Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Videos from Bear Lake

Ashton has become quite an amazing videographer lately and he's captured so much of what we've been doing here at Bear Lake so well in the beautifully captured and edited vlogs he's been creating almost every day. Here are some of Ashton's best (with his comments proceeding each):

The renunion kickoff!

A really fun scavenger hunt that Ian and Charity set up for us to do during the Reunion:

My video on 7/11 - sadly no free slurpees but I got to fly a quadricopter for the first time and we had the Eyrealm Olympics. My team came in third on the Olympics.

Our trip to Bloomington Lake to enjoy the scenery and the awesome rope swing there:

Sunday, July 05, 2015

June Part II - What we've been up to

We're into our typical July activities now. We're in Ashton, Idaho with Jared's family this weekend (kids rode in the parade yesterday and we had a fabulous firework show last night plus we've had, wonderful times floating the river, doing watersports at the reservoir, playing games, all the good stuff). This evening we take off for Bear Lake. The Eyre reunion is July 8-12 - everyone will be there for those days except Jonah and Aja's family since they're still in Europe - then whoever can stay around will stay until around July 24th. I captured our time in Ashton on Instagram (and blogged about very similar wonderful 4th of July weekends here and here). And I'll be Instagramming Bear Lake stuff.

But before moving on, I want to capture hightlights since my last "summer so far" post. So here's what I can recall off the top of my head. Photos on Instagram if you want to get some visuals (search sarenloosli).
  • Twilight concerts: This summer, Ogden launched a series of really excellent concerts with big-name bands at the amphitheater downtown. We were able to go to 3 of the 4 concerts and they were so great! Wonderful atmosphere - families, singles, young and old, amazing talent. So fun to have some concert experiences with the kids - and we went with friends and saw so many friends there which made it extra nice.
  • Football for Ashton: Ashton decided to join the Ogden High football team. He figured it all out himself, biked himself there, and signed himself up. He came home from each practice the first week describing all the grueling workouts they did - but he loves it! He's met some great kids that he'll be going to school with next year and seems to have suddenly started to embrace the mantra I've been suggesting all his life - "Hard is Good." He sold all these discount cards to raise almost all the money he needs to pay the team fees and has been getting himself to the school and back on his bike, even when I've told him I'm happy to drive him. I love seeing him take so much responsibility and really be excited about it! And he got quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune in an article about how Ogden High is doing some exciting new things to revitalize their struggling football program (you can see the article and some photos with Ashton in them here).
  • Weber State Leadership Academy: Eliza had the opportunity to attend this wonderful week-long program at Weber State with her Junior Junior League group. They learned a ton from some top-notch instructors and had so much fun. Such an awesome group of girls.
  • Loosli Kid Camp: For the 5th year in a row, the big kids put on a "Kid Camp" for all the little kids in our neighborhood and ward. This year, Ashton had football camp during the one week we could do it so he helped make the fliers and recruit attendees but Isaac and Eliza conducted all the activities. They did such a great job! They had 21 kids sign up and come and showed them a wonderful time - for three hours on three afternoons they did art, building, sports, science, music and water activities. I helped a bit with snack time and helped if there were kids that needed a little one-on-one attention (acting up or feeling sad or not wanting to do the activity at hand), but Isaac and Eliza really took the lead, coming up with all the activities and executing things so well. Our house was pretty busy and noisy and messy with so many cute little kids around but everyone was pleased with the outcome and the kids made some good money while providing a great service for quite a few families.
  • Deborah's wedding: One of my dear friends and companions from my mission got married in the SL Temple. It was SO wonderful to see her so totally happy. She's had a really hard few years after a difficult divorce, mothering her five children in the midst of some hard stuff. Then she found this wonderful guy and the wedding was deep and beautiful in a whole new way. Loved seeing a bunch of missionaries from my mission at the wedding and reception - especially meaningful after getting back from our trip to Bulgaria recently.
  • Mount Ogden Hike: It's been on our bucket list for years to climb Mount Ogden so when we had a free Saturday a couple weeks ago, we decided to go for it. It was a hot day and we got a late start but we packed up lots of water and snacks and headed out. We made it to the 1/2 way point, wetting the boys' shirts in streams and splashing ourselves to stay cool. The second half was going strong until the trail got fainter and fainter until it disappeared. But GPS showed the trail up on the ridge above us and we figured we'd just missed a turn off. So we bush-wacked up a steep slope through the underbrush to try to meet up with the trail and continue on. After over an hour of serious climbing through brambles and shrubs (wishing we had a machete...), we made it to the ridge where the trail was supposed to be according to the map. But it wasn't there. We searched the area. No luck. We climbed higher to see if we could see trails from up there. No trails to be seen anywhere. We were pretty
  • Will and Lori's wedding: Jared's oldest sister Kathryn's son Will got married in the SLC Temple and we had so much fun being with family and being part of the rehearsal dinner with great toasts, lovely wedding ceremony and picturesque and fun reception. We threw in an impromptu game night after the rehearsal dinner and everyone danced up a storm at the reception. Great, great event.
  • Trek for Ashton and Isaac: Our stake pioneer trek for the youth ages 14-18 at Martin's Cove was week before last. The boys had such a great experience learning about their ancestors and their faith while building their own understanding of the gospel and getting to know a lot of great youth and adults in our stake. 
  • Mountain biking: The three oldest kids have been practicing with their mountain biking team every week plus Jared has been taking them on quite a few rides to improve their skills and endurance. Ashton and Isaac did their first real race at Snow Basis last week and placed 5th and 6th in the adult beginner category - so they're off to a good start. The mountain biking team is such a great group of people - most of the team members and coaches came to see Ashton and Isaac start the race and wish then well even though Ashton and Isaac were the only ones doing that race. Oliver and Silas raced as well (in the same division) and their little bikes and lack of opportunity to practice much before hand made for a pretty tough ride for them but they finished and we were so proud of them!
  • We sent Eliza off to DC:  Jared's sister Michelle lives in Washington DC and has invited all the Loosli grandkids who are close to 12 years old to join here there for a week of learning and fun and bonding around the 4th of July. Ashton got to go with the grandkids closest to his age a few years back. Isaac got to go two years ago. And this summer it was Eliza's turn! She was SO excited to go with her cousins Abbie and Annika and they have been having the time of their lives with super-fun Aunt Michelle who's taken them to Jamestown, Williamsburg, Smithsonian museums, Mount Vernon, the beach, Busch Gardens, you name it! Plus they got to see the fireworks on the Mall last night. SO grateful for Michelle and this awesome tradition she started that has provided such a great experience for all the grandkids. Out of 29 grandkids, after this group gets done, there will just be 5 left to go on their big DC trip! 
  • Launch of Joy School 2.0: After TEN YEARS of working on revising the Joy School lesson plans off and on, I've spent a lot of time over this past year working with my sister in law, Aja, to finally completely overhaul and update this great program. We launched the program last week and I'm so excited to share this excellent co-op preschool program with a whole new generation! Here's the info on the program.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Thoughts on Blogging - and some updates on what's happening in my brain

