Powerscourt: Surprised by Beauty

For the next few months I am writing about my first trip to Ireland in the summer of 1997. You can read the first post here where I talk about my first encounter with Dublin, the city that would claim my heart.

I found this ticket tucked in my journal from the trip.

We were on our way from Dublin and making our way, slowly, to Waterford (with many wonderful stops along the way). Our first stop was at a very innocuous looking tourist attraction, Powerscourt Estate. It doesn’t look like much from the entrance, a great, old house, but nothing fancy.

This is the entrance but is the back of the house

The entrance to Powerscourt Gardens is actually the back of the house.

But once you’re through to the front of the house, you can understand why National Geographic has called this beautiful place one of the top gardens in the entire world. The back view of the house is stunning!

Ireland's Magnificent Powerscourt Gardens and Waterfall

Not only is it beautiful, but it is often used in movies! The one that really took me off guard came out a few years after my trip, in 2002. I was watching the amazing movie The Count of Monte Cristo, and there was something about the Count’s castle that I knew I’d seen before but just couldn’t put my finger on. I was in the movie theater thinking to myself, I know that place. How do I know that place? 

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But then, I saw this scene, and I knew instantly how I knew where I had seen this “castle.”

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Forgive the poor quality of this photo that I snapped using my phone while watching the movie tonight.

I know it seems like strange thing to trigger a memory. This is the scene when the count lands during his first party at his new house. The camera pans down to his feet, and the stones form a very memorable pattern for me. Immediately after watching the movie, I went home and grabbed the photo album from Ireland and searched until I found this photo of my mother I’d taken at Powerscourt Gardens.

And sure enough – years later when I became more familiar with all the internet had to offer, I looked it up, and sure enough, Powerscourt Estate was used for the outdoor scenes of the count’s castle in the movie. If you’ve never seen the movie before, I strongly recommend it even though it is INCREDIBLY inaccurate from the book. It’s well done, and inspired me to read the book.

But anyway… back to Powerscourt.

The gardens go on forever! I believe it is well over 70 acres of land that has been meticulously kept up over several hundreds of years. Though the house was built in the 13 century, it underwent several renovations, even enduring a fire in the 1970s.  The gardens were constructed in the 1800s by the 7th Viscount Powerscourt.

My mother kept several keepsakes from the trip and gave them to me when she found out I was writing this blog series. In there was a map of Powerscourt Gardens.

Here are several pictures of the garden in bloom.

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A keep on the far end of the property afford an excellent view of the gardens and house. However, my fear of heights kept me firmly on the ground.

Near the gardens is the Powerscourt Waterfall, which is the tallest waterfall in all of Ireland. My parents and I enjoyed spending time climbing the rocks and hiking around the waterfall that day. It was truly a wonderful find.

It is truly a hidden gem in Ireland, and I fear it is often overlooked. I hope that if you go to Ireland, you will make your way to Powerscourt to see its beauty for yourself!

For more information about Powerscourt Estate, click here.

Dublin: love at first sight

In June of 1997 I graduated from high school, and in July of 1997 I was on a plane bound for Dublin, Ireland.  While my friends back home were listening to Hansen, Verve, Oasis, and Chumbawamba, I was on the trip that would shoot my life on a distinct trajectory of wanderlust – specifically to Ireland. Last week I wrote briefly about the gift, and you can read about that here.

As a side note, please forgive the lack of decent photographs. It was 1997 after all, and all I have are the printed photographs that have faded and yellowed with age. Many of them are in a scrapbook that I started years ago, and you’ll see the edges of the things I wrote in the scrapbook along with my very terrible attempt at being crafty.

The first few days of our two week trip had us stationed just north of Dublin in a lovely bed and breakfast called Belcamp-Hutchinson. To the best of my knowledge, the B&B no longer operates. There weren’t any websites about it with updates since 2006 – so I think it’s safe to say that it is no longer operational. And that is truly unfortunate! The owner, Dorene, was a very kind woman who truly seemed to love her job as hostess, guide, and cook! While we were there (two nights) we had lovely breakfasts of fresh fruit, granola, and yogurt. She also served hot items, but my 18 year-old self was not particularly adventurous when it came to eating things I couldn’t easily identify.

Our first place to visit was Malahide Castle, and it was a lovely day, in the mid-sixties, and for the Irish, that was apparently a heatwave because people were out in droves. While back home we would have considered that a little on the chilly side, there where people on the beach and even swimming in the Irish Sea. The castle was quite beautiful, though I don’t remember much about it now. I don’t think we went inside, but the grounds were full of people walking around and lounging in the grass.

Next we took the bus into Dublin city where I got my first glimpse of the city I would come to love above all others. And there were probably two places that sealed the deal in my mind.

