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Another Blogger Goes to Santorini

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Another Blogger Goes to SantoriniI did my research before I left, so I know this to be true: Every travel blogger who has ever graced this fine Internet has written a post on Santorini, Greece. I’m not adding any new information here, but Santorini is just the sort of place that you need to sing about. I may never get there again. I hope you might. So thank you in advance for allowing me to add another few sprinkles onto the giant chocolate fudge sundae that is Santorini blogging.

My two college girlfriends and I – representing Cologne, Germany, Portland, Oregon, and Sydney, Australia – met in Athens, where we spent a day and a half seeing the Acropolis, connecting with our theatre roots at the Theatre of Dionysus, eating all the feta, and drinking all the wine (and water because, oh my god, it was so hot). We rose early to take the ferry to Santorini. We’d agreed on the ferry there and flight back to Athens on the other end of the trip, which I think was the perfect arrangement, as we got to enjoy being on the water, seeing some of the islands, and gasping at the first views of Santorini as we entered the ferry wharf. But, at nearly 7 hours of sea travel, I’m glad we didn’t have to do it both ways.

We took the Blue Star Ferries, which I’d recommend. The boat is huge, so you don’t get much in the way of turbulence from the water (though, it was a nice and clear day when we went). The seats were comfortable – we sprang an extra 5 euros for assigned seats – and the boarding was seamless. There is food on board, but it’s not amazing, so bring a lunch, if you can (or fill your face with a giant donut and coffee, as we did – also an option). 

The view coming into Santorini from the ferry was the best introduction. I’d always thought of the island in terms of all the white buildings, but it never crossed my mind that they’re actually up so high, and that the landscape is quite brown. The first view of Santorini looked like this:

 

We were picked up from the ferry wharf with some other travelers. It was about a 30 minute drive to Oia, where we were staying. This giant van twisted and turned uphill and around corners, hugging the cliff side, and though I’m a pretty hearty traveler, this drive – I’m sure coupled with the fact that we hadn’t really eaten in ages and that it was stifling hot – really got the better of me. It was a huge relief when we tumbled out into the fresh air to meet our “guy,” the delightful, feisty Bulgarian porter who would shepherd us and keep us laughing for the rest of the week.

He grabbed our bags and started at roadrunner speed down the narrow and slick laneways of Oia (pronounced ee-uh, by the way). We’d taken a cave house villa, and we could immediately see we had a challenge ahead of us, as our porter unlocked our gate and bolted down, without slowing speed, two flights of narrow, uneven stairs that led us to home. “Go slowly!,” he warned us – not that we needed to be told, “I’m used to this!” We were not, and it took a little doing.

It turned out our villa was divided into 3 different buildings with an adjoining courtyard. There were beds stuck in every crevice, as it technically slept 10, so we all had our choice of beds. None of us went for the loft beds, but I’ll bet if we’d had any kids with us, they would have been fighting for the rights. It was definitely not a 5 Star hotel, but here’s the thing that we’d been dreaming about since we settled on this place. The big balcony with this view. This view was all that mattered, and we’d watch it over late night noshes and bottles of wine and first light in the morning where we’d linger over our homemade breakfast for a couple of hours before starting our day. This balcony was our Santorini.

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And below…

The funny thing was that our view was quite the popular one, and so at all hours, we had tourists just above our heads snapping shots of the vista, most of them never even realizing that they were about four steps away from being our breakfast guests (scratch that … actually, two very awkward flights of stairs away). We also had a whole compliment of brides taking wedding photos up there. Here’s something I haven’t read in any of the travel blogs – there’s a booming wedding industry in Santorini, which looked to cater primarily to brides from Asia. We must have seen 50 brides in their wedding dresses during our 4 days in Santorini.

Good morning! Can we offer you some toast?

On our first full day in Santorini, we agreed on treking down the 200 stairs to Ammoudi Bay and the small black rock beach. The stairs were, as promised, covered in donkey poo from the donkeys that tourists can hire to haul them up and down (don’t ride the donkeys. It’s kind of a jerk move).

