Friday, November 23, 2012

Soaring on Wings Like Eagles


But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. ~ Isaiah 40:31, NIV


I saw the first bald eagles of the season the day after Thanksgiving.  The pair was standing in a field, feasting on a prairie dog, oblivious to the noise of the cars flying past them on the nearby road.  I slowed as I rounded a corner in the road, the large birds catching my attention  and when I realized what they were, I quickly pulled off to the side and turned on my emergency flashers to caution the cars still racing past me.  I watched the regal birds as they devoured their prey, performing a slow and timeless ritual of feasting on the helpless rodent they had no doubt caught and killed just moments before I came upon them.   I noticed their rhythm - as one would lower its head to eat, the other would stand erect, surveying the surroundings for signs of trouble, taking turns accordingly as they devoured the meal.  Without warning, in tandem, they flapped their wings and raised to the sky, soaring up and away from the sight of their kill.  The meal was over, they were moving on and I watched them, feeling a slight twinge of envy as they raised effortlessly over the field, soaring higher and higher into the sky and circling away from sight.  


I stared around me for a moment, surprised that no other cars had even slowed, much less pulled over or stopped, to view this wonderful spectacle.  I suspect that the drivers were all moving so quickly, preoccupied with whatever was on their minds, they did not even notice the large birds in the field.  I pulled back into the traffic, and headed on towards home.  As I rounded the next bend, I saw the sign for a reservoir and bird sanctuary ahead and decided to pull in and take a walk - it was a nice day and the sight of the eagles had whet my appetite for viewing more birds of prey.  I found a parking spot, pulled my iPod out of my purse, plugged in the headset and turned on the music playlist, and began my walk along the path towards the lake.


I walked the half mile from the parking lot to the lake alone, then paused at the shore, watching the wood ducks and the Canadian geese as they swam effortlessly through the still waters of the reservoir, creating small ripples on the smooth lake as they moved.  After a few moments of watching and waiting, I decided to continue walking and turned to head back towards the path.  As I walked the music on my iPod changed, and the Brandon Heath song, "Wait and See", came on.  The song lyrics started soft and slow and I recognized the song, and thought briefly about changing it.  The music was a slower pace and I felt energized being outdoors - I wanted something with a faster beat to keep my feet moving quickly.  I was preparing to glance down and begin the process of changing the selection when something above me caught my eye, and I paused to look up into the blue sky.  There they were - the pair of bald eagles, soaring and circling above my head.

I stopped in wonder, peering straight above me and watching the beautiful pair dip and soar, gliding along with the wind currents and moving effortlessly several feet above my head.  "He's not finished with me yet," came the words in my iPod headset, as Brandon Heath continued to croon.  "Still wondering why I'm here, still wrestling with my fear, but OH, he's up to something..."   The words of the song and the soaring eagles above my head gave me a pause and I suddenly heard the message - "He's not finished with me yet... He's not finished with me yet."  New hope sprang into my heart - God has a plan, and it's not over yet.   The promise of Isaiah 40:31 came instantly into my mind - "But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint."

As the lyrics of the song rang in my ears and the words of the Prophet Isaiah populated my mind, I watched the eagles soar effortlessly above the ground, dipping, gliding and moving with the currents of the wind, and I felt and knew that God was there.   The eagles were a sign of encouragement, reminding me to keep my hope in the Lord and soar on wings like eagles, as I allow him to finish the work that He has started in me.  I watched the birds as they continued their mesmerizing dance, then slowly, as the song wound down and came to an end in my headset, the birds flapped their mighty wings, banked to the west, and moved away from me.  I watched until they were out of sight.

How grateful I am that I noticed the pair of bald eagles in that field and that I took the time to stop and watch them, opening myself to the message the sight ultimately delivered to me. I wondered, how many times has God tapped on my shoulder with the intention of delivering a message, but I've been to busy to stop and listen?  Feeling a renewed sense of enthusiasm and a lighter step in my walk, I returned to the car and drove home as the lyrics of the song continued to play in my mind, reminding me that, "He's not finished with me yet." 

Photo by Tom McMillen

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Most Important Travel Tip

If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world. ~ Francis Bacon

Our buddy Pete was a world-traveler in his youth and I learned my most important travel tip from watching him.  No matter where we visit with Pete he always takes time to speak to the restaurant staff by name.  He will discreetly read the person’s name tag and address them by name when they approach our table.  If no name tag is present he makes the effort to listen when the waitperson introduces themselves and refers to them by name throughout our time at their table. 


This small habit makes a significant difference, not only to those of us being served but to the person serving.  I can remember a specific situation where this habit impacted me more than at any other time.  Pete, his lovely wife Wendy, Tom and I had met in Las Vegas for a long weekend of fun.  We’re not gamblers but Pete was there for a conference and we hadn’t seen each other in a very long time so it made for a good opportunity to be together.  As we sat down in a small café inside one of the mega-hotels on the strip a young woman came to take our order.  She looked bored and uninterested in being there and as I thought about it later, I considered that she is likely treated as a non-entity by most of her customers, there to bring the food, clean up the dishes and perhaps carry a complaint to the cook.  I could understand why she seemed jaded as she approached our table. 


I observed Pete glance casually up at her name tag while she handed us the menus.  “Hello Amber”.  He said pleasantly.  Immediately her face changed, registering curiosity and interest.  He went on with a smile, looking up at her as he spoke.  “What do you recommend?  We’ve never been here before.”  Her surprise was clear and she seemed rattled, not sure how to answer his question.  It was glaringly obvious to me at that moment – Amber was seldom, if ever, addressed as a person in this role.  Clearly, she was unsure how to respond to Pete.  His questions were genuine and he was expectantly waiting for a recommendation. 