Did you know I started this blog 8 years ago? And I was pretty darn good at blogging up our family adventures, our every day life, and some of my thoughts and ideas with at least three blog posts a week for many of those years. I was looking back at some blog posts the other day (while finding photos for the tribute I did to my dad in the last post) and found some great posts with photos and stories and ideas from long ago and I felt so glad I'd taken the time to do those posts.

After taking a walk down memory lane through this blog, I started to feel pretty conflicted about the current state of this blog.

I didn't really consciously decide to stop blogging so much. I just started using Instagram a lot and then blog posts about our regular daily life and special events seemed sort of redundant if I was capturing things on Instagram. Then I started feeling extra overwhelmed with life in general and felt like something had to give - and perhaps that something was being so conscientious about journaling via this blog. So I decided to just write a blog post whenever I felt like I had something to remember and/or that needed to be written out and didn't really work on Instagram. And the more I didn't blog, the more I got out of the habit. Which I generally think is fine. But seeing those old posts that I value so much got me thinking about what I should be doing with this blog moving forward. I don't really have any conclusions. But I do think I'll start trying to blog about my thoughts and ideas and keep track of more of an overview of what we're doing as a family more often.

So anyway, here are a couple things that have been on my mind lately:

Importance of kids interacting with nature

After a crazy hiking adventure a couple Saturdays ago (we tried to climb Mount Ogden - a goal we've had for a while - and we lost the trail. What was meant to be a 4-hour hike turned into a 9-hour hike with some pretty hairy moments and some pretty exciting adventures - serious family memories built in the end!), I stumbled across a podcast on Radio West (I always listen to podcasts while running) that solidified a lot of things I've always thought about parenting and made realize how important our crazy hiking adventure was for our kids.

Here's the podcast I listened to:
How to Raise a Wild Child (featuring the author of a book of the same name)

And here's the podcast I made for Power of Moms that details our crazy hiking adventure plus interesting research and statistics about how important it is for kids to interact with nature:

Putting more Nature in your Nuturing

I'm so glad we live in a neighborhood where all the parents are quite united in supporting lots of outside adventuring for our collective kids. And I invited the whole neighborhood down to the nearby river for an afternoon of serious fun interacting with nature last week - loved seeing the kids explore cause and effect and test limits just have a great time together as they built boats of leaves and sticks to float in the current, swam against the flow, found bugs, and splashed each other with the cold cold water on a hot hot day. We're going to go down to the river a lot more (it's only 5 minutes away!).

How to "be" more by "doing" less

I'm realizing more fully that I can't be all things to all people. I can't act on every good idea (and can't seem to control the fact that I have so darn many ideas come into my head, most of which seem viable, helpful and important!). I need to spend a lot more time thinking and being - right now I spend almost all my time doing. As someone once wisely said, we are human beings, not human doings.

For years now, I've been trying to figure out where to draw boundaries. There is always PLENTY to do for Power of Moms. I used to think that at some point, Power of Moms would sort of start running itself more and I could stand back a bit more and enjoy watching it continue to move forward. But I'm realizing lately that Power of Moms is like a needy baby that never grows up - brings lots of joy and goodness and is totally worthwhile on so many levels but involves constant attention and has so many unpredictable and urgent needs. It's been 8 years now since my Power of Moms journey began and I'm just pretty darn tired and my kids need me more than ever as they go through puberty (I thought the hardest time would be when I had 5 preschoolers but nope, having 5 teens and pre-teens is harder in many ways - so much mental and emotional energy required!).

Our numbers of newslettter subscribers (50,000), podcast listens (6000+/week), and pageviews (120,000+/month) are solid and growing. Our Board of volunteer moms do such a great job running social media, editing content, and more. We get beautiful letters saying that Power of Moms has changed people's lives and we've seen so many moms sign on to our programs in the past year. But managing the overall functioning of the website and all our great Board members, figuring out what opportunities to take and which to leave, planning and executing marketing, writing the weekly newsletters, overseeing customer service, making new podcasts, and much more falls squarely on the shoulders of me and April. And sometimes it's just so heavy and overwhelming, especially when all our best efforts don't seem to be leading us to a place where we can get ourselves out of the hot seat of having to do so much ourselves.

I love Power of Moms and I know it's an important part of what I should be doing. But I have to figure out how to do what I uniquely need to do for Power of Moms and pass off or eliminate the things that I shouldn't be doing - and that maybe no one should be doing. Easier said than done!

