Day 5: Florence

My first thought when we saw our little apartment in Florence was “I never want to leave here.” It’s the nicest Airbnb we’ve ever stayed at, and the owner/architect/designer is so darling. Look at this cool blend of ancient exposed brick and modern recessed lighting!IMG_1490.jpgWe love traveling with our kids and friends, but we can’t remember the last time we took a vacation with just the two of us. It’s fun, too! This is our third trip to Florence, so we don’t feel a need to do the art museums or see the David. We’re happy to have a slower pace with no itinerary.

We were at the Ponte Vecchio at sunrise in order to experience it without the crowds.IMG_1510.jpgIMG_1505.jpg

We meandered as the city came alive and grew increasingly busy and noisy.IMG_1528.jpg We love experiences that happen before the real tourist hours, like seeing a shop owner arguing with the police: “How can I fix my gutter if I can’t put the scaffolding here? I’ll be done in just a minute.” IMG_1520.jpg

The river was full of egrets, herons and rowers.


We love the little side streets. IMG_1533.jpg


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Day 4: Tirana to Florence via Pisa


Our apartment is two blocks from this. There are fewer tourist at night and the cathedral is really beautiful at that time.

One plane, one train, two automobiles, lots of walking and a bus today. Travel days are stressful. I can see why people take cruises or tours. It’s nice to just be delivered painlessly to the next destination. I would make a terrible communist. I have no patience for being in a big group waiting for something, and public transit is a lot of this. However, transition days are also rich in overcome challenges and interesting interactions with locals. For instance, I love the darling young architect who owns our AirBnB. She’s done such a beautiful job restoring the medieval building to make it a modern and artistic place to stay. I loved hearing about her favorite restaurant (where the owner is so nice), and favorite gelato place (the others are famous, but this is the best.) and hearing her story. 

I bought my carryon suitcase two years ago, and at that time I invested in the new smaller size of 21”.  At LAX I was told my suitcase was too big. OK. Fine. Today they told Jim his new teeny tiny suitcase was too big. The requirements keep shrinking and it’s really frustrating! We know the suitcase will fit in the overhead bin. They just want to charge passengers for the checked bag. Grr.

We’re flying through Pisa partly because it was much cheaper, and partly because I had never seen the Leaning Tower. It was an adventure taking the city bus to town from the airport. Yes, I COULD make myself understood in Italian, but it’s so much easier and faster to speak French or Spanish when I just want to get the information. Everyone speaks either English, French or Spanish, and they speak it better than I speak Italian. Although I know using my Italian is the only way to make it better, it’s hard to be in this toddler language stage, when it’s easier for the other person to just speak to you in not Italian. Po, oui, sí!

The tower was…exactly like you would think it would look. Tall. Leaning. Lots of tourists taking pictures of themselves “holding up” the tower. It was pretty and fun to see…once. More fun was wandering the little streets of Pisa, taking pictures at the beautiful River Arno, figuring out how to get the train to Florence, and hearing the beautiful language everywhere.



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Day Two: Tirana, Albania

We had a wonderful day celebrating Emanuel Church’s 25th anniversary. Our pastor from Ventura, Mark Patterson, preached. They ordained three new elders–more than doubling the size of their current board. I love hearing them take the same vows in Albanian that we have in English.


A delight was seeing the much-improved worship team composed of young people who were really children on our last visit two years ago. It’s only taken 25 years for the church to go from one guitar player and an overhead projector to a team that makes beautiful music.img_1420


Ted, Bruce, Marsh, Jim

Almost the whole church went out for coffee afterwards. I love this custom. The kids play in one corner and the adults share their lives. At lunch we heard stories of the people who weren’t at church today.

img_1430One of of dear friends is disabled with depression. She can’t work and can’t get to church, and there are no drugs and little care available for her here. A friend who had stayed with us in Ventura, packed up and moved to Belgium, claiming refugee status. They weren’t able to say goodbye or tell anyone for fear of being stopped at the border. The dad who formerly was a chef in his own restaurant, is now a cook. The two kids are learning French and attending elementary school. It’s hard to start a new life, but it’s harder still to live in a country that has economic, political, educational, sanitation and medical problems. Almost everyone we know here wants out. We’re thankful for Pastor Zef, who could leave, but chooses to stay even as he sees his flock diminish.


