Saturday, August 23, 2014

Coming Home, Olón

August 20, 2014

In forefront, the
luggage sculptures outside
the Wiesbaden train station.

It was around the last couple of weeks in Germany that I realized my luggage was going to be waaay over-weighted on the trip back home.  This concerned me to a degree, because I had three plane changes to make, and prayed that my luggage would make those flights with me.
I packed gifts for my kids in Europe when I left Ecuador, and figured that whatever I brought home would not be heavier.
I was wrong.  Who would have thought that a few boxes of Bisquick, a couple of jars of peppers and horseradish, some hard-to-find spices, a bunch of refrigerator magnets, a few thrift-store pots & pans could sink me?

And, well…a few pairs of shoes too.  (More about the shoes later).
I was also hauling around two ungodly heavy carry-ons.

Anyway, I anticipated and was prepared for the check-in flak:  some “tsk tsks”, a huddle between a few agents, and an outrageous charge during that process.
All of which happened.
At one point, I thought the airline wasn't going to let one of my two bags on at all, it was so freaking heavy.  Even the beefy guy who lifted it from check-in desk to the conveyor belt had to take two tries at it (so I think I did garner some respect that this little ol’ gal was able to even leverage it at all from the 8-inches or so from check-in floor to “weigh-in” point).
There was a delay on the runway during that first leg between Germany to Amsterdam.
The pilot got on the mic as we were waiting to be pushed off, and said (no joke) … “Sorry folks, the holdup is because of TWO suitcases waiting to be boarded”.
I swear the puddle-jumper crew were all shooting dagger eyes at me, and whispering “it’s that lady in 5A”, as I slunk down in my seat and pretended to be engrossed by the airline magazine.
Seriously, did he really have to specify the TWO suitcase thing?????

A closer view of those cement suitcase sculptures in Wiesbaden.
 And I'm pretty sure my luggage was as easy to lift as these.

And then once I got to Amsterdam, there was another sort of lengthy, unexpected wait at the gate, and once we boarded, this time – as God is my witness -  the pilot apologized "for the delay, but we had to switch to a bigger plane for some reason…”
My anxiety regarding my  suitcases “slowing up” or not making these flight connections went up a level or two, and I was really, really glad that I had packed a pair of super sweaty, stink-to-high-heaven tennis shoes (that I wore while doing a lot of walking in Germany) to deter baggage security folks at each change-plane airport, who may have wanted to take a better look at what I was hauling, and unpacking/packing everything each time.

(Not that I was mule-ing  anything contraband – well, not counting the box of baking soda -  but I guess I did go a little crazy buying stuff that is hard to find or not available in our local stores. My thought process was that if the weight of the luggage didn't deter the inspectors, the smell of those shoes would).

That said, it was around a 15 hour trip, and I arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador about 9PM on a Sunday night (I gained 7 hours coming back).
I sailed through the passport/cedula check point, wisely splurged $2 on a luggage cart before collecting my suitcases (albeit the last two bags to come through the conveyor belt).
I huffed and puffed my way over to incoming luggage x-ray point, but must have looked so bedraggled (or they didn’t want to lift those mofos up and onto scanner either), I got waved through.
I knew that I was going to be too tired and jet-lagged after my flights to have driver come get me for the three hour drive back to the coast, so I had booked a room for a couple of decompression nights at the nearby Hotel Perla (around $35 a night).  It is not a fancy hotel, but it is comfortable, airport convenient, has in-room Wi-Fi, a small pool and accommodating, flexible, gracious, friendly hosts and staff.

I did get a lovely giggle being reminded
that the Ecuadorians love color, but might
have a different perception than I do about
combination pallet.

I ended up only spending one night, because I got a good night’s sleep and felt perky enough to head back to Olón on Monday, and recommend this hotel for those on a budget or just passing through for a night.

I’m glad to be back home, but in all honesty, I’m having some trouble re-adjusting.  Until this 2-month trip to Germany, I have not been out of Ecuador in four years. I definitely liked indulging in the sophistication and modern conveniences available (and not taken for granted in small, rustic Ecuadorian fishing villages) such as reliable electricity and internet, potable drinking water from a sink, steaming hot showers with pressure, the plethora of familiar grocery store items I’ve missed –though the prices had me in sticker shock.
I got spoiled being with my kids again – I miss all of them terribly, and grateful that I was at least able to spend time with Kacie and her family – and all the beautiful places I was able to see during the visit.

