Four Months of Lockdown in South Africa

As you can tell, I have decided to write one more blog post so that I could tell you about my experience of being locked down in South Africa. When I arrived in South Africa on March 13th there were very few cases of COVID in the country. The country was functioning normally.

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Even though the country had not yet imposed any restrictions we decided that we were not comfortable being around others. We sought out places we could visit outside like the Union Buildings which is the seat of South African government and houses the office of the president of South Africa. You can see from the statue that Nelson Mandela is a beloved hero in this country (and the world).

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The Union Buildings are surrounded by beautiful gardens that include these gorgeous Birds of Paradise flowers.

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Several months before COVID one of the au pairs who had lived with the Chervenaks a few years ago, made plans to visit them in South Africa. Sophia and her boyfriend, Andrew, arrived from Germany a week before I did. They had anticipated spending another week in South Africa by visiting Cape Town. Unfortunately, they had to cancel their trip and then fly back to Germany instead. In this picture we are enjoying a bowl of ice cream as we listen to the president addressing the nation about COVID. President Ramaphosa is announcing that starting on March 26th the entire country will go into lock down. The lock down will prohibit people from leaving their homes unless they need to buy food, gasoline or need to get to a hospital. The lock down meant that we were not allowed to leave our property even to go for a walk, run or bike ride. 😦 Another restriction that was imposed starting March 26th was that the sale of tobacco products and alcohol was banned. Both of these restrictions are still in place as I write this blog post in August. The sale of tobacco and alcohol generates millions of rand (the South African currency) as tax revenue. Now, because of these restrictions, the government is not receiving this tax revenue causing even more hardship. Also, the black market is selling both alcohol and tobacco which has complicated everything.

Before the lock down started on the 26th of March the family went on as many walks…

…and bike rides…

…and puddle stomping expeditions as possible.

 

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Now virtual learning has begun. Jacob is in third grade and Ella is in first. They attend an international school in Pretoria that went to all virtual learning on March 16th. The children spent about a half a day on daily assignments sent by their teachers. Their lessons often included large, small or individual Zoom meetings.

Both Jacob and Ella needed help from a parent with virtual lessons. Although both these pictures show Ben helping the kids, it was really Elizabeth who spent the most time with the kids on this. Ben was usually doing his work virtually in another part of the house and I was teaching my Albanian students virtually in still another part of the house. Elizabeth does have a part time job writing a twice monthly newsletter for the Embassy but thank goodness it does not require a lot of hours. Keeping up with Jacob and Ella’s schooling plus keeping tabs on the younger two children floating around the house was definitely a full time job. I am not sure how families with two parents working full time could handle it all. Plus I think being a single parent during this pandemic would be especially stressful.

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Here Ben is heading off to work in the back of the house so he can attend a virtual meeting. 🙂

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The family is headed outside to take a PE class with Ben. Don’t we look tough and ready  to go?!?!

 

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Meanwhile, back in the States, Josh is food shopping at Wegman’s and finds the bread aisle almost empty. This shortage only happened at the beginning of the pandemic.

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Randy has spent much time during the pandemic making a waterwheel. He adores his workshop and can easily spend hours at a time making all kinds of things. He decided to make a waterwheel to go in a stream at our property (the Loop) which is about two hours south of Rochester. The property is quite rustic with no electricity or running water. Randy has decided to make this waterwheel to generate electricity for when he spends time at the Loop.

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Josh spent much of his time during the pandemic digging up part of the backyard and planting a vegetable garden.

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At the same time, David’s job was changing rapidly at NYU Languone Medical Center in Manhattan.

David sent these pictures to help us understand the difference between a healthy lung x-ray on the right and and a COVID infected lung x-ray on the left.

David spent some time walking around NYC and sent a few pics of the empty streets. He saw the USS Comfort docked in the harbor. The video is from Times Square, so sad. 😦

Back to Pretoria and the Chervs enjoying their pool. Since South Africa is in the southern hemisphere their seasons are opposite of ours. When I arrived in March it was a week away from the first day of fall. The fall and winter are quite mild in South Africa which means the Chervs use the pool year round.

Digging a hole in the yard looking for worms, playing shoe shop with Nana, playing house in the dog crate and simply being cute were all ways to pass the time when we were locked down during the pandemic.

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Elizabeth and Ben are great cooks! Every meal I ate with them was delicious and almost always full of healthy ingredients. I never prepared a meal while visiting them but I was in charge of cleaning up each night. It was a routine that we fell into and it worked well.

 

I was so glad that I was able to be with Juliet to celebrate her third birthday on March 27th. Ben has a tradition of buying roses for his daughters on their birthdays. Juliet turned three so her daddy bought her three roses, very sweet!

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I absolutely adore this picture!  Francesca is an important and loved part of the Chervenak family. She is originally from Zimbabwe but has lived in South Africa for 20 years. She lives with the Chervs in her own apartment which is part of the house. Her responsibilities mostly center around housework but she also helps out with childcare at times. When the pandemic hit, Francesca had the choice of moving out to live with one of her adult children or staying put in quarantine with the Chervs. She chose to stay with the Chervs which I was glad for because it allowed me the time to get to know this lovely person.

Reading aloud to Juliet each night was a highlight of my time in lock down. Her sense of humor, enthusiasm and candidness made her such fun to be around.

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Look at the text sent out in Albania in early April by the prime minister, Edi Rama. I thought South Africa had a tight lock down but it was mild compared to what was happening in Albania. No one was allowed to leave their home from 1:00PM Friday until 5:00AM Monday for several weeks. Also, you could not leave your home unless you had a pass that you applied for and then was issued to you via text. The very hard lock down kept the COVID numbers low for several weeks but then the economy was suffering so much that Albania opened back up. According to some of my friends that live there, very few people wear masks or social distance now. The number of COVID cases is going up significantly.

Spa Day!!! One of the many events that Elizabeth came up with to help keep the children entertained during quarantine was to have a Spa Day. Elizabeth gave manicures and pedicures, Ben gave massages and I gave facials. All of this with the backdrop of relaxing spa music. The kids loved it and so did we.

