Is It Enough Yet?

Whenever there is a mass shooting, I feel like I have been punched in the gut.  That sick feeling alternates from pain in my chest to churning in my stomach.  It is as physical as it is emotional. This most recent shooting in Dayton, OH coming so quickly on the heels of the El Paso shooting felt sickeningly worse.  Our connections to Dayton run deep. Dayton was our home for 8 happy years.  We brought our baby girls into the world in Dayton, our older daughter born less than a mile from where the shooting took place. My husband and I have hung out in the Oregon District.  This attack felt intensely personal.

Bryan Woolston / Reuters
The horror of these shootings is that even as we are heartbroken at the loss of life and the loss of innocence, we secretly look for ways to fool ourselves into thinking that it couldn't happen to us. It is our defense against the terror of these random acts of violence. We tell ourselves that there is no way it could happen in MY school, or MY community as if these terrible tragedies only target certain people in designated parts of the country. If the last 30 years has taught us anything (and it appears that it hasn't), it is that no one and no place is immune.

It is difficult for me to remember my adult life without the awareness of these mass shootings. When I was younger, I had a vague awareness of some post office shootings and a terrible McDonald's shooting, but it wasn't part of my daily thoughts. The first one I vividly remember happened in 1991 in a Luby's restaurant in Killeen, Texas. A man drove his truck into a crowded Luby's and started randomly shooting. He killed 23 people and injured 27 others in an unspeakable attack. I lived in Houston, Texas at the time and ate at a Luby's Cafeteria quite often.  There wasn't a time that I didn't think about the shooting when I walked in the door of that restaurant. It led to some bouts of anxiety.  I worked in a large mall at the time and whenever there was a loud noise or sudden movement of people, I had a surge of panic.  I started paying more attention to exit signs and looking for places to hide should I need to. 

By the time Columbine unfolded in 1999 (13 killed), we were all growing increasingly familiar with the phenomenon of public shootings, but not the horror of our schools being the targets. It was inconceivable that the safe space of our schools had been pierced in such a vivid, nightmarish, and well planned out way.  More followed and we realized that our schools would never be the same.

Then the Virginia Tech massacre happened in 2007 (32 killed). Suddenly the feeling of college as a safe and carefree place was also now in question.  Sure, we could try to rationalize it as the isolated acts of a madman (which it was), but it was also a chipping away of the accepted norms of our lives. The Aurora theater shooting happened in 2012 (12 killed) and as we mourned all the victims, we also mourned the loss of one more place where we couldn't assume we were safe. I recall talking to my daughters about looking for exits, paying attention to their surroundings, and running away to avoid being shot.  By then, they were very accustomed to intruder and active shooter drills at school.  These drills were sadly as commonplace as the fire and tornado drills of our youth.

And then, good Lord-- Sandy Hook happened later that year.  As I was out enjoying a sunny day of Christmas shopping, 27 people (including 20 heartbreakingly young children) were being slaughtered. I cried in my van when I heard the initial news reports and then I sobbed as the more vivid details emerged.  I was gutted for days. How could this possibly happen to our youngest and most vulnerable of students? Hadn't schools been "hardened" and made safe with cameras, controlled access points, locked doors, and intruder drills? I pictured those innocent young faces and the brave school personnel who did their best to stop the attack, but who were no match to the sick mind and gunpower of one individual with a twisted purpose.  I knew in my heart that if any good was to come from this unimaginable horror, it would be that we would finally act and do something concrete to stop the madness.  Regrettably, we did not...

Shannon Hicks—Newtown Bee/Polaris
The assault continued-
San Bernadino 2015 (14 killed),
Charleston Church shooting 2015 (9 killed),
Pulse Nightclub 2016 (49 killed),
Las Vegas Strip 2017 (58 killed),
Texas First Baptist Church 2017 (26 killed),
Parkland school shooting 2018 (17 killed),
Santa Fe High School 2018 (10 killed),
Tree of Life synagogue (11 killed),
Thousand Oaks nightclub 2018 (12 killed),
Virginia Beach municipal building 2019 (12 killed),
Gilroy Garlic Festival (3 killed),
and finally the most recent racially-motivated shootings at a Walmart in El Paso (22 killed).
This isn't even close to an exhaustive list.  There are so many more, and yet still no concrete action. It is frustrating, disheartening, and demoralizing.  I cannot begin to imagine how it must feel to be a family member of one of the victims- how devastating to think that your son or daughter died in vain. 

