Category Archives: Uncategorized

How a Kitchen Changed our Lives

IMG_8250 (1)I’m not even kidding.

Do you see the cute heart-shaped silicone cup on that plate? It’s filled with quiche, made by Ella (with a little help from Dad).

For Christmas, when I knew we were going to have a new kitchen but I did NOT know when, I bought my husband a cookbook, for the kids: Cooking Class: 57 Fun Recipes Kids Will Love to Make (and Eat!) They weren’t wrong!

So far, in our new kitchen, we have made from that book:

  • Mini-quiches (more than once)
  • Crepes (more than once)
  • Yogurt parfait
  • French toast on a stick
  • Lettuce rolls
  • Homemade applesauce
  • Trail mix
  • Granola bars
  • Homemade tortilla chips
  • Popcorn chicken

And there’s so much more! No, this is not an advertisement for that book, but this new happiness IS facilitated by our new, fabulous kitchen, designed by my husband to be the center of our home and make family time awesome. And it sure has.

Breakfast is served at the counter most days (in fact, many meals now happen there), where the Bart Johnson Kitchen is OPEN for business:

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(in case you forgot what it looks like)

All that space between the cooktop and sink (which Bart was concerned about) has turned out to be awesome, since peeling apples with little kids is a task best done in the middle of the floor on a towel over a big bowl. And that’s exactly how we did it.

I literally cannot complain about it. Don’t worry, though, my husband can fill in on that front with his obsession over the shine on the countertops, two TINY chips in those countertops which an ant would not even notice, and the fact that yes, it’s near impossible to reach the back of our microwave (which opens like an oven and is placed a little high). Oh, and I guess I COULD complain about the floor, the color of which is too light, but then, it is one of the very few items in the kitchen I picked out, so I will not.

Regardless. LIFE! The flow of our days has changed, and often we make dinner while the kids are playing games in the middle of the floor in our great room, which is now OPEN to our kitchen (does it seem like we spend a lot of time on the floor? maybe). We had friends over for brunch and the “big people” sat at the actual table while the kids made (and ate!) french toast on a stick, and loved it.

So I’m pleased to report that our new kitchen has changed our lives, and when you’re ready for a mini-quiche or other treat made by a mini-human, come on over!



Summer Camp!

IMG_4567As we wrap up Summer Camp for Zoe, I realized I don’t think I’ve shared the joy that is Monarch Camp here in the blog yet. Oh, what you’re missing.

Remember any bad “camp” movie from the 80s, remove the ‘overnight’ portion (since Zoe just goes to day camp), and you’ll get a sense of the chaos that is camp.

The picture above is from the last day of camp this year. It was “Color Celebration Day”, and here’s how the camp alerts parents to the particular brand of chaos they are serving up daily:

Color Celebration
During our color celebration, we will be having a powder paint party. The powder paint is easily washed off but will stick to your camper’s clothing. We ask that your campers bring an additional change of clothes if they would like to participate.

If you would not like your camper to participate in the powder paint festivities, please send an email so that we may arrange an alternative fun filled activity for them.

That was copy/pasted verbatim content. Here’s my take on what it should have read:

During our huge mess celebration, we will be throwing things at your child which will NOT COME OFF their clothing (or their shoes, though we’re not going to mention that). Since they will clearly get paint all over your car on the way home – and who knows where else! – we ask that your campers bring an additional change of clothes, only in case they are wimps from the paint throwing and start to cry, because there’s no way they are going to be willing to take their paint-filled clothing off before getting in your car.

If you would not like your camper to participate in the powder paint festivities, please send an email to us so we can put your kid in the dunce corner, where they will cry and complain until you come to pick them up (and we will have written evidence that you are the one who stole their fun, not us).

Now scroll back up to that picture, which was just before Zoe got into our car on Color Celebration Day, and tell me my take wasn’t the more honest one. She was not alone.

To make things “easier” for parents, they send an email each week with a preview – and THEME – for each day of the upcoming week. These themes have ranged from “crazy hair day” to “Wear either Yellow Clothing or coordinate the same outfit with a friend for Twin Day”. It’s the little, simple things parents love to do.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am all for making things fun. And believe me, I AM the mother who ensures when it’s Orange Day that there’s orange on our child, but on “Dress up as a character day”, I had to put my foot down. The night before, literally as she was going to bed, Zoe wanted to go out and buy a dinosaur costume so she could be like a dinosaur from a show. Um, no.

And honestly, camp is SHEER CHAOS. I have only picked her up a few times (camp is very close to our house, so Bart gets that job), but he will attest to this being a daily reality. There are kids, backpacks and “I’m not even old enough to drive but I am responsible for your child” counselors with glitter on their faces EVERYWHERE in this massive field where they congregate at the end of the day. My nightmare would be having to spend a week attending this camp.

First job when you arrive to pick her up? FINDING HER. They are loosely grouped by age but with some games in the common area in the center. It’s a live Where’s Waldo.

