UKRAINE

“UKRAINE” for many people this word conjures up mental images of danger, strife, poverty, refugees and destruction. Even for me, until 6 days ago when the Eurobus I was traveling on arrived in the city of Lviv, Ukraine.

Why I went to Lviv is not the important part of the story; but what I saw and learned is. When I arrived I was in a bit of a uncomfortable situation, and suddenly a woman spoke to me in English asking if I needed help.  Liliya and her daughter-in-law, Oxana stepped in and became my rescuers.

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Liliya

Liliya quickly took me under her wing and  became my tour guide, history teacher and friend.

Ukraine is a mosiac of nationalities, cultures, religions and architecture. A lengthy history of power and wealth at a natural crossroad of trade routes from europe, the middle east, Baltic region and asia.  It was the center of commercial, religious and administrative activity.  Great buildings were constructed, libraries created, art and science flourished, and the city was famous for the rich culture. And then as with most of our affluent civilisations corruption, greed and eventually war over territory and wealth became the norm.

The Ukraine many of us know is the one that was in our school history books.  But let me show you the Ukraine I saw.  Granted, it was only one city; but it drastically changed my idea of what Ukraine is.  Lviv is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 18 churches reside here: Catholic, Greek Catholic, Jewish, Armanian, Christian and Orthodox.  Perhaps Boim Family Chapel has the most interesting history and unique building.  (it’s story coming later). Read about this UNESCO chapel on Wikipedia or the UNESCO Site

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Lviv also has some fun and interesting things to see.

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The Yard of the Lost Toys.  Another story, another time
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“The Father of Masochism”  Stay tuned for this and other stories of famous people from Lviv.
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The cemetery that became a one-of-a-kind museum.  Another story, another time.

I’m not finished with Lviv!  Looking forward to another visit in September.

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An art contest at a cafe
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A woman promoting a tattoo studio.
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El Escorial, Spain

My trip to El Escorial, about an hour north of Madrid started from the city of Valdemoro where I was staying with my “Spanish family” (mom Susanna; dad, Jose and girls with whom I had been practicing English conversation for the last few weeks).

One day I went to the sports complex with Susanna.  While she was working out, I went next door to the VIPS restaurant and was enjoying my coffee and bocadillo (sandwich) when a nice looking man approached and asked, in English, if I would consent to joining him and his friends who were mature students studying English.  Of course!  Who am I to pass up an opportunity to meet locals.

Then I received an invitation to join their English class as a native English speaker.  And, so, the next Tuesday I met with Ada, Rosa and Jose Maria in Fernando’s class.  And, for the next 3 classes as well.

One day I said I wanted to go to Segovià and that comment ended with Ada and Rosa making plans to go with me.  They both asked if I was also going to visit nearby El Escorial, a place I knew nothing about.

We made plans for the following week.  In the meantime Susannas’ mother, Pilar came to visit and we invited her to come as well.  We all boarded the 9 o’clock train and made the  hour and a half trip to the mountains and the town of El Escorial.

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Our first stop in El Escorial was for coffee or chocolate and churros.  We took this photo (that’s Rosa) because in the US it would be illegal to advertise something you don’t have!  Yep, they didn’t have churros 😥.

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Me, Rosa, Pilar and Ada in black stripes.

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We walked up the street towards the monastery, stopping to look around in the visitor center and other shops.

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Ada and Rosa checking out the clothes!
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Walkway to the monastery entrance.

A most impressive sight, the Royal Monastery of El Escorial, also known as The Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the historical residence of the past kings of Spain. Built for King Philip the Second, it is an austere structure encompassing the following: monastery, church, royal palace, school, seminary, and royal library surrounding 11 main courtyards and 3 service courtyards.  It is the largest​ monastery in Spain.

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This is less than 25% of the complex.

Originally this was the property of the Hieronymite monks from the Order of Saint Jerome.  These were hermit monks living according to the Rule of Saint Augustine in 14th century Spain. These monks devoted themselves to study and exercised great influence over the Spanish kings.

Today it is the monastery of the Order of Saint Augustine and a boarding school.