I've always felt strongly that as long as I was doing my best, everything would be OK. The big problem with that, though, is that I don't know what constitutes doing my best. For much of my life, I've thought that doing my best means working efficiently every possible minute on something totally productive and tangible. I've protected my sleep and my exercising pretty well (because I've learned the hard way that I'm a disaster if I neglect those things). But I haven't protected hardly any time to read and learn, to relax, to laugh. I know I need to come to a new and more healthy understanding of what it means to do my best. And I'm getting there - but I'd love any insights you care to share in the comments! What does doing your very best mean to you?

I'm prioritizing more time to think and learn and search and pray and just be there for the people who matter most to me - rather than just doing, doing, doing when it comes to Power of Moms. That means I push back some deadlines and adjust some committments (I used to be such a stickler with myself on doing exactly what I said I'd do in a super-thorough way by exactly when I said I'd do it - even if it meant putting in way too many hours and squeezing out sleep and family time for a period - and personal time, what's that?). More time to think, learn, search and just be also means I don't get around to answering every email - which used to make me feel so very guilty but now just makes me feel mildly guilty as I admit that all I can't do it all and should stop trying so hard to do everything.

Still, I have a lot more questions than solutions right now. I'll let you know any ah-ha moments I have moving forward!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Happy Father's Day, Dad!

OK, so it's a little late. But I just have to take a few minutes to share some favorite thoughts and memories and photos of this amazing man who I get to call Dad.

My dad is truly unique. In fact, as my sister Charity pointed out when we got together on Father's Day, Dad is so unique that there needs to be some sort of new uber-unique word made up just for him. He thinks outside the box, he does what he feels is right, he dresses in his own special style, and he couldn't care less what anyone else thinks. He's also about the most deliberate person ever. He makes plans and goals and makes things happen like no other. He oozes purpose and drive. He has about 100 exciting new ideas every day. He offers amazing advice (and has gradually learned to offer it mostly just when asked!). He loves and cares more deeply and passionately about more people and more things than most people can even imagine.

He's raised us to be the change we wish to see in the world, to dream big and then think and plan carefully to bring things to pass. He's raised us to be "citizens of the world" and has instilled us with an insatiable desire for experiencing new things and new places and new people.  He's sent us on plenty of guilt trips and been somewhat of a control-freak at times, but all that helped point us in the right directions and for that we're so grateful. He's showed us that being a parent and a grandparent is the most beautiful and powerful and important role we can play. He's taught us to love more and to find great joy in serving others.

I love this photo-booth shot. Dad always did photo-booth pictures with us when we were little. And he could get us laughing like no other.

On a cross-country road trip
Dad was great about getting us out in nature.

Dad dressed up as a clown and did all sorts of fun magic tricks at all our birthday parties. This is Shawni's 7th birthday party - she's in the middle on the back row.

Josh made dad some cucumber glasses and he wore them with pride.

Here we are with Dad on a picnic up the canyon (Saydi, Josh, Jonah on the ground, Dad, Talmadge, me, our dog Canie, Shawni). Can you see the mutual adoration going on?

Dad fulfilling his dream of building a log cabin together

My kids think their beloved Grandfather is about the coolest and most fun guy in the whole world and I'm so grateful we live near my parents now and relationships have been able to deepen. Here the kids are with Grandfather a while back. The great relationships are pretty apparent in the photos.

Here are a few of the quotes my dad had us memorize as kids that I still think of all the time and that I can type out off the top of my head:

"See how the masses of men worry themselves into nameless graves while here and there, a great unselfish soul forgets himself into immortality."

"True joy comes of the capacity to feel deeply, to think freely, to enjoy simple, to risk life, to be needed."

"Good is the enemy of best."

"You wouldn't worry so much about what other people thought of you if you realized how seldom they did."

"Some people look at things that are and ask 'why?' I dream of things that never were and ask, 'why not?'"

Cast aside the old phrase "If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing well" and replace it with "If a thing is just barely worth doing, then just barely do it."

"We don't own anything. We are mere stewards. An attitude of stewardship creates gratitude and generosity while an attitude of ownership can make us selfish or prideful."

"Live with an attitude of serendipity. Serendipity means 'when, through sagacity and awareness, we see and act upon something better than that which we were originally seeking.'" (My name comes from the word "serendipity," my parents' favorite word at the time I was born.)

Thanks for being who you are, Dad, and for being it so completely. Thanks for doing so much to help us be all that we are. And thanks for all you do for my children. You have influenced SO many in such important ways. I'm eternally grateful that you are my dad.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Summer so far

So the kids have been out of school for one week now.

Oh how I love summer! I love not having to be places at a specific time. I love having time to learn things with my kids and help them work on their goals. I love the long cool evenings when all the neighborhood kids are playing happily together until it gets dark. I love all the great events that are always going on all around us in Ogden, making it so that there's something exciting to do any time we feel like venturing beyond our neighborhood.

After a busy, busy amazing time in Europe, it's so nice to take a few weeks to just sort of go with the flow. The kids and I made a "bucket list" of things that we'd like to do this summer and we've been going on our "must-do's" to keep everyone reading and writing and helping with housework and getting physical exercise every day (see all about that here). So we do have some structure to our days and some plans. But the kids can do all their "must-do's" in a couple hours so there's plenty of time to play with friends in the neighborhood and just sort of hang out.

I'm finding that I can get a couple of hours of Power of Moms work in each day at some point - but I'm deliberately not planning on exactly when I'll work. So far it seems like quiet times naturally occur each day when the kids are off playing with friends or building a fort in the backyard or working on their "must-do's" and I can work during these times. I've had a few times I need to head into my room and do a phone call or record a podcast, but that has slipped quite nicely into our days w/o being a big deal. I'm really focusing on my "word" for this year - Enjoy. I want to soak in these great kids of mine and follow their lead more often and spend more time being by spending less time doing.

