A Tale of Two Flats

It’s a cold, frosty November morning and December is hard on her heals. As usual when the air turns sharp and burns in my lungs, Charles Dicken’s fills my mind. I can’t help it. As a Dickens bookslover of literature, the big D is one of my favorite authors. I always have great expectations for the holidays and would wrap my presents in the Pickwick Papers if I could. I reach for my well-worn copy of A Christmas Carol and soon picture the hard-edged streets of Victorian London with old Ebeneezer Scrooge stalking his way through the darkened heart of the city, spitting on dirty urchins and muttering bah hum bug under his breath. Tiny Tim limps through my imagination and I can almost smell Mrs. Cratchit’s goose. H’mmmm…. goose….

Charles Dickens London

And this December – like Sydney Carton from Dicken’s classic, A Tale of Two Cities – I’m plagued with an unrequited love. But the object of my affection isn’t a fair maiden named Lucy, but a traditional style Go with Oh flat in the heart of Kensington within walking distance of Charing Cross.

http://www.gowithoh.com/vacation-london-apartments/ref_16415/

In addition to being a stunning flat, the location is perfect as it is within walking distance of many wonderful sites such as the River Thames and Westminster Abbey, but it also happens to be a hop, skip and a jump from where Charles Dickens actually slaved away at the Warren’s Blacking Warehouse at the meager age of 11 while his father rotted away in debtor’s prison.

Kensington 1

I adore the crown molding in this Go with Oh London flat!

Call me crazy, but as a huge fan of history, I am one of those weirdly tactile individuals who likes to stand where my heroes actually stood and walk where they actually walked even if the place in question isn’t one that was near and dear to any of my heroes’ hearts.

As a poor little urchin, I doubt Dickens ever waxed nostalgic about his days at the warehouse, but painful as the experience was, it did inflame his imagination to write truly moving and memorable literature. So to me, visiting London at Christmas to see the sites that actually inspired his imagination and to walk where he walked excites me more than a clean house and new underwear. If I can kiss the cobblestones and hug his house without getting arrested by a bobby, I will.Dickens house sign

Kensington 2

This kitchen would make Ebeneezer Scrooge smile

Hence my love affair from afar with the pretty little Kensington flat courtesy of Go with Oh. With its high ceilings, vintage crown molding, large windows and adorable kitchen tile, it’s the perfect ground zero for a history-laden, Charles-Dickens-inspired Christmas walking tour – courtesy of http://www.dickenslondontours.co.uk/.

But much as I love this pretty little flat with its perfect little location, I’m torn, though mine is not a tale of two cities, but a tale of two flats for another object of my affection would make Bob Cratchit drool with envy.

Camden town 1

All it needs is me, my family and a plate of plum pudding

It’s an equally lovely little flat located in Camden Town, though while it sports two bedrooms, two bathrooms and lovely décor, it’s missing an outdoor mud oven in which to steam our plum pudding. But I think we can make do.

http://www.gowithoh.com/vacation-london-apartments/ref_16400/

Camden town 3

Imagine the goose Mrs. Cratchit could fix in THAT kitchen

Plus, being such a light and airy space, I doubt it’s dripping with ghosts from anyone’s past, present and future, but one can dream and I wouldn’t mind waking up to Marley’s Ghost at either location.

As I said, November is here and December is breathing down our necks. London awaits with her crisscrossed streets, ancient churches, haphazard skyline and history waiting around every corner. My copy of A Christmas Carol beckons in the bookcase. Two apartments stand ready for the renting. It’s time to dust off the luggage. God bless us, everyone.

Now pass the plum pudding. Tis the season and I’m getting in the mood.Dickens flyer

By Robin Winzenread Fritz

I Dream of Foreign Places and Dog-Free Spaces

Someone – I don’t know who – pooped on the welcome mat. I discovered it early one morning while chasing my teenage son to the school bus with a wet mop as he’s not a morning person,

Don't let that face fool you - she's a walking toilet

Don’t let that face fool you – she’s a walking toilet

doesn’t shower enough, and thinks 16-year-old boys shouldn’t have to ride the school bus but, instead, should be driving a smoking hot sports car with booming speakers and teenaged girls taking up every spare inch of space.

But I digress.

As I was saying, someone pooped on the welcome mat, and I’m hoping it was the dog, but in this house with these kids and my particular breed of husband, everyone is a suspect.  Being an optimist, I realized things could be worse.  For one thing, a) it had hardened by the time I found it and b) I hadn’t fertilized the shrubs in a while.  So, finding lemons and making lemonade, I gave the mat a quick flip, tossed the little unwrapped gift under the hopefully hungry yew and called it a morning.  Extra cup of coffee, here I come.

I love that extra cup of coffee because it comes with a quiet house and sleeping pets and time to think.  It’s that blessed in-between time when all is still and it’s not yet time to report to the home office.  It’s my time to sit, to sip and to dream – dream about a cleaner house, thinner thighs, constipated pets and, more often than not, of foreign times in foreign lands with foreign people in a beautiful little space charmingly free of cat hair.

My heart belongs to Venice

My heart belongs to Venice

I’ve found such a place in the form of my dream Go with Oh apartment in that magical place known as Venice, Italy.  When my dreams take me away like a 747 flying high over my rolling Hoosier farmland, I still find it hard to believe such a place does, in fact, exist.  How could this place, this magical watery space, be real?

When I planned my first of hopefully many trips to Venice in the spring of 2012, I spent many a happy idle hour drooling over Go with Oh apartments in Venice.  Did I want to be near the Piazza San Marco?

What wonders wait behind this open window?

What wonders wait behind this open window?

Or was something overlooking the Rialto Bridge more my style? Or perhaps I should consider something half hidden away in the looming shadow of the Santa Maria de Miricoli with her pink laced marble walls and her gleaming dome? Maybe one of the outlying islands would be fun.

Decisions, decisions.

While I could have happily searched for Go with Oh apartments for an eternity, I eventually, found what I was looking for – a lovely two-bedroom, two bath beauty with multiple windows and balconies overlooking the San Severo River, with an actual terrace AND an actual fireplace in the kitchen and a wide entry hall just begging for weary travelers to enter, unwind and toss down their luggage.  Pinch me until I’m pink, I found heaven on earth!!!

