Sunday, June 5, 2011

Change of Command

Hi Kids!  Just wanted to bring you up to speed on what's going on in the Hickman World.  I'm a little behind on blogging so be patient and I will get everything posted.

The biggest event happened about 10 days ago when Justin assumed command of his old squadron.  How exciting for him to come back to command the squadron he loved so much!  You know, over the years, you see different commanders and you think, "Wow, he/she is really busy.... "  Well, for Justin, so far, it is no different.  He is really, really busy... but loving it!  I could go into great detail about his change of command but I think pictures will tell a better story. 

(For those of you completely unfamiliar with a change of command, it goes something like this:  walk in, national anthems are sung, invocation, introductions, group commander says some nice things, outgoing commander gets medal and says some moving words, he gets last salute from troops in formation, outgoing commander hands guidon (long stick with squadron flags on it) to group commander, he steps away.  New commander comes forward, takes the guidon from group commander.  Voila! Command changed.  New commander says a couple of nice words, gets first salute from troops in formation, everyone sings and claps- which inevitably thows everyone off the tempo of the song because no one can stay on the beat- to the Air Force Song, off to reception!)

Overall, it was a super day.  I met a million new people at the reception and I'm sure I will never learn everyone's name... (not really, it just seems like that at first.)  :)  We want to say a special thank you for the friends who came to support Justin on this momentous day in his life.  Pretty much it feels like we need to hang on because it is going to be an exhilarating ride! 

Peace be with you,
The Hickmans

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Koo-koo for Keukenhof... and Molen de Valk May 2011

We had a free weekend before our next two crazy weeks began so Justin and I told the kids we were going to visit The Netherlands.  Ellie wanted to know two things, "Are we going to sleep there and do they have any kids for us to play with?"  What.....?  Oh!  Ellie, the Netherlands is a country... not a family named the Netherlands.  :)  hee hee hee!

The kids had a half day of school on Friday so we packed up our rental car and headed off towards the land of windmills, tulips, and the place where I am officially the shortest adult in the country.  No, seriously... even the 5 year old Dutch children are taller than me.  I was the designated driver for this trip because I am the only one in our family with an international driver's license.  (Always have yours before you travel overseas.)  Justin has to wait another five weeks or so to get his.  I had my trusty navigator by my side and our three children squished in the backseat with their booster seats which they have to use until they are over 4'11" in Germany.  Whew! I just barely made it past the mark!  This trip, by the way, reminds me why it is so important for us to have a minivan.  Distance.  It is all about distance between the children.  Ow!  Stop touching me!  She won't scoot over!  Stop leaning on me.... oy vay!  Could someone please get me a DVD player to subdue these children?!

Now let me tell you, driving along the autobahns of Germany is really something.  The Germans certainly know a thing or two about constructing roads.  It is like cruising along on butter, fast and smooth.  As we drove towards Belgium, the breathtaking scenery was... well... breathtaking!  We marveled at the forest-covered mountain tops, rolling green, lush farmland with dairy cows and horses grazing peacefully.  Pointy church steeples poked above the rooftops of quaint villages that dotted the hillsides as we drove across bridges that had impossibly deep gorges and valleys below.  Seriously breathtaking.  It made us want to break out in song, "The hills are alive..... "  I know, I know... wrong country.  As we cruised along the sleek German autobahn we saw a sign and told the kids, "Look kids!  We're in..."  thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, "... Belgium."  Note to Belgians, please attend German road engineering school. :)

We pressed on through Belgium, again, very beautiful, until we leveled out and hit the flat, flat, flat, and more flat country of the Netherlands.  It isn't any less beautiful... just flat.  Lots of dairy cows, sheep, trees, open fields, and canals.  (More on those canals later.)  We stopped at McDonalds for a bathroom break and a quick bite to eat. 

Okay, now we are not one of those American families that say, "I would never eat at McDonalds outside of the US!"  and we are not one of those American families that says, "I will only eat at McDonalds outside of the US!"  (Oh, trust me, there are people like that!)  When we are hungry and need a free place to pee (because you have to pay in many places for the bathroom in Europe), then Mickey D's it is!  The kids were also pleasantly surprised at the differences between American and European Happy Meals.  They got to drink a strawberry banana smoothie for their drink and got a yogurt for dessert.  I just tried to think of the price of the Dutch McDonalds in dollar and Euro terms as equal because if I convert the actual Euro price into actual dollars, it gets depressing.  Oh, our poor, weak, little dollar....  

