Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!!

From our home to yours, we wish you a Christmas morning (and day) as chaotic (yet insanely fun) as ours . . .

. . . as filled with exuberance as ours . . .

. . . and filled with utter joy, as was ours . . .

We do hope your Christmas is a great one. Thanks to everybody who has thought of us in this time of year, and who sent us gifts to brighten our holiday!

Oh - and in case you missed it, don't miss our annual Christmas letter. We figured we'd save a tree this year. Which is a fancy way of saying we waited too long to mail ours out, so this is our way of getting it out there on time.

Merry Christmas and Frohliche Weihnachten!


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Our Family Christmas Letter

Looks like the Christmas Cards aren't going to make it out this year, so please feel free to share our letter/news with any family members who don't have e-mail or internet. Hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas Day & a Happy New Year! Catherine

Merry Christmas everybody! What a year we have had, with so much to be thankful for this holiday season. This has been another very busy year for the Skinner Clan abroad. Right after we sent out last year’s letter, we packed up the car and drove through France, with a couple of overnight stays, on our way to Spain. We spent about a week on the Mediterranean, and since it was low tourist season it felt like the whole beach was ours. We made our way back to Germany and endured one of the longest, coldest, snowiest winters I’ve ever had to suffer through. I even had a couple of days off from work because the road conditions were so bad! In April we went to Keukenhof in Holland to enjoy the daffodils, tulips, and other flowers. In May, Catherine’s mother and sister joined us for an extremely memorable and fun-filled, as well as relaxing, vacation in Italy. We stayed for a week in a Tuscan villa. Catherine and Christina took a cooking class, which we all got to enjoy the fruits of their labors. We took in some amazing cities, art, wine, cheese, bread, pasta, gelato. The second week we stayed at a villa in Cinque Terra, Monterosso al Mare, on the Mediterranean. We trained around the Cinque Terra, walked, boated, and SWAM! The water was a shade chilly, but oh so awesome. I had to go to San Antonio for a little over 2 months for some training this summer. In true Army fashion, I received my approval with less than one week remaining, meaning flights for Catherine and the kids was prohibitively expensive and I went by myself. Thank goodness for Skype. Since I’ve been back, we hit the Oktoberfest in Munich (crazy), the Oktoberfest in Stuttgart (more family friendly), Garmisch (in the Alps), and many local trips. We are planning on a trip to England and Wales (we’ll be back by the time you read this). On top of all that, Ian has finished Kindergarten and started 1st Grade. He is doing very well. Leah is in pre-K and also doing very well. I won’t steal Catherine’s thunder, but she is well too. Don’t forget to keep up with our whereabouts on:, keep in touch with me at: or on Facebook - also through my gmail. Merry Christmas everyone, and have a truly blessed and happy New Years! Love, Marc

What a year we’ve had. It’s been nice to have Marc home with us for most of it. In addition to all of the lovely trips we’ve taken this year, we also had a small move in the spring from where we lived on base, to a rental off base. We are about a 12 minute drive to base on a sunny day, but now that winter is upon is looks like we may have more like a 25 minute drive. So far the hardest part has been getting in & out of our little village. However, we are able to spread out more than we ever did on base & we actually have 3 bathrooms vs. the one we had on base, so that is great as well. I’ve been staying very busy with volunteering at one of the thrift shops in the area & I also am the hospitality chair for our local PWOC (Protestant Women of the Chapel). Ian’s first grade teacher cooks with them on Fridays, so I’ve made it a point to try to volunteer in his classroom for that as well. He is doing very well academically & has been working on reading and his math. He also played soccer again this fall & did much better with it than last year. He also is in the Science Club at school and loves it. Leah started pre K this fall and is doing very well. Her teacher is really happy with the way she is progressing with her writing and academics and is encouraging to get Leah piano lessons because she loves music so much. Well, right now she’s more interested in dancing, so she did tap with ballet this past spring and will be doing classical ballet this coming year. She will be the youngest one in the class and had to audition to be allowed to participate. They usually only allow girls 6 & up in the class. One of the big things I did this past fall was I went to Paris to take a Traditional Bread Baking class at the Cordon Bleu cooking school. It was a fun & exhausting at the same time. We made about 4-6 different types of bread each day. Of course, everything turned out perfect there with the professional proof box & seam injected oven. I’m having some issues replicating some of the results at home, but I’m working on it. We move this coming Spring (hopefully after the school year is done for the kids) to the Savannah, Ga. area and I’m thinking the humidity there may just be the thing some of my breads need to help their rising. Of course, it’s going to be much harder to find fresh yeast, so I’ll still have some work to do. I hope all of you have had a wonderful year as well & hope 2011 is filled with good cheer as well! Love, Catherine

Merry Christmas! I have my first loose tooth as mommy types this for me. It is very exciting! I had a very good year. I got to see the trains in Homberg at the Minituar Wonderland for my birthday. It was so much fun. I got to ride on the Ice Train to get there. It was exciting to see all the different trains. I got to stay at a hotel that had a Toy Story 3 video game for me to play. It was fun to play the Toy Story 3 game. I loved my birthday. Love, Ian.