From a view like this...

To neighborhood cock-fight

From this street view in Prague....

To this street view (in front of my house)
right after I got back.
Actually a good thing to have our
"cul-de-sac" qualify for paving,
but there will be a "manana" factor before
it's completed.

It didn’t help that shortly after I arrived home, my landlords (who are GREAT people) decided to “fix” the electricity in my house (don’t ask me why – it wasn’t broke, but I’m sure they had some reason) and aside from blowing out my microwave (dead) and my fridge (pricey repair) during that project, I was without electricity for a number of hours each day for around a week.
Then my internet provider’s service got sketchy/frequently out, and our “winter” weather, which apparently was very mild and relatively sunny this year during my absence, took a more lingering turn towards overcast and drizzly after I got home.

Our dog Daisy was diagnosed with ehrlichiosis (a potentially serious tick borne disease, and particularly virulent this year in our area).  She started showing symptoms, she tested positive, and is now on a treatment regimen.

Talk about culture shock.
In all the years of coming, and then living here, I think these last few weeks since my return have been the hardest time I've had adjusting to living as an expat:
There is a sense of isolation, language frustrations, doubts and second-guessing about the choice to live so far from family and friends that expat folks go through – at times – when one chooses to live in a foreign country.
I've been pretty much a big old lethargic blob of self-pity, complaints, and ingratitude for awhile.

Charles Bridge - Praha
June 2014

And then, a way, way back old friend with whom I've recently re-connected (thank you, Sharon Schweiger-Price) challenged me to one of the Facebook versions of the “Three daily positive things for Five Days” status update going around.
I balked at first.
(“I don’t want to ‘play this game’. I want to stay sulky, churlish, and I can’t think of one damn thing I am grateful for right now”).
And then a few days later, another friend tagged me to do it (an expat living here – thank you, Lynne Allen).  I decided it was time to pull my head out of my ass, and pick up the gauntlet.

This is a good exercise to do, whether it’s posted on FB or not. I used to do this, but somehow had let the mental habit slip during trying conditions, and forgot and/or neglected to be grateful through all circumstances.

And you know what I discovered?
I have much to be grateful for. And (as Lynne eloquently pointed out during her five days) so much of it is the “little” things.
…The friends (old and new) that give you a hug and an apt word at just the right moment.
…The humble but comfortable roof over my head.
…The whales frolicking offshore now, and the colorful birds all around.
...The new soup recipe that hit the spot.
Things like that.
I’m grateful that this mental work-out has inspired me again to daily and actively remind myself to appreciate what is right in front of me, to better live in the present, and to more diligently guard against negative thoughts that have no legitimate purpose to be allowed in my mind.

“The Lord Almighty….will be…a source of strength
for those who turn back the battle at the gate”.
(Excerpt from Isaiah 28: 5-7).

I love this verse because I believe the gate starts with our own minds, and a good reminder about being more trusting in our intuition, and to more carefully discern the thoughts that come knocking at our mind's door -- and which ones we permit to have a seat there.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Adios, Alemania

July 22, 2014

(I've included links. Click on those to learn more about the locations I've mentioned in this post)

Zugspitze on the left side of photo
2,962 m (9,718 ft) above sea level,
the highest peak in Germany
My sojourn in Germany is coming to an end.
In some ways, the time with my kids has gone all too quick – on the other hand, it seems like I’ve been away from my home in Olón, Ecuador for a long time, and I am looking forward to being with friends again, and sleeping in my own bed.

Since I last wrote, my daughter Kacie, my granddaughters, and I have had a few adventures.
Over the fourth of July weekend, we went to Garmisch-Partenkirchen (probably better known as just “Garmisch”, much to the consternation of Partenkirchen residents.  
They are adjoining towns with quite a history and rivalry).
Garmisch is in southern Germany, in Bavarian Alp country. Nearby is Germany's highest mountain, Zugspitze, and we had a beautiful view of it from our hotel.

