psalm 121 for children

The theme for children’s church this month is, “God is always watching over us.”  The preschool curriculum I purchased didn’t quite hit the target — even though most of our kids are ages 2 to 4 it needed a bit more weight.  So I created a very simple version of the psalm with motions to supplement the lesson. Week by week we act it out; I think they are getting it!

PSALM 121 for Children
 
My help comes from God! (Point and look upward)
He made the heavens and earth. (Arms extended upward, spin slowly in a circle)
He guards my steps. (Stomp-walk in place)
He never falls asleep. (Shake head and pointer finger as in “no, no”)
He protects me. (Cross arms over chest, move into crouch for next line)
He keeps me safe. 
He is with me wherever I go. (Arms extended upward, spin slowly in a circle)
God is always watching over me! (Hand over eyes)

I developed two additional crafts for this unit to reinforce the main point: God is always watching over us! The first was created with North Country landscape. I printed several photos on card stock. Children pasted lines of the psalm (numerically ordered) on top of the photo. The second was footprints which will be ready for Father’s Day. We traced in pencil then outlined with a sharpie. They applied paste and glitter. This week at home I’ll apply a cutout of the amplified version of Psalm 121:3, with a small spacer in between to layers to add dimension. Next week children will sign their names to the front.

Both were simple, low cost crafts to reinforce the central message, God is always watching over us. I hope these ideas are useful with your wee ones!

~ René Morley

 

sailing with celestyal

Sailing on Crystal with Celestyal Cruises is a great way to visit Cuba, especially if you are a U.S. citizen and eager; even more if you’d like to explore beyond Havana. The “Authentic Cuba” program ensures you will meet conditions for U.S. cultural exchange. Celestyal is not the only way or necessarily the best way but it is a relatively easy way to explore the largest Caribbean island and archipelago country.

Most Americans seem surprised to hear that “travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited, and U.S. federal regulations restrict travel to Cuba to licensed travelers engaged in certain specified activities.” I.e. It’s illegal for Americans to beach bum in Cuba!  Who knew Old Uncle Sam imposed barriers? I do know Americans who have struck out on their own and more power to them. If you choose to do so, be sure to educate yourself on criteria for the 12 categories under which U.S. citizens may legally travel. You may (or may not) be called to account for your time in Cuba and if so, it’s easy enough to do if sailing with Celestyal.

There are many upsides to sailing with Celestyal, including ease in obtaining Cuban visa and navigating customs and immigration, documentation to satisfy the U.S. government, simplicity in logistics, consistency in accommodations, the assurance of a culturally-rich experience, and a nice variety of Cuban entertainment, food and drink on board.

Evening shows exceeded our expectations, performed by an entirely Cuban staff (in Spanish). They truly put the “singers and dancers” on the big brands to shame! The itinerary was especially good, circumnavigating Cuba with an overnight in Havana and two additional cities, both of which we enjoyed at least as much as Havana. We truly have few complaints.

Celestyal staff told us that 150 to 200 Americans sail weekly with the Authentic Cuba program; in our case that was about half of the guests on board a ship sailing well under capacity. It was a wonderfully diverse international mix. Although this was a small, old ship, it seldom felt too small because it was undersold.

Most of our disappointments in this trip were attributed to restrictions on U.S. citizens imposed by Uncle Sam. For example, we had very little flexibility on shore — literally, just a few hours in Havana.  In addition to highly structured excursions, there were expectations to participate in educational programming at least once daily on ship. We enjoyed the seminars with Professor Arocha and friends on a wide range of topics —  from history and politics to musicology, cigars and rum. These were supplemented by non-program options such as cooking demonstrations with Cuban chefs or mixology. All were terrific. But always, there was at least one more thing we felt obligated to do every day of vacation.

There was no beach time. This is a tough break on a Caribbean vacation! The Isle of Youth was inexplicably removed from the itinerary months after we booked in exchange for $50 on board credit (each). This was reportedly a Cuban government decision, so I guess Uncle Sam is off that hook.

However, I am sincere when I say this was a good trip and we have few substantive complaints. Still, there are a few things you should know before you go.

1. Celestyal sails with an elderly clientele. The average age when we embarked in Montego Bay seemed to be more than 65 years. We felt like spring chickens! New passengers boarded in Havana a few days later and the average dropped by another 5 years or more. Don’t get me wrong: there is absolutely no problem with a gray-haired sailing. It’s just a different experience than we are used to or had anticipated in this instance. There were only two children on board and no evidence of youth programming or accommodations. In truth, I don’t think the U.S. program would work well with children under 10 or 12 as it is so highly structured and intense.

2. Crystal is an aging ship, well-maintained and clean but still a clunker by modern standards. We knew it would be “old school cruising” going in and were not surprised. It is what it is, recently refurbished to add balcony staterooms. (Quite limited, you  must book early.) Unfortunately, there is only so much you can do with a 1990s deck plan. One pool, very small; one tiny hot tub, poorly placed. Social space and entertainment venues are limited.

Our suite on the bow of the ship was comfortable. It had a massive balcony and ample shade. You could only see the ocean while standing at the railing, the walls were so high! Ours was one of two such suites on the ship. The interior did not feel particularly luxurious. The floor plan was rather odd. But it worked. The private “whirlpool” on the deck was a disappointment, a 1980s throwback jacuzzi tub that we filled ourselves … with from a spigot, water tinted brown. Oh, and just so you know, suite guests receive no perks — beyond a few toiletries. Odd and disappointing.

3. Our sailing offered only one dinner seating (contrary to website info) with identical menus in both dining rooms. The quality of the food was acceptable (because we didn’t cook it or clean up after it) but not remarkable. The menu included Cuban fare yet seemed to target the European market, particularly Germans. Both restaurants had open dining (i.e. random, shared table assignments daily). We were not enthused but managed to land a table for two (a rarity) on our first night. Accommodating staff made this “our table” thereafter, which was hugely appreciated.

4. The staff were friendly and mostly competent (a few exceptions) but not highly service-oriented. Service was spotty in general. None were particularly interested in engaging on a personal level. We always try hard to make personal connections with cruise staff but it was strangely difficult on this trip. Most seemed disinterested, distanced. It seems likely that Celestyal also overstates opportunities to interact with Cuban staff as we had to make extra effort to seek those out and they were few and far between in our encounters — beyond the daily seminars. They said 60 Cuban staff were on board but I’m not sure where.

5. In our experience, cruise companies are eager for opportunities to help you feel celebrated; with Celestyal it seemed just the opposite. Between the missing suite perks and weeklong failure to acknowledge our anniversary, I have to admit we were disappointed with Celeystal. It felt oddly discordant for a celebratory sailing. Our general take-away from the service culture and available amenities was that Celestyal has no interest in building brand loyalty. Not a deal breaker but good to know.