We’d had our heart set on eating dinner at Dimitri’s, which is meant to have the best sunset views, and the proprietor of our hotel told us to put our name down a few hours ahead of time, as they don’t take reservations further ahead. But, they were booked for sunset by the time we got there, so we reserved a seat at the nearby Taverna Katina, whose views were not discernibly less spectacular than Dimitri’s, and by the way, had the most attractive wait staff I have ever seen in my life, not that that matters very much.

Reservations secured, we took the sometimes treacherous path to the small black rock beach, which I think is the only beach you can reach from Oia. It’s not pretty, and it was fairly full of fellow tourists, but taking a dip in this water was heaven. Across the way, there’s a large cliff that’s popular for jumping off. If you’re 20. And don’t have a small child at home. But, we got a lot of entertainment watching the antics of the jumpers. There was one poor girl who was on top of the rock for nearly an hour, working up her bravery, and receiving coaching from a steady stream of helpful gents. It became quite the saga on our side of the bay, as almost everyone had turned their attention to her after half an hour or so. When she finally jumped, the whole beach let up a collective cheer.

And then there were the American frat boy-types who took turns filming each other as they did increasingly ridiculous poses as they jumped. They coined one of our favorite quips from the trip – “Go Pro, Bro!” You know the “Go Pro, Bro” type. I know you do. Back in Ammoudi Bay in the late afternoon, we ended up grabbing appetizers and drinks at Dimitri’s and having a chat with fellow-Yank abroad, the owner, Joy. I highly recommend the local Red Donkey beer, if you make to Santorini. Then, we snapped a few photos before grabbing our front row sunset seat for dinner at Katina’s. At Katina’s the (beautiful) waiters ask you to pick your own fish from the kitchen, and they cheerily helped us choose a red snapper that we could share amongst ourselves.

This was the best meal of the trip. They didn’t do anything fancy to the fish – just grilled with some lemon – but it was perfect. Just like the view.

The one with the orange chairs is Katina’s

The next day we had a sunset catamaran cruise. We went with Sunset Oia, which I’m happy to recommend. A van picked us up to take us down to Ammoudi Bay, and the trip down was the best adventure, as the vans apparently need to go into port backwards, so the van driver just turned that huge rig around at the top of the hill and went careening backwards the whole way, as if it was nothing (which is probably wasn’t to him). We were in hysterics, laughing the whole way, and joking that this was a real “Go Pro, Bro” moment.

Once on board the boat, we hustled to the front of the catamaran as soon as we were allowed, and our side of the boat was apparently the American tourist (plus one German friend) magnet. We had a lot of fun joking with the two other American couples next to us, especially once the complimentary white wine started flowing freely.

We had three stops for swimming off the boat, which was complete bliss. The first stop was a hot springs next to an island apparently inhabited by one man and a couple of mountain goats. The second was at the beautiful White Beach, and then finally a stop for snorkeling. The marine life wasn’t much to see, but it was still a good time.

After snorkeling, the highly trained and friendly (gorgeous) staff prepared a BBQ lunch with plenty of Greek sides and salads. It all tasted like perfection after a day of swimming. We got brave and followed lunch with a shot of ouzo, as we began sailing back. That Greek custom done, we never need to do it again.

We were fortunate to have a glowing Santorini sunset on the way back. It may have evoked actual tears from at least one member of our party. Santorini sunset with two of your oldest, dearest friends, all happily high on white wine, ouzo, saltwater, and laughter. I’m not using cliche when I suggest that life actually does not get better than those few moments.

We returned to the villa after our long day out to find a smidge of a problem … the power had gone out. Our lovely property manager felt awful and sent someone out to poke around and try to fix it, which he did long enough for us to get in quick showers and check the our respective Internets, before it went out again. Then, she sent over candles to get us through the night. It was an annoyance, but also an excuse to sleep with the doors open and enjoy, well… the sounds of partying Australian tourists right above us … And then at some point a peaceful calm and sea breeze.