Neuschwanstein Castle
During our mini-vacation in Garmisch, we took a couple of day trips.
On our first day, we decided to go the nearby Neuschwanstein Castle (the iconic “fairy tale” castle – probably Germany’s most photographed tourist attraction – and Walt Disney’s inspiration for Disneyland’s Cinderella Castle).  It is also where the Nazi’s stored some of the purloined artwork and other treasures during World War II (there is a scene or two in the current movie “Monuments Men” that references this hiding place).  According to Wiki, “the SS considered blowing up the palace to prevent the building itself and the artwork it contained from falling to the enemy”.  Fortunately, they didn’t.

We had only 6-month Chloe with us; Kacie carries her in a chest snuggler, and she’s an easy-going traveler.  (We left Clara with a babysitter at the hotel, which had a lot of fun activities for kids her age).
While one can take either a bus or a horse carriage ride up to Neuschwanstein, we chose to take the half hour walk (uphill) to it.  I wore my Nike “memory shoes” that I bought while here; they are generally comfortable, but on that day, I thought the only thing they remembered is where my blisters were located.

Behind us is Hohenschwangau Castle.
Ancient castle situated 
near Neuschwanstein castle.  
 Constructed in the 12th century.
Tours are also available at ticket booth
 to see this one.
This was just before we started 
our walk uphill to see

The castle has 300 steps, and doesn't accommodate strollers. It made me grateful for the conditioning I’d previously been getting, regularly climbing the 38 stairs to Kacie’s third floor apartment.
It was built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, with construction beginning in 1869. King Ludwig II apparently was a somewhat of a peculiar guy, who died under mysterious circumstances (to this day still not explained) before the castle was completed, and still has been left unfinished,  which is something I was not aware of before we took the tour.  After our tour, we made the 15 minute hike over to the “Marie Bridge” (The Marienbrücke, overlooking the Pollat gorge).  From there are the best photo opportunities of the palace.

 View of Marienbrücke from castle side. 


The next day, we went to Munich. For some reason, I've always pictured Munich to be a dreary, gray, dull place (I don’t know why) – but it was anything but that.  We drove by the fairgrounds where the world-famous Oktoberfest is held every year, and then walked the old town and Marienplatz area with a tour guide to see the Glockenspiel clock that puts on an entertaining 10-15 minute show with revolving animated characters jousting and dancing, and walked through the Frauenkirche (a church, that is known for the “Devil’s Footprint” just inside the entrance).  Our tour ended at the Hofbräuhaus beer hall and I had - by far and away - the best beer I've been able to sample since I've been in Germany. 

3-D model of Munich

Devil's Foot Print

Afterwards we had some free time to stroll the city on our own, and we had a lovely lunch at the farmer’s market, where there were numerous restaurants, food booths, and fresh produce vendors.

Neuschwanstein Castle definitely is a "bucket-list" thing to do...but to tell the truth, I thought our day-trip to Munich was more fun.

Gammy Leigh enjoying a truly great beer.
Little Chloe digging the cardboard coaster.

On our last day in Garmisch, we drove to a post-card picturesque lake (Lake Eibsee) for a little hike with the kids. Well, at any rate, the kids went….Gammy Leigh was pretty tired by that point, and enjoyed the view from a lakeside café while they went exploring.

A couple of tired kids

Chloe loves Sunny the cat, and can now
make a bee-line right
to him to grab him by the fur.
Sunny is a very patient cat.

When I first got here, little Chloe was not yet able to sit up. Now she is not only sitting, but on the verge of crawling as well. She is so good natured, just adorable – a little “Gerber” baby for sure, and it’s been fun to watch her take these small first strides.

Clara playing dress-up
She loves her Cinderella slippers, and I
get such a kick out of the fact that she somehow
knows that a lady always wears her gloves.

During my time in Germany, there was also local German/American “Freundschaftfest" (Friendship) Fest. It was week-long festival/fair/carnival that had a bunch of great food booths, and fun rides for kids and grownups alike.

The fair really gave me a lump in my throat.
I got to be here for Clara's first cotton candy, her first Ferris wheel, her first "train ride", her first "wheeeee big slide".... because she may now be old enough to remember a few of these moments.

I know I will never forget them.