Merry Christmas! I love my family. Love, Leah

Monday, December 20, 2010

Updown Cottage

My first photo from Updown Cottage was taken earlier in the morning, right before we headed out to do some initial exploring of Shaftesbury. We were staying at Gold Hill, which is justifiably famous for this street, the cottages that line it, and the amazing views over the surrounding countryside. It is even on a CD cover somewhere.

Later that afternoon, Catherine gave me some time to myself to wander around with just me and my camera. I had a great time, but the timing of my arrival back to our cottage was impeccable - I caught sunset at our cottage. For the curious out there, ours was the white one in the middle, two doors up from the thatched-roof cottage.

We truly lucked out with the weather, as the previous day and earlier that morning was completely overcast. While it was cold, the sun and the last bit of snow were just gorgeous. Catherine and I can't say enough great things about this cottage. The ambiance, the location, the facilities - all quite a cozy package. And it should make for another memorable (pre) Christmas vacation.

I don't have too many more photos to dig through from our vacation. So I hope everyone has enjoyed them. I don't remember what I've whittled it down to, but I'm guessing it is close to 250 photos or so that I have kept. That's about 1/2 to 1/3rd "keeper" rate. What I've posted is a small fraction. If you want to see more, you'll have to come over!



Saturday, December 18, 2010

Snow in Thallichtenberg

We've been having a ton of snow the past couple of weeks. It started right before we left for England, and hasn't really let up since. We missed a big storm while on vacation, but we've made up for it since.

As much as I love the snow, I hate to shovel. I don't know where Ian and Leah get it, but they love to shovel (or as they do here in Germany, sweep) the snow.

While I was out front shoveling our gi-normous driveway, the kids were out back cleaning the snow off the mini-garage. Yes, I know Leah's jacket is filthy - she and Ian both love to drag themselves along the cars. Today's wash will be her jacket's fourth or fifth (I've lost count) since the start of snowy season here.

Even in Germany, Ian is a fan. Go Pack!

After I was done, I walked through our village and up the hill to the castle. This isn't our street, but ours wasn't much better off. Thankfully the Burgblick Hotel has a 4-wheeler with a snow plow attachment. If that guy didn't plow our street, it wouldn't get plowed at all!

Finally, just a little wagon in a field that I came across on my walk up to the castle.

Hopefully everyone is staying warm! We are - good ol' hot chocolate for the kids, Gluhwein for the big kids (well, me anyways). Cheers!


Friday, December 17, 2010

Welsh Panoramic

These panoramics can be tricky beasts to process. This one took about 45 minutes to an hour to get put together. Mostly me just sitting there watching the computer think.

This started life as seven different photos that were combined in Photoshop. Some of my other pano's aren't working out from this trip. But this one I like, mostly because of the people in the far left of the scene. I had this lake to myself for about 10 minutes, just snapping away at photos with my camera on a tripod, when this group showed up. I was quite the curiosity as they stood and watched me/admired the view I was shooting, and then they took off on their hike. I think they really add to the photo - but your mileage may vary. Either way, it's a happy memory for me.



Thursday, December 16, 2010

It's Just Me

So much for the fallacy of "Marc doesn't get into too many photos"!

What can I say? I had a great time on my little hike in the mountains of Wales. I must have been giddy - what with all the photos I took with me in them. Sheesh.

Oh - and by the way. . . thank you very much Upper Midwest snowstorm. It has made its way to Germany and is quickly dropping a TON of snow. They say 40 cm (2 feet or so). We'll see.

Enjoy your day!


Monday, December 13, 2010

Wales, revisited

I'm slowly working my way through the photos from our recent trip to England and Wales. I had an opportunity to work on this one and get it finished up (for the most part) and ready for the blog and Flickr.

This is two shots manually blended together in Photoshop. I exposed one shot for the highlights and one for the shadows, and mixed them together. Photoshop has an automated way to do this, but I've been getting weird results (strange changes in color) and much prefer manually "painting" in the changes. I know, whatever . . .