My Go with Oh San Severo beauty

My Go with Oh San Severo beauty

It was everything one could dream of.  One bedroom – MY bedroom – featured wooden parquet floors tread by who knows how many Venetian tradesmen.  A wooden desk sat between two windows overlooking the canal and a bridge – an actual Venetian bridge with its graceful arch and bobbing boats for neighbors.  I could easily imagine that desk and that bridge just waiting for me to show up with pen and paper to sit, stare and write.  Venetian glass chandeliers winked overhead.  Within the kitchen stood a wide open door to a terrace featuring who knows what kind of wonderful view outside.

I could sit here and write forever, I think

I could sit here and write forever, I think

I wanted to waltz into that kitchen, open that door and step outside to know –  really know – what was out there.  As long as it wasn’t a pooping puppy, I knew I would be thrilled!

And in real estate they say what matters is location, location, location and my Go with Oh San Severo beauty had that too. While everything in Venice is near the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge, this one was so tantalizingly close that I imagine I could stand on that balcony and hear the ghostly breath of long dead prisoners coming from the Bridge of Sighs. I imagined I could pick out the domes of St. Mark’s against the one-of-a-kind Venetian skyline and I knew I

I would give four dogs and five teenage tantrums to peak out that door...

I would give four dogs and five teenage tantrums to peak out that door…

would be able to hear the ringing bells of the piazza’s tower.

Sadly, however, like many a beautiful woman, my Go with Oh San Severo love had many suitors and she was unavailable to rent the week I needed her.

First the denial – no, how could that be??? Then, the heartbreak!

And then, I returned to my Go with Oh apartment list and found the next love of my life, Ca ‘Elena.  Think what you will, she was no rebound apartment and in September of 2012, I fell in love with her too.  In fact, my heart will always belong to my little Ca ‘Elena.

http://www.oh-venice.com/en/venice-apartments/ref_16176/?arrival=2014-03-23&departure=2014-03-30&zone=VEN&sid=&s_id=s_52667dd1aa381&PRODUCT_TYPE=apartments&adults=2&children=0&babies=0

With that said, I WILL go back to Venice and I WILL take friends and family with me – but not the dog.  And I WILL begin a new love affair with the lovely Go with Oh San Severo beauty.  Until then, I will wash the clothes and pick up after the children and feed hard cheese and bananas to the dog in hopes of avoiding a

I want to awaken in this bedroom to the bells of St. Mark's in the nearby Piazza San Marco

I want to awaken in this bedroom to the bells of St. Mark’s in the nearby Piazza San Marco

repeat offense on the welcome mat.  I will clip my coupons and I will save my pennies and soon – hopefully very soon – I will be making plans and packing bags and sharpening pencils.

Because eventually I will sit at that bedroom desk and I will gaze at that bridge and I will write a line or two about what it means to travel and see the world.  I will make memories and take pictures and I will fall in love again with new spaces and places.  And, eventually, I will go home, but I will take with me a little of that watery, wonderful world that is Venice, Italy.

Here is a link to my future foreign Go with Oh San Severo home away from home.  I’ll share it with you now because I’m a nice person and I know I’m not the only middle-aged mom wrestling with crusty teenagers and pooping pets.

Hanging in a Venetian alley with my good friend, Candy.  May another Go with Oh apartment be in our near future!

Hanging in a Venetian alley with my good friend, Candy. May another Go with Oh apartment be in our near future!

Think of it as my little gift to you – and you’re welcome!

But it does come with a caveat.  While I’m sharing it with you, remember one thing – I’ve got dibs on next September.

http://www.oh-venice.com/en/venice-apartments/ref_15447/?arrival=2014-03-23&departure=2014-03-30&zone=VEN&sid=&s_id=s_52667dd1aa381&PRODUCT_TYPE=apartments&adults=2&children=&babies=

With that said, get to Venice.  Everyone needs a little living, breathing slice of real world fantasy to hold on to.  Now excuse me. I have to go diaper the dog.

Making friends in the Piazza San Marco

Making friends in the Piazza San Marco

Robin Winzenread Fritz

Missionary Style – An Idiot’s Guide to Doing Good Works in Haiti (Part II)

The sun rises over Jeremie, Haiti

The sun rises over Jeremie, Haiti


Since traveling to Haiti, I’ve had several people mention to me how they hope to someday go on a similar trip. It’s exciting to see how contagious mission work and travel can be. My friend David planted a seed with me, and now I hope to plant similar seeds with others.

And as David gave me the low down on what to expect before we left, I feel it’s only appropriate to fertilize the seeds I’m planting with a little sage advice, keeping in mind that I am still very wet behind the ears in the mission-trip travel department. But every little bit helps, so if you to want to go out and do good works in Haiti too, here are some practical tips to pave the way.

Our project at the Gebeau compound in Jeremie - the "before" view

Our project at the Gebeau compound in Jeremie – the “before” view

Part II – The Details

Pack light and prepare to sweat – My teenage son likes to whisper “hoarder” in my ear whenever I try to repurpose anything so, as you can imagine, packing light is an ordeal for me. During my recent trip to Italy, I left a wake of herniated airport employees behind me. But I managed to dig down deep and pack only essentials for Haiti and – guess what? For once in my life, I actually packed too light.

I took a tiny bottle of liquid Tide with me so I could sponge things out every evening and wear some things twice. I SHOULD have taken some string to use as a clothesline too, so learn from my mistake. Also, what I hadn’t counted on was the reality of the work at hand. Our project consisted of cleaning out and refitting a barn for a future tractor delivery, and, by cleaning out, I mean we CLEANED IT OUT. Rats, big ass spiders, years of accumulated dirt, bird poop and oil, and coconut shells by the hundreds left us all grimy, gritty and gross. Additionally, we did it in 90 degree heat – which, by the way, is the cool season in Haiti. Come summer, it’s actually hotter.

Every day was hot, sunny and beautiful - enjoying the view of the Grand Anse River

Every day was hot, sunny and beautiful – enjoying the view of the Grand Anse River

So at the end of the day, I pretty much smelled like a camel, and my work clothes could stand up by themselves. All the sponging in the world couldn’t put a dent in the funk growing in my shoes by mid week and I actually lived in fear of running out of soap and shampoo. Come to think of it, my companions actually lived in fear of me running out of soap and shampoo too.