On your way out, they check your ID to make sure you’re not stealing one of these filthy, sassy-infused children, and they hand your child a wooden token, which s/he hands to the “guard counselor” (also not old enough to vote) sitting at a desk on the way out.

Between checkout and guard there are countless boxes of “lost and found” items: towels, clothes, water bottles, lunch boxes, you name it. Oh, and a small room where they sell 5 different popsicles, as though your amped up child needs any more energy.

This is Zoe’s 3rd year attending Monarch Camp summer session (and she’s attended a winter session, too), so you may be asking why in the world we keep doing that… Good question. And I do have an answer!

Though she comes home EVERY DAY absolutely disgustingly dirty, destroys a backpack every summer with sunscreen, grass and sand all over the inside AND outside, loses 2-4 water bottles (which are not cheap items) and begs every day to wear a bikini (also no), she loves it. She comes home tired, with stories about her friends, and those 16-year-old “counselors” hug her, praise her, teach her sassy things (not a fan of that part), and make her feel special.

They also have a field trip every week, which takes her twice a season to Zuma Beach in Malibu, has taken her to the aquarium, science center, a few movies and more. Imagine the opportunity of getting to do that with your friends, on a bus, once a week. Heck, I wish I had summer camp…

In addition, they swim every single day. For “classic camp” they swim twice a day and for gymnastics, fine arts and theater arts camps they swim once. And swimming is good.

As part of the Theater Arts camp she attended for a few of the weeks this summer, they had a Variety Show where kids could participate and perform. Our kid is nothing if not a performer, and thankfully Bart captured the following on video to memorialize the moment:

Variety Show


You go, Zoe.

Anyway, as summer camp ends we prepare for Zoe to start SECOND GRADE on Tuesday. I can’t even. Hopefully, she got her wiggles out over the past several weeks of chaos and can buckle down to actually learn some stuff at school. We shall see!

What I love about Facebook

IMG_8227Above is the sweet picture of loving sisters I posted on Facebook for the Fourth of July, with two cute little girls snuggling (ironically wearing the same dress as last year, which is the ONLY other time they’ve ever worn it- will I ever learn?).

Below is a more accurate view of what that day actually looked like, when not shined up by the Facebook filter (and I don’t mean image filter):


Sure, people have lots of pictures, good and bad, and tend to share the “best” ones (they used to say it takes a whole roll of film to get ONE good one – I wonder what that stat is in digital terms?). However, I will maintain (or maybe confess?) that the picture chosen to put up on Facebook is generally the SHINY HAPPY one.

When I say Facebook filter, I mean this: Pick a person you care about (or even one you don’t) and go check out their Facebook page – not their most recent post but their whole page. Most often when you do that you’d think all they do is vacation and hug and celebrate and see really cool stuff (most often with friends who seem to like them). Maybe we really ARE all Trolls (from the movie, not the under the bridge kind).

Facebook posters have deep, passionate thoughts on subjects – are quippy and fun – run 5Ks for good causes, remember loved ones fondly, ask help for friends and think their toes look great in those “me perspective” pool photos (that one may be off-topic but it is pretty common and DOES imply vacation/calm/happy).

I’ll bet you have a Facebook friend (or have had to DE-FRIEND someone) who tends to post negative or depressing thoughts or just overshare completely inane details about their lives, but I’ll also bet that’s the exception, not the rule. Or else all I have are some incredibly homogeneous (and mostly happy) Facebook friends.

Let me be clear. It’s not always an “upper” to head to Facebook and see everyone’s blissful happiness, but just like watching a good movie, if you can you suspend disbelief for long enough, you sure can be thankful so many people ARE having seemingly happy, kind moments.

Anyway, I’m not trying to say what I post on Facebook is fake. It’s not. But I will say that what I love about Facebook is while I have a lot of pictures that look like this:


(blurry, but cute!)

I also have a lot that look like these:


The many faces of LIFE. Thanks, Facebook, for (usually) bringing out the best in us.

First World Problems & a Triceratops

IMG_8241First of all, as I mentioned in our London post, Zoe LOVES dinosaurs – also evidenced by the fact she has now watched every Dino Dana episode (new series on Amazon, 14 episodes) and almost every Dino Dan episode (old series, also now on Amazon, 52 episodes). PLUS, two “movies” about Dino Dan’s brother, Trek.

But I digress.

Today we went to the Natural History Museum in LA for the Extreme Mammals exhibit, which was really cool!

