Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving Thoughts

I just made my annual contribution to Cherry Street Mission. They shelter and feed the homeless, and I am grateful for their work. "Giving people a shot at a healthy life."  I also support Toledo Streets newspaper and Veterans Matter(, which serve homeless vets.

The needs are so great, I wish I could give more.  I remind myself there are many ways to give.  I give money to a few charities, time to others, and prayers for most, in hopes other people will give thanks by supporting them. At this time of year I'm grateful for America's "can do" and philanthropic spirit.

I filled in a survey from my old high school in Rochester, NY.   It's a fantastic school that deserves lots of support.  But it's far away, like my college and my graduate school, also great educational institutions. It made me think, I am choosing to give closer to home, and also to smaller groups.  The bigger the non-profit, even crisis and environmental organizations whose missions I support, the less I'm likely to give, probably because I figure my little gift won't mean as much as giving closer to home. I think we feel best about giving when we can see the impact our gifts make on people and on our community.

It's that way with online appeals, too.  I have signed many a petition online, for gun control, against fracking, to support this political action or that, and then I am immediately asked for a donation.  Now I am on lots of lists and the appeals never stop.  As much as I care about certain issues and certain political action groups, I no longer sign online petitions. It just makes me feel bad that I can't support every cause I believe in, at least not with money.

I'm not sure about political appeals either.   Think of all we could give to those in need with the money poured into political campaigns!  I think most Americans feel the same way. Is it okay that people like the Koch brothers and other super wealthy donors dominate the landscape?  Our measley gifts mean nothing in the face of such political contributions. Maybe I'll make one exception: a small contribution to a woman presidential candidate in 2015, more to make a statement than to fund what will be another obscenely costly campaign.  I taught women's history for many years, focusing on women's struggle for the vote and greater participation in American political life. I'd be happy to see a woman president in my lifetime!

I do support a few international groups, like Doctors without Borders, but not many.  I believe Peace Corps Partnership projects, individual PCV projects that are tax-deductible, are a good bet, because I know they really do get down to the local level (  With a Partnership Grant, and some book donations from friends in Toledo, Ohio, a little public library in Starobelsk, Ukraine, was able to start its first English-language book collection and make a first step in applying for a Gates foundation grant to computerize the library.

In these cases, every little bit helps.  I believe individuals can make a difference, and that we can give in many ways.  America's philanthropic spirit is an anecdote to the nastiness of politics and a blessing for those less fortunate than we are.  Giving and gratitude: The spirit of Thanksgiving. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Open World: Host Families and Ukrainian Visitors Form Connections of a Lifetime

Some "host families" greeted the Ukrainian delegation upon their arrival at the Toledo airport on 7 November, then we all met for a brief orientation at Sally and Fred Vallongo's house. Here we all are, visitors and hosts, getting acquainted, starting our great adventure.  Elizabeth Balint and Victoryia Maryamova of the GLC, who did so much to keep us together and provide an incrredible learning experience, and Rep.Marcy Kaptur who made the Open World program possible, are also pictured.  
One of the best things about the Open World program is the chance for local residents to "host" international visitors.  We began with some trepidation, interested but not knowing what this "hosting" would entail. We ended by agreeing, with lots of enthusiasm, that the experience was fantastic. New friendships were formed, strong bonds that will last forever. "These women are amazing," Sally Vallongo noted with some awe, speaking for all of us.    

Tamara, Sally & Fred Vallongo
There were five host families. Sally and Fred Vallongo hosted Tamara Zycova from Kyiv, the coordinator of the delegation. Tamara was in charge of making sure the group got off from Kyiv and shepherded them, along with the incredible Elizabeth Balint, from place to place. Tamara spoke excellent English, was calm, professional, funny. When she misplaced her phone, the Vallongos made a special trip to Ann Arbor to get to an Apple Store.  As it turned out, we found Tamara's phone, hidden in my sofa. But they had a great experience. The Vallongos loved hosting Tamara and learned a lot about Ukraine through her.

