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(Such beautiful girls! And you should see them dance!)

On the last day of our trip, the mayor of Strumica put together a celebration from the city for our group. It was incredible! They have a huge plaza in the center of city, and that’s where it was held. Lots of music, lots of dancing, lots of celebrating!

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(This is the Kandern/Basel/Croatia group.)

This is the beginning of what we were celebrating. Kids and their Young Life leaders building a playground at an elementary school. They also painted the mural on the building in the background.

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(Here’s the final product! And the children are loving it! So fun! This is one of the two Munich sites.)

We built six playgrounds, painted and repaired fences, painted murals on school buildings, to name a few of the things that happened during the week. The kids that came on the service project are from international schools in the London area, Munich, Brussels, Kandern, Basel, and Croatia. These are all areas where Young Life is taking place. At the end of each work day we had Young Life Club! It was a great week.

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(Rachel Miller, Lucie Crighton, and myself with Macedonian kids from the middle school in Strumica.)

Service Project Macedonia 2013

 

(All 280 of us in the Strumica Town Plaza!)

The above photo was taken Friday afternoon. We had our final Young Life Club that evening back at the hotel. Then it was time to begin packing up. Jim and I had an 8:00 am flight out of Thessaloniki the next morning. We, along with about 10 other staff, loaded back onto the same small bus we had arrived in the week before. Bad news being it was 2:00 am. We rode the two hours, which turned into four hours plus one because of changing time zones, back to the Thessaloniki Airport. Checked in and waited another two hours for our flight to take off for Munich. I’ll close with the final photo of me at the airport just before boarding. This is where the two hours I lost in the last couple of months due to “day-light savings time” comes into play. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

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(A typical means of transport in villages.)

We stayed in the village of Bansko, near the city of Strumica, Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia. (That’s a mouthful.) This valley is covered with green houses growing vegetables. I’ve never eaten so much cabbage salad in my life. Just sayin’.We drove up into the mountains to get to our hotel. The area is breathtaking.

But let me digress for a moment. I do need to say something about the flight over. It was a first for me, in that my seat mate was holding a dog carrier complete with dog. The problem was it was too big to fit under the seat, which was not allowed. So, we crammed it in as far as possible and the teenage boy and I shared the crate at our feet. The sweet little dog kept escaping which made the flight attendant very upset, and she kept looking at me and speaking very, very sternly. I would just point to the young man, who was Greek, and smile. Okay, I must admit, I did laugh. She didn’t think it was funny at all, so Jim got up and moved toward the back (he was sitting in the aisle seat). Then I climbed up out of my tight little economy sized seat and retrieved the dog. This was all before take off. The boy then took the dog out during our climb up, up, and away because he was whining. The dog, not the boy. He pulled out a little bowl and hit the button for the cabin attendant. He obviously did not know the rules about seat belt signs and take off etiquette. So, being the kind person I am I poured some of my Evian into his bowl. The minute the seat belt light went off the attendant came to see what we needed, and again I was in trouble because the dog was out of his crate. I knew right then this was going to be the longest 2 hour flight EVER.

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(Yes, that’s a dog crate.)

Our bus ride from the Thessaloniki Airport to Bansko was a two hour drive that took about four. The border crossing took over an hour, and there were only 20 of us. I knew when the buses of 50+ kids arrived in a couple of days it would be a bit crazy. We had 232 high school kids and their Young Life leaders arriving from all over Western Europe to build playgrounds and do work projects in the villages around Strumica.

Our hotel was a spa site for people with “ailments.” They had a hot springs fed pool and various rooms in the basement area for “treatments.” We took every room and every bed, and then some, for the week. However, the locals continued to come to the pool and for other things. I had a delightful conversation with an older gentleman who’d lived in New Jersey. He had returned home after suffering a stroke and was enjoying the pool.

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(Our home for the week. Shown here with Brent Wolff, camp director.)

Because of the hot springs, there was a Roman Bath ruins to the right of the hotel. And when I said to the right of the hotel, I mean you step off the sidewalk and there it is. The government is restoring the site, but we were able to walk all around inside the ruins. It was fascinating.

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(Jim and I in the Roman Bath ruins.)

The weather was beautiful most days. We had a wee bit of rain, which was a nice break. It also gave us beautiful clouds streaming through the valley between the mountains.

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(The building in the photo is the pool.)

There were cars, buses, motorbikes, bicycles and …horse drawn wagons everywhere. I tried all week to find a way to catch a ride on one of the wagons. But alas, it was not meant to be. Next trip.

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I would like to brag on the hotel staff and the people of this amazing country, in general. The hotel staff fed us delicious food all week. Our rooms were cleaned ever day (remember we had a hotel full of teenagers who spent the day on worksites, and were staying 4 to a room that was meant for 2). There were 280 of us in all. Everyone was so accommodating and the people in the villages where we did the projects were wonderful. Beautiful children! I will talk more about this on my next post, with more photos.

