A Thrill of Hope

Melodee was not happy.

But then, she was never happy.

She could only remember tiny fragments of happiness…moments back in her Mimi and Papa’s trailer.  Christmas there had been happy.  She remembered tangled lights that she and her sisters had wrapped around a tipsy tree.  A huge meal Mimi had cooked that Melodee hadn’t eaten because she had stuffed herself with life savers, candy canes, and M&Ms.  She remembered fighting with her sisters until they broke the new radio.  She remembered insisting on wearing her new Christmas pajamas to play outside and then crying when she slipped off her scooter and ripped a hole in the pant leg.  Yep, that had been a happy Christmas.  She had been with her family…such as it was anyway.

She had blocked the Christmas’ that followed out of her mind.  She didn’t look back at the last four years that she had spent in nine different foster homes.  At first, she had made a cautious effort to be a part of each new family.  But all of those efforts had slowly diminished and finally altogether abandoned three homes ago when…well, it didn’t matter now.  All that mattered now was that she didn’t bother to get attached to these people.  The Carriers would just pass her along like every other family had. 

She turned up the music that was already blasting through her earbuds and pulled out the bag of Cheetos that she had hidden in her nightstand drawer.  She tried to be careful not to get cheese on the white bedspread…not because she’d give two rotten bananas for the bedspread, but because she didn’t want to get in trouble for having food in her room.  Again.

The door opened suddenly and Mrs. Carrier stood there holding baby Harper. 

“Hey, Melodee…” Her eyes went immediately to the bag of Cheetos and Melodee braced herself and prepared to act like she couldn’t hear above the music.  I dare you to take these away from me.  She didn’t speak the words, but she yelled them with her eyes.

Mrs. Carrier stood and waited until finally Melodee pulled out an earbud.  “Hey, Melodee, I wondered if you could hold Harper for me for a few minutes.  She is a bit fussy and I’m trying to get dinner in the oven in time for company tonight.”  Melodee had been reminded two thousand times that some old family friends had just moved back into the area and they were coming over for dinner tonight.  Mrs. Carrier acted like it was the event of the century.  Frankly, Melodee didn’t give two rotten bananas.

Melodee rolled her eyes and tried to act inconvenienced although they both knew the truth was that Melodee loved to hold Harper.  She looked around for something she could wipe her cheesy fingers off on.  Definitely not her new Adidas hoodie. 

Harper fussed as she made the transition to Melodee; but Melodee followed Miss Carrier to the kitchen because she knew she had the best chance of a happy baby if Momma was within her sight lines. 

Byron, the Carrier’s obnoxious preschooler, was sitting quietly at a train table in the living room building and rebuilding a long wooden track.  “Watch, Melodee!”  He called happily.  Okay, so he wasn’t really obnoxious.  He was more “obnoxiously good.”  But there are a lot of ways that people can be obnoxious and maybe Melodee happened to not like four-year olds that would sit and play with a train when they were told to.  

Besides, it wasn’t fair.  Byron’s life was everything hers wasn’t.  Melodee had this unexplainable need to make sure that Byron’s life wasn’t perfect and that his parents knew that he wasn’t perfect.

Read the rest of this stories and many other family stories by purchasing the ebook or paperback…”Christmas Candles

You don’t have an Agenda? We’ll be Happy to Provide you With One

So, I guess you could call what was happening in the Senate Judicial committee a “hearing.” Mostly ACB hearing all the things Democrats wanted to say (and have repeated ad nasueum) to the American electorate about medical care, immigration, abortion, and racial differences. Once in a while, though, they did cross over into Judge Barrett’s judicial philosophy and other relevant matters.

It seemed if she so much as opened her mouth to reply, however, they cut her off “for the sake of time.” Some of them had spent a lot of time on their questions and presentations and they wanted to get through them. So… sit there, and be quiet ACB. This hearing may be about you, but actually, well, it’s not.

But I was enraptured. I loved that she didn’t engage in useless debates. She didn’t seem to feel the need to “win.” She listened patiently and proved to have the humility that she professed.

When Cory Booker tried to make her feel grossly inadequate because she has not extensively studied racial disparity and its demonstration in the number of individuals incarcerated, she did not seem to be embarrassed that she simply follows federal sentencing guidelines in criminal cases. Isn’t that what a judge is supposed to do? Follow the law? No wonder he will not vote for her. She has prepared to be a judge, not a racial equality activist.

Her knowledge, maturity, and decorum seems to have reduced the Democratic opposition to “we shouldn’t be appointing a justice as this time.” Wildfires! COVID! An election! We can’t confirm a judge while life is happening in America. Please.

I find the argument that “four million people have already voted” ridiculously uncompelling. Not only because if those four million people had any doubt about how they wanted to vote, they would have waited. But also because the people did vote on who should decide this–in 2016 and 2018 they voted in the elected officials who will be making political decisions through 2020. Republicans have suffered enough of the downside of 2020, they deserve to get what little upside is available.

But there’s really no sense in trying to break down their arguments, we all know it’s an excuse for them not to confirm a nominee who has not demonstrated that she embraces the liberal agenda. She hasn’t said she doesn’t…I honestly don’t know how she will vote on the Supreme Court.

To be fair, Republicans shouldn’t have used an impending election as an excuse to block the confirmation of Merrick Garland in 2016. They should have just said, “no.”

But nonetheless, I found myself impressed. In fact, I think I was more inspired by her than I have been by any living human being in a long time. She was classy, composed, confident. She is the kind conservative that I wish we had far more of in this nation.