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This, like the aqueduct of Segovia, was built without mortar or concrete in the 16th century.

There is a massive library where all of the books are edged in gold gilt and kept under lock and key.

The crypt is the final resting place of Spanish royalty.  Elaborate black and gold caskets line the circular wall, each stacked, in order, one shelf after another.  Other family members are in kept in an adjacent large underground area.

Photos are not allowed inside of the rooms so you can go to Wikipedia or the UNESCO website to see what I cannot show you.

Waiting for the next train under the spreading Jacaranda trees.IMG_20170412_183254El Escorial is a lovely little town with a jaw-dropping national treasure. I am glad I got to see it with my own personal guides.

Segovia, Spain

UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE.  I was surprised and a bit perplexed when I began to research Segovia because several of the travel videos said there were only three or four things to see there.  One young woman also erroneously remarked that the world famous Roman aqueduct, constructed sometime in the first century, was a “wall”.

IMG_20170415_183059IMG_20170415_183510The aqueduct consists of 25,000 blocks and 221 pillars all built without mortar or concrete. It stretches 15 kilometers from the river to the town.

Can you imagine anything being constructed today without concrete that would survive 2000 years?  I think not!

The aqueduct is the first amazing structure you see when entering the city of Segovia. Find a seat, order a coffee and try to imagine men hauling enormous stones up, up, up, one upon another all 221 pillars without the use of our modern machinery.  It stretches the imagination. There’s a myth, though, that the city of Segovia was founded by Hercules.  Ok, he could have done it.

Done with the coffee?  Great, now stop in at the tourist office on the right hand side of the square and get a map, you will need it if you are going to visit all of the sites (not just 3 or 4).

Head up the street and on your right you will see Casa De Los Picos, a house with a façade of pyramid shaped granite blocks. The entrance and courtyard are decorated in Talavera tiles. Built in the 15th century, now houses the Segovia Art School.

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Continuing you will come to Plaza San Martin where you might encounter a marionette playing music across from St. Martin’s church, one of the prettiest Romanesque churches in Segovia.

The cobbled street brings you into the main square where a massive and grandiose Cathedral de Santa Maria del Segovia takes the spotlight.  Well worth the small entrance fee.  Be prepared to have neck strain.  This ediface is like an enormous buffet where you want to taste everything, but your stomach says “please, no more”.  It is the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain and it is the place where Isabella was crowned queen of Castile.

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My photos don’t do it justice.  Check it out on line.

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Walk around the plaza, poke around the shops, enjoy a coffee or chocolate and churros!

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IMG_20170415_150933The street forks here.  Take the left fork through the arch.

Then continue along the narrow, winding streets of the Jewish Quarter where in early 1492 monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella produced an edict that said in effect that all Jews in Spain had 3 months to either convert to Christianity or leave Spain, which ended 300 years of peaceful co-existance.

There are many small signs telling about the Jewish Quarter as well as shops, museums and churches here.

This street intersects with Plaza Reina Victoria Eugenia and the beautiful Segovia Castle which you might recognise as Walt Disney’s version of Snow White’s home.

IMG_20170415_154211Officially Alcazar de Segovia (Segovia fortress), construction began in about 1155 by King Alfonso the 8th. Many kings of Castile have chosen this fortress as their home.

Many of the interior rooms are decorated in the Moorish style like the Alhambra in Granada and the Alcazar de Seville. You can visit the interior of the castle, and I would recommend purchasing a ticket on line, because the line was VERY LONG on the day of my visit.

IMG_20170415_163841Across the park is a restaurant with a lovely view of the old city behind the fortress wall.  Service was slow and the line for the ladies room moving at a snails pace, but if you are thirsty it’s the only game in town.

Immerse yourself in history, shop til you drop and have fun in Segovia!

“Just Speak”

Dateline: Poznan, Poland.  New English Immersion program now available to native English speakers from around the world.IMG_20170519_085153

A small group of 8 Polish speakers and 8 native English speakers gathered at a retreat on an idyllic lake, complete with swans,  to work on improving the English of the Polish participants; through the use of both typical exercises and some innovative and fun new ones.