After a moment of flustered surprise, Amber gathered herself together and shared the highlights of the menu.   We placed our orders, thanked her and moved to our conversation as she turned towards the kitchen.  When she returned with our food I noticed that she lingered an extra minute, ensuring we were all satisfied with our choices.  I took advantage of the lingering moment and asked her a few questions about herself.  She opened up to all of us and soon was sharing fun ideas for things to see and do that did not depend on gambling and providing her personal recommendations for places to eat with the locals, avoiding the expensive and often mediocre restaurants along the strip.  Her face became animated as she shared and she came back frequently to ensure that we remained satisfied with our dinners. 


When the meal was over we gave her a nice tip and thanked her again.  I noticed that she watched us as we left, smiling as we departed the restaurant.  It was that simple gesture of reading her name tag and acknowledging her as a person that made all the difference.  Pete was no different after the encounter – that’s just what he does and who he is.  He sees people and responds to them as fellow human beings.  But for Amber, he had made an impact.  Her mood was lifted and she was smiling when we left.  I had to wonder how this change had been perceived by her other customers.  How long before the bored, jaded look would be back on Amber’s face, brought on by unseeing customers?  Such a simple step, reading a name tag or listening to someone’s name, but what a significant impact it can have on the person you meet. 


What did you see today?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

18 Hours in San Francisco

San Francisco, Taxis in San Francisco

"No city invites the heart to come to life as San Francisco does.  Arrival in San Francisco is an experience in living."  ~ William Saroyan

I recently spent 18 hours in San Francisco on a quick business trip.  I've been to the city many times before and always enjoyed it as a tourist - this time, I was here to give a quick presentation to Directors of the company, then turn around and head back home with no tourism involved.   I landed at SFO and hailed a cab to my downtown hotel.  As I climbed in the back and gave the address to my driver, he politely nodded and navigated us out and onto the freeway, quickly exiting the airport and entering the rush hour traffic.  The driver said nothing and for a few minutes I didn't either, but as the traffic grew thick and we slowed to a crawl, I leaned forward and asked my driver if he was having a good day.  He looked up into his rearview mirror in surprise, staring at me as though I had asked a very bizarre thing.  Then he nodded.  "Yes," he said in heavily accented English.  "And you?"  "I am, thank you!  Where are you from?"  I asked.  He paused, focusing on the tangled standstill traffic around us.  Again, he slowly raised his eyes to meet mine in the rearview mirror and said quietly, "Russia".  His eyes dropped back to the traffic and he said nothing more.  I pondered his reaction for a moment.  Had he experienced prejudice from other customers upon admitting the country of his heritage?  He seemed uncomfortable at having to answer this question.  I smiled brightly.  "I've never been to Russia," I said.  "Tell me more about your home town."  Immediately his eyes met mine again and this time, a smile played at the corner of his mouth.  He launched into a story about the beauty of his hometown on the shores of the Baltic Sea and for the remainder of the trip downtown, we discussed his family in Russia, his desire to return and raise his children there and the many things he has seen and done during his time in San Francisco.  When I exited the cab at my hotel he was beaming and pleasant, moving quickly to carry my bag to the entrance and thanking me for my patronage of his cab. 

It was dinnertime when I checked in and I was starved, so I quickly unpacked in my room then headed downstairs to the lobby to inquire about nearby restaurants.  After a quick visit with the concierege I selected an Italian restuarant three blocks away and headed out into the busy street in search of dinner.  I found the restaurant with ease and was greeted by a pleasant waiter who seated me near a window and served my dinner with a flourish.  I noticed his name - Emiliano.  When he returned with my check I inquired where he was from.  Emiliano straightened a bit and beamed proudly as he declared his hometown to be San Gminagno, Italy.  I smiled.  "I was just there in December," I told him.  "It's a beautiful village."  Emiliano's smile widened and he quickly inquired about my recent time in Tuscany.  "Did you visit Volterra?"  he asked, and when I replied that I had, he touched his fingers to his lips in a flourished kiss and proclaimed that Volterra was, to him, a most lovely city.  I couldn't help but agree.  We spoke for a few more minutes, sharing stories of our favorite places in Italy and he gave me ideas of new places to visit.  I left the restaurant smiling - my conversation with Emiliano had brought back such pleasant memories of my recent trip.

The next morning I checked out of the hotel and moved quickly to the curb to hail a cab to my meetings.  An elderly cab driver picked me up and again, I noticed the heavy accent as we pulled away from the curb.  "Where are you from?"  I inquired.  "Armenia," he said proudly.  We talked for a few minutes about San Francisco, the tourists and the busy streets, and when we pulled up to my office building I handed him the fare and a generous tip.  He turned and smiled broadly at me saying, "I like you, lady.  You have treated me so well.  I hope all goes good for you."  I thanked him and hurried into my building, thinking of the different people I had already met in San Francisco and the different stories of their lives each of them shared with me.

I had one cab ride left, from my downtown office back to the airport.  The concierge at the hotel had arranged for a car to pick me up at noon and return me to SFO and as I exited the office, my car and driver were waiting.  I grinned to myself - I felt so special!  The driver was very kind and quickly loaded my bags into the trunk and offered me a cold bottle of water for the ride.  "My name is Sandro," he said as we pulled away from the curb.  "My name is Sandra!" I exclaimed and we both laughed.  As we talked I learned that Sandro was from Brazil but his father was Italian, from Milan, Italy.  He was a proud Brazilian and we discussed his country's recovering economy and the beautiful cities of Sao Paulo and Rio De Janero.  I asked if Sandro had plans to visit Brazil again soon and he emphatically shook his head.  "I have three year old twins," he said.  "I would not like to spend 18 hours on an airplane with them!  That would be too much!"  He quickly pulled his iphone out and handed it to me.  "This is a picture of my twins, Lucca and Faith," he said proudly as I looked at the picture.  "They are adorable," I said, handing the phone back to the proud parent.  "I can understand your reluctance to take them on a plane trip to Brazil.  Perhaps in a few more years they will be ready."  Sandro agreed and we had a pleasant conversation as he drove me back to the airport for my return trip home.