I would like to end this with a teeny rant by mentioning a few days after our arrival, the country experienced a time change. Yes, that’s right, day-light savings, where we fell backwards. Which I did, literally, at the end of the day. What I need to let you all know is that I had already done this earlier in Texas. So, have you already ascertained, I have now lost two, count them, two hours of my life. At my age, not a good thing. There it is. I just needed to get it out there. This, along with the long hours will help explain the picture at the end of my next post. You’ll see what I mean.

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(Woke up to snow.)

I woke up this morning and there was a dusting of snow in the backyard. It has continued to snow off and on. We should have several inches by tomorrow. Coming over from Texas, where things are blooming and sunshine is plentiful, the snow is actually lovely. For our dear friends who have been here all winter…not so happy.

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(Wall decor at one of our favorite restaurants.)

We had lunch with our Young Life staff friend, Erin, at Mellows in Starnberg. It’s a Cuban/American restaurant. There are pictures of Che and Fidel hanging on the walls and lots of memorabilia. It’s quite fascinating, and the food is good. I had pizza, the quintessential cuban cuisine.

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(Look what time it is!!!!)

We were driving to Berg to pick up our former neighbor, Barbara, to take her for kaffee und kuchen and look what we found! It’s time for the toad crossings. You see they know it’s March, and romance is in the air…as is snow. This is my favorite road sign of all time. Just so you know.

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(The little toad fences!)

Just past the sign, they put up the little green fences to catch the toads before they cross the highway. Then there is someone called a liebekröte, toad lover, who takes a cup and picks up the toads at the little green fence and takes them safely across the road to the other side and releases them. Is this not the cutest ecological event on the planet! My spring is complete. I arrived in time for the Toad Crossings.

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(Easter candy by Lindt.)

Our sweet neighbor, Barbara, gave Jim and me this delightful and delicious Easter Candy when we picked her up this afternoon, after our toad crossing extravaganza. The three of us, drove down the hill to the Starnberger See to the Hotel Schloss Berg for afternoon coffee and cake. We sat in the warm restaurant next to the large windows overlooking the beautiful Alpine lake, snow gently falling, ducks swimming, and enjoyed life, friendships, and chocolate.

As darkness falls, I am content. It’s been a good day, and I’m grateful.

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Almost finished! Packing is a process for me. Especially when I’m packing for three months, three seasons. We’ll leave Dallas where it will be in the 70s and sunny and land in Munich where it has been snowing and raining. It will be in the 30s when we land. Hmm. Even dressing for the flight over is a challenge. Winter dies hard in Germany.

A week after we arrive in Munich, we’ll leave for Macedonia for the Service Project with International School students from all over Europe. The weather will be unpredictable, warmer during the day unless it’s raining, cool at night. Maybe. Then, we’ll return to Munich and drive to our apartment in the Black Forest. Hopefully, the sun will begin to shine and Spring will arrive. By June, we’ll be in northeastern Spain for training. Summer begins, It will be quite sunny and warm.

So you see my problem. I know. I know. You’re saying, Poor you, traveling to all those places. It’s true. I have a great job. But seriously, packing takes thoughtful planning. (Was that redundant.) I first lay out EVERYTHING I think I might wear in piles on the bed. Then, I leave and do something else for awhile. Later, I come back to my piles and rummage through them, pulling things I really don’t need. Again, I wander to the kitchen for chocolate and a coke. Finally, I return to the bedroom and make a final run through, holding up each piece of clothing and asking myself, is this really necessary, or can I pack an extra package of flour tortillas in its place? At this point, I put everything in the suitcase and weigh it. Now I can decide what shoes/boots will fit. I, of course, will be wearing the heaviest pair on the plane!

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Now to pack my carry on. What books will I need? I’ll be working on my new novel. (I MUST BUY A KINDLE.) Then, the DVDs, chocolate, more books, laptop, more chocolate, pictures of the family, additional chocolate, passport, deck of cards… Done.

I know what you’re wondering. Isn’t there chocolate in Germany? YES. Amazing chocolate, but hey, it’s a long flight.

I’ll try to take pictures and do a better job of documenting our journey while we’re at home on the other side of the pond. Auf wiedersehen!

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I love music boxes…

Last year our son and daughter-in-law came to visit us in Germany. We took them to Alsace, France because…why wouldn’t we. Our son had been before as a teenager on our family camping trip. This time we rented an apartment in the old city centre in Kaysersberg for several days. It was enchanting.

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(We rented this blue upstairs apartment in Kaysersberg, Alsace, France.)