Callaghan O'hare / Reuters
So since 1991, we have "learned" that there is no such thing as a safe place.  Our restaurants, movie theaters, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, universities, workplaces, night clubs, places of worship, music festivals, food festivals, Walmarts, grocery store, nursing homes, vacation destinations, hotels, air force bases, post offices, and pretty much any place where there are people are ALL vulnerable.  This shield that I imagined protecting me does not exist. There is no target too big or too small, no space off-limits, no community untouched. And while I understand that concept intellectually, in my heart I still thought that maybe there was a bubble where this could not happen.  Watching the scene unfold in Dayton, a place of such fond memories and kind people, shattered whatever tiny piece of my heart that still believed in safe places. As the shootings have chipped away at our sense of security, the inaction that followed chipped away at our trust and belief in our fellow citizens and our government to make the shootings stop. 

We can continue to argue about the causes of these horrible shootings- mental health, video games, laws, prayers, access to guns, types of guns, exposure to violence- and do nothing. We can parse words about which shootings are really mass shootings, and argue about which party is most responsible. We can continue to get lost in the "they are coming for our guns" argument. We can allow our schools and communities to be increasingly terrorized by the possibility of a mass shooting and we can watch people continue to die while we offer our well-meaning vigils, thoughts, and prayers. Or, we can do something, ANYTHING that might help.  Few major problems have one singular solution. This one is no different.  Every one of these victims and their family members deserve our deepest sympathies, our most earnest thoughts and prayers, and our collective action to make sure this never happens again.  

Into Every Life Some Rain Must Fall

The clouds started building as they have so often in recent weeks.  Dark storm clouds piled up on the horizon threatening rain.  I tracked the changing conditions from my vantage point of the salon chair. Each time the chair spun me around, the darkness grew more pronounced. Thunder rumbled and finally, the clouds released what they had been threatening.  A deluge of rain turned the air almost white.  Torrents of rain created instant ponds and a flowing river through the parking lot.  I would not be leaving anytime soon so I welcomed the time to visit with my hair stylist. As we watched and waited, the rain continued its assault on the parking lot and the water swirled and rushed around the cars.  And then just as suddenly as the rain had started, it stopped.  The skies started clearing and the parking lot became passable once again.  It was safe for me to go outside.

As I drove home, I was surprised by how quickly the rainwater seemed to dissipate. The overwhelming rain of thirty minutes ago was already finding its way. Small streams of water flowed along the roadways, drainage ditches were already doing their job of whisking away the water.  The pathways of water, both natural and manmade, were amazingly effective. The process was so good that I started to wonder if it had rained as hard as I thought where I was driving.  But then I would hit an epic puddle that would demand that I slow down and proceed with caution.  Occasionally, I would hit a puddle going a little faster than I wanted to and I would underestimate the depth.  The great wave of water would splash up onto my windshield obscuring my vision for a few seconds.  Sometimes other cars would be the culprit.  The stream of water would hit my windshield with a startling thud.  By the time I got home, the sun had made an appearance.  The remaining signs of rain were subtle, puddles and the sound of draining water, but nothing as significant as I would have expected after such a storm.

As I observed the rain and its aftermath, I sensed a deeper meaning. My brain and my heart were making deeper connections. The rainstorm seemed to be an obvious metaphor for my grief and for other difficulties. And oddly, it was comforting.

The initial wave of grief is overwhelming and stops you in your tracks much like the deluge of rain.

You never know when it is going to end, or how bad it is going to be.

Sometimes you need to stop and seek shelter for a while until conditions improve.

Friends can make a difficult moment so much better.

Just as rainwater finds its way, so does life.  Life goes on whether you feel ready or not.

The pathways of water are much like the routines of life. They channel your grief and keep you moving along.