The next day, we had to pack our bags, as we were scheduled to move houses for the last night, anyway. It was a good thing because the power hadn’t come back on, and when our favorite porter came over to check it out ahead of the electrician, he poked around for awhile, and then we heard him muttering, “Big problem. In the wall. Nice house. Big problem.” We loved it.

Breakfast was also a big problem, since we couldn’t brew coffee, heat water, or make toast, so we ventured out. Not much was open for breakfast, but we found a cafe that had a placard out advertising, among other things, “Breakfast.” We ordered coffees, then asked about breakfast. The waitress just lightly shook her head and said, “no.”

Mmmkay. Guess not!

German friend and I were off on a hike, so decided to find breakfast in Fira, and left Portland friend to manage her own morning. We hopped on the bus, which arrived about 15 minutes later than scheduled, and stopped for gas at the station along the way. Otherwise, an easy trip from Oia to Fira. We had our choice of restaurants in Fira, and picked a nearly deserted one with a table by the window and this view.

Our timing was impeccable, as about 10 minutes after we sat down, the entire restaurant was chockablock with tourists just departed from a cruise ship. We were quite pleased with our prime real estate, protien-rich breakfast, and Freddo coffee.

Freddo coffee! I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned it until now. That cold and creamy concoction that I ordered at every turn. Since this trip, I’ve taken the liberty of ranking Greek inventions in order of greatness:

  1. Democracy
  2. Theatre
  3. Olympics
  4. Freddo Coffee

I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled here, as I’ve noticed there are a few cafes around Sydney that serve them, as well.

Suitably fed, coffee-ed, and plenty of water on hand, we set off for the walk from Fira to Oia. We’d read that it was about 3 hours, but it took us more like 3 and a half – maybe because I kept stopping for photos, and I’m sure nothing at all to do with either of our fitness level. All the guide books and blogs say it’s an “easy” hike, but, I’m going to tell you the truth. It’s probably easy if you’re a serious hiker, but if you’re an occasional day hiker like me, there are some challenging parts to it. For the first hour, you’re walking through towns, and that’s easy, but there are significant uphill and gravelly portions. And, there’s even a small section where you’re literally walking on the main road. So, listen, DO IT! It’s so good. But, wear great shoes, a hat and pack plenty of water, especially if you do it on a warm day like we did.

We huffed, puffed, chatted and saw all of these sights:

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Great reminder of the fact that Santorini actually has a desert landscape.

When we got back to our electricity-challenged abode, it was time to move villas. The good thing about the arrangement we’d agreed on was that we had three nights in the villa with the stunning caldera view, and we’d spend our last night in a cave house with a sunset view. Our favorite porter came to collect us, and settle us in. He also passed along a note from the proprietor with a refund for the previous day, as well as instructions that she’d moved us into a bigger and nicer house than the one we’d been scheduled for, plus left some groceries for the morning, as a way of making up for the electricity “big problem.” It was much more than enough, and certainly speaks to the famed Greek hospitality.

After one last afternoon ice cream run (we were committed to daily ice cream, and I favored a fig and ricotta variety), we settled ourselves onto the balcony with our final bottle of white wine. A number of Santorini cats joined us for the sunset, and we had a clear view of the ruins where hordes of tourist flock every night for the big show. We were in perfect comfort together on our perch, and were afforded one more brilliant end to a Santorini day.

Today in Eastern Europe

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My little clan spent most of September in Belgrade, Serbia. It was a fantastic trip. We had great quality time with family. We ate so much rich and delicious food that we nearly burst. Hushpuppy had the time of her life on the plentiful playgrounds and play centers. It was super.

I can’t, however, deny that there were a few little cultural differences. As a way of noting some of the more interesting ones, and touching base with home, I started writing a travel update for some of my online mum friends called “Today in Eastern Europe.” They’re meant to be a bit of fun, so, I thought I’d share some of them, and a few others here.

