It’s been awhile since I’ve written and I have lots of things that I’ve been thinking about and working on for 2020. I even have the outline to what I thought would be my first blog of the new year, but life sometimes leads us down other paths and so I’m pounding the keyboard with fresh thoughts in my head. Just like in life, we will see where this leads.
In a few hours, I’m going to take Stephen to school where he will take a bus to the airport and then board a flight(s) to Vienna, Austria. I started this whole blog thing last year after his school trip to London, Paris, Florence, and Rome. It was a great trip that I can testify to because I WENT WITH HIM. He’s taking this trip without me. This decision felt like a great idea nine months ago when he signed up but now it feels like the precursor to having myself checked for early onset dementia. My recent Facebook memories were the times he explained to his fourth grade class (at his small private school in metropolitan Toronto) how to skin a deer properly or the time he started a Ponzi scheme in fifth grade. What made me think that five years removed from those experiences is the perfect time to send him to Central Europe without legal guardians?
This morning I opened my prayer journal needing a Word from God. My prayer journal prompts me with a verse and some gratitude practice and I usually write from there. I needed God to show up with a verse to speak into my fears. I’m paraphrasing, but I was looking for something along the lines of: Fear not and worry not for the Lord God Almighty will surround your firstborn son with legions of angels, a wall of fire, pillar of clouds, and the United States Army Delta Force and nary any harm shall fall upon him for the time ye are apart. Also, the Lord has installed a nanny cam on his phone so you can check on him every single minute.
That was not the verse I got. In fact, when I first read the passage, I had no idea why God put it there because it made about as much sense as those passages in Numbers about the lineage of the tribes of Israel. This morning’s passage was Psalm 103: 20-22.
You who are the Lord’s angels, you strong angels who do what he tells you to do, praise the Lord!
All of you who belong to his armies in heaven, his servants who do what he wants, praise the Lord!
Yes, everything that the Lord has made, in all the places that he rules over, praise the Lord!
I say to myself: Praise the Lord!
I realize that the words “angels” and “￼armies” are included in this passage, but if you read carefully, they are being told to praise God, not protect and or rescue my son from harm. There is also nothing here to address my fear and anxiety. Nothing here tells me everything is going to be fine. This is not the Word I wanted this morning.
But maybe it’s the message I need￼? Because what if praising the Lord is what we should do when we’re scared, worried, or planning scenarios where you might have to fly to Vienna and pull your child out of a dangerous situation like some kind of Mama-Bear-Liam-Neeson-ninja. Like a Hallelujah anyway, but maybe it’s a Praise the Lord always.
Praise the Lord when I’m scared.
Praise the Lord when I’m worried.
Praise the Lord when I’m not in control.
Next week might find me blogging from a chair in the United States Embassy in Vienna or hunting down kidnappers in shady dives across Europe. Who knows? Wherever I am, I hope it finds praising the Lord.
When the kids were little and we lived in Ontario, I remember taking them to a small local book shop. While they played with the collection of toys in the children’s section, I chatted with the shop owner. I don’t remember how we got on the topic, but she mentioned that she and her husband were taking a month long trip to Italy. They had a car rented and they were just going to wing it when they got there. I was more than a little impressed by the free style approach to vacationing so I asked her if she was fluent in Italian. She laughed, “Oh no, we don’t speak any Italian. We’ll figure it out as we go.” I remember standing there, having never traveled to a country where language would be an issue, and wondering what kind of crazy was she. After all, we had just moved to Canada, where they spoke English, and I was daily overwhelmed by not knowing what I didn’t know. She must have sensed my bewilderment because she smiled at me and said, “These are the best ways to experience this world- making our way out of our comfort zones. It’s how we find out that we are, all of us, quite the same. Just trying to do our best, love our families well, and be happy.”
It was one of those conversations, that as soon as the words were spoken, even as they hovered in the air between us, I knew they would leave a mark.
We’ve had some opportunities to travel since that time, and to places where English is not officially spoken. It really does make you slow down and pay attention to what people do, because you can’t always understand what they say. You notice that moms everywhere will swipe at food crumbs on their child’s face regardless of their age. That old people holding hands in Paris will tug at your heart just as much as your own grandparents do at home. Paul and I were in a copper smith shop in Tuscany trying to buy a wine chiller, and the old man and his wife who ran the shop spoke no English. We were limited to my Rick Steves guide to basic Italian phrases, and we had this crazy 20 minute visit that included pointing, gesticulating, and saying words in our own tongue LOUDER, like that was some kind of solution to the language barrier. The whole thing was so comical we were all four laughing. In that small shop, two couples separated by age, language, country, and culture, yet for a moment, quite the same.
As I’ve blogged about earlier, Stephen and I went to Europe with a school group back in January. It was part of something his school does, called Go Week, the week before they come back to school after Christmas Break. Students can take an educational trip, a mission trip, or work in groups here at home on various service projects. This past week, we attended the celebration of all of the trips and service work, where students and adults shared stories about their experiences. One of the students who traveled to Israel was sharing his experiences and talking about the diversity he encountered. He was a very good public speaker, but as he shared some of the interactions he had with children there, he said, “It just made me realize… we’re all, like… people. You know?” A few people smiled and chuckled because it sounded like a teenage summation, but I was smiling and nodding like a Pentecostal at a tent revival. This student had run up against the same truth I had encountered in that bookshop ten years ago. We’re all people. And quite the same.