Beth Anne Varney
& Vera at Karen's

Gary Varney at his house with Vera and Natalia.
Gary and Beth Anne Varney hosted Vera Flyat from Starobelsk. Gary knows some Russian and Vera speaks no English so we thought it would be a good fit. And it was.  BethAnne said she felt "blessed" to host Vera. They took Vera to the Toledo Museum of Art, around their lovely Sylvania Mayberry neighborhood, around town, shopping. They had a great time, and Vera rewarded them with her homemade borscht! A real exchange. Vera made enough borscht for all the women from Lugansk oblast to share at my place on their last night in Sylvania. What a night, borscht and wine, reminiscing, remembering, sharing. As tired as we were, we didn't want the night to end.

Diane Kalb hosted our Burtyn guests, Stanislava and Antonina. Diane has a large home and loves to entertain. She had plenty of opportunity to do so. She was delighted that Rep. Marcy Kaptur came to visit one night.  "I was with a group of friends, my Bible study group. Boy were they impressed that Marcy came knocking on my door!" Diane provided some huge and delicious dishes for our potluck farewell party at the Sylvania Heritage Museum, too.  What a host! Slava and Antonina also spent a few nights with Ukrainian-American hosts in Grand Rapids, Ohio, enjoying vists through the town and to the zoo.
I'm sharing a Sylvania bench with Karen and Tonya. 

Karen Irion Tank hosted Tonya from Starobelsk; they adored each other from the start.  Karen is a pianist and piano teacher and Tonya sings. One night at a gathering at Karen's home, Tonya sang an Edith Piaff song, accompanied by Karen. Talk about an"exchange"! So moving.  Karen was enthralled with her guest.  "She's a philosopher! We can talk about everything. She is thoughtful and talented."  One of Tonya's talents is cooking, and like Vera, she made her host a delicious red borscht. Karen was thrillled to be a host. "It enriched my life," she said.  "I will miss Tonya." Their bond is deep and heartfelt.
In the middle between Vera and Natalia, in my living room. 

Natalia in front of my apartment house on Main,
Sylvania. We couldn't believe it was true!
I hosted Natalia, the college English teacher who helped me when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Starobelsk. She was my translator, friend, and savior through some rough times. She made it possible to write grants for Vera's Victoria NGO and for the Starobelsk Biblioteca. I remember a visit to her house on the Aydar river in Lymon, with a huge garden and lots of trees, Her sister and brother (who lives just over the line in Russia) were there, her husband Vasyl, and sons Artur and Artom. It was a hot summer day and everyone went for a swim in the river after shaslick (barbeque) and a fabulous Ukrainian meal. I hadn't brought a bathing suit, but couldn't resist the temptation.  I stripped down to my underwear and plunged in. I think they were amazed, and amused. The Amerikanka was okay afterall!

Daughter Michelle, grandkids, & Mike Stein,
 Philip's granddad,  who dropped him off 
 to play with his cousins..
How special it was to have Natalia in America, absorbing new surroundings, ideas, people, my neighborhood, the suburbs, the city, the farms. She thought our people were "hospitable and our nature beautiful." We walked around the Old West End (which she loved),  stopped at my old family home on Robinwood,
At TMA cafe.  
then walked down the street to the Art Museum and had lunch at the cafe.

She met my family. Elissa was around for meetings and greetings, at Laura's Russian class, at a farewell reception at the Sylvania Heritage Museum. We paid a special visit to Michelle and her kids, and to my granddaughter Julia and her son Philip. Natalia had heard so many stories, and now she got to meet my kids and grandkids, in person.  How unbelievable.  "I didn't have hope I would ever come here," she said. "But now I do.  I have hope." And of course we went shopping, to the Mall, to Marshalls, Gabes, Clothes Mentor, to this store and that. She had a blast finding great "bargains."  It was a side of Natalia I hadn't known in Starobelsk. Of course there aren't many big stores there either!

