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Oh I Just Can’t Wait to Be King! (Zimbabwe Adventure Part III)

June 24, 2017

Who could have imagined that there was any more adventure left in Victoria Falls after the exciting day we had with the elephants and yet there were lions to walk with, crocodiles to meet, souvenirs to buys, and helicopters to ride!

Another early morning alarm and we were on our way to walk with the lions.  Our driver picked us up and there was soon devastation when upon seeing Ben, we were informed that he would not be permitted to walk with the lions.  Obviously Ben was not happy but we were even more irritated because we were specifically told that he met the age requirement and obviously we would have reconsidered our activity had we known this.  They explained that while the age is usually a good indication, they were afraid that his size might make him appear appetizing to the lions.  What was even funnier is watching the guides squirm when I said, “I don’t understand, my son is the same height as I am.”  There was only so many ways they could come up with without saying, “Yes, but your son is skinnier than you are.”   Honestly, in the back of my mind I was skeptical and thinking that they were being overly dramatic, but we’ll get back to how they weren’t being overly dramatic a little later.

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When we arrived, we all received a briefing on how to behave with the lions, the do’s and don’t and Ben stayed behind with a guide that gave him a lot of background on lions.  We learned so much about lions during our walk, like how we should only stand at the back half of the lion and holding a stick, to remain in an authoritative position.  Our tone of voice was very important and we were instructed to pet them just like we would a regular house cat.  Then we got to see them interact with each other, even when it looked like they were fighting, these young lions were just practicing for when they really have IMG_3452to attack.  They would roll around in the elephants’ dung and even eat it so as to mask their own smell from other prey.  Let me tell you, we were just a little less eager to pet the lions that had just wrestled in a pile of poo.  In pairs we took turns, walking with the lions, talking to them and petting them.  When it was all over we headed back to camp where a breakfast was all prepared for us while we previewed the video they created of us during our lion encounter.

IMG_3574When we got back, they explained that although Ben had not been able to go on the walk, they could let him go meet the lions now that they had more guides to supervise.  Here is where I realized that  their initial decision to keep Ben from going on the walk was indeed the right decision.  They explained that we should make sure that one of the adults was between the lion and Ben at all times, little did we know the wisdom of their warning.  Rob and I both walked over to where the lions were, with Ben following behind.  As soon as Ben came into view of the lions, they both perked up immediately and turned their attention to him.  Immediately, I got between Ben and the lion and the guides distracted them with a stick and they calmed down.  I think it freaked Ben out a little, with good reason I suppose, because even when the guides assured him that they were now calm and could be touched, he was very apprehensive.  He got to pet the lion from behind and snap his picture and then he was good.  Rob, on the other hand was eager to have the chance to pet their bellies.  So he quickly followed the specific instructions of the guides in order to have his chance.  Once he did, they turned into regular kitty cats that love their belly scratched.  All in all, it was an experience none of us would soon forget!

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Then came the crocodile cage.  Rob and Jen decided to dive into the waters with Victoria Falls’ crocodiles!  One would think that the most terrifying part of the experience would be the actual crocodiles themselves, but alas it was actually learning how to breathe after you are submerged in water.  They provided several little lessons about how to wear the gear, how to use it, and most importantly, what to do if you feel panicky and feel you need to come up for air.  The most hilarious part was when Jen went to put on her diving suit.  Laughter could be heard coming from where she was changing due to the challenge of getting it on, only to learn that she was wearing it backwards.  Once both of them were in their suits, it was time to enter the cage.  They took a few minutes putting their head into the water just to make sure they were comfortable with their gear.  When they were ready, down went the cage as it was lowered into the water that was home to 3 crocs!  They got to touch its claws as it gripped the cage and pet its belly as it swam on top of the cage.  The guide even took pictures and video under water!  One more thing that Jen never imagined she would check off of her bucket list.

Once everyone was dried off, we enjoyed lunch and off we went for our helicopter ride.

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If you are visiting Victoria Falls, I have to say that is definitely worth it to splurge a little and take in the helicopter view!  It truly is the only way to really appreciate the size and beauty of the falls.  Perhaps, the most humiliating part of the whole experience was when our group was called and after our briefing of what we would see and how everything worked, was when we were escorted to the scales.  Nothing like being told, we just need to make sure that your group isn’t over your weight allotment.  Hmph! Then, Rob made the mistake of telling Ben to make sure he stayed low, because if he got in the way of the rotor, people have had limbs cut off.  Really?  We are the shortest family in the world, I don’t think there that any of us were in any kind of danger of that happening.

Ben was terrified.  Once in the helicopter, he was fine.  The view was nothing short of magnificent!  The reflection of the water created several rainbows and the smoke from the falls was beautiful!  Talk about, checking things off of our bucket list, I remembering reviewing world landmarks flashcards with Ben when he was four and thinking, “When are we ever going to be in Zimbabwe?”  It’s funny, I remember saying that for several of those flashcards:  The Louvre, Ephesus, Eiffel Tower, Petra, Neuschwanstein, Colosseum, Acropolis, Hagia Sophia, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa…and I still can’t believe we’ve been to all of them! The flight over Victoria Falls was just surreal and before we knew it we were landing and back to reality.

 

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On our final night in Zimbabwe we went to Boma for a traditional Zimbabwean dinner.  There was dancing and singing, a medicine man called a Sangoma, and even worm eating.  Yes, you read that right, for the daring, there was the opportunity to eat the Mopani worms.  All four of us accepted the challenge and ate the worm.  We were given traditional costumes and our faces were painted.  We had warthog, eland, alligator and impala and some WhaWha, a maize beer traditional drink that I have blocked from my memory, mostly because it tasted awful, but we tried everything.  After the dinner, there was a bongo drum show Amazulu and dancers called Amakwezi.  What a perfect end to a perfect vacay!