Eastern Europe … just a little different from home.


 

Serbian Grandmothers

On the bus from the plane to the terminal, my shy toddler has already been offered a seat on a grandmotherly type’s lap and been quite literally pinched on the cheek. We haven’t even cleared customs, and she’s in culture shock. I think someone may knit her a sweater by day’s end.


 

Lunch

The waiter informed us that that the long breaded pork thing in the back is colloquially referred to as “Girl’s Dream.”

today in eastern europe2

Right. “More like Guy’s Dream,” I said.


 

Russian Out to Get One

Get Your Vladimir Putin T-shirts here! Today in Eastern Europe1

It was either Putin or Novak Djokovic. Gah! Why didn’t I get one of those Djokovic ones? Mistakes were made.


 

Ugly Meat

 We drove an hour and a half to Northern Serbia to have lunch with my husband’s extended family. Relatives kept appearing all afternoon – around 35 in total. One particularly boisterous and heavily bearded cousin heartily shook my hand and raised a toast to welcome me to the family (we’ve been married five years).

The best part was that they had an amazing garden, and my city slicker kid basically picked her entire lunch of peppers, tomatoes, walnuts, figs, and grapes. The most embarrassing part was when, after the soup course at lunch, the head of the household auntie, who was sitting next to me, presents to me a bowl of mystery meat. “This is ugly meat, but I like it,” she says. Then , she offers me some. Not wanting to be rude, I accept, and she scoops some into my bowl, along with a stewed carrot. It’s then that I realize that it’s chicken innards from the broth. The bowl gets passed around the table, and every other guest declines, in turn. They all then to proceed to watch me intently as I slowly eat my stewed carrot and poke dubiously at the gelatinous blob in my bowl. I’d been sternly warned before we arrived that it’s extremely rude to not eat everything on your plate. I don’t know what my move here is.

After 10 minutes, the aunt finally puts me out of my misery by clearing my bowl away. Next time, I think I’ll take my kid’s lead and just eat things I’ve picked from a vine myself.


 

False Alarm

It must be 20 years since I’ve seen cigarettes sold at every cash register. Smoking in restaurants (and pretty much everywhere else) is totally normal. We were visiting friends, and someone was smoking. Hushpuppy kept saying “Fire! Mama, fire!” I realized that we don’t have any friends who smoke, and she’s never seen it before. today in eastern europe4


 

Journalism

Just now at the local bakery for breakfast, husband picks up one of the major Belgrade papers. Leafing through – news, news, news, and then … boom … 1/8 of the lower left corner page is a full color picture of a buxom blonde with her most generously endowed breasts on full display.

“Waaaah!” I say.

“Oh, that’s normal. They do that here,” he responds.

“Because why? What’s the ‘story’?”

“Let’s see. The story above it is about the Greek government. The caption over the girl’s picture says ‘I support the Coalition, too!'”

“… … … Seriously?”

“Yeah. That’s more context than they usually give. Usually it just says, ‘Enjoy this picture.'”

Gobsmacked.

 


Carbs Need Not Apply
Breakfast. Send “Paleo Pete” Evans here – the Serbs never met a protein they didn’t like. I’m at the point in the trip where I’m about to start moo-ing.
today in eastern europe3

P.S. I do quite like my egg’s hat.


The Dentist

My husband decided he was going to get his teeth cleaned because it was going to cost something like $18 here, and someone recommended a dentist to him. He asked me if I wanted to get mine done, too. I asked him if the dentist would speak English, and he said, “oh, sure, of course” so I agreed.