Don’t pack for vacation, pack for work and if it has sentimental meaning, leave it at home – As I knew I would be working on that barn before leaving, I packed work clothes, including my favorite old navy blue polo shirt. It’s not a great shirt nor is a good looking shirt, but as shirts go, it’s a favorite because it’s broken in and very comfortable. I’ve spent a lot of hours telecommuting in that shirt.

Mark cuts a ceiling brace with a handsaw - no power tools were on site because we had no electricity

Mark cuts a ceiling brace with a handsaw – no power tools were on site because we had no electricity

But what I hadn’t counted on in Haiti was looking into the faces of so many people with so little. It made me seriously regret the state of my walk-in closet back home, so I let them pick me clean like a buzzard on road kill – and I would do it again in a heart beat. When workmen pointed to my gloves, I let them have the gloves, because they were working harder than me. When a little boy kept admiring his reflection in my aviator sunglasses, I let him have them, and he strutted around worthy of his new nickname, Rico Suave. When another young man came back with us to the guesthouse at the end of one day and asked if we had any clothes to spare, I gave him that polo shirt because it was the only thing I had not yet been worn or sweated in. By the end of the week I was also down a baseball cap, safety glasses, several magazines, a pen and a water bottle too. And I wish I had had more to give. Much as I loved that shirt, there’s plenty more in my closet where that came from.

The barn now sporting a new roof, plaster, doors and paint.  Plus, it's squeaky clean inside!

The barn now sporting a new roof, plaster, doors and paint. Plus, it’s squeaky clean inside!

So, in short, DO pack heavy and plan to share. Great things to take and share include work gloves, water bottles, t-shirts, soccer balls – which are practically a currency in Haiti, not to mention an instant party – hand pumps for those soccer balls, Crocs, flip flops, you name it. David brought with him a few old Army duffels jam packed with stuff, and it’s impossible not to feel moved when handing these things out. So cram those backpacks and share the wealth! It feels good.

Buying supplies at the Haitian "Home Depot" - don't worry, it's just paint

Buying supplies at the Haitian “Home Depot” – don’t worry, it’s just paint

Take change – Sometimes I pride myself on not being a total moron. More often, however, I’m kicking myself for being a complete idiot, and nothing was more idiotic than waiting until the last minute to hit the money mover prior to my trip. The end result was that I took mostly $20s.

How dumb could I be? In Haiti, people don’t make change, because they don’t HAVE change. Haitian workers will move mountains for $8 a day – we paid them $10 – so that puts those $20s in perspective. Plus, it’s not a shopping Mecca. Talented crafts people will come to you with really neat trinkets for sale, but they’re not expensive items, so you end up buying armloads of this stuff because you have a $20, not a $10 or a $5 or a $1 and – I repeat – they can’t make change. But it’s ok – the way I look at it, I stimulated the local economy.

In short, break those freaking $20s and take dollars, dollars, dollars. Who cares if you look like a stripper on payday? You won’t have them – or shouldn’t have them – when you get home anyway. Oh, and leave the credit cards and debit cards at home. You won’t need them either.

Many homes in Jeremie do not have access to running water

Many homes in Jeremie do not have access to running water

If it’s yellow, let it mellow… – and I think you know the rest of that little gem. Ok, here’s the reality of Haiti – few people have running water in their homes. While fresh water does seem to be plentiful – it pours out of the mountains – getting it some place useful, like in homes, seems to be a real problem. Even well-kept places like the Methodist guesthouse where we stayed in Jeremie which do have running water, still have issues. Water pumps in Haiti are few and far between, thus the majority of faucets and toilets are gravity-based.

What does this mean for you? It means don’t waste water and forget about water pressure. And as for hot water, don’t even think about it. Besides, it’s a hot country and you already smell like old cabbage so do you really need it? Nope! But do take sanitary wipes or antibacterial gel. It comes in pretty darn handy. And if you’re a germ-a-phobe, well, let’s just say you may have a few issues with Haiti. But if you’re a dirt-eating, nose-picking, wipe-your-hands-on-your shirt farm girl like me, you’re good to go.

Sometimes I smelled like a camel AND a sheep

Sometimes I smelled like a camel AND a sheep

With that said, keep these water-related ground rules in mind. When showering, get wet, turn off the water, then shampoo and soap up. Then rinse off and do it quick. I also found that if I sponged out a few things in the sink quickly before showering, I could let them soak in the sink while I showered and drain while I dried off and got dressed. Again, bring a clothesline too as you’ll need somewhere to hang your stuff overnight to dry.

Also, if you’re there for a week and you eat the same kind of diet we ate – goat, rice, beans, fish, and lots of fresh fruit – be prepared to poop. Why do I bring that up? Reminder – gravity-based water flow! If you must take a dump, do it downstairs if you’re in a two-story building. You’ll need the extra *umph* to get it down the pipes. Trust me, one such episode in the upstairs restroom took a rest stop somewhere along the way down and the end result wasn’t pretty. I’m just saying, you know. So snatch the pebble from my hand, grasshopper, and poop downstairs. One more thing – never put toilet paper in the actual toilet, no matter WHAT is on it. Toilet paper goes in the trash can beside the toilet – again, gravity-based water flow. It’s self-explanatory, really.

It gets dark early in Haiti

It gets dark early in Haiti

Don’t panic if the lights go out – When you’re in a strange country, and it’s a developing one at that, you may be slightly on edge when odd things happen, say, for instance, the power goes out at night. Don’t panic. Sure, in the States, power outages are fairly uncommon. But in Jeremie, that turned out to be an almost nightly occurrence. Once at dinner, we were all plunged into darkness, but what fun it was when everyone whipped out their cell phones and lit up the night!

I don’t know what caused the outages or if they really do just shut off the power to the city after hours, but by morning it was always back on. Plus, as a country hovering just over the equator, the sun is up by 6:00 a.m. and down by 6:00 p.m. so you’re going to keep odd hours anyway. Nine in the evening seems almost like midnight, so you’ll probably already be in bed when it happens. Also, it’s much more quiet at night than at 5:00 in the morning anyway so sleep when the sleeping’s good. Dogs, birds, chickens, motorbikes, they all seem to start up early and often. You’ll appreciate hitting the sack early, trust me.