When in Rome…or Victoria Falls as the case may be… (Zimbabwe Adventure Part II)

June 23, 2017

So we had our first safari under our belts, now we were ready for the rest of our Zimbabwe adventure and it did not disappoint!  After our amazing encounter with the elephants, we headed back to Victoria Falls where we would remain for the rest of our time.  Our outstanding guide/driver, Wilson shared so much of Zimbabwe’s history and culture on our road trip back.  We made a stop at a fantastic little market.  IMG_2902Now I consider myself quite the master of bargaining and haggling when it come to these types of markets.  I come by it honestly, my grandma and mom are pretty much self proclaimed professional “garage salers”–is that a word?  Even I was impressed by these vendors and their sneaky tactics.  I think my favorite ploy was when I would agree to buy something from one vendor and he would take the item and walk me over to someone else saying, “Here you go, my friend will wrap this up for you.”  I would follow said friend, who of course had his own collection of things that he was selling.  Said friend would then kindly suggest that I take a moment and peruse his wares in case I find something I would like to buy.  It took me second to catch on to their scheme.  Bravo, I say, bravo!  These vendors are quite “creative”.  We walked away with some amazing deals and some even cooler souvenirs.

Our home away from home was amazing.  Everyone had their own room, every room was furnished with a lovely bed surrounded by a mosquito net, the bathroom was stocked with insect repellent and sunblock, and we had our week supply of malaria meds.  Okay, clearly we were not in Kansas anymore.

Zimbabwe is what is called a high risk malaria zone, which just means that it’s smart to have a mosquito net and even smarter to routinely apply insect repellent so as to not get bitten by a mosquito.  We were set!

IMG_3006Next up was the sunset cruise sailing down the Zambezi river!  An amazing relaxing journey where we spotted hippos peering out from the water and enjoyed the beautiful vista of a Zimbabwean sunset while dining on some delicious cuisine.  It is at this time that we realized that Auntie Jen had enjoyed a little too much sun during our safari.  The even funnier part of it all was that the IMG_2861 - Copysun only got to one side of her face.  Knowing the huge superhero fans found in this family, it should not surprise you to learn that Ben quickly nicknamed Jen -“Two Face” and even made a lovely documentary of her origin.  He’s quite talented in the world of video making.

Then it was another early morning rise for Elephant Day.  I have to tell you, if it weren’t for the very coolness of the activities we were doing, there might have been a lot more complaining about how early we were having to get up every morning.  But alas, elephant riding was on tap for the day, so no one was complaining!

We arrived at the reserve and were introduced to our elephant.  We got to use the

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opportunity to snap a few pics with the elephants.  One in particular was especially flirty.  As I stood to pose for a picture, to my surprise the elephant’s trunk rose up behind me.  Almost as if it was wrapping an arm around me…you know the way a boy does when he is trying to make the moves on you.  Needless to say, I was more than startled. Then we began our journey.  Our guide provided great information about the habits and diet of the elephants.  Most impressive is how the elephant would grab a full little tree with their trunk and take it with him as we continues on the path and would nibble at it along the way.  Our elephant’s name was Jock, Jen and Ben’s elephant’s name was Emily.  Probably our favorite part of the day was at the end of the  journey when we got to feed the elephants.  What an amazing ride!

Next up…zip lining over the gorge and the Zambezi River!  Yes, everyone and I mean everyone zip lined the gorge including 79-year old Papa Leese.  Rob and Ben both wore our 360 camera to capture the craziness.  Personally, I’ll admit it, I was a little freaked out, but how was I going to sit this one out when the 14 and the 79 year old were up for the insanity.  We laughed after it was all over as I narrated the thoughts going through my head, especially when I told Ben and Jen that I smiled the whole time.  I smiled, not because I was enjoying myself but because my face was frozen in that position.  I wasn’t even aware that I was smiling until they had unhooked my harness and I was on land again.  When I relaxed, so did my face and I realized that I had been smiling the whole time.  Everyone else loved it and Rob and Ben even did the gorge swing!  Next up…the Lion Walk and the helicopter ride over the falls!

 

In Zimbabwe, our dear Zimbabwe, the lion doesn’t sleep at night… (Zimbabwe Adventure part I)

May 1, 2017

Our first full fledged African adventure began with the arrival of Auntie Jen!  She was our first visitor to Lesotho and so after showing her around our little city of Maseru we headed across the border to South Africa and then onto Zimbabwe to experience our first safari.

The day started early on Good Friday, as we packed all of our luggage into the car, to begin our journey.  Luggage, snacks, malaria meds, and passports for 5 people takes a lot more planning than what the three of us had grown accustomed to, but somehow we managed to remember everything…except for the waterproof camera…but other than that we were good.

First stop was Johannesburg where we got to stop into the Hard Rock Cafe for a great burger (not so easy to find in Lesotho) and enjoy some live cover band music.  Next morning was the flight to Zimbabwe!IMG_2787 - Copy  Let me tell you, this was no ordinary flight, right before we took off, we heard an announcement warning us to cover our nose, mouth and eyes if we are sensitive to aerosol because the cabin was being sprayed!  Wait…what?!  Sprayed?!  Sprayed with what?!  So it turns out that in addition to taking your anti-malarial meds before going to certain destinations, the airlines spray to prevent infectious diseases carried by insects.  Uh…okay…that’s just weird, but what are you going to do?  So we all proceeded to cover our faces, and off we went.

IMG_2135Our first night’s stay was at the Kingdom, a beautiful lodge with swimming, a gorgeous open air restaurant, balcony with a scenic view and direct access to Victoria Falls!  So, our first sign that we “weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto” was this gem letting us know to beware of crocodiles in the lake!  Well, okay then…welcome to Zimbabwe.  Don’t get me wrong, while it took a few moments of adjusting to being in this new country, we all agreed, there have been few places that we have encountered the most kind, friendly, and polite people we have ever met.  I will take the chance to introduce them throughout, because to overlook them would be to remove 1/2 of what made our Zimbabwean Adventure so fantastic!

