Sunday, November 10, 2019

Meeting a Lifelong Friend for the First Time

Heaven knows that as a family we hardly need an excuse to go on an adventure, but this fall break's trip to Arizona was something extra special - this trip was 10 years in the making!

9 years ago, we got a confusing, exciting, perplexing email from a young woman in Spain telling us that she had sponsored our daughter through an orphanage nutrition program. We were completing our final preparations to travel to China and meet WanYing, and once we finally understood what Laura was telling us, we were filled with joy and gratitude for this astounding blessing of a girl who used her allowance to make sure our daughter had the food she needed to grow strong.

Over the years we have stayed in contact through Christmas cards and occasional emails. This summer, Laura emailed that she and her boyfriend Pao were coming to the US for a west-coast driving trip! We simply couldn't miss out on the chance to meet in person, and drove down to Arizona to meet them along the way. 

It was a fantastic trip all-around. We camped in the desert, we saw the Grand Canyon, we made a million dam jokes at Hoover Dam, we were stunned by the beauty of Antelope Canyon. But getting to give Laura a hug and thank her for caring for caring for our daughter before we even knew her name - that was what made the whole adventure worthwhile.

When you sponsor a kid, that person is somebody's child, somebody's future parent, the love of somebody's life. One doesn't usually get to thank them in person for the love they showed a stranger and the sacrifice they made to care for somebody they would likely never meet. We were just one of the lucky few who got to express our gratitude in person.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Traveling to Europe with The Boy

I travel for work. Kind of a lot. I have teams in Seattle and Krakow and work hard to stay connected with them... which often means that I am on the road two or three trips per month. I love my teams and we make it work as a family, but it can be rough on all of us sometimes.

So I am thrilled whenever it works out that my family can enjoy some of the perks of my travel schedule. This summer I was planning a trip to Krakow, Poland and asked Steve if he could swing it to travel with me. In magnanimity and wisdom, he suggested that perhaps this would be a good trip to bring Ben on, since Ben was old enough to be on his own during the day while I worked and we could have some fun travel adventures together. My husband is so dang smart.

The whole experience was so great. I mean, when else do you get to spend 9 straight days with your 16-year-old kiddo? We had an amazing trip, saw some amazing sights, and (amazingly) only wanted to kill each other a couple of times.

Traveling with only one kid, and a teenager at that, was a totally different experience for me. The observations, joys, and trials were just so different from either a family trip or an adults outing.

For example, early on in our trip Ben observed that in Europe the sodas are tiny and the beers are huge. This sort of bothered him. I was cool with it.

Your first question, of course, will be: Did you bring a unicycle on the trip? The answer is a resounding yes. I honestly don't think Ben would have gone otherwise.

My requirement was that he needed to be able to break down the unicycle and fit it and his clothing in a single checked suitcase. He did it no problem, so the unicycle went!

Our first stop was Prague. We spent a quick weekend in Prague before heading to Krakow for my work and it was amazing

Here's Ben assembling the unicycle in our hotel room.

If I was being honest, I'd admit that I was nervous about the whole unicycle thing. I wasn't sure if he'd get dirty looks, if the sidewalks would be too crowded, what people would think. I know... you wouldn't think I would be an anxious traveler, but I get a little nutty about breaking the rules... or not knowing what the rules are and whether or not I'm breaking them.

But, you know what? It was all great. Like at home, most people thought the unicycle was completely amusing, and it meant a ton to Ben to be able to enjoy his natural mode of locomotion. Score one against anxiety.

Ben decided to reboot his interest in Pokemon Go for the trip and it was a blast. Honestly, I wasn't sure how the heck I was going to get a teenager to stroll the streets of historical cities with me - the answer was video games! Ben and I walked/unicycled miles and miles as he pursued Pokemon and raids and other things I barely understand. It was, honestly, the key to our happiness the entire trip.