6. Celestyal runs like a mom-and-pop shop, which has its charm when you’re not completely frustrated! The website is clunky and incomplete. We felt unsettled from the beginning about what we were getting into, Cuba travel still being quite novel in the U.S.  Call center staff were only vaguely reassuring. Phone lines often went unanswered, no matter the day or time, as did several emails. Positive Cruise Critic reviews encouraged us to trust it would be okay — and it was. It truly was. Yet I spoke with numerous cruisers, many first-timers, on board who had similar perceptions, discomfort, unease. I really don’t know if I would cruise again if this had been our first experience. Fortunately, it’s a blip on our radar.

I made numerous calls to customer support in the months and weeks leading up to our trip and received so many varied responses that it became almost comical. We packed a pile of supplies for Cuban school children based on shopping lists I found online, assured by Celeystal staff that there were plenty of opportunities to donate locally and Havana would be the easiest. Once on board, however, we learned we would not be allowed to disembark with supplies in any quantity. The guest relations staff were incredulous about our experience before boarding. A Cuban employee was dispatched to distribute on our behalf. A disappointing but a acceptable solution.

7. We returned much less refreshed than typical for spring break. “Authentic Cuba” is an intense experience from beginning to end. Still, I must reinforce, we have no regrets! But as our brains were continually grappling with new information and the juxtaposition of communism in the Caribbean, there was no way around this strain. The tours were long, sometimes too long, and there was not enough free time to wander or explore on our own. Tour groups were generally slow, given the average age on board. It’s an adjustment, no matter where you are coming from.

In the grand scheme, our disappointments and frustrations were truly minor given the itinerary. No regrets! Celestyal’s Cuba cruise was an experience we’re happy to recommend. We returned better educated and interested in returning when U.S. restrictions lift. You’ll find many more reviews on Cruise Critic. Do your homework, adjust your expectations, approach the trip as an adventure and sail safely!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

cienfuegos

Our final port of call was Cienfuegos, the Pearl of the South. We entered port Punta Gorda through yet another a long channel opening up into a massive bay. The day was dawning as we approached, too dark to appreciate the small communities and tidy properties scattered along the flat shoreline.

Our itinerary included two projects: Trazos Libres, a neighborhood collective developed by artist Hermes Santiago, and the Graphics Society of Cienfuegos, a group of printmaking artists who work with children with special needs. This was followed by a walking tour of the historical Cienfuegos city center. But first we had to get there.

We boarded our tour bus at the pier in Punta Gorda. Group 5, independents. Saralie was easily our favorite tour guide of the week. She was warm, friendly, and spoke flawless English, providing just the right amount of information at the right time. She was extremely patient with a group that only seemed to slow by the day.

Our bus made a brief stop at Jagua Hotel in Punta Gorda before getting down to city business. This stop must have been a bid for return visitors. Several group members inquired about the rate and seemed hooked, so in that sense it was a success. Indeed, the Jagua seemed lovely at first glance — but buyer beware.

Adjacent to the hotel is a much more interesting property, unfortunately now closed. Saralie recounted how many years ago, an entrepreneurial housekeeper there opened the restrooms for public use. She collected fees and constructed a small restaurant across the street. Her food was so good that Fidel went out of his way to eat there on his triumphal cross-country tour, post-Revolution, headed to Havana. Yet another irony…

Our first stop was at Trazos Libres. The entire street was transformed to a stage and the whole neighborhood seemed to have turned out for the occasion of our visit. We were greeted by artists in character as the band played and small girls danced and a grandmother kept close watch. This gift of sunflower and smile made my day.

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The neighborhood was beautiful and warm and welcoming. I just couldn’t stop smiling; I loved this place! I met the artist, Hermes Santiago, and brought home some pottery for my friend, Ana, who was born in Cuba. I interacted briefly with a mama holding a beautiful brown baby; neither of us spoke the other’s language but I knew she understood.

Our next stop was the Graphics Society of Cienfuegos. This is a collective that specializes in various types of printmaking. Their are a number of artists in residence. On any given day, they are working with local children with special needs. I was especially impressed with the many modifications Cubans have made to create art with readily available supplies. For example, sone etch on X-ray film!

The walking tour was pleasant enough if not remarkable. We passed several private restaurants and others clearly state-run. We knew that Cuban media is completely controlled by the government and were interested to pass a newspaper office along the way. We passed by a store that sold imported goods on the CUC (convertible peso) market and another that sold only Cuban-produced goods for CUPs (local pesos; green awning in photo below). Cubans and foreigners can shop in either location with requisite currency but I must admit that neither seemed compelling on a quick scan of display windows. Our tour guide noted that Cubans shop at the local store to make ends meet. For example, a bar of local soap sells at a small small fraction of imported soap.  Cienfuegos was clean and tidy, as every Cuban city we’ve visited has been, despite the occasional rubble.

Our walking tour concluded in the historic city center which was lovely. Public buildings included the Teatro Tomas Terry opera house. As typical in Cuba, we could have paid 5 CUCs for the privilege to take photos inside but we did not. The interior was original, from rows of hard wooden seats to hand-carved Cuban hardwoods and Italian Carrara marble. Saralie noted noted that all big acts touring Cuba play here, even though this is a small venue and Cienfuegos is out of the way. Local Cubans can attend for a nominal fee: power to the people!

We had some time to shop the large craft market and local stores, purchasing coffee and Santiago de Cuba brand rum, a few straw hats, and some small leather purses for the grandgirls. We wished for more time on our own; alas, Group 5 was waiting to return to the pier at Punta Gorda. I had one last opportunity at the pier to spend out my Cuban CUCs. I was pleased to find a set of wooden dominos in a handsome box. We brought home just a few coins and a single paper peso for posterity.

We had great views through our departure sailing of all that we had missed in the dim light of dawn. A few locals here and there waved farewell. As we neared open sea, a large colorful structure came into view. It was impossible to discern its purpose. University? Hospital? Research? Through online maps I determined it to be the Islazul Hotel Pasacaballo, remote but conveniently located for diving. Again I say, buyer beware!

We thoroughly enjoyed Cienfuegos and could have spent a lot more time there. When we return, it will be on the short list!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

 

one day in havana


There is much to love and celebrate about Havana. Granted, we were only there for two days — hardly time to develop an informed opinion. And yet. Havana strikes me as a study in contrasts symbolic of Cuba, at least as much as we experienced in our whirlwind circumnavigation of the archipelago.

On one hand, grand old buildings beautifully restored. On the other, crumbling architecture and abject poverty. Tourists careening around corners in neon-bright old cars; dingy and crowded public transportation. Large plazas and ample social space, often with militaristic theming; crowded and humble personal dwellings. Miles of Malecón, the seawall “sofa of the city” where waves roll and crash; dusty and rusty recreational spaces, sunburned dry and brown where fountains lie empty. Security and safety, night and day; blackouts, isolation, poverty, and conditions ripe for crime in any other country. Government laborers toeing the party line; private entrepreneurs creating a new social class. Those were my first impressions.

