We love us some arches…and a fancy clock

We are learning, bit by bit, about how to tour.  Every guidebook—or Trip Advisor post— has its own perspective.  We’ve found Rick Steves’ books to be spot-on with what he covers.  But he has little interest in kid travel, or animals.  His books excel in the arts, music, history and architecture.  But sometimes certain people want to know about those Lippizaners in Vienna or just where the great playgrounds are.

We also have to resist—and that’s the royal ”we”—the urge to be entranced by the locally famous fill-in-the-blank and feel the need to see everything recommended by the guidebook while I am nearby.  Lisa has caught me out on this one many times and I’m getting better…  This trip emphasizes a microcosm of our personalities as Lisa is often happy to be home while I can be gripped by the wanderlust and the yearn for adventure.  We are often such grace-giving counterpoints and balances to each other, aren’t we, in our loved ones?

I am of those who do not want to go to bed early.  I was reminded of Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-lighted Place”.  I think we read it in high school. 

“I am one of those who like to stay late at the cafe,” the older waiter said. “With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”

Anybody else like that?

So we’re getting wiser at sightseeing. Even I can learn slowly.  I tend to jot down the list of the maximum possible highlights of a location.  Then we pick only some of these rather than have each of us become seduced by the 87 “can’t miss” sights of that area.  Here’s a rough example of one.  Now, I’ve moved it onto Evernote so maybe Lisa can actually read my chickenscratch.  Our main focuses are the education of the small people and our family’s experience.  Thus, we are light on the sit-down restaurants and far more into the hiking, museums and music and climbing up the high points to get the view.  We are doing a lot of schooling and writing on the road but really there’s only so much you get done in a given day, especially with little attention spans and our own energy levels that can only take so much consecutive touring!


Alfons Mucha was an influential Czech Art Nouveau artist and contributed to a rising Czech nationalism in the 1930s.  As soon as the Nazis invaded in 1939, Mucha was one of the first people the Gestapo grabbed and interrogated.  He fell ill to pneumonia during the interrogation time and never recovered.  His twenty enormous paintings are called the Slav Epic and were kept in a warehouse on the outskirts of town for years.  But they’ve now been brought into a great museum in the city and are an immersive experience.  We wander through them and try to guess, as a family, what is going in each painting before we read the synopsis.  I suppose, it’s a kind of Fisher-Price art appreciation course.  His canvases are something like 20 feet by 30 feet and tell the various stories of the Slav people through the centuries.  In each work, the eyes draw you in.  The history is difficult for us to place in context but his images are unforgettable. 






Prague is today a city of 1.3 million people and justifiably famous for its beer.  The city is well known for escaping WWII relatively unscathed.  The result is a Central European city with a rich heritage of architectural styles on display from the centuries.   

We wanted to take in some of Prague’s architecture and learn from a local pro.  Once again, Trip Advisor came in handy as we discovered Rob’s Free Architecture Tour.   Free city walks populate the touring marking in many European cities (and some in the US as well).  We’d never heard of them before this trip but they are a great way to learn about the city you are visiting from a real-life, local expert.  The tours are often outfits that employ college students.  To supplement their income or just to enjoy a career switch, some of these pros put out their own shingle and wield their expertise gained through years of edutaining travelers. 

We were thrilled to find Rob and set up a tour with him.  Our family was his largest group of the season.  He kept the whole family engaged, even the smaller people, and knew when to point out a bench for sitting.  Our hours with him just ran by and he was a complete pro.  Prague is Central Europe’s richest city.  The city, like Rome, continues to be built upon slowly rising sedimentary layers of itself.  Today’s basements were often original first floors in the oldest parts of the city.  Ancient windows are now at or below street level. 

I am tempted to scare you that I will break down each style in dry, painstaking detail but we know that just isn’t going to happen.  For one thing, I’m far too impatient, and your knowledge likely exceeds mine.    

“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”                                      —Where the Wild Things Are

So, let the wild oversimplifications begin!



We learned to look for:

Romanesque—meaning “descended from Roman”…starting anywhere from 6th to 10th century and in use until 12 century…dead giveaway is the ubiquitous rounded arch…massively thick walls and low arches employed to support weight…simple, sturdy, low-technology design

Gothic—grew out of the iterative approach to improvements achieved by the end of the Romanesque period…officially begun in France in 12th century…an architect rebuilt an Abbey in Northern France for the French King and successfully employed the structurally supporting methods of pointed arches, ribbed vaulted ceilings, and flying buttresses with the purpose of supporting high ceilings and huge windows to suffuse the interior with light…others saw this design and its influence spread throughout Europe…classically seen in the four-pointed towers of cathedral high towers…teenagers who love black


[early Gothic ribbed ceiling.  This is actually a floor that has slowly raised over the years so that we are standing near the top of what used to be a high ceiling.]


[St Vitus cathedral on Castle Hill]

Renaissance—from 15th to 17th century…grew out of the wealth of Italian plutocracy and a blend of religious and secular forces…emphasis on symmetry and revitalizing the designs of classical antiquity (Greeks and Romans)…bring on the columns and rows of windows!


Baroque—begun in 16th century Italy and evolved until about 1800…a product of the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation as it sought to illustrate the glory of the Church and to reform itself in the face of Protestant challenges…richly sculpted surfaces…includes 3D sculptures, people coming out of the walls or ceilings (we saw a cherub’s leg coming out of ceiling at Linderhof palace in Bavaria)…visual illusions where a sculpture leans into, or out of, a painted frame (gold on black)…onion domes…one of the favored elements is chubby cherubs


Art Nouveau—balconies with flourishes…designs of plants, flowers, leaves…dead giveaway—building exteriors with sculptures of disembodied, idealized women’s faces staring out at you


[a stange, pink iteration of Art Nouveau]


[one of the kids’ images they found for study]

Soviet-era (socialist classicism)—ugly as sin but functional…low ceilings for efficient heating and cooling…affordable and Rob tells us he (along with thousands of other Prague citizens) grew up in these type of communities


Much of these styles and designs start in Italy.  Does everything start in the Italy, or China? 

Rob points out the peerless Jewish quarter and its museums.  The Jewish museum is actually five different synagogues.  The Old Jewish cemetery rises 10 to 12 feet above the street.  The Prague Jews were required to be buried in the ghetto and the Jewish faith does not allow remains to be moved.  So they had to stack people in 12 layers.  This cemetery dates to the 15th century.  There are thought to be over 100,000 people buried here in a surprisingly small space.  Gravestones were installed to point toward the entry to the cemetery.  As it filled, the yard’s entry was moved through the centuries resulting in gravemarkers pointing in many different directions.  We learn of the tradition that priestly descendants, are not allowed to enter a cemetery because they would become unclean.  These tribes’ dead, including the Cohens and Levines, are buried at the fringes of the cemetery so that their loved ones can stand outside the cemetery to honor their forebears.  Some Jews would pay admission to the museum that overlooks the cemetery then enter the men’s room and open the window so they could be as close as possible to their family’s grave and pay their respects!  

The museum has a superlative collection of Jewish artifacts and history because Hitler sought to collect all Jewish history and communal objects in this city—in one place.  After a successful “Final Solution”, he hoped to put all the “decadent” history of the Jewish people into one museum.  We run out of time but wish for more time to take in the scope of Jewish history here. 


[pic taken from street level–below the headstones]


[online image showing the view from above]


After the tour, we let the kids’ minds unwind with a snack overlooking the river and a park of swans.


Suffice it to say that the kids have spent several hours drawing and researching various architectural styles for school.  Their knowledge of this subject is better than mine has ever been. 

We also found the famed Astronomical Clock in Prague’s Old Town Square.  The square is a potpourri of locals, food carts, street performers, tourists, newlyweds every 15 minutes, aggressive Segway salesmen and inspiring architecture. 


Who knew there was such a thing as a seven-person bicycle? 


The Astronomical Clock was installed in 1410 and is the world’s oldest working clock.  It doesn’t understand daylight savings time but it does list all the zodiac symbols and has scenes of agricultural life through the seasons.  The clock shows the time and the phases of the moon.  A smaller hand points to the Czech saint associated with each day of the year.  In Czech Republic, one essentially has two birthdays:  the day you are born, and the day of your named saint.  At the top of each hour, a skeleton representing death turns over a hourglass, pulls a chain and the show begins.  The apostles parade by in windows that open above.  Politically incorrect figures of Turks and Jews flank the motion or move themselves.   At the end of the show, a rooster crows.   We are meant to be reminded of the passing of time and the inevitability of death. 



[it is never a dull sight around the clock at the top of the hour]

A Portguese speaking couple observes your family and tells us we are blessed.  This was especially sweet because for three weeks we had been surrounded by challenging languages:  Hungarian, Polish, Slavakian, and now Czech.  Lisa doesn’t speak Portguese, but she understands it best of any foreign language.  And the simple words the couple used were fully decipherable.  The only language in the world other than English that would have been readily understood.

We sidestepped the newlyweds that marry at the nearby City Hall every 15 minutes or so and climb up to the top of the Clock Tower.  A beautiful scene but the kids are enthralled by a street performer wearing a kilt who is drawing a crowd with a bull whip show and dirty jokes.  Nice. 