Judge Barrett said in her opening that she is used to working in a group of nine–her family. I hope she has significant influence where ever she goes and that her group of nine–black and white–continues to inspire and encourage our country.

Baby showers: A whole new world

TeddyBearPicnic_1201089195Those of you who have truly followed my blog forever, may remember this post. Which can basically be summed up as follows: you’ve been to one baby shower, you’ve been to them all. Someone, please save us from trying to guess how many m&ms are in the baby bottle!

All baby showers were basically the same: cake club plus oohing and ahhing at booties, onesies, binkies, blankies…and guessing how many m&ms are in the jar.

Then came Pinterest.

I guess you could say it was an answer to my prayer for increased creativity at baby showers. Pinterest has, in fact, taken baby showers to a place I never dreamed they could go. I mean, we have co-ed baby showers. (Now there’s a trend I’m pretty sure won’t last. Men are not given to sitting in a circle oohing and ahhing over booties, onesies, binkies, and blankies…even if there is cake involved.

Back to Pinterest

So…a few weeks ago, I volunteered to host a shower for my friend, Hannah, who along with husband, is expecting a boy this summer. After all, it’s easy enough to send out an invite and make a cake.

But then there was Pinterest.


You can’t have a baby shower without a theme.

And you can’t have a teddy bear theme without brown paper plates with construction paper ears glued on them. Without “Beary Punch” and a Bee Hive cake.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I loved, loved getting carried away looking through the many teddy bear picnic ideas. After all, I have long been a believer that showers do not have to be pale pink or powder blue.

I spent many happy minutes scrolling through glimpses of other people’s parties and pulling recipes like this adorable cheese ball hedge hog and the awesome toffee dip…

Of course, I thought the whole idea of Pinterest was that you could find the stuff you pin later on. Nothing makes me feel old like not getting an App to do the only thing it does.

But then, I guess I am old. I remember when baby showers consisted of sitting around in a circle oohing and ahhing over booties, onesies, blankies, and binkies. Only then, I think we called them socks, clothes, blankets, and pacifiers. And anyway, girls now are getting bottle warmers and boppies and unspillable cups and wireless video baby monitors. So much has changed.

Thank you, Pinterest. I called, you answered.

We are all better off for it.

Except the men.

I went to a small, Christian correspondence law school. Here’s how it turned out.

img_7671.jpgI went to an Oak Brook College of Law Alumni Retreat at the beautiful Lake Tahoe this summer. You could say it was a reunion of sorts. One third of my graduating class was present. Hard to believe that we started 20 years ago. The three from my class don’t look like they aged a day. Okay, so maybe I do.

Despite a rather punishing return trip that had me back to Kentucky two calendar days later than I planned, it was a good experience. And pondering it made me realize that I’ve never shared my student experience or bragged on my law school on this blog. And I really should.

Those who have asked where I went to law school have probably heard me say that I went to “a small Christian law school in California.” But that doesn’t really do it justice; so let me explain.

It’s small.

Yep. It’s small. It’s been in existence for 25 years and it has something like 300 Alumni. That’s not per year; that’s total. I don’t know the exact averages, but I’ve heard in law schools there is usually a 50-70% attrition and my school has probably experienced that. So that was not a misprint above where I said a third of my graduating class was there and there were three of us. I think we started out with eighteen and ended with nine (and a few finished with a later class).

I’m excited to say that OBCL is growing now so maybe one day soon it will be 300 a year; but that definitely wasn’t my experience.

Here’s the thing: You don’t have to be big to be a good school. After I finished and was studying for the bar, I took a nationwide bar review course with graduates from law schools all over the country. In the various subjects, my memory (and give me some grace here, it’s been 15 years) is that my scores ranged in the top 25% to the top 2% of the test takers (depending on the subject). And I was not the top of my OBCL class and I’m not super smart—I just studied hard.  Anyone can do that.

The California bar is one of the hardest in the nation with something like a 25-35% pass rate (depending on the year) and my school had one of the best pass rates.

Beyond that though, I’m always impressed by the caliber of the graduates and the number of ways those 300 are impacting the world.

Many have started their own law firms and are doing quite well. Some have become District Attorneys, one is a top election lawyer for the Republican party.  One holds a top position for the Department of Labor.  We are very proud of Christiana who has appeared for Fox News and the Today Show to represent Alliance Defending Freedom.  Many more work for other think tanks, legal defense associations, and political action committees.  Some of the graduates are pastors, home school moms, teachers, and more.

So…I would say, though we be small, we are mighty.

It’s Christian

Oak Brook unashamedly proclaims Christ and maintains a biblical worldview.

The mission of the school has remained unchanged since the beginning 1995.  We have a Statement of Faith. Our graduations feel a bit like a church service. We pray before and after our alumni meetings. We believe that law is the standard that tells us what is right and what is wrong. That’s correct, we can draw a line and say certain things are wrong. We’re Christian.

If you don’t believe in Jesus or the Bible; we understand. There are lots of other law schools in the world and we suggest you look into them. We are Christian. I hope that never changes.

It’s in California.

So this is where it gets complicated. And this is the part I usually find myself leaving out. Historically, I was afraid to say I went to a long distance learning law school lest people think I had done nothing more than get a cheap mail-order diploma to hang on my wall. But I passed a tough bar exam, remember, so at least hear me out on this.

Oak Brook attracts students from all over the US (and Canada, eh!) but the student population is largely concentrated in the few jurisdictions that will allow OBCL graduates to practice law. Let’s start with California.

OBCL is licensed in California and all graduates can take the California Bar. [Hey, guess what? We found something that a state full of crazies actually got right.]