Of course, we're only one week into summer so who knows how I'll feel about everything in a couple weeks. But so far, so good (other than the inevitable moments of kids bugging each other and everyone needing something from me at the same time on occasion).

Anyway, here are a few of the things we've done so far (mostly unplanned - just things that felt like a good thing to do at the time - good mix of fun and getting stuff done - in a no-pressure fun way):

  • Weeded the big patch of weeds in the back corner of our yard (everyone worked together and the kids had a good time seeing how nicely the roots of the huge weeds slipped out of the ground thanks to the rain)
  • Took a couple kids out to special lunches to celebrate their great grades this past quarter and really enjoy some one-on-one time (I've still got some lunch dates to do - I so love one-on-one time with these kids!)
  • Had a good meeting with my dad to brainstorm how to best market the Joy School 2.0 lesson plans I've been helping with all year and that we'll now be offering on Power of Moms (check it out here if you want). So excited to get this great program upgraded and shared with a new generation.
  • Cleaned out closets (put away school uniforms for the summer and cleaned out stuff that is too small or stained)
  • Stumbled across a big-deal tree climbing competition at the park down the street - serious stuff as these guys from different power companies and tree trimming companies competed against each other in different events from seeing who could climb a set tree and ring a bell at the top the fastest to seeing who could climb straight up a 50-foot rope from a tree limb using a special sort of knot they had to do. My kids LOVE climbing trees (especially the twins) so they were totally into watching. Plus they liked the key chains and baseball hats that a chainsaw manufacturing company was giving away. 
  • Went to a really great concert at the Ogden amphitheater - the first in a brand new series of Ogden Twilight Concerts. Watched two great bands and enjoyed a fun concert atmosphere with all the kids (while poor Jared attended meetings - but luckily there will be another concert next week and he'll be able to join us!)
  • Learned to make gelato (see post with details about that here).
  • Watched a newborn for a friend and learned all about babies (she's been wanting to add "experienced with newborns" to the flier she's making to help her get more babysitting jobs). Eliza became a pro at feeding and burping and soothing and changing and Oliver and Silas were quite enamored with the little guy. Then Isaac rocked him to sleep. Oh, there's nothing like snuggling a newborn! And there's nothing like seeing your older kids dote on a sweet little baby.
  • Ashton finished making a whole series of awesome videos about our time in Italy (you can see them here). I think he's pretty darn talented and he captured a lot of great stuff I didn't think to capture. Plus he made a great video about our time in the orphanages in Bulgaria. (He shared that here.)
  • Isaac had a friend teach him to juggle and now he's working on juggling WHILE riding his unicycle. I told him he'd better get a clown costume.
  • Cleaned out all the cardboard boxes in the basement (how in the world did we get so many down there?) and the kids built a big fort in the playroom with them.
  • Eliza, Isaac and a friend spent a whole afternoon building a great brick patio area with bricks laid in a nice pattern in the back of our yard using a bunch of old bricks we've had piled up forever (it was going to be the floor of a fort but then they thought it would work better as a patio)
  • Oliver and Silas had about 100 Nerf wars with their buddies in the neighborhood and after saving up for a long time, they were finally able to purchase their own nice Nerf guns so they wouldn't have to borrow from friends anymore (a couple friends have a whole arsenal but having your own gun is just way more special. When we got back from the store with their new guns, they were SO excited to show their friends and when I tucked them in bed that night, they said thanks for taking them to the store again and again and said "this is almost the best day of our whole lives!") I've never been a fan of guns and didn't really let the older boys have guns but seeing these neighborhood boys have so much creative fun with their totally harmless and totally non-realistic-looking Nerf guns won me over.
  • Ashton spearheaded a great Nerf war video with all the neighborhood boys (you can watch it here). Loved seeing the big boys and little boys working together all day.
  • Went to a really big and super interesting and fun classic car show downtown - just wandered on down the street and found like 300 cars - beautifully restored old cars - some 100 years old, creative mash-up cars, muscle cars, cars with amazingly huge fins, cars with crazy and beautiful paint jobs, super low cars, super high cars, interesting stuff!

Learning to make gelato

We all fell deeply in love with gelato while in Italy. It's just got so much more flavor than regular ice cream and we wanted to figure out why. We did some research and found out that gelato has less sugar and more fruit or whatever flavor you put in there - hense, more flavor. We also found out that while ice cream has twice as much cream as milk, gelato has twice as much milk as cream. And gelato has egg yolks in it.

So one of our shared summer goals was to learn how to make gelato. And we've done a pretty good job figuring it out! So far we've made banana gelato and Nutella gelato (super good to have a little of these two flavors in the same serving!).

Best recipe we found:

Video showing how to make it:

To make the banana kind, we followed the same recipe for the chocolate hazelnut gelato but mashed up two very ripe bananas and put that in instead of the Nutella.

We learned that it's very important to put the "custard" in the fridge for a couple hours before putting it into the ice cream maker. We poured the custard in hot when we did our first batch and it barely made it to milk-shake consistency - but it did set up OK when we put it in the freezer. When we cooled the custard on the second batch, it froze nicely in the ice cream maker.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Mission Accomplished.

Hey all, it's Ashton again!

Once again, thank you all for the amazing help with my Eagle project and our family orphanage projects. I was able to rasie $573 thanks to your donations and those of other kind people! This translated to 1,003.90 Lev (Bulgarian currency) and I was able to buy lots of books and a new computer for the orphans.

I also invited people in my area to donate toothbrushes, toothpaste and gum and my friends and family helped me to put together 115 little gift packets with the toiletry items, the gum, and a nice personal note. We took these packets over to Bulgaria with us and delivered them in person.