We entered port early, the sun rising over military vessels as the moon set over the old city. I’d been up for hours, watching the shoreline appear through the moonlight. To get to the pier we navigated another long channel into a perfectly sheltered harbor (map); Cuba seems particularly blessed that way. Cristo de La Habana greeted us from the hillside opposite the Malecón as we sailed slowly on. San Francisco pier alone of the piers in port was nicely restored; the others in decay, almost ruins.

We became acquainted the best way: an Old Havana historical walking tour. This included visits to several city plazas: San Francisco Square (on the backside of the pier), Saint Francis of Assisi Square, Cathedral Square, Old Square, Arms Square. I must admit I wasn’t paying much attention to the tour guide’s descriptions of these sites, taken up in the sights, sounds and smells of Habana Vieja — a veritable feast!

Most cruisers returned to the ship for lunch but we were determined not to miss a Habana moment. We meandered through a fascinating book sellers market tucked away on a narrow side street. Old books and books in many languages were on display, most were subjects of the Revolucion. I found an English trade copy of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and purchased for 5 CUC. It was published in the U.S., a delightful irony, don’t you think? On our tour guide’s advice we returned to the paladare la Moneda Cubana for a lovely celebration (recounted here).

We returned to the pier in time to join the afternoon tour required by our people-to-people program. We boarded the bus with Group 5, the independents. Every bus used throughout our travels was first-rate coach in like-new condition, which is quite a feat in our Caribbean experiences. The explanation is simple: state-owned transportation.

We spent the next few hours in a panoramic tour which means mostly driving by sites of interest in a scramble to fit them all in. We were weary from miles on our feet in the heat, so it was not a huge disappointment. However, iPhone images snapped from the bus leave something to the imagination. We drove through Central Havana and other neighborhoods less accessible by foot. We had some time on the ground at Revolution Square, the largest of public plazas in the city, blacktop steaming in the midday sun. Here the old car taxis line up for tourists, adding a fun element to an otherwise stark stop.

We drove past the Old Capitol Building under renovation (remarkably similar to the U.S. Capitol), the University of Havana, up and down La Rampa, as our guide pointed out the Yara theater and Copelia ice cream parlor, the former a social icon and hub and the latter renown for affordability and modernist architecture, a la Revolucion. She made a big deal out of the Habana Libre, formerly a Hilton, quickly nationalized after the Revolution.

The Habana Libre was only the first of several “excellent” hotels cited by our tour guide which looked to us like 1950s throwbacks in desperate need of renovation. In fact, there were very few Havana hotels that warranted a second look if we were to consider a longer stay. One exception was the Saratoga, sporting a U.S. flag and favored by celebrities. We were quite surprised to see U.S. flags flying in numerous public locations — and not surprisingly at the recently opened U.S. Embassy.

There were multiple references to Ernest Hemingway, morning and afternoon. He seems to be Cuba’s favorite import. The Hotel Ambos Mundos was his residence for a time, we’d passed by on our walking tour as a band played and drinks flowed early in the day. He was also fond of the Floridita. I came to appreciate both the Floridita (lemon) and Hemingway’s Favorite (grapefruit) daiquiris for the crisp and refreshing citrus in the Caribbean heat.

popsOur excursion concluded with a brief stop at an indoor craft market, where selection was poor and prices high. Nonetheless, I purchased children’s baseballs with the Cuban flag for the grands at an exhorbitant price (8 CUC each), uncertain of shopping opportunities ahead. The Hubs was not enthused, considering these just one more in a pile they undoubtedly own. It seemed unique to me but in fact, we found plenty more before we were through at half that price. None with the Cuban flag, so I wasn’t unhappy with my decision. Besides, he was suckered into purchasing a horrible caricature of himself — drawn in sharpie on cheap cardboard — five minutes off the pier. Worse, when the price suddenly doubled to 10 CUC to “support the arts”   he still shelled it out. How can he complain about my baseballs? Ha!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

santiago de cuba

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Sailing from Montego Bay, Jamaica, for Cuba, our first port of call was Santiago de Cuba (map), the provincial capital for a province by the same name. The city is second to Havana in size and stature. It is protected by a deep bay on the easternmost coast of Cuba. The Sierra Maestra range rising in the distance reminds us that this is a wild and untamed region. The province has sheltered rebels and revolutionaries throughout Cuban history. It is also the heart and soul of Cuban-African culture, originating many important traditions and rhythms.

The sun was only thinking about getting up for the day as we approached the shoreline. One loud warning blast from the captain, then another, was enough to shake my sleepies out as I peered over the edge of the bow directly below the bridge. Small fishing boats working close to shore seemed unconcerned by the behemoth bearing down.

We sailed slowly inland past the point, Castillo del Morro imposing even in the dim light of dawn. Several more fishermen were anchored along the increasingly narrow channel, tiny wooden boats dwarfed by our vessel. Conversations in Spanish carried clearly across still water; roosters crowed and a dog or two joined the chorus. A few locals emerged from humble homes clinging precariously to the hillside as we passed. A small, skinny boy in a bright red shirt played alone on an abandoned pier, hopping from one pillar to the next as I held my breath.

We disembarked to a modest port: a long walk across the blacktop to enter a simple, small metal customs building. There was no welcome wagon, i.e. no locals in song or dance as we often experience in port. Nonetheless, it was exciting to be on the ground in Cuba!

Three or four Cuban agents were waiting to examine our documents. They were friendly enough as we surrendered U.S. passport and Cuban visa. I don’t know if any spoke English but we managed okay. The agent stamped my visa in bright pink ink and retained half of it. Upon request, he also stamped my passport. This is a new day for U.S. citizens! Before restored diplomatic relationships under President Obama, most U.S. travelers would avoid a passport stamp. I was proud to do otherwise if also slightly nervous about the questions it might raise clearing U.S. customs and immigration on the return. (Irrational, I hope. I clear customs a lot.) There was one small walk-through scan and one small conveyer scan and not much fuss about either. Huh.

Most of the 200 or so U.S. travelers sailing on Celestyal Cruises were in organized groups traveling together. The Hubs and I were placed on the ‘independents’ bus with about 30 others like us. Normally we avoid bus tours when traveling but we understood the conditions of this program and determined not to complain. The tours were generally good; just a bit much crammed into the day and more quality time with our new best friends than we preferred. By the end of the trip we were ready to be done with the group and the bus — and the infamous national heroes!

In Santiago de Cuba, our itinerary included a city tour with multiple points of interest: Castillo El Morro  (17th century fort, era of pirates and imperialism); Moncado Barracks  (site of Fidel’s failed July 26 Movement and origin of the Revolution), Fernando Ortiz African Cultural Center (traditional dance, religion and art), the Patio of the Artisans and Conga Gallery (contemporary Cuban art).