We'd sit in lovely European parks as he awaited a raid. We found fun little alleys and side streets that he saw on his Pokemon Go street map. We talked with tourists from around the world as he traded Pokemon. It was perfect.
Sights around Prague
Views of Prague
Prague from the tower of the Charles Bridge
Buying candy for the girls' souvenirs (and for ourselves)
Downtown Prague (the old part)
We sought out some unique sights that I would have never pursued on my own. For example, we saw a photo of this piece of art in one of our guidebooks and it topped Ben's sightseeing list.

Prague was basically untouched (architecturally) during World War II, so it has both medieval and art nouveau neighborhoods. This is a mall that was built in the 20s with a very unique upside-down horse installed decades after. We were both quite impressed.

The horse-headed busker was also one of Ben's favorite sights
Never fear, we also saw the main historical sights, like Prague Castle (this is the castle cathedral)
And we found this random little attic hallway in the castle where you could pay a few crowns to shoot a crossbow
Ben kindly did agree to a few selfies
The river and castle (and me) at night

I read about blacklight theater in the guidebooks and thought it sounded interesting. It's basically pantomime/dance theater done under blacklights. I know that this description in and of itself should have warned me away entirely but, no, I thought it would be an interesting cultural experience.

It was the longest 90 minutes of my life.

Paddleboating (that is, mostly me peddling and Ben catching Pokemon - it was fine, I had to work off my beer calories somehow)
Our final morning in Prague we decided to try out the electric scooters we had seen all over Prague.
The scooters on cobblestone/brick sidewalks were terrible, but once we got to the paved bike path we had a blast!
Next stop - Krakow! We took a fab high speed train from Prague to Krakow. We ate large quantities of food, watched Schindler's List, I wept openly while the poor porter was trying to take my dinner order, Ben took it all in stride (and said that it was a very good movie).

I had my own luggage porter! Such a gentleman
On Sunday we took a tour out to the oldest continually-operating salt mine in the world! I promise, it was cooler than it sounded.

Ben decided that even though the ice cream at the salt mine didn't quite match up to the expectation set by the sign, it was still pretty good. The ice cream became a theme for the trip. It turns out that when you go to work and leave your son with his unicycle and some zloty for lunch he will always buy ice cream for lunch. Every time.

Here we are, descending the stairs into the bowels of the earth. I can't remember how many stories down we climbed, but it was many.

Don't worry, though, because I learned on the tour that salt air is very healthy and has many medicinal properties. So salt miners were actually very lucky. Except for, you know, living underground for months at a time. They even had their own hospital next to the mine (which to me begged the question, "if it was so healthy being a salt miner, why did they need a dedicated hospital?"). Still, if I had to be a miner, I guess I'd go with salt mining.

The miners built these amazing structures underground, including this chapel. The whole thing was very impressive.
Me under a salt chandelier
Like I said, traveling with Ben introduced me to many experiences I would have otherwise missed. For example, our tour guide told us that we were welcome to lick any and all wall in the mine that we wanted to, except for the sculptures (yes, we were explicitly forbidden to lick the salt sculptures - they have clearly seen tourists of our ilk before). The guide said that because the salt content was so high, germs couldn't live on the walls, so it was hygienic to lick.

I have no idea whether or not that was true, but Ben licked basically every wall in the mine. He confirmed that, yes, they were all salty.

And on to Krakow! While I was at work, Ben explored the city, went on a Segway tour, caught many Pokemon, and ate a lot of ice cream. Needless to say, I have no pictures of any of this because photos are not a thing he does.

Pokemon hunting near the castle
Inside the castle walls
Ben was such a good sport with the selfies
Sights around Krakow
More ice cream
On our last day we took a tour of Auschwitz. It was a profound experience, and one that I felt really privileged to share with my son.

What amazing blessing to spend those days touring around two beautiful European cities with my boy. I loved traveling his way - it was so different and distinct from how I travel on my own. I was so grateful to see these cities through his eyes; to see them together.

I really like that kid.


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