Just as you hit some unexpected puddles when driving, you will hit some unexpected emotional landmines when you are going through your days.  The depth of emotion may be surprising and sometimes it will be someone else who causes the unexpected emotional reaction.

Just because there isn't any obvious storm damage doesn't mean a storm didn't happen. Although things may look relatively normal to others, that image isn't always consistent with how you feel inside. 

And thankfully, just as the sun comes out unexpectedly after a storm, so does the light return again to your life.  It may not be consistent, and it may come and go, but each time the light appears it is an encouragement that life will be normal again. 

 There have been a lot of storms this year, both actual and metaphorical.  I am looking forward to a break from the rain and some much-needed peace. I am hopeful that we will see an extended period of sunshine, but I can already see a few clouds forming on the horizon. Time will tell whether or not they will produce new storms or just some passing showers.  In either case, I hope I continue to learn and grow from the experiences. And always keep looking for the sun!

"Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;

Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Slow Goodbye

My mom turned 84 a little over a month ago. It was a milestone worth celebrating. When I visited with her in November I sadly thought she had a 50/50 chance of still being alive by April. When I saw her in March, I thought the odds had gotten even worse. Truth be told, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer 13 years ago only weeks after my dad had died, I never thought she would live to be 84.  I didn't necessarily think she would die from the disease, but just from the combined trauma of it all. But somehow she persevered and has continued to do so, overcoming obstacles and fighting to live on her own until just a few weeks ago. Her extraordinarily strong will may have finally met its match. 

Like many mother and daughters, our relationship has been complicated. Neither one of us met the expectation that we had of each other.  She wanted a daughter who lived close to her, who could be her go-to girlfriend and support person- unfortunately, I never lived closer than 1000 miles away. I wanted my mother to be an active, engaged part of my adult life. Instead, because she didn't like to travel she visited me only a handful of times during my almost 30-year marriage.  Sometimes expectations are hard to let go of. But given the obstacles, we have pressed ahead as mothers and daughters do. We tried to bridge the distance- physical and otherwise- as best we could. Sometimes we succeeded and sometimes we failed. 

A few weeks ago I got the call. The declining health that we had been so concerned about had finally come to a head. She had long been ignoring her doctor's concerns and had rejected any testing or treatment that would confirm a diagnosis. Calls ensued, my brother took the necessary action, and ultimately the decision was made to start hospice care.  I flew down a few days later to help and to spend time with my mom. She was frail and weaker than she had been even a month earlier and clearly needed help. I tried to do what I could. In a flurry of activity, we located important papers, made decisions on care, consulted with medical professionals, talked to the insurance company, arranged in-home care, made her house easier to use, cleaned, shopped, cooked, and I took my turn as primary caregiver mode.

There is no manual to walk you through this process. It is a titanic shift in roles. My focus on my mom was not unlike that of an infant or toddler- feeding her when she was hungry, helping her with her bathroom needs, making sure she didn’t fall, assisting with bathing and dressing.  I slept on a couch in the room with her so I could be there if she needed anything.  I slept with one eye and one ear open just as new mothers do. Somehow we found humor and light in unusual places because that’s what you have to do to survive. There were dark moments, overwhelming times in the middle of the night where I didn't think I could do it. Well timed text messages and emails offered encouragement.  Talking helped. My brother and I talked a lot about her care but we also took time to share old stories and talk about family nicknames and folklore, and we laughed. My sister arrived and we curled up in bed and talked and planned and laughed and shook our heads at the sadness of all of it.  I marvel at the resilience of the human spirit and the ability to do that which you never thought yourself capable of doing. 

As we figured out 24-hour care for her and saw some stability in her physical condition; we started to pay more attention to some cognitive changes. There had been some previous behaviors that were on our radar- stories that didn’t seem completely true, increased difficulty making decisions and managing her checkbook, incorrectly reading social cues. Perhaps because we were more focused on her physical decline, we didn’t really register the mental decline as significant. It was easy to explain it all away. Once I was there, I noted a few unusual changes in her behavior such as no longer watching tv or being extra sensitive to lights and sounds. I started noticing some periods of confusion. They would be most apparent after sleeping. She would have difficulty separating dreams from reality, but only for a short time, and given the amount of time she was sleeping it made sense to me that she would be confused. As I said, it is much easier to explain it away than to accept. 