We drove past Revolution Square and I wondered if every Cuban city has one of these? By the time we got to San Juan Hill (site of the only land battle of the Spanish-American war and where Teddy Roosevelt led the Rough Riders to victory), I was fried from the sun and information overload. It may not surprise you to learn that Cubans have another name for this conflict but I was puzzled by consistent qualifiers of Roosevelt’s supposed victory. Our final stop was for a taste of famed Santiago de Cuba rum while a band played and a cigar maker demonstrated his art. It was quite chaotic; I was glad to call it a day!

Throughout the day, as the bus made its way around the city, we caught glimpses of Cuban life. I don’t know what I expected but it seemed so very normal for a Saturday. We saw a few old cars and a few horses with carts — both, as we would learn, part of every day transportation across the country. We saw many humble homes and a few grand estates, the latter nationalized to become property of the people. When the Bacardi family fled they abandoned property but took their trademark so Bacardi rum can no longer be produced in Cuba. Their grand home is now an educational enrichment center, replete with small military craft for children to play on.

We saw families out and about everywhere we went. We drove past the Hatuey beer manufacturing plant, a busy bus and train station, and an old amusement park in poor repair. This was the first of several worn and tired outdoor recreational facilities we were to see in our travels. In each case, the local guide extolled the state for providing such wonders for the people.

We also noted a consistent police presence in uniformed officers at regular intervals. None were overtly militaristic or even slightly threatening. If they were carrying weapons, they were discrete. I must admit the nonchalant effect was a surprise!

How to sum up a day in Santiago de Cuba? The museum at Moncado Barracks was fascinating. The cultural center and traditional dance performance truly enlightening. The rum was tasty and very smooth! Glimpses of Cuban life were helpful to level set my assumptions about life in a communist country. But the very best moment of the day occurred early, at el Morro.

Sister sun was wide awake and beaming steadily as we walked the incline, crossed the moat, and entered the cool interior. In the midst of the tour of historical artifacts, an angelic sound rose from below, seeping through the cracks between the wide floor boards to fill the chambers above. We descended the stairs to discover a female quartet, a capella in the chapel. We listened awhile, mesmerized. Just as I began to examine their CD for sale, the Vocal Vidas broke into one of our favorite songs, a multilingual rendition of “Michelle, My Belle.” Sold!

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A few hours after we departed Santiago de Cuba, we sailed past Guantanemo Bay. It was cloudy, the view obscured. Both the U.S. presence on Cuban soil in Guantanemo and hardships imposed by the U.S. Embargo are significant sore spots for Cubans. Who can blame them?

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

crash course cuba

We returned from Cuba late on Friday night, satisfied, enriched and exhausted. In a word, I am grateful. I hardly know where to begin to relay our experiences. My head is still spinning! This was a trip unlike any other. Cuba tested my assumptions at every turn.

All I’ve known about Cuba was basic: a socialist state with an official party of communism. As an American growing up in 60s and 70s, continuing my education into the 90s, I learned the evils of communism and experienced the tensions of the Cold War. I couldn’t resist the allure of adventure and determined to visit as soon as it became feasible for U.S. citizens. Still, I had questions and concerns.

What freedoms do Cubans enjoy? (Familiar freedoms, it seems.) How are they restricted? (Hmm. In at least a few ways.) How does this all work? (It’s complicated.) Will I be safe? Will I feel comfortable? (Yes and mostly yes.) Does it matter that I don’t speak Spanish? (Not much.) Should I go now or wait awhile? (That depends.) I’ll get to this and more in subsequent posts, I promise.

Evidence of long history and rich culture abound in the beautifully blended Cuba. There you will find happy people, exquisite art, soulful music, delicious food, lovely language, graceful architecture, diverse customs and traditions. At first glance, especially in Havana, you will notice grand structures in poor repair, literally crumbling underfoot. Restoration efforts have been underway for some time but barely scratch the surface after decades of decay. The old city is particularly congested, infrastructure out of sync with modern tourism. Press on! Plan your itinerary to allow for deeper and broader experiences and you will not be disappointed.

Despite the odds or the obvious, resilient Cubans continue to assert that “the system works.” They extol heroes like José Marti, Che Guevera, Fidel and others. There are irrefutable pride points: low infant mortality, high life expectancy, low crime, free education, universal literacy, free medical services. Who can argue with this? Medical professionals are an export and health tourism is actually a thing here, so that tells you something. The country is remarkably well kept, rubble, smokestacks and smoldering fires notwithstanding. Meanwhile, Cubans lack sufficient resources to maintain their homes, feed their families or enjoy many amenities and small niceties we take very much for granted — not to mention travel abroad. There is no way up or out for most.

Our taxi driver conversed in fluent English. “In Cuba, everything is the government.” All Cubans receive free health care, childcare, and education through to doctoral degrees, if they choose and prove capable. All receive a monthly ration book to obtain staples free of charge such as rice, beans, poultry, cooking oils, eggs, salt, sugar, and matches. Additional supplies may be age- or health-specific, like milk or fish. Supplies are scarce and frequent shopping required to keep the pantry stocked.

Most Cubans earn a meager monthly wage from the government, equivalent to ~$20 USD, regardless of occupation. Even combined, state resources fall far short for daily subsistence. Cubans supplement or find ways to game the system. Those few who work directly in tourism are most fortunate in that they may earn tips.

Despite his claim that ‘everything is the government’, our cabbie is part of a new and upwardly mobile class in Cuba. It’s a win-win, as taxis supplement a public transportation infrastructure under significant strain. It is only in the last few years that the Cuban government has allowed private enterprise and it is still very limited. Startup requires some capital, often sourced by relatives abroad. It requires initiative and a will to cut across the grain of 60 years of socialist dogma, a belief that you can do better than the state to improve your future. It requires annual licensing fees and monthly income tax payments. Relatively few Cubans can clear these hurdles. Nonetheless, private enterprise appears to be critical for sustaining the state.

Private homeowners may provide accommodations in casa particulares. These are essential in Havana, where hotel capacity cannot meet demand and most facilities are outdated. Find private accommodations by word of mouth, by wandering and looking for distinct signage or, more recently, through Air BnB. We saw a few properties with Trip Advisor signage as well. Alternatively, sail with Celestyal Cruises, as we did. (More on this option later.)

Private homeowners may operate restaurants known as paladares, serving delicious local fare. Cuban food is disparaged due to lack of knowledge about the distinction between paladares and state-run restaurants. The latter are usually located in elegant properties nationalized after the revolution. They look nice but offer relatively poor quality food and service, albeit on the cheap. I cannot personally speak to the casa particulare experience but assure you the paladare will not disappoint!

We visited three cities on our one-week whirlwind circumnavigation: Santiago de Cuba, Havana, and Cienfuegos. One of our favorite memories occurred mid-trip in Havana at la Moneda Cubana. We were enjoying a rare couple of hours away from the people-to-people program offered by Celestyal Cruises, the “authentic Cuban experience” that meets current U.S. government requirements.