I sat on the plane, thinking of my 18 hours in San Francisco.  I had met four people from different parts of the world and there were many others that I passed on the street that I did not get to meet or speak with.  It never ceases to amaze me that our world is so large yet really, so very, very small.  And each person, no matter where they were from, spoke lovingly of their families and their countries of origin.  We are really not so different, are we?  

What did you see today?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

D-Day beaches, Normandy France.

"We shot at everything that moved. The beach was soon covered with the bodies of American soldiers."
- German soldier Franz Gockel, writing to his family on June 10, 1944, about the landings on Omaha Beach four days earlier.

"There was another guy beside me and we were the first two off that boat. I went immediately into the water. It was shallow enough that I was able to get up. There was nothing. No bodies - because we were the bodies."
- Michael Accordino, who landed in the first wave on Omaha with Company A of U.S. Army's 299th Engineer Combat Battalion.

"Normandy is marked by the landings. It is inscribed in people's hearts, in memories, in stone, in rebuilding, in memorial plaques, in street names, everywhere."
- Rev. Rene-Denis Lemaigre, priest of Lisieux.

Toms’ Take:

If I were King for the day, I would require everyone from the age of 15 to 20 to visit three locations as part of their US citizenship.  The first would be Washington DC, including the museums, the mall, (not shopping) the monuments, capital building and more. So much of our nation’s history is told here. The second location would be Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii.   It is a very moving experience to visit the USS Arizona Memorial and to be where the start of US involvement in WWII began. A short distance away is the USS Missouri where later, the end of the war was heralded by the Japanese signing of surrender documents.  Again, there is so much history all in one place.  The third requirement would be visiting the D-Day beaches in Normandy France. 

When we planned our trip to France and Belgium, Sandy asked what I was interested in seeing on the trip and I only had three requests:  drink Belgian beer with my buddy Jim; eat Belgian chocolate; and visit Normandy and the D-Day beaches.  I’m a history buff and as such, I have always wanted to visit Normandy.  I have read many books and seen many movies and documentaries about Normandy and in my mind; I thought I would be emotionally prepared for the experience. 

We had enjoyed our week on LeBoat and now were prepared to begin the next leg of our journey, Normandy and Belgium.  We drove through the Normandy countryside on our way to the D-Day beaches and as we got closer, we noticed homes and businesses flying American flags.  It was touching to see and as we wound through the final miles to the beaches, I started to recognize the names of villages where famous battles had taken place and without warning, I began to get a lump in my throat.  Was it because I couldn’t believe I was finally here, or was it something else?  We rounded a corner on a country road and there before us was the village of St. Mere Eglise, proudly boasting a sign that read;”Viva 82nd Airborne, First Village liberated in France”. Both French and American flags were proudly flying over this sign, the gateway to the village.  Seeing this sign and the flags, still declaring an American victory from 65 years earlier, gave all of us a start.  We did not expect this!

We drove on to Utah Beach and parked in the assigned lots.  As we looked out over the bluff and onto the beach, I had a hard time imagining how it must have looked on June 6, 1944.  The day we visited the weather was beautiful – the sun was shining and the wind was relatively calm.  With the exception of the sand-buried bunkers this could have been any beach on the California coast. The lump in my throat got bigger.  We moved on to Omaha Beach and the American cemetery where there is a wonderful museum filled with many interesting stories, pictures and historical information.  We stopped to tour the museum and cemetery and as I exited the museum I walked to the handrail that ran along the bluff and looked down on Omaha Beach.  I was suddenly taken with the contrast of what I saw before me today compared with what I just seen in the museum photos. 

Many of us have seen the pictures of June 6th 1944, photos depicting young soldiers jumping off of transport boats and struggling through the cold ocean water, rushing to reach the beach while dodging bullets and navigating through utter chaos to battle the German forces.  It was a gruesome scene to imagine and yet, here I stood today looking down on a beautiful beach and watching couples walking in the soft sand while families were picnicking and flying kites.  This is what peace should look like. 

After staring at the beach and imagining what it must have looked like on June 6 and knowing what those young scared boys had to endure, coming up that beach cold, wet, and sea sick and injured, I felt the ever-present lump in my throat grow bigger.  After a few moments of reflection, I turned and walked down the path to the cemetery and as I saw the rows and rows of white crosses come into view, I had to stop and just look.  There are no words to describe what those crosses, all neatly organized with Omaha Beach shining in the background, look like.   There are nearly ten thousand service men and women buried here.  I don’t know one person in that cemetery – I have no family members in the cemetery and I do not personally know anyone else who has relatives buried here.    I have no connection at all with any of the Americans buried here other than our country of birth.  And yet, the feeling of personal loss is overwhelming.  There are names like Martinez, Andersen, O’Neal and home states listed such as Texas, Illinois, and Wyoming making me realize the scope and span of the American sacrifice.  The names and states reminded me that young men and women from varying backgrounds and representing the diversity of the United States are buried here.   There is not an inch of our nation that wasn’t impacted by that day. 

I walked through the many rows, reading the names and states and contemplating the sufferings of those buried beneath each cross when suddenly, I encountered a white marble cross with no name or state listed, simply stating:   “Here rest in honored glory a comrade in arms, Known but to God.”  I finally understood the reason for the lump in my throat.

