Feeling….GRATEFUL!

After 10 and a half months of life on the road…countless train rides, a load of flights, and almost one hundred different places where I’ve laid my head, this is it! One hour until I head to Fiumincino Airport and begin my journey home!

My last six weeks have been spent in Italy. Throughout the trip, I have happily shared highlights on my blog, but it has been hard to write in Italy because all I seemed to do was eat and eat and eat. Since I am not a foodie, I couldn’t imagine people wanting a daily report on my pizza with no cheese and pasta with tomato sauce.

Italy has been restful and a chance to soak in places I love! I have lost countless hours to people watching while reading and walking through new narrow streets.

When traveling to Italy, it’s fun to stay in the famous cities that roll off of our tongues from years of dreaming, but being on a budget makes “the town next to that famous place” the only viable option. For me, that is what made this trip quiet, exploring familiar places from a slight distance.

So, here I am! Ready to start dreaming again! I thought about spending my last lunch doing something out of character, like ordering something exotic with a glass of wine, but I am on a cement bench in Piazza Navona, full from my $2 slice of eggplant pizza, just sitting and watching people. I wonder how I will adjust to the fast pace of life that begins again tomorrow. Piazza Navona is filled with musicians, artists selling their work, and wedding couples taking pictures. It is a sunny afternoon and in my final minutes, I am feeling especially grateful and blessed with the fortune of great friendships and a network of support!

I have had hundreds of wonderful moments…times when people have gone out of their way to guide my path…answer a question, lend a phone, and so much more. Above and beyond those daily blessings, I made a list. I have met 21 people who have either invited me into their homes, spent a few days with me, and offered hospitality and friendship in extraordinary ways. Of this list of 21, I expect to continue friendships, welcome them to my home, and experience continued benefits of new friendships. These Divine moments and blessings will always be the best thing about my
trip.

I had no fear leaving…but now, as I prepare to come back, I am a bit scared. My trip of self discovery has left me with lots of answers, also some questions. I was prepared for anything and every worst case scenario that people presented. I remember when being away for almost a year sounded like such a long time…so why do I feel like I just left home? At the same time, why do I feel like it will take a bit to get in the home routine because I have been gone too long? Why do I not so secretly not want to fit back home? Why do I feel more peaceful than I have ever felt before while suffering from minor bits of being worried about maintaining good habits I have formed when thrown back into life at home? Am I in a great place or am I going to be a mess when I get home? And…months with nothing but time to think, why can’t I answer these questions?

I am eternally grateful for all of the support from home. Some travelers choose to disconnect while away, but for me, the messages from home, excitement of my people, and just general interest has meant a lot. I am excited to just listen and catch up on all of your years! That really excites me!

So, now…back to my favorite city in the world!!!!! Chicago, here I come!

20130630-150956.jpg

Posted in Italy, Travel | Tagged | 5 Comments

Big Ideas? Nope!

I have half a blog post written that is all nostalgic about my great travel experiences this year and the wonderful people I met…all true but not really feeling it today!

I have a half post written about how scared I am to come home because I just might not fit into my life there and how I think I forgot how to make my own bed…but I am not totally feeling that today either.

What I am feeling as my 11 month journey comes to an end is…not sure!!!

AND this was supposed to be the year when I figured it all out! Maybe I need another year to dig into the complexities of my brain or else I just need to admit that I am not very deep.

What I can say for sure is…

*I am in Tuscany for the next two weeks before coming home.

*I am excited that I will teach the 8th grade literacy classes at Westmont Junior High…always fun to try something new.

*When I get home I need to be very serious about saving money so I can open new doors…because I have been busy working on new dreams.

*I have met great people and I am grateful for that…and soon I will write and tell you all about them, but for now, I am just going to eat another pizza!

Posted in Travel | Tagged | 2 Comments

Scenes From An Italian Restaurant

People have told me that they have phobias about dining alone in restaurants that stop them from seriously considering solo travel. Generally, I opt for places where I can buy street food, shop at a grocery store, or just graze all day on items purchased from fruit and veggie vendors. For me, it’s not about social anxiety, it’s just that most food doesn’t excite me much. When I do visit restaurants, it is usually for a quick bite and the free wifi. Getting eating “out of the way” is my priority, so I can move on to do important things like connecting with friends online or catching up on the latest news. My friends say they “live to eat” while I “eat to live” and show displeasure when we dine together and I generally consume my meal at the fastest pace without savoring much of the “foodie” experience. Give me your standard plate of pasta with marinara sauce and a huge basket of bread, and I will give your restaurant a five start rating. When asked to share my favorite meals of this trip, I get most excited talking about homemade tortillas, tamales from a street vendor, corn on the cob sold from a fire pit, or…see, I already ran out of things to say.

But, Italy is different. This is a place where I am drawn into restaurants the same way I am drawn into a new novel. The food is amazing…no doubt, but it’s the entire experience where I watch scenes unfold before my eyes. My recent visit to Taverna Rossa is an example of why. What started out as a quick trip for takeout, turned into a full evening event.

I am staying in San Angello which is a 3k hike from Sorrento, but feels like a world away…. without the throngs of tour buses and expensive restaurants lined with tourist menus. My hotel is the third story of an apartment building in a residential area surrounded by narrow cobblestone streets and beautiful mountains. You wouldn’t pass this address unless you were looking for it, and as I peered in and saw the brick oven in the nearby pizzeria, I thought it would be a good place to grab a quick takeaway later in the week.