So, we get there, and there’s no waiting room or receptionist, just the dentist and her office. Of course, she doesn’t speak a word of English. But, she’s lovely, so I don’t run. Husband gets his done, and I sit in the corner listening to all the whirring and grinding dental noises, and I’m getting increasingly queasy in my hot corner where the air from the one open window does not reach. 
Then, it’s my turn, and I really did think about saying thanks anyway, but got my bravery on and went for it. She looks around my teeth, and then she yells a monologue in Serbian back to my husband. Oh no, no, no. I’m thinking – “am I going to have a root canal right here in this office?”

He then translates: “She says your teeth are perfect. It’s been a long time since she’s seen teeth that good. She can’t believe it. She hopes our daughter has inherited your teeth. She says there’s hardly anything to clean.”
Let me tell you, my teeth are nothing special. I haven’t flossed in months. I think I’m going to get my teeth cleaned by Serbian dentists from now on. What an ego boost!


Cheese Pastries

I could have eaten cheese pastries every single day. I practically did. On the last day, I tell my husband, “I really admire your country’s ability to wrap cheese inside warm dough in so many different ways.” today in eastern europe 5


Looking forward to our next trip back where I’ll explore more adventures in cheese pastries and meat, which ought to happen around the time I’m due for my next dental cleaning. Don’t forget to send me your sizes for your Putin T-shirt orders.

I Left My Toddler For a Week: A Report From the Tale We All Lived to Tell

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We couldn’t believe we were actually making this happen, but my two girlfriends and I booked tickets from three different continents and promised to see each other in Greece. Prior to this, my precious bundle of two and a half year old joy had never before been out of her doting mother’s care for the entirety of one night, never mind one full week; so though I was excited about the prospect of my girlfriends-only trip away, as departure day crept closer, so did a niggling sense of gloom.

I have one hell of a capable husband, so despite asking for photos everyday so that I could giggle about what outfit he’d styled her in, I actually wasn’t concerned about either of their well being. Plus, we were visiting his family in Europe, so I was escorted away by in-laws with promises that his clan would be there to help with the entertaining, care of, and feeding (definitely feeding) of both of them.

Still, the day before I left, I was a pile of sadness, just observing every molecule of her face and little hands, taking in every gorgeous toddler mannerism, and wondering if she’d still be doing those when I got back. Earlier, we’d taken to the Internet for advice on whether we should set up Skype dates, to which the Internet resoundingly responded that it would not be a good idea for a child her age who cannot understand the complexities of “Mom is in the computer”. (P.S. – don’t ever Google “should I go on vacation without my child,” if you are really thinking of doing such a thing, unless you want to feel like a heartless, self-involved, child-eating monster). When the time finally came, and Partner-in-Crime executed the crafty move of taking her to the grocery store with little fanfare, ahead of my airport ride arriving, I tried to hide my guilt-ridden tears as I asked for a hug, and she chirped “Bye, Mama,” and walked out the door.

My logical mind knew all the reasons I should go:

  1. A week really isn’t that long.
  2. It’s healthy for Mom to have a break.
  3. It’s good for Dad and his family to have some bonding time with her, and vice versa.
  4. Dad took 3 weeks away when she was under a year. And I solo-parented for 6 weeks while in the States. My turn.
  5. All the sleeping in.
  6. My girlfriends from college and I have been dreaming of doing this trip together for years. Don’t mess this up, emotional mind!

So, logical brain leading the charge, and a pack of tissues on hand, I boarded the plane. I took out a book. Like, an actual book. And, I read an actual book for the next two hours. I felt like an impostor, and kind of wanted to hit the Serbian lady next to me on the arm and say, “get a load of this scene!!,” but I kept my quiet secret of being a toddler mother with uninterrupted reading time to myself. Then, I met my friend at the airport, we figured out the Athens train, found our hotel, ate a long and huge lunch, swam in the hotel pool, drank some wine, met our other friend, ate dinner at 11p.m. (!), laughed a lot, and went to sleep until we woke up. And then repeated some version of that for the rest of the week in Athens and Santorini.

It was OK.

No, seriously, it was a lot more than OK. It was so special.

It was this:

And it was this.