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A few times while I was in South Africa, Ambassador Marks addressed the embassy community. Her remarks were usually brief and included an open chat line. There were often questions regarding rather the American employees of the embassy would be staying in South Africa or would they be evacuated. The decision to evacuate was contingent on the possibility of a problem in any of these three areas: a lack of hospital beds, a disruption to the food supply or the dangers of civil unrest. None of these were a significant concern while I was there. Some families did decide to leave South Africa (particularly if a family member had a health concern) but most families, including Elizabeth and Ben felt fine staying in SA.

The kids came up with the idea of having an indoor snowball fight with wads of paper. It was another popular way to pass the time. Can you hear Ella playing her violin in the background? 🙂

The older two children had Crazy Hair Day at school so all four kids got involved.

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Albanian College had Crazy Hair Day the same week so here I am. 🙂

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Juliet was in her Little Tykes Cozy Coupe when she got going too fast and was stopped by a gate at the end of the driveway. She was thrown out of the toy car and hit her head causing lots of blood to come from a cut. Anyways, Elizabeth and Ben took her to the emergency room were she had a few staples put in her scalp to close the wound. It was scary for everyone but the good news is that Juliet healed up fine within a few days.

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For much of the time I was in SA we had weekly family Zoom meetings. Loved seeing and talking with everyone!

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Ready to dye Easter eggs!

The Easter egg hunt is on!

Elizabeth prepared a gorgeous and delicious Easter Brunch for the family.

Back in Fairport, Randy has finished making the waterwheel and is trying it out in our backyard.

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Josh has extended his garden onto the deck and has planted peas in the planters that I usually put flowers in. Looking good!

In April, David was assigned to an ICU unit to care for COVID patients. The picture on the left is what the ICU looks like normally. The picture on the right shows what the unit looks like when caring for COVID patients. Notice the rolling stand with the control center mounted on it outside of the patients’ rooms. That is so the healthcare personnel can monitor the patients’ vitals and ventilators without actually going in the room. They are trying to minimize their exposure to the virus. By early May, David had rotated back to his surgical placement.

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When there was a shortage of PPE this was the bag David put his mask in so he could reuse it later.

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Legos, Legos, Legos…

…ongoing Nerf gun wars…

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…and walking on the driveway in the rain were all popular quarantine activities.

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As part of a school fun day the children were to dress up like a book character. Juliet did not understand the concept of a book character but she definitely understood what it meant to dress up.

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Look at the weather for a typical late fall, early winter week in South Africa!

But on occasion it was like this. Elizabeth and Ben live on a hill so sometimes the weather is a bit more exaggerated.

Ben got Elizabeth and I going on a Peloton cycling program called Power Zones. I definitely was not confident that I would like it but since I could no longer go for runs I decided I would try it. Elizabeth and I both really got into it. Elizabeth was even riding everyday while I rode every 2 or 3 days.

LOVE these pictures that Elizabeth took of her daughter. Juliet is wearing a dress that my mom made for Elizabeth when she was a little girl.

The kids loved riding their scooters around and around the garage and driveway.

 

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I got in the habit of watching Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefing. Although I don’t always agree with his politics I did find his briefings to be informative and comforting. He always had a plan and could explain the thinking behind the plan.

Mom made a cake and the kids get to lick the batter. Yum!

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Having red hair is fun!!!

Dad gets a haircut during lockdown compliments of mom.

Just like thousands of brides around the world, my niece Kathryn, had her wedding postponed because of COVID. Elizabeth and I attended a virtual bridal shower for Kathryn and her fiancé, Calvin. Although it was not the way a traditional wedding shower would be, it certainly was still a very lovely affair. It was so nice to gather with family to celebrate Kathryn’s next step in life.

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This Mother’s Day card was put together for me by my very thoughtful daughter.  xoxo

Ella is taking after her mother because she came up with the idea that the family needed to have an International Day. Each of the four children was paired with an adult. Each pair chose one or two countries and then prepared food from those countries to share with the rest of the family. Loved it!

The children and I played cards, cards and more cards throughout the entire lockdown. It was fun for them and fun for me!

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Celebrating Liberty and Chappy’s 3rd birthday! There was steak for dinner with any scraps going to the dogs plus the kids and Elizabeth baked some special dog treats. The Chervs adopted these two dogs about a year ago and they have been a wonderful addition to the family.

Elizabeth and I took a virtual yoga class twice a week throughout our lockdown. Our teacher was Susan from the same yoga studio that I go to in Fairport.

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Yay, as of June 1st the lockdown went to Phase 4 which meant that we could go off our property for walks and scooter rides. Here we are on our first time out, so exciting!

Do you remember when I told you that Francesca was originally from Zimbabwe but has lived in SA for the last 20 years? Because of the pandemic the South African government gave money to all the Southern Africans to help them buy food for themselves. However, people like Francesca (and the people from her church) did not get any of this money since they were not born in SA. The pandemic makes it impossible for these people to work so they are constantly in need of food. Such a sad situation! Elizabeth and I decided that we would ask Francesca to go with us to shop for food and then deliver it to some families from Francesca’s church. The Chervenak children also donated some of their toys to these families. It was a humbling experience to see how appreciative these families were and to realize how very fortunate our family is that we are able to help these families in a small way.

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If you know me well, you know that I do not care for cats primarily because I am allergic to them. The Chervs’ cat was quite insistent on laying on me even though we were trying hard to get the cat to stay away from me.

Bennett lost his first tooth during the lockdown.

The 2019-20 school year has come to a close for the Chervenak children.

 

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As I said earlier, Elizabeth has a part time job writing a newsletter for the Embassy. With all the extra help from her children it can be a bit of challenge to get the newsletter written.

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Every Friday throughout quarantine Ben made pizza for the family on Friday night. He made the crust from scratch and then offered lots of yummy ingredients for all of us to choose from. Friday Pizza Night also included a movie!