An enormous statue and display of Jans Hus dominates one half of the square.  He bears several similarities to Martin Luther.  He also was a monk, a professor, inspired many followers including a religious order and prompted the Church to reform.  But Hus predates Luther by 100 years and his fate was to be burned at the stake.  His followers are called Hussites and still have churches in Prague.

We finish the day by departing the train and leave the station into a cool evening.  We cannot seem to find our car.  A few minutes into our search, Camille looks up at me and plaintively asks, “Dad, are we going to be okay?”  After a few false starts and fruitless leads of searching we put it together.   Parking was such a problem arriving at the station that we had driven further than we’d originally planned to find a spot.  We ended up entering a different station than we’d originally planned for because the stations are so close together.  We get back on the train, go to the next station and dash about to find the car in the dark.  Ah, much better.  Nice job, Dad!  Anybody ever done anything like that? 

You can’t do it all perfectly, that is for sure.  But, hey kids, who wants to talk Gothic arches?

City of a Thousand Spires

The farmhouse in Poland faded in our rearview mirror as we set out west across Poland and into the Czech Republic.  Drive time was about six hours.  Time to get rid of the Polish zlotys and cash in for some Czech korunas.  There are about 22 korunas to the dollar.   

We crossed the Czech border without realizing it and soon pulled off for a pit stop bathroom break.  We were hoping to find an ATM to get korunas but no such luck.  Europe does not take credit cards nearly as much as the US and strangely enough you don’t find ATMs (or “bankomats”) on every corner like we are used to.  So without korunas—and no way to get them— it was going to be a challenge to pay the turnstile to get into the toilet.  They did not take zlotys from neighboring Poland and no one spoke English.  I debated throwing a kid or two over the turnstile.  Necessity is the mother of invention (or is it desperation?) so, after we realized they would accept euros, we ran back to the car and found two errant euros from two weeks prior lurking in the cupholders.  We yanked them out into the light and triaged the bathroom situation—only critical people could hit the restroom then we’d get back onto the road ASAP.    

Our place was in Tursko, a bedroom community to Prague.  Prague, the “City of a Thousand Spires,” is said to have “made it” as a destination for international travelers.  We were drawn by the people we knew who raved about its beauty. 

Especially as a family our size, we’re tending to stay on the outskirts of cities we want to tour.  There are hardly any US hotel brands that have rooms for a family of 6.  In Europe, it is even more rare.  We scour sites like interhome, airbnb, home lettings, home away and trip advisor for apartments or whatever will work for us.  Staying on the fringes of a city generally provides friendlier neighbors, more green spaces, and a lower price.  The cost comes in the extra commute time to the City’s famous museums, culture, restaurants, arts, and transit points.  With our mixture of school days and travel days it is often a tradeoff we are glad to make. 

We find the small town of Tursko to the northwest of Prague.  Our hosts are Jolana and Jan.  They have graciously left a bundt cake for us in our flat upon our arrival.  In this place, we are staying in the bottom floor “apartment” of their house.  They are so friendly and welcoming and, of course, we love to see their 4-year-old Vojta (“Voy-ta”) wrestling his rubber boots onto his feet at the bottom of the stairs. 

We first arrive right into the helpful advice of Jolana in how to open the gate and park our car in their courtyard.  Then, when I ask her about the nearest grocery store she insists on accompanying me the 200 yards to the store.  She does her shopping along with me as I navigate Czech yogurts and try to figure out which dairy product is “coffeemilch”.  The store is tiny, maybe 15 feet by 30 feet and run by a Vietnamese couple.  There are plenty of German Haribo candies by the door and I later see school kids come in and scoop up quite a few. 

Lisa is out for a run and notices a piece of paper advertising some kind of local something, with a list of performers (she recognizes “Jam Dance Crew” in English).  We choose a word from the flyer to enter into the GPS, thinking it is the town name, Louka.  We look it up as best we can but are puzzled because several villages nearby list the name we search on.  What now? Jolana clears it up for us that it the festival at the nearby town, Velké Prílepy,  celebrating the joining of the two towns into one decades ago. We had been trying to find “field” on the GPS. It is a bit scandalous that the new town does not have a central square.  The party will be at the field near the center. 


All villages in Czech Republic have a town square and also a pond.  The pond originated as a fire safety provision.  Most are stocked with fish, albeit not yummy ones.  In the winter, the pond transforms to an ice skating rink for the village.  It doesn’t take long for the Czech’s to mention their hockey prowess.  Hey, Lisa’s from Dallas, she’s been known to brag about a sport’s team or two.

Stick bread is a local delicacy (at least that’s we call it when we’re out camping, thanks to our friends the Bulis family) we also try some type of delicious pasta dish and a bit of grilled sausage. How can you pass that up?  A local dance troupe has clearly been put practicing and they put on a show for all of us.  To round out the celebration, a few folks have put out jams, small plants and honey for sale. 

IMG_6929 IMG_6930 IMG_6932

[traditional Czech dancing?.  yes, those are Legos on their hats.]

Shouldn’t every bus stop have a lending library?


The nearly weekly search for a local church ends with the International Church of Prague.  We are thrilled to hear native English speakers.  Plenty of Yanks, Aussies and Brits attend this church. We even meet a wonderful US Air Force family, headed by Keith & Cheryl who are a godsend.  We join the expats for lunch after church in the food court of a local mall.  The modern mall feels familiar and the Greek place let’s us grab food from the other places and congregate in one spot.  Talking American sports with some real life ‘Mericans makes our day. 

Keith & Cheryl even invite us over for dinner and their wonderful family (with five girls and four of them still at home) is a joy to be around.  Out of his 20+ year career, they have spent nearly all of it overseas.  What a privilege to meet new people and see the fellowship we can have even halfway around the world. 


Prague is a welcoming city and as this family of six jaunts about, we are always on the lookout for the next city bathroom.  These signs greeted our arrival at the WCs (water closets, or toilets).   

IMG_6942 IMG_6943

So, are you a Ženy or a Muži? 

It’s probably a good clue that the more defaced sign likely had more vandals heading up and down the stairs.  Are there female vandals?  It seems like a male-dominated activity.  We got you beat on that one, ladies. 

Seeing your gender emerging from the downstairs restroom also helps.

To keep you from having to go to Google Translate as we often do—Muži are men and Ženy women. 

On this first foray into Prague we search out the paddle boats on the Vltava river.  The river is crossed by 18 bridges within the city, especially the famous Charles Bridge.  Paddle boating a great introduction to the views of the city, including the urban oasis island complete with city dwellers enjoying a snack during the day and views of Castle Hill and the Opera House.  It’s also good practice for Lisa to not be afraid the kids are going to fall in and drown.  But we are most excited to chase each other around the river. 








I drive the car to the slightly larger grocery store so I can stock up.  The store sells food and luggage, among other treats.  I can’t help notice a teenage girl shopping for clothes with her Mom in the middle of the store.  Of course, I can’t resist the “American” items but I decide to forego the toilet seat purchase.


I can run some mornings and get workouts when I can.  I wear an UP24 band to track my sleep and my daily steps.  They’re some of the ways I do what I can to be healthy.  I am quite aware of certain afternoons when fatigue sets in and I fight off the nap.  It seems to come about the days I get out for a run but there’s no obvious correlation.  Prayer, most of all, is how I know to fight.  That is where the power is.  He knows my days and I am kept. 

Friends, I thank you so much for your time in reading about our story.  Stories are so important, powerful, and potentially life-altering.  I believe our family—like every family—has a unique story to tell.  For us, our story has really changed in the last two years since that diagnosis came in. I feel I am just beginning to learn how to tell this story of our family.   

We are taking time to invest in our family and we pray it will be a worthwhile adventure for us.  It is a thrill to have you join us as we seek to chronicle this trip, to celebrate a time of being healed and together and to connect with each of you.  We are making it up as we go along on this new, grand adventure and every place and every sunrise brings a new set of opportunities to pick from.  We are surely being challenged and learning at every speed bump, every intersection, and every smooth road.  To me, that sounds like an analogy for parenthood.  And for life!  Lisa and I thank you from the bottom of our heart for taking time from your busy day and hope you are finding joy in your day today! 

These small peepers continue to show me how to find the joy in the day no matter where your parents have drug you to!

Sometimes, when it’s your turn to do the dishes you just have to get some good use out of all those bubbles!

IMG_6939 IMG_6941

Watch out, Mesquits coming through!


I first visited Krakow on an Air Force mission with my good friend Bruce and loved this huge square.  Krakow’s main market square is the largest in Europe and was laid out in the mid 13th century.  It is the perfect place to get a squareside table and do some people watching.  

This is a rare way for us to turn the tables since our family gets its share of attention over here.  I’m not sure why we draw some attention; it might be the spectacle of us wheeling around our rolling duffels, or the fact that we have more than two kids,  or because we are often talking in loud American accents or because we are frequently energetically wielding Lego Star Wars figures or plastic horses.   It’s hard to tell.  

