Looking Back on 2017

2017 was nothing like I thought it would be!  I spent six months in Greece, broken into two three-month segments by six months spent in the United States.  In real time, I found a lot of this year stressful because the future seemed so unknown.  But looking back, I can see that the unknown held a lot of wonderful experiences.

I was promoted to a higher level of management at the NGO where I volunteer in Athens.  When I found myself back in the States, I was hired by the library where I worked five years ago.  Many of my coworkers are still there, and it felt like a happy reunion.  I also got to spend a lot of time with family and friends from my hometown, people who know my eccentricities deeply and love me anyway.  I’m finishing the year in Athens, surrounded by my Found Family in Greece, grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to live here.

But what’s a Looking Back without remembering all the places I was able to travel during the past year?

  • January:  I started the year in Seattle, celebrating the New Year with my brother and snowshoeing for the first time.  Mid-month, I flew back to Athens for three months.
  • February:  Luciana, Olga and I spent a weekend in Bucharest, Romania enjoying the snow we never get in Athens.
  • March:  Our organization spent a weekend retreat in Kleitoria, in northern Pelopponese, where we explored caves and ate fish we chose from a tank.  I also went to Thessaloniki with Anthi and Rosie to experience Greece’s second city and eat loads of bougatsa.
  • April:  I flew home to the States in April, and soon thereafter I went to Vancouver for two weeks of training with our parent organization.  When that finished, I spent another weekend in Seattle with my brother before flying home to Illinois.
  • May:  Thinking my time in the States was short, I drove down to Dallas and Austin to reconnect with a lot of my favorite people from my time at DTS.  Later in the month I joined my grandparents on their vacation to Wisconsin Dells, which was a lovely opportunity to spend time with them.
  • June, July: I started working for the library, and ironically, I didn’t travel during the summer.
  • August:  My mom and I flew out to Portland, where we met up with my brother and his partner to roadtrip up the coast to Seattle.
  • September:  I drove out to Rockville, Maryland for a long weekend with one of my closest friends exploring quaint coastal towns and eating a lot of great food.
  • October:  I flew back to Greece for a final three months in Athens.
  • November:  When visitors came to our organization, we orchestrated an outing to Corinth, which I hadn’t been to since 2007.  I later went to Evvia for Luciana’s birthday and was astonished to see autumnal leaves in Greece.
  • December:  Anthi, Rosie and I traveled together again for a long weekend in Rome, satisfying one of my top travel desires.

Guys, I’m developing an unsustainable habit of needing to travel somewhere at least once per month.  This will someday be a problem, but for now I’m super grateful for cheap plane tickets, a good car, and friends who let me stay with them for free!

2017 doesn’t fit into any neat “This Happened” box, and instead I’m left with a lot of disparate but lovely memories.  I’ll take it.

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Tips for A Weekend in Rome

Earlier this month, I went to Rome for a long weekend.  It was such a wonderful trip that I suggest anyone interested in art, history, and/or food try to recreate it as closely as possible.

The Tips

  • Visit in December.  Obsessive readers of this blog might remember that I went to Venice last summer and hated it because of how overcrowded the city was.  I’m happy to report that there is a huge difference between visiting Italy in December compared to August.  There were definitely tourists and lines, but nothing too overwhelming.
  • Include the first Sunday of the month.  Many of the big attractions are free on the first Sunday of every month.  We saved nearly €50 by accidentally going to Rome the first weekend of December.
  • Stay somewhere close to Termini.  There are a LOT of hotels in the area to choose from, and it’s perfectly situated for easy public transport use.  The buses from the airports end there, so you don’t have to think while riding them.  If you need to get somewhere early in the morning, you are right next to the metro and bus stops.  And the Termini Station is full of cheap coffee shops, stores, and grocery stores, so you don’t have to go far for basic necessities.
  • Walk more often than you use transport.  When preparing for Rome, I had in my head that the city was massive.  It’s not!  We took about one public transport per day (either early in the morning to beat the lines or late at night when our feet were exhausted), and the rest of the time we walked.  In addition to saving money, this allowed us to get a real feel for the city.  I had such a fun time realizing that we were passing a building that led up stairs to a piazza that we walked to the day before.  By the end of the weekend, I felt like I knew Rome in a way I never would have if I’d been stuck on buses or metros.
  • Use audioguides.  The sites are incredible, but without context the amazingness can blur together.  At the Vatican Museum and Coliseum, I had an audioguide that made the experience MUCH more meaningful.  I recommend an audioguide over a human guide because it allowed my friends and I to split up when necessary and focus on the displays that most interested us individually without worrying we were boring the others.

 

Year 2 | A Week in the United States #17: SEATTLE, PEORIA, and DALLAS

I’ve been all over the country this week!  Last Friday, my brother met me in Vancouver, and we had dinner with my Greek coworkers and Canadian trainers. Then we drove across the border, and I spent the weekend in Seattle with him and his partner. We did some touristy things on Saturday, like touring fancy houseboats, drinking bubble tea (my one request), and going to Vidiot, a bar with free video games. On Sunday we had a lazier day, culminating in Thai takeout and streaming Logan. I left Monday, but the short weekend didn’t feel too short because they will be in Peoria in a couple weeks. 