Cristella put my hair in pigtails

Cristella put my hair in pigtails

Be prepared to be petted – If you’re a glow-in-the-dark white gal like me and have bushy fake blonde hair bordering on cocker spaniel, prepare to be petted, especially if there are any young Haitian girls anywhere in your immediate vicinity. We had the good fortune to spend some time with some adorable young people at the Gebeau orphanage and, as I quickly found out, long blonde hair is a Haitian orphan magnet. Plus, these sweet children will want to hold your hand, sit on your lap, hug you and walk with you and they will follow you like puppies. It melts your heart. So let them. Hug them, hold them, play with them, sing with them, walk with them. I did draw the line at having the mole on my arm twisted, but you’re free to set your own limits.

Walking with school children on a mountain road above Jeremie

Walking with school children on a mountain road above Jeremie

Eat what you can, when you can – Maybe goat’s not your thing or maybe you don’t like bones in your fish, but, regardless, when you get the chance to eat, eat. Why? Because you just don’t know when you’ll eat again. Sure, we packed lunches every day, but when you’re working with guys who are carrying five-pound buckets of rocks on their heads for a quarter-of a mile for hours and they have no lunch, you’ll give them yours. And you’ll give them your water or Pepsi or whatever else you have too. Otherwise, you’re a heartless creature so what the hell are you doing in Haiti anyway?

Workers hauling rock by hand

Workers hauling rock by hand

So when breakfast is placed before you, pig out. And when dinner lands in front of you, pig out again. Besides, the food is fabulous, the fruit is amazing, though I have to warn you – my new friend, Janet, may have another opinion when it comes to goat.

Be prepared to expand your comfort zone – When I first arrived in Jeremie, I didn’t know what to expect. We landed on a hardpan runaway in a small commuter plane, there was an armed guard waiting at the cinderblock airport, he had us get in the covered porch with barred windows and he shut us and our luggage in while we waited for our ride. Several men came and stared at us through the windows, watching us. I kept an eye on my bag. And at the time, I felt like a caged animal.

Looking at our ride through the porch bars of the Jeremie airport

Looking at our ride through the porch bars of the Jeremie airport

On the ride to the guesthouse, we passed what appeared to me at the time to be squalor and debris. The road was gutted and pitted and in places broken pipes gushed water which further eroded the roads. People carried buckets on their heads and bananas and various other things. Thin cattle and goats were tied to the sides of the road. It was overwhelming and I was, at first, wondering what to expect. I felt small and somewhat vulnerable even within the safety of the truck cab hauling us to our destination. Hey, cut me some slack. It was my first visit to a developing country, ok.

But what a difference a week makes! As we drove through downtown Jeremie one day, it reminded me how in Venice, Italy, laws actually exist to PREVENT people from upgrading the exterior of their buildings. Thus, in Venice, moldering cracked walls are “fashionable.” In Jeremie, I first looked upon very similar walls as ugly. Why? Clearly I needed a new mindset. So, as the week progressed, what had first looked like rubble and squalor became reality. Jeremie is beautiful in her own colorful way.

Riding through downtown Jeremie on the way to work

Riding through downtown Jeremie on the way to work

And, as for the guard at the airport? Well, when we left, he was there again, but this time we stood outside with him, laughing and chatting. He asked me if this was my first trip to Haiti and so we talked about how I liked it and what I thought. He smiled and joked with me and let me take his picture. I forgot about my bag – if they wanted my camel smelling clothes, so be it – and I was happy and content and enjoying life. I hated to leave. And this time, I knew quite a few of those men and we joked and shook hands and hugged. By now, I knew them and I knew too that I would miss them.

Thus, by the time I left, I was at peace with Jeremie, and with Haiti. What a beautiful country and what an even more beautiful people. After a week of walking and working and swimming and taking motor-taxies and sitting at the Amberge Inn, visiting with new friends, etc., I felt my comfort level grow, expand and enlarge with each passing hour. And with it, my comfort level with Haiti and with the world at large expanded too – which, again, is just one of many reasons why I travel.

Haiti's forests are teeming with bananas, coconuts, breadfruit, papayas, almonds, mangos, etc.

Haiti’s forests are teeming with bananas, coconuts, breadfruit, papayas, almonds, mangos, etc.

So, when you take your first mission trip – and you know you will – expect at first to be unsettled, but keep an open mind. Plan and prepare, but be flexible. Open your heart. Smile. Relax. Work hard. Wash often. Eat hearty. Reset your benchmarks for life. And enjoy. If you get the opportunity to go to Jeremie, Haiti, you should. You’ll never be the same.

Happy travels!

– Robin Winzenread Fritz

Taking off into the wild blue yonder with young David Duba - it was the first trip to Haiti for both of us.  Our leader, Big Dave, is a pro at this.

Taking off into the wild blue yonder with young David Duba – it was the first trip to Haiti for both of us. Our leader, Big Dave, is a pro at this.

Missionary Style – An Idiot’s Guide to Doing Good Works in Haiti (Part I)

These young boys stole my heart in Haiti.

These young boys stole my heart in Haiti.

The sun has set on my first mission trip to Haiti, but I hope and pray it won’t be my last.  It was a soul-satisfying adventure that came with good people, great experiences and a unique learning curve.  As I hope my experience will encourage others to take a chance and do good works there too, let me share with you what I’ve learned…. so far.

 I’m tackling this task in two parts.  Part I which follows focuses on the big picture items.  Part II will tackle the more practical aspects of missionary work in Haiti, such as how to pack, what to bring and which toilet to poop in as – trust me, on this – it makes a difference.

 My hope is that, as 2012 draws to a close, you too will be inspired to go out into the world and make an attempt – any attempt, no matter how big or how small – to leave it better than you found it. 

But before I begin, a huge shout of THANKS goes out to everyone who made this trip possible – David Duba (our fearless leader), the United Methodist Church of Fishers, Indiana (our sponsor), the Gebeau compound in Jeremie, Haiti (site of our work projects), and the United Methodist guest house and Paster Chrisnel (our host for the week in Jeremie).