Look at the new vehicle the Chervs bought during quarantine. It is called a Defender and is a 2002 model that they plan to bring back to the States someday. It is a perfect vehicle for their family because it easily seats everyone plus there is plenty of room for the dogs.

Since school has ended the children were given the opportunity to enroll in virtual Winter School if they wanted to do so. Winter School is three weeks long and goes for three hours a day. The purpose of it was simply to have fun, no academics involved. Here the children are taking a fort building class.

Winter School also involved a family challenge of making an amusement park out of candy and…

…making a mini-museum. I am not sure who enjoyed the challenges more, the kids or Elizabeth. The pictures don’t adequately show how amazing these creations were.

With lots of coaching from my good friend Sarah K., Elizabeth and I figured out how to color my hair. I had my hair colored right before I left Tirana and I was not happy with ALL the gray that was showing up in my hair as quarantine continued. Ben does not know what to think of his mother-in-law. 🙂 I really do not know how anyone is able to color their hair by themselves. I could not have done it without Elizabeth.

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Look at how sweet Bennet fell asleep one night. This is not a posed picture. He actually fell asleep with the lights on surrounded by all these books about places around the world.

I cannot tell you how many walks, scooter rides and bike rides we went on for the last two months I was in SA. It was a good way to get out of the house and a good way to help the kids burn off some energy. Up until I left in mid-July the kids and I rarely left the property except for outings like this. The number of COVID case continues to go up, up, up.

fullsizeoutput_11634This Father’s Day card for Randy was put together for him by our very thoughtful daughter.  xoxo

Elizabeth’s Father’s Day gift for Ben was a 30 minute consultation with Ben’s favorite Peloton instructor, Matt Wilpers. I love how excited Ben was about the gift.

Here we are celebrating Francesca’s 57th birthday. Don’t you just love her hat she wore to her birthday party?!? All the children love GoGo but I think she and Juliet have an extra special bond partially because Francesca spends more time taking care of Juliet than she does the older children. GoGo is what the children call Francesca and means grandmother.

It is the last day of school at Albanian College so I scheduled a virtual dance party with my students to celebrate. Of course, I invited my grandchildren to the dance party.

Jacob turned 10 on July 3rd. He was such a good sport about having to celebrate his birthday in lockdown. He could have complained about it but instead he planned the following activities for the day: a family bike ride, a family game of Minecraft, a Nerf gun war, hot dogs and chips for dinner followed by an ice cream cake and presents. Randy sent Jacob a huge bag of Wint-o-green mints which Jacob was super excited about.

Ella absolutely loves animals of all kinds and has said she wants to be a pet shop owner when she grows up. 🙂 She has also expressed interest in horseback riding. With COVID eliminating all of the kids’ activities Elizabeth and Ben decided to seek out horseback riding lessons for Ella. After going to class the first time it became apparent that Bennett and Juliet wanted to participate too. All three children are loving the experience!

Because of the lockdown no travel is allowed outside of each province. The Chervs live in the province of Gauteng which is the smallest province geographically but also the most densely populated because it includes the cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg. Everyone was feeling fairly housebound so it was decided that a farmhouse an hour away would be a nice getaway for the weekend. Climbing trees was a favorite activity for the weekend.

The farmhouse included a hot tub which the children spent much time in. The other children in the picture are part of the Jain family. In early June Elizabeth and Ben decided to create a “double bubble” with another family. That meant that both families agreed to continue to isolate from other people and maintain a safe lockdown. By creating a “double bubble” the children, and adults too, could have a chance to socialize with a few others outside of the family circle.

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Aren’t they darling?!? The kids LOVED being together for the weekend. The Jain family is absolutely delightful. The dad is from the UK and the mom is from Sweden. It is always SO enjoyable to get to know people from another culture.

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Every Sunday at 3:30 in the afternoon the family attends a 45 minute virtual church service. When the Chervs lived in Virginia they attended a sweet, little church called St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. This is the same church they are attending virtually. The sermons given by Father Rob are timely and inspiring to listen to.

Now that the lockdown has moved to being less restrictive we are allowed to visit some of the nearby game preserves. This park is about 20 minutes from the Chervenak’s house.

This is the one mother/daughter outing we went on while I was in South Africa. We rented bikes and went on a 10K mountain bike ride. I have never done any mountain bike riding nor has Elizabeth. We found it to be more rigorous than we had anticipated but we still had fun. Nothing better than time with your grown kids!  xoxo

Can you tell that Bennett likes dinosaurs? Once again, I was so glad to be in SA to celebrate another birthday. Bennett is a sweet, thoughtful, independent child who focuses and works hard to get what he wants. He will be starting kindergarten in August.

Earlier in the day Ella had introduced her brother to this song on Spotify. Here is Bennett belting it out until he discovers that his mom is taking video.  🙂

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Even with the pandemic Randy continued to volunteer with the Egypt Fire Department. There were all kinds of safety and cleaning protocols put in place so he felt comfortable participating.

One thing the fire department did during quarantine was to do drive-bys for young children who had birthdays. There was only one fireman in each truck and it was common for a police car or ambulance to join the parade. Following the emergency vehicles friends and family members would drive by in their cars honking their horns and shouting birthday greetings out the window. It was a wonderful way to celebrate a young child’s birthday when no one could leave the house or come over.

Of course, the Fairport High School graduation was canceled so instead the graduates and their families drove through the parking lot of the high school as the fire department  sprayed an arch of water overhead as the families drove by. All the teachers were social distanced around the parking lot to wave and cheer on the graduates. I am so proud of our community for making the best of a difficult situation.

The waterwheel has made it into the stream at the Loop!

 

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David sent us these pictures and video of NYC clapping and cheering for the healthcare workers.

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David participated in some of the peaceful protests after George Floyd was murdered. He said there were definitely some violent riots earlier on but that the protests he walked in were well organized and he felt safe participating.

 

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Josh’s garden turned out to be a big success. Right now it is producing lots of tomatoes, peppers and pea pods with more to come. Yum!

