Monday, December 30, 2013

Selamat Tahun Baru

Wishing you a Selamat Tahun Baru! Happy New Year to those of you who don't speak Malay. The last year has been incredible and amazing as my family has explored the world and become more accustomed to life in Penang, Malaysia. Here's to more adventures in 2014!

Time marches on
(Musee d'Orsay, Paris)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Selamat Hari Natal!

That means "Merry Christmas" in Malay. We're in Houston right now surrounded by family, exactly like what the kids wished for (and didn't get) last year. Wishing you joy and happiness, too!

Ornaments - Malaysian kite, monkey, and the PETRONAS Towers

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Looking for Mary at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

When I walked into Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral last June, it felt a bit like coming home. I had spent the previous year visiting Shinto temples in Japan, Buddhist temples in Thailand and both Hindu temples and Muslim mosques in Malaysia. Whereas all these places were interesting, the amount I know about these various religions would fill one short paragraph at the most. I always felt on the verge of greatly offending someone by ignorantly doing the wrong thing.

Notre Dame Cathedral's South Façade as seen from across the Seine River.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, is a church for the Catholic religion that's been with me since birth. Finally, I was visiting a place where I knew the rituals like the back of my hand and the stories depicted on the walls and windows without having to refer to a guide book. Okay... small confession... I did have to look at the guide book a little because the imagery is sometimes unclear, but the stories were familiar to me after a lifetime of religious education classes and Sunday mass.

Notre Dame means "Our Lady." Specifically, it refers to Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus. During this time of year leading up to Christmas, I often think of Mary. What must it have been like to travel so far from home while hugely pregnant? What did she think of winging it with accommodations once they got to Bethlehem? Did she look at Joseph and ask, "Seriously? A manger? That's all you could get us?" Or was she patient, kind, and compliant? Perhaps she was thinking, "At this point, I don't care! I am about to pop." At least she and Joseph did not have that whole "what to name the baby" quandary since the Angel Gabriel specifically told her, "You are to give him the name Jesus."

Notre Dame is huge with so much to take in and see. Let's focus on just one theme. This post is in honor of Mary as I show you some of the many ways she is depicted throughout the cathedral. If you like, listen to this recording of "Hail Mary" sung by the Notre Dame choir as you read on.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

128 Hours 55 Minutes of Air Travel in One Year

This has been a banner year for travel for my family. I've often said that living the expat life has prompted us to travel, and my oh my, we really embraced that notion these last 12 months. We literally traveled around the world heading westward until we returned to our starting point in Penang. On another trip, the kids made their first hop back and forth across the Equator.

Would Icarus be jealous?

Here are some statistics for our family's air travel for one year.
  • 128 hours and 55 minutes in the air, not including layovers
  • 31 flights
  • 20 airports
  • 12 airlines; hence, abysmal accrual of frequent flier miles at any one airline
  • 7 countries
  • 5 flights longer than 10 hours
  • 4 continents
  • For hubby, add on an additional 32 hours 10 minutes spread over 6 flights for business travel.

We did all this without the kids missing any school for travel.

Wow. If you had predicted this three years ago, I would have laughed in your face. Earlier this week, I was chatting with a nomadic family about their flight from England to Rio de Janeiro. When they said it took 14 hours, I actually said, "14 hours? That's not bad." My brain now thinks that 14 hours is no big deal.

Back in Penang, I'd spend my days while the kids were at school exploring the island and getting deliberately lost in George Town so that I could stumble across its many wonders. On weekends, we'd play on the beach, hike through the jungle, or camp out on Penang Hill. There are many perks to living in a tourist hotzone.

So, where did we go on all those airplane flights?

Enjoy the hikes around Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the early morning on hot, January days.


We kicked off the year in Australia. We strolled along Bondi Beach on New Year's Day and watched from afar as the water was cleared after a shark sighting. A glow-in-the-dark puppet show entertained the kids at the Sydney Opera House. We snorkeled at the Great Barrier Reef and wilted in the 114°F (46°C) heat at Ayers Rock. Kangaroo Island off the southern coast of Australia proved to be a great place to relax and unwind after our hectic itinerary.

Despite how incredible this trip was, my children really missed being with their grandparents and cousins at Christmas. This has been mentioned repeatedly throughout the year during honest, heartfelt moments.


Kuala Lumpur

It wasn't always overseas travel that called to us. We took a roadtrip to Kuala Lumpur one long weekend. After learning my lesson from a previous trip when we couldn't get into the Petrosains Discovery Centre due to crowds, I reserved tickets a few weeks in advance to make sure we'd gain admission this time to the very hands-on science museum. We enjoyed our hotel room with a view of the Petronas Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world, and a kid-free outing at the Sky Bar. Kidzania was the highlight of the trip for my younger kids because they loved playing pretend and trying the various jobs from DJ to chocolatier. We stocked up on plenty of American processed foods at Ampang Grocers and made sure to visit La Mexicana, a truly authentic Mexican restaurant.