Back in the day, when Justin and I were footloose and fancy free (sans kids), we used to look for a hotel right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city.  Now with three kids, the priority is 2 words:  swimming. pool.  We found a Holiday Inn with a GREAT price and it actually turned out to be a like a Holidome with a play area for the kids, a restaurant, and of course, a swimming pool.  Once we got our bags into the room, the first order of business was to get to the pool.  Our kids (including Justin) had a great time splashing around with the few other Dutch kids that were swimming.  Apparently cannonballs into swimming pools are just as popular with the Dutch as they are with Americans.  :) 

We ate dinner that night at the restaurant in the hotel.  It was a Dutch version of Italian food buffet.  That means it was a buffet with Italian-ish kinds of food that are made with ingredients used mainly in the Netherlands.  We were expecting spaghetti and meatballs, fettucinni, etc.  No, more like lamb chops, veal with brown sauce, giant shrimps with the bodies in tact, (Remember, Americans do not like to know where their food actually comes from but Europeans do not mind, literally, looking their food in the eye as they eat them.)  ;)  fish, fish, and more fish... you know, things the Dutch like to eat.  Not so popular with our kids, per say, but when they got ice cream at the end of the meal, it was all good. 

Justin and I had another lightbulb moment when we got the bill for our meal.  *ding!*  Oh yeah.... this is why we used to travel with our cooler and pack sandwiches everywhere we went... The cost of food in Europe can give you some real sticker shock, especially when you pay more for a meal than you do for your night at the hotel!  ;) 

The next morning we were up early and after a quick breakfast, we headed off to the Keukenhof Gardens.  Quick history of Keukenhof:  There was a castle and land that was originally used back in the early 1400s by Jacqueline of Bavaria as a hunting grounds.  She lived a short but busy life filled with waging war, being captured, and four marriages.  She died of tuberculosis at age 34 and the land was passed down through family.  In 1949, a flower and bulb exhibition was held on these grounds and a new tradition was born.  

The weather was really chilly and overcast but the gardens were still beautiful.  We always like to get to our destination right when it opens because, well, you know what they say about the early bird getting the worm... Tourist sites get really busy in Europe and we would rather be finished by the time it gets too crowded. 

Unfortunately, most of the tulips were already finished blooming by this late in the season.  Keukenhof opens late March and goes through May but the really beautiful weeks are mostly in April.  The vast majority of tulip beds and the tulip fields were already cut down.  The park does still set out flats of tulips they have grown especially for this time of the season so we did get to enjoy some.  But please, don't get me wrong, with or without the tulips, there are still many, many other flowering plants, bushes, and trees, so the park is still so, so lovely! 

F.Y.I.:  Did you know that tulips are the only flowers that continue to grow once they are cut?  At first the stems are nice and straight but by the end of their bloom, the stems are much longer and they droop over out of the vase.  Also, the tulip bloom opens each morning and closes in the evening.  Pretty cool! 

For this trip, I bought each of the kids a sketch book and some colored pencils so that they could draw their favorite scenes at the garden.  We went into one of the pavillion areas where they were having a lilly show.  Oh, my, oh, my!  The most beautiful displays of lillies I have ever seen.  This is where the kids wanted to sketch first... plus, it was much warmer inside... that may have had a little something to do with their decision.  ;) 

Since it was so early in the morning, we were pretty much the only ones in the pavillion except for the Japanese tourists.  Lots of Japanese tourists.  Let me tell you a little something about the Japanese tourists because I have a long history with them.  When they see something they like, they want to take their picture with it.  When Justin and I were stationed in Germany twelve years ago, we had a cream-colored standard poodle named Toni.  We took Toni with us on a lot of trips and wherever we would go, people would ooooh and ahhhhh over her.  She was our goodwill embassador anytime we took her somewhere.  Always a conversation piece, she was.  Except the Japanese tourists didn't just want to pet her.  They ALWAYS wanted to take a picture with her.  And sometimes with us too.  I can't tell you how many scrapbook pages our dog's photograph must grace in the Land of the Rising Sun.  I always imagined that a good caption to that photo would be, "The dog we never had..."  It always kind of made us giggle. 