At some point, my mom started asking questions. At first, I thought she was being philosophical- "how did I get here, what’s wrong with me"- but I soon realized that she was being literal. While these episodes were not the norm, I could see that they were happening more often than I had originally thought. I could almost see the clouds start to form in her mind. She would start blinking rapidly as if to clear her vision from whatever fog was descending on her brain. As sad as the physical decline had been, it was nothing compared to the heartbreak of the mental decline. It is perhaps our wishful thinking to assume that the patient is somehow shielded from the horror of this by virtue of their own fogginess. Perhaps in time, that will be true, but what I witnessed was someone who was keenly aware that something was terribly wrong but who couldn't quite get her brain to tell her what it was. When she started to say "I want out of here", she was not saying (as I had tried to convince myself) she wanted to go outside. I imagine she was saying she wanted out of this time and place where her brain was failing her at a rate quicker than her body. There is nothing to be done in those moments other than to reassure and try to explain what was happening. Even in the best of circumstances, it would be difficult to explain how a person went from living independently to needing 24/7 care in a matter of days, but adding the layer of mental uncertainty made it infinitely more difficult to explain. 

We are now in a race against time. We don’t know when the race will end. We don’t know if the physical decline will outpace the mental decline. In the end, there is little I can do besides provide her with good quality care and pray for her. I pray that God will be merciful, even as I know that millions of other families have prayed that same prayer without seeing the result they hope for. I do it anyway because it is the most and the least that I can do. In reality, we are already grieving. Even though my mom is still alive, we know what is coming and we can already feel the loss of her slipping away.  We understand that the best of times have already passed, and we grieve for what will never be. We are thankful for what we still have, but are broken-hearted at what we have already lost. We will continue on the long journey to acceptance. Thank you to those who are accompanying us with your prayers and words of encouragement. They are greatly appreciated.

Thank You Spring!

Spring, glorious spring- here at last! Each year I wait impatiently for the arrival of spring. Although the weather this winter has been bearable- our winter days have not been spent buried under layers of snow and ice like a few years ago, nor have we been subjected to a surprise string of March nor'easters like last year- I still find myself longing for the longer, warmer, sunnier days of spring. The extended period of cold, and persistent winter rain has taken its toll.  I am biding my time until the new season asserts itself with convincing clarity.

Perhaps more than the meteorological winter, the psychological winter has left its mark.  Spending months dealing with a nagging injury that turned into a more permanent problem, and coming to terms with the decline of my mother's health has made for a long, cold, and dark season. Spring is the season of light, rebirth, and renewal and that is what I crave right now.  I need to feel the warmth of the healing sun on my skin. I desire the energy of new life that comes from the blooming of long-dormant trees and flowers.  I yearn for the fresh wind of renewal that sweeps through and cleanses the air.  Can that energy and wind renew my mom's health? Can the healing sunshine restore the broken areas of my body? Sadly the answer in both cases is no, but the newness of spring always refreshes and restores my soul. 

 I look out my window and observe the mounting evidence of spring approaching- bulbs poking through the earth and buds swelling on the trees. When I go out in the morning, I am hyper-aware of the changes.  The air smells different.  The birds are starting to chirp.  The grass is turning green again and even the weeds are sprouting! My dog senses the changes too.  He wants to linger outside and sniff the ground and the air.  I wonder if he smells the same smell that I do- the distinct mix of earth and growth and dampness that signals spring almost before you can feel it. I watch the sun inch higher in the sky and I test for warmth from the sun's rays when I am outside. The lengthening days give me a needed boost of energy. When I am no longer bundled against the cold, I feel an extra bounce to my step.
 Spring will come.
 Spring is coming.
 Everything changes in spring. 