The square is so large that street musicians can set up at various parts of the square without infringing on each other’s territory.  The horse-drawn carriages roll by slowly with their tourist passengers.  The girls point out to me which horses have blue ribbons on and which have white or red.  I hadn’t noticed this crucial fact!

A cover band is playing at the cafe across from ours.  Every song seems to be an American classic rock tune from the 60s or 70s. 

A bit of a rainy evening can’t keep down this square.  Everyone just scrunches in under the umbrellas and pulls the heaters in closer. 


We took a short stroll around the square and enjoyed a little gelato.  I’m tempted to write “delicious gelato”, but I’ve decided that when you say “gelato” the word “delicious” is just redundant.  By the way, stracciatella gelato is the kind with the delicate chocolate flakes that crunch then melt in your mouth.  Wow. 

IMG_6871 IMG_6872

St Mary’s church dominates the square.  Thirteenth century Tartar raids destroyed the church and this one was rebuilt and consecrated in 1320.  The unusual towers of differing heights were completed in the 15th century.  The northern tower was raised to 80 meters high and made a watchtower for the city.  One of the city traditions to listen for is that the hourly bugle call breaks off mid-melody.  This is done in honor of the mythical trumpeter who was shot with an arrow in the neck in mid-call attempting to belatedly warn the city of attacking Mongols. 


Cloth Hall is the covered row of stalls that I remembered visiting when I came here back in 2005.  Unsurprisingly, it is still here. Intricately carved wooden plates and toys fill the walls of the booths.  I find the exact type of wooden fire truck with telescoping ladder that I brought back for the kids when they were babies. 


Lisa ends up talking to a lady manning a stall who seems glad to talk with an American.  She really wants to visit Las Vegas. 


We’ve enjoyed how everyone seems to know Texas.  Of course, from Hollywood and the movies, California is famous and so is New York.  People know about and love Orlando.  Several folks have told us they really want to visit Vegas.

The boys discover some weapons they cannot live without.  Doesn’t everyone need a sword and axe when they are traveling?  Once we kick them out of the crowd in the middle of the shops and over to a corner—a swashbuckling brother time erupts. 



We return to the square on another day to visit the Rynek underground museum, located directly beneath the market square. 

IMG_6896Accidentally discovered a few years back, the museum shows what life was like centuries ago here.  This picture shows the recent excavation.  Cemeteries dating back to the 11th century were discovered beneath the square.  People that were thought to be vampires were buried with their hands and feet bound and decapitated to keep them from returning to the world. 


Archaeologists found like items clustered together.  The artifacts were found beneath the stalls where ancient shopkeepers sold them.  Jewelry, toys (dice can be seen here), knives, blacksmith items such as horseshoes and their nails are each displayed. 



We’d been wanting to get on a family bike ride.  The zip bike places where you can jump on a bike after swiping your credit card are only set up for one bike per card.  And we discover that three of us have legs that are too short for these bikes.  Though that doesn’t stop some of us from sitting on them in the racks…  We find a few bike stores, but none have four bikes small enough for our tiny tribe.  Close to the square though we try another store. 


The smallest of our kids do not fit on most of their bikes either but they have tandem bikes and two smaller bikes.  We lower the seats all the way down and the kids’ tiptoes can juuuuuust touch the ground.  It’ll have to work. 

We maneuver the bikes out of the narrow alley of the store and point the bikes towards the square.  Then we load them up and try to balance the bikes carefully with the extra, fidgety weight in the back.  I have Will and Lisa takes turns with the girls in back.  We pedal slowly and enter the square scaring pigeons out of our way, and a few pedestrians. 

The bikes have bells on the handlebars to warn others and Lisa is hitting hers like a hamster drinking from his water bottle.  Will keeps leaning out from around me to see better.  I try to explain the danger of going over but every parent knows that’s only going to work to a limited degree.  If daddy can make it happen and there’s no crash then it must be working and I want to see ahead!  Can’t blame him.  The tandem bikes list from side to side and you have to start on the brakes earlier with all that extra mass on the bike.

We escape the square through an even more crowded, cobblestone street.  Then, we enter our goal of the path around the old, walled city.  The path has been put in where the moat used to be. 


Our bikes have more room here to wander on the path beneath the trees.  Sometimes it feels like I’m pedaling a sailboat that is leaning this way or that.  What a blast!  Simply gorgeous day and experience.  No major casualties.  

Back at the farmhouse later, the kids find their way often to the gazebo in the backyard next to the alpacas.  They sit in there, talking and playing together.  Later, we hear they have devised the KAII.  I may have to flee the NSA after revealing this but it is the Kids’ Association of Intelligence & Information.  Its primary purpose is hidden in great secrecy.  But it is clear that you have to have your card badge with you all at times.  If you lose it, you are not allowed into the gazebo for a week.  The card badge is torn piece of paper about 2 inches by 3 inches and decorated in pencil scribblings.  The cards have special facts on them such as birthdate, hobbies and favorite animals and their special symbol (squiggly lines and roman numerals).   Each person gets a title such as Admiral of the Black Fist, General of the Calvary,  Captain of the Commanding Legion.  Ana was also the Journalist and Caller of the Pegasus.   Big Brother somehow gets the title of Commander in Chief.  He says this is not a problem, even though it was self-appointed and that everyone’s equal.  These reassurances fall on deaf ears and a discussion breaks out.    

I later find several of their card badges laying around the house. 

In a matter of a day or so, it appears the KIAA has gone deep, deep underground—so deep that we don’t hear any more talk of it.  They are quite clandestine. 

By the way, I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time researching this Schengen issue.  If you recall, this is the visa issue the immigration official had warned us about when we first landed in Germany.   The Schengen agreement includes 26 nations.  As an American, you can spend up to 90 days out of any 180 day rolling window in this area.  If you come and go from the Schengen countries, this can be challenging to plan your visits so there’s even visa calculator websites that have popped up. 

A few backpacking-type travel websites say that you can probably go over by a few days or weeks as long as you depart the Schengen area from countries such as Spain, Greece or France.  They are a bit more lax.  But in general, travelers are warned not to exceed the Schengen time.  Not only is it against the law but you can be deported, or forced to change flights, or be forced to get visas for any future European travel. 

One way to stay past the 90 days is to obtain a long-stay visa from a given country.  You can get one of these from France, Italy or Spain. Germany also has a short-term work visa.  You often have to prove that you have an income and/or enough assets to cover your stay.  They want to see back records and letters from employers amongst other pleasantries.  I called and emailed the US Embassy in London to get some clarification and advice but they were not too interested.   The real challenge with these long-term visas is that they are intended to be pursued months and months before you leave your home country.  You send in your passport to them.  Hmmm.  How’s that sound for a pretty dodgy idea when you’re already traveling? 

We had a breakthrough when research revealed that the US has a bilateral agreement from 1949 with France that predates the 1994 Schengen agreement.  I found a State Dept website which lists the US treaties in force. This treaty allows an American to spend 90 days out of 180 in France above and beyond any Schengen time (the original 90 out of 180 days).  This is true even though the Schengen area includes France—quite confusing.  I had to email a few French consulates to get a thorough answer to this confusing immigration question.   Poland also has a bilateral agreement with the US. 

It now seems we have a way ahead and can annoy the Europeans with more latitude!

The mouse and the Pope


One morning I head to the grocery store on a hunting and gathering trip for supplies.  I eke down the steep, curvy road/path and park at the other tiny grocery store in town.  After my typical pointing and gesticulating I decide to ask about coffee, or café or whatever works in Polish.  Coffee so far, has been understood just about everywhere.  In Polish, it’s kawa (“kah-vah”).   The store staff quickly grasped my impressively pathetic Polish skills and pointed me out to the youngest employee.  I tried to speak a little English with her and at least she understood “coffee”.  She understandably directed me to the coffee row in the store.  I made the international sign of “drinking a cup of coffee” with my arm and my hand grasping an imaginary cup of joe.  I know, I know, those are some powerful communication skills….   Then she understood and took me out of the store to point at a cafe across the street.  I thanked her and she seemed glad I didn’t perform an encore of the “drinking a cup of coffee” sign. 

The place across the street had a few tables outside with large umbrellas shouting the names of a local beer brand.  Hmmm.  I walked into the dimly lit, wooden bar and there were two tables full of locals drinking beer.  It must have been 5 o-clock somewhere on the Kamchatka peninsula but here it was about 9 in the morning. The lady proprietor got up and stepped behind the bar.  I repeated my lackluster performance requesting coffee that I’d premiered across the road at the grocery store.  She turned and bent and began to set out a saucer and cup.  I told her “no, thank you” which really didn’t slow her down much as she reached for a coffee maker.  I was trying to get across that I wanted a takeaway coffee.  I didn’t turn around but could sense that this strange American was providing some great morning entertainment for the tables behind me.  I finally put up my hands, gently shook off her kind efforts and walked out. 

I learned later that the word “no” can actually mean a kind of affirmative answer in Polish. So that made more sense why she didn’t really slow down when I told her no.   If anyone knows this not to be true, please just laugh at me since I rather enjoy that version of the story.  I do know that “yes” is “tak” in Polish. 

