Taking an Amtrak train

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Since moving to Northern Virginia, we have maintained our one car lifestyle. The big difference is that in South Korea, Tim had the car most of the time to get to work and Clarissa and I took public transportation. Here, Tim takes the bus to work and Clarissa and I keep the car during the day.

Clarissa and I went to Virginia Beach this week to visit my family. We didn’t want Tim to be stranded without a car all week so we took the train. It was pretty easy to go online and book tickets. The train is pretty cheap too. It only cost $138 total round trip for the two of us.

If you are taking the train from Alexandria, there is hardly any parking. There are a few spots you can pay for and two spots for 30 minute parking. The station does have a bathroom but there isn’t a screen to tell you where to go. You can sit inside or outside. A few minutes before the train arrives there will be an announcement on the loudspeaker that tells you the train number and where the train is going.

There are not assigned seats. You simply pay for a reserved seat in either business class or coach. Then when the train comes, you find an open seat and sit there. You are responsible for your luggage. But the conductor did carry mine up the steps for me. There are racks at the front of each car or above your seats to place your luggage or carry on. Once the train starts moving, the conductor will come by and scan your electronic ticket and put a piece of paper above your seat so that they know when you are supposed to get off the train.

Apparently there is something called a quiet car on an Amtrak train. Often it is the train right behind business class but it can be located anywhere on the train. If you choose to sit in the quiet car, you have to be quiet the whole time. No talking on your cell phone and no using electronic devices without headphones. I didn’t see any signs about this when we sat down but we were informed by another passenger that we were sitting in the quiet car and so we had a quieter trip than I anticipated. There are small blue signs on the ceiling as you enter and exit the car but I didn’t see them until later when I was actually looking for them.

There is a cafe car on the train that sells food. You can buy things like personal pan cheese pizza ($7), hotdogs ($3.50), chips ($2.50), candy ($3), and drinks. The prices are not awful but definitely more than you would pay at the grocery store. You are allowed to bring your own food and drink on the train but they cannot refrigerate or heat up food for you that is not bought in the cafe car.

There is also a restroom in each train car. They are a decent size and fairly clean as well. Our train starts in Boston and goes all the way to Norfolk. We got on in Alexandria so someone must clean the train as they go because I thought it was clean for our entire trip.

Not all of the train doors open at each stop. You have to listen to the announcement to figure out which car to go to. There is also an announcement at each stop that will tell you the current stop, the next stop, and how many minutes until you arrive at the next stop.

Will we ride Amtrak again? Absolutely. You can eat, chat, and go to the bathroom whenever you want and it doesn’t add time to your trip. We will just make sure we do not sit in the quiet car. Though I will say that Clarissa did very well. The same passenger that was upset with us in the beginning walked by as he exited the train and said, “Your daughter is very well behaved.”

Bible Letter of the Week Review

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Clarissa really enjoys Bible stories. She also gets really excited when we do crafts or activities about these stories. I was debating what I wanted to do with her as far as a  Bible curriculum for first grade. I was excited to see Bible Letter of the Week Curriculum Notebook on the list of choices from Crafty Classroom.

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Bible Letter of the Week Curriculum Notebook is marketed as a preschool curriculum. There are 26 weeks of lessons, one for each letter of the alphabet. Each week has four days of lessons with several activities to complete each day. There is a Bible story theme for each week as well as a Bible verse to memorize, practice writing each letter, activities to practice each letter sound, as well as some math activities for each week.

Clarissa has really enjoyed reading and discussing the Bible stories, the coloring pages and crafts, games, and math pages. She is also practicing her handwriting. I started off by supplementing this to our reading program and using this twice per week so that she would not be overwhelmed by the amount of work that was expected of her. Halfway through the letter A, she told me that she wanted to do this program every day instead of twice per week so we changed what we were doing.

Clarissa was most excited about the Alphabet Quilt. Each week, there is a square that shows the letter of the week, a picture of the Bible story, and even the Bible verse. She is excited to build this quilt as the year progresses. I like this aspect of the program because it will be a good review of what Bible stories and verses we have studied throughout the year. At one point she said to me, “Can we keep this quilt forever?”