So for our first night in country, we got to experience the magic that is Victoria Falls.  The location of our lodge was so amazing that we only needed to follow the walking paths to a breathtaking overlook of the gorge and Zambezi river that lead to the falls.  This will also be the same gorge that the Leese Family was insane enough to zipline across, but more about that later.  To get to the gorge and later the falls, did not come without a few obstacles, namely the monkeys and the vendors.  Yes, you read right, there were monkeys and baboons EVERYWHERE!

rob v vendorSo a stroll down a walking path IMG_3407required just a little more caution, because you just never know what was going to pop out along your way, Rafiki from a Lion King or the intro scene straight out of Aladdin (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inzkJ34VMfk) with vendors trying to sell you their wares.  I’m sure those who have experienced the sales pitch of a street vendor understand what I am talking about.  You’re like, I see your beautiful items you are selling and while I fully plan to voluntarily come and buy out your store, right now, “I just want to see Victoria Falls!”  The views of the gorge were simply beautiful, we took a little time just to take it all in.

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Next up was actually seeing Victoria Falls.  If you do not know, Mosi-Tunya or Victoria Falls are among the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. The Zambezi River, which is more than 2 km wide at this point, plunges noisily down a series of basalt gorges and raises an iridescent mist that can be seen more than 20 km away.  Because of their location, they can viewed on both the Zimbabwe side and the Zambia side.  On the Zimbabwe side there are 14 lookout points, we made it to about 11 of them while Ben and Rob got to about 13.  They vary in their accessibility due to the amount of mist that can turn around and feel like outright rain pouring down and making things less visible.  No matter what, expect to get wet, and wet we got, but man was it worth it!

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Despite the fact that we were on vacation, safari days meant getting up at ridiculously early hours, but we weren’t about to complain, we were in for the adventure of a lifetime!  First up in introductions is our driver, Wilson, who took us to our safari and to IMG_2277the airport, but most importantly got us through the many police checkpoints as we traveled to the Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls. His company Wilpro (http://wilprotours.com/) arranged all of our activities while we were at Victoria Falls and made sure everything went off without  a hitch. Wilson taught us so much about the customs and history of his country.  If you are ever in need of any kind of tour or activity at Victoria Falls, we highly recommend him.  The kind of customized service that he provided for our family was nothing short of phenomenal, by the end of the trip we felt like he was family!

We arrived to Vintage Camp (http://www.vintagecamphwange.com/) which borders the Hwange National Park for the safari experience of a lifetime, some planned and some not so planned.  Upon arriving we were greeted with a cool beverage and introduced to the camp-which we had all to ourselves, a lovely bonus because we could totally be ourselves and enjoy roughing it together.  Right off the bat, we sat in the treehouse laughing and sharing stories and settling into our home away from home for the next 2 days.  Rob and I shared a tent, Ben and Jen shared a tent and Papa got his own.

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There were solar powered lamps, a bucket to take showers, and a bucket to flush the toilet…yup, we were roughing it alright.  So after we laid down our things in our tents, off we went to our first sunset safari.  This brings us to our second introduction.  IMG_2311This is Jefferson, he was our safari guide and he was nothing short of amazing!  His extensive knowledge of animal life and his sense of humor was more than enough to answer all of our questions and keep us entertained during our whole adventure.  During our first afternoon alone, we saw impalas, giraffes, monkeys, and elephants!  At one point we asked him what kind of bird we are seeing and he pulled out a book looked it up, made a guess and then pulled out some magic bird whistle, made a noise, and when the bird responded, he was like, “Yup, that’s a brown eagle,” then he put his things away and kept driving.  We were all dumbfounded.  Jen said, ” I need that book and whistle.”

These are the elephants that we watched for at least 20 minutes as they showered themselves and each other with dirt to keep themselves cool. We were so close it was crazy, but they were having so much fun they were oblivious to us or didn’t care.  Last count there were 18 elephants of all ages and we couldn’t have been happier to witness their playtime.

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It was an awesome outing and just after sunset we drove back to camp only to be greeted by some of the most delicious food served by Nigel.  Although a little startling at first to discover that our camp bathroom had an open ceiling, we all admitted that the African sky was one of the most beautiful clear skies we had ever seen and every constellation was clearly visible.  Admittedly, there were lots of sound effects that if we didn’t know better could have been on a ‘safari noises soundtrack’.  There we were in the middle of the bush of Africa, so they were real alright.

No exception to the early rise rules of our vacation, everyone was up at 6 AM and ready to go on our first all day safari.   Since we were up before the sun, things were a little cold, but of course our trusted guide Jefferson came prepared with blankets that we all dutifully bundled ourselves into as we briskly moved through the trees and high grasses of the Hwange.

We saw it all!  We saw impalas, which to the American eye look a lot like deer, but impalas are strictly found in Southern Africa and have pointed, ridged horns.  We saw more elephants, more zebras, and many more giraffes.  We saw 4 hippos, a jackal, water buffalo, wildebeests, and a rarely seen sable antelope.  Jefferson came prepared with our hot tea and coffee to enjoy for a morning break and we stopped for a picnic lunch.  We were out all day and the only animal that we hadn’t seen was the elusive lion.  Other guides would pass us throughout the safari and ask Jefferson if there had been any sightings.  Obviously everyone was disappointed but we weren’t complaining we had literally seen everything else.

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So we returned to camp, exhausted but having seen so many fantastic animals and created  so many new memories, but nothing could have prepared us for what was to come next.

We all turned in for the night after another delicious dinner and chatted around a fire.  Now I can only speak for what I witnessed in our tent, but around midnight an indescribable noise could be heard in the distance. Around 3 a.m. , the noise was just outside the right hand side of our tent and then it slowly moved to the front side of out tent.  Admittedly bad timing, I really needed to use the restroom and we were instructed not to go to the bathroom by ourselves.  So, of course I woke up my “not really sleeping husband” who had been hearing the same noises I had for about an hour.  I couldn’t hold it anymore, so my brave husband got up with me despite hearing there noises (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CX_ZPDXa4V0&feature=youtu.be) and I went to the bathroom quicker than I knew to be humanly possible.  Eventually the noise drifted off into the distance and we were able to sleep.