Trinity College

Situated right in the middle of Dublin is Trinity College, and it was postively the coolest thing I had ever seen before. Dublin was loud and crowded, but once we walked through the gate, the city vanished behind the great stone walls of the college. It was so beautiful and peaceful, I couldn’t believe we were still in the city.

I didn’t remember this, but when I looked back on the journal that I wrote while we were there, I learned that we were there during their graduation ceremonies. Because of this, we weren’t allowed everywhere, but because the college is such a tourist attraction for the city, they don’t close it down completely, even for commencement. We walked around the grounds for a while and saw some of the wonderfully iconic buildings.

And of course we went and saw the Book of Kells. As an adult I can appreciate the historical and religious significance, but I was surprised that when I read back through my journal that I was even impressed with its history back then. No photography is allowed, so I didn’t have any pictures to look back on, but I wrote extensively in my journal about the intricacies of the book.

For those who don’t know, the Book of Kells was compiled in the 9th century by Catholic monks, and is a hand penned copy of the four Gospels of the New Testament. However, they are so much more. Each book was copied down letter by letter (to avoid accidental alteration of the text), and it was also intricately illustrated by the monks as well.

Close by the Book of Kells is the Long Room Library, and of course I was in heaven there. The book nerd in me was fascinated by the floor to (very high) ceiling book cases that contained books that I was forbidden to touch. What is it about the forbidden that is so enticing?

St. Stephen’s Green

Cities are known for their parks, and though some cities may have grander parks that St. Stephen’s Green, I had not seen anything I loved quite so much as that beautiful bit of green and colorful flowers in the middle of Dublin. It truly isn’t much to speak of, but sometimes simplicity is all you need to enjoy something. Much like Trinity College, once you got within the walls of the park, the city seemed to fade away.

There were short trails over rocky terrain, creeks, ponds, ducks, and swans. There were fountains, sun, and shade. My heart felt full as we walked around enjoying the day along with native Dubliner’s, and I even caught a glimpse of the statue of the famous Oscar Wilde. Though I was surprisingly ignorant of who he was for someone who a few short months later would declare herself an English teaching major, I enjoyed his cocky smile and semi-recumbent statue that lounged on the outer edge of the park.

After leaving the oasis of St. Stephens, we did what most tourists do (and I advocate it for people in a new city), we got on a hop-on-hop-off bus that tours the city. We saw a huge section of the city that would have been impossible to traverse on foot in one day, and we had the expert knowledge of the bus’ tour guide to tell us all about the history of the city.

We passed through Phoenix Park and saw some of their legendary deer.

We also went by Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

And we even passed by the statue of Molly Malone, “the tart with the cart” as our guide called her. Constructed as a tribute to the famous Irish ballad that goes, in part:

In Dublin’s fair city
Where the girls are so pretty
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone
As she wheeled her wheelbarrow
Through the streets broad and narrow
Crying “cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh”

My dad got quite a kick out of that, as did several people on the bus trip.

We finished out our day touring the area around Grafton Street, which is shopping area where the streets are closed off to cars.  As a result, pedestrians, street performers, and flower girls all converge around some very high-end stores to make up a strange montage of elegance and commonplace.

 

Next week I will take you on the journey of the next few days of our trip: Powerscourt and Glendalough!


To read up on my trip to Italy and Greece, read these posts:

The Gift that Launched A Thousand Trips

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Photo by Aaditya Arora on Pexels.com

I am obsessed with traveling. I know this about myself, and people often point it out to me. I will see someone that I haven’t seen in a while, and often their first question is something like “So, where was your last adventure?” or “Where are you headed next?”

Sometimes people ask why I love to travel so much, and it makes me stop and think. I’d just kind of assumed that everyone had the same cravings to go and do and explore like I have. However, I’ve learned over the years that isn’t true. Some people hoard and save their money for things other than airplane tickets and Airbnb stays. Who knew!?

My family has traveled since I was a kid. I remember trips to Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, New England, and abroad as far back as the third grade (and maybe we traveled before then and I just don’t remember). And I look back on those trips with very fond memories.

However, the trip that really solidified my love of traveling was my high school graduation gift from my parents. They told me that I could pick anywhere in the world that I wanted to go, and we would all go there. To this day, I have no idea where they thought I would pick– maybe Australia (because I’d been obsessed with Australia since my childhood babysitter went there), or New Zealand (to visit a former foreign exchange student). But I do think they were shocked when I told them that of all of the places in the entire world, I wanted to go to Ireland– the land of my ancestors to see if we couldn’t hunt down a tombstone with our family name on it (this was before ancestry.com and the internet being useful for anything other than chat rooms).