Here is a video that I made that shares overall information, what I learned, and lots of pictures from the orphanages we visited.

The orphans were absolutely thrilled about the computer and books that you helped to buy.

We went to an outdoor book market and got lots of great books for the kids (luckily they had lots of our favorite books, translated into Bulgarian, and they gave us a great discount on the books when they heard what we were buying them for).

We got to deliver the computer to the orphanage and I got to turn on the computer for the first time for them. It was a really nice computer - it ran up-to-date software and it was perfect for what the kids needed. They immediately used it to log on to Facebook and added me as a friend so that we can keep in touch. Then, after we delivered the little gifts with the notes, they used Google Translate to see what they meant.

 Every single donation helped, and I'd like to personally thank you all.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

We're home

It seems unreal to be home. It seems unreal that we were in Italy just a couple days ago and in Bulgaria a couple weeks ago. Part of the unreal-ness is probably due to the fog of jet lag. But part of it is that it's just plain amazing that we've been able to go on this trip. It was a dream come true. And it was a TON of work. And everything at home looks and feels a little different now.

I was trying to focus on really being in the moment on this trip and that combined with how jam-packed each day was with adventures put this blog on the back burner.  Instagram proved to be the best way to capture highlights of the trip w/o intruding too much on the trip itself. It's tricky finding a balance between enjoying what you're doing and processing what you're doing so you can savor it on another level and capturing what you're doing so that you can enjoy the memories.

This trip was a LOT of work. I feel like I could really use a vacation after this trip. Trips and vacations aren't the same thing, are they? It was hard packing and unpacking and not leaving anything behind (I have to pat us all on the back for not leaving anything behind anywhere we stayed!). It was hard finding food and water for everyone in a timely way (there were a few pretty hungry moments when grocery stores and restaurants were closed or when we wound up far from food when it was well past time to eat). There were lots of times when someone needed to go to the bathroom somewhat desperately with no bathrooms particularly handy. There were surprises - pleasant ones like a rainbow or an amazing street performer or a super delicious meal at a good price right when we needed it - and unpleasant ones like lots of rain making us wet and cold when the forcast showed no rain, one of the places we stayed turning out to be sort of scary, getting stuck in an elevator, and finding that some routes we took were a lot longer than we'd anticipated. There were times when we got on each other's nerves (being together 24/7 was wonderful most of the time but sometimes that much togetherness and bathroom and space-sharing was hard).

But every bit of work was repayed in abundance. We bonded over the beautiful and crazy things we experienced together. We learned so much about history and art and cultural differences and human nature. We shared big parts of our personal histories as Jared and I shared Italy and Bulgaria with our kids. We felt great compassion together for the orphans we met and learned so much about how important parents are. We realized how tough and adaptable our children are as they walked and walked and walked and literally never complained. We realized what a good team we make as we figured out so much together during our travels. We saw our children wonder and learn and grow by leaps and bounds. We ate fabulous things (amazing produce, great bakery treats, excellent bread and cheese, great pizza, heavenly gelatto). We saw such an abundance of beauty - both God-made and man-made.

Anyway, here are some stats on the trip that Ashton helped me compile on the plane home:
  • 18 days
  • 267,629 steps covering 81.25 miles (and the twins did about twice that since they climb over everything and run ahead and back to us - amazing amounts of energy!)
  • 6 orphanages visited
  • one computer donated to an orphanage in need
  • 51 books donated to two different orphanages
  • 1 training completed for orphanage workers
  • 1 new reading program set up at an orphanage
  • 115 little gifts handed out to orphans
  • 8 new Facebook friends - orphans we met and really connected with and want to stay connected to
  • 30 churches visited
  • 8 places we stayed/times we unpacked and packed
  • 0 times we left anything anywhere (other than a mostly-used thing of shampoo)
  • 9 times we ate gelatto
  • 8 times we ate pizza
  • 12+ times we ate crusty bread and cheese and whole cucumbers and carrots for a meal
  • 2 times we got really hungry because we couldn't find any food
  • 93 tunnels we drove through
  • 36 hill towns we drove past on the freeway
  • 1243 photos taken (just by me - we're in the 2000's if we count everyone's photos)

And if you want a representative sampling of 150 of those 2000+ photos we took, click below to see our best shots that we shared on Instagram:

#looslieuropeanadventure on Instagram

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Interesting Things We've Learned