So, after a Saturday afternoon nap, I didn’t feel like trekking back to Sorrento, so I decided this was going to be my pizza night. Since I was planning to take out, I decided I could just quickly wash my face, change my pajama bottoms into lounging pants, throw a sweater over my sleepshirt, and make the trip down the street where no one would have to encounter messy me. This is Italy, I should have known better.

I washed my face with new products from Lush that are a mixture of two scrubs called “Angels on Bare Skin” and “Herbalism.” Instead of being a liquid, they are a claylike pastes that work when combined with water. The good news is the clean, soft skin the products leave behind. The bad news is that the bright green paste often gets mixed in my hairline leaving clumps of goop to be removed with morning shower. This is not a big deal when I am going to bed, and to me, not worth fussing over for a quick pizzeria outing.

I walked into the empty restaurant announcing my intentions, “I am here for a takeout pizza.” I didn’t get too close and kept my eyes on my phone to avoid giving the owner contact with my fresh face, green haired look. At this point, it was 7:30 pm, but the restaurant was empty because by Italian standards, it was way too early to eat. “Please sit.” I heard it, but tried to avoid sitting, until the owner walked over and guided me to “the best seat in the house” which was near a window overlooking the street. He assured me that I could just wait until my pizza was ready to go. As he sat me down, his face had a perplexed look as he started picking the green clay bits out of my hair without apprehension. I laughed and suggested that I could just go the the bathroom and do it myself. When I returned, he told me that, of course, if I was “waiting,” I had to try the lovely, complimentary new wine he just purchased which was already sitting on my table. Then, there was an icy glass of water sitting next to the addition of a placemat and silverware that were there too. Fine, I was staying! I changed my order to whatever is the opposite of takeout and ate my way around the perimeter of the crusty, brick oven baked veggie pizza covered with roasted peppers, zucchini, eggplant, and mushrooms. The owner visited every few minutes to see if I was enjoying the dinner asking the obligatory Chicago questions about Al Capone and Michael Jordan. We laughed with each stop at the table and he said I was the only person there because Americans were the only people who would eat at 7:30 pm. I tried to explain that I held out as long as I could, but to him, he couldn’t imagine how I could eat at this early hour. As I finished the pizza, I was ready to pay my bill, and head back to my hotel, but this would not be easy because I soon had a shot of local limoncello sitting before me in a frozen shot glass. I didn’t recall being asked if I wanted it, but once it was there…

Another couple came in and sat at the next table, which seemed like a perfect distraction for my getaway. I got up and made my way to the front counter, until they stopped to ask where I was from. After another 20 minutes of sharing stories and solving world issues, I was finally on my way home with a full belly, a warm limoncello gaze (that stuff is toxic), and a reminder that meals in Italy are NEVER quick, but always a beautiful adventure.

Posted in Italy, Travel | Tagged , | 3 Comments

I Love Italian Things!

Years ago, when Chicago’s beloved Cardinal Bernardin was dying of pancreatic cancer, he wrote a book titled “The Gift of Peace.” The stories of his life were especially reflective because he knew that his health condition was terminal and that he had only a few months to enjoy his days left on earth. While he might have always been led by his faith, this book showed a spiritual readiness for what lie ahead. I remember closing the book, and crying for hours. I have only done that with one other book…”The Bridges of Madison County” and I still blame that one on hormones.

As years have passed, I don’t remember many specifics from his life story, but I have always found comfort and pleasure in the way he described heaven.

“As I conclude this book, I am both exhausted and exhilarated. Exhausted because the fatigue caused by the cancer is overwhelming. Exhilarated because I have finished a book that has been very important to me. As I write these final words, my heart is filled with joy. I am at peace.

It is the first day of November, and fall is giving way to winter. Soon the trees will lose the vibrant colors of their leaves and snow will cover the ground. The earth will shut down, and people will race to and from their destinations bundled up for warmth. Chicago winters are harsh. It is a time of dying. But we know that spring will soon come with all its new life and wonder.

It is quite clear that I will not be alive in the spring. But I will soon experience new life in a different way. Although I do not know what to expect in the afterlife, I do know that just as God has called me to serve him to the best of my ability throughout my life on earth, he is now calling me home.

Many people have asked me to tell them about heaven and the afterlife. I sometimes smile at the request because I do not know any more than they do. Yet, when one young man asked if I looked forward to being united with God and all those who have gone before me, I made a connection to something I said earlier in this book. The first time I traveled with my mother and sister to my parents’ homeland of Tonadico di Primiero, in northern Italy, I felt as if I had been there before. After years of looking through my mother’s photo albums, I knew the mountains, the land, the houses, the people. As soon as we entered the valley, I said, “My God, I know this place. I am home.” Somehow I think crossing from this life into life eternal will be similar. I will be home.”

As soon as I get off the plane and onto Italian soil, I relate to these words and appreciate the comfort I feel in this beautiful place. I can’t think of any other way to share my feelings than to write a list of the things I love about Italy. So, in no particular order, here goes!

I love the way people shop in small markets and seem to buy just the few things they need for the next day. As soon as I get to a new town, I scope out the shops for a place with fresh bread, fruit, veggies, and cheese. As I watch women leaving with a few carrots, tomatoes, a potato, and some greens, I can taste the soup I imagine they will make that night and want to follow them home for dinner.

I love that cafes and coffee shops are extensions of homes. As I sit and linger, I watch people pass by, greet the server, and stand at the counter enjoying the daily routine of espresso drinking. There are moments when people hang around but cafes are one place where I see that Italians do not always linger.