Apparently, however, Japanese tourists also like to take pictures of American children who are drawing pictures of flowers.  This was not something we were aware of before we took this trip but alas, we now know this to be true.  Now our children's photo will be next to Toni's photo in their scrapbook.  I guess they could entitle the picture, "The American children we never knew...."  hee hee hee

The kids really had such a great time at the garden and there was so much for them to do from playgrounds to a petting zoo.  Andrew's favorite part was getting pushed (more like thrown) down a zipline swing by his daddy.  Actually all the kids enjoyed getting thrown down to the end and then traveling all the way back on the zipline so we visited that area of the park several times. One time a group of Indian men stood watching for a while.  One guy said that it looked like fun.  Justin asked him if he wanted a turn.  Sheepishly, the man asked Justin if he would push him.  Well, you know Justin is a good sport, "Sure! I'll push you..."  Ooof!  He was a lot heavier than the kids... but the dude had fun and was grinning from ear to ear.  Justin, you are a good guy!

One of my favorite parts of the park was the calliope.  A calliope (cal-i-o-pee) is a musical instrument that sends air through whistle pipes and is usually associated with circuses or carousels.  (No kidding, this is an actual Trivial Pursuit question so don't forget!)  The calliope at Keukenhof is encased in a beautifully carved wagon and the kids got to go behind to see how the sheets of music are fed through the instrument to make the sounds.  An unusual sight for sure, but a memorable one. 

After lunch and a little bit more time sketching flowers, we walked back to the parking lot, loaded ourselves into the rental car, and drove to a windmill called Molen de Valk (Falcon Mill).  After driving around the public parking lot and waiting, waiting, waiting for a super duper narrow parking place, I reached into my purse to get some Euro coins out of my travel wallet.  And I reached, and dug, and hunted, and dug some more.  No wallet.  No travel wallet with all of my Euro and credit cards in it that I brought into the park at Keukenhof!  After searching through every crevice in the car and our luggage, we raced back to Keukenhof to see if, by chance, it had dropped in the field where we parked.  (I knew I had it when we walked back to the car because I bought something as we left the park.)  Ugh!  Panic... the headache of having to cancel all the credit cards... all those Euros gone...

We got back to Keukenhof and searched the field where we had parked.  Nothing.  We went to the information office at the entrance of the park and praise be to God!  Someone turned in the wallet.  It must have fallen out of the back on the car as I was loading things in to leave.  The lady at the information office said that a man found the wallet in the field and turned it in.  She took down his name and number so Justin called to thank him and let him know we received it.  We are still saying prayers of thanksgiving for Richard Bethleham of the Netherlands and for his integrity.  All of my money and credit cards were still there.  It is comforting to know there are good and honest people throughout the world.  Thank you, Lord!

After that stress event, we returned to the Molen de Valk and hoped to see a bit of the windmill before it closed in an hour.  Would it even be worth the trip there to see it for such a short amount of time?  Why yes!  Yes it was... because did you know that that day was actually National Mill Day in the Netherlands so our visit was... free!  What luck we were having!  The Molen de Valk was built in 1743 and was used as a mill to grind flour.  At one time, Holland had over 10,000 working windmills but with the dawn of steam powered engines, the number dwindled down to just about 950.  Today, the windmills are seen as national treasures.  The engineering is quite amazing, actually.  The windmills had different uses.  For instance, some were used to mill grain into flour while others were used to move water from lower areas into the canals.  Moving water via a windmill is really an impressive engineering feat to me... since I am not particulary smart about engineering and mechanical stuff.  And they figured all that out hundreds of years ago.... !  Those Dutch people were pretty darn smart! 

You can't talk about windmills in the Netherlands without talking about the canals.  It seems like they are everywhere!  The interesting thing is that much of the farmland is lower than the canals.  The windmills pump the water out of low-lying areas and up into the higher canals.  Amazing to see... but it would make me really nervous.  Haven't they ever heard of floods before?  The Dutch seem to have things under control....