For the First World Problems part of this post, let me point out these moments:

  • We enter through the Gift Shop. Zoe: “Mom, can we get something in the gift shop?” Me: “Let’s see how the day goes and how well you listen.
  • We exit the Extreme Mammals exhibit through yet another gift shop. Zoe: “Mom, can we get something in the gift shop?” Me: “We haven’t been here long. Let’s go see the butterflies and see how it goes.
  • We exit the Butterfly Pavilion through yet ANOTHER gift shop. Zoe: “Mom, can we get something in the gift shop?” Me: “It’s 11 am. Don’t you want to see the dinosaurs?
  • We eat lunch, and it’s time to leave. Zoe: “Mom, can we play in the stick house?” (NOTE: It’s 94 degrees outside.) Me: “I thought you wanted to go to the gift shop on the way out? Would you rather play in the stick house?”

One National Geographic dinosaur book and 2 “Fizzy” dinosaur eggs later, we’re out of the gift shop and on the way home. Suckers.

Notice a few things here? Ella didn’t ask for anything, and we could have left all 3 gift shops with empty hands, but Zoe, she is persistent. Hopefully that will pay off in a job setting one day so she can take care of us in our (rapidly approaching) old age.

Also, it takes every trick in the book to deter her from her goal. Negotiation, reminder, distraction, perspective. Or maybe it’s all just constant negotiation…

Anyway, on the less commercial side, we also enjoyed the Dinosaur Encounters show they host a few times a day, with a human actor/employee and a human-powered life-sized dinosaur puppet acting out a skit for a room full of mostly kids.

This time: A Triceratops, which Zoe really likes.

We arrived early and ended up on the front row, seated on the floor just behind the stanchions. We’ve been to one of these before and often there’s some part of the skit which requires an audience volunteer, so Bart reminded Zoe if she wanted to BE that volunteer, she’d have to move fast.

When the actor asked for volunteers, she was the first with her hand WAY up and enthusiasm beaming in his direction. As she headed to the small stage, she mention to Bart (in reference to the Triceratops on the other side of the stanchion), “Don’t worry, Dad, they’re herbivores.

That ended up being sage advice and may explain the exceptional confidence of our lovely future performer child as she took her part in the skit (sorry you can actually see the stanchion and some wobbly spots, but I’ve got Ella in my lap):


And so, that’s the story of Zoe vs. the Triceratops (almost impressive as Zoe vs. pushover parents in gift shops).

Happy Saturday!

Daddy’s New Kitchen!

We’ve lived in our house for almost 6 and a half years and while I loved the original kitchen as-is (though to be fair, I rarely cooked in it…), we agreed early on that we could make better use of that space, since the kitchenette was never used and the “kitchen” part was shaped (and sized) like the galley of a small boat.

Oh, and as we were buying the house, Bart recalls saying “As long as we can redo the kitchen.” My selective memory has edited out that comment – I just wanted the house.

In addition, with a wall between the kitchen and living space, we couldn’t feasibly make sure the small children were not harming one another (or themselves or others) without a divide and conquer approach. Or having them in kitchen with us, which at their ages has shown to be equally dangerous.

And so, in May of 2016, Bart and I agreed to undertake the huge project of remodeling our kitchen – with a cat, a five-year-old and a one-year-old being clear and present obstacles to progress. We agreed that since Bart was the only one of us who could actually USE a kitchen, he was in charge and (as much as it would kill me), I would follow his lead and weigh in only when/if he wanted it. This was my idea.

After much “consideration” on the part of my husband (read: 103 different kitchen layout drawings with items shifting literally inches from one drawing to the next, 5,627 samples of flooring, tile, countertops, and more shipped to our house – enough to floor the entire house), demolition began on February 16, 2017 (my mother’s birthday, ironically, and yes, 9 months after we agreed to remodel). I think he was giving birth.

But that’s not the point of this story. Focus on the kitchen, right?

Let’s start with the BEFORE pictures.

All the pictures below are pre-move-in photos (3 are from the original Zillow posting) and include original furniture (and a really cool rug) that was not ours. The dining room table IS still ours and the black storage unit and huge bookcase with orange doors are (well, were) built in and therefore also ours.


To make the shift from what you just saw to what you’re about to see, we had several fun moments:

  • We had to pack up the kitchen… You have no idea how much “stuff” you have in the kitchen until you have to pack it up. Goodwill definitely benefited from our adventure and thanks to our contractor we bought banker’s boxes (which I highly recommend for such a purpose) so we could neatly stack what seems like 1,000 boxes of stuff we “really need” around our house.
  • Setup a makeshift kitchen. Our office/laundry room also became a kitchen, and honestly, Bart did an AMAZING job with that. Other than having the refrigerator in the living room and the microwave / small cooktop / dishes in the back, it was really not that painful. Plus, we got an extra 52 steps per trip to go from kitchen to fridge to kitchen again (78 if you came back to the living room – bonus!) If not for the extra eating out, we may have even lost some weight! (We did not.)
  • We had to remove a wall (the one with the bookcase above).
  • Though a structural architect provided drawings on what we had to do to support the house and remove that wall, thankfully our contractor noticed (before taking down that wall) that a section of foundation we THOUGHT was there was NOT.
  • We had to pour foundation before installing posts and beams and THEN remove the wall, going through various stages of “false frame” and zippered plastic “wall” enclosing our empty kitchen space. Still, dust, oh and extra cost of pouring foundation and another permit.
  • We had to remove huge windows (you can see them in the 4th picture above with the orange and yellow blinds) from the corner of the house and enclose with exterior walls. Part of me was sad about this BUT windows make for useless wall space and honestly, the morning sun in those windows makes it intolerable to sit in there anyway. Windows, gone.
  • We had to make 4,382 unexpected and random decisions along the way. USB power outlets in the wall? Speakers in ceiling (“now’s the time”)? Tile grout color? Kitchen sink? Kitchen faucet? How many drawers vs. cabinets? Cabinet handles? Kitchen counter stools? Final window sizes? Tile flooring in entryway – where/how should that meet kitchen flooring and hardwood floor of living room?