So, for the next several weeks I am going to reminisce about the trip that launched a thousand trips (give or take)– my first trip to Ireland in the summer of 1997. I dug out my old journal from the trip, and I’ve plotted out the story of discovering where my soul resides to this day: Ireland.

The true challenge will be getting good pictures– so bear with me as I dig through 23 year old photos that were taken on actual film and probably printed out by a teenager at the one-hour photoshop.

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Glendalough, Ireland 2016

Mini-Vaca in the USA

Last week I finished up my blog series on my trip to Italy and Greece (check out all the posts on my main page). So instead of diving right in to the next trip, I thought I would give a quick little post to a glorious stay that I recently had here in the United States.

Over the winter break my son spent a week at his father’s house in northern Indiana. When he is gone for such a long period of time, I really like to take advantage of my freedom (and avoid the silence of the house when he’s not there) so I usually end up going somewhere. One year over Thanksgiving break I took my first ever solo trip abroad. You can read about part of that here.

However, with finances a little tighter (especially right after Christmas), I opted for a local vacation. I hopped on AirBnB for the first time ever and looked at odd places to stay… tents, yurts, apartments above breweries with goat farms attached (not kidding… it’s real – near Cincinnati, Ohio)… in the general area of my home in Indianapolis.

After agonizing over several options, I finally decided that what I mainly wanted was some quiet solitude where I could “get away from it all.” So… I decided to stay in a treehouse! That’s right… a treehouse!

I stayed near the thriving metropolis of Dayton, Ohio in a little town called Xenia. On the outskirts of this little town is a very swanky area with lots of gorgeous, large homes.  I was a little concerned at first that I was in the wrong area, but sure enough my GPS guided me back on a winding road and into the parking area next to a very grand multilevel home (three, maybe four stories). And situated discreetly in the back of this beautiful home was a superbly adorable treehouse!

The bottom level of the treehouse is a wonderful deck with a table and chairs, and (since it was just a few days after Christmas) Christmas lights and even a lighted reindeer to give the deck just the perfect amount of festive ambiance.

Up the stairs is the entrance to the treehouse, and inside everything the site advertises! I worried about staying somewhere I’d never seen before, and if the pictures on the website had just been taken at creative angles, but the little treehouse was exactly how it looked on the website, and I was honestly surprised by the several amenities it offered.  There was WiFi (a little spotty, but serviceable), a mini-fridge,  plates, napkins, coffee mugs, and an adorable toaster oven/coffee pot/griddle combo that made me slightly envious!

On the main level there was a queen (?) size bed with a million pillows, a wall mounted TV (could have done without that), and a space heater that looks like a small wood burning stove.  Then, up a bunkbed style ladder there is a little loft that houses an additional twin sized bed.

The treehouse has a cabin-like feel, with electricity and heat, and even carpet. It stayed nice and warm on a VERY cold and rainy night, and though I was only a few hundred yards from the main house, it felt very secluded — and I am sure it is even more so in the spring and summer when the leaves on the trees would provide even more privacy.

There were several side amenities that I didn’t take advantage of– guests have access to the grounds, a fire pit, and even a hot tub on the deck of the main house. You can even get farm fresh eggs for breakfast and access to the main house (shower, etc) for an additional cost.

The treehouse is probably not for everyone, though. There is a very basic compostable toilet on the deck around the corner from the entrance to the treehouse. In nice weather this would not have been a problem for me. Unfortunately I was there on a particularly cold, rainy, windy evening, and though there is a discrete curtain to shield you from view, there is no roof over the toilet.  Consequently, I had a very cold, wet trip to the bathroom at 4am with wind so strong that it blew the curtain over on top of me. However, it was VERY clean and much better than I anticipated a rustic toilet would be.

By far my favorite amenity was the maple tea the host’s boys brought to me the next morning. The woman who owns the AirBnB and her two boys tap the maple trees for syrup and make tea from the sap. It was VERY good, and I only wanted six more cups!

Nearby is the lovely town of Yellow Springs that became my favorite place to head off to get a bite to eat and have my choice of several coffee shops! The town is very quaint and has a lot to offer with crafty little stores, locally owned shops, and plenty of restaurants.

I ate dinner my first night at Ye Olde Trail Tavern, a lovely little German tavern with unbelievable charm. Exposed beams, low ceilings, and a real fireplace give the place the feel of a real small town tavern in Germany. Despite their lack of many German beers on tap, it was very authentic.

After dinner I went across the street to a little coffee shop called Dino’s Cafe where I was the only customer for a while. The barista was very friendly and made a superb cappuccino (the test of any cafe). In no time, the cafe was filled with customers, and I can see why. It’s just a hole in the wall, but the coffee is great!