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Randy successfully made it back to America from Albania with all seven of our bags. He really is amazing! His trip included a canceled flight (that was quickly rebooked) but then the last leg of his trip from Newark to Rochester was messed up so he decided to rent a car and make the five hour drive home. He then spent 14 days in quarantine at the Loop, his favorite place in the world.

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My flight back to the States did not leave until the evening which meant that we could all go on one more family bike ride before I left. My time with Elizabeth and her family was a gift I thought I would never experience. The pandemic has been a crisis on so many levels but the silver lining for me was spending all this time in South Africa. Because of the lockdown I feel like I really did not go to South Africa, I went to the Chervenak’s house. We did not visit all the attractions or the typical tourist spots. We stayed home and stayed safe and healthy. I LOVED my time with this precious family. They welcomed me with open arms and could not have done any more to help me feel comfortable and a part of their family. Of course, there were occasional up and downs as there are with all families but overall it was so, so good. I am proud of the way Elizabeth and Ben are raising their children. Parenting is not easy, especially under these conditions, but they handle it all with grace.

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My 34 hour trip back to the US started at the Dutch Embassy in Pretoria. I was flying on KLM Airlines which is a Dutch airline. Since the flight was a repatriation flight the passengers are not allowed to go directly to the airport. We had to be at this meeting spot 6 hours before the flight. 😦  The line of people continued on for three blocks. Everyone was masked and did a decent job of social distancing. A few people have asked me what a repatriation flight is. It is a charter flight organized by governments to bring their citizens back to their country of origin. Since an inbound plane sent to pick up passengers for a repatriation flight has no passengers, customers on repatriation flights end up paying the equivalent to a round trip ticket. My repatriation flight was VERY expensive but I felt like I had no choice but to pay it because  South Africa’s airport is not open for any other type of flight.

I was assigned to bus 13 for the 30 minute ride from the Dutch Embassy to the airport in Johannesburg.

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The bus also provided good social distancing.

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The caravan of 13 buses had a police escort with the police cars using lights and sirens. We also stopped at no stoplights because the police blocked the intersections. I am not sure why all that happened. It was interesting…

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The Johannesburg airport was fairly empty with only one coffee shop open staffed by three employees wearing their masks on their chins. Look at the arrivals and departures monitor, blank. One more thing, I had my temperature taken when I entered the airport and before I boarded the plane.

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This bag of snacks and drinks was on my seat when I boarded the flight. KLM also served one hot meal on the 11 hour flight to Amsterdam. The plane was about 60% full. I had a window seat with no one sitting next to me. Yay!

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Good bye to South Africa! I am already looking forward to returning someday when the world is healthy again.

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Arriving in Amsterdam…

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I always find it interesting to look at the monitors in the airport just to see where all the flights are going. I am allowed to transit through Amsterdam but I would not be allowed to stay in Amsterdam or go to any of the EU cities listed above.

The Amsterdam airport was full of reminders about how to travel safely and to welcome travelers back. My temperature was taken when I arrived in Amsterdam.

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I have now boarded my 9 hour flight to Atlanta. KLM code shares with Delta. Delta made the decision when they started flying again that they would not sell the middle seat on any of their flights to help with social distancing. I really like their decision and will keep it in mind when I book travel in the future. This flight was about 40% full as you can see by all the empty seats.

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This was the bag of snacks in my seat for my Amsterdam to Atlanta flight.

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Landing in Atlanta, back on American soil! Although our country has many ups and downs, I would not want to live permanently anywhere else in the world. I LOVED the opportunity to live and teach abroad but am glad to be back home.

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Signs seen throughout the Atlanta airport.

It was sad to see so much of the Atlanta airport closed. 😦

Look at all the different masks I wore while traveling. David had suggested I try to wear a N95 mask as much as possible while actually on the plane. N95’s are really HARD to breathe through so I wore them when I boarded and deplaned and if I needed to use the bathroom. I had read that those are the most likely parts of a flight when germs are transmitted. I just could not handle wearing the N95 for the entire flight.

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Getting ready to land in beautiful upstate New York. When I landed in ROC I filled out paperwork so the state could do contact tracing. The state texts me everyday to ask how I am feeling. I take my temperature a few times a day. Randy was at the Loop when I arrived so Josh picked me up. I sat in back, we both had on masks plus we had the windows down. I did not want to risk infecting our son after traveling for such a long time.

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The quarantine shuttle…

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Now I am on day 12 of a 14 day quarantine at the Homewood Suites. Randy stayed at Hilton properties when he traveled for work so we had lots of points. That means I am not having to pay for this 14 day stay. I could have stayed at home as long as I restricted myself to staying in one room but I could not figure out how to easily access the bathroom, television and the kitchen without having to constantly wipe up after myself. Also, I did not want to worry about infecting Josh with anything. Here, at the hotel, I have a bedroom, TV and small kitchen to use as needed. Josh has been bringing me food and it has worked out fine. I have kept myself busy by stitching, reading, talking on the phone to family and friends and taking several virtual classes through the Fairport Schools. There is a lot of prep involved in going back to teaching grade one special education especially when part of it will be virtual and part of it will be in person.

This is my last, and by far the longest, blog post probably because it covers four months. Kudos to you if you are still reading. 🙂 Thanks again for your many messages of support and interest over the last two years. If you ever have the opportunity or interest in writing a blog, you should go for it. It is a wonderful way to reflect on and capture your thoughts and experiences. When I started this blog I had no idea where I was going with it but now that I am finished with it, I think I will miss it, especially the opportunity to stay in touch with all of you.