Thank you, those who paid this ultimate price. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

My Wife

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your life... Ecclesiastes 9:9

Tom's Take:  I’m not sure what the process or the requirements are for saint hood but whatever they are, I believe my wife is qualified.  I’m not an easy person to live with and I should know, I live with myself.  They say opposites attract and that fits Sandy and I pretty well.   I’m a little more willing to try something that is a little more daring or adventurous (unless it's a new or strange food).  Sandy, on the other hand, needs a little more encouragement.  This might explain why, in the time we have been married, I have had several knee and back surgeries, stitches etc., to zero for her.  I jump then think about the place to land, she likes to ask a zillion questions and know as much as possible about where she will land before she jumps in.  I have a tendency to get lost; so she bought me a Tom Tom (I think that was actually for her). But By getting lost we have found some cool (and not so cool) places.  It has all worked out well for us even though some tense or stressful moments have occurred.  Most importantly, we have managed to have fun through it all. 

One of my favorite memories was a situation that became a real stretch for Sandy.  We have kayaked before and enjoyed it but our trips have always been in calm Caribbean waters.  On a recent visit to the big island of Hawaii we had read about a beautiful bay that was an ideal spot for kayaking and sight seeing.  At the far end of this bay is the location where Captain John Cook was killed and it's a popular trip to paddle across the wide bay to visit the marker that pinpoints the exact location.   It was a beautiful day when we visited, the sun was shining and there was no one around.  I wanted to kayak out and visit the marker but Sandy can’t swim very well so the idea of going out on the ocean in a small two person kayak took a bit of coaxing.   There was a lot of me saying “trust me honey, we will stay close to shore”.   You would think by now when I say “trust me” her radar alarm would be going WOOP WOOP WOOP.   But trust me she does and we rented the kayak and off we went.  

The pacific is a little less calm than the Caribbean waters we have kayaked in before, so at first we stayed close to shore.  But if you’re an experience kayaker you know that the closer to shore you are, the rougher the water is.  So I told Sandy that we needed to go out a little further from shore and besides, this was a big, deep bay and it would be quicker to go straight across then it would be to hug the shore line and since the majority of the paddling was being done be me I thought that was the better idea.  "Trust me," I said and trust me she did.

As we started to cross the middle of the bay I noticed some splashing several hundred yards in front of us and it appeared that whatever was making the splashes was coming our way.  It was then I realized the splashing was being created by a pod of dolphins and I told Sandy look to look straight in front of us. Fifteen to twenty dolphins where heading directly towards our kayak.  We were out in the middle of the deep blue bay all alone and no one else was even close to us.  I’ve seen dolphins many times before both above and below the water and have had the opportunity while diving to swim with dolphin pods in Costa Rica and again in Cozumel, but Sandy has never had an opportunity to see this beautiful animal so close.   She was as excited as she was scared and the dolphins quickly reached us, surrounding our kayak and jumping and swimming under and all around us.  It was one of the coolest things I have ever seen.  I held the kayak steady and we looked down into the clear water, watching the pod swim right under our kayak, coming up on the opposite side and jumping into the air just a few short feet away, spinning and splashing us with water as they put on a show just for us. There were several new born dolphins in the pod, some only a foot or two long and we felt the moms were showing off their kids, bringing them close to the kayak side and circling around and underneath us, rolling over and coaxing their babies to do the same.   As the mothers brought their babies alongside the kayak for us to get a good look at, the babies responded to our presence with curiosity and not a trace of fear. 

Sandy was nervous at this close invasion but she squealed like a little girl with excitement.  The show went on for about twenty minutes before the pod decided it was time to move on and by that time a few more kayaks had joined us.  That experience was worth the cost of the entire trip and I will forever remember watching Sandy watch the dolphin’s impromptu show.  I had more fun watching her and her excitement tinged with fear than I did watching the dolphins.  To be able to share that experience with her will always be one of the best memories I will ever have.  We stayed out for awhile longer hoping the dolphins would reappear but as we watched them swim out to the open ocean, we realized the show was over and made our way over to the other side of the bay to visit Captain Cook's marker, our original destination.  

Having a partner in life that is willing to be with you no matter what has made life wonderful.  The funny thing is, as we have gotten a little older the dynamics in our adventurous spirits have began to change.  Sandy isn’t ready to bungee jump or cliff dive but she has gotten a lot braver and I think I have mellowed al little more.  And even with a Tom Tom, I can still get lost.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Foreign languages! UGGHHH!!!!!

In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.  ~ The Innocents Abroad…. Mark Twain

 Toms' Take:

I was born to speak the English language and even that has been a struggle.  I had a speech problem as a child, trouble with the letter "S".  When I used an "S" I sounded like a serpent with a lisp. You just tried that sound didn’t you?  I remember sitting in “regular class” when the speech teacher would come in and take me “down to the room”.   I hated that -- it meant that I would spend an hour of torture with her.  She would say “Repeat after me, Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore.”  I remember thinking, "you’ve heard me talk why do you want me to say that?"   “How about Roger rode on a red roller-coaster”, the teacher would ask with a smile.  “There’s only one S in that sentence and we can work our way up from there.”  Eventually I figured out how to talk without looking like I had been electrocuted every time I used the letter S and I no longer had to leave my regular classroom.

When Sandy and my travels began taking us to foreign places, we wanted to do our best to at least try and speak the language of our host country, as it is appreciated by the locals if you at least attempt to communicate in their language.  This was like speech therapy all over again.  I enrolled in a Spanish class through our local community college adult education program.  Sandy had studied Spanish in college so I took this class with our friends Jim and Jan.  After two years the school wouldn’t let me enroll in the beginner class anymore and I registered for one of the next classes, conversational Spanish.  Speaking English was not allowed in this class and after a few attempts, I finally dropped the course altogether and decided that I would just stay close to Sandy and smile a lot.

