Mamma Mia On Crete

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Writing a book is like birthing a baby.   Except the labor has been over two years long.  There were moments I literally screamed, “I CAN’T DO THIS!” but it was there inside me demanding to be born.  And I knew that the labor would produce a happy ending.  A beautiful reflection of my soul.  Or at least I hope so.

Things are moving fast now and I’m “pushing” to the end of this project.  Manuscript edits are completed, as well as cover design and back cover text.

And I have a name picked out:

Uniquely Crete:  Life Redefined on a Greek Island.

Now the big push for book release this summer.  Then comes the hard work…announcing to the world that my baby is out there for everyone to see…and love.  Of course, I’m fully aware that not everyone will see my baby in the same glowing light as me.   But I don’t care.  I’m a proud (and exhausted) mama.

More to come on that later….

As I was writing this travel memoir I had so many flashbacks to my years of living on Crete and many opportunities to revisit this island both in my mind and in the flesh.

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On one of my recent visits back to Crete, I sat down with a friend who immigrated there from Zimbabwe when she was just 22 years old.

Meet Jeannie – a modern day Mamma Mia.  An entrepreneur with a flair for hospitality.

Jeannie always had a heart for the sea and dreamed of living by the water someday.  When she turned twenty-two, she packed up everything she owned, immigrated to Crete and started looking for a job in Hania. She cleaned hotels, waitressed, cooked and was a self-proclaimed “jack-of-all-trades.”

“I pride myself on being a very positive thinker.  I could be mopping floors and be thinking about new ideas for my next venture.”

She married a local Greek when she was twenty-four, but even when that ended in divorce, she stayed “because of the love of Crete, not a man.”

Never one to sit still, Jeannie took odd jobs, eventually landing in management positions at various resorts.  Her newest venture is managing and promoting the Clio resort hotel outside of Hania.

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When I lived on Crete, the Clio was a tired deserted-looking hotel in an absolutely stunning location.  I remember thinking, “This place just really needs some love.”  Jeannie thought the same thing.  Only she did something about it.  When the owner announced he was going to close down the Clio for good, Jeannie approached him and said, “Take a chance on me.”  (Cue music from Mamma Mia.)

Today, the Clio is a vibrant but quiet retreat with spotless rooms and view to die for.  There’s no better place to view the sunset.

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Jeannie’s secret to success?  “Believing! I focus my attention on what I want to do, see the  opportunity and take it.  I don’t hold back. I’m always looking forward, not back.  And when I hit a snag, I get through with prayer. I believe my difficulties are what make me strong and that I am a winner with God on my side.  My confidence comes from deep inside because I believe.”

Great advice for a writer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wander, Linger Savor Christmas

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I’ll come right out and say it…this is the hardest time of year to write a blog post about slowing down. I’ve already failed miserably at not “shoulding” on myself.

I should send out Christmas cards.

I should bake all those cookies.

I should have my shopping done.

I should have the tree decorated by now. (Oh wait, I don’t even have a tree yet.)

Guilt, self-criticism, failure, Bah Humbug!

Not exactly a good start for preparing my heart to soak in the true meaning of Christmas.

 

Imagine if God had a list of “shoulds” for that first Christmas.

I should’ve sent my son to a wealthy, firmly established Roman family instead of an unmarried, poor Jewish couple.

I should’ve waited until they got back from Bethlehem so they wouldn’t have to travel while she was pregnant.

I should’ve provided a cushy, comfortable room with qualified medical personnel to assist with the birth of my son.

I should’ve proclaimed the glorious news about the savior of the world to influential people that would immediately get the word out to other influential people…instead of the lowliest of humans – uneducated, unclean shepherds.

Point being…it wasn’t a Norman Rockwell perfect Christmas. But through the ages, painters, sculptors, retailers, and even churches have tried to glamorize a very messy, scary, confusing event that changed the history of the world. The Light of the World arrived on earth and for those who recognized Him, they would never be the same.

God had no shoulds. His timing and execution were perfect. And once again I’m reminded that He is God, and I am not. Perfection is His alone.