Friday, June 27, 2014

38 Stairs

June 27, 2014

I have been in Germany for a month now.  I’m here to see the kids, and help my daughter Kacie with my grandchildren – Clara/3-yrs and Chloe/6-mo – because of her job (while her husband, Pedro, is away for a couple of months because of his) for two months.
Kacie’s apartment is spacious, charmingly decorated and comfortable.  

But it is on the third floor.  That is 38 steps up or down – I’ve counted - from the front entrance of building.  I probably walk these stairs at least 20 times a day (usually lugging something heavy up them). This doesn’t count the seven other steps to basement when I need to retrieve or put away the stroller.
Kacie leaves for work around 6AM (taking the baby with her, to drop off at child care). My day starts at 7AM, when Clara awakes.  She has breakfast, and then Clara and I usually go to the apartment complex playground for about an hour around 10AM to work off some of her energy. At that time of day, there are generally no other kids (or adults – most are at work), so it’s a time of inner reflection for me while I watch her.  Clara is potty training now, so we kind of need to stay close to her “big girl” potty seat.  She goes to nursery school three mornings a week for a few hours, so I do get a break to take a leisurely shower, catch up on emails, screw around on Facebook, etc. in the meantime.

We go through a lot of these

Because of the time difference between friends in both Ecuador and in the States, it is not generally a good time to Skype any of them for a chat.
Our afternoons, after lunch, are generally a repeat of eat/play on playground/play with neighbor kids in community yard, or in apartment to watch more “Little Einstein”, “Barney”, “Mickey Mouse Club” and I believe I have reached my maximum level of forbearance listening to those theme songs.
I currently would prefer shooting a staple gun into my forehead at this point rather than hear them. I now lean towards (and tune to) “potty training for toddler” videos for Clara to watch.
If I sometimes think that my days are “boring”, Kacie’s schedule is even more grueling. She gets home around six in the evening, is still nursing Chloe, and we feed the kids, bath them, each gulp down something fast to eat, and both collapse into bed by around 10PM.

Chloe - who is such an easy going child, and
grown up so quickly, even within the time I've been here.'
We are now sitting up.

Kacie has the car all day, and there is not much nearby for Clara and I to do. However, downtown Wiesbaden market place is a 40 minute walk away (downhill going/uphill coming back – pushing a stroller), and now that I’ve acclimated and become more familiar with my surroundings…Clara and I head there several afternoons a week.  We sometimes go to the lake where we can feed the ducks, but “Gammy Leigh” has definitely wised up…as soon as Clara gets dozy and starts nodding off in her stroller, I make a beeline to the nearest outdoor café for a quiet snack and sample a German beer before making that uphill walk back home.

Whew!  I’m definitely getting a work-out here between those damn stairs and our afternoon walks to town.
My legs, butt, and calves are getting buff…..Haven’t seen this kind of work out since I last went to a gym – which was at least 20 years ago.  I can’t say the same about my upper arms (even pushing the stroller isn’t making an impact)….I’m afraid they fell a long time ago, and aren’t ever getting back up.

Thankfully, on a couple of weekends, when Kacie is off and in a “homebody” mood (and I’m itching to get out for “no kid time”) I’ve been able to spend a couple of enjoyable late afternoons exploring Wiesbaden, and early evening meals in town.

A huge multi-story department store I discovered during
one of my lone afternoon ventures out.
The grocery store was on bottom level, and I will say
This is my kind of wine department section!

A menu in German.
I  rest my case regarding
long words in that language.

I really need to learn a few more basic words in German. Thankfully, many folks in Europe speak English. 
Because if I think my español still sucks (after four years of living in Ecuador), my German language skills are truly spastic.
German is close enough to ingles that I can sort of get it when I see it written.
It doesn't help that most German words typically contain at least 27 letters, on average.

My other challenge is trying to get back up to speed with “child gear” stuff.  They are either “new-fangled” or I’ve forgotten some it.  Mostly though, they are all physically tough, confusing, or too heavy for me now.  Especially things that require “unlatching” with thumb and hand muscles that are now feeling every bit of my age.