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I like that the activities are similar each week so that Clarissa knows what is expected of her. She builds confidence with the repetition and also feels like she can do it herself without as much prompting from me. I like that the numbers get bigger for the math as the year progresses. So it makes sense to complete the weeks in order so that your math builds. I also was able to plot out the school year so that “J for Jesus” will fall in December for Christmas and “R for Resurrection” can be in April for Easter so it would make sense to do this curriculum over the course of an entire school year.

I think this would be a great curriculum for families with multiple children because you can pick and choose which activities to do with each child. You can do the main things the same with the Bible stories, crafts, and letters. But you can pick and choose the other activities (there are about 20 activities for each week to choose from). So the older kids can be included in the weekly Bible stories and memory verses. Your younger elementary kids won’t be completely bored with the math or the handwriting and letter activities. Your preschoolers and kindergartners would probably love the whole thing but you can pick and choose based on their developmental level.

The Crafty Classroom offers several different curriculum including reading, math, and even US geography. This may have been Clarissa’s favorite program that we reviewed all year so I am interested to see what other families thought of the various curriculum that they reviewed. I think we will be using Crafty Classroom in the future.

Hands-on, Low-prep and Ready to Go Learning - Tots to 3rd Grade {Crafty Classroom Reviews}Crew Disclaimer

National Cathedral

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We met up for Thai food with some old friends for lunch. After lunch, we decided to check out the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

We bought Clarissa a camera for her birthday so she was really excited to use it for this trip. She kept saying, “This is so beautiful!” and “I’m so glad I have my own camera so I can take pictures of whatever I want.”

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Tim and I had been to the National Cathedral before, but it was before Clarissa was born. It was also before the earthquake in 2011 so it cost more to get in now and I felt like the atmosphere was completely different. Adults pay $12 and children (ages 5-17) pay $8. Parking was really expensive too, so it would have been better to take the metro.

The cathedral itself is beautiful with the stained glass windows and arched architecture inside. Clarissa kept saying, “Wow!”

There were several different chapels located inside. One of them looked like it was set up for a wedding. There is a lego build right now where you can pay for some lego pieces and help to build a model of the National Cathedral. The proceeds go toward the restoration project from the damage of the 2011 earthquake. The girls thought it was really cool. The volunteer said that when finished it would be the largest amateur build with instructions.

We also walked around outside and saw the gardens. There were bunnies, butterflies, bugs, and fish around as well.

The gift shop was surprising. It already had Christmas trees set up with nativity sets (in July). They were also selling Buddha statues and coexist stickers, which doesn’t make sense to me in a church. It felt more like a museum to me.

It is worth going if you like looking at pretty architecture or are looking for more of an indoor activity to get out of the weather. But it wasn’t a super spiritual experience.

Learning Dynamics Review

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Clarissa and I did kindergarten together at home this year. She loves math and wants me to read to her all day long. But when it comes to learning how to read she gets excited about a new program for about a week and then gets frustrated that it is too hard and wants to stop.  We have tried a few different programs without success. So I was excited to try the Learning Dynamics Reading Program produced by Learning Dynamics.

The program recommends 15 minutes per day, at least 3 days per week. It starts pretty slow by learning one letter sound each in the first five lessons before you review them together in lesson 6. Even though Clarissa already knows most of her letters and sounds, I chose to start at lesson 1. I thought this would build her confidence, and I was correct. She actually really enjoyed the first few lessons and would ask to do more than one per day.

Each lesson had a few different components. There were three different flash cards for each letter. She enjoyed looking at those and collecting the small cards. Though eventually she invented her own games with them. There is an alphabet song that is supposed to be played at every lesson. Clarissa isn’t very big into kid songs, so halfway through, she had her hands over her ears. The same thing happened with each individual letter song so after the first couple of lessons, I didn’t bother with the songs. She was really excited about the letter hunts at the end of each lesson.

M was the first letter. At the end of that lesson, we were to walk around the house and find things that start with the “mmm” sound. She received an M&M for each word she found. The same thing happened with p for popcorn. She also enjoyed coloring the words that started with the correct letter. I think she also appreciated that it was only one page of written work each day. She had to write one row of lower case letters and color a few pictures so it was quick and easy.

By the end of the review period she was getting frustrated with the coloring page. She wanted to color in all of the pictures. So I made her tell me which words started with the correct letter before she started coloring. Then she would tell me which sound the other pictures started with.