 

Teaching in Albania has Ended

As of June 25th my teaching in Albania came to an end. Throughout March and April I had held out hope that perhaps we could get back to school for at least the last few weeks of school. But of course, just like most of the rest of the world, that was not to be. Since March 10th I have spent 3 to 4 hours a day prepping for and delivering instruction to my grade one students. As you can imagine teaching children online versus in person is completely different. Here are a few reflections after completing more than three months of distance learning:

  • I felt like I was able to keep most of my students from losing their skills but I don’t think any of them made the progress they could have made if we had had face-to-face teaching. My students who were new to speaking English this year had a harder time simply because they were not hearing English spoken in the classroom all day long like they needed to do.
  • The school’s expectation was that each primary teacher prepare 20-25 minutes each of literacy, math and Albanian with the goal that each primary age child would spend an hour and a half daily on distance learning. In general I made 4-5 assignments each day that followed this general structure:
    • read aloud- I made a 6-8 minute video of me reading aloud each day
    • math assignment- many of the assignments started with a 3-4 minute video of me teaching a skill and then I made a pencil/paper or IXL (an excellent, scaffolded, electronic math resource) assignment
    • reading assignment- alternating between Raz-Kids, Storyline Online and Tumble Books; the children recorded themselves reading and then answered a short quiz about what they had read
    • writing assignment- once again many of these assignments started with a 3-4 minute video of me teaching a writing skill (i.e. descriptive words, punctuation, narrative writing, etc.) followed by assigning the child to write in their journal for at least 10 minutes
    • inquiry assignment- these assignments centered on the central idea (international baccalaureate) and were either science or social studies related
    • As the children completed their assignments they sent them to me through a platform called Class Dojo. I individually commented, approved or returned these assignments to the children each day.
  • I scheduled class Zoom meetings once or twice a week. One of the meetings was academic and usually centered on our inquiry unit. The other weekly class Zoom meeting was more for fun. i.e. celebrating a child’s birthday, playing a game or just talking about whatever the kids wanted to talk about. I did periodic individual Zoom meetings which I found to be very helpful and will do more of if distance learning continues in the fall.
  • The parents were key to the success the children experienced with distance learning. The children are 6 and 7 years old so they cannot manage distance learning independently. The more involved the parents were the more assignments the child would complete which meant the more progress the child made. I really admired the parents and how they managed it all. Most of them were working from home while trying to manage their child’s schooling. Some children were cared for by grandparents who spoke no English which meant the children had to wait for mom or dad to help them when they could.
  • My technology skills took a giant leap forward over the last few months because they had to do so. I think the main thing I learned about technology is to be patient with myself. Often, if I clicked around on a site I could independently figure out how it worked and how to implement it with my students. If needed, I could always depend on another teacher to get me going.
  • As you already know a big part of school is socializing with other children. I encouraged my students to call, FaceTime, use Just Talk Kids and Skype with their classmates. A few of them did stay in touch with one another but it simply is not the same as actually getting to play together. Lack of socialization for the kids was one of the biggest downsides to distance learning. The children really, really missed each other.

Here is one of our many Zoom meetings.

 

Here are some of the many platforms my students used during their time with distance learning. Usually a school has to buy a subscription to use most of these but because of the pandemic these online companies gave us free and unlimited use of their platforms. What a wonderful gift!

Here is link to a video I made to say farewell to my students,  2019-20 Grade One at Albanian College   It is 11 minutes long so please just watch part of it. It is always bittersweet to say goodbye to students. I feel ready to have a few weeks off from teaching but at the same time I will definitely miss my students particularly because there is a good chance I will never see them again. 😦

A year ago I was finishing up my first year of international teaching. It was an exciting year full of meeting new people, adjusting to living internationally and many, many travel opportunities. This second year of international teaching started by the entire administrative staff from Albanian College resigning followed by three earthquakes and then a pandemic. Despite the contrast between the two years I have no regrets. I have grown to love the country of Albania and it’s fiercely loyal, hospitable people, beautiful beaches and stunning mountains. The opportunity to work (and play) with people from around the world cannot be underestimated. I have LOVED this experience! It has helped me grow as a person and as a teacher. I am grateful to the Fairport Central School District for giving me a two year leave to pursue this dream. Also, my rock star husband was so very supportive through it all. I could and would not have done it without him. 

So what is next? I am headed back to Fairport to finish my teaching career there. I have reconnected to my FCSD email account and the 2,800 emails that have accumulated over the last two years. :0 I will be resuming my position as a grade one special education teacher at Dudley School.  Who knows what teaching will be like in the fall. No matter how it looks I am ready for and looking forward to it.

Right now I am still in South Africa. Last month I purchased a ticket from Austrian Air to fly back to Albania on July 4th. Our apartment and my classroom need to be packed up plus I wanted to have a bit of closure before moving back to the States. Randy bought tickets to meet me in Albania. My flights were canceled, not because I could not get into Albania but because I could not get out of South Africa. Randy was able to get into Albania and is there packing up with the help of a few friends. I have now purchased a repatriation flight to America that departs here on July 19th. I feel confident that it will go because it is on KLM Airlines which has had a flight every Sunday for the last several weeks. The cost of the ticket was horribly expensive but I felt like I had no choice. I need to get home so I can quarantine for two weeks and then get my life restarted in Fairport.

This will probably be my last post but I may do one more about my almost 4 months locked down in South Africa with Elizabeth and her family. We’ll see… 

Thanks so much for reading this blog over the last two years and going on this adventure with me. I have enjoyed sharing it all with family and friends. Your encouraging words and interest in this experience have humbled me. My hopes and prayers are that you and your loved ones are staying healthy during this world health crisis.

Sad…

When thinking of a title for this blog,  “sad” was the word that kept resonating in my head so hence the title.

I am slow with an update on what is happening with our lives right now. As with the whole world, our lives have been turned upside down over the last two weeks. At the end of February, Randy returned to the USA to get started on prepping the taxes and to touch base at home. He was scheduled to return to Albania on March 11th. Six months ago Elizabeth had made plans to come visit Randy and I in Tirana arriving on March 19th and staying for 12 days. All those plans changed with the coronavirus.