Dino’s Cafe

The next day I went back to the lovely little town and had coffee and breakfast at surprisingly large and busy Emporium Wine and Underdog Cafe. It is a one-stop shop for your wine, coffee, bakery, and breakfast needs! They had everything from scones to pancakes, from bottles of wine to used books! They pride themselves as the “Living room of Yellow Springs,” and it was truly that! It was filled with people on the cold day I was there. Business people were conducting meetings, students were studying, families were eating breakfast together, and emotionally exhausted English teachers were journaling (me).

I had lunch just down the street at the Wind’s Cafe which is a deceptively fancy restaurant that I felt extremely under dressed for, but they accepted me with open arms and not a lick of (audible) judgement.

All in all, it was a lovely vacation, and I hope to be able to go back to the treehouse in nicer weather and stay a bit longer. If you are looking for a slightly rustic experience with a wonderful little town near by, check out the Treehouse Getaway in Xenia, Ohio!

 

Pleasant Setbacks – an extra day in Greece

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Our “last” day in Greece was a fun/stressful/distressing day (read about that here). We thought we would be going home the next morning, and then our plans were dashed when we learned that AirFrance had gone on strike, canceling (not delaying) our flight. However, EF Tours was wonderful to us and organized the rescheduling of our flight the following morning. The strike was apparently very short-lived and mainly involved the transit workers in Paris.

Nevertheless we were stranded in Greece for an additional day without reservations, and the hotel where we were staying was booked for the following evening, so it wasn’t an option for our party of 21. Once again, EF Tours came through for us and found us a place to stay. And not just any place — a little resort town right on the coast of the Aegean Sea– the lovely Vari, Greece (a suburb of Athens with a blue flag winning beach). We were within about a five minute walk of the beach, and it was a gorgeous, sunny day – 75 degrees (24 Celsius)! Our spirits were immediately lifted as we walked up to our rooms in a beautiful little hotel. The balconies looked out over a very typical Grecian scene – clay tile roofs, sloping slightly downward toward the water.

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You can see a little square of the sea in the middle of the picture, slightly to the right.

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Looking straight off of our balcony, the beautiful Hymettus mountains.

We decided to spend the day enjoying the sunshine and the beach, but first we ate lunch at a lovely gyro bistro directly across from the beach, Zaxos.  I had a gigantic gyro platter (slight miscommunication due to my lack Greek language skills) for next to nothing. And we were joined by an adorable little cat who wandered in the open-air restaurant.

After our meal, we decided to head to the beach (after putting my left-overs in the hotel room refrigerator). I had not packed any beachwear since we had not been scheduled to have any beach time with our original tour.  So, I put on the closest thing I had to beach clothing, a pair of jeans baggy enough to roll up my legs, and a flowy tie-dyed shirt. I also grabbed a hotel towel (shhhh), my journal, and a book, and headed to the beach.

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Our kids are the large group of humans in the right middle of the frame. Some ventured a little further out since they had swimwear.

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Since it was a relatively cool day, the beach was basically empty.

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My feet in the Aegean Sea

While we were there, I could not believe that this was how we were getting to spend our day “stranded” in Greece! Though I was heartbroken not to be home and giving my son lots and lots of hugs, if it had to happen, this was the way I wanted it to go! I cannot praise EF Tours enough for setting us up in a wonderful place like Vari! It also allowed our traveler who had lost is passport to thieves in Athens the previous day to get to the embassy and get a temporary passport so he could travel back with the rest of the group.

We went to bed that night relaxed and ready for the flight home the next day. Alas, there were further complications when our flight out of Greece landed too late in Paris for us to get to our gate before the closed the doors to our flight.

 

 

The Light and Dark of Athens

Athens was a bittersweet day and a half for our tour. We had a wonderful time exploring the many beautiful things in the city — too many to name in one post, truly. The city is magnificent, but with the magnificent comes the harsh realties of heavily tourist filled cities… thieves.

Our first evening in Athens was very lovely in many ways. One of the wonderful things about Europe that I wish we would embrace here in the US is the delicious tradition of gelato. Yes, we can get it at the grocery store, but in Italy, Greece, and even Ireland (which will be the topic of my next series) had gelato nearly at every turn! Without fail, in every city in Italy and Greece, gelato was a part of the day. In Athens we went to a lovely little “gelateria” called DaVinci’s where we got the most delectable gelato of the entire trip… so of course I took a picture of it!

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I had no shame as I enjoyed every last morsel of this gelato, that I thought might be my very last of the trip (I was wrong, but for less than great reasons– you’ll find out about that next week).

After the gelato, Raquel took us to a very scenic look at the Acropolis by night. We walked and we walked and we walked… at Raquel’s lightning pace, by the way, and it was too much for a few of our number. As chaperone, I stayed back with the stragglers, so I didn’t get to see it in all of it’s glory by night, but I did snap a quick (albeit blurry) photo from where I had to stop. And even though I didn’t get to see the “amazing view” – what I saw was beautiful enough!

