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!

Sometimes Lessons are Learned the Hard Way

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I have learned some really great lessons while traveling – like always keep your passport on your person at all times, locking your luggage with a TSA approved lock doesn’t mean that they will actually take the time to use their tool because cutting it off is easier, and avoid checking your luggage if you can. Those lessons weren’t particularly difficult to learn for me personally, but on the trip to Italy and Greece, I did learn one lesson the hard way.

To fully understand this lesson, I must remind you of my newly found understanding of my aversion to moving in inhuman ways, i.e. flying. If you missed that, feel free to read about it in this blog post.

On this trip with EF Tours, we toured Italy AND Greece. So after our wonderful evening in Pisa, we took a ferry from Ancona, Italy to Igoumenitsa, Greece. We took a bus from Florence to Ancona, which took about 3 1/2 hours. Loading up the ferry took nearly just as long, but it was fun to explore. This was the first time I’d ever taken a ferry of that size. It was basically a small town! The rooms were basically glorified closets, but there were multiple dinning rooms, entertainment areas, gaming rooms (for kids and adults), and countless decks to explore a 365 degree view of the Italian coastline and then nothing but the Adriatic Sea. It was beautiful!

Well.. back to my lesson…

So, I bummed some motion sickness medicine from a student and looked forward to a puke-less trip across the Adriatic Sea. A little bit later, the chaperones met up on the top deck to sit and chat until it was time for dinner. One of the parents had purchased a bottle of wine in Florence and we all sat down to share the bottle– about eight adults drinking one bottle of wine. I had about the equivalent of a Dixie cup’s worth of red wine.

And… you guessed it… about 15 minutes later I was drunker than a skunk, not a sensation I am super familiar with, and definitely not a sensation I enjoyed. I hardly ate any food due to the world spinning and wobbling simultaneously. I went to bed at about 7pm and slept until the next morning.

SO… lesson learned… motion sickness medicine and booze, even in small amounts, DO NOT MIX!

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My last unintoxicated view from the ship

The Enchanting Magic of Pisa

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On the epic trip that EF prepared for us, we were not “supposed” to go to Pisa. However, after we requested a side trip, our tour guide agreed to take us the Friday night after we had been in Florence.  I nearly didn’t go because it was an extra fee to pay the bus driver and a tour guide when we got to Pisa. However, since all the group was going, I decided to go as well… and my life is better for having gone.

We arrived in Pisa after dark, and like all of Italy, it was breathtakingly beautiful. Our tour guide met us by the baptistry (see my Florence post about the significance of the different buildings). She there gave us a brief history of the bad soil in Pisa that caused not only the bell tower, but also the baptistry to be slightly tilted.  People don’t often know about the baptistry because the tower is much more tilted.

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Because it was Good Friday, there was a quiet hush over the area due to actual services going on in the cathedral. Our tour guide even whispered as she gave us the history of many doors on religious buildings in Italy and around Europe. Much of the general populace (during the times the religious buildings were constructed) could not read. So often the doors told religious stories so that the illiterate masses could see them rather than read them.

These are the doors on the cathedral at Pisa, including one of the tiles that apparently has something to do with finding love… that tile is actually shiny from the humber of people who rub it for a blessing/good luck.

We were not allowed to go inside the cathedral as it was invitation only due to the presence of a very important Cardinal… or something like that. We were disappointed, of course, but it made sense why they wouldn’t want a bunch of American teenagers just bursting in.

So we walked around the outside and over toward the tower where our guide talked to us more about the tower’s history. Apparently, no one wanted to take “credit” for the starting of the tower, so there is some controversy as to who began its construction. It was only two floors high when it began to sink. They took a nearly 100 year break in the construction due to conflict with Florence and other surrounding towns. This was apparently a good thing because it gave the foundation a chance to settle.

The tower continues to sink a little bit from year to year. It was even bolstered up in the late 90s to decrease the degree of the leaning, but it will likely need to be done again at some point. It was quite an impressive sight to see. I’d heard about it, of course, but I really had no idea how dramatic the lean was. It is positively impressive that it doesn’t tip over. The uppermost floors are smaller than the others to reduce the appearance of the lean and also to add less weight to the structure.

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As we finished our official tour with the local guide, our main tour guide gave us ten minutes before we needed to head back. However, just a few moments later we started to hear singing coming from the speakers mounted on the outside of the cathedral. At first we didn’t know there were speakers, and it was a very beautiful and eerie collection of voices coming from… well, we didn’t know where.