On Monday, March 10th school was called off at Albanian College because of two diagnosed cases of coronavirus.  Randy and I decided that it was not smart for him to return to Albania so he stayed in the States. It was also decided that Elizabeth would not travel to Albania. So then I had to decide what I was going to do. Since I had not seen Elizabeth and her family since July, 2019 I made the decision to go to South Africa. I really thought I would only be there for a month at the most. With everything escalating so quickly, Randy and I had several discussions within the last few days about whether or not I should return to the States. Ultimately, I decided that I did not want to take a 24 hour flight back home at the risk of getting sick and then exposing Randy and Josh. I am staying in SA for the long haul. South Africa now has 225 cases. Elizabeth’s family and I are self isolating. School was canceled last week and we are choosing to leave the house on a very limited basis. The rest of South Africa is preparing to shut down on Thursday, March 26th. Just like all over the world we will all stay put in hopes of slowing down this virus.

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Here are a couple pictures from Tirana as I was leaving. So surreal! Probably similar to many of your communities. I have actually been very proud of Albania for quickly reacting to COVID-19. Considering how closely tied they are to Italy in many, many ways it was a good decision to close everything up quickly. Here is a link to Albania’s current restrictions. Albania’s Restrictions

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The airport monitor as I flew through Istanbul.

IMG_4439I arrived in Johannesburg on Friday, March 13th.

I love seeing and being with my grandchildren and their parents even though the circumstances are far from optimal.

For the last two weeks I have been spending 3 to 4 hours a day with distance learning for my Albanian students. My technology skills are improving daily as I learn to use one new app after another and then get my kids (and their parents) familiar with them. I am sure I am speaking for thousands of teachers around the world when I say it is a challenge to keep the children engaged and to make sure they  are learning the skills they need to move to the next grade level. I miss my students and being in the classroom very, very much.

I start each week with a short video just to get the kids (and me) prepped for the upcoming week. Here is the video I sent out last week.

Before I close this post I want to give you a quick update on our son, David. As many of you know, he is finishing up his residency in cardiothorasic surgery at New York University in Manhattan. As expected, there have been fewer and fewer surgeries over the  last week. David is expecting to be assigned to a COVID Unit soon. He has been told that all the healthcare workers should expect to be infected. Prayers for the safety and health of all healthcare workers worldwide.

I am so sad, sad, sad to say this may be my last blog post because I am not sure I will get to teach in Albania again. I would not be surprised if Albanian College closes down for the rest of the school year.

I am praying for peace and health for you and your loved ones as we move through this very difficult time in our lives.

A Long Weekend in London

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With an upcoming three day weekend in early February I checked Skyscanner (similar to Travelocity only for Europe) and looked for the least expensive flights. London was by far the least expensive on an airline called Wizz Air (a Hungarian airline) plus it was a direct three hour flight. We flew into Luton Airport which is an hour and 40 minute train ride from the center of London. Luton is where most of the discount airlines fly in and out of.

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The price of the flight was great but the downside is the long train ride into the city.

The next day we went to the charming Covent Gardens area to meet up for a free walking tour. We had breakfast before meeting the tour and the bill was 38 pounds ($50) for a relatively small meal. Yikes! It might be inexpensive to fly to London but it is very expensive in most other ways.

Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, the London Eye, Westminister Abbey and Big Ben (with scaffolding) were a few of the places that we saw on our free walking tour.

We used the Underground to get around London. It was easy and economical. I snapped the picture of the Way Out (instead of Exit) and Mind the Gap signs because it seemed so English.

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That evening we went to the top of the Shard. The building was built in 2012 and at 95 stories it is the tallest building in the United Kingdom.

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I cannot take credit for taking this picture but I am adding it to my blog because I think it captures the size of this building.

Our view from the top…

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The next morning I ran over this bridge (crossing the Thames River) to St. Paul’s Cathedral where Princess Diana and Prince Charles were married.

As I was running around the outside of the Cathedral I came across this progression of signs. I never could found where it went after the word “to”.

St. Paul’s is undergoing some construction to add ramps into the sanctuary allowing the church to be more accessible for all. Yay! Seeing this construction made me proud to be an Episcopalian.

If you were to look at Randy’s playlist on his phone you would notice that 90% of the music he listens to is by the Beatles. We decided to take a tour that showed us where John and Ringo lived, the place where Paul and Ringo were married and a few other Beatles landmarks.

Abbey Road was probably the most iconic Beatles spot we visited. We were not brave enough to go out in traffic to take a picture but I did get a picture of Randy on the sidewalk next to Abbey Road.

Abbey Road Studio has been functioning as a recording studio since the 1930’s. The graffiti in front of the building is painted over monthly.

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Now we have arrived at the Tower of London which was built in 1078 by William the Conqueror. Over the years the Tower has served as an armory, a royal palace, a prison, a menagerie, a treasury and Royal Mint. Currently it is the home of the Crown Jewels.

As part of our entrance ticket to the Tower of London we took a tour given by a Yeoman Warder also known as a Beefeater. A Yeoman Warder is a ceremonial guardian of the Tower of London. To be a Yeoman Warder a person must have served a minimum of 22 years in the armed forces, be a former warrant officer and hold the Good Conduct medal. The 30 minute tour was well done by this very engaging tour guide.

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Guarding the Crown Jewels…

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After touring the Tower we took a water bus down the Thames back to within walking distance of our hotel.

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That evening we went to see the musical School of Rock. The theater was located on Drury Lane which made Randy and I smile since the college we went to had a main street with the same name.

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During the finale of the show they made an announcement that if the audience wanted to get their phones and record the finale they could do so. So Randy took this video. It highlights what fabulous instrumentalists these 9-12 year olds are in addition to being singers, dancers and actors. We REALLY enjoyed the show!

 On Sunday morning we attended a Eucharist at Westminister Abbey.

We were scheduled to fly back to Tirana on Sunday afternoon however London was experiencing 80 mph winds. Trees were down on the train tracks and the buses were not running because of the bad weather. Our only option was to take a black taxi to the airport. It was horribly expensive but we had no other choice. Anyways, the one upside to the very expensive taxi ride was our delightful cabbie. Two years ago, along with three other cabbie friends, he decided that their job as cabbies was too sedentary. They decided to loose weight, get in shape and climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Talking to him on the long taxi ride to the airport was SO interesting. Here is link to their accomplishment if you want to read more. Cabbies Do Kilimanjaro

Our quick trip to London was a wonderful way to spend a three day weekend. Someday we hope to go back and explore more of this part of the world that has so much to see.