Expect more to follow.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Thursday in Dorset + Friday's Travel Day

I almost can't believe I didn't post yesterday! We were busy packing for our return trip to London.

Yesterday was a lazy kind of day, with a nice relaxed drive to Corfe Castle. We were going to see Wardour Castle as well, but it was closed. I'm guessing because of all the snow they had here a week earlier. The word "Castle" is used loosely for Corfe, as you can see it really is closer to a "ruin". We had a nice walk through the village and around the castle, and I made it over a fence and up to a hill overlooking the castle and the town for some photos.

One of the largest differences between the UK and Germany, at least as far as we've experienced, is that the majority of castles and ruins are open and free in Germany, and fairly expensive in the UK. We chose to save our money on this castle, and had a very nice lunch instead just around the corner to the front gates to the castle/ruin.

And today, like I alluded to earlier, was a travel day. It was a quick drive, and after a lot of train transfers we eventually made it to our flat in Blackheath (London). Ian has been proudly telling everyone we meet or run across about his loose tooth. It was news to me on this trip that he had a loose tooth. Well, loose tooth no longer.

Welcome Hockey Smile!!

Tomorrow is our last full day in England. We'll see "The Lion King", which should be a treat for the whole family. Other than that, not much on the radar aside from wandering the streets in Covent Garden and possible near Trafalgar Square. Have a wonderful day!



Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Updown Cottage is fab-u-lous!

This is our place, and in typical Skinner vacation madness - we loved it so much we changed our plans in order to stay another day!

And that was the bad/crappy photo of the place. It was cloudy and cold this morning when we first went out to traipse about the town. It eventually cleared and sunset was something straight out of a dream in vivid Technicolor. I have some work to do in Photoshop to bring out their best, so look for that at some point in time in the future.

A couple of locals, seeing me with my camera out, pointed us to a little known overlook. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't cooperative for postcard photos, but it was a beautiful overlook.

In the last light of the day, the kids and I went into the backyard of the cottage to do a bit of exploring. The light was phenomenal, so I set up first Ian, then Leah, in front of this hedgerow.

Just a Google blogspot hiccup for why Ian shows up after Leah. Either way, you get the idea . . .

And for my parting shot today, a quick grab shot of the kids at another overlook, just sitting on a bench.

We're going out and about tomorrow before our return to London on Friday (instead of Thursday - gotta love our vacations). Look for more photos in the days ahead.



Tuesday, December 7, 2010


It turns out our GPS is slightly more stupid than I am . . .

What should have been a 4.5 hour trip turned into closer to 8. The GPS thinks that since some roads have a maximum speed rating of 60 mph that one should be able to drive that speed. On steep, curvy, twisting, (and iced over for the curious out there) narrow roads. The stupid part is that I actually believed it ; )

Short pre-amble, for what I really mean is that we had another long day of travel today. For the most part the kids did good, but no matter how you look at it, 7-8 hours of travel without a DVD is a loooong time for kids to behave. At lunch we decided to try to see Stonehenge today. What should have been a two hour drive crazily became closer to three.

And for the interested out there, Stonehenge closes at 4 pm. We got there and paid for our tickets literally at 3:50 pm. But we had the place to ourselves. Again, literally. The kind folks working there didn't try to rush us out either.

So while winter may not be the absolute best time to visit England and see the sights, you can't beat the (lack of) crowds! Cheers,


Monday, December 6, 2010

Another day in Wales

Catherine let me take my camera and kit out and about for a walk through the snow and ice in search of some photos. I'll be testing my computer back home once it is time to push some of my panorama's together. Let's hope I don't crash it with information overload!

I went back to Llyn Ogwen (lake Ogwen) and made the short hike up to "Devil's Kitchen". It was just over a half mile, so I really do mean a short walk. It would have taken even less time had I not stopped every 30 feet for a new photo. The sights were gorgeous, and the early morning light was breathtaking (so was the cold!). The shot below is of the lake (Llyn Idwal) at the Devil's Kitchen. One of the proprietor's at the Bed and Breakfast where we are staying told us that someone was ice-skating up there this past week. I'm not sure I'd jump on ice in a place that remote.

And since I had my tripod, I took the liberty of getting in my own photo here. This doesn't happen too often, so enjoy.