We landed at this paladare on the advice of our tour guide and climbed two narrow flights to a third story patio overlooking the old city. We chatted with our waiter briefly, inquiring about his experiences with U.S. tourism, mentioning the reason for our trip. We were surprised when we finished our meal to be served a delectable caramel-coconut flan and Havana Club rum aged 7 years, completing our celebration with memorable flair. Absolutely perfect.

“Mon amour, mon amie,” he said. “I’d do it all over again,” she said.

This relatively simple meal was not a cheap by most standards, ringing in at $67 USD. Of course, U.S. dollars are not generally accepted so we paid 57 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) cash. Such is the nature of business in Cuba, particularly U.S. tourism. But that’s another story. I’ve much more to tell you …

Viva Cuba libre!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

countdown to cuba

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The Hubs and I are celebrating our 35th anniversary in November 2017. We make it a practice to celebrate The Big Ones all year long. I can’t even tell you how excited I am to start with a Cuba cruise in March!

Many people have asked: Why Cuba? Lots of reasons, actually. We’re always looking for new destinations in the Caribbean. This largest island has been tantalizingly close but yet too far until recently, when travel restrictions were lifted enough to become feasible for most U.S.travelers.

By all accounts, Cuba is an amazingly beautiful, warm, and friendly place. Everyone I know personally who has visited has loved their experience. I feel a strong urge to get there before large-scale American tourism gains a foot-hold on the island — or before US policies change and Cuba travel becomes more restrictive again. I especially wanted our spring anniversary trip to be an adventure and Cuba fits the bill!

An air of mystery and intrigue still surround this historically “off-limits” country. I remember well the Cold War era; the prospect of visiting a communist country fascinates me. Cuban people have suffered terribly under a long history of dictatorial regimes, foreign occupations and interventions, including our own. Tourist dollars are critical to an economy significantly impaired by the U.S. embargo. Most Cuban people are very poor and lack access to so many basics we take for granted, like over the counter medicine, vitamins,educational and art resources, or personal care products. This is an opportunity to give back as we stock supplies to distribute on our journey.

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We’re sailing with a small cruise company on a small, old ship with a checkered past (recently refurbished, thankfully!) reminiscent of our first big adventure abroad together in 1992. The entire itinerary is authentic Cuban, a program carefully aligned with U.S. government requirements for cultural exchange. This is not the typical tourist junket (forbidden for US citizens) yet suits me perfectly and the Hubs is game. The educational program on board — think Cuban cooking classes, mixology, dancing lessons, cigar history — and cultural tours on shore plus Cuban visa and other documentation included in the base price makes for very easy trip planning. I am comforted by the option to sleep on ship (as opposed to casa particulares) and thrilled to experience so much of this very large island within a short time.

At the time of booking, there were no direct flights to Havana from the U.S. Fortunately, Celestyal Cruises offers a convenient option to board in Montego Bay, Jamaica. We set sail on a Friday for Santiago de Cuba. After a day at sea, we’ll dock in Havana for an overnight stay to extend our time in the capitol city. We’ll complete our circumnavigation with another day at sea and visit to Cienfuegos before returning to Jamaica. That’s the plan, anyway. I’ll keep you posted on our adventure!

~ René Morley

P.S. The original itinerary included a stop at  Punta  Frances National Park on the south coast of the La Isla de la Juventud, now replaced by a day at sea. <sigh> The “Isle of Youth” was a very nice thought…

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

journey to bethlehem

We’ve had so much fun with children’s church this fall! The first quarter is drawing to a close with a Journey to Bethlehem. The curriculum was a free download, which is always appreciated. Unfortunately, it wasn’t age-appropriate for our mostly preschool-aged group. So we borrowed weekly themes and customized lessons and crafts for wee ones to follow the star and learn the story of the first Christmas.

Our journey is based on the Christmas story as told in Luke 2:1-20. In week 1, we explore the journey Joseph took in trusting God, a leap of faith that changed the world as he led his new wife to fulfill 500 years of prophecy in Bethlehem. In week 2, we drop in on the lowly shepherds, the first people to learn and act upon the good news of great joy available to everyone. In week 3, we consider the long and expensive journey of the magi, they who were wise in watching the signs and following the star that led them to worship the Christ child. In week 4, we learn about the long journey the baby Jesus took to Bethlehem, giving up heaven to become the ultimate Christmas gift.

The children are learning cute hand motions to familiar carols like Away in the Manger, Drummer Boy, and Silent Night. The favorite, by far, is newcomer, “Oh, What a Special Night.”  You can’t help but sing and move along! I invite you to share the wonder and joy of Christmas with the little ones you love through these fun activities.

TOP LEFT of CENTER and FAR RIGHT: Joseph and family of popsicle sticks and cloth (week 1) TOP FAR LEFT and RIGHT of CENTER: Baby Jesus in popsicle stick and paper manger  (week 4) CENTER: Soft sheep reminder of the shepherds (week 2) BOTTOM  Sparkly clay star; we used this recipe (week 3) Please use comments for craft assembly questions.

As always, Carolyn Arends inspires my advent preparation. Come and See, is a joyous accompaniment to our journey! I guarantee if you like that you won’t want to miss Story of StoriesLong Way to Go, and It Was a Holy Night. Listen in and be inspired by those and many other original, thought-provoking lyrics by launching her delightful Christmas Jukebox. Do you lack Christmas Spirit? Get it here!

 

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Bonus! A sweet reminder of the first Christmas with M&M candies. I wish I knew who to give credit for this clever poem. Please clue me in if you know the original author!

 

Happy happy and merry, merry! May your Christmas be especially blessed.

~ René Morley

island smile:)land

IMG_7076Last weekend I enjoyed a few days on Florida’s gulf coast. This was a special occasion, celebrating with my next younger sister her 50th birthday.

This trip has been in the works for months. I booked a villa at the South Seas Island Resort in February and coordinated flights through award miles. My cousin came on board, generously offering to provide custom taxi service after securing time off to join the party. Then we looped my mom and aunt into our plans. These ladies both celebrated big birthdays this year as well, turning our event into a dual-location and multigenerational celebration.

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The resort was lovely. Lot of seashore, silky sand, and sunshine. Our South Village villa provided expansive coastal views and direct access to miles of shell-strewn soft grey sand. We were situated between two pools and not far from resort shops — plus a pond inhabited by a small alligator, just to keep it real. A resort trolley made for convenient access to the other end of the property, North Pointe, with its outdoor pool complex, tiki bar, marina, restaurant, spa, fitness center and more shops. We all had good intentions for that fitness center!

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IMG_7223.JPG-1Despite all of the planning, I had few expectations for this get-away. A vacation is usually better that way: surprise me! The villa was perfect, with three bedrooms and four beds. The resort staff were so pleasant, launching our celebration with bottles of wine and other freebies in honor of the birthday girl.