Hell, those adjustable latches and belts on strollers, car seats, are impossible; unscrewing baby food jar lids requires some tricks and every ounce of my hand strength, and then there is that look of bemusement in my daughter’s eyes when she spies me wrestling the high chair to the floor, trying to unlock the damn tray off of it to clean (okay…that one is a bit of exaggeration).
Open heart surgery would be easier for me to perform.

My ultimate nemesis are these damn buckles.

One innovation I love.
  An engineering marvel.
  And I am bringing a few of these back home,
which will be much appreciated by my friends
who know I am a klutz with major
 tendency to spill or break anything
 glass while talking with my hands.

But you know what?  Though my knees and thumbs are begging for relief, and it would be heavenly to sleep in, I wouldn't trade one minute of this time with my kids here, and it is flying by all too quickly.
I'm sure that when I get back home to Olón, I will yearn for and treasure these moments always.
I am also trying to get to England to see my middle daughter, Katherine, her hubby Clive, and 8 month old twins, Isobel and Levi, but that is becoming more complicated and expensive than I anticipated (I can only do this on a weekend, when Kacie is off work), so that is still up in the air.

To all my Olón friends!
I miss you guys and looking forward to seeing you all again!

A few of my friends who came over for
tacos and dominoes at my place
 the night before I left
for Germany. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Czech Mate

June 15, 2014

Again, for those who may just be reading this blog for the first time, I am a four-year expat living on the coast of Ecuador, in the town Olón, but now on a two month trip to Europe (primarily Germany) to visit my daughters and grandchildren living here.

My daughter Kacie took some vacation time when I arrived in Germany a few weeks ago, to help me get acquainted with my surroundings, and the kids’ routines (Clara/3-yrs and Chloe/6-mo).

Then we took a wonderful 5 night/4 day jaunt to Prague, Czechoslovakia  – around 5-6 hours from here (not counting stops to change and feed kids).

We stayed in the luxurious “Royal Suite” at the Hotel Residence Retezova, located adjacent to the Bethlehem Chapel in Old Town Prague.  Our suite was on third floor, and had downstairs and upstairs living areas:  2 bedrooms, 2 baths, a fully stocked kitchen, a gorgeous high-beamed living room with fireplace, and the second level came appointed with a comfortable loft den, and an outdoor balcony overlooking the chapel – courtesy of my well-traveled brother, Jack (who has been to Prague) as a special treat for us. And what a treat it was!
Additionally, the staff there was wonderful and couldn't have been more accommodating, understanding, and helpful -- especially since we had such young children with us.

One view of the room

View of Bethlehem Chapel
from our outdoor balcony

Clara eyeballing the bidet for a drink

Prague is a stunningly beautiful city, with its many churches, castles, and spectacular architecture, but with a toddler in tow, and a nursing infant, we were only able to get a “taste” of the town, and somewhat limited to the sites we were able to see.  It is very much a “walkable” city, but not so much with one in a stroller, and a nursing baby in a carrier.

Another challenge was the language (I know virtually “nada” in German, and the Czech language and signs had me completely stymied. Fortunately, many Europeans speak English).  Also, although the Czech Republic is on the Euro currency system (and is accepted), the Czech “Koruna” was the preferred cash used in most shops, museums, and restaurants we visited, so I had to make several trips to local money exchange locations to trade in my Euros for that coinage…once again, all the paper bills in either currency looked like “play” money to me, and a little difficult for me to figure out exactly what I was spending from a dollar perspective.

And may I also say – it’s been quite an adjustment to be in these surrounding after four years of living in the little fishing village of Olón, Ecuador...bit of a culture shock.

One of the first sites we headed out to see was the medieval astronomical clock located in Old Town Square. The clock was first installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still working.  Every hour, the clock chimes and four symbolic figures are set in motion, along with doors that open above the clock displaying the Apostles as they pass by. Crowds gather each hour in the square below and neighboring restaurant balconies to watch the presentation.

The Astronomical Clock

Old Town Square is just a fun place to hang out, with musicians and street-act performances (which reminded me somewhat of New Orleans and San Francisco scenes), and we went there often during our stay, (usually enjoying cappuccinos in the plaza, but one afternoon we enjoyed the view and lunch from the terrace balcony of the “Hotel U Prince” hotel).