It was these and a million other images that are forever fixed in my memory. But, it was also more than that.

It was being with two people who have known me for 20 years. It was sitting with them and all the white wine, and talking about the deepest places inside and laughing until we didn’t have any more talk left until the morning and our sides ached. It was being the only mother in the trio, and hence, talking about a lot of things other than children, and sometimes children, too.

It was making brave decisions for myself. It was about doing things on my own and finding that person who used to be so much more bold and unafraid. It was a 4 hour hike. It was leaving my friends at the pool and jumping back on the Athens tour bus myself because that’s what I wanted. It was sitting at the very front of the catamaran. It was buying a souvenir just for myself. It was a second bottle of wine.

When I booked this vacation, I knew I craved sleep and that I really wanted to go to the bathroom alone. What I didn’t realize was that I needed to know me-by-myself. I don’t mean me-before-motherhood, but rather finding this new version of myself as a solo traveler. My daughter was always with me in mind, of course, but this new person springing from the Aegean was a completely formed person unto myself, much like the one I was before this magical creature entered my life, but now shaped by her appearance, as well. Whole unto myself. Better for the people who walk with me.

Meanwhile, at home, Partner-in-Crime’s entire family was struck down with illness, and so the promised help didn’t really materialize, and he had to go it alone, But, he did. Of course he did. He’s a great Dad. He sent daily reports, and I did get teary mid-week when he said our girl told him she’d “lost her Mama bird.” Apparently, she decided I’d gone to the store, and could recite a list of things I was purchasing there. He continually assured her I’d be home soon.

I was imagining a blissful, cinematic reunion upon my return. But, in the interest of honesty, I’ll disclose that it wasn’t that. My girl looked at me like a stranger for a moment, then started rambling about the granola bar she was eating (toddlers, am I right?). She looked somehow different to me, as well. It was clear for the next couple of days that she wasn’t entirely pleased with me. And, Dada (who became “Daddy” in my absence) has claimed the title of “favorite parent.” I don’t think the impact is long-lasting. And, frankly, it can be exhausting being the favorite, so I’m mostly happy for “Daddy” to take the title for a bit. She still needs Mama snuggles.

I’d do it all again in a heartbeat – including, I’m certain – the guilty and tearful goodbye. We survived, all of us. We’re all fine. And, I found a part of me at the bottom of that second bottle after another glorious sunset, a part of me that is proudly my own.

The Time We Met a Real Live Princess

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My husband doesn’t get giddy very often, but that’s what he was when he talked about the tour of the Serbian Royal Palace he’d booked us into. Apparently, it’s just in recent months that the Royal Palace has been open for tours, and while Serbian language tours are conducted in large groups, we (Partner-in-Crime, Hushpuppy, my German friend V, and myself) were scheduled for a private tour, as there aren’t quite so many requests for English speaking tours. Partner-in-Crime is a bit of a history buff, and has a few distant family connections, so the chance to see this place for the first time was like candy for him.

The Serbian Royal family has a complicated history that I’m not going to try to explain here (mostly because I don’t entirely understand it, myself), but the main thing to know is that the current dynasty left Serbia at the onset at WWII and lived abroad for the next 50+ years; though – I like this story – the current Crown Prince Alexander was born in a hotel room in London that Winston Churchill declared Yugoslav territory, so he was technically born in Yugoslavia. Crown Prince Alexander and his wife Crown Princess Katherine came to Belgrade for the first time in 1991. There is currently a big dispute about returning the palaces and compound to the Royal family (their private property), as they were seized by the government in 1947.

Our tour guide, who works at the Palace, was a beautiful and bright young woman with an art history background. She told us we’d see the White Palace, the Royal Palace, and the Royal Chapel. Photography inside the buildings was not allowed, but the Royal Photographer (I know, right?) went along with us and took photos of us at our request.  Oh, and she mentioned that when we visited the Royal Palace, that Princess Katherine would try to say hello.