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And though I felt very safe walking around at night in Athens, the subway was an entirely different beast. We stayed close together and attempted to watch out for each other, but at some point, one of the gentlemen in our group who insisted on keeping his wallet in the cargo pocket of his shorts (despite being told multiple times not to), lost about 300€, but was fortunate enough to keep the vital things, like credit cards, ID, and passport. It was a frustrating experience, yes, but a lesson well learned to listen when Raquel tells you not to do something!

The next morning we took a tour of the city, starting with the cite of the first modern Olympics, the Panathenaic Stadium.

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The Panathenaic Stadium is very impressive, especially when you realize that it has (in some form) existed since the fourth century! Made entirely of marble, it’s amazing that it went largely unused after Christianity rose to power. It wasn’t until the modern Olympic Games came back in the late 1800s that the stadium was excavated and renovated.  Many events happen here even today — a classic marathon takes place every year, and the final hand-off in Greece of the Olympic torch happens here.

Back on the bus we passed many more impressive sites, but I wish we would have been able to get out and walk around a bit more. However, the purpose of the trip was to get a survey of both Italy and Greece in an eight day time frame, which simply does not leave time to walk around Athens for days and days. Photos out the window of a bus don’t come out very clearly, but I did get a relatively nice picture of Hadrian’s Arch. Hadrian is everywhere in Italy and Greece– he was kind of a big deal. Our guide, Raquel told us that the gate was a divider between old and new Athens.

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Then we moved on to the Acropolis, which was breathtakingly historical. SO many things contributed to my love of it, but I simply could not stop thinking about how people from a time so long ago walked where I was walking. I even took a picture of my shoe after walking around in the Acropolis just so I could remember the dust of the Acropolis was on my feet at one time.

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I know it’s a little silly, but I probably sat and looked at that dust for a full minute pondering the mass of humanity who had been there before me.

Pictured below is the gate that you have to walk through to get to the Acropolis.  There is exactly one way in and out, and this was the way it was originally constructed for security purposes. I find that fascinating that they worried about security even back then. Obviously we have different means of hurting people now, they still needed to think about how to make the place safe even way back then.

The most identifiable structure is the Parthenon (pictured below). And it is very beautiful. It was under construction while we were there as they struggle against nature and time to keep the structure a semblance of what it once was.

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However, the portion of the Acropolis that fascinated me the most was the Temple of Athena. The sculptures were so beautiful, and the history of the people of Athens and the myth of Athena is just so interesting to me. There is even an olive tree there that is said to have been planted by Athena for the people of Athens. IMG_8797IMG_8798IMG_8799

Here are some of the views from the Acropolis:

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The ruins of the Temple of Zeus

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Another cite, just outside of the Acropolis, was where it is said that Paul first preached the gospel in Greece. He was atop a large rock, situated so that everyone entering and exiting the Acropolis would have heard him. You could go up on the top of it, but I found it more interesting to stand and look up at the people and imagine what it would have been like to listen to Paul. What did he sound like? Did people listen or dismiss him as a lunatic? I stood there for quite some time and tried to soak it all in.

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Later that night, we were once again reminded of the frustrations of traveling. On our way back to the hotel, one of men in our group was robbed on the subway in a classic trick. Someone pretended to fall just as the subway approached a stop, and has he tried to help her, someone else cut the string on his passport lanyard (that he was wearing under his clothes), and got away with his passport, wallet, and money just as the doors were opening. It created a huge headache that included him having to file a police report that evening and then making a trip to the American Embassy the next morning… which should have been a problem because we were supposed to leave the next day. Alas, due to an airline strike, our flight was canceled, which resulted in relief and anxiety for different reasons.

That evening we spent wondering what would become of us the next day instead of our flight, but we were greatly distracted by a night of Greek food, singing and dancing while Raquel tried to find suitable activities for us to do the following day, which you can read about next week!

 

The Oracle at Delphi

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The Oracle’s view of Delphi

Situated beautifully between the mountains and the ocean, Delphi was once considered the center of the known world by the Ancient Greeks. (Pronounced delf-ee not delf-eye like the town in Indiana) People from all over the world would come here for trade, information, and the wisdom of the Oracle.

Legend has it that Zeus sent two eagles from either end of the world, and where they crossed each other was the center of the earth. That was Delphi, or Δελφοί. Often called “the navel” of the world because of the stone that marked the exact center of what the Greeks knew as the world.

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In ancient times, Delphi was known to be the seat of the Oracle. People would ask the Oracle a question, and after pondering it, she would give an answer that would be interpreted by the priests. The Oracle was always a woman with an “unblemished past.”  She was kept in a crevice where “vapors” would give her wisdom. We now know that the oracle was breathing in hallucinogenic gasses — so basically she was high.