Jeremie, Haiti as viewed from our Cessna commuter plane

Jeremie, Haiti as viewed from our Cessna commuter plane

Part I – the Big Picture

Be open to being led – Prior to my trip, my well-traveled sister and brother-in-law regaled me with tales of how the people of the Dominican Republic told them not to set foot in Haiti.  They warned me about the poor infrastructure, general lawlessness and disease.  Were they wrong to do so?  No.  Haiti is not a place to be tread lightly or, perhaps I should say more accurately – it is not a place to be tread stupidly. 

BUT, if you chose your leader wisely, it IS a place that can be experienced with a relative degree of safety.  I say relative because, like all places – including elementary schools in Connecticut – safety is an elusive thing and is often very relative to how you conduct yourself or what precautions you take.

Dave and Martin plan the work, then work the plan

Dave and Martin plan the work, then work the plan

In our case, our fearless leader, David Duba, has traveled to Haiti many, many times.  As he is tall, lean, with great posture and carries a very well-worn Army knapsack as his luggage of choice, he comes across like a modern day Rambo with more intelligence.  In short, it pays to travel with someone who just looks like he knows what he’s doing, especially when he does.

Additionally, David had arranged for us not one but three interpreters whom he knows well and has worked with in the past.  Moreover, he arranged drivers for us during our two Port-au-Prince stopovers – a necessity to avoid being swarmed by crowds of strange Haitian men lingering outside of the airport looking to give you a ride.  If you’re thinking New York City yellow cab, think again.  DO NOT get into a car with a strange man in Port-au-Prince, even if it is at the airport.  Trust me.  Arrange a driver and, if you need one, let me know.  I’ll get Nader’s number for you.  I think Dave has him on speed dial.

Commuting in Port-au-Prince, Hait

Commuting in Port-au-Prince, Hait

Be smart, but have faith in your fellow man – I’ll admit it, Port-au-Prince was outside of my comfort zone.  While I was looking forward to our end destination of Jeremie on the far southwestern coast, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the seething humanity of Haiti’s capital.  Plus, it didn’t help that as we left the international airport for our one kilometer drive to the municipal airport, I encountered my first ever experience with the realities of a developing nation.  Step outside the airport and you enter another world.

As Nader ushered us out the door, we headed straight for a white van while Nader and Dave waved off the initial crush of strange men looking for a pay day.  While putting my backpack in the back of the van, Nader said to me, rather urgently, I might add, “Get in.  Close the door.”

As he repeated those two phrases with more urgency each time, I hopped in the van and climbed in the back row.  Young David Duba – Rambo Dave’s son who joined us on the trip – climbed in too and left the door open.  As Nader proceeded to shout, “Close the door!  Close the door!” another white van pulled up close beside us.  With my heart in my throat, I watched as a large man dark as night climbed out beside us.  Isn’t this how Port-au-Prince kidnappings start, I wondered?  And as my heart rate increased I watched as this large man approached our van and… closed the door for us.

Haiti is full of good people, including these two lovely young ladies who enjoyed playing with a matching game app on my cellphone

Haiti is full of good people, including these two lovely young ladies who enjoyed playing with a matching game app on my cellphone

Silly me.  No, in Haiti, it’s not wrong to have your guard up.  Self preservation is a natural instinct.  But time and time again when I travel, I’m reminded that I should have more faith in my fellow man.  Yes, there are bad people in this world, but there are so many more good ones too, and we tend to forget about that fact.  In Haiti – when it came to my fellow man – I encountered way more good than bad.

Case in point – and it’s an odd example, I’ll admit – was that of my cell phone charger which took a hike in Haiti.  The last time I saw it, it was in an outside pocket attached to my backpack strap with Velcro.  Someone at the airport in Haiti helped themselves to it, but, rather than keeping the detachable pocket it came in, they took it out and put that very same pocket back into my backpack.  In short, he or she only took what was needed.  As I have a spare charger at home and can also charge my phone from anyone of four computers and two laptops via a UBS port, I can hardly begrudge them a phone charger.  Do I blame them?  No.  BUT, take it from me, if you don’t want to “lose” something of value, put it inside your luggage.  It’s ok to trust your fellow man, but, at the same time, don’t tempt him.

Women carry heavy loads on their heads, including water and produce.  These birds are going to market.

Women carry heavy loads on their heads, including water and produce. These birds are going to market. Photo by David Duba

Be patient, you’re on Haitian time – In short, leave your American “time is money” mindset at home.  Life moves to a slower beat in Haiti, and slowness has value.  This is a country where few people have running water in their homes.  The mere act of getting water – walking up hill and down, balancing large buckets on your head, day in and day out – sets a pace that moves slower than most Americans are use to.  We turn on a faucet and it’s there.  For many Haitians, it’s a 30 or 40 minute uphill hike away from home.

Taking motocycles to the Gebeau compound in Jeremie, Haiti.  The roads can be a bit challenging.

Taking motocycles to the Gebeau compound in Jeremie, Haiti. The roads can be a bit challenging.  Photo by David Duba

Plus, the roads are pitted, gravel and just plain bad, and even short trips take time.  A five and a half mile trek up the mountain in a four-wheel drive diesel truck took us 45 minutes.  To some, that may sound like torture, but that ride remains one of the highlights of my trip.  I sat in the bed of that truck with young David and Martin, one of our interpreters, watching the mountains and Caribbean sea unfold as we made our bumpity-bump-bump way up into the hills. 

This slower pace is not a bad thing.  Haiti is an experience that needs to be savored.  It’s not a world of drive-thru windows and freezer meals.  So park the impatience at the airport, relax and enjoy.  Your blood pressure will thank you.

Remnants of Hurricane Sandy haunt the beautiful jungles of Haiti.

Remnants of Hurricane Sandy haunt the beautiful jungles of Haiti.  Photo by David Duba

Next time, I’ll tackle the more practical aspects of navigating a mission trip in Haiti.

Christmas, South Beach Style

Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, you're burning up my retinas....

Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, you’re burning up my retinas….

