that Toothless was gone. (We’re were careful never to say anything to jar his memory.) However, a few weeks later, a package arrived for Auric from California. What could be in there?

09 Toothless! The forgotten lovey was returned! The boy and his dragon were reunited! All was right in the world!

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What a trip! I can’t believe how much we crammed in to 3 1/2 weeks! It was a trip full of great experiences with wonderful people. Thank you to all our friends and family who helped us have such an amazing trip. We look forward to the next time…

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Our Epic Stateside Trip, Part 2b/4: New York City (the second time around)

Back to mid-August, 2013. We drove south on the Pike towards New Jersey, first. We have friends there, Sean’s old college buddy, Bob, and his family. They are great! We arrived slightly sluggish, a bit late, and still a little hungover from our food poisoning debacle, but Bob and Sue and their kids couldn’t have been more welcoming. It was great to catch up with those guys, and another one of their college buddies who drove from his place to have a mini-reunion. It was great to walk onto Bob and Sue’s deck, where the beer was cold and the pulled pork was perfect and the conversation made us laugh. It was such a great time, that I never once got my phone out of my purse to take a snap. Grrr. But we thank you, Bob and Sue, and your wonderful kids who set up a carnival in their back yard in honor of our kids’ arrival! And thank you, Colin, for driving the highways and byways of New Jersey to get to us.

The next morning, we enjoyed a yummy pancake breakfast before high-tailing it back to the Upper West Side, where Sean dropped us off before driving down and returning the rental car. Thus began:

Day 1: Monday, August 12th

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This was our midtown day. Just a note. Every year we make a pilgrimage to the New York Transit Museum, and get the kids a shirt. The N was last year’s shirt. We still have no idea why he picked it, since we never ride the N. So it was exciting to encounter the N in real life.

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Sean’s request was to eat at Carnegie Deli, something we hadn’t done since before we lived in New York City, and possibly only once ever because, Whoa. The portions are ridiculous. I mean, we knew they were big, we remembered that. But “big” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Preposterous? Absurd? Surreal? Terrifying?

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Thankfully, the pickles were plentiful.

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28This meal was followed up by a walk down iconic 5th Avenue. The shop windows; Rockefeller Center; the statue of Atlas; St. Patrick’s Cathedral; and ultimately our next destination, the New York Public Library. It’s a wonderful place, full of history, and such serious quietude that promises to fill little kids with nervous giggling because they know they need to be quiet.

Here, the kids and BaBa pose with one of the lions. And a random dude.

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05This trip to the library was followed by a walk to Times Square and the insane, and ultimately punishing, experience of Toys R Us.

It’s a 5-story toy store with a working ferris wheel in the middle. It is so over the top that it can’t help but sear itself into the memory of all kids who come to know it. Therefore, whenever we travel to New York City, the siren song of the Times Square Toys R Us calls to our kids. Endlessly.  So year after year we make a one-time stop with a clearly articulated agreement, which the kids are forced to repeat back to us, one hand in the air and the other on their heart, while looking us in the eye: one trip on the ferris wheel and one toy, under $10. We’re such idiots.

We rode the ride, and wandered helplessly amongst the throngs, splitting off into pairs only to lose the other pair. Multiple times. We circled the same displays, certain that we knew where we were going, losing ourselves again and again. We spent minutes upon minutes watching salespeople try to hard-sell us on a “magical” fairy-on-fishing-wire toy (who do they think I am?) or a kid nail art nail polish set (um… I caved on that one).  Sadly, it ended when our child, poor, sweet, angelic Auric befell the fate of many a child before him. With the over-stimulation of too many toys, he couldn’t bear to choose just a single toy. But the nightmare of his impending, toy-less departure overwhelmed him. He ultimately lay in a weeping heap on the ground, near the security guard at the exit, who surely watches this same melodrama play out a hundred times per shift. There was a final opportunity, seriously this time, to go in and pick a toy, which he did. And we were thankfully allowed to go about our lives again, the Toys R Us travesty once again blessedly in our past. For the time being…

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We finished the night with a dinner on Broadway, at our beloved Amir’s, and then a walk onto Columbia’s campus. The kids had a session of racing that followed with the inevitable wrestling match.