And so, after beginning construction on February 16, we left for Europe with a 98% completed kitchen (missing only a few cabinet fronts) on June 13. I think that’s a HUGE win! Strangest part was coming HOME to a brand new kitchen. It was like returning to someone else’s house… but that’s not the point of this post.

Next Wednesday we will pass official inspection (so excuse the stickers still on our windows), but I’m thrilled to share our new kitchen.

Drumroll, please. The AFTER pictures.

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If you’re detail-oriented, you likely noticed the Snowman & Santa spatulas and the bag of prunes in the fruit bowl in the background (don’t worry, we also eat fruit, but that’s in the fridge and these kids like prunes, go figure). If you didn’t notice, you’re welcome ;) Now you can be certain it’s actually our kitchen.

In addition, the black storage on the far left (which has two photos hanging on it) is still intact. That’s controversial, but given the cost/effort required to make it a different size (and my desire to keep it intact), it remains.

And finally, Bart has his very own coffee nook in what used to be our tiny, useless pantry.

So the Johnsons are officially ready for visitors! If you were holding off because you were concerned about construction (or lack of coffee), your wait is over. Come on out and see us!



Cheerio, London!


IMG_8169The first thing that happened on our first day in London? I realized that the Tooth Fairy had fallen into a deep sleep and forgotten all about that tooth under Zoe’s pillow… Thankfully, both children were still asleep and £2.50 later (that’s $3.20 USD), the Tooth Fairy delivered.

On the train from Milan we had done the only real London planning for the trip, given that most of our time was spent in Italy and we’d have at most 40 hours total in London (including sleep time). We considered the following options:

  • Harry Potter Studio Tour. Sold out.
  • Harry Potter Bus Tour. Sold out.
  • Harry Potter Walking Tour. Looked lame. (but notice a theme? come on, it’s London, the birthplace of Harry Potter!)
  • We landed on a visit to Platform 9 3/4, the platform Harry Potter uses to get to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. 
  • The Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace. Until we read that it was an affair, with thousands of people waiting to see it, and was not great for kids
  • We landed on watching the sentry guards on duty at Buckingham Palace!
  • The London Zoo! Too far and a full day commitment.
  • The British Museum! Very close and Zoe loved Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, which was filmed there. How fun would that be! But apparently nothing in the film was actually at the museum… I found a Fact vs. Fiction site and one about the “horror” of museum staff about factual inaccuracies. Plus, Zoe loves dinosaurs and they are no longer at the British Museum.
  • We landed on the Natural History Museum, with a supposedly incredible dinosaur exhibit.

Travel plan for our one day in London? CHECK. After mapping out a good route and eating breakfast at the hotel (Citadines Holburn Covent Garden, where I’ve stayed for work and very near a Tube stop), we felt very ready. And for the record, we thought this was going to be a simple, easy day for our last full day in Europe…


We took the Tube (subway) to get to the museum, exiting to an alternative entrance with the coolest butterfly exhibit I’ve ever seen! So many butterflies, a cool hatching display filled with cocoons and a Madagascan Moon Moth (picture below), who we learned lives for about a week, with one goal: MATE. The male moths don’t even have a digestive system and spend the week starving, in search of a mate. The girls (and me!) loved it.


In the marine fossils section, she saw one of her new heroes, Mary Anning, an English fossil finder who made many significant finds in the 1800s.


She also saw some cool things like Dodo birds and then the COOLEST dinosaur exhibit I’ve ever seen, including a “real” T-rex that was eerily authentic:




After the Natural History Museum we grabbed a double decker bus (with air conditioning!) and sat up top while Zoe started counting double decker buses (she got to 150 before we left). Then walked the long road to Buckingham Palace to see the guards. Zoe kept hoping to see the Queen (and Bart kept encouraging that idea…), however, we did not see her (only one of us is surprised).

They were so excited when the guards started their “walk”.