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The program comes with four sets of books: blue, red, yellow, and green. She was excited to read those books before we got to them. So we definitely previewed each set of books before she was supposed to read them herself.

I am excited to report that we finally found a reading program that Clarissa enjoys! She said to me at one point, “I like reading now!” and she is getting to be a better reader everyday. After lesson 6, there is practice with blending words each day. She is pretty good at blending the three letter words now. She will read the simple books too. The first couple of books were single words on a page. It took a few books before she was supposed to read sentences, which was great, because by then she was ready.

I appreciated that each book had a list of words at the beginning of the book. In this way, we were able to practice the words before we actually tried to read the book. Clarissa already was familiar with most of the words before she saw them in the book so she didn’t have to spend as much time sounding out each word in the book. She enjoyed reading more that way. There are also comprehension questions to ask at the end of each book to make sure that your reader understood what they read and didn’t just sound out the words.

This video is book 7 of the blue book series. She has only completed lesson 18 of 41 in Lesson Manual one.

The lesson manual spells out which books you are supposed to read with each lesson. Books 1-13 are for lessons 9-33. Lessons 34-42 are two vowel lessons, where you will finish reading the blue set of books (books 14-23). Then there is a second part of the lesson manual that goes more in depth with advanced sounds and the other three set of books. I think it will take us several months to finish this program.

I am excited that most of the pieces of this program are reusable. The only part I will need to replace is the student workbook when I need to teach my second daughter to read in a few years. You can read about what other families thought of the program here.

Learning Dynamics Reading Program  {Learning Dynamics Reviews}Crew Disclaimer

Our first visit to the National Zoo

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In May, the National Zoo had a special on annual memberships. If you bought a membership in May, you would get two free months free so your membership would go until July 31, 2020 instead of May 31. Admission to the National Zoo is free, so at first I questioned why a family would need to pay for a membership.

Then I read about the zoo. The zoo is located between two metro stops. But each metro stop is about a half mile walk uphill to the zoo, where you will do a lot of walking anyway. There is parking at the zoo but it costs $25 for the day. So if you leave in the DC metro area and plan to go to the zoo at least three times in the calendar year, you break even with parking alone in addition to the discounts you receive for food and gift shops inside the zoo.

Clarissa loves animals. If you meet her in person she will tell you, “I love all animals, ocean animals, and bugs infinity.” The zoo is about twenty minutes from our house so I figure, even with baby Tiffany coming, we’ll go to the zoo at least three times this year. Today was our first trip to the National Zoo.

I had read that although there are five different parking lots for the zoo, and they fill up by  10 AM, so you want to get to the zoo early. We arrived about 8:45 since it is a holiday weekend and we thought it would be crowded. The parking lot was pretty empty at that time. We parked in lot D so we were walking up hill in the morning and walking downhill at the end when we were tired.

The website says that the zoo grounds open at 8 AM and the exhibits open at 9 AM. We arrived about 8:45 so by the time we walked into the zoo and went to the bathroom it was almost 9:00. There was a worker at the entrance selling memberships and giving kids dinosaur hats. The barn animals are at that entrance as well as a bumble bee playground so there is plenty to see right there. You are allowed to touch the cows, donkeys, alpacas, and goats, but they weren’t close enough to reach on our visit. Clarissa still enjoyed seeing them.

The first building we passed was Amazonia. It was a few minutes after 9, but that building didn’t open until 10, so we kept going. We walked through the American animals and got to see sea lions, a grey wolf, and an American otter. We even got to watch them feed and talk about a harp seal.

When we got to the top of the hill, the elephants were not outside so we kept walking. At the top of another hill we saw the Elephant Community Center and went inside. We finally got to see elephants and learn some things with the interactive exhibits.

At that point, we had been outside less than an hour but had been walking up hill on a very humid day with no breeze. Clarissa was asking to go to the gift shop (she earned a treat this week) and go home. We walked to the visitor center after 10 AM only to discover that the gift shops don’t open until 11.

We walked down the hill and stopped by the small mammal house to see the Fennec Fox she was so excited about. We all really enjoyed the animals and that the building was air conditoned. I convinced Clarissa to walk by the pandas and cheetahs since it was on the way back to the car. But neither one was outside because it was too hot out. We did however find all six of the animatronic dinosaurs, so she was excited about that.