Most of my attempts at speaking a foreign language have been laughable if not disastrous. I remember a time when Jim and I traveled from the island Roatan to the mainland of Honduras to purchase some tools for work on our property.  Almost everyone on the island of Roatan speaks English but a short 30 miles away on the mainland of Honduras, Spanish is the primary language and if you speak English here, you’re not going to get much of a response.  Jim and I both tried hard to speak Spanish, we even thought that if we talked loud and slow and added an O to the end of all our words, the locals would understand us.  This, of course, never works.  In the end we just pointed and smiled a lot and by the time we boarded the ferry to return to Roatan, we both had a headache.

The problem with trying to speak the local language is, if you walk into a place and you greet folks with “Buenos Dias”, people assume that you can speak Spanish and they respond in Spanish and of course, I don’t have a clue what they are saying as I’ve just exhausted my Spanish repository.  I give them the same stupid look I would give my speech therapist when she would say “repeat after me, sister Suzy sat on a thistle.”  Funny how you can be transported back to the past so easily. 

I have tried so many times to speak with confidence, but I always get a brain freeze.  In Italy I've learned that I can only order Lasagna or Ravioli at restaurants, as this is all I can really pronounce.   When the waiter comes to our table I invariably freeze up and in a loud slow voice I say, “Ravioli-O and wine-O, Gracias". Oh shoot -- wrong language.  The waiter would look at me as I smile sheepishly and nodding as though he understood every word, he would sweep away my menu and turn to Sandy to take her order, sure that I will never know if what he chooses to bring me is even close to what I ordered.

The French language sounds so beautiful and charming when spoken.  Someone could be describing how to unstop a toilet and it will still sound elegant.  But when someone like me is trying to speak French it sounds more like a toad that was stepped on, croaking and protesting loudly. 

We were at dinner one evening in a nice restaurant in Paris.  Sandy had ordered and it sounded like she knew what she was doing, then Jan did the same and even asked some questions.  The waiter turned to me expectantly - it was my turn to order and I was anxiously looking at the menu for something that looked familiar or that I could pronounce.  I didn’t want to have escargot and French fries again.  As the waiter continues to look at me, pencil poised expectantly over his order pad, I felt like saying “Mongo want this” and point to the menu item.  My brain froze and I slowly said, “Ravioli-O and wine-O, Gracias”.  Oh darn, I did it again!   We are in France – wrong language!  I try again. “Umm, Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore”.   Finally I just smile and point as the waiter gives me a frown and shakes his head.  I feel quite sure that he is going to season my food with spit.  I should have had the escargot again.  Oh well.  I will keep trying, and keep smiling.

 Travel Tip:  Learn at least a few key phrases in the language of the country you will be visiting.  The ability to greet and thank people in their own language, coupled with a genuine smile, is always appreciated, even if you can say nothing else!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Concentration Camps in Belgium

Belgium has not been spared the horror of Nazism and its concentration camps ~ Breendonk Memorial

I studied World War II in school as most of us did and I have a great-uncle who fought in the war in France and Belgium, but he never shared his experiences and other then a few words over the years, I never learned about his time in the war.  I had read about concentration camps and the horrors that occurred within their walls and barbed wire confines and like many of us, I could never comprehend the reality of what had taken place in Europe during the 1940’s. 

Tom is a WWII history buff and during our travels through Belgium we made the decision to stop and visit the Breendonk Concentration Camp memorial site near Brussels.  Although smaller than most concentration camps at the time, Breendonk was one of the most barbaric and vilest in Nazi control.  Between September 1940 and September 1944, 3500 prisoners passed through its narrow, damp and humid halls.  The prisoners were Jews, Non-Jews, and those who the Nazis felt were threats to their regime.  All prisoners confined within Breendonk's walls were treated inhumanely, with daily torture and beatings. 

It was a gray and damp day when we pulled up to the fence and there was only one other car in the parking lot.  We stared at the foreboding building and the rolls of razor wire that still wrapped around its walls.  I shivered at the sight – it was sobering and intimidating.  I was choosing to visit this place, stepping into the building of my own free will – I could not imagine how horrific it must have been for the prisoners that were transported here against their will, never knowing if they would ever be free again. 

We entered the main building and picked up the audio headsets for the self-guided tour from the gentleman on duty and as we began to navigate deeper into the cold corridors of the prison, I could feel a very heavy spirit began to envelope me.  The prison was dark, cold and damp and this was only September – I could not imagine how horrible it must have been during the middle of winter.  Prisoners spent their days in thin and tattered clothing, working outside even in bad weather or sitting in solitary confinement with the daily threat of beatings and torture hanging over them.  Illness and disease was rampant in this environment and as we moved through the prison our mood became increasingly more somber and reflective.

Railroad cattle cars used to transport prisoners were on display in one corner of the fenced prison yard.  As we peered in, Tom made the observation of how small they were and the pictures on the side of the cars showed them packed with people, all staring grimly into the camera.  Riding in these cars must have been very claustrophobic and terrifying.  Just prior to the liberation of Breendonk, these same cars were used to transport the remaining prisoners to Auschwitz - likely their final ride in this life.  I imagined myself inside one of those cars and I felt an instant moment of panic and fear.

I hesitated to enter the torture chamber as we approached it on the tour.  I could almost feel the spirits of those who had been beaten and tortured here – the air was heavy and cold and my breath was becoming short and shallow as I began to listen to the stories of the chamber.  I jumped – a woman’s piercing scream came through my audio tour speakers, followed by the story of how many people – men and women – had lost their lives in this chamber. 

I shuddered and turned my head away from the torture contraptions that were still present in this room.  A single glaring light bulb hung suspended from the ceiling, casting shadows on the stone walls as it illuminated the chamber where many had suffered for their crimes, whether real or imagined.  The story of the tortured woman continued in my headset, describing what had happened to her within this chamber and providing details that I did not want to hear and could not comprehend.  Tears filled my eyes as I listened to her retell the story of her time and torture in Breendonk, all in her softly accented voice.  I could not imagine what she must have been feeling.  She had managed to survive the horrors of this camp and willingly shared her stories with those that visited, ensuring that we would remember the catastrophic happenings of World War II and Breendonk.