Natalia with Laura, daughter Elissa, 
artist Martin Nagy, who taught the
girls at Maumee Valley and is active
in GLC and the Hungarian Club.
It's a small world!
The Open World program takes place on so many levels, the educational, cultural, social, and personal.  Every level matters, flows into one another, blends and creates something new, for guests and for hosts.  I can't tell all the stories of the host families; I hope they will one day soon. But I got the gist of their stories through the times we were together. I know how special it was to host Natalia.  I know how important our talks, walks and exchanges were. I know we learned from each other in a true people-to-people way that is the foundation for peace in the world.  Unforgettable.

In front of the old Cary family home on Robinwood in
the Old West End of Toledo.  Natalia loved it. 
Natalia, Tonya, Vera, last
night in Sylvania. 
TMA! After a walk through the OWE.

Shopping, and more shopping. 

Immigration Action: Immigration Nation

"You can come out of the shadows." 
 President Obama, speech on his Executive Order on Immigration 
Photo by Jim Bourg/Getty Image, in Washington Post, 20 November 2014.
President Obama did the right thing. He did the smart thing, too.   He came out and addressed the long-simmering immigration issue because Congress hasn't. He took charge. He's not going to play dead because angry Republicans, powerless against his initiative, continue to pummel him beyond reason.

Obama's plan is simple, straightforward, and timely--all he can do legally in an Executive Order.  As he himself said in his speech, it is not a substitute for real change to a broken immigration system. That's in the hands of the US Congress.

He threw the ball into their court: "Pass a Bill."  Do your job. 

As far as I am concerned, however, the Boehner-led House of Representatives has flunked every test of accountability and responsibility. The Republican Obama haters have stalled on the immigration issue for 500 days. Now they are talking about talking! Now they are talking about "King" Obama. "Emperor" Obama.  It's almost funny. Because they have been one-upped. Because the President has been talking with them, consulting with them, prodding them, for 500 days  To no avail. The truth is that Boehner has sat on a Senate-passed compromise bill for over a year, and for no apparent or transparent reason.

So, okay, let's hammer the president about the legality of his Executive Order (and throw in a lawsuit against Obamacare at the same time).  Good lord. Boehner is frothing at the mouth, and most other Rs are joining him.  But the Appropriations Committee has already addressed the issue:
"The primary agency for implementing the President’s new immigration executive order is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This agency is entirely self-funded through the fees it collects on various immigration applications. Congress does not appropriate funds for any of its operations, including the issuance of immigration status or work permits, with the exception of the ‘E-Verify’ program. Therefore, the Appropriations process cannot be used to ‘de-fund’ the agency. The agency has the ability to continue to collect and use fees to continue current operations, and to expand operations as under a new Executive Order, without needing legislative approval by the Appropriations Committee or the Congress, even under a continuing resolution or a government shutdown.”

Boehner and his cronies are lying to the American people.  They are making up ridiculous scenarios.  They are spewing forth propaganda that almost matches Putin's propaganda about his invasion of Ukraine.  It's plain wrong.  It's disinformation. Dishonest. Untruthful.  I think most people will see through it.

I hope all immigrants affected by Obama's Executive Order, mostly parents and children, "come out of the shadows" and vote in 2016.  The Latino vote.  The Asian vote.  The immigrant vote.  And, afterall, we are ALL immigrants.  It will matter.  That will be the best action Americans can take against this hateful do-nothing Congress out to get Obama.

With thanks to the Latin Grammy Awards for stopping their award show in LA to listen to Obama's speech, and wildly applauding it afterward!