At one point in Poland, Lisa actually mooed to explain she wanted to buy “beef”!  I love it, and it worked.

One night in our Ekocentrum place I was startled awake in my hemp pajamas. 


Okay, not really, but the Ekocentrum just seemed so deliciously granola crunchy.  Camille was sitting on the foot of my single bed and Lisa was sitting up in her narrow bed.  Both had wide eyes.  Camille said, “Daddy, there’s a mouse.” 

Now, we’d discovered a few telltale droppings and nibbled food corners on the food on our little counter a few days before.  We’d done the normal cleanup and moved all the food into the cabinet above that counter and closed the cabinet door.  I wondered if we’d left food out on the counter again.  I snuck in to the kitchen like a ninja who’s just woken up and really isn’t that quiet.  I might have been tiptoeing but I’m sure I must have looked ferocious at one in the morning.  I was trailed by Lisa and Camille.  I didn’t need to try and be quiet because our visitor was loud.  He was certainly up in the cabinet alright and was having a ball with our brand-new spaghetti. 

I slowly moved other food items out of the way until I glimpsed his pink tail.  I grabbed a glass and was actually able to trap him in it.  Ah ha, I was like a great white hunter after all!  I decided to be smarter than the mouse and just slide something narrow under the glass and his little mouse feet so I could get him outside.  I was going to be the trapper and the humane “letter-goer” all in one fell swoop!  But without any strong, flat material at my disposal I resorted to a saucer plate. I slid the glass slowly off the shelf and tried to slide the saucer under him.  For some reason my wily friend decided he wasn’t really on board with my plan and dropped his tail and half his body through the tiny gap between the shelf and the rounded saucer.  I had him caught but didn’t really want to crush him so I had to let him drop onto the counter. 

Now we were into a hasty cat-and-mouse game (I know, that was a bad one) behind and around a basket on the counter.  The girls screeched and ran back for the beds.  He thought better of it and skittered down off the counter and into the tiny gap between the cabinet and the wall.  I could not get him out of there, try as I might. 



I shined my iPhone flashlight and could see him in that narrow gap grinning at me.  I think my hunter credentials were just about gone at this point.  I couldn’t really reach him in the deep, narrow crevice and he wouldn’t listen to logic.  It seemed we were at an impasse.  Is there an app for mouse fighting?

Camille woke up Ana to tell her about the mouse.  I could hear Ana sleepily respond, “Is he cute?”  And then she fell right back asleep before Camille could answer.


But I couldn’t really leave him there since he would just east our food and wake us all up again.  Unfortunately for him tI found a long, narrow piece of molding board.  I could reach him and it was over quickly.   I even put him on the ladies’ rigid, pink cardboard bag from the tasty Demel bakery in Vienna so I could carry him out.  I don’t think the ladies were overly impressed by that one either.  But they did seem quite relieved he was gone and I was ready to get back to sleep. 


 On Sunday morning from our open window we could hear church bells and voices lifted in praise.  

Our little town of Stryszow is not far from the slightly larger, but-still-small town of Wadowice.  This is the hometown of Pope John Paul II.  And he is loved here.  I always felt he was loved in America but he is the hometown hero here.  He not only rose to be Pope but did so via the bishop position at nearby Krakow.  He was also instrumental in fighting communism.  John Paul II gently prodded governments to speak and act against tyranny.  He encouraged Poles to stick together and to not be afraid.  His moral leadership in the Roman Catholic Church lent strong support for Lech Walesa’s—and the Gdansk shipbuilders trade union—Solidarity movement of the 1980s.  Imagine what its must have been like to be a Pole in the time of Soviet domination and see this man from your country, uncowed, standing on the world stage as a force against those who kept your nation down.  There is a museum about Karol Wojtyla (his pre-papal name) in Wadowice and another in Krakow.  You can see his primary school backpack and some of the clothes he wore.  His statues and likeness are all over this part of Poland, such as the one in the Wieliczka Salt Mine. 




During our late honeymoon to Italy we visited Rome.  On the day, we visited the Vatican we stood beneath the papal apartment—with thousands of others—as he pronounced a blessing.  And shortly after, Lisa became pregnant with triplets!  So we love him too. 

Driving through these rural roads to get from Stryszow to Wadowice and Krakow and other places we keep coming by the same billboard.  An enormous cake of some type filled with cream that makes our mouths water as we drive by fumbling with our GPS.  The sign has the name Piekarnia on it and some other Polish words we don’t recognize. 

One evening after a long day of sightseeing, we search for the store called Piekarnia to get that yummy dessert.  Finally, after driving all around Waldawice without seeing it, Lisa runs in to a grocery store hoping to find directions.  Here’s what happened in her own words:

“At this point, I had learned to say hello and thank you, in Polish.  I browsed the store to find an employee who didn’t look too occupied with other people.  With a map in my hand, I immediately employed “hello!” and then, said “pie carnia?” and shoved the map in front of her.  She looked at me and walked me to the fresh bread section of the grocery store.  

“No, no!” I said “Pie carnia” and then, I drew a picture of the dessert (that unfortunately looked a bit like a rectangle) on the map and wrote out pie carnia.  She realized an English speaker would contribute to our interchange and signals that she is going to get someone else.  She goes in the back and comes back out and signals me to wait.  I wait and wait.  I ask another employee who doesn’t know.  Finally an employee comes out from the back.  “The English speaker!” I think.  However, this woman also doesn’t speak English, the other employee just thought that the other employee might be more help.  She offers nothing.  We are at a standstill.  We had kind of promised the kids dessert.  What now?  Finally, a young couple who had entered the store to shop overhears my persistent questions while they are checking out.  The wife elbows the husband and he comes over to help me.  Even though I had misspelled Piekarnia on my map, he explains that “they” are all closed at this hour.  He then gives me detailed directions to the closest one.  I’m starting to understand that the word means bakery.  I feign interest in the directions since we are thirty minutes from home, but appreciate the new understanding and employ my Polish “thank you.”  I was basically asking someone from Seattle where “the” coffee shop was, or someone from New Jersey where “the” Dunkin Donuts was or someone from Vegas where “the” casino was.  Oops.  I head over to the frozen section to find a dessert for the kids waiting in the car.”

We learn to love our town’s little piekarnia and can hardly say the word enough (“PEE-kar-nee-uh”.  I tend to visit it in the morning to pick up bread and few small pastries to sample.  Of course, I can’t even get close to pronouncing their names but they are a few cheap bites of heaven.   The locals don’t even bother to actually pull into parking places, they just pull their cars alongside and run in.  


[this is where they keep the deliciousness]


[chilling in the Piekarnia parking lot]

Our Eastern Europe podcast also introduced us to the Polish love of a minuscule car called the Fiat Polska.  They were made during the old Soviet days.  There was no competition from Western cars back then.  The cars were tiny and inefficient but they were about the only show in town.  People would order these little cars and would wait years for theirs to be delivered. 

One day, after saving up for years a man goes to the Fiat place and places his order for his Polska.  He is told to not be hasty, that it would show up in about 4 years. 

The man asks, “When in four years?”. 

The salesman puts him off, “Sometime in the fall.”

“But when in the fall?  What month?” prods the man.

“I’m not sure, should be October,” blithely answers the salesman.

“Yes, but can you tell me what week in October?” asks the man growing anxious.

“I don’t know, probably the third week,” says the salesman.

“Okay, but when in that week?” says the man who will not go away.

“Ah, let’s say on Thursday,” remarks the salesman.

“Whew, good,” sighs the man, “the plumber’s coming earlier that week.”

We heard this joke as a panel of Easter Europeans attempted to explain the communist days to an American audience. 

And then, our next-door neighbor has one parked outside his house. 


It’s been three months since my last checkup.  I’ve just completed my bloodwork and the results will be sent to my specialist in the US.  I’ll admit to feeling a bit unsettled as the day approaches.   It is not a conscious feeling but almost a subtle dissonant tone in my mind and in my heart.  It must be the war between fear and faith.  Calling it by name and facing it head-on always seems to clarify the situation and drives me quickly to prayer. 

The needle in the vein has become almost a friend.  When I felt like a pin cushion a year ago, I decided that I would forever think of each needle as just one more way that I am fighting the myeloma.  I try to hold that thought in my mind.  I am quite the connoisseur of phlebotomist skill and am quick to point out “nice stick!” after the metal is in.  I am grateful for modern medicine and all that it has done for me, and more importantly, for my family.  Bits of me are off at some lab right now.  I ask for your prayers for a continued clean bill of health.   Come what may, I know we rest in God’s hands. 


The Catastrophe

Poland was hilarious.  We had some missteps: a mouse in the house, a middle-of-the-night knight, a mooing mother, and a great search for dessert.  (Brent will fill you in.)  But, the grand gem of the Poland trip was also the darkest.

Visiting Auschwitz was profoundly important for me for this trip.  I don’t know if I simply wanted to honor the dead, if I wanted to try to fathom how this could possibly happen, or perhaps to ask, “what would I have done?”