Everything changes and nothing changes.  My problems are still present.   My concerns have not gone away.  But somehow with the promise of spring, I am better able to accept and to cope with the realities of life. I am reminded that winter always ends- both the meteorological and the psychological. I am thankful that God gives us that gift. Renewal is always available- spring is our much-needed reminder of how beautiful it looks and feels to be renewed and refreshed.  The day will come when our bodies are healed and restored, but until then I will revel in the daily restoration of my soul.  Thank you Spring!

Moving Truck Blues

Unusual noise and chaos woke me up early this past weekend.   It didn't take long for my sleepy eyes to see a large moving truck parked just down the street. With it was an array of activity- packers carrying in supplies, movers transporting boxes in and out of the garage, multiple vehicles parked in the street.  Watching the scene unfold caused an immediate reaction- pardon the phrase, but I was triggered! An avalanche of memories and feelings flooded my brain. Moving day- ugh!!!

I have been on the other side of that moving truck a time or two, the first time nearly 30 years ago and the last time almost 8 years ago. The emotions still lurk just under the surface. It is one thing to pack up your own items and move across town, and entirely another to watch someone else load all of your belongings into a truck, prepare to drive over a thousand miles, and say "see you on the other end"! Although it is without a doubt a huge blessing to have professional movers, it is also an unpleasant opportunity to come face to face with any control issues.  Am I supposed to be okay with strangers packing up everything I own (and I do mean everything!) and driving the contents across the country, on their own, without my input? Yikes! With every move, there is at least one guaranteed moment of panic where I have had to come to terms with the idea that I may never see my belongings again. The truck may wreck, the movers may abscond with my treasures, the storage facility may burn down, a natural disaster may strike- all possible, but not probable scenarios. Once I have accepted that everything most important to me is usually with me, then I can relax.  All else is replaceable. And as I have watched dozens and dozens of boxes load into an impossibly big truck, I am keenly aware of the abundance and somewhat embarrassed at all that I don't really "need".

These movers have a tough job.  Not only are they packing up the contents of our homes, but they are also packing up a cornucopia of our special memories. Yes, there are bins of old baby clothes too precious to part with, and boxes of faded mementos from high school, and albums of family photos from years gone by- all precious.  But it is the stuff that doesn't fit in the boxes that is harder to pack away.  The excitement of building our first home together, the carefully decorated nursery we brought our babies home to, the hallway where our little girls learned to walk, the summer cookouts with the neighbors down the street, the shared holidays with neighbors who became family, the beautiful music being played in the living room as the girls practiced their instruments, the hours spent climbing trees and exploring the woods by our home. This stuff doesn't fit into boxes, but the movers are unwilling participants in packing away those memories too.

Although not a single box existed with the words written on the side, the moving truck is also heavy with our hopes and dreams. It is rare that we have lived somewhere with the idea that we would soon move.  Each time we moved to a new place we thought and hoped that it would be forever (or at least a very long time).  Once we decided to move on, there were lots of dreams for the future that had to be set aside.  We have had to make peace with the idea that our kids wouldn't graduate with childhood friends we were so fond of, that we wouldn't have the opportunity to grow older side by side with our friends as we once joked, that our kids wouldn't always be friends with the ones they grew up with, our daughters would not be married in the church we attended.  Future events that we once dreamed about would not happen the way we once thought and we would need time to grieve those losses.

The moving van was also full of our anxiety and trepidation for the future.  Before we made that long journey to our next destination, we usually had not had a lot of time to get used to it.  Trips to look at houses and frequent internet searches provided the briefest sense of what the new place would be like. Most times we have moved without having a new home on the other end, which made future planning difficult. When I tried to imagine and anticipate the future, it was like trying to look into the distance without my glasses on.  I could see something out there, but it was out of focus and not easily recognizable. The blank spots in that vision were disconcerting, the gaps in the foreseeable future seemed immense.

And those hard working movers may not have realized that they were also entrusted with the most important box I had. As the final boxes were loaded and secured, I carefully handed them the small box filled with the new prayers and wishes for our future- hopes I could barely whisper, dreams I couldn't yet see, a future that I dared to be optimistic about.  The box was packed to the top with the tiny bubble of excitement that comes with every move, every answered prayer, and every prayer lifted up with expectation.  This box doesn't always get opened right away, but how joyous it felt when I could once again start to dream new dreams.