As the evening went on, some of the local service projects shared their experiences and there were very similar themes emerging. Kids and adults were placed in environments they might not normally be found in, and serving these communities with fellow students they might not normally spend time with. They were amazed at the people they got to meet and how much they valued not just the service work, but the actual community they built in one week. We’re all trying to do our best, love our people, and be happy.
I love to travel, and I am game to go just about anywhere. I like the landscape, art, and culture of a new place. But I am always more fascinated by the people and their stories. My word for this year is ADVENTURE, but it applies to more than just travel. It’s an open invitation to explore and understand all the people and situations I encounter. To embrace the new and (sometimes) uncomfortable, and to rest in the truth that we ARE all people. And quite the same.
Day 7: Today began with an inauspicious start because sleeper trains are terrible. Six people in a hot bunkhouse with no moving air while rumbling along the railways of France is not conducive to rest. Not to mention the domestic dispute that went on in the hallway between two passengers and assorted other drama. Our train got stuck about an hour outside of Milan, where we were supposed to change trains, but because the train doors wouldn’t shut automatically we sat for an hour and a half while they shut them manually. This meant we missed our connecting train to Florence. We got rebooked and when we arrived in Florence, we faced a transportation strike that had shut down roads around the train station. We hiked with all our belongings about 2 miles to meet our coach.
We rode over to Piazzale Michelangelo to enjoy the famous majestic view of Florence. I love this city! It takes my breath away. We then got back on the coach and headed to Pitti Palace to meet our guide. We are here on a Monday and all museums are closed on Monday, which excluded us from seeing the David and other famous works of art in the Uffizi. The guide gave a simple overview of Florence but everyone was dragging. After the tour ended I grabbed Stephen and took him around and explained to him some of the important attractions of Florence and the influence of the Medici on this city. We had a lunch of Tagliatelle with Boar Ragout and we ran to the gelateria Paul and I enjoyed when we were here 3 years ago. We also purchased some of my favorite perfume that I can’t find in the USA and we bought Stephen a leather wallet embossed with his initials for whenever he finally decides to get going on his driver’s license.
We met up with the group for dinner and made our way back to the hotel. Most of us are exhausted, but there is a contingent that plans to stay up and watch the National Championship which begins around 2 am local time. Go Tigers. Roll Tide. Bless all the hearts.
I’m sad that Florence could not have been a better experience for everyone in the group because it is such a beautiful city and there is so much beauty to enjoy, history to learn, food to eat, places to shop, (wine to drink) etc etc etc. Unfortunately, evil sleeper trains are the tool of the devil and they won this day. Tomorrow, we depart for Rome and Vatican City so we rest in the hope that at the seat of the Church, we will turn this thing around and finish the trip strong.
Day 8: Last night I slept for 9 hours so Italy is obviously my home away from home. That, and I was wrecked from the sleeper train and probably could have slept standing up in a monsoon. After a delicious breakfast and 3 coffees, we boarded the coach for Rome. We had a stop at a small Italian rest stop/gourmet grocer and everyone was able to taste and enjoy some of the “fruits” of Tuscany. Stephen and I enjoyed a cappuccino and he once again shared that this is his favorite trip he has ever been on in his whole life. My heart is full.
We arrived in Rome around noon and headed for lunch in Vatican City. Stephen and I picked a restaurant together and he had a fettuccine bolognese and I had the ravioli. After lunch, he asked me should we have an espresso like the Italians do and so I ordered us two. He said, “So we drink this black, right?” I said yes, and he threw it back like a shot of tequila. Bless. So as we sat there and I added sugar to mine and nursed it for 3 sips, he broke the silence and said, “You’re a good mother.” I was a little taken aback because it came out of nowhere, but I finally asked what made him say that. He just shrugged and said. “You are. You are a good mother.” And that moment, right there in a cafe in Vatican City, is more sacred to me than all the art and antiquities of the Holy See.
We browsed a few gift shops because Stephen has decided that buying Lindsey a little statue of Michelangelo’s (naked) David would be the best souvenir ever. Of course, Lindsey is appalled by all nudity and would even prefer men not take off their shirts at the beach. Stephen believes the David randomly appearing in her room, like a nude Elf on the Shelf would bring him joy for all eternity.
We met up with the group and our Italian guide, Marina, who would take us through the Vatican museum, The Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. The museum is filled with so much art and the kids seemed to be pretty amazed by it. Everything in Rome is so old and as an American, it really gives you a perspective on how young our country is. There are things here that predate the birth of Christ and Romans consider 1776 to be modern. The Sistine Chapel brought one girl in our group to tears and by the time we got to the Basilica and saw the altar of St Peter’s Baldachin and Bernini’s The Gloria of the Holy Spirit, there was a lot of quiet awe. We finished the tour and headed out walking through Rome towards dinner and Gareth brought us to Piazza Navona. I took Stephen over to the center sculpture, The Fountain of the Four Rivers, by Bernini, and told him what it symbolized, which is a testament to my 40-something brain for retaining that information. The guide who brought us here 3.5 years ago was a low talker and her English was very difficult to understand, but I was determined to try and decipher every word because how often do you get to Rome? Maybe the things we struggle the most to understand are the ones that make the greatest impact.