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Winter morning in Evergreen Colorado

This year I’m not aiming for the perfect Christmas – that was already done 2000 years ago. This year I’m looking for ways to:

Wander through a pine forest knee deep in snow instead of neck deep in chores.

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Linger over a few precious words about the first Christmas instead of trying to come up with the perfect Christmas sentiment in my own cards.IMG_3253

Savor a cup of coffee with a friend in need instead of shopping for things nobody needs.DSC_0036

My tree is up and lit but I don’t know if I’ll get around to actually putting ornaments on this year. And that’s ok. Because all those details pale and seem unimportant when the lights go on.

May the Light of the World illuminate your days with Love, your nights with Peace and your life with Hope.

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Quiet Christmas Day on Crete

 

 

 

 

 

Savor Autumn

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Nature’s Decoration

I walked into our local Home Depot yesterday and was immediately accosted by a forest of pre-lit Christmas trees and animated Santa figures.  For a fleeting moment I panicked thinking , “Wow!  I haven’t finished (or even started ) my Christmas shopping.”  I felt strangely off balance, like I’d been whisked ahead into December.  For a split second I couldn’t remember the day, or the month.  Stopping in my tracks to pull myself together and check my calendar, I realized it was October 20th.  Not even Halloween yet.  My first response was relief.  Then aggravation.  Then outright indignation.

In an effort to get a jump on preparing for a future holiday, we many times miss the beauty of lingering in the present.  And presently, it is a sunny and crisp day in the Colorado mountains.  A few yellow aspens leaves cling with their last strength to the trees in front of the house and they shimmer in the breeze.  Today I will bake apple cake (see recipe below) and decorate the house with pumpkins and pressed leaves of yellow, orange and red.   I vow to not put up Christmas decorations until after Dec 1.  And I savor these moments even longer, by lingering over some of my favorite Autumn photos from near and far travels.

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Colorado Gold

APPLE CAKE WITH CRISP TOPPING

Cake Ingredients:
2 eggs
1 ½ C sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ C oil
6 medium Gala, Fuji or Honey Crisp apples
¾ C chopped walnuts or pecans
2 C flour
2 teaspoons baking powder

Crisp Topping Ingredients:
2/3 C rolled oats
2/3 C packed brown sugar
2/3 C flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ C (1 stick) chilled butter

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350. In a large bowl, mix the eggs, sugar, cinnamon and oil. Peel and slice the apples and add to mixture in bowl (coating as you go to keep apples from turning brown.) Mix together baking powder and flour and add to the ingredients in the bowl. Mix well until all of the flour is absorbed by the wet ingredients. Pour mixture into a greased 9×13” pan.

For topping:

Combine first four ingredients and cut in butter till coarsely mixed. Sprinkle over cake.

Bake for approximately 55 minutes.

Three things I love about Crete

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Gazing out of the clouded airplane window, I absentmindedly take note of the expansive blue beneath me, We are flying over the Mediterranean Sea in route to the island of Crete. A German voice over the intercom jolts me out of my daydreaming and soon the english translation follows. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are beginning our descent into Crete. Please keep put your seat backs in the upright position…”. I tune out the rest and crane my neck around to catch the first glimpse of the island that was my home for five years. The Rodoupou peninsula comes into view in the hazy distance, and then closer I recognize the shape of the small island nicknamed “Kri-Kri Island”, sanctuary of the wild and elusive kri-kri goats of Crete. Tucked into a cove and out of view is the historic and picturesque Venetian port of Chania. But my favorite sight, the one that causes my heart to jump and my eyes to mist over is the foreboding cliffs of Stavros. How many centuries, millennium have those cliffs blazed red in the setting sun and been the inspiration for ancient and modern poets alike? Have they changed at all since the Minoans first called this island home? I doubt it. A sigh escapes my lips and something deep and spiritual, like warm honey, sweet and warm, flows into my soul.

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Even as I read these words, they sound a bit superfulous, yet still not enough to describe my feelings when I see Crete. All the chaos, confusion, and ugly realities of this crazy place give way to the the beauty and magic of the feeling that I’ve somehow come “home.” After living here for many years, I had become quite enmeshed in the fabric of the community, or at least, the community had oozed into the fabric of my being. What is it about this island that has such a hold on me that I spout adjectives in volumes greater than delicacies at a Greek wedding feast? Simply put, it is the simplicity of life that Crete embodies and embraces and clings to, while the rest of the world works itself into a frantic state of animosity and ambiguity. More specifically, it is three things that keep me coming back.