Early morning strolls with a cuppa’ java usually led to the dock and quiet conversations with the duck family or a program participant.  The swans were late arrivals, but were routinely seen mid-morning skimming the reeds.  Someone was always using the dock for English exercises.

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And, then there was the campfire when we all roasted our sausages and practiced  more English, tried to learn a new dance and talked about music, politics and food.

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In this group we had native English speakers from the United States, Australia, England, Wales, and Canada and as you can see, a good time was had by all. As is usually​ the case with theses programs we all leave with more then we expect; new friends, traveling tips, life lessons and happy memories.

If you find yourself headed for Poland and want to have some fun, be useful to English students and eat some really great Polish food join the group at Just Speak in Poznan!  www.justspeak.pl

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The Price of a Smile

How much do you think a smile would cost?  What value would you assign to a smile given to you?  How would you calculate the residual effect of seeing a smile?

Would you pay .05 (five cents US)?  That’s the price a parent in Luxor would pay for one balloon.  Ah, no problem you say.  It’s a very small price, except in Luxor it might be the choice between something to eat and a balloon for your child.

This idea started when I tossed some balloons from my balcony to kids in the street below.  The resulting whoops and yells resulted in the remaining balloons floating from my balcony.

 

The lightbulb lit up like a searchlight!  What if I could give balloons to more kids?  Distribution was the issue.  If I walked through the street I would be mobbed!

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Mustafa behind the balloons.

Ahh, of course, enlist Mustafa and the carriage.  He was definitely up for this.  What he didn’t know was that he was going to help me blow up 400 balloons on two separate days and give them to the children.

 

It began in a relatively small way but quickly escalated to a mob scene.  Children came streaming out of buildings like red ants on the march. These kids didn’t need a cellphone to spread the word, they just yelled “balloon”.

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Million dollar smiles
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Another bag of balloons emptied.

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Obviously it wasn’t only the kids who were smiling. We had a great time with the balloons as well.

And along with us, there were smiles from parents, grandparents and neighbors.  Along the street we even got smiles and thanks from store owners and people on the street.

Drivers of several “jitneys” stopped when passengers yelled out. We shared balloons with people who had kids in tow.

So, again, the question, “what price do you put on a smile?”

We calculated that with 400 balloons we could have generated more than 2,000 smiles.  That, divided by the price of four bags of balloons told us that the smiles of children are priceless.

When was the last time you caused someone to smile?  Simple things like telling a stranger on the street how cute, beautiful, interesting, creative or colourful their hat, shirt, shoes, umbrella or jacket is.  When did you tell a store employee their attitude was great? Have you ever noticed how a woman’s face lights up when you compliment a hairstyle?

Make someone’s day, generate some smiles.

Smiles, like yawns are reciprocal.  Share yours today.

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People we passed on the street smiled and waved to us as Mustafa drove the carriage to the Karnak neighborhood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Carriage for Mustafa

Hello from Luxor, Egypt.

This post is a request for help.

Those of you who know me understand that I believe in helping those in need. Like many of you, I have done my share of volunteering, taking the cards off of the Christmas trees and giving anonymous gifts to children, donating to the local food bank and other small acts of kindness along the way.  I am now putting my faith in you!

Luxor, until 5 years ago was a magnet for tourism which provided the economic backbone for most of its inhabitants.  There is no major industry in Luxor, no technology, no manufacturing or any other economic base.  Tourism was the engine that drove this train.  5 years ago that train was derailed by the political upheaval here and it left people struggling; some more than others.

So, I want you to meet Mustafa the carriage driver and his horse Natalie.

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Mustafa is the youngest of 12 children.  His father was a carriage/Caliesh driver who was able to support his family with a healthy tourism economy.  The sons grew and went to school and each one began to work at young age to help support the family.  Unfortunately, the father died when Mustafa was still young.  He never had the opportunity to finish school.  He went to work at 9 years of age!