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Ben illustrated the night’s events according to everyone’s anecdotes…

Being the early birds that we are, Ben and I were up around 6 AM the next morning, even through we didn’t need to be.  Our guide Jefferson who had been tracking the lions all night came quickly into camp and said, if everyone can get up in two minutes we can go see the lions!  Ben ran to Jen’s tent and I ran to Rob’s.  I wish we had pictures of the blankets as they sprang from their beds with excitement.  I don’t think I have ever seen Rob get up so quickly.  He came in his pajama top and sweats and Jen came in a sweatshirt and pajama pants, it was hilarious, but no one wasted a second before they were ready to go.  Off we went in our safari jeep, and in no more than 5 minutes we arrived to the spot where the lions were sitting in a tree, two lionesses and two cubs.

Once we approached, only one of the lion cubs remained long enough for a picture, but we were so excited to have seen them.  We returned back to camp, enjoyed an exciting breakfast as we shared our individual reactions to the previous night’s events, and packed for our trip back to Victoria Falls …and THAT would conclude Part I of our Zimbabwean adventure.

Next Up…an African Adventure!

January 25, 2017

It had been two years since we lived in a different country and I think we were all itching for a new adventure.  We rolled the dice and the winner is Maseru, Lesotho!  Haven’t heard of the country?  It’s okay, few people have.  I have come to the conclusion that it is my job to educate all my family and friends on African geography and this little gem of a country  completely surrounded by South Africa.

img_0530All in all, our journey to Lesotho was far less eventful than our trip to Italy.  When we finally arrived in Italy, we had no luggage, arrived 10 hours later than what we were scheduled, and the only toothpaste we could get our hands on was lemon flavored.  Our journey to Maseru was on time, we arrived with all of our luggage, without so much as a delay and we came home to a completely stocked refrigerator inside our new home for the next two years…this was already starting out way better than the last time.

Our first couple of weeks were spent in a state of discovery…learning the ways of the grocery stores and everything that they offer.  There are things that we anticipated not being able to find, peanut butter maybe, Stacey chips, salsa…but then I think there were things that we never imagined would be difficult to find, and yet we are realizing we may need to go without -for two years.  Ah the joys of an overseas adventure!

So here are the lessons we have learned while living here in Maseru for 3 months:img_2374

  1.  “Hot dog sauce” in a yellow container with a big picture of a hot dog on the front is not actually mustard (despite the deceiving appearance).
  2. “Mustard sauce”, also in a yellow container, despite it’s name is NOT mustard.
  3. Everyone walks here.  Don’t get me wrong, some have cars, but the vast majority do not.  People walk miles to get to work, to the store, and to church.
  4. Since everyone walks everywhere, in the African hot sun, they all have umbrellas and hats.  Hats are very big here.  img_0804Baseball hats, floppy hats, fisherman hats–there is no one “right hat” but the flag of Lesotho has a “mokorotlo” on it which is the traditional Basotho hat and those are very popular.  People wear them with great pride.  Umbrellas are everywhere, on a bright sunny day at 5 PM, you will see a mass exodus of people walking alongside the highways wearing hats and armed with umbrellas.img_25211
  5. Growing up I realized that my family was always on different schedule than everyone else, we joke, but I came to realize this was ‘Mexican time’.   Once we were in Italy we realized that Italian time and Mexican time were very similar.  Things started and people arrived just a little later than what was scheduled…Maseru time is very much the same.
  6.  Corn tortillas are a hot commodity to the American community here, I’m pretty sure they carry more value than gold and are just as rare.
  7. Unlimited internet is not a thing.  Everything is on a pre-paid plan and when you run out, you run out.  This is true of your phones as well as your WiFi at home.
  8. Shoes are optional at the shopping malls in South Africa.
  9. If you thought you understood and appreciated thunderstorms and rain, you soon realize that there is much more to Toto’s song than you ever imagined.  The rains in Africa are indeed something to behold.
  10. Basotho (people of Lesotho) have perfected the art of disseminating media.  News img_25081headlines are strategically placed alongside the road.  Want to know the story?  Guess you have to go pick up a newspaper.  They have mastered the nuance of teasers.
  11. Ndate, pronouced “en-dah-tay” means sir and all men are addressed this way.  ‘Me, pronounced “may,” means ma’am and all woman are addressed this way.img_25101
  12. Living in Lesotho has taught us lessons about living in a society as a minority.  In Italy, even though we were from a different country and spoke a different language, we could learn the learn the language, adapt our fashion and try to blend in.  In Lesotho, no matter how well we learn the language and adapt our clothing, there is no way to ‘blend’…we still stick out.  So the key is learning to accept that everyone will know we are Americans, yet if show respect for their culture, they will surely accept us into their world.img_24001

The Winnie Chronicles 2014-2015

June 30, 2015

Sept 19

So we have a new neighbor. Turns out they have a daughter that is quite cute and is one grade above munchkin. He was quite eager to take over the cookies I made to personally welcome them to the neighborhood and then invited her to see his room…I’m kinda feelin’ a Winnie Cooper vibe goin’ on here if you know what I’m sayin’.

IMG_0328Sept 23

Winnie Cooper Update:
Munchkin: It’s like I can’t even wait to go to the bus stop.
Me: Really? That wouldn’t have anything to do with the new company at the bus stop would it?
Munchkin: Mom,she is so cool, she doesn’t even like girl stuff, it’s so weird.
Me: What is “girl stuff”?
Munchkin: I dunno most girls cover their phones in purple and pink and glitter…do you know what she has on her phone?
Me: No, what?
Munchkin: Minecraft! How cool is that! She’s pretty, she’s smart AND she plays video games, I didn’t know girls like that existed!

Sept 24

Winnie Cooper installment #4: A Modern Day Shakespearean Tale. (On our balcony) “Oh Juliet, Juliet, wherefore, art thou Juliet.”balcony

Sept 25

Another Winnie Cooper Update:

So, it’s raining here in the district. Headed to the bus stop, munchkin took two of his old umbrellas, a Superman one for him and a Batman one for Winnie. It took everything in me not to hide behind the bushes and snap a picture, it was too freaking adorable. Cynthia Ramos Cisneros I was thinking of the photo you snapped from behind the bushes of your high schooler on his first day of school!