The Sea
I’ve often described the Cretan Sea as liquid silk. On a hot sultry summer day, it looks almost oily as it shimmers in changing shades of blue, green and gold. Some days it can be as still as lake water in the early morning hours. On other days, it’s as restless and unpredictable as a hormonal teenager. But on all days, it defines beauty.1000FC1A-ABCD-4E51-927A-952C97204AB3

The Food
Simple and fresh. No annoying gravies covering an indescript pile of meat and potatoes. If you’re English or German your mouth may be watering for this type of cuisine (which is a significant improvement on processed American food as a whole.) But for this girl, I love a tomato that tastes like the color red, and olive oil that tastes like Greek sunshine. It’s the kind of food that demands savoring. There are cultures (namely mine) that see food primarily as fuel. Then there are the cultures that see food primarily as an inspiration for social gatherings. The Greeks have mastered this activity, engaging in generous meals that last for hours, or as long as it takes until the storytelling and laughter subside. As long as the wine keeps flowing and the food keeps appearing, there is no end in sight. And why would you want it to end when the food and the fellowship rival each other for best memory makers ever.4211673C-7D61-46E2-906B-73F10AFF1192

The People

I love the Greek people – they are so blatantly proud, generous and determined. Everything has significance, nothing is by chance. As a result, what seems like superstitious nonsense to us has a traditional, time honored “truth” to them. A draft can kill you (that explains why most Greek establishments are devoid of any air movement.) If you talk about death, it is a bad omen (spit, spit to keep the evil eye away.) The wild herbs of Crete have miraculous medicinal effects. (Actually, I do believe that last one is true because when I use Cretan herbs in cooking or in cosmetics I just FEEL better.)
Have I ever met a Greek I didn’t like? Of course. Human nature is not completely subject to the culture in which one is raised. So you will find cheats, liars and bullies everywhere. But in general, the Greeks honor their families and their faith above all, and that goes a long way.

It’s not just the Greek people that I love, it’s people in general on the island of Crete. Just like stress can bring out the worst in someone, the laid-back lifestyle of Crete brings out a childlike wonder and lightness of heart to those who will linger long enough to let it all sink in.IMG_6862

I suppose it’s not so much the island as the feelings it exposes that I love the best. My best self emerges here and I feel God’s smile on me more often. Perhaps because I slow down and become more intentional about listening for His voice. Or perhaps I recognize His touch that brought me to my knees and lifted me up at the same time when I lived here so many years ago. Such a place of dichotomy – of brokenness and healing, of chaos and serenity. Of being keenly aware I need Him every moment to survive and to soar.  The simple truth is that every moment holds a treasure, even in the hard places.

For today, I revel in these simple facts;

A big Greek salad, fresh bread with olive oil, a sizzling plate of calamari and a carafe of wine = 18 euros
A day rental of beach umbrella and 2 lounger chairs = 6 euros
A luxurious swim in the clear turquoise waters of the Med = Free
Friendship and wellbeing on the island of Crete = Priceless.

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Hidden Heidelberg

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On every leg of our journey, God gave us protection, provision and especially people who made our journey memorable.
The German people work hard and play harder. If there is a way to make a game of it all, they will figure it out – strict rules included, of course. They can be stoic and rigid but they know how to have fun. And they are more than ready to show you how, or just help you out before you even ask. The language barrier never stopped any of them from offering help with a smile. If it weren’t for their open willingness to lend a helping hand, we might still be wandering off the beaten path towards Croatia or stuck in a Bahnhof waiting for a cancelled train. We found most Germans to be very accommodating and self-confident especially when it came to fashion. Hairstyles of all colors and shapes were common especially amoung the younger set. Even the older conservatives could show a little leg and not be bothered in the least.FullSizeRender

The last leg (pun intended) of our biking tour was a short 40 km so we took our time to walk around Eberbach in the morning before departing.