I love the way people are really affectionate and enthusiastic here. Very few people pass babies without a loud “Bellisimo” and cheek pinching; greetings are always big, mushy cheek kisses; people pass on the road with “Buon Giorno” greetings to strangers; and you should see what happens with couples who are in love. Mama mia!

I love shopping for dresses here. At home, women who are small on the top and big on the bottom have the option of looking like a sausage butt, constantly tugging at too big, falling sleeves, or needing to get things altered. Here, women are built like me, so everywhere I go, I can buy dresses that feel custom made. Really…it is a problem because I know I have way too many dresses, but it’s so exciting to find ones that fit so well, and the sales ladies are so enthusiastic, so even when I say “no more,” I walk out of the store with two new colorful dresses to stuff in my already full closet. (When I recently told Bones about buying a new dress, she actually went to the closet where I am storing some clothes and reported how many dresses were there. I think she thought that would make me reconsider buying another. Hasn’t worked yet!)

I love the old men here. I swear, it’s like they refuse to give up the suave days of their past and conform with modern ways that men and women interact. It’s not unusual to walk down the street and receive greetings and cheek kisses with words that seem like they might be too lusty to be appropriate in 2013. Since I am not sure what they are saying, it is hard to be offended, but I always imagine a flashback of days gone by. It might get frustrating if I lived here, and I certainly don’t wish that men reverted to those social mores, but when in Rome…

Not to be outdone by the older men, I love the older ladies, too. I look at them and see traces of my Gram and her sisters. Where else do you see women mopping sidewalks, cleaning up litter and picking dead leaves off of trees in public gardens, and yelling at children who are not their own when they get out of line? The “it takes a village” concept of raising children seems alive and well here in Italy. Once, I saw an old woman sitting in church watching as a small child was dancing near the altar while the parents stood by. After a few minutes of dirty looks, and obvious words of displeasure, she got out of her pew, picked the child up, and handed him back to his surprised parents. Nobody in church looked offended or upset, it was just the way it was going to be and those kids, who I believe were tourists, sat quietly for the rest of the mass, with eyes as big as saucers watching their new “Nonna” from a distance.

I love the teeny, tiny cars that make my Mini Cooper look much too grandiose. The little Fiats and Smart Cars that line the streets are not only cute, but perfect for the tiny Amalfi roads.

Speaking of Amalfi, I love the coastal highway. Although this area is overrun with tourists and in main cities, it seems hard to find a passing person who is actually Italian, it is still a beautiful place to visit. The twisty road hugs the coast from a distance high on cliffed edges. The colorful buildings and luscious blue water offer views that I have never seen anywhere else. I like to think that I am walking on a movie set and just wait for Sophia Loren to show up to perform her lines.

I love the Italian language. I have taken a few daylong Italian classes, but really have difficulty remembering much. Sometimes, I think that is a good thing because instead of focusing on what people actually say, I am watching their facial expressions, rapidly moving hands, and passion for whatever they are sharing. The laughing, talking children are my favorite because their words sound like a mix of talking and singing.

This probably goes without saying, but I love the food here! In the book “Eat Pray Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert describes how much time passes in Italy, based on her need to buy new clothes because of all the sumptuous food she enjoys in Italian restaurants. Sometimes, okay often, I eat when I am NOT hungry, just because I am walking past a pizzeria and the smell drags me in. Like yesterday, I had bread with my breakfast, a calzone by the beach, and a slice of pizza in the middle of the day. I love that the pasta is always served “al dente” and you are given just the right amount to enjoy. the sauces are fresh and light, but the noodles can be perfectly hard and heavy. I love the sparkling water that comes with meals. It makes me feel all elegant and grown up as I slowly take a few sips. I also can’t stop eating the fresh produce which is often sold from trucks along the street. My hotel room looks like a market with a dresser topped with strawberries, bananas, oranges, and apples. By the way, I also love that there are so many fresh things to eat here that taste better than home…the Parmesan cheese…balsamic vinegar, olive oil…all those things we consume in the States just taste more delicious in their hometowns.

I love that people here move slowly and have down time in the middle of the day. Stores outside of tourist towns are often closed from 2:00-5:00 pm so people can eat a big meal and spend time resting with their families. The streets are virtually empty and up can hear sounds of cooking, and chatting (or yelling), and clanking silverware from the windows above. While there are likely kids on couches watching tv and playing video games just like at home, my imagination creates much more family-friendly scenes of shared meals and storytelling of days gone by.

Now that I have started this list, I can’t stop. As I walk down the road, I look around at the things I see and think to myself, “Oh, I love that, too!”

I recognize that I idealize Italy from the vantage point of a visitor, and that many things are much less perfect than I describe. That’s why, on this trip, I had the revelation that I will never move here because I don’t want to uncover those less that perfect realities. Instead, I choose to lovingly appreciate all that is good here and take pleasure in all of these things I love.

20130508-154910.jpg

Posted in Italy, Travel | Tagged , | 10 Comments

Stop the Clock! I don’t want this dream to end!

“They” say you can’t pick your family, but the truth is, that if I had choices, I would still pick my aunt Bones…as well as some of my other family members…you know who you are!

Turkey wasn’t on my original list of places to visit, but with cheap ticket prices from the States, I found myself staying for four weeks to connect with Jason and then Bones. Instead of the group of countries I originally planned, I ended up only visiting Turkey, Israel, Palestinian Area Territories, and Iraq, but for longer periods of time that made me feel better connected and left me with a desire to get back quickly.