And to CNN for a report, "Obama Echoes Bush," that juxtaposes George W. Bush's 2006 speech urging Congressional action on immigration with President Obama's speech last night. Totally in sync.   "We are and always will be a nation of immigrants."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Open World Opens Doors: Ukrainian Women Leaders Learn about America

The Ukrainian women receive certificates upon the highly successful
completion of their Open World program, "Accountable Governance: Women Leaders."
 With Dr.Elizabeth Balint, GLC, at final program at the Sylvania Public Library. Ever-teaching, Elizabeth presented the women with a PowWow give-away, a native America tradition!  The women were grateful for the tradition, the gifts of love, and the international understanding the entire program offered. 
The three women community leaders from eastern Ukraine, Vera Flyat, Tonya Aksenina, and Natalia Dohadailo, were friends from my Peace Corps days in Starobelsk village in eastern Lugansk oblast.  We worked together on many projects.  And here they were, almost three years later, in the USA, in NW Ohio, in Sylvania. So hard to believe! In America for the first time, thanks to Open World, an exchange program of US Congress and made possible by Rep. Marcy Kaptur. We had administrative help along the way from Maureen Jameson of World Services of LaCrosse,Wisconsin, a national hosting organization like GLC in NW Ohio.
Handouts brochures, flyers, and some  information that the women
 received from the various sites they visited. 

United Way in Port Clinton
The women were overwhelmed with the new opportunities they had and the ways of life we have in our country.  It's hard to imagine coming from a war zone to America for an international training program in democracy building, leadership development, and citizen involvement in social change.  But these women are not whiners; they are upbeat, brilliant, hopeful, engaging, funny. Sometimes the sadness shows, and the suffering, but not often. "We want to be positive," Natalia said many times if we trailed off into the sad news.

The women from Lugansk oblast, plus two women from Burtyn Village in the Khmelnitsky oblast in western Ukraine, Stansilava Ostrovska, mayor, and Antonina Swintitska, a teacher, along with the delegation coordinator,Tamara Zykova from Kyiv (right photo, with Rep. Marcy Kaptur), completed a full and busy program that took them from Toledo and Sylvania, to Port Clinton, Fremont, Bowling Green, the Amish community in Holmes County, to Detroit and Warren, MI.
Stanislava in Holmes C0untry

The group's translator was Olga Shostachuk, from Cleveland. Tamara filled in quite a bit, as did Natalia Dohadailo.

Facilitated by Dr. Elizabeth Balint, project manager of the Great Lakes Consortium for Training and Development (GLC), the women travelled from
Great idea from Amish
In Fremont, at WSOS
Port Clinton
program to program in four counties representing WSOS Community Action, taking in tons of information, experiencing everyday life, and absorbing the culture and diversity of America.  They met with Rep. Marcy Kaptur, local mayors and officials, professors, teachers, and nonprofit managers, former Toledo city council member Peter Ujvagi and current member Lindsay Webb, members of the Toledo Hungarian Club, students, agricultural workers and consultants, entrepreneurs, staff and volunteers of the Ottawa County United Way and other rural nonprofits, church-based and community-based programs for the poor and elderly, with Toledo Botanical Gardens and community gardens, The Hungarian Club hosted a Ukrainian-Hungarian friendship lunch.  The women visited the Hartzler Farm in Wooster, the Hershberger Farm and Bakery, and other farms and entrepreneurial efforts in Amish country.The women presented programs on Ukraine Today with Patti Skaff at Lourdes, Laura Kline at Wayne State, Irina Stakhanova at Bowling Green.
At Hungarian Club, top, with Bill Hilt and Peter Uvjagi. 
Above, starting out in Washington, DC; meetings with Rep.Kaptur, at Lourdes. 
It was an incredibly rich and varied program that covered the four community pillars required by Open World: leadership development, youth engagement in community service, entrepreurial development, and community philanthropy. The women received their Open World Certificates of  Completion with gratitude.  "I am overwhelmed at this experience of seeing America up-close and learning how it works," Tonya said.  "We will bring home new ideas and new energy," Vera promised. "It's the people exchange that was so important," Natalia added.

"I hope they learned as much from us as we learned from them," BethAnne Varney said.  They did. A lifetime of experience for all of them. Open World made a difference.  It was hard to say goodbye, but we will be hearing from these women!