There are a handful of other states and provinces that will allow grads to practice (ten currently, plus federal jurisdictions); especially if they pass in CA first (and, in some cases, practice in CA first).   But not all states will even allow you to take their bar because the liberal, power-loving ABA has a tight grip on most state bars and it will not accredit Christian, long distance law schools at this time. It’s not fair; but hopefully as online learning continues to grow and expand, the liberals will eventually be forced to be more…well…open minded, diverse, and accommodating to the lower class.

It’s Far Less Expensive

Here’s one of my favorite things: the unconventional route of Oak Brook allowed me to work my way through school and graduate broke, driving an old Plymouth Voyager, but completely debt free. Dave Ramsey would have been so proud of me. In fact, after the bar exam, I spent 10 days in Rome with classmates and alumni and returned home still debt free though I had been working for $7.25/hr.

It was important to me then; but I realize just how valuable that was now. I have friends and co-workers who, 15 years out, are still paying student loans. Some are ten years out of law school still living with their parents. Yikes!

Maybe, maybe, my earning power would have been more if I had gone the traditional route. But I think, when I last calculated, I get something like a 700% return on my post high school investment per year. That’s not exactly terrible. Some grads do better than that; I’m sure a few have done worse, but then general rule seems to be that graduates of OBCL who apply themselves can make a good living doing whatever they choose. Not all practice law; and not having a mountain of debt gives them that freedom to do whatever they feel called to do.

It’s the People

But here’s my favorite thing about Oak Brook. Remember that is said I got home from my trip two days later than planned? It went like this…I got up at 5:00 am on a Sunday morning so a friend could drive me to Reno for a 7:30 flight. Alas, my flight had been cancelled. So I spent the next several hours of my life trying to arrange an alternate itinerary and eventually resigning myself to the fact that I would not be able to get out until the next morning.

The retreat was ending, but a group of 8 or so was staying over at a rental house nearby so they invited to bunk with them. It was in in the opposite direction of the airport, which had me a little concerned because in my attempt to be a good steward, I had not rented a car and was instead relying on friends to get to and from the retreat center.

This meant my very unfortunate friend who had offered airport transportation had to get up at 4:00 am so we could make the drive to Reno/Tahoe Monday morning. I could hardly drag myself out of bed so I could only imagine the happy thoughts he was thinking at 4:00 am after a weekend retreat.

But hey, we only see each other like once every five years so it’s great to have some time to compare notes with some other lawyers, hear how their practice is going and encourage each other to love Jesus, do right, and change the world.  We had two extra hours to do that; which is about the right amount of time to figure out how to change the world.

Of course, it was not until he dropped me off and I got to the front of the security line that I realized I forgot my purse. Which meant, of course, that I had no ID and no hope of making my flight.

Reluctantly, I called my friend who confirmed that the purse was not in his car. It was at the rental house…two hours away.  Too bad we had already figured out how to change the world.  There was nothing left to do except try to apply my very tired brain to figure out how to get my ID and get myself to Kentucky.

The best I could come up with was to ask my very tired friend to come back and get me and take me to my purse.  Then I would pay my fair share of the Stupid Tax in the form of an Uber or a one-way rental to get myself back to the airport.

If I was a Harvard grad, that’s probably what I would have done.

If I was coming back from a weekend with classmates from Loyola, Yale, or Stanford; frankly, I probably wouldn’t have had a friend to pick me up at the airport to begin with.

But Oak Brook is different.  And maybe that’s why still another OBCL alumni gave up several hours of his own sleep to grab my purse and meet us halfway so that I could make the next flight.

But as I attempted my long cross country venture for the third time, I was feeling extremely blessed and especially glad that I choose Oak Brook.  I didn’t know when I started that the people I met would still be my friends 20 years later.  That I would want to see them enough to risk getting stuck in Reno and they would risk getting stuck with me.  Perhaps most impressive, that they would never tell a soul about my mistake.

I have no regrets about where I went to law school.

And when we change the world…well, that will just be a little bonus.

As to the Stupid Tax…don’t worry; I still got to pay my fair share.  When the airline starts feeding you pizza…well, that’s when you know things are bad.


The Perfect Gift

This week marks 15 years since I packed my two suitcases and boarded a mid-sized plane to begin my new life in Charleston, South Carolina.

A few months before, I had never even heard of Charleston and probably couldn’t have told you if it was on the beach or in the mountains. But I was fresh out of law school and willing to go wherever I could get a job. Which meant, frankly, pickins were slim.

When I had arrived in Charleston, a few weeks before for an interview at the Bostic Law Firm, initially, everything seemed to go wrong. US Airways had lost my bag.  I got a migraine. I was staying with people I hardly knew and (due to the migraine) could hardly hold an intelligent conversation with. My potential employer was stuck in KY due to weather so, to buy time, I ended up having an intimidating interviewed by every one of the firms’ four attorneys and the paralegal. When I did get a chance to speak with Mr Bostic, we took a hard look at the licensing differences between California (my home state) and South Carolina and we concluded I was pretty much a fish out of water. I felt very much like the young, ignorant law student that I was. I wasn’t really ready to be a lawyer.

So when Mr Bostic offered me a job making $38,000/yr, I felt like I had won the lottery; not because of the money but because of the enormous odds that we’re not at all in my favor. As I contemplated the opportunity over the course of the next day, I felt sure it was the next right thing.

I arrived in Charleston the second time on a rainy Tuesday. Actually, it rained every day the first month. But I hardly noticed. I was so busy trying to make heads and tails of my new job that the weather outside was pretty much irrelevant.