IMG_0385Oct 4

The Winnie Cooper Story continues with one round of video game playing, one round of bike riding, and dinner at the Coopers! … Of course mom’s stalking continues…is it wrong that I am enjoying this so much?IMG_0384

Oct 21

And for your Halloween episode of the Winnie Cooper Chronicles…
Rob: (laying garbage bag on kitchen floor) Okay, buddy, are you ready to carve your pumpkin?
Munchkin: Uh, why don’t we carve them on the deck, Dad
Rob: Uh, okay.
Munchkin: (carrying pumpkin and feigning surprise as to who is out on her deck) Oh, hi!

Oct 24

Kevin Arnold quote of the day:

Me: How was your day?

Munchkin: I’m just saying, if a girl asks you to watch scary movie YouTube video clips with her, you should always say yes. That is the easiest way to get her to hold your hand when she gets scared.

Winnie Cooper

Oct 28

So yesterday I joked that all the windows were down because I almost burned the house down (I mean there actually was a little mishap, but that is a story for another day)…to which munchkin replied, “That’s not even funny! If you burned down the house, then we would have to move and we would get NEW neighbors!”

So glad my kid has his priorities straight. Sigh.

Nov 18

An “almost” Winnie Catastrophe!

Munchkin came home on Friday with the most despondent look on his face.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” as he shrugged his book bag and coat off onto the floor (in front of the coat rack, I might add)

“Really? Because you look like your pet just died.”

“She sat with someone else.”

“Who did?” Come on mom! As if anyone else in the world even matters to this guy.

“I gave her this look as I was passing her sitting with him and all she said was, ‘I’m sorry,’ so I went and sat by myself. Then, when the bus stopped, I just walked straight off the bus and didn’t even wait for her.”

Ouch. Man, a woman’s scorn doesn’t come close to THIS kid!

So all weekend, we had the hypothetical questions being thrown around, “What would you do?” “Why would she do that?” “Do you think she’s mad at me?” along with the sulking and the constant checking of the phone.

And then Sunday happened. The phone rings! Alleluia, the phone rings. A quick trip to the balcony and happiness is restored. “So, she sat by him because I was late to the bus!! She thought I wasn’t riding! She invited me over! Everything is fine! Can I go over?”

And today it’s back to packing the mad libs and trivia books into the book bag to do on the bus together (thanks Uncle Matt) All is right in the world again.

Dec 18

So there’s been a lot happening in my family, so forgive me for my lack of Winnie Cooper updates, but today was monumental.

I was reviewing his day as we always do. How did the Science test go? What homework do you have? Did anything remarkable happen today? (Which believe it or not is a routine question I ask) It took me a moment to realize, despite the fact that munchkin was answering, he wasn’t quite “all there.”

“So I just did it.”
“You did what.”
“I told her.”
“You told who, what?”
“I told [Winnie] that I liked her.”
“Whoa! You like [Winnie]?”
“Very funny mom.”
“Well what did she say?”
“I’m not sure.”
“What do you mean, you’re not sure?”
“She said, that she had a feeling and then she asked if it would be okay if she told her mom? I told her that I’m pretty sure her mom already knows. Do you think that’s a good thing?”
“Hmm, I don’t know, what do you think?”
“Not sure…I’m just relieved to have told her.”

So this weekend’s dinner with the “Coopers” will either be incredibly awkward or will be the best holiday ever for one munchkin.

Dec 29

And just like your favorite tv shows, we took a winter hiatus, but the Winnie Cooper Chronicles are back!

Before break, munchkin updated us with his conversation with Winnie after his big reveal. “She said, ‘I like you, and obviously we are more than friends, but I’m not really ready to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Can we still hang out and stuff?’ ”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“Didn’t you hear me? She said, “Obviously, we’re more than friends!”

Sounds like both of us were content with Winnie’s answer.

Fast forward to last night…

Munchkin had a very special Pokemon stuffed animal and card set delivered to Winnie’s house directly since we wouldn’t be here for Christmas. Last night, he was invited to go hang out and for dinner.

When he came home he was carrying a gift box. “What’s in the box?”

“Oh, just my present from [Winnie].”

“So what did she get you?”

“It’s weird, they’re just clothes, they aren’t themed or anything, they aren’t related to me in any way shape or form. I don’t know what to think!”

“Well, they seem nice. What did she think of your gift that you gave her?”

“Oh, she looooved it!”

“Really, how do you know?”

“She screamed, ‘I loooove it, thank you!’ and then she hugged me for at least ten Mississippis!”

valentines dayFeb 9

What a fun little surprise package from our friends in Japan! ThanksVanessa Alaniz Lee Japanese Pokemon cards should help munchkin ensure he rocks Winnie’s Valentines Day this year!

Feb 17

Who knows? It may just be a cliff hanger to this season, but Valentines Day turned out to be a little bit of a heartbreak from one Winnie Cooper. You would have never known it from the first two days of the weekend with exchanges of sweets and Pokemon cards and over an hour on the phone (a first). But last night after spending the evening at the neighbors, he came home with “Girls Suck!” Looks like she’s really starting to focus on high school plans. We’ll see what happens next season. Hard to see the munchkin so bummed.

Mar 26

The Winnie Chronicles return!

Conversation last night:
“So where’s munchkin?”
“He went for a walk with [Winnie].”
Enter Munchkin.
“So how was your walk?”
“Good, really good. We talked about how nervous we were thinking about kissing someone for the first time.”
Exit munchkin.

Soooo, that was interesting.

June 11

The Winnie Cooper Roller Coaster

Munchkin called me from the bus in the morning to let me know he got on the bus safely:

“Mom, I’m on the bus.” (Sounding down)

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know, I think [Winnie’s] mad at me.”

“Why do you think that?”

“She’s acting weird and she’s not really talking to me.”