[Arbeit macht frei – “Work makes you free”]

Anticipating an emotional day, we chose to visit early in order to avoid the mandatory tour guide.  With the roughly one hour drive and exactly four kids and approximately two hot plates, a tea kettle, and one electrical outlet, this “early” proved almost too ambitious, but we arrived before the cutoff time by ten minutes.  On our own, we hoped to regulate the rate of exposure all of us, especially the kids, had to various parts of the camp.  Good call.




Seeing the camp, one of at least 20,000 such camps, loudly shouts that Hitler did not do this alone.  In fact, besides the obvious guards, thousands of people at many levels of responsibility orchestrated these camps.  Railcar operators, chemical suppliers, building contractors, accountants, food providers, postal workers and goldsmiths are among the types of citizens who would have helped the mission of the camp with a degree of knowledge.  Some estimates place the number of people involved with executing the Holocaust at substantially over 100,000.  The Auschwitz museum has direct records of 8400 guards who worked at Auschwitz.



While traveling this fall, cities have candidly displayed their previous deep root of anti-semitism, pre-Hitler.  In addition, Darwinian style Eugenics was incredibly prevalent.  We saw a sign at the Museum of London from the time between the World Wars that explained how improper breeding has led to terrible suffering and disabilities, and cited the number of blind and deaf in London at the time.  This was an advertising sign, not an editorial or an obscure website, but a sign. 

The powerful current for this mass elimination of those perceived unwanted flowed across Europe.  Those who wanted to fight it, did so at the risk of their selves.  The camp has meticulous records of neighbors or others who were also killed for giving a Jew a piece of bread.  Auschwitz has a special cell for a priest who resisted the Nazis.  By resisting, you agree to join your fate with theirs.



Also, displayed are the first reports of the camps in the US newspapers.  We read a clip from the LA Times.  Somehow, the tragedy seems just as difficult to grasp today, despite seeing it. 



According to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, six million Jews were killed by the Nazi government at work camps, extermination camps, or through other state sponsored methods.  Six million is approximately two-thirds of the European Jewish population at the time and over one-third of the World Jewish population at that time.  Today, the Jewish population still is not back to it’s pre-war levels.  And, the European Jewish population is a little over two million.




[Father Kolbe who volunteered to take the place of another man in a  starvation cell]

Furthermore, the German government killed approximately 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish citizens (sometimes at camps), over 20,000 Roma people, around 200,000 disable people, thousands of Jehovah’s Witness, and an unknown number of homosexual men.



[From the Dutch display–Anne Frank, second from the left, on her 10th birthday, Amsterdam, 12 June 1939.  She went to a different camp.]


[The first commandant of Auschwitz was tried and sentenced to death after the war by the Polish Supreme National Tribunal.  He was hanged on these gallows at Auschwitz in 1947.]

The camp is divided into two camps:  Auschwitz and Birkenau.  The SS forces “outgrew” Auschwitz and needed an additional camp that was more efficient.  We completed our Auschwitz tour and ate a picnic lunch at a park outside the camp.  Right next to us, a group of Isreali high school students munched on their box lunches after their tour.  Oh how we wanted to talk with them!  They were busy chatting with each other, and we thought better of peppering a person their age with questions.


Visiting Birkenau (Auschwitz II) required a little drive of a couple of miles. 



[The chimneys remain after each barrack was torched by the fleeing Nazis attempting to hide their atrocities.]

We tried to be brief as we looked at some somber lodging facilities,




[stones worn smooth by people sitting on the bricks for heat]

as well as the train stop at the selection platform where those in charge decided who would work and who would go straight to the chambers.  At least 75% were deemed ready for immediate execution. 






The chamber ruins are still there.  Now, a memorial to the Shoah, the Hebrew word for catastrophe, beautifully interrupts the killing places.




We returned to the parking lot a while later to find one of the doors of the SUV wide open.  Gasp.  Quickly we jogged back to see if our friends’ car was intact and if by any chance our electronic collection of iPads and camera equipment remained.  Thank God, nothing had vanished and the car was fine.  The battery wasn’t even dead.  A solid bit of gratitude at the end of a day of solemnity.

The day was emotional for all of us.  Contemplating that level of evil begs for explanation and leaves a mark on any tender heart.  As parents, we asked others who’d been, thought about it and debated taking the kids at all.  In hindsight, we are glad we showed this place to the kids but of course we don’t know.  It wasn’t what they were most keen to journal about.  We kept the museum visits to a light-hearted standard for several days afterwards.  That evening we took the family out for a nice dinner in the hometown of Pope John Paul II, a town on the route to our farm cottage.  When we ask them about our visit it doesn’t seem to have traumatized them. 


Secretly, I do hope it leaves a mark, and I think that’s why I wanted to see it with my own eyes.  I hope it reminds me to be brave.  I hope the children remember to be kind.  I hope we all are alert.  Where is this happening, now?  Who do we not value?  Who is expendable?  Where are we so blinded by culture that we can’t see terrible injustice?  What can we do now?



Boil water before drinking


We checked out of the lovely two-bathroom Budapest apartment and backed the car gently out of the tight underground parking spot.  Each time we vacate a place, we put down one seat in the back and carefully load the Tetris of bags into their choreographed slots.  Someone had parked quite close on our right and before I can notice a small person has climbed in and started building a nest at their seat.  As this peep opens the door, it just touches our neighbor’s paint and leaves a small mark.  My fault for not foreseeing this and moving the vehicle right away to another spot for loading.  We make amends as best we can and keep moving forward.

As we load, the negotiations build to a crescendo between the children over seat location.  Will it be in the middle with a view of the road or one of the sides with access to the door cupholder?  Or in the back wedged beside the bags but all by yourself?

Where are the UN peacekeepers when you need them?

After a few patterns of these discussions emerge, we decide on a rotating order for seat-picking.    Peace.

At least, the plastic just-in-case bags are prepositioned at their seats!  And we are all set for our road trip to Poland.

Many of our drives have been hampered by construction-narrowed lanes choking travel times and slowed travel days so I understand where they’re coming from.  We blaze north through rural Slovakia.  At one point, we climb through a mountain town with a ski resort one step up from the mom and pop ones we used to frequent in Montana.  Small towns slide by in the windshield.  The fronts of many houses are built right up to within yards of the rural “highway”.  Older women with their hair in a wrap walk back from the grocery store loaded down with their purchases.

We cross the border into Poland and see the same small towns.   It is some kind of holiday here and people are out on bikes and some on horses.  The girls are enthralled with the horses.

The shallow, green valleys cupping the road are dotted with houses and lazy smoke plumes loitering around chimneys.  Are they heating their homes with wood or coal?  The weather is still warm.  With the lack of billboards or the bright lights of business, we seem to have driven into a time machine set on one hundred years ago.


We cannot seem to find an actual highway.  We are a long way off from any autobahn now.  What the roads don’t have in speed they further challenge us by frost-heaved pavement and potholes in the smallest towns.

A podcast on Easter European countries had singled out Poland for its religiosity and its friendly people.  When the communists ruled behind the Iron Curtain church attendance was a kind of protest vote as well as spiritual worship.  The Soviets did not dare mess with the church in Poland because they knew the Poles would not stand for it.  In other nations in the Soviet sphere, church membership met with declines as the communist masters discouraged and directly opposed the church.  We encounter the friendly Poles as soon as we cross the border.  At one rest stop, the lady manning the bathrooms is very friendly and smiley.  We’ve already become accustomed to having to pay someone to get into the rest stop bathrooms.  Of course, they call them toilets here or WC’s.  When I’ve slipped and asked for a restroom I am met with a quizzical look.

In our continual quest for funny items you come across in travel, we spot a girl at the same rest stop taking a break outside their tour bus.  Her shirt screams in huge letters, “My Boyfriend is out of town.”

The car’s GPS software is slightly outdated but has served us very well.  We could easily get a SIM card for each nation to ensure data on the move but we’ve found the GPS sufficient.  As the sun goes down, the GPS leads us down progressively smaller roads.  Then onto a gravel road.  Then a dirt road.  Are we still headed the right direction?  Is Poland really this rural?  There’s a house right there so maybe this is the right path?  There are no lights on in the house, so maybe they’re not home?  It is dark out here.  The dirt road and its foliage lead us down a tighter “path” with huge, mucky carveouts undertire. Discretion is the better part of valor, or something like that.  Time to back out of here and call our host.

With directions from him, we meet up thirty minutes later in the “downtown” of Stryszów (“Shtree-show-ve”).  He tells us that everyone’s GPS takes them astray on the way in.  The only person who has made it without a rendezvous was using an actual zoomed-in map.  A-ha, the limits of technology.