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Day 2: Tuesday, August 13th

We woke up to a New York City drowning in buckets of rain. So it was going to be another museum day, and specifically, the MoMA. Here’s what Auric looks like in an adult-size poncho.

Thankfully, we reserved our tickets ahead of time so that when we arrived at the MoMA with about 10,000 other tourists hoping to avoid the rain, we didn’t have to stand in the soggy line outside, waiting just to get in to buy tickets to get in. Yikes.

The following photos are of our enlightening, and thankfully dry, hours in the MoMA.

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It had “fined up,” as the Kiwis say, by the time we left the museum. So we decided to walk part of the way home through Central Park.

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.And to boot, when we arrived back at our Upper West Side apartment, we found that the scooters we’d ordered had arrived. The kids proceeded to scooter up and down the path of Riverside Park. I even tried it out!

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That night, we finally caught up with our great friend, and old colleague of Sean’s, Dan. We ate at one of our favorite Morningside Heights restaurants, Symposium, a local institution. Here we are walking home from dinner. (And fyi, that’s Toothless that he’s holding, from the Dreamworks movie How to Train Your Dragon. That was the toy that turned things around for us at Toys R Us.)

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Dan is great! He’s a funny and sweet guy and we love catching up with him. The kids find him fascinating.

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Day 3: Wednesday, August 14th

01Today was a day that Thora and I had been looking forward to for many months, specifically since the previous January, when I first introduced the kids to the classic movie, The Wizard of Oz. Once we’d seen that, and listened to the soundtrack through countless pancake breakfasts, I decided that when we were in NYC, Thora and I would see Wicked. To get ready for the famous story (which is told from the perspective of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West), I started reading Wicked, the novel, to her. Umm. Mistake. I pretty quickly got to the first sex scene and realized that I would need to read at night and then summarize the plot for her the next morning. Leading up to this day, we’d had many months between watching the movie and arriving in New York to anticipate the musical, to talk about the story, and the idea of the story changing, depending on who is doing the telling. We were psyched.

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After Sean and I ran through Central Park, we split up into pairs for the day. Auric and Sean rode the train up to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he did his training, to visit with old colleagues and mentors. They followed that up with a few (apparently very serious) hours at the Central Park Zoo.

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Thora and I started our day together with brunch at a great place on Broadway, Community, which specializes in food made with locally-sourced ingredients.

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We followed that up with a manicure. Thora went for two colors, while I took inspiration from Elphaba’s skin color.

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Sean and I had seen Wicked many many years ago. I knew to what to expect. But as is usually the case, the fun is experiencing it again through Thora’s eyes. It didn’t disappoint. It was late afternoon when we got out of the show. We then walked our way down to 34th and 5th, to the Empire State Building where we met Sean and Auric. It was magical being up there with the kids, watching them take in the view of the city, the impossible crowding of high-rises, the streets so far below flowing with undying streams of toy-like traffic. Below are photos from the ESB. I love the ones in which Thora is pointing out landmarks to Auric.

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Day 4: Thursday, August 15th

33This was our last full day in New York City and we were making a second trip out to Brooklyn. This time, we got lucky and our time in NYC overlapped with my great friend and former co-worker during my Labyrinth days, Elizabeth, or as my kids know her, Aunty Lizzy. We met her and her littlest boy at the New York Transit Museum, a great museum which occupies an old and unused subway station in Brooklyn. You walk around inside restored subway cars from many eras, and explore many exhibits that illustrate the history of mass transit in New York.

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There’s also a hands-on kids area. The kids love getting behind the big steering wheel of a modern-day MTA bus.