Previous to this trip, I discovered music boxes at a souvenir shop in Paris. They were cheap and fun. The perfect thing to start collecting. I came across the one pictured at the beginning of this post  in a little shop in Alsace while shopping with my husband, son, and his wife. They always have a significant number of music selections to choose from. I picked this one up and began turning the handle ever so slowly. The music was…enchanting. I looked at my family and said, “I’m going to write a story to this music. It’s wonderful and mysterious sounding.”

Then, as fate would have it, time passed and the music box sat on my desk, its story held captive inside. I was busy getting my first novel ready to publish, among many other things.

This fall my husband and I returned to Kaysersberg and a story began to form, as I’ve written about in previous posts. The name of my main character came on our second visit in as  many weeks…Amelie. My youngest son reminded me there is already a movie by that name. I’d forgotten, so I googled the name to see what all was out there. Basically, just this movie, which is in itself enchanting. A French film that takes place in Paris in contemporary times. Do I keep the name? Was I mistaken in choosing it?

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Time passed again, and I was in our guest room, which I’ve decorated in what I like to call Alsatian-French Style. I noticed the little music box and picked it up. I turned the crank ever so slowly, and the haunting melody played. As it did, the story was released, and I knew I must find the name of this music. I remembered it had a french girls name in it, but more than that I couldn’t remember. How would I ever find it? I would have to wait till I returned to France…to the shop.

More time passed, and I was looking for French music to play while writing my new novel because it helps transport me into the world I’m creating. I decided to look up the soundtrack to the movie, Amélie. I listened to the first two songs and knew this was what I needed! I bought it. And, today, as I sat down at my desk to write, I hit play. Several songs into the album I heard it! I quickly pulled up iTunes and looked at the title of the song, La valse d’Amélie. (Amélie’s Waltz) It was the song in my music box. The one I bought in Alsace, where my medieval story takes place. It was like magic! I picked up the music box which I had placed on my desk days earlier and again, turned the crank ever so slowly. It was her waltz!

Music is a beautiful Muse indeed!

The following is a guest post by Cameron Von St. James…

Caring for My Wife During Her Fight with Cancer

On November 21, 2005, my wife Heather was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. We will never forget that day, the day that our lives were changed forever. Just three months earlier, our only child, Lily, had been born. We had hoped that we would spend the upcoming Christmas together as a happy new family, but our happiness fell apart when Heather was diagnosed, and I became a caregiver in addition to a husband and father.

Things started changing before we even left the doctor’s office after Heather’s diagnosis. The doctor told us about mesothelioma and said we could choose treatment at a nearby university hospital, a reputable hospital in the region without a dedicated mesothelioma program, or a mesothelioma specialist named Dr. David Sugarbaker in Boston. In what would be the first of many decisions I made during that time, I told the doctor that we were going to Boston.

In the following months, our daily lives changed dramatically. Previously, we had both held full-time jobs, but Heather couldn’t work after the diagnosis, and I switched to part-time so I could focus on making appointments, setting up travel to Boston and caring for our daughter. It wasn’t long before I was drained by the amount of work and number of decisions to be made. More than once, I crumpled onto the floor of the kitchen sobbing, wishing things were different. Fortunately, these moments of weakness were few and far between, and I never let Heather see me break down. I knew I had to be strong for her no matter what.

We were helped through that time by friends, family and even strangers. The financial help and emotional support was invaluable. Cancer patients and their caregivers should always take help from those who offer it during their time of need. Emotionally, this help is a powerful reminder of not being alone in the world.

Caring for someone with cancer is incredibly difficult. In the face of so much stress, you can never quit. Although you have to understand your emotions, you also have to manage them. No matter what, you have to stay hopeful and use your resources to get through this.

After Heather dealt with radiation, chemotherapy and surgery, she miraculously survived mesothelioma. Now, seven years later, she’s still free of cancer.

Learning how to handle stress and manage time effectively during Heather’s fight with cancer prepared me for many more obstacles in life.  Two years later, I returned to school to get my degree. When I graduated with honors, I was my class speaker. During my speech, I told everyone how five years earlier, I never would have thought I’d be there. Above all, we have to remember that we can overcome if we keep our hope and believe that we can accomplish anything.

 

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Imagine a world with no cancer…

My doctor pulled up my PET scan results on her computer screen and smiled…a Cheshire Cat Smile. My Lymphoma is disappearing before our very eyes. The radiologist asked her what treatment I’d had to bring about the great change. I’ve had no treatment…yet. She said she’d only seen this one other time in her career as an oncologist. That patient also was a strong Christian and had also been the recipient of many prayers on her behalf. Miracle was a word used that day in my doctor’s office. No other explanation.

I’m so grateful for the grace given me. I don’t know what the future holds as I “live with lymphoma” but I do know for now I’m breathing deeper and walking lighter. I have a number of close friends battling cancer…too many. They are ever in my prayers and thoughts. Hoping for more miracles.

 

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