Two pastors confide in each other.

In the evening there was a dinner at the church with a slide show and afterwards all the Albanians (and some foreigners) danced and sang and had a great time together.


Food picture specially curated for Kirk Hamilton

The children give me hope for Albania. The college-age kids are idealistic and sure they can change their beloved country going forward. Babies keep coming and they are a sign of more good to come. img_1464


Pastors Mark and Altin not-too-clandestinely drinking the national liquor. (Raki)


Oh, Pastor Bruce! Not you, too!

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Tirana: Getting There

We are on our way to Albania to celebrate Emanuel Church’s 25th anniversary. We are also going take a hop, skip and a jump to Florence to make it a real vacation for us.

I’m getting less patient with people who are clueless. The TSA PreCheck line at LAX today appeared to be longer than the regular line. And the reason it was taking so long was because many people had proudly put their tickets on their phones, but couldn’t find the right app to access the ticket. The TSA people grew more and more frustrated as one older gentleman opened one app and then the next and then the…But he wasn’t the only one struggling to find their tickets as people behind them seethed! Then there was the guy in front of me who spent time insisting to the TSA agent that he could bring cans of Coke through security, because he has TSA PreCheck and they don’t make you take out your liquids when you have that.


First stop: Seattle


Flying over the Alps to Frankfurt

Otherwise the day went fine. Miraculously, all three flights landed on time and we didn’t get lost or lose our passports, or do anything to tick each other off. It’s taken 36 years, and perhaps I’ll jinx it by saying this, but: I think we know how to travel together now.

img_1414For the first time we are staying in a home (AirBnB), and that’s super fun. For the same price as the post communist hotel, we have TWO bedrooms, TWO bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room. It’s really nice, too. And the owner’s driver picked us up for the same price as a taxi from the airport. I love it when someone is standing there with a sign with MY name on it. We didn’t have to get lost! Neither the driver, nor the person who showed us around the apartment spoke ANY English. Fortunately I’m fluent in body language, and the driver called a friend to translate for him over the phone. (Google translate was not great at Albanian today.)Nice! It’s nice to be in a big city and not have to carry around a map. This is our sixth trip, so we know how to get around, and where the great restaurants are. We feel like we are visiting an old friend–it feels warm and comfortable.


This is our apartment


Even the new buildings they are putting up have a Post-Communist flavor. There’s building EVERYWHERE. The city is much noisier than I remember. 

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Austin Texas

Jim and I have had a wonderful time in Austin, Texas visiting my wonderful niece, Jane, her sweet husband, Ben, and their two darling daughters. I have been dying to meet my grand-nieces and they more than exceeded my expectations in cuteness. The three-year-old has a rich vocabulary full of wonderful expressions like “Actually, that’s going to be a problem” or “But, Mom, we could do it as a special treat.” She loves books and is creative and imaginative. The eight-month-old is a sweetie with an easy-going personality. It was fun to spend time with both girls, as well as reconnect with this dear family. 27364318135_e587f99af1_z.jpgIMG_1835.JPG

Jane is an excellent ambassador for Austin and showed us all of the best places to play, eat, and hike. Austin is a cute city with a relaxed atmosphere, full of great restaurants. We poked around the stores in the funky South Congress neighborhood, an icon of Austin, and ate Tex-Mex cuisine at Torchy’s Tacos. Also went to a fabulous BBQ place and a Tex-Mex/Hawaiian place on Lake Austin. We ate Amy’s ice cream TWICE because it was so amazing. Can you tell we ate our way through Austin?



We filled up the few minutes between eating with fun hikes and beautiful scenery. 27293898011_604080a201_z.jpg27331306126_83da6b6e26_z.jpgIMG_6791.JPG27364387015_edfd64dd66_z.jpg

We had fun doing Face Time with cousin Lydia and we also reconnected with my other niece, Jane’s sister, over Face Time. Clifford felt a little camera shy.


All of us were happy, and a few of us were more exhausted than others. FullSizeRender.jpg



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Day Nine: Barcelona

There are reasons I prefer traveling without a group, but one thing I like about being on a tour is that everything is very well organized and there’s no time spent standing in line for tickets or time lost making decisions. Figuring out where to eat and what to do next gets exhausting, and it’s so much less stressful to just go where you’re told and enjoy the wonderful experience they organized for you to do. Today the coach picked us up from the hotel and a wonderful guide entertained us as he showed us his beloved city, Barcelona.

