Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Oh the Places He'll Go...... Baby Shower Extravaganza!

"Baby, oh, baby, the places you'll go! The worlds you will visit! The friends you will know!"

This Dr. Seuss quote inspired a beautiful travel-themed baby shower by my dear GK friends on April 13th. I'm so blessed to have four ladies offer to host a shower for me and they did an outstanding job spoiling both me and Baby C splendidly. 

My Hostesses with the Mostess - Beth, Julie, Missy and Cara

As soon as I walked in to Missy's house, where the shower was held, I was blown away by the colorful decor, beautiful flowers, and travel-themed details; complete with vintage suitcases, a globe, pinwheel maps, and lots of yellow accents. 

The ladies organized an outstanding brunch with breakfast casseroles and Tex-Mex inspired dishes. The food, drinks and dessert cupcakes were all so delicious!

After indulging in the yummy food, we played some fun baby games incorporating personal information about me and the letter "C." Cara did an outstanding job planning the games!

I felt so honored that most of my closest friends from GK could attend. These ladies mean so much to me and I am going to miss them dearly come June. They were so sweet to give up a Saturday afternoon to shower me with so much love and generosity. This was such a special day to spend time with some of my favorite people while also reveling in the excitement of Baby C's upcoming arrival. He sure did receive some stylin' Euro outfits and I can hardly wait to meet him and start using all my goodies. I am truly blessed!

Shower Attendees (Missy, Katy, Cara, Julie, Michelle, Beth and Liz)
Shortly after leaving Missy's, it was time for my second Baby Shower of the day. The ladies at EBC  were insistent upon throwing me a baby shower, which I thought was so incredibly sweet. They organized a lovely evening with snacks, desserts, a devotional time, games and presents.

This church has been my home away from home the past few years and I cherish the friendships I have made here immensely. It has been wonderful to interact with so many people I never would have met otherwise. I have loved being a member of the praise team and children's ministry and will miss being a part of such an international congregation when we move back Stateside. These ladies have touched my heart in so many ways, and it meant so much to me that they wanted to honor Baby C and me with a special evening just for us.

Leena made the most adorable cupcakes for the shower. Her cake-baking and decorating skills truly are amazing. The best part of the cupcakes was the verse attached that reminds us children are a reward from God. He has blessed me in so many ways, and I can't wait to train up my child in the way he should go - the Lord's way.

I feel so honored to have had not one, not two, but THREE baby showers! With the upcoming move and the many other logistics that have distracted us over the past few months, these special occasions have allowed me the time to focus on the excitement of my most important upcoming job - motherhood. I have been waiting for this day for a long time, and although the task can seem daunting and frightening at times, I'm ready to embark on this new adventure in life. I'm so grateful for the opportunities I've had to share my excitement of this life-changing events with my dearest friends.

"You'll find that this world's a great place to begin, but it could use some help - which is where you come in.... It's a scrumptulous world and it's ready to greet you. And as for myself.... well.... I can't wait to meet you!" - Dr. Seuss

Monday, April 29, 2013

A BU/Texas Reunion in Holland: Part 2

Two and a half years after our inaugural BU/Texas reunion, the exchange students from 2005 gathered together again for another weekend of hilarity and crazy times in Sittard. Luckily, I have had the opportunity to visit everyone individually over the past two years, but I knew this would be the last opportunity for us all to come together in Europe for a long while. Unfortunately, a couple people couldn't make this year's gathering, but we still had a good crew of the Swedes (Richard, Maria and Jakob) and the Frenchies (Thomas and his girlfriend, Clemence). 

After debating on a location and date for this year's reunion, we finally settled on coming back to Sittard at our house where we could all stay under one roof. I was hoping that the first weekend of April would allow for some warmer spring-like temps, but alas, this year's never-ending winter continued well into April. We didn't let the overcast skies and chilly temps affect our gathering, and commenced the reunion weekend Friday night with Dr Pepper shots. After a sleep-in Saturday, we had a few fun-tivities planned for the group. Last reunion, we embarked on a 3-country pub crawl through Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands (which is quite easy to do when each country is within 5 miles). This year, we decided to visit the Dreilandenpunt, where we had a Dreilanden-drink - 3 beers, in three counties, at the same time. Yes, I know, it's quite mind-blowing. We trekked to the highest point in the Netherlands where we visited the meeting point of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands and enjoyed a beer (well, not so much me) from each country. 

After a light lunch at a cafe, we headed back to Sittard where we had a surprise in store for our guests - castle bowling! We did this twice before at the nearby Kasteel Limbricht, and knew this would be the perfect fun-tivity to share with friends. The medieval bowling alley ambiance is great and after our hour of bowling, we enjoyed sitting in the courtyard basking in the evening sun that finally decided to make an appearance.