Here’s the brief explanation of what’s happening:

A sentry will be on duty “at their post” for a two-hour period. Every 10 minutes, he comes to attention, slopes arms and does a march of 15 paces across the area of the post. Each sentry will do this four to five times before halting. He will then shoulder arms and stand at ease. Standing “easy” is not permitted whilst a sentry is at post. Orders for sentry duty read out before each 2 hour ‘tour of duty’, make it clear to each individual that: “you may not eat, sleep, smoke, stand easy, sit or lie down during your tour of duty”.


(that’s Zoe acting serious like a guard)

After hanging with the royalty, and a bunch of strangers holding onto fence around the palace ogling the gold decoration on that black fence, we headed through the park back to the Tube for the most exciting adventure of all!


To be honest, we almost didn’t make it to this last stop… After a super long trip, we were exhausted and Zoe kept picking at Ella (who was strapped in a stroller). But as Bart and I were trying to decipher the right Tube stop for our next adventure (which we had kept a secret from Zoe), she again began to torture her sister…

Another not-so-proud moment followed where I decided we were NOT going to go have the funnest adventure EVER and let Zoe know she would be missing out on it (insert really sad cute kid face). Then I decided I needed a break and stepped outside for perspective.

I said to Bart, “We’re going to regret it if we don’t do this, right?”

To which my infinitely wise husband responded, “Yes.”

So I put on my big girl pants, apologized and we headed off to Platform 9 3/4, the spot where Harry Potter ran through a wall to get to the train to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. (Did I mention it was 4:50 pm? Oh and that apparently the Brits like to use the Tube to commute for work?)

Anyway, 3 short stops and we arrived at Kings Cross station and headed over to see Platform 9 3/4, which was masked by a group of about 100 people all waiting to have their picture professionally taken in a Harry Potter scarf pushing a fake trolly into a wall… I stepped straight to the end of that line, smiling.


Zoe however was not smiling. (insert confused mom face) That’s when I realized, hey, she doesn’t KNOW about the picture! So Bart took her to the front to show her what was happening while I waited in line. The REAL Platform 9 3/4! How cool is THAT?!

They came back with news: Apparently Zoe was MORE interested in going into the HARRY POTTER STORE behind that platform than the photo op. (insert shocked mom face) Mind you, this same store exists at Universal Studios Hollywood not 10 minutes from our house… Bart said, “They’re charging 20 pounds for the picture. If we come out less than that, we win.”

29 pounds later, we left the incredibly crowded Harry Potter Shop with a “wand” pen, a notebook, a stuffed owl and pencil for Zoe’s teacher. Oh well, guess we didn’t win.

Or did we?


After navigating an incredibly crowded Tube (where Ella fell asleep and slept through entire journey), we ended up back near our hotel for dinner and wrapped up our last full  (long) day in Europe.


To avoid yet ANOTHER blog post about our travel details, I’ll just say that the following day Zoe woke feeling feverish, and we had a long day of travel. She was a TROOPER and slept much of our 11 hour flight home, then was very helpful in the airport as we navigated passport, baggage, customs, getting our car and finally heading home.

Just a short 17 hours from door to door, and we walked back into our “new home” (the kitchen is remodeled! but that’s another blog) and I mentally kissed the floor (getting all the way down there and back up at 9 pm would have probably meant I slept there).

Speaking of sleep, as you’d guess our girls were up and WIDE AWAKE at 2 am PT the following morning, a trend that has thankfully migrated to 5:15 am PT today! We’re all working through jet lag and so glad to be home, and I’m sure one day I’ll look back at this trip and be (more) thankful.

But today I’m most thankful to have come home with 2 INTACT children, an even stronger marriage, and a family of survivors who just learned some valuable lessons about improvisation, patience and making the best of absolutely anything.


Just Another Travel Day


After repacking our European vacation bags (we have a packing system: I stack / gather, Bart makes everything magically fit in the bags, always), we woke at 6:30 am to wrangle bags, strollers, kids and garbage. Our small town (and many others in Italy) has a sophisticated separation system for garbage with Organic, Paper, Glass and Plastic / Mixed as categories. We spent our time in the farmhouse separating all the trash, then were responsible for getting all but the Plastic / Mixed trash to designated dumpsters in town (Plastic / Mixed requires a key and is for residents only).

But back to the bags and kids. I literally dressed our children in their sleep, and we slipped them into the car to head to the train station in Florence and return the rental car. Thinking we’d done a good deal of “driving” in Italy, this seemed like a piece of cake. Until we got into Florence… I think Rome driving would have been much worse, but with one way streets, aggressive drivers and motorbikes everywhere, that was an adventure.

We made our train to Milan, took a taxi to Linate airport and eventually got on a plane to London after almost 2 hours of delay (one on the tarmac). Phew. Our children are very very good travelers (for children). Once we got to London, we had to navigate Heathrow airport, customs and passport control and over an hour in a taxi later made it to our hotel, starving, to be greeted by not one but two TRAINEES at the front desk. I can’t even.