Randy left for the States this morning. He is going home to deal with the taxes and will be back in Tirana in two weeks. We are looking forward to hosting several visitors over the next few months. Hoping and praying that the coronavirus does not cause problems with our guests’ travel plans.

Holiday Travels (feeling so fortunate)

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The week before we left Tirana for our Christmas travels our son, David, arrived for a visit. Here we are visiting Tirana’s city center which is full of lights, carnival rides, coffee shops and a Christmas tree to celebrate the season.

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My friend, Dana and I go to a local park called Artificial Lake to run every Saturday morning. So glad David could join us!

Just like last year, David visited my grade one class to show the children a real heart (from a sheep) and to explain how it works. He also brought his loupes (glasses used in surgery) so the children could try them on and understand how they are used.

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On the first day of my holiday school vacation David, Randy and I flew to Budapest, Hungary for a four night stay. Our younger son, Josh, flew from the States and met us in Budapest. I LOVED being with our two sons for a few days. Elizabeth, Ben and their children are celebrating Christmas in South Africa so unfortunately we were not with them for the holidays this year.  😦

After settling into our AirBnB apartment we went for a tour of the Christmas markets of Budapest which were voted the best in Europe this year. The Christmas market pictured above was our favorite. It was located in Buda, about a 15 minute tram ride from the city center. You may or may not know that Budapest is actually two different cities Buda and Pest. The cities are divided by the Danube River. Buda is a more residential area and Pest has more businesses and more tourists. As you can see by the pictures, Buda was so charming!! Josh is sampling a traditional food called lango that consists of something similar to fried dough with cheese and sour cream, not sweet like in the States. Yum! Also all the Christmas markets we visited had hot mulled wine, really delicious especially on a cold day.

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This is one of the Christmas markets in Pest with the centerpiece being St. Stephen’s Basilica, a gorgeous Catholic Church.

Listen to the church bells! 🙂

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I had never seen advent wreaths used as Christmas decorations. It seemed so appropriate! In fact, for our whole two week trip we only saw nativity scenes, Christmas trees, angels and wreaths. We never saw Santa with his reindeer, stockings, snowmen or other similar Christmas decorations that we are accustomed to in the States.

Crossing the Danube River over the Chain Bridge.

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Thanks to Peter for getting our family started on this tradition of taking a photo by a local manhole cover when we travel.

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The view from the other side of the Danube.

David could not pass up this opportunity to interact with this amazing bird.

Arriving at the Széchenyi Baths for an afternoon enjoying the 3 outdoor and 15 indoor thermal pools. Szechenyi Baths are the largest medicinal baths in Europe. Its water comes from two thermal springs, their temperature is 74 °C and 77 °C. The water has to be cooled to allow people to get in. What a fun, different experience!!!

This is the gorgeous Parliament building. The nativity scene and Christmas tree were prominently displayed in front of the building. We were not able to tour it because I did not reserve tickets far enough in advance. If you go to Budapest, reserve Parliament tour tickets at least a month early.

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We were walking along the Danube one evening when we came across several bronzed shoes like the ones above. This memorial is called Shoes on the Danube and is in remembrance of the thousands of Jews who were shot along the banks of the Danube River during WWII. The victims were forced to remove their shoes at gunpoint (shoes were valuable during World War II) before they were shot in the back, falling over the edge to be washed away by the freezing waters. This was a powerful reminder of the horrors of WWII.

Street art was everywhere in Budapest. A bit of trivia, the Rubik’s Cube originated in Budapest.

We had brunch at this ruin bar. A ruin bar is a bar built in the ruins of abandoned buildings. They are located in the old Jewish quarter. We loved our meal in this really unusual setting.

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These are the same brass plates we have seen on the sidewalks throughout Europe. They are about five inches square and are placed outside of homes or businesses where Jews were taken and sent to work or extermination camps. The first date in the birthdate of the victim and the second date is the date the Jewish victim was unjustly arrested. It is so startling and powerful to randomly come across these stark reminders of the horrors the Jewish population experienced during WWII. We found out while visiting Budapest that Hungary was never Nazi occupied, only 125 German Nazis came to Budapest. The other terror mongers who did most of the damage were Hungarian citizens who were part of a group called Arrow Cross, a far right Nazi-like organization.

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On our last evening in Budapest we took a tram over to the the less touristy Buda. We went to a jazz concert at a charming small club that had great music. It was a wonderful way to close our visit to this beautiful, history-filled city.

We are now headed to Bratislava, Slovakia on a three hour train ride. We LOVED traveling by train. There was lots of room to relax, free wi-fi and the enjoyment of watching the countryside pass by.

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Bratislavia is a fairly small city and the capital of Slovakia. Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia until 1993 when Slovakia and the Czech Republic agreed to a peaceful separation of the two countries. We spent one night here and only had an afternoon to explore the city. It rained most of the time we were there. Here we are on a walk from our hotel to the Old Town part of the city.

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Unfortunately, the Christmas markets closed for the season the day before we arrived but we still enjoyed the Old Town charm.

Every city we have visited in Europe has at least one gorgeous church, either Catholic or Protestant.

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Good bye to charming Bratislava! The next morning (Christmas Eve Day) at 8:00 we were taking an eight hour train ride to Krakow, Poland. One of the reasons I am excited to visit Krakow is that my great-grandmother, Jeanette Kratchowill McCann immigrated to the US sometime during the late 1800’s. Unfortunately I know no more information about her life in Krakow.

On our first evening (Christmas Eve) in Krakow we walked to the city center where we saw these Christmas decorations. It is hard to tell in these pictures but the city square in Krakow is the largest square in Europe.