One thing I quickly realized was that my prior employer had given Mr Bostic the misguided notion that I was a computer genius. He wasn’t trying to lie exactly. To him, anyone who could send an email was a computer genius. And I could send an email.

But Mr Bostic—eventually “Curtis” to me—wanted me to install a server, a new printer network, and new legal software. And I didn’t have a clue. He would eventually figure that out.

So that was the beginning. Curtis took a chance on a green-as-grass girl from another state whose main job experience to that point included teaching piano, filing papers, making phone calls, applying stickers to first grade math papers, and checking head after head for lice. About the only skill from my prior life that came in handy was the ability to send an email.

Despite all my ignorance, Curtis treated me as an equal with the other attorneys at the firm. He spoke highly of me to others. He affirmed my work. He often stopped to explain things to me that I probably should have already known; but didn’t. And he chose to forgive my many, many mistakes. Sometimes, he even owned them to other people instead of pointing out that it was me that made an oversight.

I immediately found a lot of fulfillment in my job. I liked learning new things and I also found that we did a lot of work for churches and nonprofits—helping them get started or untangle serious issues. He had a lot of business sense and an authoritative manner that often passed on confidence that helped clients head in the right direction. I could tell he had a lot of people’s respect from various segments of the community. We were never hurting for clients.

Not all those early days were easy.  Most were long and many were pressure-filled and almost all of them stretched me in some way.  I specifically remember one particular time when I was feeling frustrated trying to sort out a legal research project and I landed on an article that encouraged attorneys and law students to own their work and to strive for excellence.  I remember getting an attitude adjustment from its pointed admonition: Figure it out.  You are not a potted planted.

That little article has stuck in my head all this time and the admonition has come back to rebuke me from time to time.

Over the last fifteen years, As Curtis has traveled all over the world, I’ve booked a ton of flights and spent hours of my life on the phone haggling with Delta airlines over last minute changes. I’ve helped prepare countless powerpoints…searching for the right pictures and the right quotes and sometimes trying to think of the right illustration. I helped him run for Congress, transition to general manager of the Kinzer Companies, and start non profits. I’ve helped buy and sell properties, airplanes, cars, and kangaroos.

But what most people don’t know is the extent Curtis has gone to to support me. He and Mr Jay painted my first house. He paid to fix up the first car I bought in Charleston—which had been in a strange sort of wreck that left it scraped and dented on both sides. (And he hasn’t given me grief despite the fact that I think I’ve scraped every truck he’s owned.). He and Jenny let me be a part of many travels and I have happy memories with the Bostics all over the world.

But I think far more than his generosity to me, I’ve been motivated by the opportunity and the words of affirmation. He chose to include me in some larger cases, deals, and projects that a new associate would not typically get to work on. He didn’t have to do that; especially early on when I had little or nothing to contribute.

Curtis encouraged me to grow and learn professionally, but even beyond that, he helped me grow as a person. He knows I love to work with kids and when I suggested doing respite foster care, his reply was, “I think that’s a great idea!”

And when foster care ended up being a lot more of a time and energy commitment than I anticipated, he tried not to complain about the significant distraction and many afternoons of missed work. I mean, he really, really tried.

A couple years ago, when Curtis was given an office inside the headquarters at the Kinzer Companies, where we frequently travel, one of the Kinzer employees showed up with a plaque of Curtis’ name to put in the slider on the door.

“Where’s Danielle’s?” Curtis asked.

No one had thought to get me one. There was only one slider on the door. And, frankly, my feelings weren’t the least bit hurt. I wasn’t the manager.

“Let’s get her one.” Curtis said.

And Curtis didn’t put his name on the door until after he put my name on the door.

It’s funny, if my name had never been mounted, it wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. But the fact that he stopped everything and wanted me to feel like an equal and have some ownership of the office still means a lot to me.

Other things have changed over the years. I don’t spend as many hours on the phone with Delta airlines as I used to. We haven’t sat in court together for a long time.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is that I’m very grateful. I sent 50 resumes before I talked with Curtis and had had only one interview.

When I was drafting this blog, I remembered and re-read this post which I wrote five years ago. It essentially said that dreams don’t always come true, and that’s a good thing. The undertones were that my life hadn’t exactly gone as I planned. My intentions of working 3-5 years had turned into 10. And I was learning to trust God’s hand and believe that His story of my life would be a good one.

Five years later, I’d like to add the follow up story and just be clear: I don’t feel like my life is a consolation prize. God doesn’t give out consolation prizes. He gives good gifts (James 1:17). At 38, I am more confident than ever that God loves and cares for me. I am more amazed at the little ways He works and the small prayers He answers for His glory.

I am more grateful for the people he’s put in my life—my parents, my siblings, my friends, my church, and definitely Curtis and Jenny. He could not have picked a better couple to help me grow those first years in the working world.

I guess I’ll never know what my life would have been like had I not moved to Charleston. But I’m glad I did. I learned I wasn’t a potted plant (and a few other things besides). A job at the Bostic Law Group was the perfect gift.

And I’m grateful. Thank you, Jesus. And thank you, Curtis.

Day 12 the Stillness of Dunkirk

The sun was bright; The air was clean and fresh. I could hear seagulls overhead. We were only in an ugly bus stop, but I had the feeling I was going to like Dunkirk.

I had sensed that Dunkirk, France was not a popular tourist destination. There were no tours, no trains, and not much else between Brussels and Dunkirk, so I had built my day around a public bus schedule which meant a very early start.

It also meant I spent two hours waiting for a bus that morning—5:45 to 7:45. The bus had been an hour late which meant I arrived in Dunkirk an hour later than planned. Which also meant I would have only two hours before I needed to catch the only bus back.