Special thanks for this fantastic experience belong to Viktoriya Maryamova, a program coodinator for the GLC and dedicated volunteer; to WSOS; World Servces of LaCrosse, and of course GLC project manager Dr. ELizabeth Balint, who planned, organized and implemented one of the best Open World programs I can imagine, with outstanding success.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Open World: New Horizons and Ukraine Today

At Dr. Laura Kline's Russian Class at Wayne State University. with Vera Andrushkiw of the Ukraine-American Foundation. The women delighted us with some Ukrainian songs. Natalia lost her voice and couldn't join in, but presented gifts at  program's end.  Stanislava, Mayor of the town of Burtyn, where Rep.Marcy Kaptur's ancestors are from, presented Laura with a Ukrainian scarf.  
"It's been beyond our wildest dreams. We're learning so much,"  Natalia Dohadailo, an English teacher at Taras Shevchenko University, enthused.  Vera Flyat, director of Victoria, a human and women's rights NGO, added, "I already have lots of new ideas to take home to Starobelsk with me." Tonya Aksenina, a rural activist, philosophized about the meeting of cultures, the exchange of ideas, the human condition we all share no matter where we are from.  A teacher, a social activist, and a philosopher reformer all had their say. 

We were at Dr. Laura Kline's Russian class at Wayne State University for a "Ukraine Today" program.  The women from Starobelsk and surrounding villages in eastern Ukraine talked eloquently about how much the Open World educational exchange meant to them.

Stanislava, Mayor of
Burtyn, with Tamara
Stanislava Ostrovska, the mayor of the village of Burtyn, Antonina Swintiska, a teacher, and Tarama Zykova, of Save Ukraine Now (SUN) in Kyiv, joined in.  "I am sorry I never learned English," Stanislava confessed to a rapt audience, "but I never thought I would come to America."  She had tears in her eyes.  We all did.

The women talked about "Ukraine Today," the theme of the program. Of course it's impossible to address this topic without talking about the war raging in the east. Vera wanted people to know that  "the war is not a civil war.  It is an invasion and occupation. Russia has invaded Ukraine, with troops, tanks and weapons, caused many deaths, and there's no end in sight."  She said she worried about her son Konstantin, 24, who joined a volunteer militia to defend Starobelsk from the war that's only 20 miles away.

A huge problem now is the refugee crisis, the women agreed. For example, the population of Starobelsk has almost tripled, we learned, with thousands fleeing from the fighting in southern Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts with little more than the clothes on their backs.  It's a huge humanitarian crisis.

But these women from Ukraine, who are keeping body and soul together, keeping families and communities going, won't let a war stop them.  They will continue to fight, assist in the war effort, and do what they can about the refugee crisis.  Meanwhile, they are concerned about their national government and its ability during war to address the serious needs of the people of Ukraine. Many are unemployed.  Many are homeless.  Many who do work are not even getting paid, teachers, nurses and health care workers. "Who knows what the future will bring?"

Dr. Kline's class, which began with presentations about Peace Corps (RPCV Michael Gall did a great job) and ended with an informative question and answer session, engaged all of us.  A great success!

After the class the women were invited to tour the Detroit Ukrainian community, organized by the indefatiguable Vera Andrushkiw of the Ukraine-American Foundation, who lives in Detroit. A church, cultural center, meal and songfest were highlights.
Detroit's active Ukrainian
diasporan community
The Ukrainian village women were only about half-way through their cultural exchange program, but one of the main lessons was already clear: "It's the human connections and relationships that mean the most," Natalia said when she returned to my place in Sylvania. "The people-to-people diplomacy.  This Open World project is providing that."

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Best of Ukraine in the USA

From left to right, just arrived in Toledo, Ohio: Tamara, from Kyiv; 
Vera, Tonya, and Natalia, from Starobelsk and region; Stanislava 
and Antonina, from Burtyn. We couldn't believe it was true!
Ukraine is a world away, several thousand miles from Ohio, seven hours ahead in another time zone, and it is in a war with no end with its Russian neighbor. Invaded, occupied, destabilized.  Crimea is gone and the war in Lugansk and Donetsk continues unabated, with Russian-backed separatists proclaiming new republics and more Russian troops, weapons and heavy artillary coming into eastern Ukraine every day. The violence is escalating again.  Few people think Ukraine, with it's almost non-existent army, has much chance against Russia, with its massive military might. The Big Bear attacking a lamb. More than 4000 people have died, mostly young men around 19 years of age, and thousands upon thousands of refugees have flooded other parts of Ukraine from Crimea and the east.  It's a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions, and winter has arrived.