After dinner tonight, we brainstormed this list of things we've learned on this trip so far. We'll doubtless be adding to the list, but this is what we came up with so far!
  • Art and beauty is a big deal in Europe. People take time to make things look really good. Like in Bulgaria, the electric boxes all over the place are painted with pictures- some of them really beautiful. And in both Bulgaria and Italy - but especially Italy - people make their homes as beautiful as they can with flower boxes in the windows or pots of flowers on their doorsteps. Beauty really matters to Eurpopeans. (Eliza)
  • Good cucumbers and carrots are great to eat whole. We've sure had a lot of cucumbers and carrots along with bread and cheese for meals. You can find great crusty bread and yummy cheese almost everywhere then you  just break off a chunk of bread and rip off some cheese and squash the cheese into the breat and voila! a good little sandwich - and lot of crumbs all over the car and your lap. (Saren)
  • Oliver always has his shoes untied. Literally always. (Ashton)
  • There's a LOT of graffiti in Bulgaria and some in Italy - but just in the bigger cities in untrafficed areas. Some of the graffiti is really beautiful. (Eliza)
  • Safety is not a big priority in Bulgaria. You can sort of do whatever you want (like climb all over the walls of an ancient castle). (Isaac)
  • The sidewalks are really narrow or non-existant. (Ashton)
  • If you step off the sidewalk, there's a good chance you'll get hit by a car or bike or scooter since there's not even a gutter to divide the narrow sidewalk from the narrow road. (Oliver had a near miss...)
  • There are a lot of stray dogs in Bulgaria and I feel really bad for them. I wish I could take them home and take care of them. Some of them look really sick. (Oliver and Silas)
  • Oliver and Silas say "awwwwww" every time they see a dog. (Ashton)
  • Our mom really really really likes churches. It's been exactly 2 weeks that we've been traveling and we've seen 26 churches. That's an average of 1.8 churches a day. (Ashton)
  • People really cared about making their churches beautiful long ago. (Isaac)
  • Some churches look plain on the outside but are amazing on the inside and some are the opposite.
  • It's very cool and peaceful in churches. It feels good in all the churches we went in. (Oliver)
  • Baroque churches are out-of-control fancy - Isaac thinks it looks really cool, Eliza thinks it's a little too much.
  • It took 14 years to build the dome on the Florence cathedral - that's how long I've been alive (Isaac).
  • There are a lot of mosquitos that get you in the night when you have cool old windows with no screens in Florence. (Silas)
  • The side streets are usually the least crowded (Oliver).
  • Not a lot of people have dryers in Europe (used to say pretty much no one has dryers but we stand corrected by the comments at the end of this post). And it takes a long time to dry things with the humid air. You have to do a load of laundry about 24 hours in advance of when you'll need the clean laundry. (Saren)
  • Dishwashers are't very common in Italy and no one seems to have heard of them in Bulgaria. (Isaac)
  • Oliver pretty much always needs to go to the bathroom. Really bad. At not-so-great times. Because he sometimes forgets about the thing listed next. (Ashton)
  • You should always use the bathroom when there is one handy. Always. (Oliver)
  • Carry tissues with you. Public bathrooms don't often have toilet paper. (Eliza)
  • "Squatter" toilets aren't really that hard to use when you get used to them - and they do seem more hygenic than toilets where everyone shares the same seat. (Saren)
  • If you do a little potty dance in a restaurant that says "no public restrooms," they'll let you use the restrooms. (Isaac and Silas)
  • Bulgarian bathrooms often have just hand-held shower holder and fawset sticking out of the wall in the bathroom, no bathtub or shower eclosure. The whole bathroom is essentially the shower - the sink and toilet get all wet when you shower. (Isaac)
  • The road direction signs can be hard to find and pretty darn confusing. (Jared)
  • Cobblestones are hard on the feet after a while. (Everyone)
  • Lots of people in Italy have bidets in their bathrooms. (Oliver)
  • The closer you are to a major tourist site, the more expensive the food is. And the best food is usually not near major tourist sites. The best way to find good food is to ask a local. (Eliza)
  • Bulgarian yogurt and produce and bread is awesome. (Everyone)
  • Bulgarian chocolate is not so awesome. If you see a candy bar that only costs 15 cents, it's probably not a very good one. (Ashton)
  • Everything is cheap in Bulgaria (when you look at a price, it seems about what it would cost in dollars but the lev costs about 50 US cents so it's really half as much as the price for us). Everything is expensive in Italy (prices seem a little more than they would be if they were dollar prices but actually, the euro costs about $1.10 so everything is 10% more than the price says).
  • In Bugaria, a nod means "no" and shaking your head means "yes." It's super confusing. (Isaac)
  • The orphans we met in Bulgaria had decent, pretty clean places to stay and we ate lunch at a couple orphanages and found that their food was quite good (partly thanks to donations from One Heart Bulgaria). The 8-18 year old kids we spent a lot of time with were really sweet and friendly and smart. But without parents to cheer or nag them along, it seems most of them weren't doing very well in school, weren't having chances to develop talents, and were smoking and doing other not-so-good things at young ages. The 3-4 year olds that we brought books to didn't know what to do with a book - tried to grab them and rip them, didn't understand the concept of turning pages, didn't know how to sit through one quick picture book without grabbing for another one after a page or two. Parents matter. A lot. (everyone)
  • When you rent a "van" in Bulgaria or Italy, it may well be a car with a fold-down seat in the back that can accommodate 7 people but no luggage. We made do with this sort of "van" in Bulgaria. But in Italy, we were excited when they offered us a big Fiat Scudo 9-passenger van with tons of luggage room at the same price as the little car they were going to give us. It was crazy driving that big thing through tiny narrow streets but Jared's skills were awesome and we actually had great luck with parking that thing. We loved the Scudo. (everyone)
  • There are lots of communist block buildings in Bulgaria and the elevators are scary. It's cool that you can pretty easily get into the buildings and try out the elevators and you just might find an open trap door to the roof where you'll get a really great view. (Ashton)