By the time we made it up to the room, I was mush (in fact, we were all tired, but I was extra grumpy), since by the time we arrived in London we had traveled for 15 consecutive hours. It was 9:00 pm London time (Italy is an hour later) when we started dinner, and as we were standing outside guess what happened? Zoe lost a tooth!

Since I haven’t mentioned it, that may sound dramatic, but you may have already noticed that in some of the earlier pictures, her tooth was basically pointing at you it was so loose. But that tooth hung in there, despite many offers to pull it (I would never).

While at the Milan airport in yet another “Italian Toy Store”, we found a Playmobil Tooth Fairy action figure (can you believe that?!) So after we made sure to get pounds (coins) at the restaurant so the Tooth Fairy would be sure to show up, Zoe put the tooth in her fairy box and slipped it under her pillow.


So we had another very full travel day with 2 bags, 2 strollers, 2 kids and 4 backpacks. And by the time we arrived in London, we had just 2 more sleeps abroad. Weary world travelers!


Searching for Siena


So the title is a little misleading. We found Siena just fine (me navigating from the passenger seat, Bart driving) but it was a clunky visit.

First of all, we decided on our “free day” in Italy to drive to Siena, a medieval city people frequently recommended that was about 1.5 hours away from Sieci and for which I had found a cool post online about not one but FIVE playgrounds! Since the kids had spent days looking at “old stuff” and we were headed for 2 big travel days, we decided to do something they should enjoy.


Turns out Siena is a very circuitous city, with very very very winding streets to get around and into the city itself, so just finding parking near the playground we chose was a chore. And before I talk about that, here’s the description online of that playground:

Playground 2: This one is very central, just a few hundred meters from Piazza Gramsci. It is located on two sides of a small park with trees – on one side there is a climbing frame with a slide, and on the other there is a playhouse, a fish spring rider and a small pond with two swans and ducks.

Sounds great, right?

Well, after parking a distance away and walking up a steep hill with steps while navigating an outdoor farmers market (where the kids got cherries and a peach), we arrived at the “playground” to see a METAL slide “on fire” out in the 90 degree day (no shade) and a gravel ground (no grass). By the time we got there we were starving anyway, so we decided to try again later and see if things cooled off. In the distance we saw the top of a lovely duomo (which we never found).

The other 4 parks were who the heck knows where because once we entered the “city” we were walking tiny pedestrian filled streets (sometimes also filled with cars that didn’t seem like they’d fit) with no real sense of direction. And so, we just walked and walked and walked and walked until we found the Piazza del Campo (the main square).


Siena is known for being a well-preserved medieval city – supposedly they even require new structures to bear medieval architectural elements. While beautiful and different, the streets are filled with shops and shops and shops, feeling very touristy. Once the streets open to the square, it looks like a totally different place – very cool to see, and very very very hot to stand in the middle of a paved square with zero shade or water.

I tried my panoramic view again, with strange results. What is a perfectly rounded square looks bent in this picture, so use your imagination to curve those buildings on the left into the semicircle aligned with the tower (and forgive me).


To get back to our car, we had two choices: Head back same way (uphill) or head in a different direction (also uphill), either way pushing strollers with children in them. For two old people, we got a heck of a workout over here in Europe. Oh wait, a third option would have been a taxi. Remember those circuitous streets? To walk, 9 minutes. To take a taxi to same place? 25 minutes. Not kidding.

And so we walked back, which turned out great for me as I got my one and only really cool souvenir from Italy: A Gabs Purse! I know. I have been carrying the same small (not so great Le Sport Sac) purse for a few years. But this purse was cool! Italian leather (of course) and it is adaptable, with snaps and zippers that literally transform it to new purses. Plus, it will still (technically) fit in my backpack. Woo hoo! Don’t worry, it’s black.

When we reached that terrible playground again, there were parts that were now in shade (including area with swans), so the kids got to play for a while after all.


Until a bug crawled on Zoe’s hand and with terrified faces, the kids turned to me to leave. See if you can find their new friend in my “Where’s Waldo (Bug)” photo below. Hint: He’s huge and black. Hope you sleep ok after this…


On the way home, my expert navigation skills ended up with a wrong turn that led us through some small Italian city for a 7-minute detour (exciting!), then we headed to Pontassieve where we’d found the hipster pizzeria before and found a cool burger place that ALSO could have been in any hipster part of the US called Villini Lab. Nearby was guess what: another laundromat, where my saint of a husband washed our clothes while we ate.

And so ended our official Italian sightseeing leg of the journey. Overall, a success if you ask me, though we left exhausted after long, hot days wrangling small children. Speaking of which, guess what Ella did as we drove across the Italian countryside? That’s right:


Man, that kid can sleep through anything (takes after her father). I’ll wrap up with a few more random photos from our Siena adventure. Up next: LONDON. Arrivederci, Italy!