I checked Siri and the 1940 museum and beach were a 34 minute walk away. Which meant that I was going to have less than an hour to do both.

It wasn’t ideal, but I did enjoy the walk. It felt so different than the craziness of Amsterdam…I wasn’t constantly dodging bicycles whizzing past me and shops selling trinkets and French fries every four feet.

My walk wound around the port and a few signs now and again paid tribute to the events of 1940 and the miracle of the mass exodus that saved 330,000 troops. But for the most part, it was just a simple quiet walk through a small port town going about it’s Friday morning business. The hills were not alive with the Sound of Music, there was no Tour de France, and no 1992 Olympic Games.

It did take all of the 34 minutes Siri said it would, so I was in a rush by the time I got to the museum. This whole trip, I’ve scarcely been to a museum and now I found one I wanted to see and there was not time. :(. It’s not huge, but I could have spent an hour except that I wanted to save enough time to climb up to the beach.

The beach was quiet too. There may have been a dozen other tourists, but that was it.

I wasn’t quite sure whether to feel glad there was no one there to break the stillness of the place or whether, perhaps, this is a bit underdone give the significance of the events that took place here. (I mean, they only had five magnets on a little stand for a gift shop and the only one commemorating WWII was an airplane. I mean, I like airplanes and all, but this is Dunkirk. Just sayin’)

I practically ran back to the bus station only to find that, once again, the bus was crazy late. Didn’t seem quite fair that I had to spend a third of my time sitting at the bus stop; but I decided just to be glad it was a beautiful day and, unlike this morning, there were benches to wait on.

There was not a direct route back to Brussels, but that was okay because I still had one last place I hoped to see in Belgium: the village of Ghent.

If you ever go to Ghent, do yourself a favor and take the tram to the center of the old city. It’s a long walk.

Of course, I walked.

My plan here was to rent a bike and just ride around the back streets instead of doing the typical churches, castle, canal, and belfry. I’ve seen so many great places to ride a bike the last few days but hadn’t ridden at all.

I’m not sure how, but I ended up doing the church, castle, canal, and belfry stairs. I’ll post the pictures although it probably looks by now like every other little town I’ve visited in the last twelve days. It’s a bit of a shame, because it does have its own little flair…but I guess I’m a little burned out on picturesque towns. I didn’t even want chocolate or ice cream. Shoot, I even paid the 3 Euro for the tram on the way back. And I didn’t even buy a magnet.

It must be time to come home.

I’ve loved my tour of Europe. In twelve days, I went to 10 countries and walked over 100 miles…just me and my black back pack…Full of magnets.

I visited Ireland (Galway, Cliffs of Moher, Bunratty); Cologne, Germany (if it counts); Italy (Venice, Cortina and the Dolomites); Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Salzburg, and Schönbrunn in Austria; Barcelona; Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, and Dinant in Belgium; Luxembourg; Amsterdam and Harlem, Netherlands; and Dunkirk, France. [I had previously visited four of these countries and at least four others in Europe (England, Scotland, Czech Republic, Switzerland). I had planned to also go to Slovakia, but we’ll have to save that for another trip].

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the scenes of Europe, but at the same time, I don’t think I could have crammed much more into two weeks. And when it was all said and done, I lived out of that back pack for 17 days. That’s long enough.

It was a trip I hope to always remember. It was a return home that I hope to forget. I may or may not blog about my return trip, but regardless, let me make it clear once and for all: I do not like JFK airport. Sitting in it for hours on end is awful. Sleeping on the floor there is pitiful. Getting help there is impossible.

So…while New York is not at all a pleasant welcome, it is sure good to be home.

Thanks for taking this trip with me and if you feel even a little bit jealous that you didn’t get to go, picture yourself on the 17th day living from a backpack sleeping on the floor of the airport. Then be glad you’re home.

Day 11 – Dodging Bikes in Amsterdam

Each day starts with me locking my hotel room door with a key from the roll I was given when I checked in, then winding my way down six flights of steep, creaky stairs to the lobby. There, a little man who takes his duty to feed us breakfast very seriously, gives a cheery “Bon Jour!” and offers me a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. I never say no.

After that, he brings a basket of bread to the table, crowned with a soft buttery croissant. I do not know who makes them but I want to take them home with me. I can smell the freshness. He also brings a plate of meats and cheeses and will make a boiled egg if I ask. Of course, There is also a selection of fruit and muesli. Today, I had a plumb and an apricot.

I realized that I still haven’t had a waffle here in Belgium and I probably should before I leave. In fact, I definitely should.

The area around my hotel (the main square) is being set up for the Grand Start if Tour de France beginning Saturday. I have watched the set up take shape each day as I walk past.

Last group tour today; I was going to Amsterdam. Our guide today couldn’t have been more opposite of the energetic Spanish girl we had yesterday. He was tall and large and quiet. This tour was supposed to be in both English and Spanish and I don’t think either was his native tongue, so it seemed like it was often too much trouble for him to translate, so he said nothing at all.

Our first stop was a small, family owned farm near the city center where they make cheese and clogs. My first impression getting off the bus was that it was a bit quirky and unkept—not at all the type of place you would expect a tour bus to stop. My second impression—and all of them after that—was that it was VERY quirky and unkept.

Perhaps we stopped there because the owner spoke many languages. He impressed us by spouting off in English, and the languages used in the surrounding countries (French, German, Dutch), but also Chinese (says he knows three dialects), Japanese, Spanish, Russian, and maybe others; I don’t know.