Every move has a moment when you become painfully aware that you have been irrevocably ripped out of your comfortable old life and thrust into a new mostly unknown land.  Stepping into your new life is very much like being thrown out of a boat into dark water without a life preserver.  Take a deep breath, try not to panic, and breathe! On our last move, I vividly remember pulling into the parking lot of our new temporary housing after a long, emotional, and harrowing cross country drive.  Recovering from unexpected surgery and exhausted by the emotions of saying goodbye, I wearily got out of the van with a deep sign.  Before I could really take in the rest of my surroundings, I was distracted by the brightest full moon.  It seemed bigger, more vivid, and somehow closer than normal. In that very moment, I felt a strong sense of peace. We-my friends and family near and far- were all looking at the same moon, under the same big sky, with the same (even bigger) God.  My view might have changed, but my world had not. The world seemed slightly less lonely and foreign that night.  

It would be a few months before we saw that big moving truck pull up to our new home, a few months before we were reunited with all of our possessions that we had missed, and the many we had already forgotten about. The movers unloaded what seemed like an endless parade of boxes into our new home.  As we began to unpack them all, I was careful not to open the box of old hopes and dreams- that box would need to remain sealed for a long time- too painful to revisit.  After endless days of unpacking and setting up our new home, I sat in my study one afternoon with windows open and listened to the sound of children playing outside and strains of music drifting from somewhere I couldn't see.  A soft breeze blew in fresh air and a feeling of optimism.  I still didn't know how it would all turn out, but I was finally ready to open that special box of my new prayers and wishes for the future. It was time for new hopes and dreams.

My Word of the Year

I am not one to make New Year's resolutions, but in recent years I have chosen a word of the year.  This word is a way to focus my thoughts and actions and guide my behavior for the year ahead.  I don't like to pick a word just because it is January 1st, I prefer to let the word find me. As it turns out, the word was close to me the whole time! A necklace I bought a few months ago led me to my word.
The word is peace.

This would not be the first time that I have focused on peace. I have spent a great part of my life searching for peace in different ways. It has often been the focus of my thoughts and the desire of my prayers. It can be elusive at certain times and as close and comforting as a warm blanket at others. But in an increasingly loud and fractured world, it is what I most crave.  Peace from the chaos, peace from the arguing and disagreement that takes place in nearly every public forum, peace from the bitter divide that exists in our country, peace in the near and far reaches of the world, peace in my family, peace in my heart, and most importantly peace in my soul. Without peace in my soul, the rest will not matter.

So, what can I do to create more peace in my life?

First, I can change my thoughts. 
The year ahead will be full of many changes and challenges- some already known, some not yet imagined. It is all too easy to let the stress and uncertainty of life steal our joy, and rob us of our peace. When life starts to feel scary and out of control, and our minds race and we begin to imagine the worst, we can remember that we control our thoughts.  I can make the decision to stop the negative flow of thoughts and choose peaceful ones. 

Second, I can change my interactions. 
I accept that I can not bring about world peace.  But, I surely have the ability to bring peace to my personal world. The way I interact with others changes when I use peace as my guide. I can choose to bring fire or peace to any encounter. I cannot bring peace if my heart is full of anger and resentment.  I  bring fire if my words are harsh, and my tone is disagreeable.  I can bring peace to my interactions if I listen with understanding, practice compassion over judgment, and express kindness instead of anger.  These days a smile, a kind word, and a thank you can go a long way.

In addition to changing how I interact with others, I also have to be aware of how people are interacting with me. Clearly, I have much less control over that side of the equation. And while it isn't always possible or practical to avoid people or situations that leave me feeling less than peaceful, I can still choose my response. Instead of arguing or raging right along with them, I can decide to react peacefully and try to quietly change their response.  It is a tall order, but definitely something to aspire to. 

Thirdly, I can change what I consume.
What I "consume" is an essential part of what is in my mind and heart.  Choosing well makes a difference. It is too easy to be swallowed up by the negative culture of the world around us. If my diet consists of angry news shows, snarky commentary, and gossipy exchanges; then I am less likely to exhibit peaceful tendencies.  If I make a conscious decision to be more selective in what I consume, then my likelihood of reflecting the same goes up.  Peace in, peace out...