After my very quick photo shoot (I could have stayed there all day in the mountains) I drove home and we all walked around Betwys-y-Coed, our little town. We had a nice little lunch, and then decided to drive to Caernarfon to see the sights there. Personally, I enjoyed Conwys much more. Here the kids are sitting outside of a random store while I shot photos of them.

After our fun in Caernarfon, we made our way to Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll, which is actually short for: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. It is the longest city (town really) name in Europe. And no, I did not free type that name, just a cut and past from the link provided.

We are making our way back to England tomorrow. Shaftesbury. Should be a very nice little cottage for a day or two before we make our way back to London. Have a wonderful day.



Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cyrmu, that's Wales

After a llllloooooonnnnnnggggg day of travel, we arrived in Wales last night. It was a mostly uneventful drive, but it sure helps to have Catherine remind me to stay left! We were delayed in getting out of London by some construction at our Underground Station - which left us wandering the streets of London for 10-15 minutes trying to get to the nearest station. Then the train took forever to get to Heathrow - and the shenanigans went on and on.

Like I said, we made it to Wales though. I took the kids out for a nice long walk on some pretty slick streets and sidewalks, but we all had fun burning off some pent-up steam. The Bed-and-Breakfast where we are staying had a funny little snowman up on a table that the kids really enjoyed playing with.

After a very nice breakfast this morning, we drove through the Snowdonia National Park. We weren't disappointed! The little bit that we got to see from our car and short walks around were amazing!

We made our way to Conwy for lunch. The old stone wall from the 13th century (or earlier - history isn't my strong point) castle/fortress still surrounds the city.

This photo is of the Nant Ffrancon valley. We were lucky to find a place to park as the Welsh have a love affair with walking/hiking. And rightfully so. This is definitely a place I'll make my way back to some summer for some serious hiking and exploring.

And this one is of Mount Snowdon, just capped in snow in the background. The lake is frozen over - I'm told folks were skating on it yesterday.

We're still making plans for tomorrow. I'll probably head out and take more photos, plus we'll explore our little town of Betwys-y-Coed a bit more too. I wouldn't mind exploring the park a bit more, but I'm not sure if all of the roads are open. Time will tell . . .

Have a great day everyone. We did!



Friday, December 3, 2010

London, Day 2

We took in the Changing of the Guard today at Buckingham Palace. Winter is definitely NOT the time to see this, impressive as it is, because it was FRIGID!! We had great "seats" (thank you Constable Donald!), but even so most of the ceremony was hidden by the people standing at the fence. We at least got to see all of the processions to and from Buckingham Palace.

The Welsh Guards were the soldiers we saw. It was a bit surreal though as the band was playing "YMCA" at one point, as well as "You Lost That Loving Feeling" while the ceremony was taking place. I feel a bit sorry for those soldiers - I'm sure playing a brass instrument in that cold is a bit like that kid from "A Christmas Story".

We had a nice lunch in a warm restaurant. The hot chocolate was fantastic - just ask the kids. But then again, so was the cafe latte. Afterwards we caught our bus tour. We had to wait in the cold again at Speaker's Corner at the edge of Hyde Park while we waited for the correct bus. I had Ian and Leah run around a bit to burn off some steam, and to stay warm. Apparently Ian didn't want to play tag with Leah, which is why she is pouting here. No worries, though. Just seconds later they were chasing each other around again, laughing and making quite a ruckus.

The last bit of our bus tour took us past Big Ben, the London Eye, and London Tower. I took loads of photos - mostly rubbish. This is probably the best compromise of the bunch I took this afternoon. This is before 4 pm. Yes, the sun is setting. It gets dark early here.

We took the Underground home, and were again struck how quiet it was on the trains. You could hear the paper from people turning the pages on their newspapers from the other side of the train! Amazingly, the kids were quiet on both occasions (last night and tonight). One gentleman must have read something hilarious because he laughed - quite short and sharp, like a hyena - and immediately covered his mouth and looked around a moment or two before continuing his reading. The rest of us passengers looked at him, then to each other all on the sly with a knowing wink and a smile.

Have a wonderful day everybody!



Thursday, December 2, 2010

Jolly Old England, Day 1 - London

Our first day here in London was a slow and cold one. We decided to do the bus tour thing of London, but really only got about half-way around the city. We will probably finish up tomorrow, after we do the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.

The building below is the House of Parliament building (I think), directly across from Westminster Abbey. We wanted to check out the Abbey, but it was already closed.

Ian found Big Ben from the steps of the British National Gallery (the Monet wing was closed due to the weather London has had - BUMMER!), we walked around St. Martin in the Fields and enjoyed the beautiful organ music playing for a bit. Then we hopped on the Underground and made our way to Westminster and Big Ben. Oh yeah, The London Eye was closed due to the weather as well.