  • You can make friends with kids even if you can't really talk to each other because you don't know each other's language. You can just use gestures and play games everyone knows and by the end, you'll be friends on Facebook. (all the kids)
  • Gypsy kids crawl around under the stalls in food markets in Bulgaria, looking for cigarrettes that aren't completely used up. (Isaac)
  • Fresh strawberries are amazing (Eliza)
  • Gelato is the best desert ever and you just can't get it in America. (Ashton)
  • A gelatto a day keeps the yumminess a-stay (Isaac)
  • Nocciolla is the best flavor of gelato (Isaac)
  • Cherry, pear and ricotta, and cremeno (nutella/vanilla) are the best flavors (Silas and Ashton)
  • Pizza in Italy in always amazing - street pizza, pizza in a restaurant, you name it. (Ashton)
  • Pesto is super good (Oliver)
  • At all the grocery stores in Italy, there are packages of yummy little butter cookies - we loved having those on hand for a snack most of the time. We tried lots of different ones. The hazelnut ones were the best.(Eliza)
  • There are awesome street musicians all over in Italy - and a few in Bulgaria (Eliza)
  • I really want to learn to play the accordion (Silas)
  • You walk a LOT and climb a LOT of stairs when you're touring Europe but you're seeing so many cool things that you don't get tired. (everyone)
  • At every tourist site in Italy about 100 guys come up to you and try to sell you selfie sticks. And at night, they try to sell you these little light-up things that spin up into the air, some laser pointer things, a flashlight thing that makes green speckled light on everything you shine it on, When it rains, the guys offer you rain ponchos and umbrellas. It's interesting that everyone is selling the exact same stuff everywhere and it's hard to carry on a conversation while they keep offering you things - again and again and again. We felt for them - trying so hard to earn money by selling things that hardly anyone seemed interested in buying (other than the ponchos and umbrellas - those seemed to sell really well when it started pouring several times!)
  • Jet lag is hard to get over. (everyone)
  • Never trust a hard drive (Ashton - he's done tons of GoPro videos and now the hard drive he brought is acting up so he's very worried)
  • You are supposed to "air kiss" people on both cheeks in Italy. At church in Genova it was hilarious watching all the kids - especially Ashton and Isaac figure out how to do this as we said goodbye to everyone - nearly kissed some ladies on their lips...
  • Europe should consider embracing larger shower curtain encosures so that you don't have to shower with a cold shower curtain constantly trying to stick to your body. (Jared)
  • There are a LOT of tolls on all the freeways in Italy. (Isaac)
  • There are a LOT of bridges and tunnels on roads along the northwest coast of Itally (we counted 75 tunnels, then we stopped counting...) (Silas was in charge of counting tunnels)
  • There are a LOT of hilltowns in Tuscany and the surrounding areas - we counted 35 that we could see from the freeway. (Oliver was in charge of counting hill towns)
  • Be sure to know the local parking regulations (we got a boot on our car when we left it just 30 mintues beyond the free parking time in Bulgaria. But you call a number an they come take off the boot in about 10 minutes and only charge you $15 so it's not so bad - but surely it costs them more than it's worth to regulate parking this way!). (Jared)
  • In Italy, parking is a lot more lax. At one place we stayed, the guy who owned the apartment said it would be fine to park all day in an area that said it was just for residents (he'd forgotten his pass but said no one ever checked). We parked there for 4 days and never got a ticket - even when one day turned out to be street cleaning day and the street cleaner truck had to go around our van which was the only car parked on the street (there were tons of cars parked there the night before but I guess everyone else knew to move their cars by early the next morning... so grateful we didn't get towed!)
  • Everyone is amazed that we have 5 children. They are very complimentary and talk about how beautiful the kids are. Then they say that there is NO WAY you could have five children in Italy or Bulgaria. (Silas)
  • Roads are really narrow and sometimes you have to back up a bit to let someone pass you since two-way roads are narrower than 1-way roads in the US. And dad is really good at driving a big huge fan in really hard spots. (Ashton and Silas)
  • If you get stuck in a tiny elevator, it gets really hot really quicky. But a nice old guy will come and save you and you'll have to climb up and get out the door that is 4 feet up. (Silas)
  • The elevators look and seem scarier in Bulgaria but we actually got stuck in an elevator in Italy - an elevator that looked like a good nice safe one. (Ashton)
  • It can take over an hour to get through the line to rent a car at the Rome airport. (Jared)
  • VW bugs actually look really big in Europe since most of the cars are really really small. (Oliver)
  • People are really really nice, especially to kids. They let you use their bathroom when they're not really supposed to (Oliver). They give you a delicious peach juice when you're sad because you don't like the food at the street cart that everyone else wanted to eat at (Silas). They smile at you a lot (Oliver).
  • The world is so full of good people who are kind to strangers and are willing to go the extra mile. Many people gave us helpful directions when needed. Everyone was so patient and complimentary about our best attempts at Bulgarian and Italian. Old friends had us to their home for a lovely dessert in Bulgaria and took us to their favorite place for gelatto in Genova and absolutely insisted on paying after we all ordered our ice cream. One lady whose apartment we stayed at gave us really nice fruit and breakfast stuff when we arrived. One host was so kind to come meet us at the apartment at 4am when our flight was delayed.
  • Don't accidentally throw your apricot pits off your balcony or the old lady who lives on the ground floor will come up five flights of stairs to pound on your door and when you open it, she'll throw your apricot pits at you and yell at you in Italian. (Isaac)
  • Chess is the best game in the world (Silas - one of the apartments we rented had a chess set an the kids got totally into it)
  • Cars are really fuel efficient in Europe (Ashton)
  • On Mondays, almost NOTHING is open in small towns in Italy (at least the areas where we were). No shops or restaurants. No museums. And in small towns, everything closes from 12:30 to 3:30 for siesta/lunch break.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Bulgaria - Day 1 and part of Day 2