He also tells us that the dirt road of darkness we’d so thoroughly enjoyed used to lead drivers to the house.  Now, the roads are deserted in that area because work crews are digging and progressively flooding the area to construct a massive lake.  Nice.  Lisa is convinced we were just about to drive right into the middle of the world’s deepest lake.  I try to tell her that I had it all under control.  I’m pretty sure she was convinced…

Downtown is a road with a petrol station at either end, two tiny grocery stores and a few bars.  A sign points up a hill to something called an “Ekocentrum” and is your only clue there’s a road hiding amongst the bushes.  He leads us up that one-lane road masquerading as a two-lane.  Several tight turns, a railroad crossing, and a terrified cat crossing later and we turn off our engine to join the inky silence of our farm house.  Every unloading noise sounds ear-splittingly loud out here.

Our host is a friendly young man in his 20s with great English.  He lives and works a few towns over and his business requires him to deal in English nearly every day.  The Ekocentrum is his mother’s vision and you sense this rental apartment is his business opportunity.  He is eager to get us bedded down for the night and to see that we are comfortable.

The downstairs room’s walls proudly display pictures of people planting and harvesting.  Prince Charles once visited this Ekocentrum.  The upstairs holds a narrow bed for each person.

Our host quickly shows us around the new digs.  The half-the-size-of-a-beer-fridge fridge is unplugged and shares an outlet with the two-burner hot plate and the electric tea pot.  Someone will be odd man out at this outlet at meal prep times.  Small rugs cover the industrial, rough-carpeted floors.

The bathroom has been renovated to include a shower the boys term as the “Tron” shower.  The room still holds an ancient low stone wall.  There are many signs impressing on us the importance of properly recycling our food waste and about 17 small, recycling cans.  This place was very inexpensive to book but I start trying to mentally visualize the pictures from the website.

IMG_6915 IMG_6916 IMG_6917 IMG_6918




[the view from our bedroom and the narrow road leading up to the house]

It is not till he leaves that we notice the sign saying “Boil water before drinking.”

Now, what exactly does that mean?  Is it no water on the toothbrush á la  camping?  Can you wash dishes in the water?  If you open your mouth in the shower will you explode?  As Americans, a blackout is uncomfortable after a time but if the water supply goes off for a second we stop singing campfire songs around those candles…

We are so used to the good life.  I unconsciously begin to write my mental Better Business Bureau complaint.  How could he not have told us about the water?  Is there a global BBB, and can I write directly to the International Criminal Court at The Hague?

But once we do a quick internet search we learn that people often do not drink the water in this part of Poland.  One reason might be that the Soviets punished the independent free-thinkers of the Krakow area by building a heavy industrial site nearby.  The area became polluted with their production of goods to feed the centrally-planned economy.  If that is what you’ve grown up in, does it occur to you to notify people over a website that you need to boil the water?  I’m not sure but I reluctantly mentally holster my global BBB complaint…

Travel is just what I need to help me examine and adjust my own expectations.  Of course, we are ridiculously blessed and yet I lose sight of that fact all the time.  What a blessing to be out here in the quiet.  God has surely given me more than I deserve.

The next day I drive down the steep hill to the small town’s grocery store.  I manage to embarrass myself by asking for deli meat in English and German and still not be understood.  Pointing and holding up fingers saves the day again.  The workers are kind and patient with me.  Not a whole lot of English going on out here.  We have learned if you want to maximize your chances of finding an English speaker find someone young.  If you grew up behind the Iron Curtain, you probably didn’t earn a lot of points with the communists by harboring a secret love for the West.

The grocery store is notable for a couple of reasons.  We’ve recently been in Germany so I’m shocked that the deli does not hold 87 different kinds of sausages.  And the shelves behind the counter grab my eye.  Shelves of hard liquor run nearly floor to ceiling and there are at least four rows of more kinds of vodka than I’ve ever seen.

The kids wander out and meet the alpacas and we are privileged to meet our downstairs neighbors.  They are the kindest couple and quite young.  She is Macedonian and among other things, helps care for the animals.  He works in a nearby town doing IT and is Dutch.  They graciously show us around the Ekocentrum next to our farmhouse.


The Ekocentrum is an ecological center for sustainable living and a kind of display case for inexpensive housing built from sod.  The sod is used to efficiently insulate the thick walls.  Overall, the house looks like any other small farm house.  Just one of the amazing things is that these places can be constructed for about $5,000.

The couple have lived here for a few years.  I ask if she is from Skopje and she laughs good-naturedly at how I pronounce it.  She says the Americans always say “Skop-gee” when it is actually “Skop-yuh”.

They help the kids feed the alpacas.  We corner chickens and help get them into their pen.  The kids love the sheep and ducks.  They teach us to identify and avoid the stinging nettles.  We see the thoughtful method of natural water filtration via cascading planter boxes.  We’d booked this place to be on a farm and get a different slice of life from the city and we are seeing it.








They confirm for us, the smoke we witness rising from homes is from the coal stoves of people’s kitchens.


They even take us on a short walk to pick berries and get a view of the hillside.



They intentionally live at a slower pace in a smaller place.  They are warm, generous with their time and hearts and a joy to be around.  The evening light melts away over the bushes as we stand out in the road outside the farm house.   The stars are already out.  We finally say our good nights and head to our different floors of the same house.




We sleep well and wake in the morning to the crows of a rooster.


Wieliczka Salt Mine, by Will






The Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland is a breathtaking place.  Its 324 meter deep shaft is the home of 95% pure salt.  It is so long that it is world heritage site.


In reality, we marched down some stairs that felt like we were in an abyss.  Partly because, if you look down (which I did many times) there was nothing but black.  Finally, we arrived at the bottom.  The tour guide proclaimed that the salt was called rock salt because it was 95% pure salt.  The other 5% are rocks like limestone.  The next passage was quite different, the walls were covered with white crystals.  The guide said that this was pure salt crystal.




The next ten chambers were a church and statues of people like Copernicus and their patron saint.  Why is Copernicus in there you ask?  Well, he visited there ten years after the mine opened. 


In one other chamber, there was a statue of the king and a fascinating display of how they would carry the rock salt out of the mine.  It was a pully that you got to pull (if you were lucky, which I was).  When I pulled the wood, the rope on the other end would pull the salt up.  If I pulled it the other way, it would go speedily down the hall to the other side so that transporting the salt out would be faster and more efficient. 




In the next chamber, there were more white crystals.  But this time the tour guide said you could lick the salt.  I was delighted. The salt was extremely delicious.  But to my misfortune, I couldn’t have any more because Mom caught me licking the wall.  Because Luke didn’t think he had enough, when we got to the next room that had some souvenir shops, Luke went over and bought a necklace made from salt and started licking.  And licking.  And licking.  And licking. 


In the next room there were some dummies carrying a stick with fake fire on it.  The tour guide explained that this type of gas would build up and then blow up.  So, they had this torch that would burn the gas and then they would have safer mining. 

The next room was full of stairs. 


“Once,” the tour guide remarked, “an Italian said that it looked like the entrance to hell!”  The miners would have these big sacks over their shoulders containing rock salt and march up and down these stairs.  Thankfully, we didn’t have backpacks as we marched downstairs with caution. 





We entered a cavern.  It was massive, full of rusty equipment and rock salt dwarves.  The miners carved them because they believed that at the end of the day the dwarves would finish all the undone work that the miners didn’t do.  Moving on, we entered a large chapel.  It was humongous.  It had many paintings carved into the wall like an excellent carving of the last supper.  Another vivid one, about when Herod was killing all the babies in search for Jesus, was across the way.  And, a few others carvings in low relief adorned the walls.  The alter had a big sculpture of Mary and Jesus, and their patron saint.  The guide told us it was one out of forty-two chapels in the mines. 








Then, we entered a small cave.  It was rather dark and it had a pool in the middle.  They say that you used to get on a boat and sail down it until World War I when seven Austrian soldiers were trapped under the boat and died.  Why they were in there, I don’t know.  Then we went to a room that was kind of small with a small chapel and an elevator.  From there, we went to the surface and I bought a huge thing of salt.  Then, we left. 



Ah, we will miss you Budapest

A tour of the Hungarian National Opera House was in order—one of Europe’s finest.  Emperor Franz Josef provided half the funds, but demanded that it be smaller than the opera house in his beloved Vienna.  The legend is that Franz Josef attended an opera here and left at intermission, incensed at this beautiful opera house so far away from Vienna. 



A special staircase was reserved only for the use of the Emperor and the Empress.  We did not use it either.  Their special box seating is still reserved for the president, the mayor and other dignitaries.  


Their private waiting room sports exquisitely carved wooden columns. 


The smoking section in the back is where the secret lovers would go during the breaks to snog (that’s Harry Potter speak, or maybe just British).   Writing this, I google “snog” to see if it’s actually a British word too.  As soon as you begin to type it in, Google fills in the rest of the suggested question, “is snog a british word”.  Apparently, I am not the only person who’s wondered about this critical bit of Western Civilization.  



We climb step by step up to Castle Hill on the Buda side of the river.  Several versions of the palace atop this hill were destroyed and rebuilt through the centuries.  As WWII drew to a close, the approaching Soviets laid siege to Castle Hill for 100 days.  The hill, and the city, were devastated. 



[waiting for the bus]

Wonderful views of the Danube and of the Pest side are free from here so you can save your Hungarian forints for goulash.  Many of the buildings we see were erected for the 1896 millennial year for Budapest.  1000 years of Magyar success.