In Port Clinton, on Lake Erie, with NGO director,
 learning about their work and Head  Start.

And yet, six brave Ukrainian women leaders are now visiting the USA on an Open World international exchange program to learn about how our democracy works, about tools for change and educating the young, about modern agricultural methods and entrepreneurship.

Tonya, Natalia and Vera are from the Starobelsk region of Lugansk oblast in eastern Ukraine, about 50 miles from the Russian border, about 20 miles from the heaviest fighting front in Lugansk. It's where I served as a PCV. They have seen young men off to war; collected food and medical supplies for soldiers without warm clothing and poorly equipped; buried at least 27 unknown soldiers who ended up in the Starobelsk morgue.  They are teachers, NGO workers, civic and rural activists trying to keep their community together during the most difficult time, and trying to keep the fighting itself at bay. So far, Starobelsk is outside the Lugansk area taken over by the Russians.   But the town of 18,000 is inundated with refugees who have no shelter, clothing, food or medical care. So they have out of necessity turned their attention to the daily needs of residents who are overwhelmed with the effects of this war that the world denies exists.

Stanislava is the mayor of Burtyn, a town in western Ukraine where our Congressional representative, Marcy Kaptur, has a close relationship because her grandmother was born there.  Also from Burtyn is Antonina, a young teacher of English. The war has come to them too, through the pre-occupation of the federal government, economic dislocation, war-time casualties, and refugees.  Making positive progress in a time of war is tough, the Burtyn mayor acknowledges.

The women spent two days in DC,
 meeting the Open World
ambassador and touring the sites.  

They thought it was beautiful.  
The sixth woman, Tamara, a vivacious professional who lives and works in Kyiv for an organization called Save Ukraine Now (SUN), is the group coordinator and facilitator.  She made sure the women got to Kyiv (no easy task from Starobelsk), caught their flights, spent two positive days in Washington, and made it to Toledo, Ohio. She is still with them as they travel around the area on an educational tour, with them all the way.

I worked with Rep. Kaptur and the Great Lakes Consortium for International Training and Development (GLC) for almost three years to bring a Ukraine delegation here.  The last big push came when we worked together on an Open World application, a program of the US Congress operated through the Library of Congress ( There are several layers of operation and policies; Marcy helped us get through all of them. So did GLC program director Elizabeth Balint. As far as I am concerned, these two women hang the moon.

Host families and guests: Back row standing: Tamara, Gary & Beth Anne Varney
with Antonina and Slava; Diane Kelb, Sally and Fred Vollango, Elizabeth Balint,far right.
Karen Tank on sofa between Tonya and Vera.
It's almost overwhelming to have these wonderful women warriors here at this time, in our city, in our Great Lakes region.  Elizabeth oranized a powerful program.  The women are learning so much, and we are learning from them.  Our host families are impressed with their guests from Ukraine, and new friendships are forming.  Through the various programs Elizabeth has organized with local officials, NGO leaders, universities, agricultural entrepreneurs, our guests are learning tools to take back to their communities. The people of our region are learning about Ukraine, its culture and past and Ukraine today.

The women don't sing the blues.  They embody activism and courage.  They are engaged; they are funny.  They are the human face of eastern Ukraine and western Ukraine.

I am overjoyed to see my friends from Starobelsk again.  When we said goodbye in April 2011 I think we all felt in our hearts we would never see each other again.  "Our dreams have come true," Natalia said, as we hugged at the Toledo airport.  Vera and Tonya said the same, tears of joy welling up.