He tried to do his little cheese making demonstration in English and Spanish—he really did. But I think it was more of switching back and forth—one step in English, the next in Spanish, and so on. Either way, he had a lot of personality and was fun to listen to. He started and finished with samples of their Gouda cheese in various flavors and it was delicious. He said he was an eighth generation cheese maker. That’s hard to get my head around.

We didn’t get a demonstration, but they had clogs in all stages of development and he was clacking around on the concrete floors modeling them for us and claiming they were very comfortable.

His wife and son ran the gift shop so it had some order and charm to it. I have no room in my back pack for a block of cheese, so I choose a magnet for my memory of this fun and funny little place.

After the cheese shop, they gave us a photo op with a windmill. While the technology of these old windmills has been replaced with a newer version, there are lots of the old ones still running. I learned they were meant to be (and this still is) someone’s residence. I don’t know how convenient it is, but It’s sure cute.

Another thing I never knew about that area is how many Dutch live in little houseboats along the water. There were all shapes, sizes, and price ranges. And there were cool looking bike paths all through the country. That looked like fun to me.

The guide showed us some of the highlights of Amsterdam as the bus slowly crawled through the city. While Belgians are more known For their bike riding, I quickly realized that the Belgians have nothing on Amsterdam. “Beware of bikes!” Was the guides final admonition as we got off the bus. I heard some folks talking that there are 3,000 bike/pedestrian accidents in Amsterdam a year and I realized this was, quite possibly, the most dangerous part of my trip. The bicycles often had their own lane, but one had to cross the land somehow and there was a constant stream of bikes and they did not slow down. The bike parking lots were amazing and at the train station I wondered how one would ever find their bike again.

I decided to go to Haarlem by train first. I have been there before but I was drawn to the home of Corrie ten Boom and her family. They helped Jews during WWII and consequently Corrie suffered in Ravensbruck concentration camp and her sister died there. I would recommend the stop if you are ever nearby.

Back in Amsterdam, I walked around, smelling Cannibis and attempting to get in the Anne Frank museum, but I guess you can’t even enter a gift shop unless you buy tickets months in advance.

I dodged bikes, walked along the flower market, attempted to avoid the red light district, and and eventually bought a smoothie and some Dutch chocolate. It’s a very busy city and there was lots more to see but things I was most interested such as the Bible museum and Jewish museum seemed to be closed. If I had known the bus was going to be more than 30 minutes late, I would have taken the time to go by the Jewish WWII memorial that we had driven by earlier. Oh well.

My take away from Amsterdam is that it is a beautiful town and you might enjoy it if you are quick on your feet and like the sickly sweet smells. But the highlight of my day was probably the quirky cheese man and his delicious Gouda cheese.

Step count: 19,000

Cumulative step count: 203,000

Day 10 – Luxembourg and Dinant

Up until now, the group tours I have taken have had max a dozen people. Today, we were 50 people strong all on one big bus. The common tie between all of us: English.

That definitely doesn’t mean American. In fact, I’ve been surprised at how few Americans I’ve met on this trip. Far more have been Canadian, Australian, from the UK, or even India. Many times, I’ve looked at someone and thought they were from the US until they opened their mouths.

Anyway, our perky Spanish guide held a large purple sign over her head and hearded us toward the bus. There were a half dozen other tours leaving from the same time and place so it was a bit of a zoo. Thank goodness for her purple paper taped on a wood stick which she held triumphantly above the crowd.

It is a long ride to Luxembourg. But Marium taught us a lot about both Belgium and Luxembourg on the way. Belgium is a country of about 11 million (roughly the population of Georgia); Luxembourg has about 600,000 residents. Both are effectively governed by Parliament although Belgium has a king and Luxembourg has a duke.

Luxembourg, the city, is as old as the ninth century—having originally been settled by the Vikings. Luxembourg, the country, only dates to the nineteenth century. The name Luxembourg means “little fortress” and the city was apparently a very good one. When we got there, we saw some of the old city walls and it was easy to see why the location above the river was formidable.

The main industry in Luxembourg is banking and finance and it is a wealthy country considering its size. Minimum wage is roughly ~$13,50/hr and they have more Porsches per capita than anywhere in the world.

I didn’t really feel like paying 25 Euro for lunch, so another girl and I walked around a bit and then got a wrap at a small corner cafe. I haven’t said this (or thought it) about any food I’ve had so far this trip, but there is only one word to describe it: disgusting. (Mostly mayonnaise with wisps of lettuce, tomato, and prosciutto). I noticed my friend threw hers in the trash can too as we walked as well.

The guide showed us Parliament and the Duke’s residence. There were a number of churches, squares, an outdoor farmer’s market, and all the typical retail offerings of a small, high end town. She also talked a good about the EU, which had its beginnings here and cracked me up with some of her English phrases such as her frequent references to “sky scrappers.”

Leann and I walked across the bridge to the new part of town and back…There is a pedestrian/bike bridge suspended below the car bridge which made for a nice shady place to walk and take some pictures.

By the time we were back, we pretty well felt like we’d seen Luxembourg. There were some nice parks, and overall, I got the feeling that it would be a pretty nice place to live if you’re in the banking and finance world and you really like mayonnaise.

On our return trip, we stopped in Dinant, a very picturesque Belgian village where the inventor of the saxophone is from. We then wound our way up the river; it was a very beautiful drive. The area had had a coal boom in the 60s and 70s but has since lost most of its industry and is now mostly summer homes and strawberry growers.

I felt a little yuk by the time we got back. I wasn’t sure it is was from the long ride or the mayonnaise lunch that I had tried to chase away with gummy bears.

Overall, it had been a good day, but I felt the boxes had sufficiently been checked and I likely won’t be returning to Luxembourg.