I spent two days in Peoria, one mostly at the library and the second ending  with a talk about HD at my church. 

On Thursday, I drove to Dallas! It’s a 12 hour drive plus stops, and I had been looking forward to this trip since I arrived in the US a month ago. I love long car trips, especially alone. It takes about four hours before my brain is willing to slow down and shut up, and then I got some serious mental vegging in. Lovely. 

I’m staying with the family I nannied for while getting my Master’s, and I’m reminded just how lucky I am to have employers who turned into family. We stayed up the first night talking about their vacation to New Zealand and then Hamilton, proving that even while apart our interests are the same. 

When I woke up on Friday, everyone was gone for work/school, but they had left breakfast and a key for me. I went out for lunch with my old counseling coworkers, then sold some books at Half Price, and got back to the house when the kids got off school. Sanjay, Anju, and Ketan and I got dinner together before meeting Chrisette at the movie theater to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Today, I’m being lazy. We all went out for lunch together, and then the kids and I played LEGO Star Wars. Tonight I’ll go out for dinner with my favorite professor and his wife. 

It’s all so great! Too great! I’m loving being back in the States, and it’s so comforting to know I have such a huge support system all around the country. It’s also so much fun to hang out with Anju and Ketan again, and to know that even when years pass between our hanging out, we can fall back into old rhythms immediately. And driving! It’s so intoxicating to have the freedom to go where I want, when I want, whether that means to a store or another state. And driving down Dallas roads does things to my heart. 

I do love this city – I’ve got a lot of good memories here!

Year 2 | A Week in Canada #15: FIRST WEEK OF TRAINING

I’ve been in Vancouver for a week, and I feel amazing! Two of my coworkers got here before me, and it was so fun to see them in a new context. We are at our parent organization for two weeks of training, since two of us have new positions and the third wanted additional training after a year of experience. 

We’re staying at their safe house, and it’s been really cool to see the day-to-day life here. It’s made me really jealous, actually, because the ease with which you can interact when everyone speaks the same language is something you take for granted until you can’t say even the simplest thing without first finding an interpreter. 

From the first training session, their staff picked up on just that: that we are overwhelmed and feeling desperate, so after two hours they said, “What you need is a rest.” We put everything away and they treated us to a fantastic meal downtown. It was at the restaurant that we started to have our best conversations, safe, happy, and protected. 

This continued throughout the week: afternoon trips to Stanley Park, Granville Island, Queen Elizabeth Park, and a whole day reading through material at a restaurant overlooking the sea. It’s so lush here, and spring is kicking in, and I feel restored! I have three pages filled with ideas I want to implement when I return to Athens. It took leaving to have the space to think creatively and excitedly again.

 

We were assigned homework over the weekend, but we stayed up late Friday and got up early Saturday to finish. For what? The most introverted weekend ever. We stayed in our rooms until dinner, then ordered pizza and watched three episodes of Planet Earth. Just what I needed. 

I’m so glad I was able to come here. It’s inspiring to see an organization like ours, but decades old. They are well-organized and established, so crises are familiar and they aren’t hurrying around reacting to things all the time. I hope we can reach that point at HD…and soon!

Year 2 | A Week in THE UNITED STATES #14: Resting with Friends and Books

Last Sunday I flew back to the United States because my 90-day visa is up, and tomorrow, I fly to Vancouver for two weeks of work training.  That left me with six days of laziness, which were more needed than I realized.  It is so nice to take a brain break from work stress and living-in-another-country-stress.

I wonder if I’ll ever feel as comfortable in Greece as I do in the United States.  Everything is so much easier here – not just because the US values customer service, but because I know exactly where to go to get something I need, and I can read everything, and I know that if someone stops me with a problem, I can communicate well enough to fix it.  Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever be as comfortable in Greece as I am here, but I hope the reading and communication aspects will steadily get better.

It’s also nice to have an easy social circle.  I’ve had lunches and dinners and ice creams with friends and family.  I’ve run into people unexpectedly while doing other things.  Peoria is just a tiny bit smaller than Athens, so that is a thing that can happen here.

My first stop while home was to the library – both because they are former coworkers that I always enjoy seeing, and because of FREE BOOKS.  I took home an armful and read four of them in five days.  I was hoping for a solid one-a-day, but I also powered through the first season of Legends of Tomorrow, so the failure is acceptable.  I also watched Beauty and the Beast twice more in theaters.  It is such a joy to go to a theater that isn’t an hour away from my home.

Tomorrow is Easter, which means church and then lunch with my family.  In the late afternoon, I head back to the airport to go to Vancouver.  I expect that training will be pretty exhausting, but I’m hoping to counterbalance that with some Asian food and at least one hike in a forest.

Year 2| A Week in Greece #13: US TEAM, NEW BABY, MISSION MEETINGS

It’s my last week in Greece according to my 90-day visa, so I’m officially being kicked out of the EU tomorrow.  I’ll be in the States for a bit, then Vancouver for work training, then back in the States waiting for my 2-year visa to be approved!  I expected my last week here to be chaotic, finishing things up, but it is such a nice chaos when I know I am about to step away from the responsibility.