Water for Elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Easter found us in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We played in waterfalls, visited the Long Neck people and other tribes, strolled through temples, squeezed into tuktuks, and did a little drifter kart racing and paint ball target practice, too. As a family, we took a Thai cooking class where my boys surprised me with their culinary skill. For me, the highlight of the trip was a day spent at Elephant Nature Park where I got to feed elephants and bathe them in the river.

Jumping for joy at the Eiffel Tower.


Paris was an eagerly anticipated trip. We were headed to Texas for the summer school holiday but took a week-long stopover in the City of Light. Everyone seemed to be brimming with suggestions about where to go. We went deep underground to see decorative skeletons in Les Catacombes and climbed high above the city at both the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. The kids gave a thumbs up to the classics at the Louvre and a thumbs down to modern art at the Pompidou. My son still exclaims, "Some pictures were nothing but white paint on a canvas!" One gustatory delight after another crossed our lips from macarons to baguettes smeared with Brie to McDonald's on the Champ Élysées. Versailles dazzled us and gave us a taste of idealized country life at The Queen's Hamlet. A day spent at Parc de la Villette allowed the kids to just run free and have fun. Best of all, we completed our goal of visiting a Disney park at each of its worldwide locations when we added Disneyland Paris to the list that already had Florida, California, Hong Kong, and Tokyo on it.

My daughter has been dreaming about her first visit to the American Girl Doll Store and Café.


Fathers' Day was busy for us. We had breakfast in Paris and a late lunch in Houston, Texas with both my dad and father-in-law before making the 3 hour drive to our home in Austin. The kids absolutely loved being in the Lone Star State, seeing their friends, and celebrating the Fourth of July with their cousins. We tried some new adventures like indoor skydiving as well as old favorites like visiting the Kemah Boardwalk and multiple museums in Waco, Austin, and Houston. My oldest boy spent a week at Boy Scout Camp in the Lost Pines along Lake Bastrop and talked to his friends about middle school in Texas compared to where we are now. He came away concluding that Texas kids have more social pressure.

Mid-Autumn Lantern Festival at Singapore's Gardens by the Bay


Cheap airfare and a long weekend lured us away to Singapore just in time for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Our kids asked to go to the Science Centre where we met up with some Texas friends, and we also explored Gardens by the Bay for the first time. The new S.E.A. Aquarium awed us with the Guinness Book of World Record Largest Aquarium Tank. Dining on Chili Crab at Jumbo Seafood and Tex-Mex food at Café Iguana have become a Singapore trip tradition.

The Great Wall stretches as far as the eye can see.


China is in the same time zone as Malaysia, so we had no issues with jet lag. In a departure from our usual method of independent travel, we hired a private tour company. It was wonderful to be freed from worrying about logistics so that I could just enjoy myself. The Forbidden City was large and imposing while the Great Wall turned out to be great fun since we took a cable car up and a toboggan down. Seeing all the Terracotta Warriors standing at attention at the massive archeological dig site was impressive.

Woman with Tibetan Prayer Wheel at the Yak Butter market stall in Lhasa.


Tibet was a last minute addition to our China trip and highly recommended by a friend with kids. I flew in over the Himalayas with vague notions of Shangri-La and Dalai Lama quotes floating through my brain, and I exited with a richer understanding of life there. The conflict between Chinese rule and a longing for a free Tibet was an undercurrent that ran throughout our travels. Tibetans clearly still cherish the current Dalai Lama who has been living in exile in India since 1959. Hubby and I took turns visiting palaces, temples and monasteries while the other parent cared for the kids who had been rendered lethargic by altitude sickness.

New Zealand The United States (again)

Hubby and I had long planned on heading to New Zealand for the Christmas break, but the kids had other ideas. They have never really forgiven us for keeping them away from Texas family and traditions last year. I'd try to tempt them with visions of glowworm caves and glacier hikes, and they would counter with "Grandma, Grandpa, Lolo and Lola." So one day, I just looked at hubby and said, "New Zealand will always be there. Let's give the kids what they want."

In a few days, we'll head off on the last part of our 128 hours 55 minutes of flight time in one year travel binge. On Christmas Day, we'll be seated around the table at hubby's aunt's house surrounded by both of our families. Both hubby's and my parents get along fabulously and celebrate this day together so we don't have to choose.

We've offered our kids the world, and what they want most is home.

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox, "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper, and "Share Your Best" on Two Kids and a Map and Mommy Travels. Please check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

McDonald's and Cyborgs on the Champs Élysées

Did you know that the opening round of the classic sci-fi Man versus Machine battle scenario has already occurred in the real world? And that it happened at, of all places, the McDonald's on Paris's famed Avenue des Champs Élysées? Call it "Terminator 5: I'll be Back... and I Want Fries with That."

Let me start at the beginning.

When my family was in Paris last summer, we did the quintessential tourist experience of taking a stroll along what's been called "one of the most expensive strips of real estate in the world." After being accustomed to dodging cars and having to walk single file along Penang's narrow streets, it was a joy to safely saunter 5-people-across down the wide sidewalks lining the boulevard.