As I looked at the rest of my group I could see that they were as impacted as I was, listening to the same story through their own audio headsets.  Our faces were grim and pale, we had tears in our eyes and were wiping at them freely with our tissues.  I had to leave – I wanted to leave – but I couldn’t leave.  I needed to listen and hear this.  I needed to understand the horrors that had taken place in our history and I needed to remember that many innocent people died during this time in our past.  When the story ended, we silently left the chamber and moved down the hallway to the next stop on our self-guided tour.  No one said a word, for what could we say?  Each of us was thinking about the information we had just learned and processing it in our own minds. 

We finished the tour, returned the audio headsets and silently walked back to the car.  Travel is important for so many reasons.  Not only do we have the opportunity to see the world, meet other people and learn about their lives, we also have the obligation to consider the history of the region we visit and understand the circumstances that have helped to shape its citizens. 

The people of Belgium have converted Breendonk into a memorial site.  Not because they are proud of Breendonk and the horrific acts that took place there, but so that others might have the opportunity to visit and remember the horrors that took lives and destroyed families.  It is by remembering and learning from the mistakes of the past that we progress forward as humans, ideally learning from the experience and refraining from repeating such acts in our future. 

Travel Tip:  Research the memorials and museums in the areas you visit, and plan to stop in and learn about the history of the region on your trip.  Even a short visit to a local memorial site can help you gain a greater appreciation and insight into the events that contributed to the development of the area.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Madame Jarnay

Madame Jarnay

War grows out of the desire for the individual to gain advantage at the expense of his fellow man.  ~ Napoleon Hill

It was an unplanned stop on our canal itinerary, a small village that was barely a dot on the map and whose name I cannot remember.  We had been cruising all day without a stop and could use a chance to stretch our muscles, so we pulled up to the village dock in mid-afternoon, tied up the boat and grabbed our bikes for a ride on the country roads.  After pedaling through the small village and the neighboring farm lands, we stopped at a small cafe with outdoor seating and gathered under the shade of an umbrella.  It was a warm day and the bike ride had made us hot and sticky – a cold beer or glass of apple cider sounded wonderful right now!  We pulled out our cards, ordered our drinks and began to deal a hand of rummy 500.  Before long it was early evening and we began to think about our dinner plans.  

We asked the owner of the café what she recommended and she shrugged.  It was off-season, she explained, and many of the restaurants in the village were closed.  “You can try next door,” she said, gesturing to the small hotel next to her café, “Madame Jarnay runs the hotel there and she will cook dinner for guests.  She doesn’t have anyone staying there right now though, so she might not be prepared to serve.”  We thanked her, paid our bill and wandered next door to explore this small hotel / bar / restaurant. 

We stepped inside and looked around – it was dead quiet and no one was in sight.  A large old brown dog lay on the floor of the restaurant and he raised his head to look at us curiously.  “Bon Jour” we called.  Soon we heard someone moving in the back room and a swinging door burst open and a small woman with gray-blonde hair emerged into the dining room.  “Bon Jour”, she answered, then proceeded to ask us questions in French.  Jan did her best to explain that the café owner next door had directed us here for dinner.  Madame Jarnay seemed pleased and asked us to be seated.  We looked around – there was no one else here and it seemed a bit intrusive for us to ask her to cook for four guests only.  We thanked her for the hospitality but explained that if she did not have other guests to cook for, we would not want to take up her evening just for us.  She would have nothing of the sort and insisted we sit at a small wooden table, adorned with a single flower in a vase, cloth napkins and delicate china dishes.  We felt uncomfortable and a bit guilty, but at her insistence we sat down.

Madame Jarnay handed us menus then stood aside expectantly as we reviewed them and tried to interpret the French.  As we began to make our selections, she would answer “no” to each request.  She did not have the ingredients for the meals we were ordering, she explained.  Finally, we laughed and asked her what she recommended.  She smiled broadly and in French explained that she had steak, potatoes, salad and bread.  This was perfect!  We placed our order and sat back, wondering what would happen next. 

As Madame exited to the kitchen she issued a stern warning to her old dog, instructing him to stay in his place on the floor.  When she had disappeared and we could hear the sounds of pots and pans in the back, the old dog slowly stood up and ambled across the room to greet us.  We laughed and rubbed his ears and he sat next to us, occasionally glancing towards the swinging door.  When he heard his mistress approaching the door, he immediately returned to his spot on the floor, lying down complacently just as Madame entered the dining room.  She smiled at him approvingly and as she served our appetizers she explained that she had taught her dog to stay away from guests while they were eating.  We grinned and acknowledged that he was, indeed, a well trained animal.  She thanked us, expressed her approval to the dog while he thumped his tail on the floor, and then returned to the kitchen.  As soon as she disappeared, the dog was back at our side.

When Madame Jarnay came out to serve us our salads, we began to ask her questions about the area.  She shared the history of the region and told small stories about the village and its inhabitants.  She enjoyed practicing her English with us and we enjoyed trying out our French with her and between the two languages, we managed to understand the bulk of what she was saying.

Madame served us our steaks and at our request, she pulled up a chair and joined us at the table.  The food was wonderful and delicious and she produced a bottle of rich red wine to complement the steak and potatoes.  As we shared this delightful dinner and sipped the wine, her history unfolded and we became more and more engrossed in her story.

Madame was a child of 12 and living with her parents in Paris when the Nazi’s invaded the city in June of 1940.  Alarmed at what was happening, her parents quickly packed their belongings and moved to this village in the country, where her father had been raised.  The peaceful village life suited Madame’s parents and when the war ended they opted not to return to Paris, instead purchasing this hotel and building the adjoining restaurant.  They ran the hotel and restaurant until their deaths, leaving the establishment to Madame in their will.

