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: https://instagram.com/sarenloosli/


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