We left by 10:30 and the parking lot was almost full so I do recommend arriving early if you are planning to park. But if you want to buy anything at the gift shop, you need to stay past 11.

While the National Zoo is a great zoo, we will do things differently on our next visit in order to enjoy it better. First of all, we will wait until the fall when kids are back in school. Then it won’t be as crowded and we can probably arrive closer to 10 AM. All of the buildings and gift shops will be open if we come a little later. The lower temperatures will also mean that most of the animals should be outside so that we can actually see them.

After the zoo, we headed to Doodlehopper 4 Kids in Falls Church for Clarissa to pick out her stuffed animal. I didn’t take pictures since we were just in there for a stuffed animal. But I will say that it looks like a great toy store. There were plenty of stuffed animals, puppets, educational toys, books, and costumes. I know we will be back.

Then we headed to lunch in Fairfax at a place called Masala Wok, which was recommended by one of Tim’s friends from work. There are Indian dishes as well as other Asian noodle and rice dishes. Tim and I really enjoyed our food. Clarissa just ordered naan, but was quite content with hers as well. We even got to watch part of one of the Cricket World Series games. I don’t think I have ever watched cricket before. It was interesting.

Happy Third Trimester to me!

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Today marks the beginning of the third trimester in Tiffany’s pregnancy. In some ways, I am so ready to meet her. And in other ways, I am glad she has a few months before she joins us. I think I would feel more ready if our furniture from Korea was in our current house. Soon enough. With about twelve weeks to go, the house will be ready in plenty of time for her arrival.

At Clarissa’s twenty week ultrasound, they had a few concerns. There was a small hole in her heart and she had a “bright bowel.” They had concerns about things like Down Syndrome and Cystic Fibrosis. This was terrifying for a first time mom, but the blessing in it was that they sent me to EVMS (the local medical school) for further testing and ultrasounds. I got to see extra clear pictures of Clarissa at 22 weeks and 28 weeks and then another set at 35 weeks. By 22 weeks, the heart in her heart had closed and by 28 weeks her bowels were fine. She just wasn’t “ready” at the earlier ultrasound times.

With Tiffany, the ultrasound schedule has been completely different. While we were in Korea, they did an ultrasound at every appointment. We have been looking at things like her brain, spine, and liver since the beginning. We left Korea at about 20 weeks so they didn’t get to my anatomy scan before we left. My only ultrasound at my American doctor was at 24 weeks and I had to ask for that since I missed the 20 week anatomy scan that most people get. Her ultrasound showed that everything was fine, so that was the only ultrasound my ob plans to do this pregnancy.

On the one hand, I was glad for this. Tiffany is healthy. There are no concerns. On the other hand, I was sad. I got to see clear pictures of Clarissa’s face all the time. And we still had not really seen a great picture of Tiffany’s face. We decided that we would go to a special place that specializes in 4d elective ultrasounds. We went to InfantSeeHD in Fairfax.

Maria, our ultrasound tech was wonderful! She was super excited to see our baby. She had me move around in different positions so that we could see more. Tiffany had one of her feet in her face pretty much the entire time, but Maria was able to move around so that we could see her whole face anyway. She also said that Tiffany already has a full head of hair. We also got to watch Tiffany practice sucking on the placenta.

I’m not going to lie. There was a little bit of sticker shock when we saw the price for the ultrasound packages. Because there were concerns with Clarissa, insurance paid for all of her extra ultrasounds so I had no concept about how much these things normally cost. But we did get a full video recording of the thirty minute session and 84 still images on a jump drive.

Then, I wanted to celebrate. So we decided to check out Happy Tart, a gluten free bakery, in Falls Church. We parked in the garage for Pearson Square and it was really easy to find. The prices were reasonable for gluten free treats. Cookies and macaroons were $1.75. Cupcakes were $4.50 each. They also had bags of English muffins and drinks for sale. Clarissa loved her cookie. Tim and I thought the cupcakes were delicious. We will definitely be back!

Then we finished our evening with dinner in Shirlington. Since it was my choice, I chose Guapo’s for a Mexican dinner. I pretty much always love my Mexican food. The impressive part was that Tim enjoyed his dinner too.