Back to our windmill.  The Molen de Valk was really pretty cool.  It was 29 meters high and we climbed 7 of the 8 levels to the top of the mill.  Out on the observation deck, wow!  Those blades of the mill (the stalks) are MOVING!  You would not want to get hit by one of those things!  As we got higher into the mill, the ladder-like staircases got narrower and narrower.  One way up and one way down.  Andrew was nervous going up and even more nervous coming down.  He was so cute as he would talk his way through it.  "I'm scared.... I'm scared.... okay... I can do this.... I can do this.... don't help me... I got it... I got it...."  And he did.  :)

We got back into the car and  began our journey back home.  We stopped again at the same McDonalds.  This time, however, it was Saturday night and the place was PACKED!  In fact, we noticed that all of the McDonalds that we could see on our way home were packed.  Hmmmm... is there something we don't know about in the Netherlands on a Saturday night?  Mickey D's is the place to be!  ;)  Home.... bath... bed.... relax.  Dank ju wel Netherlands!  (Pronounced Dank-you-well.... means thank you) Until we meet again next spring for more tulip and flower fun.  :) 

Peace be with you,
The Hickmans 

Moving... and Getting Settled

Moving.  This is never fun but always a fact of life for our family.  Moving is a stressful event in anyone's life but especially stressful when the move is overseas. 

We finally made it through the movers packing up all of our stuff into crates (*that is a whole other stressful event in itself!) and we camped out in our house for a week before it was time to move so that the kids could participate in their school field days.  (Thanks to our friend, Mary, and my parents for helping us through all of that!)  After a tearful goodbye on Saturday with my parents, with our van packed with 12 large pieces of luggage and and three children squashed like sardines in the second row, we drove to Atlanta to spend a few days with our good friends, the Heaths. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you Heath family!  We sooooo needed that time to unwind and relax before the next leg of our trip.  The kids had a ball!  Katie and Ellie would have to say the highlight of their visit was the trip to the American Girl store, while Justin would disagree and say it was the Atlanta Braves game he and Jeff went to.  :)  I was just glad to have some grownup girl time with Kelly! 

On Tuesday, we loaded up the van again and checked into a hotel near the Atlanta airport.  Justin drove our van to the port to be shipped overseas and then returned to the hotel.  What to do with three kids in a hotel room on a rainy afternoon?  We debated on taking a taxi to a movie theatre to watch a movie but decided that would be a bit expensive.  Instead, we paid $13.95 to watch Gnomeo & Juliet on the pay per view service on our hotel TV.  Much cheaper than a trip to the theatre!  We ate dinner at Ruby Tuesdays next to the hotel and then watched ANOTHER movie before bedtime.  Ugh... I do not recommend Yogi Bear! 

The next morning we got up early, early and took a shuttle to the airport for the next leg of our journey.  Thank you Delta for not charging us for our two extra checked bags!  We took our seats on the plane with Andrew next to me and the girls next to Justin.  We fastened our seatbelts and boom!  Justin was out like a light.  How does he DO that?!  *exasperated sigh*  When the girls needed something, I kept having to have Ellie "nudge" him with her elbow to wake him up.  ;)

We landed in Baltimore and loaded up our bags to store at the USO.  Wow, this was a terrific USO that really tried to make service members feel as welcome as possible.  This is an airport that sees a ton of military go through it so the service this organization provides is extremely valuable!  As the day went on, the place got packed!  We ate some lunch and then took the light rail from the airport down to the Inner Harbor of Baltimore.  After walking around the harbor area a bit, we headed toward the National Aquarium.  This may be the best aquarium I have visited yet.  It had several levels that had spectacular exhibits as well as fantastic views over the harbor as you ascended the building.  My favorite sight was watching the giant sea turtle with only one front flipper getting fed by volunteer divers in the giant ray pool.  He was enormous and so graceful in the water dispite his missing fin that he injured in the wild.   