The Charles Bridge, which crosses the Vltava River, was another one of our favorite places to hang out.  There are towers on both sides, and around 30 statues (baroque-style, originally erected around 1700 but now all replaced by replicas; the originals have been placed in the National Museum –according to Wikipedia) line either side of the bridge. 

Along the bridge are various art, craft, jewelry kiosks, and once again, assorted musicians.  It also provides a great view of the city, in particular, Prague Castle on the hill above it.

Kacie was carrying the baby in her chest-snuggle, I was generally pushing the stroller. I definitely have some spatial disorientation regarding the front wheels of that contraption, and several times accidentally bumped into other peoples’ feet, and ran over a few ankles with it, which really pissed off at least one lady, despite my profuse apologies.

Legend has it that if you rub the golden dog,
you are assured of returning to Prague.
So, of course, we rubbed him.

Adjacent to the dog, is the woman.
Most people rub her too.
Presumably..ummm... just to touch her butt.

One day we headed across the Charles Bridge to see the Prague Castle. The Guinness Book of Records lists Prague Castle as the largest ancient castle in the world.
We first stopped at a riverside café for lovely lunch, and Clara had a chance to throw bread at the ducks while we ate.

The café where we had lunch one day

Nearby the café where we dined (I believe in Malá Strana district of the Vltava, near a water wheel) were “love locks” on a small pedestrian bridge, which I found charming. It’s a bit of a hike uphill to see the castle, made even more challenging pushing the buggy.

A “love lock” or “love padlock” is a padlock 
which sweethearts
 lock to a bridge, fence, gate, or similar public fixture
 to symbolize their everlasting love,
 often throwing the key into the river.

The Prague Castle grounds were breathtaking. Though we bought the full-tour tickets, we arrived too late in the afternoon to see all of the buildings, and a number of areas were not accessible with a stroller.

St. Nicholaus Church

Clara enjoying the "bubble guy"
Lots of folks stopped to take her picture

I also wanted to see the Old Jewish Cemetery, and we went there late the second afternoon to check out the hours. As it turned out, it was the last time it would be open during our trip because of a two-day Jewish holiday that began the next day.  So the kids went back to the room while I raced around it for one hour before closing time to see as much as I could.

According to Wiki, “It was in use from the early 15th century (the oldest preserved tombstone, the one of Avigdor Kara, dates back to 1439) until 1787”.  Because burial space was limited, the cemetery soil was stratified, bodies were buried on top of each other, with the previous tombstones moved to the top level each time.

“The numbers of grave stones and number of people buried there are uncertain, because there are layers of tombs. However, it has been estimated that there are approximately 12,000 tombstones presently visible, and there may be as many as 100,000 bodies buried in all”.

Another place I wanted to see was a small museum my brother raved about after his first trip to Prague because of its fascinating (though grim) history.  I had a few hours our last afternoon (without kids) to go see it.

It is located in the church of St. CharlesBorro-meaus (also known in past as Orthodox Church – Saints Cyril and Method).  The crypt was the last hide out/last stand and refuge of Czech patriots/paratroopers who carried out the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (acting Nazi “head of state” during the Czech occupation). I believe there were about 15 men who took their last stand there, when they were betrayed by a coward who was in on the plot initially. They were surrounded by 800 Gestapo soldiers, and each Czech patriot fought to their death – or committed suicide - rather than surrender. The Nazi’s retribution for this conflict was severe (two Czech towns were annihilated and more than a thousand brave Czech men, women, and children were eventually executed for their participation for helping the resistance fighters). Having the opportunity to leisurely tour this museum was very moving experience.

Taken by friendly Spaniard guy I met on my way
to the find the "Krypt". I took one for him too.
Charles Bridge in the background 

On our last afternoon/early evening, Kacie, the kids, and I walked back up the hill to the castle so we could take photos as the magical dusk glow bathed the city below.  Later we stopped at a charming outdoor café for a delicious last dinner on our way back to room (on the castle side, before Charles bridge).

I’ve driven through England, Scotland, spent a few days in Paris, and taken two really wonderful trips to lovely Amsterdam…but if I had my pick now to visit a European city again, it would be Prague.
It was a special trip, with my daughter and kids, and wonderful new memories to be forever shared with my family loved ones.

Taken our last evening in Prague