“Why don’t you ask her what’s wrong?”

“Yeah, maybe I will.”

“Are you still staying to see her choir concert after school.”

“I don’t know. I’ll let you know.”

Voicemail left on my phone: “Mom, I don’t know what’s going on, she’s mad at me but I don’t know why and so I’m not staying after school.”

Voicemail left 1 hour later:
“Mom, I think things are okay, I changed my mind, I’m staying after school and will ride the late bus.”

Munchkin comes home on the late bus:
“So how was the concert?”

“It was fine. I just don’t get girls! So, [Winnie] and I got to an argument about gay rights yesterday so I thought that’s what she was mad about, but she said she wasn’t mad about that, it was something else but she didn’t want to talk about it. So she’s okay now. (Heavy sigh) I just don’t get her! What is wrong with your kind?!”

Rob: Buddy, you’ll be trying to figure that out your whole life.”

June 13

Munchkin: “So Ms. [Cooper] (Winnie’s mom) stopped me on my way into the house today and asked if everything was alright, because it seemed like [Winnie] had been a little moody lately. …Ha! You don’t know the half of it sister!”

“You didn’t say that did you?!”

“Of course not, I just said, ‘Yeah, I’ve noticed’ but I didn’t know why, but I wanted to say that!”

Oranges, Not Just for Juices and Zest Anymore!

March 10, 2014

As we suspected, Italy has proven to be the source for more adventures than we could have ever imagined.  Perhaps the most exciting time of year in Italy was Carnivale, the final days before Lent begins.   Learning how the different regions and communities celebrated, proved to be some of the most fun experiences.  Nothing could have prepared us for what is known to those from Ivrea, Italy as the Battaglia delle Arance (Battle of the Oranges).img_9115

Carnevale Di Ivrea pays homage to an ancient uprising between the town’s villagers and its tyrant leader and his guards.  As the story goes, back in the 1800s, a civil war broke out between the townsfolk of Ivrea and the Royal Napoleanic Troops, led by the hated tyrant Raineri di Biandrate.

It’s said that di Biandrate tried to rape the daughter of a local miller on the eve of her wedding. Things got ugly and the daughter ended up decapitating the tyrant. His troops then tried to take the town by force as an act of retaliation, and the people revolted using stones and other crude weapons and eventually drove the soldiers out.IMG_9361.JPG

Today, participants trade slings and arrows for oranges.  There are nine teams, one group who dresses up in armor to represent the old guards, and even a young woman selected to represent Violetta, the mugnaia,(the miller’s daughter) who sparked the whole revolution.

Everything wraps up with a grim funeral procession to “mourn” those lost in battle, and, well, a lot of orange-sized bruises.

img_9107So, upon arrival to the festivities, what does one see?  The first thing you are bound to notice is the sea of red.  Even as we left our car, those who are walking towards the town are all donning an unmistakable red cap.  Violetta and the crowd wear long, bright red, Phrygian hats symbolizing freedom. They come from far away. They’re called berretti di Frigia or berretti frigi, from the ancient area of Phrygia, in what is now Turkish Anatolia. They used to be worn by the worshippers of the sun. They were then worn, in ancient Rome, by emancipated slaves and finally became one of the symbols of the French Revolution: the red bonnet meant Liberté. When you walk around with a red hat in Ivrea, people say you’re wearing the berretto frigio and therefore you must be free to pass unharmed. img_9109The red hat means you won’t be throwing oranges and therefore, no one will throw oranges at you. If you’re near the battle areas (even if you’re behind the protective nets) you’ll still get orange shrapnel, but no direct hits.  So to Ben’s disappointment, seeking out one of the “red hat selling kiosks”, became our first mission.  Despite the majority of caps available being the traditional style, Ben was delighted to find he could maintain his own fashion statement.

img_9122As we continued to walk towards the town, the next thing we noticed were oranges.  Oranges…oranges…and more oranges!  Dried oranges, drinks made of oranges, desserts made from oranges and then row after row, stacks of crate after crate of blood red oranges!  img_9120We were in the right place, that’s for certain.  There were approximately 11 different stations and each was bearing the banner of two of the dueling teams.  There was still time before the slaughter was to begin and so we proceeded to the town center to witness the serving of the “Fagioli grassi di Ivrea”-bowls of beans that are handed out to all those who come to witness the festivities!  

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The orange part of the Ivrea carnival is relatively new – prior to the nineteenth century beans were used. These beans were given to Piedmont and Ivrean peasants by the local lords and as a sign of disrespect the peasants used to throw them back.img_9144

The introduction of oranges to the whole thing has definitely added a whole new dimension.  The beans are still about and are remembered in the tradition of handing out free bean dishes on the day to all and sundry. This dish, an old Piedmont peasant staple, known as fagioli grassi, is delicious.

It is made by the townsfolk in vast quantities and in huge cauldrons from Saturday night. It consists of a tasty mix of beans, sausages and bacon rind.

After the serving of the beans, the teams can be seen around the town, “suiting up” with padding, helmets and uniforms.  img_9226Horse drawn carts with each team began racing by as they headed to their appointed starting points and we knew the time was near.  We started walking through the town to pick out where we wanted to witness this spectacle.  Each courtyard had varying viewpoints.  Some completely exposed, others out their windows had the distinct pleasure of having a great view but being too high to be vulnerable to stray flying oranges, and then finally there was the area behind the netting.  This is similar to the netting they use at baseball games to protect the audience from fly balls coming from home plate, but not nearly as effective (which we found out a little too late).   We found our place behind the netting, but still giving us a great view of the piazza. ben-ready-to-throw-and-duck There are some announcements made, people settled in and the process for us went something like this: 1. watch the horse pulled cart arrive with the first team to the right of us, watch as they put helmets on, come through and attack the team right in front of us during which we had to take cover. 2. As they drove passed we try to take pictures while still dodging flying oranges 3. Prepare for the next team to drive through from the other side who was close enough to get some good shots but be quick enough to take cover before they started attacking.  img_9317img_9321As the carts move into the piazzas the teams waiting for them in the squares and the lunatics on the carts themselves go absolutely mad, hurling oranges at each other like demented maniacs.  It was utter insanity!