As it was dark outside when we arrived at the Catalina Hotel and Beach Club, http://www.catalinahotel.com/ on Collins Avenue in South Beach, I did not have my sunglasses handy when we sauntered into the lobby dragging army duffels full of used shoes and soccer balls behind us.  Had I known about the giant glowing pink Christmas tree gleaming like a demon in a Steven King novel circa 1970s, I might have come prepared.  Regardless, it was a funky eye-numbing display of over the top holiday magic that told this farm girl, she wasn’t in Kansas any more.  And I couldn’t have been happier.  Bring on the coconut eggnog!

Happy hour in the Red Bar at the Catalina Hotel & Beach Club

Happy hour in the Red Bar at the Catalina Hotel & Beach Club

Christmas in South Beach, a.k.a. Miami, is a huge departure for someone who’s Midwestern version of the holidays more closely resembles Ralphie’s in the Christmas Story.  My standard memories of the holidays come laced with overcoats, mittens, evergreen trees and green bean casseroles.  The closest I’ve come to shooting my eye out was with an actual be-be gun as opposed to a flaming pink tree.  That Miami may be closer to the truth surrounding Jesus’ birth with its temperate weather, palm trees and succulent plants – glowing pink trees not withstanding – had always been just a notion to me until now.  It was high time I got in touch with a warm weather version of the Christmas story.

Abstract art decorates the Catalina lobby

Abstract art decorates the Catalina lobby

An end of the year mission trip to Jeremie, Haiti prompted this short overnight stay in South Beach and my traveling buddy, Dave Duba, wrangled a $55 a night per room rate at the Catalina just one block from the beach.  Surrounded by stylish art deco architecture and dripping with palms, it’s an eclectic little place with high walls of abstract art, yarn bombed balcony railings, a red bar and free drinks from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m.  Tip the British bartender in advance like my buddy, Dave, and she pours heavy. *wink*wink*

Yarn bomb railings peek down upon the Catalina lobby

Yarn bomb railings peek down upon the Catalina lobby

After checking in we went to find our wacky little rooms – which wasn’t as easy as it sounds as 120 followed 115 and my room, number 119 was one corner and about ten rooms more away.  But it was worth the where’s Waldo fun as mine came decked out with all white furniture and bedding in a room with blood red accents and a subway tiled bathroom.  Fortunately, they were also generous with the toiletries as I managed at least one shower and packed the rest for Haiti – a smart move since I sweated like a camel the following week and went through soap and shampoo like a squirrel in a nut house.

My wacky little room at the Catalina in South Beach

My wacky little room at the Catalina in South Beach

After dropping our gear, we went in search of food and fun, leading us to the Lincoln Road Mall a few blocks south and west.  If I die tomorrow, I want to be cremated so little spoonfuls of my ashes can be scattered in various places I’ve come to know and love, for instance, my grandparents’ former place in Holland, Michigan, the river near our farm, the spot where the old goat shed stood on the farm I grew up on, any aisle at a Hobby Lobby, tool town at Lowes and – as of now – the outdoor seating at Pizza Rustica along the Lincoln Road Mall.  Yeah, I know that sounds lame, but seriously, this place is cool.  And I love Hobby Lobby.

Window shopping on Lincoln Road

Window shopping on Lincoln Road

We window shopped our way up Lincoln Road headed for dinner and enjoying the glittery bacchanalia of South Beach when the David Dubas – father and son – stopped in their tracks.  What could cause two men to grind to a halt and drool in an outside mall?  An overly aggressive Victoria’s Secret display?  Beyonce shopping for shoes?

If Santa had any sense, his red sleigh would be a Tesla Model S

If Santa had any sense, his red sleigh would be a Tesla Model S – photo courtesy of David Duba

Nope.  Just a pre-production version of Tesla’s Model S sports car sitting in show room, glistening like Santa’s sleigh if the fat jolly man were, in fact, Italian, computerized and totally electric.

A sports car that seats six?  Ok, maybe four plus two more tiny people, but still, sign me up!

A sports car that seats six? Ok, maybe four plus two more tiny people, but still, sign me up!

Naturally we went in.  Naturally we climbed into the car.  Naturally we pushed buttons, stroked gear shifts and drooled on the leather interior.  And naturally they had to pry us out with crowbars.  Perhaps it’s a good thing my Christmas list was firmed up a long time ago and that deliveries for the Model S don’t start until 2013. I might be more than a little poorer otherwise.  But, dang, what a stocking stuffer….

Sparkling palm trees light the way

Sparkling palm trees light the way to Pizza Rustica

A half hour later with red lacquered stars in our eyes and more than a little dehydrated from drooling, we waltzed back outside and headed to Pizza Rustica.  How do I love thee, Pizza Rustica?  Let me count the ways, including supreme, barbeque chicken and quarto fro mage.  Have I mentioned that food porn leaves me weak in the knees?

H'mmm.... food porn ....

H’mmm…. food porn ….

We grabbed seats outside, placed our order, sat back and took in the scene.  We people watched.  We chowed down on excellent food.  We stared at palm trees decked out in Christmas lights.  We chowed down some more.  I could get use to this.

One of Peter Lik's amazing photographys.  As amazing as it looks here, it's even MORE impressive in person.

One of Peter Lik’s amazing photographs. As amazing as it looks here, it’s even MORE impressive in person.

Afterwards we headed to the Peter Lik gallery, LIKMIAMI,  http://www.lik.com/  just a few doors down from our dinner destination.  If you’re ever in the area, go.  Sure, check him out online – no doubt his images have caught your eye before.  But there is no comparison.  Seeing his work as it’s meant to be seen – huge, well lit, in a darkened room and framed – will leave you breathless. 

 If my discretionary income ever skyrockets, I know where I’ll be shopping first.  Fortunately, Rey Borges was on hand to give us a tour of Peter’s work, and I grabbed his card for future reference.  Rey has a treasure of his own – a necklace made from sunken treasure in the form of old Spanish gold – and he’s a delight.  Take the time to seek him out and he’ll give you the behind the scenes story of what Peter went through to get some of his iconic shots.