Madame was a typical teenage girl and the country life was not as appealing to her.  She had high aspirations and wanted to become a lawyer.  She moved back to Paris when she was 18 years old and enrolled in the university law school.  She passed her bar exams and became a lawyer in Paris, working there until her parents’ death.  It was highly unusual for a woman to complete law school in 1950’s Paris and she worked hard to establish her practice and her credibility in the city.  Madame had never married – her work was her life and she quickly rose to the top of the Parisian legal ladder.   She was in her early 40’s when her parents died and she inherited the hotel and restaurant.  She found herself becoming exhausted with her city life and grueling work schedule and the idea of returning to the village and a slower life style was very appealing.

Her role as a lawyer served her well in her family village for there was no one in the town who could marry couples, solve legal disputes or provide legal advice to uphold the French laws.  She became the legal magistrate and soon, her hotel and restaurant became the place to hold weddings and receptions.  Today, Madame explained, she is 79 years old and no longer acts as the village lawyer, however, she does enjoy marrying couples and running her hotel. 

As we finished our meals we realized that we had spent over three hours with Madame Jarnay and knew that she must be exhausted although she was still talking animatedly and sharing multiple stories about her life as a lawyer in the village.  We thanked her profusely for her kindness and her stories – it brought so much context to us to hear about this village, its history and then to realize that Madame had contributed so much. 

As we walked back to our boat we were all silent with our own thoughts.  This lovely woman was 79 years old and still running a hotel and restaurant by herself. She lived through one of the most difficult times in France’s history and then bucked tradition by going to law school in the early 1950’s, a profession that is historically dominated by men.  She gave up her lucrative career in Paris to return to the village of her father’s family and continue the family business, building a new career for herself in the process.  Had we not stopped to ride our bikes in this particular village, we would never have met Madame Jarnay or heard her stories.  We were all so thankful for the unscheduled stop and the resulting friendship that we had developed.

Travel Tip:  Unscheduled stops can bring the most interesting stories and information. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Difficult Highways in Life

 It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage,
that we move on to better things.
- Theodore Roosevelt

Tom and I were driving across Wyoming in February on our way home from Salt Lake City.  The weather was sunny when we left but became increasingly windy, snowy and cold as we traversed the state, causing the Interstate to finally be closed due to snow and ice.  We were forced to stop for the night in a small town along the highway and I found myself feeling irritable and annoyed that my trip would be so rudely interrupted.  I was three hours from home and I wanted to be in my own bed for the night, not here in some small, windy town in rural Wyoming with nothing but miles of empty land and blowing, howling wind and snow around us.  We had been traveling for several days already and I just wanted to be home.

We checked into the local Holiday Inn Express and as I looked around the packed lobby with all of the stranded travelers, I abruptly realized that I had prayed for safety on this trip and my prayers were being answered.  I was safe, in a clean hotel and I would not be left to sleep in my vehicle, stranded on the side of an icy highway in sub-zero weather.  I felt shame at my attitude sweep over me and was thankful to hear that we would have a room for the night.  As I looked around the lobby, my eye caught sight of a mother with four young children, all under the age of 7.  She looked worried but I could tell that she was trying to keep up appearances for her children's sake.  I heard her promising snacks and a trip to the hotel pool once they had checked in and I smiled, remembering the times we took our kids to a hotel for a weekend of swimming and fun.  I knew that she was not stopping here for purposes of entertaining her children, but appreciated her attempts to make the unscheduled stay seem like fun, making the best of the situation. 

As Tom and I sat in the breakfast lounge the next morning listening to the news and hoping for the Interstate to open, mom and her brood came down to partake of the free cereals and yogurts.  She sat at an adjacent table and caught my eye, smiling shyly.  I leaned in to speak with her.  "Where are you headed to?"  I asked.  She hesitated for a moment, then spelled out "T E X A S".  I was surprised - she was a long way from Texas!  She looked at her children to make sure they were occupied with their breakfast then slipped into the chair next to me, obviously feeling the need to talk and share more.  "I am leaving my spouse", she whispered.  "He's abusive and doesn't know that I've left.  I took the children while he was at work.  We don't have anything but our clothes and our van and I'm traveling to Texas to be with my parents."  I searched her face - she was anxious, yet determined.  "Where are you from?"  I asked.  "Oregon," she answered.  She looked at my pleadingly.  "How long will this interstate be closed?  I need to get my children back on the road."   I shook my head.  This was Wyoming - who could tell?  I've seen this interstate be closed for days at a time.  We discussed her travel plans and I provided her with as much information as I could about her route and what she could expect.  My heart ached as I thought of her driving so far, all alone with four children.  I did not know what the circumstances were that had prompted this drastic step, but I silently prayed for her safety and her future. 

The Interstate remained closed and Tom pulled out the Wyoming state map.  We found an alternative route that was open, although it would add an additional six hours to our trip and we had no idea what the road conditions would be.  We opted to leave and as we checked out of the hotel I glanced back into the lobby.  Mom and her kids were still there, waiting out the storm.  She waved and gave me a weak smile and I acknowledged her with my own wave.  "Lord," I prayed, "protect this woman.  Provide her with safety as she travels and bring peace to her and her children." 