My cousin brought along a huge cooler of food and birthday cake. We enjoyed a couple of dinners out and an excursion to Ding Darling preserve on Sanibel Island, searching for ‘gators. We found one big one — at a safe distance. Otherwise, only a few odd birds and horseshoe crab happy hour. :=) Mostly we hung out and did nothing much of anything, low-key and Captiva-easy.

IMG_7783My sisters and I are different from each other in many ways, and from my cousin in still other ways. But at the end of the day, we are much more alike than we are different. We share common traits, like generosity and compassion. We share appreciation for simple things, like a good cup of coffee with the sunrise or a glass of wine at sunset. We enjoy travel adventures, near and far. We share fond memories of early childhood summers on Grampy’s farm with our mothers. I hear myself in my cousin’s laugh and see myself in the shape of my sister’s feet or the arch of her brows.

Even so, our differences are real. Sometimes they create tension, especially when I am overtired and irritable and not prone to listen to anyone’s advice. Or when I allow self-doubt or insecurities to creep in and cloud my better judgement. I should know by now she’s in my corner; if I can’t trust her, who can I trust? Seriously.

More often than not, however, our differences are a gift. I’ve learned to listen closely to the small silences, to examine the gaps between me and she. I usually find something in that space that I need. I’ll take a tip from my Aunt Bea and hope that at eighty I’m still up for challenge of becoming my best me.

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On Monday night we drove back to Fort Meyers to rendezvous with my mom and aunt. We enjoyed a nice Italian dinner and another round of Happy Birthday to You! Have you ever seen 50, 75, or 80 look so good? Me, neither.

~ René Morley

pick me up

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Last Saturday, Rosie’s daddy dropped her off early, on his way to work. GiGi was blessed with several hours of Rosie-time.

He and Rosie had enjoyed quality time together all week long while her mama was on a business trip. How things have changed! I’m so pleased this generation of farmers can take the time they need to take as daddies. I’m so proud of our eldest for the way he attends to his little lass. They clearly adore each other.

I believe Rosie is the most adaptable child I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.  Our visits may be spaced a couple weeks or more apart, but you’d never know it by the way she settles in and makes herself at home with GiGi.

She is tiny but determined and always surprises me, in one way or another. This visit, it was her sign language. At various times, I think she was signing for milk, for all done, maybe also for more? But I really don’t understand sign language very well. I could tell she was missing her mama this visit as well. She wasn’t the least bit fussy or whiney but she did take every opportunity while we played outside to plop down in my lap — just a quick little connection before she was off to play again.

She loved the swing, the slide — lots of giggles — the playhouse, and the water table, sans water. But a couple hours later, when she caught sight of her aunt Michelle with cousin, Henry, she was all in. The younger the mother figure, the better, apparently. And there was the one sign anyone could interpret: Pick me up!

~ René Morley

long walk

IMG_0256Last Saturday I completed a goal set last spring: to walk a half-marathon. I did it mostly for the discipline imposed over 14 or 15 weeks of training. I enjoy the experience on race day, on a beautiful route in a supportive community. But I’m always slightly embarrassed to be walking in the midst of the runners.

This is the fourth half-marathon I’ve walked in the past few years and the second in Lake Placid, the most historic of beautiful Adirondack venues. When I mention my self-imposed challenge to friends or co-workers, they assume I’m running. I feel compelled to clarify, almost apologize. “I’m just walking.”

Not long ago, a long distance runner and colleague gave me new perspective. When she heard that I was walking a half, she congratulated me and said, “I think walking is harder than running.” Huh?

She and her husband are both amazing athletes. They run up and down grueling mountain trails or in oppressive dessert heat, wallowing in mud puddles to stay cool enough to continue 80 or 100 miles. When her husband is competing she will run alongside in the dead of night for awhile to pace him. When the going gets tough and his body is begging him to stop, his mantra is “Keep running. The only thing worse than running is walking.” No doubt because it’s only going to take you longer to finish!

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Sharon and I began our preparation in late May, training separately during the week while gradually increasing distance on weekend walks together. We’d start by 7:00, sometimes 6:00 a.m., to go the distance — up to 10 miles. Lately, it’s been near dark when we met up on the trail. As summer winds down to fall and daylight hours shorten, it’s harder and harder to rise extra-early on Saturday.

In mid-July I also began working with a personal trainer. My birthday present to myself was 6 months with Carrie and 12 months of gym membership. I’m surprised to find that I’m enjoying the gym, with Carrie’s support. I’m glad to put event training behind me and focus there. I guess I like best to compete against myself. But first, there was a long walk. We were ready!

We enjoyed a lovely evening in Lake Placid, followed by a beautiful sunrise. It was a chilly forty-some degrees; the mist hung heavy over Mirror Lake as the sun climbed over the mountains. Starting at the 1932 Olympic oval, we walked uphill and down, around the lake and through town, alongside mountain streams and rivers, past horse barns and vegetable farms, under the watchful gaze of the 1980 Olympic ski jumps and ever-present old mountains.

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We even jogged a couple stretches, letting the momentum of the long hills carry us down, praying we’d have the strength to climb back up. We were particularly motivated by a group of noisy French Canadians in pink tutus. We followed closely for awhile before they pulled out in front. For perhaps half the race, we trailed them, scheming of a victory. We made our move to pass in a slow but stealth jog on a fairly crowded stretch, blending in with the running pack. Boo-yah! They never caught up. ;=)

It was a wonderful experience although a rather long 13.1 miles. I was ever so thankful to have a partner for the journey. I’m proud that we finished the race on our intended pace and that we didn’t finish in last place. Sometimes our victories are small and very personal but still they are important.

~ René Morley

sliding over the hill

IMG_2025Yesterday was the perfect capstone on fun-filled birthday weekend. It started with a brief visit from Rosie on Friday afternoon, as I was finishing work. Just long enough for some hugs and kisses but it sure made my day.

On Saturday, I tagged along with Sadie and Ollie to visit Old McDonald’s Farm. There is a delightful variety of animals, including bunnies, chickens and other feathered friends, cows, pigs, sheep, horses, donkeys, alpacas, lamas, even reindeer, and a camel!  I do think we agreed the goats are the most fun. Oliver decided he’d ride the big horse and did so with a big smile. Sadie, never one to be left out, rode the pony around the ring. She had a dubious look about her, no doubt wondering how she ended up in this precarious position!

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We had lunch at Tin Pan, one of our favorite restaurants. I found exactly what I have been looking for in the antique store and voila, it became a birthday gift. What a nice surprise. We were all wiped out and it had started to rain by the time we headed home. I thought the chids would be quick to conk out. They’d been on the run for hours! Nope. Not this time. I suspect they heard someone say “Ice cream?”