Our first photo stop was the Arc de Triomphe. After having climbed the tower at Notre Dame that morning and taking the stairs up the Eiffel Tower the previous day, we had absolutely zero interest in attacking the 284 steps to the top of the Arc.

Paris, Champ Elysees, Arc de Triomphe
Yes, I am standing smack dab in the middle of the Champs Élysées taking a photo.

We also headed over to Ladurée, the luxe bakery where the now trendy macaron was first invented back in 1930. As it was getting late in the day, the line was not too bad. I hear that it sometimes stretches out the door and on to the sidewalk.

Laduree, Paris, Champs Elysees, macaron, bakery

Laduree, macarons, Paris, Champ Elysees, bakery
Ladurée's Macarons: Feather light meringue shells with a smooth and rich buttercream filling

We had a chance to squeeze in a little window shopping for automobiles, too.

concept car, Renault, Paris, Champ Elysees
Concept car at Renault
In the future, rear row passengers do not get seat backs.

All that walking around and staring at macarons makes a family hungry. Where to eat? Perhaps down a side street at Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée for haute couture dining starting at US$108 for an entree? With the youngsters? I don't think so. We wanted some cheap eats on the Champs Élysées. Since the kids had been good about seeing all the bucket list sights on Mom and Dad's list, we thought we'd go somewhere that they'd enjoy. As long as it had a pastry case, I was sure I'd be satisfied, too.

Vanilla-rum cakelets covered with a delicious caramelized crust for US$1.40 each
Choice of tartlets: Lemon or Milk chocolate and hazelnuts for US$3.50 each

Oh yeah, this place would suit us just fine. What's this classy cafe called? Here's a picture to help you find it... you know, in case if you don't understand French.

The Golden Ivory Arches

If you want to be like the French, call it "McDo." (If you want to be like the Australians, call it "Macca's.") When we walked up to it and asked the kids if they wanted to eat here, they were practically jumping with joy. We'd been feeding them Steak au Poivre and Croque Monsieurs all week, poor them. With all our international travels, they always like to find a little gastronomical refuge at a McDonald's. Hubby liked that the entire dinner bill came out to US$46 for the five of us, even after I included an order for six more macarons.

Menu board at McDo.

Do some people watching along the Champs Élysées from the 2nd floor of McDo.

One of our favorite aspects of the restaurant experience was the Easy Order computer stations. Located just in front of the counters, they were a welcome respite from our sometimes unsuccessful attempts to order food in French. (We didn't realize that the mystery French word of a brasserie's veal dish translated into "kidneys" until after the dish was set down on the table.) After swiping a credit card, we used the touch screen menu to place our order in English. My teen who always belatedly realizes he doesn't know how to indicate "no cheese" in foreign languages was glad to see that he could customize his Big Mac. Not wanting to be left out of making extra selections, my younger son customized his drink as "Without Ice." Other visitors were intrigued enough by the computers that total strangers were taking photos of our screens. A receipt with an order number printed out, and all we needed to do was wait for our number to be called at the Pick Up counter.

The Easy Order computers lived up to their name.

How was the food? I'm going to have to give it a thumbs up. It wasn't the best food I had in Paris of course, but it's coming out on top for the family's worldwide McDonald's survey. The kids got their usual chicken nuggets and burgers, but hubby and I ordered the exclusively French items. My Salade Poulet Moutarde (Salad with Chicken and Mustard Sauce) was composed of fresh greens, crispy chicken, croutons, diced tomatoes, and fried onions topped with a creamy mustard vinaigrette. I thought that the slivers of tasty beets added a pleasant dimension to the meal and were something unlikely to be found in a mass market salad in America. Overall, it's one of the best fast food salads I've had anywhere. However, this judgement may be clouded by my unsatisfied, constant craving for convenient salad in Penang. Hubby munched on a Casse Croute Poulet Curry (Chicken Curry Sandwich). Breaded chicken, potato cakes, lettuce and curry sauce were layered inside a baguette.

French McDo's Big Mac, Chicken Salad with Mustard Sauce, Curry Chicken Sandwich and Happy Meal

What about the Cyborg attack?  The cyborg came out on the losing end. I'm glad that the McDo's employees didn't mind me taking all these photographs. Steve Mann, a University of Toronto professor, was not quite as lucky. He also decided to take his kids to the Champs Élysées McDo back in July 2012. What sets Steve apart from the average person is that he has EyeTap Glasses, a wearable computer, surgically attached to his skull. It's kind of like if he had Google Glasses but couldn't take them off without special tools, so he has to wear them 24/7. Some people have classified him as a cyborg  part man, part machine. Apparently, the McDo employees had a BIG problem with being photographed and video recorded by his device. Despite a doctor's note and documentation stating that he could not remove the glasses, they tried to rip it off his head and literally tossed him out on the street. The incident has been called "the world's first cybernetic hate crime."

Who knew so much excitement has happened on the Champ Élysées?

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox. Check it out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.
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