Delphi is also home to the temple of Apollo. It now lies in ruin, like many ancient temples. But even more so, Delphi is located over two tectonic plates (source of future-telling psychedelic happy vapors) and was rebuilt several times before the site was abandoned as having lost its religious significance (largely after the rise of Christianity). People then stopped coming to Delphi.

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It’s built on a hill, of course, and after climbing most (not all) of the stairs, I took this picture of the temple (entrance on the left) and the amazing scenery surrounding it all. Honestly, I do not understand why people left Greece. I supposed, you know… population stuff… but really! Why would you leave this place? It is beautiful!

Here is the view from the opposite direction:

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Pay attention to the people at the bottom of the picture to give reference to the size of the cliffs.

Also, the amphitheater (which is not accessible to the masses for preservation sake)

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The man was painstakingly attempting to keep nature at bay by weeding the amphitheater

And the Athenian Treasury building – the only building that still stands in some semblance of wholeness. But you can see the places that are much newer where there was an attempt to keep it upright.

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This was a beautiful day! The weather was just right – and we enjoyed the outdoors as well as the museum close by with more of the relics and artifacts from the area.

Next week’s blog post will be our first day in Athens!

 

Now for a Break from the Normal Programing: 2019 in Review

Credit to my fellow blogger, WriterInSoul, for inspiring me with her own year in review post. I’m usually a travel blogger, so I wondered if anyone would even be interested in a year in review kind of thing, but this type of writing can often be therapeutic, in a way. And this year has definitely been a year of highs and lows. I know that a years have ups and downs– and I have had much lower lows than I did this year, but I think the whiplash of sudden change from so good to terrible in an instant is often more unsettling to the soul than a long period of turmoil.

Twenty nineteen was a year of extremes.

The year started off very well. On the 5th of January I drove to surprise a friend with a meet up for her birthday. Rachel and I were roommates in college, and she was passing through the hometown of one of our other friends, Jana, on her way home (northern Illinois) from her hometown (Memphis, Tennessee). So Jana called and asked if I could show up and surprise her when they met for ice cream.

IMG_3132So, I hopped in my car and drove the two hours to see her for thirty minutes. And it was glorious. We laughed and got a little misty-eyed, too. Then she hopped in her car and drove north, and I hoped in my car and drove east, but not before I stopped and visited Jana’s father, who I am fortunate enough to also call my friend. He showed me the truck he was restoring, and we sat in the garage and talked about life and, of course, drank coffee.

He is one of the greatest men I know. Though he is not perfect, he and his wife are both the epitome of caring and giving people. Whenever I come to central Illinois, I am welcome to stay at their house on a moments notice. Like that night, I simply buzzed by on my way out of town for an hour or so of chit chat.

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In March I went on a wonderful spring break trip with students to Ireland (my favorite place in all of the world), and we had a amazing trip! Everything went right, the weather was amazing, the traveling from place to place went smoothly, and we were able to have some of the most amazing experiences ever! I got to hold a sheep!

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But less than 24 hours after this picture was taken, the lead chaperone, my dear friend Chase, got word that a former graduate had died by suicide. I write at length about that experience here, but I will write here that the death shook me to the depths of my being. “Bear,” as everyone called him, had been in my creative writing class the year before.  He was nearly always smiling, and when he wasn’t it was because he was angry that someone had mistreated someone else.  He was a self-proclaimed defender of the weak.

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Bear with his ‘Life on a Cardboard Box’ project. “Get it, Pdise? I misspelled ‘brawn.’ It’s funny!”

He rarely wrote seriously, always the clown, but when he did share his heart, he wrote about the death of his brother and how that changed him and left him heartbroken many years later. We’d talked about mental health and how he just wanted to make people’s days better so they would have a reason to smile.

An hour after we got the news, we were off to a new place to see and experience. I didn’t know how to handle the whiplash. I cried much of the day, and avoided people as much as I could (which is not easy when you’re the chaperone of a group of students), but as I mentioned in the blog post I linked earlier, the grounds at Blarney Castle gave me the solitude I needed.

When we returned to the states, there was the funeral to go to. I didn’t stop crying until well after I returned home. And even now, I feel some level of guilt that he didn’t know how much we would all mourn his loss.

Summer followed quickly, and with it the end of the school year. My summers are usually pretty tame, and I try to soak up as much time with my son as I can. I did a lot of reading, and went to several open mic nights where my uncle and cousin played and sang.

I also got a roommate over the summer, Nina, a former student who wanted to break out on her own, but with a little support. She’s been a blessing to our family now that my son gets on the bus by himself now rather than going to my parents’ house in the mornings. And she’s a great buddy for when my now teenager would rather keep to himself than hang-out with his boring mom. It has made that transition much easier for this mom, that’s for sure!