Rob ended up with the biggest “orange souvenir” in the form of bright red cheek, as he was unable to avoid a whole orange hitting the side of his face.  img_9316Munchkin and I would continue to find chucks of orange in just about every nook and cranny of our clothing, but at least we smelled good right?  When we thought the battles had all ended, we courageously headed out from behind the netted curtain and waded through the grossness that is now a sludge of smashed oranges and what I am certain had to be horse manure.   img_9305There is chatter and laughing as we recount the exciting activity …until Rob and I hear the familiar sounds of another team coming through.  Our eyes meet and then widened, as we both realized that we were about to be in the path of another round.  We immediately grabbed Ben and found our way as quickly as possible through the crowd and  trying our best not to slip and fall as we sloshed around in orange sludge.  As we escaped, our adventure in Ivrea came to an end.  Next up…we finally get to see Da Vinci’s Last supper!

Finding Out Who Is and Isn’t Santa, the Unexpected Truth

October 23, 2013

Devastated.  The heart beat increasing.  The tears welling up in the eyes.  That was me, the day my son found out that the person who brought him presents for the past 10 years of his life was not in fact a big man in a red suit.

So let’s go back a little.  When Rob and I talked about our plans for a family, we had decided quite a lot before the birth of Ben and Santaour child as to how we would raise them, what we would say, and our thoughts on pretty much everything.  We decided that no matter how difficult or awkward conversations would become, we would always tell our children the truth.  There were a couple exceptions, but for the most part we were agreed that we would make it clear that our kids could always come to us for a straight answer and we would give it to them.  Those small exceptions included figuring out the role beloved mythological characters would have in our children’s lives.  We both agreed that the hardest part about reconciling the truth behind these enduring childhood characters was as kids once we figured out the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, everything else kind of unraveled.   So we decided early on that we wouldn’t really push the other two so we would really have a fighting chance to play out the role of Santa for as long as possible.

IMG_0547So when he was old enough to understand we heavily focused on what we believe to be the true meaning and importance of Easter.  In our faith, we believe as Christians that Easter is a celebration and remembrance of the day Christ was resurrected, three days after dying for our sins.  In addition, we told Ben that there was an Easter Bunny.   We explained that the Easter Bunny helped out children’s parents who couldn’t afford or were unable to fill their Easter baskets by doing it for them, but that we were able to, so we filled his Easter Basket.  This seemed all well and good until my sister’s family was coming to visit us in DC.  They had been financially struggling that year.  Ben’s cousins  had told him that their parents had said that the Easter Bunny might only be able to bring a few things for their Easter baskets.  Our son of course felt the need to reassure them by saying, “No, you won’t even have to worry about it, the Easter Bunny will take care of everything.  When parents don’t have enough money, the Easter Bunny takes care of everyone.  It will be fine.”

Well, there you go!  That was our first lesson in many, that to parent one child can often mean you are parenting many without even meaning it.

Then came the next challenge, but in my defense I think I was bamboozled!

Ben started the morning asking me if zombies were real.  I said, “No.”
“What about ghosts?”
Assuming that we weren’t having ‘that’ conversation, I said, “No.”
“What about fairies?”
You mean other than your Uncle Matt, I thought, with a smirk on my face.  I said, “Well except for Tinker Bell because of course she’s real!”
“Mom, that’s just Disney!  She isn’t real!”
“Oh, well then no fairies aren’t real.”
“So, the bobo fairy isn’t real?”
We had called Ben’s pacifier a bobo when he was little and to get rid of them Rob told him that that the Bobo fairy came and took them all away on his second birthday because he was a big boy now.   Wow, I hadn’t seen that one coming.  “No Ben, the Bobo fairy isn’t real.”
“Then who took my bobos?”
“We did, when you were too big to have a pacifier we took them.”  I winced, seeing how that went over.
“Okay then,” and with that the boy was silent.  We all know that isn’t a good sign.  “So, I think this tooth here is going to be IMG_1107the first tooth that I lose.”  Ben has been dying to lose one of his teeth, being the youngest in the class he’s one of the few who hasn’t lost any teeth yet.
Fishing for information, “Yeah, and when you lose your tooth what happens?”
“I put it under my bed.”
“Under your bed?!”
“I mean under my pillow.”
“Cool, then what happens?” I was interested because this is a conversation we have never had.
“Well, then I get a dollar under my pillow.”
“Really?  Where does that come from?”
“Um, I think it comes from mom and dad right?”
“Really?  Where’d you hear that?”
“Well, you said that fairies aren’t real, so it must come from my mom and dad.  Is that right?”
And at that moment I thought of those Twix commercials, ‘need a moment’?  I hesitated, but then decided, the truth was easiest, “Yup, that’s right Ben.”
And with a big accomplished smile on his face, he sat back and looked out the window the rest of the car ride to school.
So that was that, I had come clean about the Tooth Fairy, he already knew about the Easter Bunny, so all that was left was “the big guy in the red suit.”
As a kid, my big turning point year was when I was 9 years old.  Much like every kid, I had kids at school that were urging me to question the existence of Santa Claus.  I had so many questions and doubts, and I was on the highest level of observation to catch my parents for any slip up.  Now as a parent, I realize that they too, were probably in tune to my reservations.  But THAT was the year…hands down…that was the rebirth of faith.  Our family had what I assume is a pretty typical tradition.  Every year we went to my paternal grandparents house to celebrate Christmas Eve with my dad’s side of the family.  Sometimes that would include evening mass, but it always included an exchange of gifts and lots of great food.  Then, we would spend the drive home trying to spot Santa ‘s sleigh in the sky.  We would arrive home and never was there a greater incentive to go straight to bed than on Christmas Eve night as we would await Santa’s arrival.  This year was different. Picture1This year, mom and dad got out of work early and they came home to get ready for the evening’s activities.  We had all been home together until we left for Grandma and Grandpa Ledesma’s house.  Then, this is where it diverged from the routine and tradition of every other Christmas.  When we arrived home and got out of the car, there were lines in the snow!  They began in the street, followed the driveway, and ended right in front of the house.  My two sisters and I stared at what looked to be unmistakably the marks left by a sled of some sort…or sleigh, perhaps?  We stared at the tracks and then stared at each other.  Then the hysterics set in as we ran to the front door.  A chorus of frantic, “Mom, Dad, hurry, open the door, hurry he was here, he was here!!!!” echoed through the neighborhood.  Every question, doubt, and skepticism melted away as our front door opened to reveal that Santa had already visited our home.
That night bought my parents another 2 years before I caught on and chose to play along, but for that one night my heart was full and I reveled in the magic.  I vowed that whatever it took, I would do everything to keep that magic alive for as long as I could for my son.