Sunday started bright and early with breakfast at a tiny diner at the edge of a neighboring of town. It’s the sort of community gathering place where you might feel like an outsider except that the proprietor and staff are so welcoming. They offer great food and yummy pies. Hens loves the Cin-Cin french toast, as does GiGi.

We met up again at the playground for a picnic lunch.The grands enjoy this particular playground best of all in our area. There are lots of things to climb on, slide on, bounce on, and swing on. Something for everyone! Big bonus: it sits on the riverbank near shady trees with scenic views. Perfect place for birthday picnic.

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Recently, Hens learned the word “muumuu” in reference to GiGi’s summer attire — falsely, I might add. (Google it and you’ll understand my miff!) In response, I wore to the picnic the closest thing I have to a muumuu (a navy breakfast robe, courtesy of my mom) accompanied by my grandmother’s pink costume jewelry, a long string of glass beads white ankle socks, plaid boat shoes, and a floral silk scarf with white leggings that might sub for granny pants. The “old lady” effect was completely lost on my son-in-law, the rascally source of the muumuu myth, but I had fun with it anyway!

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The whole weekend was so much fun that I rather forgot I was sliding over the hill. That is good by me. After dreading the big 5-0 for so long, I am pleasantly surprised to be enjoying the ride. I know growing old is a privilege many are denied. I only hope that by the time I reach bottom (sometime in the far distant future, please, God …) these wee ones have accumulated a big bucket of GiGi memories to carry along. More than anything, may they each know how much they are cherished, always and forever.

~ Rene Morley

chicago, again

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All last week I worked in Chicago. It was a wonderful week. The team I work with is fantastic. The program we ran was exciting and successful. But the level of energy required to pull it off is just shy of atomic. Okay, that’s perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Regardless, by mid-week, we were running on empty and by week’s end, exhausted.

Well, no, this wasn’t our first rodeo. And yes, we all knew this would happen. So we’d planned to arrive the day prior to program launch to give ourselves a bit of breathing room in Chi-Town. Our first agenda item was Chicago’s longest running off-Broadway show, Million Dollar Quartet.

The Hubs and I enjoyed this show so much a few years ago that I was thrilled for an opportunity to return. I sold the idea to my colleagues and purchased tickets months ago. We were delighted to snag front row seats at the Apollo Theater in the Lincoln Park district.

M$Qx2 did not disappoint. It is the most magical of live theater experiences in my repertoire, Broadway included. The slightly dumpy little theater is so intimate, the actors so talented, the writing so good, the simple set and classic sound track so perfect, you feel like you’ve spent an evening in the presence of greatness. It’s harder to believe that’s not Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis talking, singing, playing, reminiscing, and ribbing each other.

The best part was near the end of the show, when “Elvis” solos Hound Dog. He caught the eye of my colleague and locked in. She never blinked. He glided over with his white silk scarf and draped it around her neck, crooning all the while. A big wink and he was back on stage, dissolving into the drama unfolding. She left with the scarf and a large smile.

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There was one evening, mid-week, when I had the opportunity for a long walk. Boy, was I ready. Serendipitously, a walking partner appeared. The buddy system gives me peace of mind in an unfamiliar city. I love it when the Hubs is with me because he has a great sense of direction; I can relax and enjoy the view. But I remembered enough from a visit a couple of years ago to know we could get to Navy Pier from here.

We took the long way, hitting a dead end before redirecting. It was a gorgeous summer night, perfect temps, a light breeze. The Pier was hopping with locals out for a stroll and tourists enjoying the sights. We lingered over a beer, people-watching and chatting. We covered a lot of ground, literally and figuratively. I slept like a baby!
IMG_1911On our last evening in town, there was a small window of opportunity to sneak out for deep dish. One of my colleagues had never had this experience. Let me tell you, there is nothing like Chicago deep dish!

Pizzeria Uno’s original restaurant was within walking distance of our hotel. Perhaps I’m partial to Gino’s East but it really doesn’t matter where I get it. There was simply no way I was leaving town without it. In fact, I was planning to order an extra to bring home to the Hubs!

After multiple delays and false starts at the end of an excrutiatingly long day, we were finally ready to roll. And then it started to rain. Before long it was pounding, pouring from angry clouds in solid sheets. What a mess. It was also rush hour; the taxi line was barely moving. We were both hungry. I was starting to feel just a bit grumpy.

Fortunately, the hotel provided umbrellas so we decided to strike out on foot, slogging along East Wacker, to Columbus, to Michigan Ave, to Ohio. She was slipping and sliding out of her sandals and we were both soaked through by the time we finally arrived. All along the way, passing delectable-smelling restaurant after restaurant, she kept saying, “This better be worth it.” And I kept saying, “It will be worth it. Just wait. It will!”

FullSizeRender-1Even in the downpour, there was a line extending out the door. We walked up to pre-order and get on the list. There we discovered, to our surprise, that an open table for two awaited. What a gift. We sloshed into a seat, ordered a round of beer and an appetizer. The pizza takes almost an hour to bake but it is so worth it. (She agreed!) We left with a few leftovers and the fully satisfied feeling that only a long conversation over a good meal brings.

On our return, I was looking for someone who might need a bite to eat. I don’t know if this gesture would have occurred to me, if not for my eldest son’s example. We diverted from our first prospect, crossing the street to avoid his agitated arm waving and hollering. Too scary! It wasn’t long before we came upon another man quietly sitting on the curb, his head dropped to rest on his chest. Was he asleep? I wasn’t sure but approached close. “Hey, buddy, would you like a bite to eat?” He lifted his head, reached for the bag, and said, “Thank you.” I felt a lump in my throat and wished I’d offered more than my leftovers.

IMG_5349So those were the bookends and highlights on an intense week in the Second City: Million Dollar Quartet, Navy Pier, and deep dish. In the midst of this often crazy-intense work, long hours and frustrating travel logistics, it’s these experiences with colleagues and friends that make it feel a lot more like a life than a job. Along the way, I’m often reminded that I am incredibly blessed.

~ René Morley

hens turns two

Last week grandboy Henry turned two years old. He had a full week of celebration to show for it!

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On Monday, Hens and his mama and daddy took a trip to Parc Safari in Quebec. It is quite something. I remember taking our chids here many years ago but it’s almost an entirely different species now! They had a grand time surrounded by exotic wild animals on the psuedo-African plains. (Yes, in the cold Northern Hemisphere. It’s a marvel.)

Henry enjoyed the water park more than anything. But I loved hearing about the up close and personal camel experience. Better yet, while Daddy was intent on capturing the perfect shot, he received a sloppy, wet smackeroo from another camel on the backside of his head. Stealth attack!

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Early on Wednesday morning, I called Henry via FaceTime to wish him a happy birthday. He listened politely to the birthday song for all of about a minute before telling his mama, “Shut door.” Then CLICK, he disconnected me! Well, huh. I can hardly compete with the Micky Mouse Clubhouse.