When Jason left, I had two days before Bones’ arrival in Istanbul and I honestly did nothing. It was raining and my weather sensor was clearly off because 50 degrees felt so cold. I was thankful that Bones was coming because this was a point when I wondered if the question I was asked so many times before I left…”Do you think you’ll get homesick?” might come true. So…I was rested when I boarded a coach to meet her at the airport and quickly learned how unpredictable traffic can be in Istanbul. The ride, that took less than an hour during previous rides, suddenly took over an hour and a half to travel from Taksim Square. Oh, no! I couldn’t believe I would be late and miss my chance to greet Bones as she walked into the waiting crowds, but I also knew she was a savvy traveler and would be fine while waiting. When I arrived, she was nowhere to be found, but lost for only for a short time. We finally found each other and, with hugs, kisses, and laughter we were reunited after too many months of being far apart.

We spent our first days in Istanbul catching up on home news and events. No fancy meals for us…we enjoyed the same $3.00 salad bar every night because it was so lovely to enjoy the fresh vegetables and a big variety of options. We shopped and sat in cafes reading and talking…further bonding and without a need to rush around town. That was nice! At the Grand Bazaar, Bones bargained for some Picasso-esque pillow cases and I bought the last things I need in the world…more scarves!

One thing you quickly learn when hanging out with a gray haired woman…they enjoy quite a few benefits and lots of affection-especially from young and handsome men. The shopkeeper brought her tea, shared stories, and playfully negotiated a good price for all. In fact, even though Bones is 82, I don’t see her as an “old” person, but we had a few good laughs when others did…like the time we were in a cave and warned by a guide that the stairs we faced to reach the farthest point were many and steep and that the hard part of the experience would be the walk up the stairs. Bones was reluctant at first, but with my “encouragement” she accepted the challenge.

We soon found walking down stairs was the easy part. We lagged behind the group until we completed the walk up the more than a hundred steps where we were greeted by others in our group; some of whom were out of breath, but waiting with interest to see if she was okay. When she reach the top step, they gave a cheer and a clapping of hands. Then there was the time when the captain of our hot air balloon picked her up like a bride to carry her out of the balloon…or when some other truly “old” ladies said they were impressed that she took the balloon ride. Me? I never gave her a minute to feel old… pushing her to walk faster and assuring her that the hills weren’t always too hard to climb.

Out first stop out of Istanbul was a quick visit to Ankara…on our way to Cappadocia…an area like nothing I have seen before. The area is covered with peaked caves formed by volcanic land weathered by rain and wind. We stayed in the town of Goreme which is surrounded by caves and pale carved landscapes as far as the eye can see. Some caves have been hollowed for houses or hotels, but we enjoyed a few days at a small hotel named Heybe. They pampered us with kindness including rides around the mulitiple cities in the area, delicious breakfasts, and an upgrade to a semi suite where we each had a bit of our own space. Breakfasts in the Middle East are amazing and make me want to totally change my eating habits. The breads, cheeses, and vegetables are filling and leave me satisfied for much of the day!

Goreme is a small town that can be easily walked in a short time, but it is so beautiful that the trip never gets old. We found a favorite lounging spot at Coffedocia cafe where we enjoyed hot drinks and good wifi. I know there are some among you who remember Bones’ 70th birthday, when a group of us chipped in to take her on her missed dream of a balloon ride in Africa to watch the migration of millions of animals. We were aiming for a special day over Joliet, Illinois where we could all join her. Our “perfect” outing was less than ideal with two people missing the balloon ride by minutes, me feeling a bit nauseous, and our best view being of Statesville prison. We have always laughed about the less than perfect trip, so when Bones suggested a ride over Cappadocia, it seemed like a perfect idea, and it was…perfect!

The early morning sunset ride was beautiful because of the views, but just as cool was the sight of at least 40 other balloons making the same trip. We were high in the sky and surrounded by colorful balloons at every turn. It was one of the most beautiful views I have seen…gliding above a fantasy land that looked like illustrations from a children’s book. Balloon landings are the only thing that are a little scary about a journey-as you duck down into the basket and are not sure when landing is coming. You land with a boom…not the light, soft bump ending of an amusement park ride. After the landing, men who follow the balloon, pick up the entire basket filled with people and place it on the bed of their truck for a ride to an open area for a champagne toast…two glasses for Bones and zero for me (just saying).

Our next stop was Antalya…a coastal city where we did a bit more shopping, did a bit more relaxing, and bonded even more. It was nice traveling with Bones because the hotels were swankier than my norm, so we really enjoyed just being at the hotels-hanging out, sharing breakfasts, and often going to sleep quite early. We walked along the coast and had a day at the beach. Well, I laid on the beach and Bones talked to people occasionally yelling my way requesting that to say Hi to her new friends. The beach time ended when she came walking over with the guy who wanted to sit on the beach and chat. So much for the quiet beach time. :)

Speaking of chatting…there is only one thing that I am growing tired of during this trip-and that is telling my “life story.” Really, I bore myself to tears. You cannot imagine the number of times I have answered questions like…Where are you from? What is your job? Are you married? Where have you been? Which place did you like best?” These are necessary questions. It’s just that I am way more interested in what others have to say than hearing my own details and want to quickly gloss over my stuff to get to theirs.

There is also is a awkward moment that I encounter regularly when people ask about my family….like “what do your parents think about you traveling?” and I say that they have died, but I know they would be excited. Then, with a sad face we quickly change the subject and I am asked if I have siblings…and when I answer that question and feel their discomfort, I can only say to myself, “Thanks, Dave” with a sarcastic inner voice and know he would be laughing at me officially winning the title of the family “black plague” that we joked about. It’s funny how many times I think about Dave and can’t help but laugh at some of our own inside jokes. He was always pleased that I was a “good audience for him” and proud that he gave me “lots of material” to laugh about. I feel blessed that I have a lifetime of his sayings, antics, and stories to keep me smiling.