And lastly,
when peace seems impossible,
and my circumstances seem wildly out of control,
and my mind cannot be quieted,
and I don't know what else to do,
I know that I can rely on my faith.  Having peace in my soul is only possible with God.
Acknowledging my limitations, conceding that I am not in charge of everything, and
accepting that God is-

That is the surefire path to peace.

I may spend the next 50 years continuing to search for peace. And I may keep trying and failing to add more peace to my world, but in the end, I know that God's peace is the only one that really matters.

We're Not in Kansas Anymore... Twelve Observations from Abroad

 I survived my first trip out of the country! Visiting Spain, France, and Italy was a dream come true. Covering that much territory in 10 days necessitated an ambitious travel schedule that involved planes, trains, automobiles, and copious amounts of walking. And most importantly-planning! Thankfully my husband's experience with travel and his attention to detail allowed the rest of us to not worry too much about the details and just enjoy the experience. What a gift!

Nice, France

One of the best parts of traveling is exploring new cultures and lifestyles. Being outside of your comfort zone can be an intense experience. During our travels, there were several things that I found surprising, confusing, interesting, or just downright different.  Some of these differences were positive, others not as much.  Here are some of my observations:

Airports- We traveled through a few airports on this trip.  The boarding process is always an interesting experience but it was more so in other countries. I quickly realized that I could not understand any of the boarding announcements so I would have to observe the crowd to see what to do next.  The people waiting in the boarding area all seemed to stand up at the same time and press forward to the gate agent. What I didn't know was that the line up wasn't to board the plane, but to board a bus that took us to our plane! If there was order to the process I did not see it- seemed like a free for all. I did not love being crammed onto a bus before loading the plane, but somehow everyone found their seat without incident.   

Packing- We did our best to pack as lightly as we could for a 10-day trip, but we still needed a medium size bag for each of us. This caused an issue every time we took a taxi or rented a car because the cars are so very small!  European cars are not designed to hold American luggage. We felt positively gluttonous with the quantity of our luggage but cannot imagine taking any less.  I am not sure how Europeans do it, but they must pack differently or else they own some kind of magic suitcases.  I read all the packing tips- these must be the people who write the articles of how to pack for 3 weeks in a duffle bag! 

Security- While wandering around the airports and cities, I did not notice the same number of law enforcement officers that I would typically see in comparable places.  However, the ones we saw were dressed in military gear, with very intimidating automatic looking weapons held at the ready. There may not have been as many, but the ones who were there made their presence known! I was definitely inspired to be on my best behavior :-).

Florence, Italy

Sidewalks/roads- One of the most unexpected experiences I had was being frequently confused by the difference between a road and a sidewalk.  Walkways that were covered with pedestrians would suddenly turn into a road when a car randomly appeared.  It didn't seem to matter how narrow the walkway, and how many people were on it, at some point in time a car or motorcycle would use it as a road. The upside is that I really enjoyed the ability to walk everywhere.  The downside-I was convinced that one of us would unknowingly walk into the path of a vehicle. Occasionally, the obstacle would be a train or tram going down the middle of the road.  We really had to pay attention!

Driving- Narrow roads, small cars, fast drivers, and unfamiliar street signs made for some interesting drives.  A few white knuckle taxi rides reminded me how much I appreciate lane markers and the general concept of lanes.  I'm surprised anyone in Italy still has side view mirrors on their cars! And I knew to expect more roundabouts (or traffic circles if you'd rather), but wow, I never imagined so many! The interstate type roads were much better and easier to navigate, but not being able to read the signs added an interesting element of "fun" trying to decipher the meaning. I'm still not sure what the Italian sign with double humps meant, but it was everywhere!

Bathrooms/toilets- My daughter had warned me that I would see a variety of bathrooms in Europe.  She was so right! Every bathroom trip required a few moments of analysis to figure out how things worked. Many public restrooms charged a fee so the confusion often started before entering.  The next surprise was usually the toilet. I have never seen such variety! Low profile, sometimes with toilet seats and sometimes not, multiple buttons for flushing (or the occasional floor pedal), sometimes a bidet, unisex public restrooms- you just never knew. I grew to appreciate the streamlined toilet with flushing buttons on the wall, but I was happy to return to "normal" bathrooms.  