It is amazing how much time we spend planning out our current—and next—travel itinerary.  It is all so worth it to see the kids’ eyes light up and to wonder what is getting into those developing minds of theirs.

While Lisa braves a local hair place we explore Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube.  This long, tear-shaped island is an urban playground for Budapesterians. 

We rent a silly bike cart that seats five. You steer it like a car.  The brake is a handle on the steering column, like a shifter in an old automatic transmission.  We take turns terrorizing—ahem, driving—and try not to hit any walkers, joggers or cyclists.  At times, I take over the steering as we near the concrete bank of the Danube.  I can just imagine the stories that will be told to mama if we end up careening down a bank and into the river.  One time Lisa left me alone with the kiddos and while I was reading them a story Will stood up on the couch arm rest.  Before I could get a hold of him, he lost his balance and toppled backward full-force into our bookshelf. He erupted into wailing and I could see the blood starting at the wound at the back of his head.  I did manage to get him off the carpet before the bleeding really started…  We were in the ER for that one with stitches but I think Lisa trusts me now with the peeps. Pretty sure.  

[When I am thinking clearly, I ask Lisa to proofread these posts before I post them.  As she reads this previous part she mentions, “then there was that time I was gone and Ana fell and hit her head on the windowsill and threw up.”  I kid you not.  So I suppose I take back the part about thinking she trusts me now with the peeps.  But it’s all good, she is a protective mama bear after all.]

It is a sunny day and the high-schoolers (or are they college students?) are out in a park doing team-building exercises. 


We drive around the island, weaving through people crowded around ice cream counters.  The kids spot a playground and there’s consensus, “we’ve GOTTA go play on that Daddy!”   When we return the cart, the young man checking out the carts takes our payment.  He mistakenly gives me less change but we get it all cleared up.  It makes you wonder sometimes when you don’t speak the language and stick out as an obvious tourist.  Honest mistake or wily, bored young man?  You’ll never know but it doesn’t hurt to estimate exactly what change you expect.  Trust, but verify as Reagan used to say—then, smile. 



Now I realize the smile is more for myself.  When folks crowd in and cut you off in traffic or whatnot, I can start to get all Jersey Turnpike.  You know what I mean, rarely is the best of human behavior showcased in traffic.  Hey, that was my 18 inches of buffer space in front of my car!  I am far better off when I remember to just give them the benefit of the doubt.  Dare I even say, to try and remember to love my neighbor.  I would love to aim for this righteous goal in traffic (or in crowded airports or train stations) but othertimes I am just trying to remember that when I start getting petty and small I just get myself riled up for no purpose.  I tell myself that life is too short for that nonsense but then that German on the autobahn is suddenly right on my back bumper and gesticulating wildly.  When he pulls up beside me to pass he emphatically gives me the two fingers pointing into his own eyes—the international sign for pay attention. 

I am familiar with some other internationally recognized signs used in traffic but I am grateful I somehow manage not to demonstrate them.

Do stressful commutes take years off our lives?  Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.  And listening to great podcasts too!

The Great Synagogue and bravery


Budapest is a great walking city.  One perfect landmark is St Stephen’s Basilica.


We can’t seem to find a real coffee shop in Budapest, around our neighborhood.  They were everywhere in Vienna and Germany and we saw a few in Bratislava.  However, a fancy, restored Cafe New York with tall ceilings and billboard-size windows is perched on a busy corner near our hotel on bustling Erzsébet körút. (Elizabeth street). 

Though Budapest had an “ancient” coffeehouse tradition like Vienna, the Soviets shut most of them down.  They were concerned coffee shops would become convenient places to foment revolution discussions.  Since the revolution that did come, many of these coffeehouses are being renovated—such as the Cafe New York— to satisfy European desires for afternoon cake and coffee. 

This is all background to a visitor, except that here you tend to get your coffee from a machine.  I run early one morning to the corner bakery, buy some good-looking, unpronounceable rolls and ask where to get a coffee.  She points me towards a machine and I think she’s kidding.  You put in about 30 cents and select something that sounds like a cappuccino.  The small cup drops down into the holder and scalding hot java gushes.  You have to hold the cup near the rim and dash back to your place.  Later I discover there’s a Douwe Egbert’s machine in the parking garage and that becomes our new coffee “joint”. 

The Budapest Great Synagogue is the second largest in the world.  Any guesses on the location of the largest?    That’s right, it’s Temple Emmanu-El on 5th Avenue in New York City.   


Our guide, tells us that the Great Synagogue was built at a time when the Jewish community was increasingly successful yet seeking greater acceptance from within Budapest society.  When the building was unveiled, its critics called it “a beautiful Catholic synagogue” since it did not look much like a traditional Jewish synagogue.  It was consecrated in 1859 and is still active today.  If you are not wearing a hat as you enter the synagogue, a man hands the males paper yarmulkes to cover your head.  I have to keep replacing mine as I look up and up at the beautiful interior. 




In early 1941, there were over 800,000 Jews in Hungary, with most of them centered in Budapest.  Once the Nazis took over Budapest in 1944 they began deporting Jews to the death camps.  The area around the synagogue held the Budapest ghetto where the Nazis sealed all the city’s Jews behind high walls.  They were cut off from the outside world.  Food was not allowed in and trash was not removed.  The dead lay on the streets.  The buildings also became overcrowded, leading the spread of communicable diseases such as typhoid. 


Thus, the courtyard of the synagogue was full of the dead in 1945.  As the caption shows, over 2200 victims are buried in these large graves within the courtyard.  By the end of 1944, only about 25% of the Jews survived the Nazis and their ilk. 




After the war, prominent Jewish benefactors such as Tony Bennett commissioned the Tree of Life in the synagogue’s courtyard.  The tree sculpture is designed as an upside-down menorah. Its branches hold leaves bearing the names of loved ones killed in the Holocaust. 




Raoul Wallenberg is commemorated here as Righteous Among the Nations.  Righteous Among the Nations is an honorary title bestowed by the State of Israel upon those who risked their lives to protect Jews during the Holocaust. 



Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz risked it all in Budapest.  Though a Swedish diplomat, he was armed only with his bravery and moral courage (as noted on the official Swedish website about him). 


In 1981, he was awarded just the second honorary citizenship to the USA.  There are only seven, and their number includes Mother Theresa and Winston Churchill.  Wallenberg was a businessman and diplomat and was made the legation secretary to the Swedish diplomatic mission in June 1944.  The USA had created a War Refugee Board charged with getting Jews away from Nazi persecution.  With Swedish approval, Wallenberg’s job was to launch a rescue operation for the Jews.  He issued protective Swedish passports and rented “Swedish houses” (“safe houses”) for Jews to hide. 

He convinced the Hungarian Foreign Ministry to approve 4,500 protective passports then actually issued three times that many.  As conditions became more chaotic, he issued passports with just his signature and even this worked amongst the lawlessness.  To achieve his objectives, he even utilized bribery and threats of blackmail.  When word came that the Nazis would massacre everyone in the ghetto as the war drew to a close, Wallenberg wrote directly to the Nazi general.  He wrote the general that if the massacre took place, Wallenberg would personally see that he was tried for war crimes.  Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of lives.  In January 1945, the Soviets took over Budapest and imprisoned him.  Russia claims he died in a Soviet prison in 1947 but witnesses state he may have survived longer.  His whereabouts are a mystery.  There are monuments erected to his courageous acts in several countries, including five black columns in New York.


Carl Lutz was appointed as Swiss vice-consul to Budapest in Hungary in 1942.  He served as a diplomat in the US for over 20 years then another eight in what was then Palestine.  He secured permission to issue 8,000 protective letters then used that decision as legitimacy to apply those numbers to entire families.  He was able to issue tens of thousands of protective documents. 

The following is taken from his Wikipedia entry and quoted from Tschuy’s 2000 book about Lutz.   “One day,  in front of Arrow Cross fascist militiamen firing at Jews, Carl Lutz jumped in the Danube river to save a bleeding Jewish woman along the quay that today bears his name in Budapest (Carl Lutz Rakpart). With water up to the chest and covering his suit, the Consul swam back to the bank with her and asked to speak to the Hungarian officer in charge of the firing squad. Declaring the wounded woman a foreign citizen protected by Switzerland and quoting international covenants, the Swiss Consul brought her back to his car in front of the stunned fascists and left quietly. Fearing to shoot at this tall man who seemed to be important and spoke so eloquently, no one dared to stop him.”

Nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, he was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.  His efforts allowed 10,000 Hungarian Jewish children to emigrate and he is credited with saving over 62,000 Jews.  We stumbled across this monument to him in the streets of Budapest. 



The old Jewish quarter is now famous for its “ruin pubs”. You step through a low archway and a courtyard opens before you.  These pubs have multiplied and are hopping on a Friday night.