Time with Bones ended with another few days in Istanbul before heading to our next stops-Bones heading home and me back to Israel. I think our time together was a success…we had fun like friends while enjoying memories that only family can share. Bones will probably say…I spend too much time on my phone, I have too many “rules” about quiet time, and that I am a bit quirky, but I think she had fun, too!

I arrived back in Tel Aviv in the middle of the night, but they have all night “sheruts” or small vans that take you into Jerusalem. It took me directly to Christ Church Guest House inside of Jaffa Gate. It is such a beautiful place to stay with the lively atmosphere outside and peaceful garden and cafe on the grounds. I was scheduled to stay there for four nights and enjoyed every one of them.

Last time I was in Bethlehem, Ira and Nova who I stayed with on previous vist, introduced me to Osama who is a taxi driver they trust and like. He is a funny and gracious man. I took a bus back to Bethlehem on my first day nearby to see some other friends. When I got off the bus, I heard my name being yelled. It was Osama and he had another man in his car. Osama said that he told the man to wait a few minutes because he had a feeling I was on the bus. He said God told him to wait. Usually, I would be skeptical, but even odder was that the man in the front seat knew my friends of the area and we had common connections. Since no one knew I was coming, it had to be a Divine connection and reminded me of Hebrews 13:2 which says “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.” My year has been filled with all kinds of angel interactions where people have been right where I needed them…just in the knick of time.

There was another special moment that Osama and I shared with others. While staying in Jerusalem, there was a church group staying at my hotel. They were traveling through Israel to learn about important Biblical sights, but had been discouraged from visiting the West Bank on their free day, but were considering taking an expensive taxi ride to Bethlehem. Since I was going there on that day, I offered to show they how to use the public bus to get there and promised to connect them with Osama. When we got there, he was waiting (half an hour early when we showed up) and drove them into the city center near Manger Square and the Church of the Holy Nativity that marks Jesus’ possible birth location. After spending a bit of time making lasagna with Nova and her friends, I was frustrated at myself for committing to take them back to Jerusalem and would have much rather stayed and enjoyed the delicious dinner we were making, but because their church friends were reluctant to see them go to Bethlehem, expecting bad things, I wanted to be sure they made it back with a positive story. Osama picked us up from our respective places and dropped us off at the bus. Only after he left, did one of the girls realized that she left her prescription glasses in his car. I had his phone number, so we asked a man on the bus to call him…and then we watched as the driver, the man with the phone, and Osama put a plan into quick action where he delivered the glasses back without us having to miss the bus. Calls were exchanged, Osama was running, the bus was waiting, and no one would take a penny of thanks from the girl. All of the moments worked together as an example of the kindness of strangers and showed the beautiful hearts of the strangers they encountered in Bethlehem.

I visited Isfiya near Haifa for a weekend trip to visit two of Jason’s friends live there in a Druze area. I had to do a quick Wikipedia hunt to get some background, where I learned that Druze are a religious minority in Israel. They are Arabic-speaking social group and religious sect who often keep their beliefs covered to others. Druze living in Israel serve in the Israeli Defense Forces and tend to live together in villages. Ronit and Tom were some of my favorite people I have met on my trip. I wish they lived nearby so you could all meet them. They opened their home and hearts to me…and filled me up with the most healthy and delicious foods as they are living a vegan life of salads, soups, and juices. I left feeling spiritually inspired by their strong faith and awed that I really enjoyed their fresh juice made with greens and beets. The weather was cold, and Ronit has a great sense of style…so I got a mini makeover with a new jacket with gold studs and a cool new sweatshirt with a built in neck covering. Tom and Ronit have a beautiful love story that she shared with me in her testimony and they were fun to be around because they have so much affection for each other. After many years of marriage, they’ve still got love in their eyes for each other and the playful spirit of two people who have shared lots of life together.

I returned to Jerusalem and ended up with a cold…maybe my body was confused by that juice and rebelled a bit. I woke up stuffy and hacking and whined for a bit in bed…which was ridiculous because it was not a bad cold. My suitcase has a bag of emergency meds from my doctor that I have been blessed not to use so far, but still I was looking for some sympathy. I came to this trip being mentally prepared for malaria or worse, so it occurred to me that I couldn’t let a runny nose be the end of me. I survived, but was prompted to spend a few days at the beach of Eilat instead of doing further traveling to great distances. After nine months on the road, I have decided that I am not really a “gotta see that” person. I can’t remember many places I have seen, but I remember the people, the experiences, and the foods where I have been peaceful and still…so I am doing more of that.

All I want now is to stop the clock. I don’t want this dream to end. In many ways, I am excited about returning home, but I also recognize that this dream trip will be over soon. As I head to Italy…my final destination, I am starting to get mushy nostalgia thoughts about the past nine months where I have gained some insights of a rested heart-that will likely bore or freak people out when I get home. If I can keep my focus, you are going to meet my powerfully peaceful self when I get back. No…I AM going to do it. Really! I swear! Wait! You’ll see! I mean it! No doubts! Just believe me, okay?

20130502-204450.jpg

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Iraq? Sure, Why Not?