Hairdryers- We did not pack a hairdryer due to space and voltage concerns. I won't say that was a mistake, but I did encounter a lot of subpar hairdryers (even worse than in the US).  For someone who relies on a good hairdryer for styling, this was a bit of an issue.  Almost all required you to hold the button the entire time to keep them on.  One was barely warm, one would overheat and shut off every few minutes, one produced a light breeze, one would almost burn your head once it got going.  None of them produced great results, but for once I was thankful that I did not have a lot of long, curly hair to style!

Dinner- No one seemed to be in a particular rush to eat.  Dinner started much later and went much longer. Food was to be savored and meals to be enjoyed which was lovely except when you were in any kind of a hurry!  Food typically came out more slowly in courses, wine was the rule not the exception, dessert and/or coffee were a leisurely event.  No check was ever presented until we asked and that was even if we had been there for hours and the restaurant was closing! It was an adjustment, but it felt good to make dinner out more of a special event. 

Food- I was expecting good food and I was not disappointed, but I was surprised by the quantity and variety of meats on the menus.  I don't eat a lot of meat, so finding something without meat was more of a challenge than I expected.  I didn't anticipate the many ways one could serve  Iberian ham, prosciutto, tripe, wild boar, pigeon, and all kinds/parts of beef! Breakfast was also a gamble. If you ordered the "American" breakfast, it would usually include familiar items in an atypical preparation like bacon that was boiled, or eggs loaded with mushrooms.  In Spain, the local breakfast was very meaty.  In France, breakfast included lots of pastries or meat sandwiches.  In Italy, we had our own kitchen so we opted for eggs, fresh fruit, baguette, and prosciutto. In general, the markets were filled with incredible fresh food so if you could shop and cook that was the best option. 

La Boqueria, Barcelona, Spain

Fast Food- I have to say I was surprised by the proliferation of fast food in other countries.  I can't even tell you how many McDonalds, Burger Kings, and KFCs we saw!  Barcelona probably had the most outlets, but they were present everywhere we went.  Right outside the ancient walled village of Pisa (home of the Leaning Tower of Pisa) was a McDonalds!  Bizarre that this is a trend given that the overall quality level and appreciation of food is so high.

Language Difference- I have never been so thankful for the foreign language requirements in high school and college! Between the four of us, we had some knowledge of French, Spanish, and Latin. It didn't necessarily help us with speaking, but it was very beneficial when it came to reading signs, menus, instructions, etc... Once we got to Italy, we had run out of relevant language experience but that is when we started to appreciate the similarities between languages and our communal knowledge (including Latin) served us well.  I am also very thankful that other countries speak English as well as they do.  With the exception of one taxi driver, we never had a problem with someone not being able to speak or understand enough English to get by. 

Similarities- Perhaps the greatest observation was that people are people.  It really didn't matter where we went- people were kind and helpful when needed.  These days it is easy to believe that people from other countries would be "foreign" in some way, but it was clear that even though they did some things differently, they were still doing the same things we all do.  Earning a living, spending time with their families, celebrating the holidays, enjoying meals together, driving places, buying groceries, doing laundry, going to school. There was something comforting about knowing that people on the other side of the world basically care about the exact same things we do.  It gave me hope. It really is a small world. 

Traveling to other countries is eye-opening. Putting yourself in the middle of an unfamiliar land, where people speak a different language forces you to adjust your perspective. Perhaps we aren't the center of the universe, and maybe the way we do things isn't necessarily the only (or the best) way. Seeing another way of life prompts deep questions if you allow yourself to be humble and consider the possibilities of a different way.  I am thankful for the opportunity and hope to carry memories of my travels with me as I go through life.  


Previous Post

Moving Truck Blues

Unusual noise and chaos woke me up early this past weekend.   It didn't take long for my sleepy eyes to see a large moving truck parked ...