Uh, seriously?
First thought: “WHY didn’t I wash my hair for this?!?”

The palaces were, as you would expect, gorgeous and ornate. I won’t show you any of our indoor photos, as my husband will divorce me if I put his picture on the Internet, but pop over to the website for a look at some of the spectacle, particularly the wonderful art collection. No doubt, the best room in the palace is the basement. Our guide told us that the designers were both Russian, and were given full freedom on this space. The result is a lush, wildly ornate, mostly red and gold, Russian dream (really – here’s the Palace gallery, you should see it). And, I’d be remiss to mention the pool table right in the middle – the Prince has got to put his pool table somewhere!

In one of the beautiful main rooms, we were offered refreshments – water, juice, and chocolates especially made for the Palace. Hushpuppy loved this part of the tour, but was dismayed we’d only allow her one piece of chocolate (it was really good).

In the next room, as promised, we were asked to wait for Her Royal Highness. We were all a little agog. I was anxious about my toddler’s behaviour, but the staff all assured us that the Princess loves children.

A couple of minutes later, from an office, emerged the petite, gorgeous, and graceful Princess Katherine. She warmly greeted all of us, apologized that her husband (you know, the Prince) was travelling, and seemed to know a bit about us, at least where we were from. We tried to coax Hushpuppy into saying hello, but she was shy and turned away, getting more nervous the more we prompted her. The Princess, in true form of someone who actually does love and understand children, said to give her space, that she’d come around in her own time. And then, when Hushpuppy got a little squirmy, she assured us it was fine to put her down and let her wander, that the staff would keep an eye on her and, besides, she wasn’t tall enough to reach anything breakable (spoken like a mother!).

Hushpuppy, I should mention, kept a hawk’s eye on the chocolate plate next door the whole time. Princess-schmincess!

Princess Katherine must have spoken to us for 15 minutes, asking about us, and telling us about their foundations, as well as their problems with reclaiming the royal property from the government. She was particularly interested in sharing her work with children, as her foundation focuses on helping Serbian youth. She told us that they’d helped purchase equipment for the maternity hospitals because Serbia had, at one point, had one of the worst infant mortality rates in the world. She told us about an annual event where the student with the best grades at each school (600 in all) gets to come to the Palace with a parent or caregiver to receive special recognition. And, she talked about their work with orphans, recounting a story about their annual Easter egg hunt for Serbian orphans. One year, she told us, an 8 year old boy and 6 year old girl found each other – a brother and sister who had been separated by the war. Oh, my heart. I started crying. V started crying. The Princess started crying. (Hushpuppy just wanted more chocolate).

At one point, Hushpuppy was getting a little restless, and the Princess (in such regal fashion) gestured oh-so-gracefully to one of her staff members, who dashed off and returned with a small toy to occupy her. Here’s the beautiful Princess Katherine with my precious daughter (who I’m so happy I decided to put in a dress!). IMG_8457

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Princess Katherine said that sometimes children come to the Palace and ask where her crown is, if she really is a princess. She said that she tells them, “my crown is in my heart.” I do believe it is.

 

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Because They Are Parents – On the Refugees We Met In Belgrade

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refugeesMy little daughter, my husband and I were jet-lagged after 24 hours of travel when we walked to a neighborhood park in Belgrade, Serbia. There was only one other family there – a boy of about 8 or 9, a young man – presumably his father – and two women. “They’re refugees,” my husband told me. He knew I’d been thinking a lot about the Syrian refugee crisis in the days before we traveled, and I thought we’d probably see some refugees in the city, as well as in Athens, Greece where I was travelling next, but for some reason I had an idea we’d pass groups of them in a public square or train station. It hadn’t occurred to me that we’d be with them in the playground, though I don’t know why. Children don’t stop playing.