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Eberbach town square

The town dates to the 12th century and the four towers of the fortifications are still intact. Across the street from the tower Rosenturm is an austere little monument dedicated to Eberbach’s Jewish population that was wiped out during WW2. The bronze carvings on a stone map depict the family names and their home locations throughout the town. It was a sad yet intimate portrayal of those who were forced to leave and never return to their homes in Eberbach.

As the Neckar River curved around to reveal the city of Heidelberg we anticipated the first sighting of the massive Heidelberg Castle. It had been over five years since our last visit to this city and the castle was just as impressive as the first time we laid eyes on it.

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Schloss Heidelburg

The streets were also just as crowded with tourists. Travel guru Rick Steves barely gives it a mention in his books except to say it is overrun by Americans (true fact mostly because until recently the American army base housing over 16,000 soldiers and their families was based in Heidelberg.) When the Americans closed up shop and left Heidelberg, it was nothing short of an economic crisis for the locals. But they have obviously bounced back because business is booming especially along the commercialized Haupstrasse pedestrian street filled with stores and restaurants.

We steered our bikes down the Haupstrasse to the Hotel Bayrischer where we were greeted warmly by pretty frauliens dressed in dirndls offering us glasses of cool sparking wine. Our room was spacious and very comfortable but we didn’t linger there very long. It was our last night in Germany and we were on the hunt for a cozy out of the way winehaus to enjoy our last supper. Walking around Heidelberg can be overwhelming with the sheer number of restaurants offering every type of cuisine so we finally resorted to consulting our faithful Lonely Planet. Score!

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Weinstube Schnitzelbank

We had a few hours to kill the next day so on a tip from our Stuttgart friends, we passed on the crowded castle tour (did that last time), and headed back over the bridge into the little visited Neuenheim district.. This mostly residential area of the city boasts some great local shops and beautiful mansions that dot the steep hillside. It is also where a mountain path called the Philosophenweg or Philosopher’s Path leads to the Heiligenberg area. Since our cycling days were over, we decided to hike the “hill.” We heard that the path led upwards along the side of the mountain and offered spectacular views of the old city and the river. Very true!

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View of Heidelberg from Heiligenberg

Our destination was at the top where the old St. Stephens monastery was in ruins but even more interesting was the stadium built by Hitler in honor of himself during the height of the Third Reich. The Thingstaette is an open air amphitheater with eerie roots. First hallowed as a magical place in the deep forest by the Celts, Hitler chose it as a local rally place and had the Heidelberg people build it for him. To this day, a local will usually tell you about it only if you ask and even then it’s with an apology. Every country has its own stain of shame. America had slavery and German had Hitler.

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Thingstaette in Heiligenberg

But at the end of the day, the sobering visit to Thingstaette made us appreciate even more the strength of the German people to forge a future out of the rubble. And as the greatest party of the year approaches, cities and towns all over Germany will once again redefine their national identity in a deluge of dirndls, lederhosen, bratwurst and beer. Prost Oktoberfest!

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Not your typical Macy’s

 

Biking through Wine Country

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The Freiburg/Marbach area of Germany is famous for its wines made from Riesling (white), Topplinger (red) and Lemberger (rose) grapes. The hills in this region are covered with terraced vineyards between small towns nestled at the water’s edge of the Neckar. One of our favorite stops was at Besigheim. It oozes charms of the old German style with cobbled streets, window boxes and timbered houses all within the old castle wall.IMG_6576

Between Besigheim and Lauffen, we decided to imbibe in some local wine at a conveniently located Weingarten right on the bike path. For some reason, the bike ride seemed more enjoyable after our stop.
Not too far down the trail, the Neckar River flowed through the town of Lauffen flanked by the old castle on one side and a 15th century church on the other.