That night, we treated our guests to an authentic Tex-Mex dinner of fajitas, margaritas and Dos Equis. After more Dr Pepper shots, it was time to hit the Sittard Markt for yet another version of "drinking around the square." This game was a huge success last time, and we decided to try and replicate this fun goal by having a beer at every bar on the Sittard square (skipping the restaurants). Perhaps because we are two years older and got started at the house much earlier, we didn't quite make it to all the bars we did during our last adventure, but I'm still pretty proud of our progress. 

The ladies - Clemence, Maria and myself

Oh, and did I mention that we all wore silly hats? I adore this group so much because they are always down for anything. And the best part was that other than a few quizzical stares, the locals really didn't think much of it. Gotta love those Dutch! 

Jakob and Richard getting serious in their silly hats

Clemence and Thomas getting wacky

the Swedish lovebirds, Maria and Jakob
Being 36 weeks pregnant, I wasn't really sure what my energy level would be, but the excitement of having everyone together for two nights and two nights only, allowed me to really kick it up a notch. I was so proud of myself for hanging with the group the entire time and "partying it up" until 3:00 a.m.  and 4:00 a.m. both nights. I've still got it, baby!

Gettin' down at Ernesto's

After a final Sunday morning group breakfast, it was time for us all to go our separate ways once more. In two days time, we managed to reminisce about all the wonderful shared memories made that span our time together in Texas, during my many visits to see these friends in their home countries, and now with new memories made over the weekend. I am already looking forward to reminiscing again during our next reunion - hopefully in Texas. I feel blessed to have had six years in Europe to maximize my time with these incredible friends. During this time, I have attended two of their weddings, visited them on numerous trips to both Paris and Stockholm and shared in the joy of new babies. Though I am sad our reunions will be much more infrequent, I know these friendships that began in 2005 will last a lifetime, spanning continents, with a foundation based on a love of Texas. After all, Texas is a state of mind. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

sLOVEnia: Castles, Caves and Countryside

Over Easter weekend, Jon and I embarked on our final new-country experience in Europe. At 35 weeks, this was my last opportunity to fly, so we opted to visit Slovenia, one of the remaining countries in Europe we had yet to visit. At the crossroads of Eastern and Western Europe, Slovenia is sandwiched between Italy, Croatia and Austria. This tiny country, only half the size of Switzerland, has so much to offer. Though we only had 3 days to see the highlights, luckily, the country is small enough to drive just about anywhere in only a couple hours, making it easy to see a ton. Unfortunately, the weather was not as pleasant as we hoped for, and instead of a spring-like Easter holiday, we experienced Slovenia as a beautiful winter wonderland. 

We did manage to experience a day of beautiful sunshine in the port-town of Trieste, Italy, where we flew in. We spent one afternoon and night here to experience the goodness of Italy one last time. Though Trieste is not heavy on the sites, we did enjoy walking around the old town and hiking up to the castle for magnificent views of the bay. 

Trieste's harbor-front square

View of Trieste Bay from San Giusto castle
San Giusto Castle

Trieste by night
That evening, we enjoyed a delicious Italian dinner before stumbling upon a brewery, where Jon enjoyed drinking beer with his 'flavor savor.' Although I dread the month of March, Jon gets so excited each year to grow his manly 'stache for 30 whole days to commemorate Mustache March. He was nice enough to trim it for me on this trip, 4 days before the end of the month,  so that our pics would be somewhat normal looking.

Forst Brewery in Trieste

The next morning, we drove 45 minutes across the border into Slovenia to the Karst region. Our first stop was at Predjama Castle. Buried into the side of a mountain, this is one of Europe's most scenic castles. The original castle from the 9th century was called "the castle in the cave," while the current castle from the 16th century is "in front of the cave." We decided to skip viewing the unexciting interior, and enjoyed walking around the snowy paths to get great views of this dramatic castle.

Predjama Castle

Predjama Castle

The Karst region is known for several impressive cave systems, some of the most extensive in Europe. The term "karst" is actually used worldwide to refer to an arid limestone plateau. This term comes from the Slovenian word "Kras" - a specific region near the Italian border. Since this limestone terrain is easily dissolved by water, karstic regions are punctuated by remarkable networks of caves and underground rivers. Though we considered touring two of the most popular, we decided to tour one that is a bit more exclusive, only open to 1,000 tourists a year. The four-hour tour only allows 4 people at a time and entry all depends on the water level, which changes daily. The Krizna Jama cave is only tour-able by boat as it connects 13 underground lakes.

Krizna Jama Cave

Outfitted in red jumpsuits, waterproof boots, helmets, headlamps and a Soviet-era battery pack, we entered the cave through a small rocky entrance. Once inside, we walked for half an hour through the dry cave before we reached water and took 3 different boats throughout the remainder of our tour.

Jon in all his cave-exploration gear at the entrance of the cave

 It was such a surreal and incredible experience to be paddling underground in a boat with beautiful rock formations surrounding us, only visible with our headlamps.