And then, someone pointed out that there was some kind of procession off in the distance from the direction of the town. At the front of the procession was this very important Cardinal carrying an enormous cross, and people were just falling in step behind him, creating this long chain of people from the town who were all singing the same song that was coming from the cathedral. It was obviously in Italian, so I don’t know what the song was, but it was haunting and magnificent.

The procession went into the cathedral, and everyone poured in… so I did too! I got some amazing video of the procession – the Cardinal, other important religious looking people, civilians, and also first responders (police, firemen, etc). Everyone was singing and pouring into the church… it was positively magical!

I’ve mentioned before in other posts that I am not Catholic, but Italy has this way of making you feel a part of the religious experience even though you technically aren’t. The emotion of it all makes it very understandable that nearly 90% of Italy identifies as Catholic (even though only 36% of them consider themselves devout). On this religious holiday, it seemed as though the entire city of Pisa was in or around the cathedral as we open mouthed tourists stood outside.

I called my parents afterward (my father was raised Catholic) and actually cried as I described the beauty of the experience to them.

I don’t remember how much money it cost me to go to Pisa, but it was worth it a million times over! Pisa is a glorious place to spend Good Friday… and probably regular Fridays too.

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Birthplace of the Renaissance – Florence, Italy

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There are few places on Earth that give me the kind of joy that Florence, Italy did! The pictures I took on this dreary day do not come close to highlighting the beauty that Florence offers.

In preparation for the trip to Italy, I watched the first season of the Netflix series The Medici – a bit too rated R for me, but it highlights the rise of the Medici family and everything they did for Florence in the 13 and 1400s. Along with a healthy amount of unnecessary sex and love… quadrangles (?) was some of the history of Florence. It is a fascinating city!

The construction of the duomo is filled with scandal, sabotage, and political gain, but dear God it’s beautiful! Once again, the religious holiday made it impractical to inside due to the lines, but we did get to see all of Florence that day.

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This is the bell tower and cathedral in Florence (the duomo is behind this). The detail is unimaginable – so intricate, it is no wonder it took a hundred and forty years to complete this masterpiece!

A short history about the construction of cathedrals and their surrounding buildings in Europe:

  • Cathedrals and bell towers were originally constructed as separate buildings- unlike today where they are constructed together.
  • Originally, the you were not permitted to enter the cathedral until you had been baptized, so older cathedrals have a separate building called the baptistry. That way people could (pay to) get baptized, and then be able to enter the cathedral in order to worship, receive the sacraments, and to attend confession.
  • Baptisteries were octagonal in shape because in Christian numerology (which was very popular at the time), the number eight follows the “perfect” number 7, thus symbolizing a new beginning.

Pretty cool, huh! Who knew!

Below is a picture of me at the Paradise gate on the baptistery in Florence — so there is Ms. Paradise, in front of Paradise gate 🙂

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Also on our tour we passed the sculpture garden of the Medici family. One of the many things the Medici did for the city was finance artists. The sculpture garden was more of a courtyard than a “garden” – but it was insanely impressive, and during our free time I sat there and wrote in my journal to try to process the beauty of the city.

We had lunch at a beautiful little cafe with tasty, albeit expensive sandwiches, and of course a glass of red wine that was the same price as a Coca-Cola- one of the many reasons why I loved Italy!

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My friend and I also took the advice of our tour guide and found a glorious cafe at the top of a department store that gave us an amazing view of the city. There we had a cappuccino (of course) and sat and talked while enjoying the view of Florence from the air.

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Florence’s most famous tourist attraction is the Ponte Vecchio. It is one of the most recognizable bridges in all of Italy, and it is basically an ancient high-end strip mall. I’m over-simplifying of course, but it was interesting to see the beauty of the bridge lined with jewelry shops and leather purses. However, it is historically accurate. The bridge was the center of commerce when it was first constructed.

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The day was sunny and glorious – but there was so much more of Florence that I would have loved to have seen. It would be very easy to spend a week in Florence, and we were only there for a little over a day. There is, of course, the museum where they have the statue of David. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see that. It was an option, but due to the crowds and our time constraints, I chose to see more of the city and experience more of Florence rather than wait in lines. However, on the outskirts of town they do have a replica that was rather impressive too!

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Next week’s post will be about the most amazing evening of the entire trip – our impromptu trip to Pisa!