At my place with Toledo City Councilwoman Lindsey Webb
 (and her daughter), Natalia, Tonya and Vera, my Starobelsk
friends, for a "Conversation on Local Government and eastern Ukraine Today."  
We learned so much from each other then. We know that we can't give up. Hard as it is to believe, things are worse now than they were then.  The future is far from clear. It might be dreadful, even deadly.  But we can fight against the odds. I know these women, these brave, good souls, will persevere. The world is a better place because they are in it, doing God's work on earth, no matter what happens.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

European Eulogy: From Barcelona to Florence, along the French and Italian Riviera

The experienced waiter brought our fish and pasta with pesto or tomato sauce with a flourish. We added wine and ate with gusto.  We absorbed the colors and light of Portovenere and the Mediterranean Sea, so clear and blue. We savored the beauty of Cinque Terra, those lovely pastel villages in the mountains, which we approached via ferry so we could see this UNESCO World Heritage site in all its glory and splendor.  It glistened under a cobalt blue sky.  The weather was perfect throughout our trip.

Forty-one people from around the US followed tour guide extraordinaire Enrico from Barcelona to the French Riviera (Cote d'Azur) and the Lanquedoc-Roussilon vineyards, to the Italian Riviera from Nice, through the emerald and gold rolling hills and wine country of Tuscany, and on to Florence.  It was my first Go Ahead Tour.  It proved to be a great way to go with the flow of sightseeing without having to worry about any of the details. Enrico, who hails from Naples and has an incredible command of the English language, was full of information and stories, efficient and organized, knowledgeable, caring and funny. At times he must have felt like he was herding cats, but he made things happen and kept us going.  Most of all he made our Grand Tour along the Mediterranean coast an exceptional and fun journey.
Gaudi's Barcelona with new friends: Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia, undergoing restoration; his La Pedrera, called "nature turned into a building;" and his  curvy, tiled and landscaped Park Guell. 
We started off in Barcelona, a spirited city that for me began more with a wimper than a bang. Exhausted from the long flight, I sank into a deep sleep once I hit the bed of our pretty hotel. I dreamt people were knocking at the door; heard the phone ring several times.  Geez.  Who in the world would be knocking and phoning in the middle of the night?  I turned over and slept until 11:00 am. OMG. It hit me!  I totally missed the walking tour of Barcelona, the trip's very first event.  The front desk had many messages for me, plus a few wagging fingers. I was instructed to get to the La Sagrada Familia to meet the group at 12:45.  I walked to the iconic Gaudi cathedral, and was glad I did, but I didn't connect with the group.  Not until I got back to the hotel to face the music. From this point on, Francie, as Enrico called me, became the butt of some well-deserved joking, although I wasn't late again. Fellow tourists Rita and Mary came knocking a few times to be sure I was up, their bright faces beaming as I opened the door; but my wake-up calls, and sense of guilt, did the trick for the rest of the trip.

With Barcelona as our base, we went to Montserrat, an amazing 9th-century walled Monestary that houses the famous "black virgin,"  Turns out she was not from Africa, however, but black from the smoke of millions of candles. I preferred my misconception, but kept the thought to myself.  Travel is like that.

In any case, such musings became lost in the swirl of Flamenco dancing that enlivened our last night in Barcelona after a delicious all-you-could-eat meal and good wine.   The stomping, clapping, and melodrama of this Andalusian dance style enthralled us.  Enrico, also a jazz musician, called it the "Andalusian Blues," like the American tradition with a wild twist.

Carcassone, ancient city and educational hub.     
The next day we set off for Montpellier, France, stopping on the way at the Medieval fortified city of Carcassone.  Here we wandered La Bastide Saint-Louis, Pont Vieux, and the banks of the Canal du Midi. Carcassone boasts a lovely ancient square and good shopping, which actually you could say about every place we visited.  This Go-Ahead group did a lot to help the economies of every town and city we stopped in.

We arrived in Montpellier on a Sunday night, tired but true travellers who just kept going like energizer bunnies.  We walked across the almost empty and silent main square on a circuitous route to our restaurant, the Oracle.  We were rewarded with a great fish meal, and also a lovely crescent moon above the fountain, statuary and classical buildings of the plaza.