One night, I get a haircut at the tiny, brightly lit place across the narrow street from our hotel. It stays open late and has that ambiance of men hanging out near the doorway, like we do at barbershops all over.   Arabic wall hangings adorn the walls and the place thumps with loud pop music.  My barber is really friendly and is Algerian.  His English is very good, he also speaks Arabic, French and Hungarian.  There are other men cutting hair there and another man in his 20’s (?) who sits right near the barbers and talks to them in Arabic while watching videos on his phone.  With all the coverage of the atrocities in recently released internet videos and a few blurbs I try not to see on his device, I’ll admit to hoping they are not of the violent kind.  My barber has closely cropped hair and pays close attention to his handiwork even while we talk.  All of the other discussions in the shop are in Arabic. He is constantly smiling and the door stays open to the busy street.  There are not many customers.  He tells me how he and his wife will move back to Algeria soon.  I ask if she speaks the language and is ready to move.  He laughs and says that she will go wherever he goes. 

The next night, I take the boys to the other barbershop on our side of the street.  We discover these barbers are all Iraqis.  They are also very friendly and have Arabic wall hangings.  They don’t seem to have anything to do with the Algerians across the street.  My barber left Iraq about 1989 and he offers no other conversation on that topic.  Two young men, in very Western clothes, are being very specific about how their hair needs to be perfect.  One of them is sporting a very tight shirt and can’t take his eyes off the mirror.  Their requests are all in English. 

We open our windows for air at night and definitely get to sample the sounds from the nightclub across the street.  One night a large group protest moves down the street chanting.  The group moves down the street and around the corner.  Their joined voices come in through a different bedroom’s window as they round the corner.  We don’t know what they are protesting but they sure have our attention.  They finally disperse and we are left with the normal city sounds to fall asleep to.  You really get the sense this is a cosmopolitan city where people can afford to live and work and strike out from their old countries.

One thing we treasure

One thing we treasure

It is hard to imagine the different trajectories nations have traveled.  Travel is wonderful to force you to be confronted by histories beside your own nation’s familiar story.  I am continuing my own education in a visceral fashion. The kids are absorbing more than we can see in the moment and repeat things back to us weeks later that show how much they understood. 

Ana did a great job writing about the Hospital in the Rock.  I did want to add one note and someone please correct me if I get it wrong.  Our Hospital in the Rock tour guide told us that at the end of the siege of Budapest in 1944 Hungarian civilians attempted to flee the approaching Soviet army.  They’d already endured the occupation by the Nazis.   As the Soviets took over, 24,000 civilians made a run for it out of the damaged city.  The Soviets killed all but 700.  The mind reels in the face of a fact like this.  A quick web search reveals that this is likely just one example of the destruction that went on. 

In Liberty Square stands the monument of the Soviet “liberation” of Hungary.  The communists “ordered” the statue, the Hungarians had to pay.  The Hungarians tolerate it, according to what we read.  Two female Hungarian guards—they look to be Army—now stroll around the square unconcernedly chatting.



Towering over the monument is the Hungarian State Television headquarters—the Soviet puppet and propaganda studio that gave rise to the popularity of Radio Free Europe. 

The Radio Free Europe building is not far from here.  Originally built by the Soviets for their purposes, this building was rented out to Radio Free Europe for $1 a year after the 1989 revolution throwing off the yoke of the communists.  What a great way to thumb your nose at the former captors by giving a prominent place to the voice of freedom that encouraged many through dark years.  The Radio Free Europe headquarters have now moved to a more secure location due to threats from radical jihadist groups. 

The irony and the embrace of freedom in Liberty Square makes an American take notice when you suddenly walk into a jaunty statue of Ronald Reagan. 


Here is the former leader of the free world with a smile on his face striding purposefully from Parliament into the beautiful square.  Hundreds of Hungarians gathered at Liberty Square at the 2011 unveiling of the statue of Reagan to celebrate the man they credit with ending communist rule in their country.  The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ended up helping dedicate the statue of the famous Republican.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be kept behind the Iron Curtain and hear an American president, in divided Berlin, say “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”  In the States, some of the most freedom-loving people I’ve met are from Eastern Europe.  It’s great to see his statue here, and not far from the US Embassy (also on the square).  I remember—while new to the uniform—watching on TV as Germans tore down that wall and East Germans drove through the gaps to reunite their families and seek a brighter future.




The Nazis inspired another terror group in 1944-1945—the fascist Arrow Cross militiamen of Hungary.  They rounded up Jews, Roma and enemies of the state and murdered them.  The Shoes on the Danube memorial remembers the groups of people who were told to line up on the Danube and remove their shoes then shot and dumped into the river.  The monument consists of 50 pairs of bronze shoes eerily “left” on the raised walkway beside the swift river.  Many Jews were sent to the concentration camps but the Arrow Cross massacred several right here. 

IMG_6330 IMG_6331

In 1956, after years of Soviet occupation, the people of Hungary revolted.  It was the first major threat to Soviet control of Eastern Europe after WWII.  The 1956 Uprising drafted the reluctant Imre Nagy (“EEM-ray nodge”) as the head of the movement. 


As an influential Communist, he sought to mollify the severity of the Soviet response.  He attempted to bridge the path of totalitarianism of the Iron Curtain with the freedom of the West.  The uprising began with student  demonstrations and spread rapidly across the country.  The Hungarian government collapsed and militias sprang up. People cut the communist symbol from the Hungarian flag and hung it everywhere as a rallying cry.  Imre Nagy sought a parliamentary democracy for his country and announced the neutrality of his country, canceling his nation’s membership in the Warsaw Pact two weeks after the protest began.  The Soviet Politburo initially announced a willingness to negotiate the withdrawal of occupying Soviet troops.  But three days after Nagy’s announcement, the Soviets invaded with a large force of troops and tanks.  They violently put down the uprising, killing 2,500 Hungarians in the process.  Medical staff in the Hospital in the Rock cared for the wounded. Over 250,000 Hungarians fled as refugees.  One of our dear friends’ father escaped the country during those turbulent days.  The hoped-for response from the West did not come.  Nagy fled to the Yugoslavian embassy and asked for asylum.  The Soviets surrounded the embassy for three weeks.  Nagy’s Hungarian successor promised him immunity and Nagy left the safety of the embassy only to be seized by the KGB.  Nagy was deported to Romania, given a sham trial and executed.  His captors recorded the trial and his comments.  Nagy said, ”my only consolation is that the Hungarian people and the international working class be acquitted of those serious allegations.”  He refused to ask for mercy.  The Soviets buried Nagy and other enemies of the state handcuffed and face down.  The occupying Soviets did not allow his memory or the uprising itself to be celebrated.

Then came the revolution of 1989.  Grateful Hungarians remembered Nagy.  He was exhumed and given a prominent grave in Heroes Square in Budapest.  In his monument near Liberty Square, he stands on a bridge with a careful eye trained on Parliament, as if watching those who make decisions for others. 



It is so humbling to see and hear of those who stood up and fought against tyranny. 

It is a reminder of all those who’ve fought to safeguard our freedom.  A reminder of how much we’ve been spared in our country.  We owe such a debt to those who‘ve fought for our freedom. 

To those who stand against our enemies now, thank you. 

I have never had to yearn for freedom.  I have slept every night under the blanket of freedom provided by the hard work and sacrifice of others and wrought by the hand of God.

Freedom.  May we hold it close forever.  May we refuse to compromise with those who glorify tyranny.  May we be inspired by the brave Hungarians who stood for truth, and still seek it. 

Part of this family’s Grand Adventure feels weighty, feels challenging, maybe inconvenient.  That must sound crazy, I know.  Travel and wonderful cities, where’s the weight?  But it’s funny to see how much the heart—my heart—can yearn for whatever it thinks it doesn’t have. Sometimes for me, right now, my heart cannot wait to jump into developing community.  To find a church family.  To see how I could get the kids out fishing in the States.  That perhaps I just want to be on the sidelines cheering on our kids as they try their bodies and hearts against the challenges of athletic competition.  And yet, on other days, I stood on those sidelines and thought how great it would be to take the family to an amazing experience that really broadened all of us. Don’t get me wrong, I am so excited each day for those experiences that await us in these hand-picked places and these new friends we get to meet. 

I am grateful for the freedom of being able to school our kids on the road.  I think I’ve written previously that some of the Europeans we meet can hardly wrap their mind around the concept.  This is quite understandable since it’s illegal in their country to teach your children at home.  We do not feel that we must always home educate these beloved kids but we are certainly mindful of the tremendous freedom that we have been granted.  That flexibility, that freedom makes adventures like this possible. 

We hope to step outside of our normal lives, for a season of our life.  We hope to invest in some time together and to maybe slow time down a bit.  That whatever may come, to know that we jumped at valuing our time together while it is called today.

One touring day’s evening, we enjoy a walk along the bank of the Danube.  We crane our necks to see above us and walk half-backwards as the lights of Parliament come on.  We attempt, somewhat successfully, to keep our small people from accidentally zig-zagging into the paths of oncoming joggers.  We really work to keep them cognizant of the river itself and its high, concrete bank.  Tourists and locals alike are out on this breathtaking evening near the Chain Bridge.  Our family continues the day’s walk back to our flat and we fall into our beds. 

We sleep very well that night–and every night–under that blanket.