Nina and me as we try out “lip masks” for the first time – do not recommend!

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and this year, my heart was heavier than usual as I walked in the Out of the Darkness Suicide Prevention fundraiser. With Bear’s death on my mind as well as the other losses to suicide the school had faced, I felt like I moved a little slower. But I walked with a glorious friend, Amber, and her daughter who made the walk easier. We talked about all kinds of things, and they lightened my load. A day that could have been easily one of the hardest I’d had in a few months, had a positive spin to it, and I left the walk feeling much better than I thought I would.

The group that walked this year from Cascade High School

Just a few weeks later I got a text message from Chase, the chaperone who’d broken the news of Bear’s death to me just a few months ago.

“Call me” it said.

I was busy getting ready for work, and I was a little annoyed that she didn’t just text me with whatever she had to say. So I finished my hair and pushed the button on my phone to call her on speaker while I put on my shoes.

She was crying when she answered the phone, and my gut sank. I knew that someone was hurt or dead, and my mind whirled wondering who it could be and how bad it could be.

Nothing prepared me for her words. “Dylan is dead.” And again, my mind searched for meaning in this sentence. Dylan who? How did he die? Was it a car accident? But she was crying too hard to answer my questions. But I knew who it was. I just didn’t want to know. And just like that, in less than a year, we’d lost two former students to suicide. And this one was not only a student, but the son of a co-worker – the woman I’d walked with at the Out of the Darkness walk.

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I’m not entirely sure how I drove to school that day, only that it was through tears. And I’m not entirely sure how I told my first period class the news (the administration wanted to students to hear it from a person, not the PA system – which is a good call, just hard), only that it was though tears. And this time there was no Blarney Castle to clear my mind. I taught all day, I coached the Spell Bowl team (some of them crying on the bus) to win the county meet, and went home to be a single-mom. It wasn’t until bedtime that I was able to sit and try to process it all. Being truthful, I don’t know that I have completely processed it yet. I’d never had Dylan in class, but I knew him very well – he was an outgoing kid who loved to help others, he’d gone on the Italy/Greece spring break trip with us, I’d helped him edit papers for his English class, and he was the child of a co-worker and friend. So I knew him better than the teacher/student relationship.

It has never ceased to amazing me how the world can simply upend itself with one phone call. A few brief words and the trajectory of life is completely altered. That day was one of those days. And the haze of the next few weeks is honestly hard for me to remember. Hugging crying students, co-workers, sitting on the floor in the hallway talking to a student about how to keep moving when life feels so heavy.

And the year kept going up and down. My best friend had a miracle baby. My other best friend had a stroke and was in the hospital in Chicagoland for weeks and I couldn’t go see her. I felt like a failure as a friend because she needed people to help her, and I couldn’t make it up to her when she needed me the most. Up – down – up – down.

November and NaNoWriMo came along with tons of students who wanted to write novels with me. My 41st birthday. The end of the semester, and finally Christmas.

So much up and so much down.

But the big lesson I’ve learned this year is to make sure the people I love know that they are loved. I’ve learned I need to check-in with people with more than the often trite “How are you?” Also, I’ve learned that it is very important to take care of myself- to do things that are good for me physically and mentally.

Over the last calendar year I’ve lost 30 lbs and done my best to get more in touch with who I am and focus less on what I do not have. I have become less downtrodden over my seemingly terminal singleness, and realizing what being single can allow me to do: travel selfishly, invite people to live in my little home, and be available for people easier than if I had to take someone else’s wishes and calendar in mind.

Thank you to all who have been a positive influence in my life these last twelve months. I appreciate your encouragement, your mentorship, and friendship even though I am not the best when it comes to returning phone calls. 🙂

I anxiously await what I have to learn in twenty-twenty.

A Surprise Trip to Thermopylae

IMG_8703As I traversed Italy and Greece with my students (with the help of EF Tours), I enjoyed seeing the joy and wonder on the faces of my students as they witnessed the beauty of Europe. It was especially exciting to see the students see something they’d learned about in school. Seeing it makes learning so much more real, I think. And our surprise stop in Thermopylae was exactly that for one young man on our trip.

This young man, Brandon, is obsessed with Leonidas (of the movie 300 fame). Brandon was talking about how he wished he could go see his statue in Thermopylae while we were in Greece, but his GPS told him that it was several days away, and he was intensely defeated.

Leave it to our glorious tour guide, Rochelle.

We were at a gas station getting petrol for the bus. Side note: I had a very delicious cappuccino from an actual cappuccino machine… AT A GAS STATION… for the equivalent of about $1.75. This is one of the many reasons I love Greece.