Mustafa wasn’t asking much from life – the love of a good woman, marriage, family and the ability to earn a decent living. Being illiterate limited his choices.  He joined the military thinking it would allow him to make something of himself, but found after a few short years that his inability to read and write put a ceiling on promotability.  He then went to work for the local police department where his job for 3 years was to stand in front of a building with a gun for eight hour shifts.

The one big thing that these jobs gave him was a way to fix up a small flat where he would live with his wife. This was a definate prerequisite to getting married.  He spent six years just getting to the wedding day.

Today Mustafa has a wife and two small girls to support and educate.  He is determined that his girls will have a better life.  He struggles every day to earn enough money to buy food, pay for his daughter Mina’s school and feed his horse Natalie.

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Getting Natalie’s shoes repaired.

His main struggle is not only because tourism is down. The greatest impedintent to his success is that he has to rent the carriage, and  for every dollar he earns the owner of the carriage and license gets  80%, there is no way to get ahead of this curve unless he owns his own carriage.  He has the horse Natalie, which he takes care of, saying she is the important part of the team.  Without Natalie there would be no income at all.

Recently he had the opportunity to buy a carriage and license.  He and his wife went to the bank to see if they could get a loan for the equivalent of 3500 euros.  Well, we all know how those conversations go.  Do you have an account? Do you have collateral? No? Well we can’t help you.  His wife brought her diploma from graduation and thought it would be collateral.  A valuable asset for her, but not he bank.

This man is like Cinderella, stuck in an untennable situation and needing a fairy godmother with a magic wand.  I volunteered for the job of fairy godmother and am hoping you can be the magic wand. If 100 people each decide to donate 35 euros Mustafa can buy his carriage and license and be his own boss, keeping 100% of what he works to earn instead of  a pitiful 20%.  I seriously doubt that any of us would want this type of work situation.

At this point, if I were you, dear reader, I would be asking – what do you really know about this family?  I can tell you that Luxor is a small town and everyone knows everyone. Not one person I’ve met has had anything but good words for Mustafa.  They say “he is good man” and “he is honest man” and “he takes care of his family”.  And, I have found him to be honest, kind and conscientious.  I have been to his small flat (one room, kitchen the size of a closet, and if you need he toilet you have to go downstairs to his brother’s flat); they have taken me to the fruit and veg market helping me buy my vittles each week at local prices.  Mustafa has given me valuable information about Luxor, and how to discourage hassles, teaching me Arabic words and making sure I am treated fairly! They have adopted me into their family.

img_20170103_103833So, how can you help Mustafa?  His friend and my landlord has helped establish an account at the local bank for Mustafa.  You need to send your contribution in EUROS, and I’m sure there will be a fee to send a foreign transaction. Your bank will ask for a

SWIFT CODE : N B E G E G C X 524

which includes the name and location of the bank.

IBAN number 524 00 391 36 000 605 240

Name on the account: Mohamed Ali Hefny Abdel Rahman

Who is my landlord and friend of Mustafa.

I have started this account with 100 Euros, please let the magic begin!

 

 

Poland = Polite

Poland is the most polite country I’ve visited in Europe.

  • Men hold doors for women and the elderly.
  • People on public transportation willingly  give up seats to pregnant women, elder!y and handicapped passengers. (Unlike my experience in Dublin)
  • Children greet visitors and say “good bye” when visitors leave.
  • Drivers actually STOP for pedestrians in crosswalks (and honk at jay walkers).
  • You hear people saying “thank you” all of the time.
  • Bus drivers help with you with directions.
  • Husbands understand that household chores have no gender designation.  They help with childcare and cooking.

On my first day in Warsaw I wanted to ride the tram but could not find where to purchase tickets.  When I got on the tram I asked “bilety?”with a shrug, as if to say “where do I get a ticket?”. The tram was jammed and a lovely older woman gave me 2 tickets, showed me where to validate them but would not take any money for them.  Fortunately I have been able to return the favor for two Japanese students in Warsaw for only one day; and “paid it forward” for a visiting Ukrainian woman.