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Christmas Eve is celebrated in a bigger way than Christmas Day in the countries we visited including Poland. We went to this gorgeous church for a midnight Christmas Eve service. We did not stay for the whole service because it was all in Polish but that being said, we enjoyed the spiritual feel to the service.

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Outside of the church was a live nativity scene and a wonderful performance by some local priests.

The next morning (Christmas Day) we went on a free walking tour of Krakow. Krakow is an absolutely beautiful city. During WWII the Germans moved many of their offices to Krakow which meant there was not nearly as much bombing of this city as happened in other European cities.

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On the walk up to the Krakow Wawel Castle you can see the brick wall on the right. On the brick wall are individual cement plaques with names of people fromnaround the world who contributed to the rebuilding of the castle between WWI and WWII. Loved seeing the names of two people from Buffalo who made contributions.

More views of the Wawel Castle…

A popular symbol of Krakow sits between the Vistula River and the castle and is know as the Wawel Dragon.

As you probably know Pope John Paul II came from Poland so it was common to see tributes to him throughout Krakow. 86% of Poles are Catholic which is an impressive number since the country was under Communist rule for more than 40 years until 1989.

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Even the trams in Krakow were decorated for Christmas.

One of my favorite parts of our trip was seeing these nativity scenes (szopka) in Krakow. There is a 200 year old tradition of a yearly competion held the first weekend in December to build szopkas similar to the ones pictured. A characteristic part of the scenes is the use of historical buildings as a backdrop for the nativity of Jesus. So gorgeous, colorful  and unusual!

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These are the only 4 pictures I took at Auschwitz. For much of my adult life I thought I never wanted to visit a concentration camp. The thought of visiting a place with so much horror involved was just too overwhelming to think about. However, with time I came to think that as a citizen of the world I needed to experience going to one of these camps. Auschwitz is an hour drive from Krakow so we decided to go. It was just as horrible as I was afraid it would be and brought me to tears even as I write this. How could a group of people treat another group of people like this?

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This was the only picture I took at Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz 2. Auschwitz 1 was a concentration or work camp where some people survived. Birkenau was an extermination camp. No one survived Birkenau. There were no records of who died here. Thousands of Jews were unloaded and taken immediately to the gas chambers. When the gas chambers were too full or busy people were put into buildings waiting for their turn to be gassed.

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We visited this factory which you may be familiar with from the movie “Schindler’s List”.

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These are just some of the people Oskar Schindler saved with his factory.

This is the park we walked through on the way to our Airbnb along with the name of the street where the Airbnb was located. We found out that our Airbnb was located next door to an apartment where Oskar Schindler lived.

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We are checking out the train schedule as we get ready to board a train to Prague in the Czech Republic.

Here are some views of the countryside as we travel between Krakow and Prague on the train. Randy figured out all the logistics involved with train travel for this trip. He is officially an expert on Eurorail!!

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We arrived in Prague at nightfall to these beautiful scenes. We all thought Prague was the most beautiful of all the cities we visited. However, it was also by far the most crowded with tourists which meant we did not enjoy it as much as we had hoped.

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My friend, Kelly, who teaches with me at Albanian College was traveling in Europe for the holiday break and met us in Prague. We all shared an Airbnb and the Prague sights together. Kelly was a welcome addition to our group!

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This is the oldest operating astronomical clock in the world, dating back to the 1400’s. The Walk of the Apostles happens on the hour in the windows at the top of the clock.

Here is some of the beautiful, unusual and varied art of Prague.

We saw these delicious desserts called chimneys in several cities throughout our trip. I liked them plain which means just a type of bread with cinnamon or you could have them filled with ice cream, nutella or many other fillings. Josh choose one with the works!

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Loved seeing this yoga studio as we walked around Prague.

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We took a four hour food tour to a few secluded (less touristy) areas of Prague to taste some traditional Czech food. The other people on the tour were from Australia, New Zealand and Dublin. As usual, we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know some new people.

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Kelly and I climbed up to the castle to see the beautiful views of Prague.

Prague had the same brass plates we have seen throughout Europe, indicating where Jewish individuals and, as seen on the right, whole families were taken from their homes to concentration or extermination camps during WWII.

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Prague is full of gorgeous churches as pictured above. 80% of people from the Czech Republic have no religion so the churches cannot sustain themselves financially without a congregation. In an effort to maintain these beautiful buildings it is common for one or more concerts to be held in these churches on an almost daily basis. The money received from the concerts goes to supporting the maintenance of the churches.

This is a snippet of the concert we attended one night.

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We enjoyed the concert so much that the following night we attended a second concert.

We felt so very fortunate to enjoy this beautiful music in an equally gorgeous setting.

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On our last afternoon in Prague we went to see the new Star Wars movie. It was New Year’s Eve afternoon so the theater was fairly quiet. The movie was a relaxing change of pace plus Randy and Josh were especially happy to see the movie.

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We are now at the train station waiting for an overnight train to our final destination, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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Our sleeper car was three berths stacked on top of each other. It was close quarters but a fun and reasonably comfortable way to travel from one city to another.

We were traveling on the sleeper car overnight on New Year’s Eve so there were lots of fireworks going off through the night as we whizzed along. Josh took this video.

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This is what we saw on our first evening in Ljubljana as we walked around the city, so beautiful!

On my run the following morning I came across this almost life size nativity scene made from straw.

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Look at this unusual tree near our Airbnb.

More brass plates on the sidewalk outside of a Ljubljana residence. 😦

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The dragon symbolizes Ljubljana’s courage, grandeur and power and is seen as the city’s protector.

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Slovenia is very proud of the fact that their country recycles almost 70% of their trash which is more than any other EU capital city. Impressive!!

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We took a day trip about an hour outside of Ljubljana to see Predjama Castle which was built in the 1200’s in the mouth of a cave. We took an excellent audio tour of this castle full of secret passageways and history.

More pictures from the castle…

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Our next stop on our tour outside of Ljubljana was Lake Bled. We boarded a  pletna boat and headed to a small island with a church on it. The oarsmen, who stand as they row, are part of a traditional profession that has been passed down for generations.

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