For months, I have been waiting for Jason to meet me in Istanbul so we could explore Turkey and travel to Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. This wasn’t the first trip we’ve taken, but it was our first international adventure, and I knew it was important because being able travel well as a team would influence future plans we made. Traveling with another person is a big deal to me. There are many people I love, but in all honesty, the groove needed to travel with another person… especially to less-developed locations…is something I can’t imagine with most. There are too many factors to consider…too many opportunities for things to go wrong…traveling gets really personal…and I like the freedom of being alone. I wondered if the last months had made me too independent to travel with someone else. After all, I decided everything about my recent days, with no consideration of the needs of others. I slept when I was tired…ate when I felt hungry… made a new friend when I felt social…and was pretty quiet the rest of the time. It has been all about me and now I was delving into a new area of partnership and communication. It was exciting and in the days leading up to the trip, I reveled in the blessing of dating someone who was also excited about visiting Iraq. In most cases, people look at me with alarm when they hear about destinations like this, but we were both anxious to be welcomed by people of Erbil.

I waited at the airport for Jason’s arrival in Istanbul! Airports are emotional places-especially for welcomes and goodbyes-I have learned they are much more pleasant when welcoming someone to a new city. I like that it feels like opening the first page of novel and knowing the story will be good, but not knowing what to expect next.

After months of video chatting, it was great to see more than Jason’s face on my iPad screen. On the bus ride to Taksim Square, I shared stories about my visits with his friends in Israel as he took in his first views of Istanbul. Before Jason arrived, I had two days to explore the city, so I felt comfortable getting around and we had a great apartment hotel where Jason could make his own space.

The food is Istanbul is generally* very cheap. We shared our first meals together…about $10 for both of us, hung out drinking tea, visited the grand bazaar, and walked along the busy streets of Turkey. We were quickly walking in the groove of partners. We enjoyed the power of teamwork to figure things out and a common desire to just absorb the culture without checking a list of places to see. I appreciated Jason’s kindness to people we met, desire to go with the flow, and ability to manage stressful moments with patience and kindness.** I also appreciated two weeks of turning over some of the things that I enjoy less about being alone on the road like always having to take care of organizing my money, carrying my suitcase down long staircases, and watching where I walk in traffic. I have never been so happy to free my brain from these things for a few weeks.

While waiting for Jason, I did a bit of research on church services we could attend on Sunday and found an English/Turkish service at Nations Church. When I sent the email requesting service information, I received a quick response from their Pastor Peyton Harris who invited us to dinner when Jason arrived. How cool is that…a crew to help welcome him to Istanbul-like an international example of “knock and the door will be opened.” Peyton and his wife Clover are from Virginia and moved to Istanbul to plant a church. We enjoyed a Turkish dinner with them and a few of their friends. We were all quickly comfortable and we learned a lot about life in Turkey.

The days in Istanbul were rainy and kind of quiet…a few sights, tea shops, and lots of eating. I forgot…generally men need more to eat than my standard one meal and snacks, and for some reason, if I am at a restaurant…even if I am not hungry, I will eat. So I did…a lot! I ate more in those two weeks than I have for the past month. Different cities tend to have their own personalities, and I find Istanbul to be a rather serious place. People walk around…rarely smiling and don’t offer general niceties that I have come to expect in places like South America, Africa, and Nepal. People bump into you without an excuse me, crowd in line, and seem very reluctant to interact with strangers. It might just be my experience, but that’s all I have to form my impressions of a place. People are not necessarily unkind, but don’t seem particularly outgoing either.

After the first few days in Istanbul, and a short bus to Ankara, we boarded a plane for Erbil, Iraq. Erbil has been on my heart since hosting friends Aamr and Ali who were chaperones for the Iraqi Youth Leadership Exchange Program hosted by World Chicago. Two and a half years ago, they visited Chicago and we spent a lovely two weeks exploring the city together. They gave me new insights into Iraq and I aimed to give them many experiences with friends who served as Chicago’s citizen ambassadors. Aamr assured me that Erbil was a safe city in the Kurdish region of Iraq…his stories of beautiful architecture, family outings, and safe conditions were so different than my perceptions of Iraq that I was intrigued and wanted to visit. As a soldier, Jason spent a year deployed in Iraq and had imagined visiting again to travel through Kurdistan. We learned that many Kurds hold an affection for George W. Bush and American soldiers who liberated them from the atrocities of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Aamr was an excellent host from our first minutes in Erbil…picking us up at the airport at 3:00 am! We immediately had warm feelings about the people we met. The hotel staff was friendly and as we walked the streets, people were gracious and outgoing.

Some of my favorite moments from Erbil…

The food was delicious! We enjoyed delicious chicken kebobs… a few times and enjoyed the plates of salads, hummus, and bread. Near the oldest inhabited residence, The Citadel, we wandered and bought fresh squeezed pomegranate juice for about a dollar.

During our visit, Erbil celebrated Newroz-the Kurdish New Year. On our first night, there was a 1st Annual Dance Party around The Citadel. The intent of the party was to break a world record for the most dancers, but for the first attempt, most people were dancing in small groups instead of joining as one complete circle. They will try again next year. The area surrounding The Citadel was packed…with tons of men and very few women. There were a few clusters of women…but when I turned my head, there was rarely another woman in sight.