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Neckarsulm was a welcome sight when we finally pulled into our hotel for our third night on the journey. We would’ve been happy to just lay our heads on a clean pillow anywhere but our accommodations far exceeded our imagination. It was easy to see why The Nestor Hotel had earned every one of its four stars. Our stay was beyond comfortable and the stellar breakfast the next morning made it hard to get back on our bikes.
But before we left Neckarsulm, we knew we needed to visit the famous museum dedicated to two wheeler transportation through the centuries.
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Our trip north towards Eberbach was highlighted by gentle paths, frequent castle sightings and quintessential little German villages with funny names like Zwingenberg and Bad Wimpfen. (Bad, pronounced “Bod,” actually means bath or spa.)
Our only complaint was the head wind we fought while those “cheaters” on e-bikes breezed past us. But once the path curved into the forest, the quiet enveloped us and we slowed down to breathe in the magic of the deep forest.IMG_6709

And no surprise, we found another little weingarten in a sleepy town that had our names on it. It was the perfect ending to another great day of riding a total of 55 km. Wish we could say the same for our hotel that night. Hotel Krone Post in Eberbach – Noisy room, tired food, grumpy proprietor. Enough said.

Navigating the Neckar River

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Today I celebrated my birthday in Eberbach on the Neckar River in southern Germany. We are five days into our bike tour and feeling stronger than ever. Two days ago I couldn’t honestly say that, but tonight I think I turned a corner. Or maybe I’m just in denial about being another year older. Either way, I’m thankful that I’m healthy enough to navigate the hills and valleys of life as well as the bike paths of this beautiful part of Germany.

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Unterensingen

We started out from Tubingen on Day One with 55 km of riding ahead of us. Cycling along the flat terrain of the Neckar River is a delight for these hardened hill climbers from Colorado. We actually felt like we were on vacation enjoying a relaxing ride through some pretty amazing countryside.

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But the best thing was stumbling across a quirky “miniature train park”. Little railroad tracks crisscrossed the park in every direction and it was packed with parents and their toddlers clambering aboard the little cars for a ride. But by far, we were most entertained by the size of the German men driving the tiny steam engines. In some cases, you could hardly make out the engine due to the size of the rump sitting on top of it. The engineers obviously took their job very seriously but we thought it was hilarious.

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We arrived at our destination late in the afternoon when the sun cast a golden hue on the old city. Walking across the the Innere Brucke into Esslingen am Neckar we could imagine why this bridge is compared to the Ponte Vecchio in Venice in that is covered with little stores and workshops and has been since Medieval times. The bridge is a welcoming entrance to a beautiful old city.

A great night’s sleep at the modern and very minimalistic EcoInn fueled our tanks for the next morning’s explorations beginning with 270 stone steps up to the castle heights above the city.

We headed out on our bikes later that morning towards Stuttgart. Our route to Freiburg was noted as 40-45 km for the day but navigating through Stuttgart turned out to be a bit of a challenge. Desperately looking for green bicycle signs pointing the way through the outskirts of this huge city was stressful even for seasoned bikers. Another American and his German girlfriend were having the same sort of trouble, so we stuck together until we finally got to the other side of the city. They continued on at a hurried pace while we stopped by a bakery and toasted our success with two strong espressos and a couple of fresh pastries.
We heard that there was a pumpkin festival at the palace grounds of Ludwigsburg just north of Stuttgart so we set our sights there for our next break. As we approached the ascent up to the castle grounds, we were happy to find a rest stop of sorts that included a small pool of cool water where travelers could soak their weary feet. We took full advantage of this luxury at the invitation of a German couple who were sitting by the water’s edge. They showed us how to do the walk properly – slowly with knees held high in a counterclockwise direction. Soon the four of us were walking in a line like slow prancing horses, laughing and enjoying the refreshing break from a long day’s ride.

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The pumpkin festival at the castle was impressive (sculptures, food, gardens all pumpkin themed) but it was the castle itself and the grounds that were amazing beyond description. We spent most of our visit in the pumpkin fest area but I did wander around to the back yard and discovered a full botanic garden complete with fountains, a carousel, an orangerie and flower beds still bursting with color.  (This is an unimpressive photo but it will be will be replaced as soon as I get my good ones off my nice camera!)

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We approached our night’s destination of Freiburg and discover it to be a sleepy little village. A perfect end to a long day’s ride included some great pasta at a local Italian cafe and a great night’s sleep in a quiet inn called Hotel Schober.