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  • People in shops actually show you where to find things, not just point to a section of the store. Have a headache, looking for aspirin?  Just put your hand on your forehead and look pathetic, a clerk will take you to the correct place immediately.
  •  In TK Maxx, on an extremely crowded Friday evening, I could not find the location of the shopping baskets.  An employee saw my quandary and simply said “stay here” and she returned in less than a minute with that all important retail sales equipment – a shopping basket.  (It is much too crowded with merchandise to have carts in this store).

I think I want to live here!

Polish people are eager to learn English and travel to Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Miami.  Sorry  LA,  Dallàs, Boston, Seattle and DC.  Participating in several Angloville English Immersion programs here has led me to believe that travelers from Poland have four cities on their bucket lists.  And, I was surprised it was Miami and not Orlando/Disney World.  One person actually said “Disney World is sooo passe today, we want fun and sun in Miami”

Unfortunately, McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, PizzaHut and Starbucks have invaded Poland, which may be a positive for young Poles, but not so much for the over 30 crowd who seem to flock to Asian and Indian eateries.

Have you ever told a denegrating Polish joke?  Perhaps you were just unaware of the hundreds of contributions Polish people have made to improve our world.  Here are a few.  Let’s start with ones you may know.

  • Nicholas Copernicus, renaissance mathematician and astronomer who formulated the model of the universe against popular and church beliefs, that the sun and not earth was the center of our known universe.

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    Monument to Copernicus theory of sun as the center of the universe; in his birthplace, Torun, Poland.
  • Frederic Chopan, composer.  In case you are not familiar with his music go to  YouTube, The Best of Chopin.
  • Marie Curie, yep, she was a Polish girl named Maria Skiodowska before she married the French physicist Dr. Curie.  She is the first woman to be awarded a  Nobel Prize in two categories, physics and chemistry.
  • If you want to read about an extremely interesting and diversified man, check out Ignacy Jan Paderewski, composer, diplomat, philanthropist, and vintner on Wikipedia.
  • Thank Polish-American Stephen Poplawski for your blender, which made lives easier in 1922 when he received his first patent.
  • More modern would be Albert Sabin who created the Salk vaccine, our weapon against polio.
  • Who has not heard the name Lech Walensa who led the shipyard workers in a revolt against communism through the Solidarity movement and became the first president of Poland.Lech Walesa bio
  • Lesser known is Mieczslaw Gregor Bekker, an engineer who worked with General Motors to develop the Moon Rover.
  • And, if you have ever used a Q Tip, you can thank  Polish-American  Leo Gerstenzang who then advanced his invention for the medical profession,  creating one that could be sterilized using an autoclave.
  • People in New England can give a big shout of thanks to Polish Marie Elizabeth Zakrzauska for establishing the New England Hospital for Women and Children and for also establishing the first general training program for nurses in America.
  • And, yes, there are also theatrical and literary Poles like director Roman Polansky and four Nobel Prize writers: Henryk Sienkiewicz for The Deluge, although he may be better know for his book Quo Vadis.  Also on that list is Wladyslaw Reymont for The Peasants, a 4-volume national epic; and Czeslaw Milosz for The Captive Mind and last but not least the poet Ms. Wislawa Szymborska.
  • In a previous post I wrote about the 3 math students from Poznan who were instrumental in breaking the Enigma Code that brought WWII to an early end.
  • Last on my list (although there are hundreds more) is Pope John Paul II.

Poland is no slouch in the yummy food category either, with bakery windows full of tortes, hand made breads in every flavor and grain you can think of.  Then there are the cookies and morning danish, pastries and cakes.  Yes, cakes for breakfast and Charlotte Rousse

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for lunch. Oh yes, and the hand made chocolates, coffees, and slurping good hot cocoa.  One more thing you might enjoy is Hazelnut vodka or a Mleczny Orzoch (Bailey’s, hazelnut liquors and shaved chocolate).img_20161110_102438

So, the next time you hear someone starting to tell a Polish joke, you have enough ammunition to say “Hold it right there partner, no Polish jokes allowed here”.

Next stop Torun, home of Nicholas Copernicus and gingerbread, yummmm