So we've had three full days in Bulgaria now and wow, it's amazing to be here.

We got off to a not-so-awesome start thanks to our flight from Paris to Sofia, Bulgaria being cancelled. We got on the plane, taxied to the runway, then went back to the gate so they could fix what they thought was a small mechanical problem. After sitting on the plane for almost 2 hours, they had us get off while they kept working on the problem. They gave us some sandwiches and Orangina. We waited and waited. The kids slept - felt good to stretch out on the floor after trying to sleep sitting up on the previous flight from Detroit to Paris. Our flight was supposed to leave at 10:20am and at 4:30 pm they said they'd sent a different plane from Sofia and it would be here to pick us up at 11pm. Then they sent us to a hotel to freshen up, hang out, and have some dinner. We got out of the airport at 5:00pm or so and thought we'd try to go into Paris and check out a few sites but we had to be back at the airport at 9pm and were advised that traffic would be bad so we'd likely only have a few minutes in Paris and it would cost us $200 round trip in a taxi to enjoy those few minutes. So we just slept a bit at the hotel and enjoyed a very surprisingly delicious and very French dinner at the hotel, courtesy of the airline.

At 11pm we finally boarded the new plane and took off for Bulgaria, arriving at 3:30am. A kind missionary who served with me in Bulgaria 20 years ago and who now runs a business in Bulgaria sent one of his employees out to meet us at the airport at that inconvenient hour to escort us to the apartment we'd be staying at (courtesy of this same very kind fellow missionary). It was so nice to have someone smooth our way after our frustrating travel troubles!

We slept a few hours at the apartment (a really cool turn-of-the century place in downtown Sofia), then blearily headed over to our first orphanage visit - the very orphanage where I'd spent tons of time during my mission. It was amazing to be back there and to spend time with the beautiful little babies and children there. We got to meet all the children briefly and had some good play time with the 2 and 3-4 year olds. It was heartbreaking to see that so many of the children are quite delayed developmentally - without a mom or dad or someone else to read to them and teach them all the little things that children in families are taught every single day, they just can't progress that well. The ladies who take care of them at the orphanage were generally kind and the children were clean and seemed to be in generally good health. But some of them seemed to desperately need hugs (they clung to us and made us want to take them home!) while others didn't really want to be touched (seemed like they were so un-used to touch that it was uncomfortable for them).

After our time with the orphans, I was able to spend some time discussing and training with some of the One Heart employees who go in regularly to work with the orphans. We discussed how important touch is and how important reading is and today we'll be going in to that same orphanage to bring some children's books and model one-on-one reading with the hope that the orphanage staff will be able to catch a glimpse of the importance and benefits of reading with the children regularly. And we've got some special books that the One Heart staff will bring with them each time they visit the orphange (we found out that if we just give books to the orphanage, the staff often put them away and don't really use them so it'll be great to have the One Heart ladies bring books with them each time and actively use them with the children, offering an ongoing example of how important it is to read with these children.)

We spend the afternoon and evening exploring Sofia - the 12th century church of St Peter and the ruins of the Roman city Serdica over which Sofia was built, the amazingly in-tact 10th centurty church of St George, the gorgeous Sveta Nadelia church and Alexander Dnevski Cathedral, the main government buildings, the yellow brick roads, the broken up sidewalks, the overgrown but lovely parks. The main thing that seems different from 20 years ago is the cars - used to be that pretty much all the cars were these beat-up old Russian-made Ladas, but now there are all sorts of cars that look mostly like cars you'd see in the US. Oh, and it used to be that there were only a couple restaruants in all of Sofia that were worth visiting. That has sure changed. We've had some really excellent food - Italian, Indian, Bulgarian - and prices are super cheap.

The kids loved checking out the grocery stores (which are amazingly nice and have so many choices compared to 20 years ago!) and trying some Bulgarian stuff. I had them all try boza - a very popular and common Bulgarian drink made with grain. They were impressed - but how awful it was! We've been eating lots of good Bulgarian bread and tomatoes and delcious Bulgarian cheeses (kushkaval and syrane) and everyone's in love with Bulgarian yogurt (keeslo mlyako).

Saturday we had to go back to the airport to pick up the rental car we were supposed to pick up when we arrived (they weren't open at 4am!) then we drove up into the beautiful green hills to visit two orphanages. The first was for children with pretty severe disabilities - Pravets Home. The director there worked for many years at an orphanage for disabled children that had 90 children and was really enjoying now working at this brand new orphanage for just 14 children. The facility was truly beautiful - bright, clean, lovely building with nice bedrooms for just 2 children (the older homes had 10-20 in a room). The director and therapists and caregivers seemed excellent and were so kind and loving with the children. It was SO great to see these kids in such a great place after visiting a large home for disabled children when I was last in Bulgaria 10 years ago, doing orphange visits. In the past, these kids were essentially "warehoused" and the homes were dirty, smelly and overcrowded with children basically just receiving food and a place to sleep. The director told us that in order to join the EU, Bulgaria has to conform to certain standards of care for children in homes and they've started with disabled children. Almost all large orphanages for disabled children are in the process of being closed down now and the children are being placed in small new homes like the one we saw. My heart was so happy to see and hear about this change! After all disabled orphanages are taken care of, they will move on to shutting down the rest of the orphanges (some are already in process) and they'll eventually place all children in smaller more family-like homes. This will be so great for the children. But it'll be quite a long and difficult process!

Our kids had such a great experience playing with and getting to know the really sweet kids at Pravetz orphanage. Their spirits were so large and so loving and so beautiful! We got to experience seeing one boy with severe disabilities walk across this little bridge thing that our kids and some of the more able orphans were walking across - he watched and watched and then got this really determined look on his face, struggled to get up out of his wheelchair, then shakily grabbed the handles and slowly but surely worked his way across the bridge with us and his orphanage friends cheering him on.

I'll write about the great time we had at the next orphanage - Razliv, when I get a chance.

OK, got to run. It's been nice to enjoy our first relaxing, non-hurried morning here at the apartment thanks to some rain and a boot on our car (they are SERIOUS about parking rules around here, I guess - a huge change from my mission - we left our car in a legal overnight place and meant to move it to a lot at 8am as that's when you have to start paying for street parking around here - but we overslept and at 8:40, they'd put a boot on the car! I guess they don't bother with parking tickets, they go straight to a boot. So we had to wait for the people to come remove the boot and we paid the fine (only $20) and all is well). But now it's time to get out and see some more sites and buy some books for this afternoon's orphanage visit - in the rain.

Lots of photos posted on Instagram - no time to post them here as well so please visit Instagram here to get some visuals on our trip:


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