Krizna Jama cave - making our way to the boats

Krizna Jama cave 

Krizna Jama cave - pic of our 4-person tour group

Krizna Jama cave

Krizna Jama cave 

After our cave adventure, we drove a quick 45 minutes to the capital city of Ljubljana. Though it is a small city, there is a bustling student population with numerous bars and cafes lining the river and a hilltop castle overlooking the town. Rick Steves dubs this city as the"next, next Prague" (after Krakow). With gorgeous architecture, numerous boutiques, cafes and a few historical sites, I whole-heartedly agree. Though we only had a night and full day here, we enjoyed this city immensely and would definitely return in the summer when the outdoor cafes would be at their prime. Our first night, we enjoyed walking around the beautifully lit city, a delicious dinner, and bar-hopping the night away.

The Ljubljana city symbol - the dragon - with the castle in the distance

Ljubljana's Triple Bridge by night

Ljubljana by night
Ljubljana by night
The next day, we walked around the city visiting churches the bustling daily market, the hilltop castle, and the numerous squares around the city. 

Town Hall Square

Checking out the flowers at the daily market

Ljubljana Castle
View of the Ljubljana walking down from the castle
Congress Square
Later that afternoon, we drove an hour to the resort town of Lake Bled. I had imagined visiting this iconic lake with the small island in the center for years, and it usually included lots of green trees, sunshine and blue skies. Unfortunately, this was not the reality we experienced, but we still enjoyed our time in this beautiful town immensely. Our first morning, we decided to walk around the 3.5 mile perimeter of the lake. This allowed us to see great alternating views of the town of Bled, Bled castle, the island and the surrounding scenery. About halfway around, we found a trail that climbed uphill to an "excellent viewpoint." We hiked the steep mile uphill to see less than impressive views, before hiking down and continuing our stroll around the lake. The entire time, we kept commenting how Lake Bled will have to be added to our "return in summer conditions" list for the maximal experience.

Boat that carries tourists to the island with Bled castle and St. Martin's church in the distance

Island in center of Lake Bled

Hiking up the steep terrain to the look-out point

Hiking up the steep terrain to the look-out point - it was a ton of stairs!
View from the look-out point
Lake Bled and island at 35 weeks

After our stroll/hike around the lake, we treated ourselves to Bled's specialty cream cake dessert. It's a layer of cream and a thick layer of vanilla custard artfully sandwiched between sheets of delicate, crispy crust. We enjoyed it so much, we returned to have it again the following day. When in Bled....

After our dessert break, we hopped in the car and headed towards another nearby lake in Bohinj. From here, we embarked on another hike up a steep snowy path to a waterfall called Slap Savica. Though it snowed/rained on us the entire time, it was worth it to see this beautiful mountain setting and stream running alongside the trail. The waterfall was gorgeous, cascading into a remarkably pure pool of aquamarine snowmelt. Once again, we could only imagine how impressive it looks in summertime.

Slap Savica waterfall

Slap Savica waterfall
Mountain stream alongside our hiking path
Lake Bohinj
Lake Bohinj

 On Easter Sunday, I was awakened once again by water splashed on me. I don't know why this continues to surprise me, considering this is our third Easter in Eastern Europe, which is a tradition in these countries that Jon finds so amusing. After overcoming my initial shock, we began our morning by touring Bled Castle. We managed to get there just in time to see some Slovenian folk dancers perform. The interior of the castle was nothing special, but the views of Lake Bled were incredible.

Bled Castle

Island of Lake Bled
Bled Castle chapel

View of Lake Bled from Bled Castle
 The castle is also home to a pair of interesting old-fashioned shops. We visited both the working replica of a printing shop and the wine cellar, where you can bottle and cork your own wine. Jon enjoyed filling the bottle, corking it, sealing it and signing the label of our souvenir wine.

Bottling our Bled Castle wine

So proud of the finished product
After touring the castle and enjoying another delicious Bled dessert, we hopped on a boat to visit Bled's island - capped by a super cute church. This island and church is a popular destination for Slovene weddings. Ninety-eight steps lead from the boat dock to the church and it is tradition for the groom to carry his bride the entire way to prove his worthiness for marriage. I was not about to make Jon carry his 8.5 month pregnant wife up all these steps, but he was a great sport to hold me for the duration of this picture. 

Almost at the top of the 98 steps!
We spent 30 minutes on this tiny island visiting the Church of the Assumption and walking around the small perimeter before our boat returned to Bled town.

That evening, on our way back to the airport in Trieste, we stopped in Radovljica where we toured the Agricultural Museum with interesting displays on Slovenia's long beekeeping heritage, and a delicious traditional Slovene dinner at Lectar. Despite the uncooperative weather, we enjoyed our time in this beautiful country, abounding in activities for nature-lovers. In four days time, we managed to experience 3 castles, an awe-inspiring cave, hikes through the pristine countryside, a hip and bustling capital city, and numerous delicious meals. It was yet another successful Easter in Eastern Europe for the Cloughs!