The greatest influence on the city was, without a doubt, Antonio Gaudí. With his beautiful, strange, and mathematical architecture, this artist changed the city by not only leaving his design stamp on Barcelona, but also by drawing other artists who added to the visual appeal. Every building, every bench, every street light is beautifully designed. Gaudí used recycled materials like broken pottery and integrated his deep Christian faith and his love of nature into all his works. He was always pushing the edge of what was possible, (from an engineering standpoint), to create his art.

This is Casa Batlló. The roof is supposed to represent dragon skin because St. George (who killed the dragon) is Barcelona’s patron saint. The balconies are carnival masks, and the exterior walls are covered with colorful broken glass.


We went to the highest point in the city, Parc de Montjuïc, and gazed on panoramic views of the city.


Recently UNESCO made Park Güell severely limit the number of people in the park at a time. This has made seeing Gaudi’s unusual and whimsical garden vastly improved, because before the garden was a swarming mass of people, and now, one can take a leisurely picture without jockeying for position.



We also toured the spectacular cathedral, the Sagrada Familia. What an opportunity to see a cathedral that is IN PROCESS of being built. Gaudi left drawings and models so the work could continue after he died, but these were all burned in the Spanish Civil War. Groups of artists, engineers, and architects have continued his work, and as it gets nearer completion, so many people have caught the vision and now money is no problem. It will be finished by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death. The kids looked up in wonder as they entered the colorful forest-like space. It’s like nothing they’ve ever seen before, and even the cynical father of one of my students was deeply moved.IMG_0804.jpg


Later, the Newfoundlanders we’ve been traveling with, had a special initiation ceremony for the adults in our group, making us honorary Newfoundlanders. We had to pass certain challenges which involved, (among other things), answering questions in their dialect, some drinking, saying the name of their province correctly, and kissing the Newfoundland flag. It was hilarious and moving. I’ll surely sleep on the plane home because we didn’t get to bed until after midnight, and had to leave at 3 a.m. for the airport.


These were our judges. They gave us thumbs up if we accomplished the challenge or thumbs down if we didn’t.IMG_0820.JPG

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Day Eight: Provence to Barcelona

We visited Carcassonne Castle in Provence today. It’s like a little village surrounded by layers of thick walls. It was fun to explore and we had delicious (French) onion soup, and a bean and a yummy regional bean and sausage dish for lunch.

IMG_0746.jpgIMG_0728.JPGIMG_0713.JPGIMG_0736.JPGIMG_0744.JPGIMG_0749.JPGIt was a three hour drive to Barcelona, but our previously-wonderful bus driver took a wrong turn and it turned into a five hour drive. The Tour Director kept telling him that it wasn’t this way, but he wouldn’t listen to her. So after an hour of city traffic we turned around and headed the direction we came. It was very frustrating. The kids learned that travel doesn’t always go the way you planned. We didn’t have dinner until 8:30 and got back to the hotel at 11:15 pm. Too late for me. It was stressful to take the metro with a group of 24 kids. Additionally, Molly and Josh spent a much-deserved night to themselves, so Jim and I were alone moving the group through the crowded station. Terrifying. If I lose one of these little ducks following me, I’m doomed. The kids aren’t used to trains, and one lost his balance close to the tracks as he wrestled his friend. I’m also worried about one of my girls who has fallen in lust with a Canadian boy from the other group. With the ability to text, it’s easy to arrange a secret rendezvous. More gray hairs.IMG_0756.JPGIMG_0754.JPG

But I’m really happy to be here. Because I’ve lived in Spain, Kelly’s lived in Barcelona, and we’ve visited the city a number of times, it feels comfortable. It’s like when you go back to Disneyland and remember some things, but have forgotten others and a joyful memory returns. It’s familiar, but special. I had forgotten how much I loved hearing Castellano, which sounds more proper and musical than Mexican Spanish. I haven’t been to Spain since I learned French, and the surprise was being able to understand  the Catalan language, which is a mixture of French and Spanish. We were in a small paper shop and the two owners were trying to teach me Catalan. If they said it in Catalan, I could translate to Spanish, but I couldn’t go from Spanish To Catalan. New goal: language number five. 

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