After Piazza Navona, we stopped to pick up snacks for the hotel room and headed for the restaurant. Dinner was a sort of buffet and then we walked back to the coach where we boarded for the hotel.
Tomorrow is our last full day and we’ll do the Colosseum, Forum and I’m not sure what else. There will be some free time so I’m considering what I might take Stephen to see, besides just checking gift shops for the David statues.
Day 9: Today began with a bus into Rome to meet Marina at the Colosseum and have her guide us around there and the Forum.
All the kids seem to love the Colosseum and even some of the parents were buzzing as we got off the bus about how excited they were to see it all. Rome just impresses you with the juxtaposition of ancient ruins, magnificent Renaissance art, significant religious sites and antiquities, and the buzz of the modern everywhere you look. Today’s tours lasted until noon and then Gareth led us to the Pantheon where we were given about 5 hours of free time before we were to meet at the Trevi Fountain and walk to dinner.
My plan was to take Stephen to the Spanish steps, get lunch, do some shops, grab a coffee, and head over to the Trevi Fountain for gelato and to take our pictures before the group rendezvous. We did all that, but we walked in many triangles and circles to do it. Rome has the wackiest streets in the world because there are all these tiny diagonals that were probably originally made for chariots and not cars. Even using google maps, my little blue dot was waving the white flag telling me to PLEASE UBER. At one point we walked in a complete triangle and Stephen said, “Didn’t we just begin this walk 10 meters from here?” Yes, we did, Captain Obvious. I struggled to get us to the Spanish steps and then once we got there and tried to leave, we kept reappearing there. Ferdinand Magellan, I am not.
At the top of the Spanish Steps, we talked about so many things- what his favorites of this trip were, what surprised him, what he would come back to see – that kind of stuff. He said the food in Florence was his favorite but he also loved the cafe culture of France and Italy; taking time to slow down and have a coffee and just watch people go by. I could not agree more and it’s one of my favorite parts of visiting Europe. Despite the hustle and bustle to see and do all the things, there is a slowdown and enjoy element that Europeans religiously observe and it is easy to adopt.
We did some shops- Stephen wanted to hit the flagship Ferrari store so we went there as well as some shops for Lindsey. Then it was time for another coffee drink. We have both had so much espresso in Italy, we could run through a brick wall and then rebuild it.
We headed back to the Trevi Fountain and got some pictures in the daylight and twilight as the lights came on to illuminate it. It was under rehabilitation when Paul and I came to Rome 3 years ago. It is beautiful at night.
From the regroup we headed to dinner and enjoyed laughing over shared memories and the experiences of the last 9 days with our group.
I can’t believe we leave tomorrow.
Day 10: Departure day is here. Time has done a funny thing over the last 9 days. We have done so many things and covered so much territory that it feels longer than 10 days that we left. London and Paris feel like weeks ago because we have packed so many experiences into our days in Italy.
We had a fond send-off with Gareth/Gordon Ramsay at the airport, and despite his insane pace and Michelin star chef demeanor, I think we are all grateful for the way in which he handled us logistically. It’s no small undertaking to see a group of 30 around Europe and keep ahead of the plan whilst also managing safety and real-time awareness. He is snarky but good-natured and as we manage ourselves now from Rome to Amsterdam and then on to Atlanta, his absence is felt.
Before we left I chatted with him as our group was checking in and he asked me what I thought of the trip. It was excellent. So organized. So fun. So educational. And so relational. I wanted to see this with Stephen. We made so many memories together that are ours forever. Mine and his. I wanted to watch him fall in love with Europe, and I did. I wanted to see how he handled himself. He did great. Gareth asked me the big question that only this trip could answer: Would I let him come again but without me? Yes. Yes, I would. He knows what he is about when he travels. He is aware of what’s going on around him. He has a pretty good sense of direction. He shows deference and respect as a visitor. He makes every attempt at the language. He is a good traveler. That makes me happy and also reminds me how quickly he is growing up.
Watching our group has also been fascinating. This trip has been a mix of The Amazing Race, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, The Breakfast Club, and Hell’s Kitchen. The group of kids we took represent every high school grade and social group. While there were some little friend groups, the majority of these kids came autonomously, driven by a personal desire to see and experience Europe. I think that’s why our experience was so rich because they were mostly all dedicated to a deeper understanding of what they knew about these countries. I hope they see the world differently. I hope they see each other differently. I hope they are all a little changed by it, or at least they have created space in an opened mind for change to come.
Whatever the case, Stephen and I had an amazing trip.
Until we meet again.
À la prochaine.
(Travel Tip: Traveling by couchette train ranks second only to vomiting on my list of Worst Ways To Spend The Night, so consider that as you make travel plans)