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And of course there’s the awesome gift shop. This year’s shirts are the A for Auric, which feels good since we indeed have a long history with this train, and the T for Thora, the 2nd Avenue Local, planned but yet to be built.

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27After lunch, we met up with Elizabeth again, this time at the awesome Pier 6 playground on Brooklyn’s re-vamped waterfront area in Brooklyn Heights. We’ve been making a trip out to Brooklyn for several years now, specifically for this playground, and each year more has been made of this expansive public space. The park is made up of four enclosed areas: a water park, a slide park, a sand park, and a swing park. We usually find ourselves exhausted and hot on a blistering summer day and barely leave the water park. This year was no different.

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35.After the kids had had enough splashing, we strolled along the water front and got ice cream at an insanely good ice cream truck and ate it overlooking the water and the lower Manhattan skyline. Here we are posing for a snapshot before Elizabeth and her mom walked us back to the train where we hugged goodbye and parted ways, her back to her Brooklyn apartment and us to the Upper West Side.

That night we had our final dinner with Dan and his fiance at his Riverside Drive apartment. As we scootered home, Thora lost her wiggly tooth. Sheesh, talk about a busy vacation. Our kids teeth were falling out!!!

01Day 5: Friday, August 16th

This was our last morning in New York City, the city where we lived during the first four years of our marriage, the city where our first child was born, the city that made Sean the doctor he is today. I hate leaving New York City, especially when it might be years before we return. This was the photo that I snapped as we were on the RFK Bridge on the way to LaGuardia, looking back at midtown. As Thora says, “New York, New York, New York. The city so nice, they named it thrice.” Till next time.

Lucky are we that we have friends all over the country, and so as the grief of leaving threatened to overflow, we began to visualize landing in San Francisco and being met by old an friend from our days in Tucson, Sean’s rugby buddy, Joe. The Epic Stateside Trip had one final stop: 30 hours in San Francisco. Stay tuned…

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Our Epic Stateside Trip, Part 3: Our Fair City, Cambridge, Mass

Back to the post I started to write months ago. I am writing this now, in mid-January. But I must now conjure up the days of last (North American) summer. We’d left the dreary Gisborne winter and first landed in Chicago. We did five days in Chicago, followed by six days in New York City. We were now embarking on the third leg of our Epic Stateside Trip, driving the once-familiar route between Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

01We were soooo excited to be seeing our dear friends that we were frustrated to find tons of traffic that afternoon. We were thrilled when we saw this sign!

We were greeted by our friends in one of our favorite neighborhood parks. The kids re-acquainted themselves, and in only a matter of minutes, were playing again as if the previous 12-month separation was only a dream.

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We then settled in at our friends’ Hil and Dave’s house. And we proceeded to re-live what was once such a regular occurrence, a mildly chaotic, totally hilarious, happy multi-family dinner.

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Day 1: Tuesday, August 6

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A bunch of us headed down to Boston’s Public Garden and The Common for some city livin’. Thora’s buddies, Zach and River had camp, so Mia and Thora had some special girls-only bonding time. Just to be clear, there are few things that are as heartbreaking to me as seeing Thora and Mia cling to each other as if to a separated twin.

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We hit a lot of the familiar sites: The Make Way for Ducklings statues in the Public Garden.

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The Swan Pond in the Public Garden. Miraculously, no one fell in. This shot was followed by a turn on the swan boat.

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.More sisterly PDA from Thora and Mia.

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American imagery, even corny imagery like this brassy display on the carousel, was surprisingly novel to me now that we never see the soaring eagle or the stars and stripes.

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Side-by-side carousel-ing.

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A dip in the iconic Frog Pond, a staple for hot, city kids.

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08Yay! Pickles! May I introduce you to Grillo’s Pickles, this niche, pickles-only shop. Back before we moved out of Cambridge, I was simultaneously ecstatic (I love pickles!) and shattered (I was moving away from a city that had a niche pickle shop?!?) to learn that Grillo’s existed, and right across from my tattoo artist’s shop, of all convenient places! So on that Tuesday, I was thrilled when I saw the Grillo’s cart, across the pavilion from a Clover food truck. Heaven!