We had a US team visiting us this week at HD.  They connected really quickly with our girls, and it was so amazing to see the hugs and tears and contact exchanges being made at the end of the week.  Teams like this remind me of what I love best about my country:  an “of course we can find a solution” mentality that includes both optimism and hard work.

We ended our work week with another birth!  That’s the third baby born into our program since January, and we have a fourth baby that comes to the Day Program with her mother.  We’re expanding so quickly!  Every day we run into some new situation that we haven’t yet experienced.  It’s crazy to think it’s only been a year since we opened (April 15 is our first anniversary).  None of us thought we would be here in such a short time!  It is such a privilege to get to be a part of the beginning of an organization like HD and see how God grows it.

This week I also had two meetings with my mission organization.  The first was a big dinner on Monday, in which we ate together for the second time in two years and decided we should probably do it more often.  The second was a private coffee with my supervisor, and it was really nice to get to know him and feel like he wanted to get to know me.  I haven’t felt very connected to my mission organization, so these simple times together were so helpful for me.

Oh!  Both of my roommates moved out this week!  Yikes, it’s a sign of how busy things are that I forgot to mention that until now.  It would be sadder if I weren’t leaving myself for a month+, but as it is, it kind of made it easier to pack because I could use the washing machine as often as I needed.

On Thursday, my HD coworkers went out to eat to say goodbye and to toast to a “5 year visa,” and we wound up sharing our love languages and laughing at mixed signals.  Today I dropped Hans Harrison off at the house of one of our HD volunteers.  It was a nightmare getting him into his carrier, but when I let him out at her place, he wandered straight out and went around to everyone for pets!  It made it so much easier to leave him knowing that he was already lounging comfortably.

Then I went out for coffee with my 2nd Church friends.  They all live in the city center, so I used my “I’m leaving” pull to get them to come to my area of Athens.  One of them unexpectedly lent me three seasons of Three Musketeers, so now I know how I’m going to use my free time!  Luciana is going to come over in a bit, maybe to start in on the series, and then it’s off to bed…and an early start for my flight tomorrow!

Year 2 | A Week in Greece #12: BABIES and WEEKEND DAY TRIPS

Last weekend, one of our women at HD gave birth to a baby boy.  I went to visit them on Tuesday morning with one of our volunteers, and mostly I sat around asking questions like, “Is it weird to think that he used to live inside you?” while the volunteer did actually helpful things like help her breastfeed and tell funny stories of how she’d messed up as a mother.

Another weird workday occurred on Thursday, when a coworker took me to the police station to get fingerprinted.  No, I am not (yet) a Greek felon!  This was the last step toward getting all the paperwork necessary to apply for a volunteer visa when I return to the States next week.

I also did all the case plans and monthly reports and prepared my replacement with as much information and pre-done work as possible.  (12 Steps conversation:  “Man, I put so much value in my competency that I’m working super hard to make sure I leave my replacement well prepared!”  “Yes, but…that is your job.  You should definitely be doing that.”  “Oh, right.”)  The upside of being a good planner is that I think I’ve got things pretty much settled at work, and I can spend this next week just enjoying things.

Speaking of enjoying things…Luciana’s old roommate Mark visited her from Northern Ireland, and she invited me to join them on a weekend extravaganza of day trips.  We went to Mycenae (founded by Perseus, formerly ruled by the Agamemnon that led the war against Troy) and wandered ancient ruins.  There was a museum at the site that held the Mask of Agamemnon, an art history staple that I have seen in many a textbook, and now also with my own eyeballs!

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We drove a bit further to Nafplio.  I accidentally told them that you could either drive to the fortress overlooking the cute town OR walk 857 steps to the top, and once she knew there was an athletic option, Luciana refused to do anything else.  Knowing we were the weak links, Mark and I started walking up while Luciana and Giorgos ran ten minutes to the car and back to drop off our coats, and they STILL caught up with us when we were only halfway up the stairs.  When we got to the top, we discovered that it cost €8 to enter the fortress, so we just walked right back down those 857 steps.  We then walked along the waterfront, so by the time we reached a taverna, we totally earned the right to gorge ourselves on cheese, mushrooms, turkey burgers, chicken, salad, and wine.

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We drove back late, so everyone slept in on Sunday.  Giorgos had to work, which is a tragedy because it was a BEAUTIFUL day.  Luciana took us to Porto Rafti, a seaside town just outside of Athens near the airport.  The water was clear, the sky was so blue, and we bought drinks from a kiosk and sat on rocks jutting out into the sea.  We left one good thing for another when Luciana drove us up a mountain to a newly constructed castle that serves the BEST desserts and overlooks an absolutely stunning view of the Aegean.  I went to the bathroom and walked back out to the porch where we were sitting and had to catch my breathe because I’d forgotten just how amazing our view was.

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It was the sort of day that you imagine life in Greece must be like all the time.  I hope by this time (year 2, week 12), you realize that that is not the case.  But holy cow, do days like these make the culture shock and language learning feel worth it.