Settling in to life in America (reverse culture shock)

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In some ways, life in America is like our life in South Korea. Tim goes to work during the day. Clarissa and I are home with Mittens. Homeschool is back in session. We think we found a church to attend. Tim’s days off are for exploring. We are still a one car family.

But in some ways, life is very different. Sometimes I think the transition from America to Korea was easier than the transition from Korea to America. I wonder if it’s because of the differences or if it’s because we were looking forward to moving to Korea for so long that it made things easier?

Before moving to Alexandria, I had only ever lived in Hampton Roads or South Korea. In Korea, most families are only there one to three years. So everyone is either new, or remembers what it is like to be new and attempts to help new people. We don’t live near military housing here, so there isn’t an influx of new people all the time that need to get plugged in (at least not the way it was in Korea). So when Clarissa and I go to a new place, people don’t seem eager to include us or invite us in to their group. The exception to this being our wonderful neighbors.

I consider Hampton Roads to be pretty conservative socially. It wasn’t quite southern with the large military population, but there were definitely likeminded people around. Before we left, the LGBT stuff wasn’t a big thing. Gay marriage wasn’t legal in most states before we left. Four years later, and in Northern Virginia, it is definitely more liberal. (Granted we arrived right at the beginning of Pride Month, so this may not be how things normally are?) But, Clarissa and I have had some interesting conversations about cashiers and why they are dressed like a girl but definitely look like a man or why we see men kissing each other at a restaurant.

I think it was also pretty common in Hampton Roads for moms to stay home with their kids, especially when they are younger. There were working moms too. My mom worked weekends when I was a kid. In my neighborhood, it seems pretty common for both parents to work though. When Clarissa and I go to the park, most of the kids her age have nannies from foreign countries. Or the moms that are there all have kids in private school uniforms and are hanging out together. I am having a hard time finding stay at home moms here. I am sure they exist. I just haven’t found them yet. When I looked online, it says that there were 91 elementary school aged kids in Alexandria who are homeschooled this school year. So these families do exist, but they aren’t a large percentage of the population.

The other thing that I am getting used to is having a car. We had one car in Korea, but Tim had it most of the time because he was working. Now when Clarissa asks if we can go somewhere that requires driving, it takes me a minute to remember that I am the one with the car and we don’t have to wait for Daddy to get home or for the weekend to go to the park or the library. It is also weird to be able to get the errands done during the week so that we can actually do fun things on the weekend.

The supply situation in South Korea was interesting on base. Many items from the commissary or PX came by boat, so if something was out, it might take a month to get it in. Then if there was an embargo on something, like poultry, you just had to go off base for the Korean version because the commissary just wan’t going to carry it. Amazon was the fastest way to ship things and it was great to get your item in a week, if you found a seller who would ship to an APO address. Here, I can go to multiple locations of the same store if I want to. But so far, most of the items that I want are in stock the day that I go shopping. Amazon is so fast. When we left, prime was definitely 2-3 days. But most things, if we order before midnight, will be delivered to our house the next day.

We have a great library system here. Because of our location, we are actually eligible for the library in a few different cities. In Korea, the army libraries were all connected on the same system, so I could request up to 5 books at a time from a different library. But because they were all in different cities on the peninsula, it might take 3-4 weeks to get the book I want. Here, the books are all located in the same city, so I can request multiple books from a different library, and it will be at the library that I want to pick it up in a day or two. We are also allowed to request like 20 books at a time!

The air quality here is amazing. In Korea, the air quality continually got worse while we were there. I don’t remember it being as much of a problem when we lived in Daegu. But in Pyeongtaek, especially the last year that we were there, the air quality was a problem. It would be  over 200 for weeks straight (healthy is 0-50). We often had to wear a mask outside so that we wouldn’t get a headache or sore throat from the air. I think in the five weeks we have been in Virginia, the air quality has only been over 50 once and it was 68 that day. The air quality this morning was 4.

Clarissa’s personality has been a little more outgoing here than in South Korea. She said to me the other day, “I can be more chatty here because everyone speaks American!” She has no problem walking up to a kid on the playground and asking if they want to play with her. At lunch the other day, she even asked if we could sit with a little girl and her mom because they were about the same age. She never would have done that in Korea, even on base. She still doesn’t like big groups of people though. The first playground we went to, I thought looked really cool, but there were a ton of kids there and she asked to leave about ten minutes later in favor of a less crowded playground.