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Rochelle heard him talking (I think) and casually mentioned over her shoulder that Thermopylae was, in fact, our next stop… and it was only ten minutes away from where we were.  I thought Brandon would start crying… in fact, I’m not a hundred percent positive that he didn’t cry.  Apparently he hadn’t taken his GPS off of the “walking” setting instead of the “driving” setting. Hilarious!

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Brandon’s face when he found out we were going (photo credit Chase Bauer)

Before you know it we were out of the bus at the statue.  In the middle of nowhere is the giant Leonidas towering over the bleak landscape. Rochelle pointed out to us the pass that the three hundred Spartans had defended. Historically there were more than the three hundred Spartans (an additional 5600 soldiers from other city-states), but they were still greatly out numbered by (depending on who you believe) anywhere from 300,000 to 2,000,000 Persian soldiers. When other soldiers fled or surrendered, the Spartans stood firm.

On the statue, which was erected in 1955, is an engraving of the phrase “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” which roughly translates to “Come and take them.” This was apparently Leonidas’ reply to Xerxes’ offer to spare the lives of the Spartans if they would lay down their weapons.

The joy of this trip was truly in seeing how moved the students were by the immensity of the statue and their awe of the tale of supreme sacrifice and bravery against unimaginable odds.

We would all like to believe, I think, that we would be able to show that kind of bravery. Leonidas and the Spartans are the epitome of that bravery. The monument is a tribute to that and also a reminder that we all have bravery within ourselves – the courage to do what is necessary and to show honor and perseverance.

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The whole group – including the folks who joined us from California (photo credit: Chase Bauer)

Igoumenitsa to Meteora – the unknown beauty of Greece

Due, I’m sure, to my lack of attention during Ancient Geography, I had no idea that the northwestern coast of Greece was so shockingly beautiful! The drive from Igoumenitsa to a glorious place called Meteora was beyond any beauty I have ever experienced. For those of you who don’t know me well, that is saying quite a bit. For decades I have sworn that Ireland (here and here and also here) is the most beautiful place on Earth. And in full disclosure, I still have an undeniable pull to Ireland that I cannot explain. However, the beauty of Meteora is completely different than the beauty of Ireland. It’s like comparing apples and chairs… they’re not even both fruit!

Greece was both luscious and rugged. The greens and blues were in such beautiful contrast to each other that I was really unsure of how to process that a place like this existed.

We left Italy on the Saturday of the Catholic Holy Week (the next day would be Easter). We entered Greece on the Greek Orthodox Palm Sunday (the week before the Orthodox Easter). In many ways it was like actually going back in time. A few of the students in our group had wanted to attend church somewhere in Greece for Easter services, but there weren’t any because the Orthodox calendar differs from the Catholic calendar. Who knew! Fortunately the kids weren’t too disappointed since we were headed to a monastery anyway.

We stopped along the drive from Igoumenitsa in Kastraki for a lovely dinner where my friend and I ate lunch on the outdoor patio. The weather was glorious — a little chilly in the shade, but the sun gave the air just enough warmth to make you comfortable.

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Behind us you can see the breathtaking cliffs of Meteora that at the time we didn’t know we were heading toward.

After lunch was over, we piled back into the bus and made our way to Meteora. All I knew was that we were going to see some monasteries that were built on top of mountains. I felt like that would be a fitting place for monks, but little did I know exactly what we would see there.

The Meteora monasteries are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and the closest comparison that I can come to is when my son and I visited the cliff dwellings of ancient Americans in the southwest. But those cliff dwellings were just holes in the sides of mountains. The monasteries of Meteora were phenomenal churches and living quarters that were hoisted up the sides of cliffs bit by bit and constructed on the tops of enormous outcroppings of rock. For years some of the monasteries were only accessible by a pulley system. There is still one of the monasteries that is only accessible through a gondola-style contraption that someone inside the monastery operates!

The monasteries are lived in, but for revenue, many of them allow tourists – even on Palm Sunday. We were required to wear skirts and keep our shoulders covered, and they supplied you with a wrap around piece of fabric to wear over your pants so that you could comply with the dress code.   After climbing up a horrifically primitive looking staircase up the side of the outcropping, we made it to the monastery. I am very afraid of heights, so this was no easy task. Most of the climb up I just focused on the shirt or shoes (depending on the steepness of the climb) of the person in front of me.

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It was truly an amazing experience on top of the world in Meteora, and the view from our hotel that night, was nearly as breathtaking.

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Kalabaka, Greece

I am sure that Greece will get at least one more stamp in my passport so I can come back here and spend a few days rather than a single night. It was a wonderful place filled with beautiful blue skies, amazingly green foliage, and ruggedly impressive mountains. I strongly recommend swinging by this lovely town!