We arrived home hours later and the Interstate remained close for another two days.  I was glad we had made the decision to re-route but I could not stop thinking of that young mother, stranded alone with her children, anxious to be with her parents and start a new life.  I mentally followed her travels, thinking about how far she would get once the roads opened and how soon she could be joined with her family in Texas.  I don't know why she felt the need to share with me, but I'm glad that she did and as a mother myself, my heart goes out to her and to her parents.  I will continue to pray for her and the challenges ahead, praying for courage and wisdom as she recreates her future in "T E X A S".
Give me your eyes for just one minute, give me your eyes so I can see. Everything that I keep missing, give me your love for humanity.....Brandon Heath

What did you see today?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Le Boat: Lessons on the Lock

Le Boat, Canals and Locks

It is one of the phenomena of the inland waterways that you can go for hours without meeting another boat, then will encounter one on the sharpest and nastiest bend in the system. ~ From Journeys of The Swan by John Liley (1971)

We arrived at the boat dock at the appointed time, ready and anxious to board our floating home for the next week.  As Jacques, the boat attendant, walked us from the check-in station down to the river front he explained to Tom and Jim that they would receive a lesson in operating the locks that we would be encountering along the canals.  Many of them were manned by attendants who lived at the lock stations, he explained, but others would be manual and when we approached the manual locks we would have to operate them ourselves. 

“Here is your boat”, he said in heavily accented English.  “Let me show you around”.   We all climbed aboard and looked at each, grinning and chuckling as we attempted to follow Jacques through the narrow hallway towards the galley of the boat.  Jim is a tall guy and it was quickly clear that he would not be able to stand up inside this boat.  Thank goodness we had an open top with a table, chairs and a second station for driving the boat, because Jim would be walking in a bent fashion through the inside and would need somewhere to stretch out!

Jacques moved quickly and surely through the small interior, pointing into the 3 bedrooms as we passed the doorways.  We quickly tried to peer in as we passed and I caught glimpses of small beds and even smaller bathrooms.  We moved into the more open galley area and here was our kitchen and dining room for the week.  As Jacques moved on to show Jim and Tom the engine and teach them the basics of the boat operation, Jan and I stopped to explore the cupboards of the galley. 

I was astounded as I discovered delicate china cups and plates in the small wood cupboards and held them out to Jan.  “Look at this!  China dishes on a boat in the canals!”  I exclaimed.  She looked up and laughed for she had made some equally fun discoveries.  She pulled up a glass French press coffee maker and tiny ceramic egg cups and spoons for our 3-minute eggs in the mornings.  We laughed and laughed – only in France!  I was used to camping with chipped and dented metal military mess kits and an old cast iron skillet to perch on a grate over the open fire.  I was not anticipating delicate china dishes, formal silverware, cloth napkins and cut glass salt and pepper shakers in my camping stock!

When Jacques and the guys came back into the galley area, Jacques inquired if we had purchased food to stock our boat.  It was Saturday, he explained, and all the shops in the little villages along our route would be closed on Sunday.   We had not had the chance to shop so Jacques offered to drive Jan and me to the closest grocery store while Tom and Jim packed our belongings into the boat and filled the water tank with fresh drinking water from a hose that Jacques supplied. 

Jan and I were laughing as we jumped into the van with Jacques and drove away, leaving Tom and Jim looking a bit confused with the piles of luggage at their feet and a green rubber hose hanging from their hands.  The grocery was set to close at 6:00 and it was 5:30 when Jacques pulled up.  “Hurry!” he said as we jumped from the van and headed towards the entrance.  “I must run to a store for my wife, I will pick you up at 6:00”, he called as we dashed away.  Jan and I looked around in confusion as we entered the store – where should we start and what did we need, we wondered.  There was a short suggested stock list that our boat welcome package included, but beyond that we had no idea what to expect.

With Jan leading the way and interpreting the signs, we began to gather our groceries.  Our refrigerator was tiny and would not hold much and we knew that we would have to picnic often, since we could not always plan to be near a village at lunch time.  We quickly gathered what we felt were the basics, finding cheese and meat delicacies in the open meat cases, crusty French bread in the bakery and fresh fruits, eggs and milk in the dairy.  All that was left was the French wine and this is where the confusion set in.  So many varieties to choose from!  I finally devised a plan – I watched the locals that came through the wine aisles and I followed them to see what their selections were.  There was a particular Bordeaux that seemed quite popular and the price was right, so I loaded several bottles into my cart and off we went. 

We paid for the groceries, bagged them in our own shopping bags and dashed back outside the store right at 6:00.  Jacques was just pulling up to the front when we exited, exhausted but proud of ourselves for navigating so quickly through a French grocery store with no list.

“You are done already?” Jacques exclaimed in surprise when he saw us.  “I was sure you would take much longer”. 

“Oh no, Jacques,” Jan said as we loaded our bags into his van.  “You said 6:00 and we didn’t want to keep you waiting, you have been so kind to bring us here.”  He grinned and thanked us, driving us back to our boat. 

After helping us carry the bags down to the boat and into the galley he led us toward a small boat house for our lock training.  We were all excited to learn but a bit unsure about the lesson being conducted in the boat house.  How could we learn to operate manual canal locks without seeing the lock and experiencing opening it, we wondered?  Jacques proudly pulled 4 chairs around a small television set, pushed an old video tape into an adjacent VCR and said with a flourish, “This movie will show you how to open the locks on your own.  I will be waiting outside and you can leave when you are done.”  He pushed START on the VCR, waved his hand, and disappeared out the door. 

The video began with a friendly man smiling and standing atop a lock.  He began to demonstrate the operation of the lock, providing important instructions throughout the process.  The instructions, however, were all in French and we could not understand a word.  We sat in shock for a moment then, when the absurdity of the situation struck us, we burst out laughing.  Soon we were wiping tears from our eyes we were laughing so hard and it was impossible to focus on the video.

“Well”, Jim said, “I guess we’d better watch closely because we have no idea what he’s telling us.”  He got up and pushed REWIND on the VCR and after collecting ourselves, we pulled our chairs closer to the old TV set and proceeded to attempt to memorize the steps we saw demonstrated on the tape.  Fifteen minutes later the video ended and we were officially trained.  Look out France!