ROMA! Secondo giorno.


I know, I know, that’s not a cute kid, BUT I’m so proud of myself for making my first panoramic picture, standing dead center at St Peter’s Square in Vatican City and somehow have NO people in front of me. Sometimes, it’s the little things.

Speaking of little things,  on day two in Rome we enjoyed breakfast and another jacuzzi experience for the kids until checkout time, then decided to take a double decker bus tour we saw on our first day. While Bart hung out with the girls, I headed down to reception to scope out the options.

There were two companies that could be booked right there in the hotel: Big Bus or Roma. The stops were identical and the one thing on our list was to “see the Vatican” – not wait for hours in the 90-degree heat insane line to go IN but at least “see” it. Neither stopped there and both stopped close.

The Big Bus (slightly more expensive) touted an audio tour, a “free walking tour”, and had an app that included a map so I chose that one, and we paid our pre-booking rate. We headed out with our two strollers walking to the bus stop, passing 3 Roma buses on the way, and 15 sweaty minutes (and a hill) later arrived at Stop 2, to learn that for Big Bus, this stop was out of commission… And we also realized we’d left Zoe’s backpack at the hotel…

We had just a few hours left before our train back to Florence, no idea where the next stop was (time-wise), and were told it would take 45 minutes on the bus to get to the closest Vatican stop, so we had to buy yet another ticket for the Roma bus right there at the stop (paying what ended up the higher rate for the lesser bus). Oh well.

Zoe was excited for a double-decker experience, and we were too, until we found that there were two options on the bus: HOT (lower level with no A/C) and HOTTER (open air upper level with 93-degree heat). It was so hot that I kept Ella downstairs while poor Bart took Zoe up to have the full experience.

On that bus, while fanning our small child and sweating bullets, I also left poor Zoe’s brand new Colosseum special blue umbrella. Oops. She was gracious about it but sad.

As promised, 45 minutes later we hopped off the bus and 15 minutes of sweaty walking after that were standing in St Peter’s Square with thousands of our closest friends (ha). Oh, and again, Ella was asleep…


After buying yet ANOTHER umbrella from vendors outside the Vatican (a slightly darker shade of blue and another super happy kid), for which Zoe did the negotiation, we headed back in a taxi to our hotel to get Zoe’s backpack and on to the train station. Another 3 hours or so later, and we were back in Sieci and starving.

Luckily we found a great pizzeria called Pizzeria da Santorino in the closest town, Pontassieve, which could have been a hipster joint in many cool sections of LA (or maybe Portland). They had barely opened for the evening and the proprietor was in surf shorts and a t-shirt when we arrived, then a white shirt, bowtie and black pants not 10 minutes later and the entire restaurant filled quickly for dinner. Fate was again on our side.

We returned to our sweltering low-internet home away from home, tired but glad to have had a brief break in the heat and with some lovely memories of Rome. Ciao, Roma!




ROMA! Giorno uno.


The first thing to note about Rome is that they have hotels with A/C, a huge jacuzzi tub AND a shower and (gulp) internet access that is faster than dial-up (though honestly, not as fast as home). They also have 5 flights of stone stairs but they have a tiny lift (“3 persons max”), but at a place called “Suite Dreams” with the amenities above, how could you go wrong?

When we walked in the room for the first time (after traveling on a train from Sieci to Florence, then Florence to Rome for about 3 hours door-to-door), I never wanted to leave the room. But we were starving (oh, and in Rome), so back out into the 93-degree weather we went for lunch at the Rosemary Cafe, then headed out to our next adventure, the Colosseum!

Insert fun fact about AT&T: When I called to setup an International plan, after searching online for info, I chose the “Passport” for 3 of our devices, which is about 200 MB of data per device. HAHAHAHAHA.  We used up the first 200 on Bart’s phone just navigating to our farmhouse then to PIsa, and used most of mine on the way back. And so, I called AT&T to see if we could change our plan. Turned out we could! In fact, we can have our SAME PLAN as at home (which includes unlimited data) for $10/day per device. That may sound like a lot, but 200 MB (which we used in less than a day), cost $40 per device… KUDOS to AT&T for swapping out our plan without charge, which has allowed us to navigate, search and entertain children for days at a lower cost, and you’re only charged for days you use it. Anyway, we are clearly internet dependent.

In fact, as I type this from London, I woke in a panic to find that our charging block died and NONE of our devices charged overnight. Perspective? We have 3 power sticks, 3 iPads and 2 iPhones, all of which we have depleted almost completely every single day here (especially the phones for navigation). But I digress…

Back to Rome! We left our “suite” hotel and headed out over rocky roads filled with insane Italian drivers (and countless motorbikes and pedestrians), each with a stroller, a backpack and a kid. Bart’s job has been to navigate the street walking, while I navigate the roads as he drives. Safety first!