His mama took the day off to enjoy his birthday. She said, “Henry, you can do anything you want today. Beach? Playground? Anything!” Henry said, “Feed cows with Pops!” … and she was unceremoniously ditched, too! Pops had the honor of Henry’s company on his big day.

I took a few small gifts down to Henry after his nap to help fill some time as he was waiting for his daddy to finish work. I was eager for him to unwrap.

GiGi: “Henry! Don’t you want to open your presents?”
Henry: “Hmm. No, GiGi. Play diggers! Play diggers!”

That is classic Henry. However, his eyes lit up when he saw the appliquéd dump truck on his new pillow sham, preparing for the transition to his big boy bed. He thought it was Mighty Machines. Oh, how little boys love their equipment. ;=) IMG_0193

Henry received a tricycle for his birthday and is quite proud of his newfound skill pedaling. He cannot wait to show his older friend, Andrew, what he can do. (Andrew is a mature 5 years old, after all.) It was all Hens could talk about as he pedaled around.

Their driveway has a slight incline, which made for the perfect training ground. Hens-Self could hardly keep up! “Who’s birthday is it today? Who is two years old?” I asked. He giggled all the way to an abrupt stop on top of my strategically placed foot. Only then, breaking his intense concentration, did he look up and answer my question. “Hens!”

After dinner with Daddy and Pops, we went out for ice-cream. Henry couldn’t decide between his vanilla-chocolate twist with sprinkles or mama’s vanilla with cherry dip or daddy’s plain vanilla. And really, why should he have to? Ha! But just how much ice cream can one two year old eat?

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On Saturday, it was Henry’s mama’s birthday. I picked them up for breakfast shortly after 8. We headed to a little diner on the outskirts of town that gets great reviews, especially for their pies. Henry picked up on this tidbit in our conversation and became very excited about this prospect.

His Mama: Henry, What do you want for breakfast?
Henry: Pie!

He quickly earned the title “Cutest Yankees Fan, Ever” from a sweet elderly lady at the adjacent table — although he was far too consumed with savoring his chocolate milk to take note. He enjoyed some of his mama’s breakfast sandwich and some of GiGi’s french toast. But boy, oh boy, did he relish that fresh raspberry pie! Because, why not? It’s mama’s birthday!

I think there must be an as-yet undiscovered pie gene and it runs at least four generations deep in my father’s family. Come to think of it, there might be an ice-cream gene, too!

On Sunday, we gathered for Henry’s birthday party. Pizza and presents. Cake and balloons and Mickey Mouse party hats. Aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. It was raining outside … and inside, the barely controlled chaos you might expect with four busy wee ones at play.

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Oh my mercy! Even with just the immediate family, we are bursting at the seams. Pops better build that barn soon! How far we’ve come in two-and-a-half years of grandparenting. This picture says it all: Life is good.

Sadie (16 mos), Henry (2), Oliver (2 yr 5 mos), Rose (11 mos)

~ René Morley

tulip adventures

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On Mother’s Day weekend, the Morley Inn was full to the brim with guests from western New York and Virginia. It was perfect timing, planned for a return to the Ottawa Tulip Festival — one of my favorite spring activities. This is the second year running of four-generation tulip adventuring — last year  with my chids, my mom and my grandboys and this year, for my sister and her family. My Buick was loaded near to capacity with 2 sisters + a great-nephew + my mom + me, of course, behind the wheel: designated driver and tour guide.

We’d planned on departing at 9:00 a.m. but by 9:30 I was beginning to wonder if we’d ever leave the driveway. I enjoyed a visit with two grandchildren over a late breakfast. Then made a trip into town to borrow a baby stroller. My younger sister needed to use an ATM. I picked up some bottled water while we were there. We returned to find that my older sister had packed our picnic lunch. At least one of us was ready to go!

Meanwhile, the others continued to fuss about jackets and shoes and umbrellas, in and out of the house, rustling around in their cars as my exasperation grew. I hate being late! Finally, they each settled into a seat — forty-five minutes past due for our rendezvous with my daughter-in-law, grandgirl Rosie, and her maternal grandmother. Finally!

But as it turned out, our progress was short-lived…

We drove toward the international bridge. I paid the toll and reminded everyone to get their passports out for Canadian customs and immigration. Immediately, a look of panic crossed my older sister’s face: no passport on her person! I wheeled into the duty free shop before the bridge to discuss our situation. Should we try to cross into Canada anyway? Should we spin around and return to the toll booth? Should we work our way into the returning US customs lane? Currently a dozen cars deep, this last was the least inviting option.

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IMG_1499My sister leapt out of the car and proceeded to pace the parking lot as she called her husband, telling him to come and get her. She intended to wait in the parking lot until he did. Or maybe she could walk back over — surely they’d understand? For some reason I couldn’t immediately articulate, her plan made me very anxious. I told her we weren’t leaving without her so she’d better tell him to stay put and get back in the car! Later, I realized he had neither her passport nor his own, and neither of them had an enhanced NYS license, so there was nothing to gain by bringing him into the situation.

Meanwhile, I called some friends familiar with border crossing protocol. They advised that entering Canada was inevitable. If the Canadian immigration officer didn’t send us back immediately, we may as well carry on with our plans for Ottawa and deal with the U.S. entry issues later in the day. So that is what we did.

IMG_1497Our visit to Ottawa was quite mundane, by comparison with other events of the day — bright, blue cotton candy notwithstanding. We ate a quick lunch in the parking lot and then strolled past bed after bed of artfully arranged tulips at Dows Lake. The displays change annually and are always a treat. This year they were absolutely stunning, full blooms even more dramatic on a cloudy, gray day. We walked back to the car, beating the rain by just a smidgin before heading back home. Perfect timing, indeed.

I think we were all a little bit nervous when we got to the border, praying that we wouldn’t have a hard time. There was no line, which took us all by surprise and resulted in a scramble to locate documentation. I passed the pile off to the officer, who asked us where we’d been and if we’d purchased anything. Standard stuff. He seemed very congenial, thankfully.

Then he asked, “How many are in your vehicle?” I turned to look over my shoulder and he said, “You don’t know? You need to count?” My sister whispered, “Six,” but I still wasn’t sure. “Does that include the baby?” I asked. The officer said, “I need to figure out who everyone is.” “I’m the driver,” I said, rather unhelpfully. “Oh, really? You’re the driver? I wouldn’t have figured that out — with you behind the wheel and all,” he responded — with just a hint of a smile. And then, “Have you been drinking?” I think he knew better but quickly said, “No!” to confirm. By then, of course, all I could do was laugh. I’m not sure how it conveys in retelling but it was quite comical at the time.

He immediately noted the problematic documentation and returned to question my sister. But he was able to verify through the system that she did have passport and sent us happily on our way — without even a word of the lecture we’d anticipated. Home again, home again, jiggety jig. Then it was time for a glass of wine!

~ René Morley