We had a rare opportunity to visit a World Chicago contact who works at the American Consulate. Although Erbil is very safe, our government has a “One Iraq” policy so conditions in the Consulate in Erbil are identical to those in the Embassy in Baghdad. That means that the staff must live on the Consulate grounds and cannot even cross the street outside of the walls to get a cup of coffee. They work, eat, and socialize with each other only…every day for their one year terms. If employees have business outside of the Consulate, they must travel in bulletproof, secure cars with their own security team. It seemed intense! Our hostess was an interesting woman. When we asked how her family felt about her placement in Erbil, she said they were thankful because one of her recent terms was spent in Baghdad. She treated us to lunch within the compound using “fake money” that is given to her for food each month. Most of the people on the sight were security…big burly guys protecting the property. For example, when we first arrived, we had to be confirmed from a list of guests, hand over our passports and cell phones, and have our bags searched. When we stopped at the Consulate grocery store before leaving, our hostess pointed out that the owners clearly knew their clientele…there were shelves lined with protein powders, vitamins, and alcohol. I guess you have to find a way to entertain yourself during free time when you are confined to a small living space.

Our second Newroz festivities were energetically fun! The government of Erbil hosted a huge party in a local park with live music, a few speeches, lighting of a ceremonial fire, and a great firework display! People were having a great time celebrating Kurdish pride. They have had recent hardships…awful atrocities against the Kurdish people…and on this night we could appreciate their resilience and feel the great pride in their culture and region.

The days in Erbil were just the beginning of our memories in Northern Iraq. I am sure of that. We connected with Aamr and Hussein who were World Chicago friends and met new friends, too. We enjoyed a sunny afternoon of tea outside of The Citadel with our new friends Botan and Kamaran and feel sure that we’ll see them again, make new connections, and spend time exploring other areas outside of Erbil.

**Here’s the moment when we had a chance to see how we handle potentially stressful situations
On our last day, we basked in positive thoughts about our time there, talked about future dreams for the area, and casually enjoyed meals and time with our new friends. We felt relaxed and blissful as Aamr and his daughter Soz drove us to the airport for our 4:50 flight back to Turkey. Now mind you…I have taken over 50 scheduled plane, train, and bus rides in the last right months and have never missed or been late for one. I KNOW THAT A TICKET THAT WITH A FLIGHT TIME OF 4:50 IS AN EARLY MORNING FLIGHT! But…as I reviewed the ticket at least ten times…my head made plans for an afternoon flight with a busy morning of activities. We arrived at the airport and said our goodbyes, when Soz decided she would like to come into the airport. Thank God for Soz because as soon as we looked at the departure board and did not see a flight listed for Turkey, it came crashing down on my mind that our flight left at 4:50 am and I knew that the next flight on this airline left three days later. These are the moments that define a trip…define a relationship…and set the stage for future events. I felt blessed when Jason gave me a “hmmmm” look and calmly worked with me and Aamr to brainstorm other options. Aamr stepped up as our hero who found us an overnight bus to Turkey…eight hours scheduled… actual 14 hour trip. Jason got online and built us a new itinerary…Bones did her magic in response to our text for help and found us a hotel in our new destinations…and I got to appreciate all of them without feeling judged by anyone but myself for such a ridiculous mistake.

We spent our next days in Turkey hanging out in Ankara, Ephesus, Izmiri, and back in Istanbul. Ephesus was especially meaningful…imagining Paul and the early days of the church there and having familiarity with the Ephesians.

As we prepared to return to Istanbul, we sent a message to a new friend we met at our hotel there and invited him to lunch with us. There was something special about this guy. He had a positive nature, felt honorable to us, and it was fun to chat and learn about his dreams of coming to the US.

*Here is our “not so cheap” meal
moment. We visited a restaurant on the Galata Bridge and ordered a few salads, three huge shrimp, a beer for each of them, and chose a fish from the platter presented. The meal was fun and delicious. The fish came out on a huge tray…a big one…the fish was big enough to have teeth and fed all of us! I knew the meal would be more expensive than the $10 for two meals that we had been enjoying for our entire trip, but wowsa…the bill came and we signed it…and only later did it hit us that we just paid $250 for lunch. Yes…I am not kidding! That was more than we paid for all meals combined to that point. Jason and I were not sure what to think…we felt bad because we were not savvy and were so into enjoying our time that we just went with the flow and spent way too much money. Before we could even reconcile that in our hearts, we stopped at a hamam or Turkish bath. Now me…I like them…I am used to them…and didn’t even think that this might not be something a guy might enjoy…until I saw Jason’s face when he was finished and heard his lament about what an awful experience it was! What?? Rick Steve’s liked it! I just can’t repeat Jason’s story with same flare that he tells it, but I can say that I am sure he won’t be visiting another hamam in his lifetime.

A crazy expensive lunch…a traumatic hamam experience…this was not exactly how I imagined our last day together! As the evening proceeded, and we sat on the couch watching tv and tending to our small wounds, I recognized the fact that we both have the ability to appreciate the blessings of these bumps in the road. We agreed in thinking…Heck…if our worst robbery of the week took place over a delicious lunch, that was better than an armed attack. And these experiences gave us a chance to know each other better and practice on the spot problem solving…maybe avoiding future conflicts. And I definitely learned that Jason does not enjoy a scrub down from a stranger…that’s good to know!

In general, I think Turkish men may pamper themselves a bit more than they do at home. Jason’s simple hair cut turned into a hair conditioning treatment with his head wrapped in foil and sporting a green mud mask. As I sat watching all the men at the barber shop with drying mud on their faces, I could only imagine the reaction of some of my friends at home. A simple shave became so much more. He was shaved, cologned, rubbed, and powdered all in the name of facial hair removal. At one point, the barber took out a flame and used it to burn stray hairs off his face. I swear, I never knew what to expect as I sat and watched these pampering extravaganzas!