This makes me want to take up sewing

This makes me want to take up sewing

We left the gallery and continued window shopping, coming to the western end of the mall.  Crossing the street south, we worked our way back towards Collins Avenue, pausing for glitter and glam along the way.  The weather was warm, the conversation fun and the surroundings exotic.  Granted South Beach, Florida is an odd send off for a mission trip to poverty stricken Haiti, and I do appreciate the contrast.  If anything, it gave me an interesting perspective on the week to come.

Next time I'm in South Beach, I'm going bar hopping....

Next time I’m in South Beach, I’m going bar hopping….

But one thing did occur to me as I tucked myself into my big sprawling bed in my funky little Catalina room.

I definitely want to go back.

Lincoln Road Mall - enjoy it.  It's delightful!

Lincoln Road Mall – enjoy it. It’s delightful!

I want to Go with Oh to Venice – The Remix Tour

The view of the Grand Canal from the Accademia Bridge

The view of the Grand Canal from the Accademia Bridge

As Leah and Lola made their way across Europe courtsey of Go with Oh, I followed their adventures with amusement.  Who doesn’t love a good girls’ road trip, especially when it includes five European cities over four weeks, not to mention trains and planes, wine and pasta, feather boas and flamenco dancers?  It was a veritable arm-chair traveler’s dream!

 But even as I lived vicariously through their daily exploits and even as I daydreamed about a possible Go with Oh month-long trek of my own some day, I’m practical enough to know that – by necessity – my own such adventure would have a somewhat different theme.  For want of a better term, let’s call this fantasy trip the Fritz Family Foray into Europe.

 My dream plan is simple enough – a week in Dublin and London with my Anglophile loving daughter Jackie for some mother-daughter bonding time, followed by a week in Rome and Venice with my 15-year-old son Jordan, where I hope to introduce him to some real Italian culture – with the emphasis being on REAL.  As I’ve already covered why Dublin with my daughter is on the list, it’s high time to explain why oh why I want to take my baby boy to Venice. 

My son, Jordan, and my daughter, Jackie, on their first day of school, August 2012

My son, Jordan, and my daughter, Jackie, on their first day of school, August 2012

For starters, that boy needs some perspective.  While looking over pictures of my friends-only trip to Venice, he actually said in all seriousness, “Oh, I’ve been there,” all the while pointing to the bell tower in the Piazza San Marco.  “I climbed up that dome,” he said matter-of-factly as if he had actually “climbed” the basillica.  “See that bridge?” he declared, “I jumped off of that,” pointing to the Rialto.

A weary world traveler, is he?  Not exactly.

The Piazza San Marco as "reimagined" by the video game, Assassin's Creed

The Piazza San Marco as “reimagined” by the video game, Assassin’s Creed

Of course, my xBox-bleeding teenage boy was referring to his video game, Assassin’s Creed, one version of which takes part in Venice and allows players to crawl over every dome, bell tower and bridge re-imagined by the game’s designers in all their gorgeous glory.  He knows of the Piazza and the Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge, but, unfortunately, we’re talking in CG graphics detail only. 

 As a mother, I desperately feel the need to point out to him the difference.  While the graphics in Assassin’s Creed are good – very good, in fact – nothing takes the place of actually BEING in Venice.  Good graphics or not, the experience isn’t even close.  Actually being IN Venice is a tactile experience which should include, in no short order, the following:

–  hearing the bells toll throughout the city upon the hour, any hour;

Being covered with pigeons is a right of passage in the real Piazza San Marco.

Being covered with pigeons is a right of passage in the real Piazza San Marco.

–  reaching out your hand in the Piazza San Marco toward a cloud of forward pigeons who promptly swarm you for food and get a bit familiar in the process;

–  getting oh so deliciously lost on a daily basis and not caring if you ever find your way back;

– smelling that ever present hint of salt water every where;

– discovering the uniqueness of Venice’s highly socialized dog population:

– discovering hidden treasures like a Knights Templar cross cut into street pavers, tiny doors, building bolts and Flavia’s costume shop, and;

One of Venice's hidden treasures - a hooked X, the sign of the Knights Templar in a paving stone near the Fondamenta Nove

One of Venice’s hidden treasures – a hooked X, the sign of the Knights Templar in a paving stone near the Fondamenta Nove

–  making wonderful new friends.

Making new friends while traveling with old friends makes life grand.

Making new friends while traveling with old friends makes life grand.

Additionally, as a picky, picky child, Jordan practically lives on butter, pasta and cheese.  We often joke that he’ll some day own a store called ‘Carbs, Carbs, Carbs!” so naturally, his place is in Italy.  He once asked me to bring home a gigantic wheel of parmesan, but since I couldn’t fit it in my carry-on luggage, it seems like a shopping trip in Venice is in order too.  It’s time he try lugging home his own 30-pound wheel of cheese.

Lastly, having been to Venice recently with friends, I find that I desperately need to go back, especially given the city’s recent flood.  I want to make sure that things are still as magical and as different as we experienced before.  Plus, there’s still so much to see.  As we crawled through the city at a snail’s pace – seriously, there is SO much to see – we only scratched the surface.  Naively, before we left, we actually thought we could see every square inch of this modest sized city in the course of a week.  Little did we realize that our average daily pace would turn out to be two blocks an hour.  It’s THAT different.

A beautiful costume in front of Flavia's shop

A beautiful costume in front of Flavia’s shop

So now, I want to go back, bringing my 15-year-old son along with me in what can best be described as the “remix tour.”  I can only imagine at this point what it would be like for him to actually stand in the Piazza San Marco without his computer and online friends.  As he is a curious, smart and personable young man, I know he’s going to love it. 

Or else he’s grounded.

For more information on Go with Oh or for a chance to win fantastic prizes from their Facebook competition, check out their link at:  

http://www.gowithoh.com/

 And enter the competition.  Life is short, travel is fun and the world is blessed.  Get out Go with Oh badgein it, see it, live it and share it with a loved one.

 http://www.gowithoh.com/competitions/blogger-competition/

 By Robin Fritz

The bell towers sound magical... even the leaning ones.

The bell towers sound magical… even the leaning ones.

 

Mayberry Isn’t Gone – It Just Moved to Indiana…

Now that's a big root...