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After a significantly long and warm walk back to Cambridge’s Central Square, the culinary tour followed the pickles and gourmet food-truck food with gourmet ice cream at Toscanini’s. This was turning into a Best Of food day for me.

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11The kids did more of this. Thora sees Mia as the sister she longs for. Auric sees Mia as his girlfriend who happens to be twice his age. Mia was happy for all the love, I think.

That night, Sean and I left the kids with a crew of the remaining families so that we could play a night of bridge at our old bridge club at MIT. We had a sub-par night of bridge but had an awesome time. We miss those guys and gals! We followed the game up with a late-night dinner and beers at the MIT-area gastro pub Lord Hobo, where we split, among other things, a small plate of fancy schmancy mac and cheese. Food-wise, on this day, I died and went to heaven, what with the Grillo’s and Clover and Toscanini’s and then elevated mac n cheese!?! “Far out!” as the Kiwis would say. “Too much!”

14Day 2: Wednesday, August 7

The weather was hot and the skies were clear. It was a perfect day for a trip out to Walden Pond.

Here is part of the crew. We were a big crew that day. Here we are on the sand and in the water. We were everywhere.

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Here is Auric and his bestie, Etta. Even after almost six months, this photo still gets me.

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We broke up the swimming and basking with the hike around the perimeter of the the pond.

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After a day at the pond, we all found our way back to Hil and Dave’s. While the grown-ups prepared dinner, the kids put on dress-up clothes and had a cookie sale on the street. As you do…

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Whatever this marketing strategy is, it’s working.

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A tantrum gets the best of the giraffe. Lila’s off the sales team for the moment.

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21We then proceeded to have a 6-family dinner, which is caught on film! This panorama shot was taken by Greg’s brother, Joe. This may be the only photo like this in existence! Thanks, Joe!

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This photo of a guitar-playing Triceratops riffing an endless loop of “Born to Be Wild” is also probably the only one of its kind in existence. Photo credit: Me. You’re welcome.

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01The Ladies then gracefully left (queue sudden inconsolable weeping from all children at once as we run for the door) for a rare and appreciated night out. Central Square dance spots, here we come! Okay, lets try another one. Surely this one will have decent dance music. Yikes. Okay, one last one. Fuck it. Let’s just drink and sway to this endless, and unvarying trance loop. Regardless, there ain’t a finer bunch of ladies. On or off the dance floor. Especially on. I love you gals!

Day 3: Thursday, August 8th

This day was filled with a bunch of running around. I remember fun outings shopping for kids clothes with Summer and Lisa. Was this the day we had an appointment with our tenants? Perhaps a couple other things? See, THIS is why I’m always whipping my phone out and taking snaps! Because if I don’t have photographic evidence of it, it didn’t happen.

Day 4: Friday, August 9th

This day was the day I was eagerly anticipating, the day of our Back in Town/Sarah’s Birthday Party, hosted by our great friends, the Doyles (highlighted on this very blog for their trip to New Zealand in April 2013). And it was great! So many people turned out for it, I was in heaven! Catching up with so many good friends. It was beautiful and painful all at once. I didn’t pick up my phone once to take a single snap, so engaged was I in everyone around me. I laughed, I hugged, I accidentally coughed a loogie on Jaime’s tie! It was the best. We had a gazillion temporary tattoos as party favors and by the end of the night, I don’t think there was a single person un-tattoo-ed. Thankfully, Thom snapped a bunch of great photos. Sadly, not everyone is represented. I guess that just means that we’ll have to do this all again next time! The following are Thom’s gorgeous photos.