Step count: 16,000

Cumulative count: 184,000

Day 9 – The Beautiful City of Brugges

Brugges 20

It was another beautiful day. I had not gotten the early start needed to go to Dunkirk, so I decided to switch things up and take the day to go to Brugges, a small Belgian town by the ocean.

When I say small, I’ve heard it has a population of 1,000 but receives an average of 25,000 tourists a day.

So I guess it goes without saying that it is a tourist town. But there is a reason why 25,000 tourists a day go there. It really is beautiful.

I was on my own today and it was about noon when I arrived. I wandered my way through the city in comfortable shoes, in no particular rush and with no particular destination. I was determined to let today be a less stressful day.

Roughly in the center of the city is this looming bell tour…83 meters tall and I’m sure, at one time, important to the defensive strategy of the city. I waiting in a long, slow line to climb the 366 steps to the lookout over the city. I got to hear the chimes from inside the tower which left an impression. It was all interesting, but I hated to waste any time because I felt sorry for all the folks waiting in the long line below.

But I did get a few shots of the city from the look out 366 steps up:

Some of the city had medieval history, but I didn’t really know what the history was, so I decided to take one of the canal tours. I had read that they were a beautiful way to see the city and I figured I’d learn some of the story at the same time.

The guide packed us in and immediately began talking and joking. He was switching off between languages though (Belgium has three official languages, French, Dutch, or German), and while I know English was in the mix, I couldn’t tell when he was speaking English except that I kept hearing him boom “Sixteenth Century”…”dates to the Sixteenth Century…” “vas built in the Sixteenth century…” and finally with pride, “twelfth Century!”

So it was a pretty ride and I decided just to enjoy it and not be frustrated that I didn’t learn a thing. There is always Wikipedia.

Brugges 8

There are 1,000 restaurants. Maybe more. I settled on a take away of Finnish beef stew and fries. It was good and definitely filled the space that had freed up since the hotel breakfast.

Brugges 5

I also thought I would satisfy my sweet tooth by popping in to some of the 1,000 chocolatiers that all boasted they had the world’s finest chocolate and figure out which one was actually best for myself.

I ended up only buying chocolate at one but I looked at a lot of beautiful chocolate. Smelled a lot of good chocolate. And, if they offered samples, I never said no.

Brugges 12

In true tourist town form, it was retail heaven and all the big names were there as well as lots of local specialty shops, antique shops, and souvenirs shops…where I got my magnet. Again, I was glad for my little backpack which helped me avoid temptation, but I did enjoy looking at the handmade lace and a few of the other shops of curios.

Brugges 4

It was tempting to rent a bike…it’s a thing in Belgium and they were convenient to rent, but the main streets were a bit too crowded; and anyway, I had splurged on the boat tour. So I contented myself to walk some of the outskirts. It was a larger town than I expected. Surely, far more than 1,000 people live there at least with seasonal help.

I took the train back to Brussels where things are getting crazy as they set up for Tour de France beginning here Saturday. There was a tiny bit of evening left, so I caught up on email and made a much needed trip to the laundry mat.

I looked it up and learned that Brugges (spelled four different ways…depending on which language you’re using) was founded by the Vikings in the 9th century. It was a port town and had its hay day between the 12-14th centuries before Antwerp rose in size and importance and Brugges began to decline. By the 1800s, it was the poorest city in Belgium.

Recent tourism has undoubtedly turned the tide and one of the row houses along the canal sells for 1.5 million Euro. And I could feel good about my life knowing I had done my part to sustain this lovely little town with almost no history and no industry. Except selling the world’s finest chocolate.

Step count: 22,000 Cumulative step count: 152,000

Day 8 – Bratislava…or Barcelona…then Brussels

I woke up naturally. Finally. It was nice to feel like I was in something of a routine. I had time for a leisurely breakfast and tried three different kinds of jam with my bread. They were all delicious.

At the last minute, I changed from my most comfortable walking shoes, to the flip flops to match my skirt. I felt much more relaxed today.

I was still not in a rush as I headed out for my tour to Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. This time, the tour guide was not coming to the hotel, we were to meet in front of the Vienna Opera House.

But I was not concerned about getting to the right place. I had plenty of time and the green line runs from right near the hotel to right in front of the Opera House. What could go wrong?

But not only was there an easy plan for today, I also had a plan B and I had been severely torn between the two. Due to a series of events, I had a flight to Brussels both Monday (today) and Tuesday. If I made it to Brussels one day early, I would lose the opportunity to go to Slovakia, but I would gain a longer layover in Barcelona and a possible day to visit Dunkirk, France. While I have been to France and have not been to Slovakia, I was getting a little burned out on Middle Eastern towns; and the idea of visiting the famous beaches that hosted the escape of 400,000 Allied soldiers seemed like a good trade.

But after much deliberation, I had stuck with plan A because, after all, I had paid for the tour to Slovakia and the night’s hotel in Vienna and I hate to waste money.

So, by 7:45, I was sitting in a seat on the green line. I was supposed to be at the meeting place by 8:15 and the tour was to leave at 8:30. It would be about a 10 minute ride to get there; so I zoned out briefly; still chewing on Plan A and B and the pros and cons of each.

vienna 16

After a few minutes, I started paying attention to the stops; my general sense was that mine, Karlsplatz, was still a few a away.

But to my surprise, I was almost back to my starting point. What? I was so confused. But sure enough, the train was running toward my hotel stop.

I was scratching my head as I got back off the train and headed up the stairs and across the station to get back on. I felt like I was in some kind of a time warp movie. I heard them make an announcement (in German) but it meant nothing to me.