The extraordinary Nimes arena, a well-preserved example of Roman architecture. 
Nimes amazed with its preservation of Roman buildings, including an amphitheater built in 100 AD and used in the film "The Gladiator."  We climbed way up to the top to see the whole city, a feat for some of us.

From Nimes we went to Nice, the jewel of the Cote d'Azur, breathtakingly beautiful.  I went with some friends on a trolley tour of the city, which started at the beach.  Ever onward, the Go-Ahead group also made a stop at Pont du Gard, the three-tiered Roman aqueduct.

The white castle of the Grimaldis and the
 Monte Carlo casino, oozing incredible wealth. 
Since we were in Nice, most of us couldn't resist the optional trip to Monaco.  Up we climbed in our trusty tour bus, up, up, up to the mountain top. It's a treacherous road, the very one where Grace Kelly lost her life.
We took in the ostentatious Grimaldi palace and then "played the slots," some good-natured gambling in the swanky, super-wealthy, jet-set Monte Carlo Casino. There's a surreal quality to this little kingdom, a kind of exaltation of the super, super-rich and their fantasies. Still, we are now able to say "I was there!"
Monte Carlo from the hilltop Grimaldi Palace.

The exquisite beauty and light of Cinque Terra.
A boat in the Portovenere harbor.
Next we moved on to a wonderful part of our fabulous journey: transferring from the French to the Italian Riviera.  If our expert bus driver Jean Pierre could take us to Monaco, he could take us anywhere. Ernesto regaled us with stories, including a funny skit on the ergonomics of the French language. Against the backdrop of the Apennine mountains, we continued along the Mediterranean coast, engrossed in stunning views around every bend. We stayed in Santa Margheritta Ligure, which Enrico called Marqueritaville. It felt like that, but ebullient with wine rather than marqueritas! It was our base for a few nights, as we branched out from there.

A highlight for me was the lovely ferry ride along the magical Cinque Terre cliffs to the colorful mountain town of Portovenere, then to the two villages of Vernazza and Monterossa,   The Cinque Terre of my dreams, those charming hillside towns set among olive groves and vineyards.  Like diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds in a treasured necklace.   Ah, the light, the color, the sparkling azure sea; the spirit of fisherpeople and farmers; the bustling of village squares, quaint narrow streets, restaurants and shops!  It filled up our senses.    

How could we not stop in Pisa, when we were so close? Ernesto relented!
Our Italian Riviera fantasy tour ended in Florence, at least for most of us who did not take the option of going to Rome.  On the way to Florence, we made an unplanned stop in Pisa, at the boistrous urging of our group, and explored the famed Leaning Tower, the Church and the Basilica. The white buildings shone brilliantly against the cerulean sky.

Then it was on to Florence, the heart of the Italian Renaissance, its history and splendor vibrant to this day.  We had a good local tour guide who took us to the Duomo, the various squares, Santa Croce.  The Medicis left their mark.
The Duomo, Firenze.
Medieval San Gimignano, the walled Tuscany hill town.
Some of us took advantage of the optional tour to San Gimignano, a former pilgrimage station on the way to Rome known today for its splendid medieval architecture.

A great-great grandaughter led the wine tasting at Tenuta Terciano.
We also stopped at a well-known vineyard in the beautiful hills of Tuscany for an elegant wine tasting.

We returned to Florence tired but exhilerated.  That night we shared a final meal at Da Mimmo, a beautiful restaurant with special ambience and great Tuscan cuisine and wine. We toasted to our hosts, our tour guide, and the inner joys of  a well-travelled adventure.
Da Mimmo: our farewell dinner.
Enjoying Monterossa, Cinque Terra 

Firenze: Duomo outside and inside. The famed golden door is a duplicate of the real one being restored. Our local tour guide at the Palazzo della Signoria, the center of Florentine civic life, and the Basilica of Santa Croce, the burial site of Michaelangelo, Machiavelli and Gallileo.



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