It felt like we practically had the bus tour to ourselves, but that is mostly because the bottom was full and we were on the top, open-air, portion of the bus. Mind you, Gatwick was closed for the second straight day, highways were closed, and some trains weren't running due to the snow. But there we were, sitting up top. It was more than a little bit chilly.

I took the opportunity to take a couple of photos of Catherine, Ian, and Leah.

This was Catherine's favorite photo of Leah:

This was my only useable photo of Ian. Not only did he not want to look back for a photo, but the bus was moving and all but this one were blurry and were subsequently binned.

I hope all is well out there with everyone. Expect to see more photos later. Cheers,


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Burg Lichtenberg's Medieval Christmas Market

Like I said in my last post - more Christmas markets are in our future! We made the short trip to our castle (yup, it's ours now) for the medieval Weihnachtsmarkt. I've written before about how loads of folks that attend these really get dressed up for the occasion. Well, this was no different. It was smaller than the summer medieval festival held here, but still nice.

We went just in time for some lunch. Red brats, white brats, and pork steak over a wood-fired grill = delicious. And finally some gluwein for me. Catherine and I agree it is an acquired taste. And I've acquired it.

The kids each got to pick something special out for themselves. Ian chose a sword, and got his name burnt into the hilt. I don't think he's put it down except to climb into bed. Leah chose a princess hat - in pink, of course!

We discovered a new favorite treat to look out for: baumkuchen. Basically it is a dough that is rolled over a wooden roller that is then suspended over a wood-fired grill and then spun to give it an even toast. The get-up would be awesome for s'mores, but I digress.

My parting shot is of the very tail end of the castle-ruin grounds, where many small tents with vendors were set-up. Just to kind of get the feel for the place. We have had snow, but not much. Mud was the larger obstacle today.

Have a wonderful day out there. We head to England here in a couple of days for our (early) Christmas trip. Wish us luck!


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Christmas Market season is here!!

The official Christmas Market season is upon us! Christkindlmarkts, Weihnachtsmarkts - whatever you want to call it, it is here. We kicked off this year at Valkenburg in The Netherlands. It is held in the "world famous caves" below the city.

We've been wanting to check this one out for over a year now. We just didn't have time last year (part of our Christmas season was spent in France, Spain, and Andorra), so we decided last night to make it there today.

While the setting was very unusual, it was really quite a letdown. No Gluwein (THE HORROR!!!), and a huge lack of food vendors in the caverns made for a less than optimal Weihnachtmarkt. You can see that we still had a good time, we're just looking forward to some of the others even more.

And for some random photos - we had our first snow of the year too - on Thanksgiving day. The view below is from one of our upstairs windows, facing away from our village. There was quite the snow line just a few meters up in elevation.

This last photo is a panorama of five or six photos stitched together in photoshop. I then made it a black and white in Lightroom (also a Photoshop family product). You can see our house, as well as a bit of our castle through the snow storm brewing. This one was from Thanksgiving day, and was literally the first day of snow.

Have a wonderful day everyone. We are headed to the castle for the medieval Weihnachtsmarkt tomorrow - much less of a drive ; )



Sunday, November 21, 2010

Random Photo from Switzerland

I recently downloaded a bunch of photos from Catherine's camera to my hard drive. They went back a long ways. One of my favorites was from our trip home from Italy. We had spent the night on the Swiss-Italian border and woke up the next morning to a glorious early summer day.

I'm pretty sure this photo is one that Catherine took while I was still driving, from very near the Bernard Pass - of St. Bernard fame (the tunnel was open, unfortunately the road over the pass still was not).

I've changed the color of the leaves from bright early summer green to that of more like fall. Appropriate for the time of year, I hope.

Enjoy, and have a wonderful day!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

President Ian

Some of you may have heard that Ian is the "President" of his 1st grade class. They have a pet iguana named Guido, hence they are in Guidoland. Their teacher gives out Guidoland money if they behave well, which can be used in their little store for simple toys and treats.

Catherine had brought home an example of the money they used, and I decided to spruce it up a bit. Below is what I came up with. Ian has been moved to the ten dollar bill, so don't lose these collector 1 bills!

His class has been learning about Native Americans, and they had a big production today. Ian got to introduce the ceremony, lead the 1st graders and parents in the Pledge of Allegiance, and some other stuff. Little (not really) Chief Ian . . .