The return to the airport to drop him off was not as fun as the arrival. I wished I could start the whole adventure over. I have not felt lonely on this trip, but I was thankful Bones was on her way to Turkey to join me for two weeks because this probably would have been the moment when I longed to board the plane home. But now…I am back on a bus-filled with new dreams and visions for the future…that is an amazing place to be! Three months to go..two weeks in Turkey, two weeks in Israel, and two months in Italy before coming home! How will I ever get back into a normal routine?

*more on that later
**more on that later, too

20130415-103249.jpg

Posted in Iraq, Kurdistan, Travel | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Thawing My Heart in Jerusalem

I know many people who love the Holy Lands of Israel and the Palestinian Area Terrorities. Before I visited two years ago, people shared their powerful experiences walking the roads where Jesus traveled, exploring places that seemed so far away but familiar from years of Biblical readings and retellings of the Christmas story. When names like Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem fell from their lips, it was always with a sense of awe and reverence. So…when I visited with Bones during my winter break two years ago, I was sad that I didn’t feel moments of passion or revelation. Christmas tourists were everywhere…shuttled in and out of these familiar places during whirlwind tours. Security was very tight, which is understandable, but I felt an intensity that weighed on me. I spent four days getting on and off vans…and while it was a great overview of the area, I left telling myself that I would never return.

Flash forward two years and here I am back in Israel and PAT… walking the streets…meeting the people…and finding just what makes this area so special. When I arrived, Jason set me up with some email connections with friends he met while living here. From my first communications, it was an interesting mix of people there for diverse purposes.

One of the especially great things about this visit was that my hotel was within the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem…just minutes from the busy Damascus Gate. As I walked through the narrow streets…strolling along the Via Dolorosa where Jesus took his last steps, I felt a mix of comfort and awe…wrapped in a sense of easy peacefulness. After a few days, I had my baklava guy, my falafel shop, and a place to have tea while looking at beautiful scarves. It was a fun introduction to Jerusalem and my heart quickly thawed.

The first person I met was Harry. Seeing as my dad was named Harry, I had a special affection for him before we met. Harry and his wife have lived in Jerusalem for over 20 years and have a western cultural center in Ramallah where people come to take English language classes. We traveled together to Ramallah so I could see the center and meet a few people. When I get back to Jerusalem on a month, I am hoping to reconnect and possibly teach a future English class there. Spending time with Harry gave me insights into the area that were valuable and important to know. His work was inspiring.

The next day, I visited with Jonathan who showed me around the Christ Church Guest House…a place I had heard much about from people who volunteered there. It is just inside Jaffa Gate and is not only a guest house, but also a chapel, garden, and cafe. I have booked a room for four nights when I return. Jonathan shared funny stories and gave me lots of travel tips for the area.

I spent the weekend in Bethlehem with Nova, Ira, and their son Shalom. They are a young couple doing mission work in the area. They were so cool and fun. Their house is in Beit Sahour which is a prominently Christian area. Meeting their neighbors and friends offered additional insights into life in the West Bank. We visited with American neighbors Shannon and George who they met there and it seemed like they had known each other for life. We went to an international church service on Friday night and I learned more about the “house church” movement. One night, we hung out watching the big premiere of Arab Idol…we were not very good at judging the talent.

By this point, my mind was whirling with all that I was experiencing! In a way, it is hard to write it down, because the area is so complicated…politically, geographically, historically, culturally and in every other way. I have great friends whose opinions I value that are very different from each other, so as an outsider, I find myself listening, asking questions, and trying to learn more. I have met soldiers and prisoners on both sides of the conflicts and feel their passions for their homes. I believe there are many people who are currently wanting peace far more than are portrayed in the media.

On Sunday, I spent the morning at the House of Bread Church in Bethlehem…just down the road from the Church of the Holy Nativity. The members were mainly Palestinian Christians and the service was beautiful…being delivered in English and translated into Arabic. Pastor Al Zhougbi and his family invited me for a delicious lunch where I learned more about their ministry and church. On Monday, I realized that I forgot to leave their family with a gift I brought, so I popped back on the bus and enjoyed a few special moments with Mrs. Al Zhougbi. She gave me a few jars of homemade apricot jam that looked delicious!

My last moments in Israel were spent at Or’s house. I met Or when he was a couch surfer in Chicago. He visited last year and stayed with his family, but we met for dinner with another Couchsurfer. We have stayed in touch, so it was cool to meet up with him. My flight was scheduled to leave at 5:30 am so we had a great dinner of Sibich…a pita sandwich filled with hummus, boiled egg, fried eggplant and a mix of vegetables and sauces. I am dreaming about it as I write. Or was a great host and it was nice to end my time in Israel hanging out with a friend.

When I arrived at the airport, I was prepared for tight security because I experienced it during my last visit and also because my journey has been so extensive. What I didn’t think about it that my homemade jam may have looked pretty suspicious…at least enough to warrant a good check. The jam and suitcase review took about an hour with multiple scannings and reviews by many people. In the end, the team of two found two other women who took me on a back room to search me carefully including deep reviews of my clothing and seams. I loved when the guard asked the most logical of questions. After lifting my pant legs and seeing that I wore leggings underneath and multiple tshirts, she wanted to know why I wore so many clothes to protect myself from the cold while still wearing my open shoe flip flops. It was a good question and one I could only answer with a laugh.

I flew to Istanbul where I am spending a few days before heading to Erbil, Iraq. Kurdistan has a hard history but is a place where many exciting changes are taking place. I am thrilled by all of the chances I will have to learn about the area and people! Jason arrives on Friday for our two weeks of exploring together. It’s going to be great to have a travel partner with me.

20130316-181804.jpg

Posted in Travel | Tagged | 4 Comments