After what felt like 10 miles (it was 1.1 miles) of walking (remember that 93-degree weather), we arrived at the Colosseum to meet our tour guide right on time – with two sleeping children. Our guide, Alessandra, who I selected for a “kid tour” of the venue had that look like “I hope you big people like to color…” but graciously started off towards the Colosseum, ready to adapt her tour.

On our walk across the street, the street vendors descended on us, peddling colorful selfie sticks – and umbrellas. Though Zoe was still asleep, I knew she’d love one, so I asked for a price, walked away, paid one-third the original price and bought an umbrella. And I was right, she did not want to put that umbrella down (and unfortunately she did, beside me, and I left it on a bus – but that’s another story).

As we entered the Colosseum, I woke Zoe and the tour began. I’ll skip all the detailed info, but let’s say it was MASSIVE and impressive – one of the Seven Wonders of the World! If you want more overview (of Colosseum and other sights), here’s a link with just enough info to be dangerous.

During the tour, the guide would periodically stop and ask Zoe questions, show her pictures from some cool books that showed what it used to look like and how gladiators lived, then give her things to color – she even gave her a cute multi-color pen as a prize and ended our tour by handing her a bag full of peach gummy candy. SCORE.

And Ella, you ask? Well, she slept through 3/4 of the tour…

That’s not to say that Zoe didn’t love her own private tour of the Colosseum, but I’m pretty sure that awake Ella would have wanted to run around (YIKES) and play (DOUBLE YIKES). She cared literally nothing for the “old stuff” – not even a “wow”.

But back to Zoe. With her new blue umbrella in tow (watch out heads, arms and legs of anyone in reach), she had a great time learning.

And even Ella got a chance to color near the end.

And by the very end of our 3-hour tour, we were all exhausted from heat, standing and walking, but gladiators are tough. Oh, and you’ll see a few of these, but we bought an interactive book to use before and during our trip to Rome and learned about how many statues of Roman Emperors had them standing with right arm raised. So you’ll se a few of those pictures of Roman Emperor Zoe.

Exhausted, we ended our tour at a gelateria, thanks to our tour guide, and never made it to the Roman Forum (which I am totally OK with). Instead, we headed back to the hotel for some time in the jacuzzi tub, which Zoe would like to bring home as a souvenir. Then we headed out to dinner, in search of NOT pasta to a neat area of Rome called Trastevere on the other side of the Tiber River, providing us with some great evening views of the city. On the way, our taxi driver suggested we could “eat meat at home” and encouraged us to go to another place, called Popi Popi (pronounced Poppy Poppy, like Ella’s favorite Troll, so how could we not go?).

As we got out of the taxi on a cute street, so did the driver, and he hugged 3 of the waiters standing outside (can you say “tourists, trapped?”) Thankfully the dinner was fantastic, one of Bart’s favorites, and we got the cute Lady & the Tramp picture up top, and these:

PASTA, Shopkins, paper and colored pens – our non-digital entertainment at an open-air old school Italian restaurant. In fact, I’ve never loved tiny toys more than on our European vacation (guess who picks these up most often from the floor of our home?). But for travel, perfect.

Zoe wanted just a few things in Italy:

  1.  To hear people speaking Italian (check, check, check)
  2. To see an Italian playground (check, later in trip)
  3. To go to an Italian toy store (check, also later)

Notice not a word about “old things”. Just sayin’. She’s a kid.

After a very full day in Rome (and a sambuca for Bart at the end of the meal) we took another harrowing taxi ride back to our hotel. Zoe was asleep almost immediately. Bart followed not long after, but Ella, she remembered. Her night ends with a “baba” (milk), and we had none. So with a sleeping Zoe, a snoring Bart and a crying Ella in the background, I called down to reception to find milk.

  • Me: Buona notte. 
  • Reception: Buona notte!
  • Me: Where can I find milk?
  • Reception: Scusi? (translation: Sorry, American tourist, I speak Italian)
  • Me: (FRANTICALLY looking up how to say “milk” in Italian on my phone) Un minuto (translation: Give my tired brain a minute to figure this out)
  • Reception: OK
  • Me: (in an excited tone!) Latte!! Latte? 
  • Reception: Ahh! OK, come down.

And they took me to their kitchen and poured milk in my empty bottle, warmed it, and Ella passed out happy. So did I.

In case you’d like more pictures of the Colosseum (sans cute kids), I’ve shared some below. Without all the context, just note that everything BELOW the “ground” is where slaves with oil lamps prepared the magic, sending animals up to fight (look for a wooden ramp system in first picture) and gladiators. Apparently this entire floor was covered in wood as a stage for the games and even filled with water for naval battles at one point. Above was a stadium housing around 70,000 people (this number varies) and was covered in colorful marble with colorful frescos and had colorful statues as well (not just a big white structure). Restoration is underway to clean it now and as recently as March, archeologists are still uncovering new information (and bones…) It was amazing to see. Enjoy!