By the time we were finished with the aquarium, it was about dinner time so we walked over to Little Italy and found a quaint restaurant called "Ciao Bella". Oh. my. word.  Talk about some fantastic Italian food!  Justin's favorite part of the meal was the two Aleve that the waitress gave him for his splitting headache.  Poor guy.  At least his pain was down to a dull roar by the time we left the restaurant.  We headed back to the airport to wait until it was time to board our next flight. 
Thank you, AMC, for not charging us for our two extra checked bags! 

We boarded the rotator around 10:30pm and packed ourselves in like sardines.  When we looked at our seat assignments, there were only 4 seats together and one across the aisle so darn!  Justin had to sit with the kids.  ;-)  I thought, "Gee, what a quiet and relaxing flight I will have!"  Justin and the kids fastened their seatbelts and boom!  They were all out.  How do they DO that?! 

I sat next to a retired couple that were taking a hop over to Italy.  He was retired Navy and she was from Slovenia.  They spend six months of the year in America and six months of the year in Slovenia.  Now I am a quarter Slovenian so we talked about that a little and talked potica, etc. but then I was ready to settle down and get some shut-eye.  No.  Not possible.  I sat next to the woman who wanted to proselytize to me all night.  She spent a great deal of time letting me know that because I was Catholic that I was not a Christian and would not be going to heaven. I really wanted to say, "Hey lady, five years ago I had a near-death experience and I saw plenty of Catholics as well as Episcopalian and Baptist sightings, so guess what?  We are all going!" But that is a long story for another day...  So now I have my little pamphlets about what it means to be a Christian and how will I know if I will be going to heaven so I am set!  ;-)  

Bleary-eyed, we got off the plane in Ramstein the next day.  It was a beautiful sunny day in Germany!  Ahhh... so good to be back!  We waited and waited in the customs briefing area where the gentleman told us, "No meat may be brought into Germany!"  Quickly, we all scarfed down the SlimJim sticks we had packed in the kids' snack bags.  No meat from America in Germany!  (I went to the Commissary on base the next day and what did I find?  Slim Jims.)  
We gathered our luggage and found our welcoming party.  Thank you Treva for all the wonderful goodies you brought us.  Never has brotchen tasted, oh, so good!  J.R., the current commander, also was there to greet us.  We found our shuttle driver and he loaded us up and we got on our way.  The shuttle driver looked at me and said, "You know, you look really familiar to me..."  As it turns out, he was one of my former students in the science class I taught 9 years ago.  What a small world!  It was really cool to talk to him and find out what had been happening in his life in the years since.  I love hearing about former students. 

On base, we are currently living in TLF (temporary lodging facility) which is an apartment that used to be part of base housing.  It has four bedrooms and a washer and dryer and a kitchen so we are set!  One of the sweetest things waiting for us in our room was a welcome basket from the squadron.  It had all kinds of goodies in it and was really touching.  That is yet another kindness that we will not forget.  :)  Ellie loves the apartment!  Wow!  Look at this apartment, don't you love this apartment?  I think this apartment is so cute!  We should live in an apartment!  When I grow up, I want to live in an apartment!... that's our girl!  :)

Now we are just getting settled in.  The kids are enrolled in school and they have some pretty great teachers.  Already, I think they are fitting in.  I love military kids!  We found a house to live in a little village off base but it won't be ready until mid-June so we will just have to live in TLF until then.  That's okay since our furniture won't be here until then anyway. 

It is so good to be back in Germany!  It is almost as if we never left.  Some things are different around base but still so much the same.  We are so excited about our newest adventure... stay tuned for more to come! 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Let the Adventures Begin.... Again...

Hello Friends and Family,

Thanks for viewing my blog.  I honestly never thought this day would happen.  I never imagined myself as a "blogger".  As many of you know, our family is about to embark on an exciting new chapter in our lives as we are headed overseas for a new assignment.  Justin and I were stationed in Europe right after we got married.  We traveled as much as possible, calling it our three-year honeymoon.  :)  Now we will be returing with our children and we can't wait to show them as much of  Europe as we possibly can.  So many new adventures await! 

For those of you who knew us way back when on our original travels, you may remember that I would compose and send out emails of our latest adventures... well, really they were more like misadventures!  I would like to chronicle our travels again so I figured a blog would be an easy way to do that.  That being said, welcome to the new (mis)adventures of the Hickman family!