Though we’d landed not long before, we’d already heard a few opinions on the refugees, thousands of whom were currently residing in or had passed through Serbia, along with a number of other European countries. Some residents were welcoming. Some expressed concerns that Serbia is already a financially struggling nation, and the weight of the refugees would be too much of a burden on the country. I heard how the refugees seemed to be doing OK – “they all have smart phones.” Serbia is a struggling nation. This crisis is and will be a serious challenge to it. It’s also a nation that, my husband tells me, has a culture of welcoming refugees, particularly given their history. It’s complex, and it’s difficult for everyone.

I would take my smartphone if I were leaving home, too.

The father in the park did have a phone, and he was slumped over looking at it, while the women sat quietly on a bench. The child seemed to be bounding with that particularly fierce energy of young boys, but he was sheepish and sulked away when we came near a swing he was playing on. There were chalk drawings all over the concrete of the playground, and we started talking to Hushpuppy about them – “what animal is this?” “Yes, a whale!” “Is this a flower?” She was taken with them and rushed around, looking at one drawing after another.

One of the women, she was graceful, about 30, clad in a cobalt blue dress and hijab, shyly approached Partner-in-Crime and handed him a piece of chalk, so that our girl could make some drawings of her own.

I came to Serbia with a lot of ideas about helping the refugees, and a lot of assumptions about how little they had. I did not expect my first encounter with a refugee family to be one in which they offered something to me. It was a modest exchange, and we returned the chalk after a few minutes with our thanks, but it was a quiet reminder that we are united as families just doing what we can for our children – and for others, if we’re able and take notice.

Two days later, my little family sat down at the courtyard of a local hotel for coffees and juices to start the day. Next door, in an open lot, sat about 35 or so refugees on mats and blankets. I noticed a woman walk up to them with a grocery bag of food and hand it to one of the men, who thanked her and went over to share it with a few in his smaller group. I asked Partner-in-Crime if we could bring some groceries over, as well. We bought a half dozen loaves of bread from the store next door and walked over to the field. We handed four of the loaves to the largest group – mostly young men in their 20s, but a little further away, I noticed a family sitting on their own. Huddled on one blanket, trying to get shade under a tree, were a father, a girl of about 5, and a mother tending to a baby no older than 7 months old. They were quiet and looked exhausted. We offered them the remaining two loaves of bread, a sweet pastry (we’d bought too many for our breakfast), and a toy car, the only extra children’s item I had in my bag. It wasn’t very much, but the father clasped his hands together and bowed his head in thanks.

I wish we’d known we’d meet this family and shopped better for them. They had almost nothing. I couldn’t get them out of my mind, and found myself with tears running down my face, as I thought of them hours later. It was such a hot day. They had maybe a bag’s worth of possessions. I remember how hard and relentless life was when Hushpuppy was that baby’s age, even though I had a home, food, clothing, and security. I don’t know their story, but I do know that whatever drove them from their home, to risk their lives in whatever manner it took for them to arrive in that field in Serbia, where they knew no one and and didn’t speak the language, must have been harrowing, beyond my imagination. They did that because they are parents, and parents do anything it takes to keep their children safe.

I packed a bag for them that afternoon – toys, baby wipes, food, water, toiletries – but the whole field was empty when we returned. I assume someone picked them all up to take them to the processing center. We drove by it yesterday, and saw where the city and aid groups are providing bottles of water, medical checks, and other assistance. We saw many, many refugees living in a sort-of tent city next to the train station. I noticed so, so many children.  A couple of Halal food stands have sprung up next door. Presumably, most of these refugees are in transit, hoping to get to one of the wealthier countries, but I don’t know how many of them have access to travel funds or anyone to welcome them if they do make it.

I am no expert on the financial, social, or political ramifications of this crisis, but from what I’ve seen, I can tell you that these are real people, like you and me, whose lives have been in peril and who have lost more than most of us will ever be able to understand. We’re driven, as human beings, to just keep going on. We keep hope, and that’s one of the most incredible things we all share. The absolute minimum that we can all extend towards them is the grace of human understanding, and the courtesy to not look away.