I’m sure every child presents his or her parents with some fantastic challenges to keep the magic alive and my son was no exception.  Why should he be?  I know Rob had asked for a real life reindeer when he was a kid, why should Ben be any different.

Some of those parent challenges include Ben’s second year of taking a photo with Santa Claus at the mall.  He was deathly afraid of the man in the red suit.  We actually had to do a dress rehearsal!  We took Ben over to Santa and he cried.  We tried a second time, where Santa introduced himself.  Ben seemed good until we tried to sit him on Santa’s lap.  Once again, he started screaming and crying.   The next time Santa talked to Ben as we walked by, called him by name, and asked him what he wanted for Christmas, but we didn’t even try to sit with Santa on that day.  Finally after 4 rehearsal runs, Ben was ready to sit on his lap.  Whew!

There was the year that Ben was intent on getting a Santa Claus action figure.  When asked if he had seen one in the stores he responded, “Oh no, but it’s not a problem, because Santa has his own workshop. He can just MAKE one, don’cha know?”

BensantaThen there was the year he was especially particular in who he could divulge his list, “I know that the Santa I take pictures with is only a Santa helper, but I am going to check his ears to make sure he is a REAL Santa elf before I tell him anything!”

Nothing could prepare us for the year Rob was in Afghanistan, when Ben created his list Santa Letterfor Santa just like he had done every year but topping his list prominently stated his wish for a baby brother.  Aside from the obvious barriers preventing us from even trying to make Ben’s wishes come true, we had to figure out how to let him know that Santa just couldn’t grant him his number one wish.  After much deliberation we decided a letter was the best route to go, and to go along with current technology, Santa sent Ben an email.  Santa had explained that decisions about having children are solely to be made by moms and dads and God and that was not something he was able to give Ben for Christmas.  Ben seemed satisfied with the response and was twice as excited to have obtained Santa Claus’s email!  This of course would have been parenting mistake number #743, since it never occurred to me that I should probably Email from Santacheck on the email for subsequent messages.  It wasn’t until Ben mentioned in passing, Dear Santa II“It’s funny I wrote a message awhile ago to Santa but he hasn’t written back.”  I nonchalantly explained that perhaps he was busy gearing up for next year or maybe he took a vacation.  Then I let a couple of days pass and of course diligently went to work on responding to my son’s emails to Santa.

Little did I know that the email from Santa was Ben’s turning point, that was his boost in Christmas spirit.  The email was his weapon of choice to those kids on the bus who were trying to dissuade his faith in Santa Claus.

So fast forward just a little bit, the past couple of years confronted us as parents with so many new subjects to tackle.  So many questions about relationships, puberty, and of course sex had crept into and laced our conversations since our arrival to Italy.  We have handled them all in the same manner that we had agreed to many moons ago, with as much straightforward honesty that we could muster.  I’d like to think that this trend will convince Ben that he can in fact come to us for anything and we will always give him the straight answer.

IMG_9172Now when it came to the subject of Christmas, I was able to pivot around the subject and manipulate in such a way that I wasn’t really lying but pretty much much walking the line.  Rob, on the other hand, will profess that he too wanted to keep the magic going, but there was that small nagging part of his brain that felt defeated by the fact that the big guy had always gotten credit for all the cool gifts that he had spent so much of his time seeking out and finding.  Much like a snag in sweater that starts out small, but with little effort unravels into a giant mess, I anticipated that I could not leave Rob alone with a snag.  He wanted to tell the secret, but he would keep it as long as he needed to …or until presented with a snag.

This brings us to the present.  We were on a summer vacation enjoying the luxury of lying by the poolside on our cruise ship.  Jenny and I were sitting in our lounge chairs and Rob and Ben had gone swimming in the pools and soaking in the hot tub.  If I could erase that moment I would.  Ben came toward me, red puffy swollen eyes, clearly he had been crying or was about to and I thought, “Oh no, he got into trouble.”

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He simply collapsed into my arms saying, “Dad said that Santa isn’t real,” and he began to sob.

I felt my heart sink,  I gasped.  I looked up helplessly locking eyes with Rob.

“I didn’t say he wasn’t real buddy!” Rob said.

Through tears at this point, “Yes, you did,” he argued,  “I asked you if Santa was real.  You said, ‘Do you want to know the truth?'”

“No, you said, ‘Dad, you always promised to tell me the truth, so I really want to know, is Santa real?’ I said, There was a man named Saint Nicholas.  He was a real person and he was a good man.  He did some really great things and they made him a saint, but he is no longer alive so we keep his spirit alive through Santa Claus.”

“Right, you said, Santa isn’t real!”

Rob closed his eyes and hung his head, he knew there was no winning.  I mean, how could there be a winner in this conversation.  Ben wanted to know the truth, he really wanted to know the answers, but the fact of the matter is he wanted the truth to be that there was a Santa Claus.  He wanted there to still be the magic.  On that warm July afternoon, his world had changed just a little bit.  As I held a crying boy in my arms, I realized all of our worlds changed a little bit that day.  Now it was our job to show him that the magic still can live on, but for these next couple of months before Christmas, I have a feeling things are going to be a little difficult.IMG_9623