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Day 5: Saturday, August 10 (my birthday)

Um. There are no photos of this day. Because the catered food gave us all food poisoning. All of us…

Day 6: Sunday, August 11

Our last day in town. It was gut-wrenching, this day playing out. On the one hand, I wanted to somehow postpone the moment when we would get into our rental car and drive away. On the other hand, I didn’t want to keep enduring the anticipation of that goodbye. (I’m crying now as I type this.) On the other hand, I wanted to get as far away as possible from the minor epidemic we’d launched in New England. (The “puke dominoes” as I like to call them, continued to fall as the people who believed they’d miraculously dodged the fated bullet were subsequently taken down like all the people before them. Sub-note: I like to mix metaphors into a creamy stew and then ice a cake with those metaphors.) I joke. Of course I joke. To alleviate the sadness of leaving, I joke. We like our life here in New Zealand. Love it. But those friends… It was tearful.

Again, we had a beautiful, hot summer day and we enjoyed it at Riverside Press Park. Here the kids ham it up for some photos that Thom was taking.

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And here is the final photo Sean took on that trip. Thank you friends for showing us the best visit we could hope for (minus The Plague). We love you!

25The way we ping-ponged back and forth around the Northeast was not our initial travel plan. However, as we were piling into our rental car and pulling onto the Pike bound for New York City, I was thrilled that we’d fallen into this itinerary. Our moods were lifting. We were heading back to our favorite city. As Thora likes to say, “New York, New York, New York. The city so nice, they named it thrice.” I’m not kidding. She really likes to work “thrice” into her lexicon. And I mean this with all seriousness when I say that that is one of the many reasons why I love her.

So wiping the tears from my cheeks, we drove south. And similarly, wiping the tears from my cheeks now, I look forward to the next post, “Our Epic Stateside Trip, Part 2b/4: New York City the second time around.” Stay tuned…

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Returning home

The ridiculously picturesque landscape of Queenstown.

The ridiculously picturesque landscape of Queenstown. I mean, of course there’s a rainbow down in that valley. Talk about ostentatious.

This past week has been strange and surreal. Mixing our first trip to the South Island and our first views of the Southern Alps with the dramatic scenery of Milford Sound and the fjords, the rain and cold “summer” temperatures, and the very European feel of Queenstown, along with the presence of my parents visiting from the States… It was all pretty unbelievable. I’ll likely go on and on about the trip in coming posts. However, what I’m feeling now is a comfort at being back in little ol’ Gizzy. The sun has been shining bright and hard since we’ve been back. The sky was bluer than blue today. My dad and I went on a run through the residential streets and up over some hills. It was great to have him at my side (actually he’s a much faster runner and so I think I was always behind his shoulder) taking in the view of the whole of Poverty Bay as we crested Old Hospital Hill: the blues of the sky and the water, the bleached cliffs of Young Nick’s Head, the dark greens of Kaiti Hill. I sit here in our quiet house, the kids FINALLY asleep, and I feel pleased that we showed them a good time. And I think that he and my step-mom appreciated the beauty of our humble town and could see the many reasons why we live here. Do all ex-pats feel this need to have their choice to live far away affirmed by the people they love? Will this need ever be eclipsed by my own satisfaction? Will I ever be confident in the knowledge that the satisfaction I feel is completely genuine rather than mostly genuine? Do even the most confident risk-takers wonder if they’re doing the right thing?

The kids and my dad rode bikes to the Botanical Gardens this afternoon. Sean grilled up some mustard chicken. We ate an early dinner under the blaring sun of a 5 o’clock Gizzy sky (we need a big umbrella!) and ate chocolate birthday cake and celebrated my dad’s birthday a few days early. We had a meloncholy drive home after seeing my dad onto his plane at the airport. It’s just the four of us again. In this house. In this town. In this country, about which there is still so much to learn. What next? I don’t know. There’s a huge inflatable slide that’s been set up near the Peel St. bridge, not far from our house. Maybe we’ll go check that out. Just the sort of thing that one might do on a scorching summer’s day on the East Coast. It’s good to be home.

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