I rode the train again until everyone suddenly got off. Everyone but me. I figured it out at the last second and jumped off too. They had closed a section of the train for repairs and the train would return to start. I would have to find another route.

I looked at Siri—I was 3 miles from my destination but it would be a slow three miles walking. It was already after 8:00. There was no way I could walk it in time.

I didn’t really have time to figure anything out, everyone else was jumping on another train; in fact, it was so full, I didn’t think I could fit. But I was just able to squeeze in on and wedge myself between some other travelers.

But now I had another problem. It was so tight, I could not see the train map showing the lines, stops, and directions. I had no idea where I was or where I was going.

As the train gradually began to unpack a little at each stop, I could catch glimpses of the map whenever another traveler moved her arm.

I kept checking my watch. Did I have time? Could I make it? Should I give up and go to plan B? I didn’t have time to decide anything, I could only keep moving…generally figuring it out on the fly…jumping from the green line, to the brown, to the purple, and finally, to the orange which would take my to my original destination. I had the subconscious sense that if something went wrong, I’d retrace the maze of lines back to the hotel and switch to Plan B; but miraculously, I kept getting on the right trains going the right directions.

The clock was unforgiving though. 8:15 came and went and I began to realize I wasn’t even going to make 8:30. They would not wait for me. I knew they would not wait for me.

The final train station, Karlsplatz, was a large one, and I practically raced through the station to see if there was hope of catching the tour. It was 8:29.

The Opera house was not there.

It was a little mistake, but it had huge consequences. I had come out the wrong exit. It probably took a full ten minutes for me to fix my mistake.

By the time I got to the front of the Opera House, there was no sign of a van. I tried to reach the tour operator but there was nothing I could do but email. It was past 8:40 and I was sure they were gone.

So here was the other thing. My flight—the plan B flight that I had not planned to take—left at 10:40. And I was four trains away from my stuff back at the hotel.

Plan B it was. Back down to the train station. I studied the map just long enough to confirm that the route I came truly was the most direct. I also set a timer to see how long it would take me to get back. I would have to get to the hotel, pack, ride four trains back here, then catch the airport train…which only ran on the half hour. Then I would ride the sixteen minutes to the airport, check in, and go through security, and board all in about 1.5 hours. It wasn’t doable.

But still, as I waited for the train, I tried to write down each train line, direction, and stop I would need for the return trip for quick reference. God bless whoever it was that came up with the idea of giving each line a different color. They deserve knighthood, sainthood, and a Nobel Peace Prize.

Siri, however, was not so helpful. She stinks at German and as I typed in all the names, she kept trying to auto correct them. Finally, I gave up.

I caught the train and used the ride to keep playing the timing through in my mind. I *might* be able to make the flight if I took a taxi to the airport instead of chancing the train. I had to try.

I packed in no time at all and had the driver waiting outside. But this driver defied every reputation of cab drivers everywhere. He was in no rush. The only thing that seemed to be moving was the clock.

It was 9:59 when we pulled up at the airport for my flight which was supposed to board at 10:00. I kept checking my phone, but the flight was on time.

It was 63 Euros for the cab ride. And there was pretty much no way I was going to make it. So much for plan B. Little mistakes can sure be expensive.

Plan C would be to catch a train to Slovakia myself. I didn’t feel much like going back to the hotel to drop off my stuff and then retracing all those steps for a fifth time that morning. Maybe I would just throw my back pack in the Danube and go.

But I pursued plan B doggedly, trying to be kind to the elderly couple in security in front of my who kept pulling more and more bits and bobs out of their pockets. Then the Spanish gentlemen…acting very much like he has never been in a hurry in his life.

I made it. Not by much, but I made it.

Barcelona 2


My layover was in Barcelona. I took the Aerobus into the city center. Turns out, the 1992 Olympic Games were to Barcelona what the Sound of Music was to Salzburg.

Given my limited time and disinclination to repeat my Vienna experience and walk 10 miles with my backpack, I decided to splurge on one of the hop on, hop off bus tours with the audio guide.  I figured that way I would learn some of the rich history of the area.

Basically, the audio in a nutshell was: this city was reinvented for the 1992 Olympic Games.

One would have thought that the Mediterranean Sea made it’s appearance for the 1992 Olympic Games.

Since I really didn’t have time to hop on or hop off, I contented myself with the leftovers of a chocolate bar I bought in Saltzburg and taking pictures from the top deck of the bus. But if I’d had time, I would have gotten off here which apparently is where you can view ancient ruins from the Roman Age under the city. The guide didn’t tell us much about it…it must not have played a part in the 1992 Olympic Games.

Barcelona 7

I don’t know if all of the trees were planted for the 1992 Olympic Games or not, but they offered pleasant shade and the breeze off the ocean was very welcome. Between that and the overall friendliness of the Spanish people, I was starting to release some of the tension of the morning’s craziness.

I took the train back to the airport, and I was glad I did because it took us, apparently, through the part of the country that hadn’t gotten reborn for the 1992 Olympic Games. It was a very different picture that reminded me more of South America. Maybe that’s why they push tourists to take the Aerobus.

I’ll spare you the details, but it ended up being another harrowing near miss of a flight due to a 15 minute bus ride between terminals, super slow security, and a gate that kept changing. But God is good and I made it okay; just started feeling like I need to get back to work to get away from all this stress of vacation. :).  That’s what I get for wearing my flip flops and trying three different kinds of jam on my bread.

But that’s the way it is sometimes. And the good news is, I should sleep well tonight. That is, after I burn these shoes.