Now that’s a big root…

My husband is feverishly pouring through seed catalogs looking for turnips.  He has grand plans to grow a monster because he wants to challenge family friend Phil in the annual largest turnip contest held every Friday after Thanksgiving at the St. Paul Tavern.  Phil is the reigning turnip king and fears no competition, even the cheaters.  Buckshot filled turnips, grafted turnips, he’s seen it all.  He wears his porcelain turnip pin proudly and says, “Bring it!” to all pretenders to the throne. 

Family friend Phil standing in the middle with his world class turnip

Family friend Phil standing in the middle with his world class turnip

Me?  I’m just in it for the pageantry, the walleye sandwich and any chance to wear a t-shirt that says, “I love a big root.”  Thus while all of America shops for discounted electronics, we get there early to grab a good seat – trust me, it fills up quick – and sit in a wonderful local tavern eating, drinking and feeling up big winter vegetables.

The gang's all here!

The gang’s all here!

If the world were a counter full of Baskin Robbins’ 31 flavors of ice cream, to the uninitiated, Indiana can seem very vanilla indeed.  We have no mountains to speak of, no flaming desert vistas, only one major city and our sole beach front property consists of about a hundred miles of Lake Michigan coastline with nary a palm tree, conch shell or shark fin to be seen ever.  Much like pickled herring, Indiana – and large turnip contests – is an acquired taste.

A glorious sunrise over my little slice of Hoosier heaven

A glorious sunrise over my little slice of Hoosier heaven

And I get that, I really do.  I’ve traveled the world and I know how good it gets.  I once worked with a woman who grew up in San Diego.  Her childhood consisted of ocean, mountains and desert all within an hour’s drive so to her Indiana was somewhat of a disappointment.  She lasted about four months.

So, again, I get it.

In truth, a good part of me is thankful that a majority of the world doesn’t appreciate our flat little slice of the globe.  It keeps life somewhat simple, sane and sweet and, for that, I give thanks.  

 For example, in my adopted hometown of Rushville, my children’s farm-kid-oriented high school cheer block was recently praised by a visiting ref at a local football game because –  rather than loudly shouting the old stand-by, “Nuts and bolts, nuts and bolts, we got screwed!” over a bad call – they politely cheered, “We beg to differ!  We beg to differ!” *Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap!*

 His comment? “Are they really dissenting respectfully?” 

Yep.

Rushville High School students dance on stage while waiting the judges' results in the lip sync contest

Rushville High School students dance on stage while waiting the judges’ results in the lip sync contest

During a recent lip-sync contest held in the school auditorium, I watched as these same kids – teenagers, mind you – stood up, cheered and encouraged three young ladies who entered the contest and then succumbed to self-consciousness and stage fright.  Rather than laugh and boo them off the stage, these wonderful kids cheered, clapped, STOOD UP and encouraged them.  The girls found their mojo and continued.  When they walked back to their seats, their classmates continued to cheer.  It was heartwarming and affirming and was even better than the movie, Hoosiers, because it was real.  Take that, Los Angeles.

So I hesitate to sing our Hoosier praises because – shhh!!! – I don’t want to give the secret away, but – when you get right down to it – Indiana rocks, and no more so than during the holidays when nostalgia is as common and everyday as a Walmart commercial.

I love a parade!

I love a parade!

Case in point – the annual Christmas parade held just prior to Thanksgiving in my actual hometown of Shelbyville just 13 miles away.  The local town square which we call a circle – don’t ask – is blocked off to traffic, local stores stay open late, Christmas music wafts over the crowd, everyone comes out, children run amok and there’s a parade to boot. 

Horses march through the street pooping in front of the high school marching band.  Betweener-aged snowflake princesses file by in various convertibles – with the queen crowned later based on how much money she raised for her sponsoring charity as the determining factor.  My sister, Renee, walks shotgun beside her high school life skills class float, watching nervously for signs of falling decorations.  A motorcycle gang clad in leather cruises by slowly riding hogs.  Candy is thrown to the crowd and Santa brings up the rear.

My sister stands guard, watching for falling decorations

My sister, Renee, stands guard, watching for falling decorations

As the last float crawls by, everyone turns toward Santa’s little house, the light switch is flipped and transformers kick in.  Decorations blaze to life.  The fountain becomes a Christmas tree.  The statute of local author Charles Major and his bear cubs sport Santa hats and spot lights.  Take that, Las Vegas.

Let there be light....

Let there be light….

I love the Christmas parade because it’s a chance to stroll into Three Sisters’ bookstore, say hi to Carolyn and her sisters, shop for actual books with actual covers, and then grab a hot chocolate at their sandwich counter next door.  Beside them is my beloved art gallery where my friends Al and Diane and Candy and Kathy work on crafts, swap stories and offer up cookies and punch.

Three Sisters' Bookstore - an honest to goodness independent bookstore

Three Sisters’ Bookstore – an honest to goodness independent bookstore

As we stroll the circle waiting for the parade to start we run in to friends from church, friends from school, friends from work, friends from the gym, friends, friends, friends.   Take that, Times Square.

If parades and turnips and polite teenagers aren’t enough, there’s always the free showing of the movie, “Elf” held that same Friday after Thanksgiving at our little non-profit theater, the Strand.  Picture any movie cinema from the 1950s – located downtown right on the sidewalk, big marquee, flashing lights, small front windows covered in movie placards – and you can picture the Strand.  Nostalgia comes free with every bucket of popcorn and it’s even better when eaten in the balcony. 

Family and friends convene early, candy canes are given out, seats are taken, switched, changed and rearranged as we see more family and friends.  The theater darkens, the movie starts, the laughter is loud and life is good.  Call me crazy, but simple things can and do add value to life.

Yes, I get it that the majority of the world may be bored with turnips and small town parades and re-runs of free movies on the big screen.  It’s a coarser, harder world out there.

My little slice of Indiana isn’t perfect, for heaven’s sake, but we do get a great deal right.  I may have grown up in a flat little land whose charms are lost on many, but I’m still grateful nonetheless. 

Even the bears are decked out for Christmas

Even the bears are decked out for Christmas

It’s made me who I am.  I can go out into the world, love what I see and still come home and be happy in the Hoosier heartland.  And for that, I give thanks.

By Robin Winzenread Fritz

Just a Hoosier girl at heart

Just a Hoosier girl at heart

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