Wednesday, November 05, 2014

A little story featuring Kaiya and a blue dinosaur

Living overseas. Traveling home to Canada for two months every summer. It's always an exciting journey, and we always pack so carefully, choosing only our most precious belongings to bring with us.

But oh... my poor mother's heart has been battered and bruised every summer as I watch Kaiya lose something dear to her. Our first summer, it was her baby blanket. Her BABY BLANKET!! Admittedly, it goes along with a story of me spending half the flight from Paris to Toronto puking my guts out in the toilet and then being aided off the plane and through the arrivals terminal in a wheelchair. But nevermind. It's unforgiveable to lose your eldest child's baby blanket. 

I still dream of calling up Pearson airport to see if by chance there is a tattered, dirty, fuzzy yellow blanket with a lion in the corner still hanging out in the lost and found, waiting for its owner to show.

Our second summer loss was baby hippo. For a flash into Epp history, check out this Christmas post, written (gasp!) four years ago. Scroll halfway down the page and you'll see why baby hippo was such a loss. I still miss him.

But then, this summer, I thought we were good. We were careful all summer, making sure that with each of our three moves, all beloved items came along with us. And then the unthinkable happened. As we were getting ready to touch down in Doha, I started to panic as I realized Longnecky was nowhere to be found. Longnecky, a silly blue dinosaur who had been purchased for a buck fifty at a second-hand store back in St. Catharines, and who had gone on to seriously steal the heart of our 6-year old. He was gone. We looked everywhere. We asked the flight attendants. We looked suspiciously at other child passengers. And then slowly, I realized what had happened. Just before we had boarded our Chicago to Doha flight, Kaiya had brought Longnecky along with her to the bathroom. And sadly, so sadly, Longnecky was left behind.

Photos from the summer. She really loved him.

I saw the realization come over Kaiya as well, and she was oddly quiet, knowing that her mistake was what had left Longnecky back in Chicago. Back in the bathroom stall... when all along I had been saying, "You really shouldn't bring him to the bathroom with you." I could have cried right then and there. Damn it. It is hard enough going through all these constant HUGE transitions with your children, but to lose yet another precious item? I didn't think I could stand the loss anymore.

We returned home. We resumed life. Kaiya rarely spoke of Longnecky, which somehow made me all the more sad. I knew that she knew she had forgotten him back in that stall in Chicago.

And then one weekend, halfway through October, she was in a particularly sensitive mood. And when we asked her what was up, she started crying about Longnecky. "I miss Longnecky!" She was inconsolable. And that was it. I'd had enough. I decided that I couldn't hack it anymore. We deal with far too much change in our lives here already. Couldn't we at the very least have a blue dinosaur as a constant??

Thankfully, Jeff felt the same. And without me realizing it, he had started Googling "purple brontosaurus" images. (let's just say Jeff sees colour a little differently than the rest of our family.) He kept coming across this blue Webkinz dinosaur. But since it wasn't purple, he kept looking. That is, until Kaiya looked over his shoulder and loudly exclaimed, "That's HIM!!!" 


So what would any dad do in this situation?

"Well, would you look at that?? He got lost! He's in the Amazon. We just have to email the people in the Amazon and they'll send him to us." (and I still smile when I think of that moment.)

And two long weeks later, with much waiting and anticipation, the day arrived. Jeff picked up Longnecky from Aramex and brought him home. While Kaiya played outside, we quietly conferred. How should we give him to her? I had a (small) plan.

After dinner, Kaiya went upstairs to get some toys. I quickly put Longnecky, inside his shipping box, on the doorstep outside. And rang the bell. And quickly and quietly closed the door.

Me: "Hm. I wonder who would be ringing our doorbell at this time? Kaiya, could you take a look?"
Jeff: (knowing how well this would work) "No, no. Let me get it."
(Kaiya quickly ran down the stairs and jumped in front of her dad to open the door.)

A moment of silence as she bent over, peering at the box...

And then... oh, how I wish we had a snapshot of this moment. I have never ever seen a look of such pure joy on my daughter's face. She yelled, "Longnecky's back!!!! They brought him back!!!!"  And as she yelled, her expression changed, her voice cracked, and my heart split wide open for her.

She ran into my arms, holding him, bursting into sobs. "He's back... he's come back..." And I sobbed right along with her. Who am I kidding... I still have tears in my eyes. 



There are benefits to this life we are living, to be sure. But the comings and goings, the yearly goodbyes and the constant transition... these are not our friends. They are exciting moments, but the excitement is often filled with exhaustion, angst, and stress. We miss the ones we leave. And sometimes all it takes is the return of a silly blue dinosaur to bring it all home and make it all better. All in the same breath.

He was immediately graced with various Rainbow Loom bands.
And given food (baby carrots) and water. "He must be so tired and hungry after his long travels!"

So much love.

Longnecky is safely tucked under the arms of a loving 6-year old girl tonight whose world is a better and more secure place for his return. He is quite exhausted after his travels from the Amazon, and we are all hoping his jet lag won't be too bad. He will not be traveling anywhere else anytime soon.

Monday, November 03, 2014

My Family (Part 2 of our trip)

When Jeff and I first planned our trip to Slovakia, I didn't really know what to expect. I knew that my dad's side of the family was all still there, people I hadn't seen for 20 years. But I didn't know what it would mean to see them again.

I have put off writing this post partly because it's difficult to describe how meaningful it was to see my family again. I was so very glad to see them. And while I had trouble communicating, and didn't always understand their words, I just wanted to be near them. Their gestures, their expressions ... it all made sense to me. It drew me in. I wanted to touch them, to memorize the way they appeared to me... in that moment.

At first, it was just my cousin Ivan, my aunt Zuzka, and us. We had lunch in Zuzka's kitchen. The last time I visited, my Babka was still alive, puttering in this same room. It was all remarkably familiar to me, and though Babka's bed in the lounge was long gone, I could still imagine it there, with her shape, hunched over, sitting on the side.

We had chicken soup, the kind I grew up with and now make, with carrots floating in the middle, and homemade noodles. There was chicken and duck and mashed potatoes, and wonderful cabbage rolls. Kaiya surprised me with her love of the cabbage rolls.


After lunch, we ventured outside, where Zuzka set up the swing her granddaughter used to use. Kaiya and Izzy took turns swinging, and we explored the land.


Ivan loved holding Isabelle, but she never let him for long...

She even found a baby to hold.

Zuzka continues to take care of her land. It's about as big as a long subdivision lot, but it is well tended. Apples, potatoes, carrots... herbs of every kind, cherries, strawberries, and other berries. Chickens, too. So much is there. 


We walked up and down, exploring it all, amazed at the hard work my aunt still does every day. Kaiya especially loved it, taking her turn at working the soil, loudly proclaiming she would one day be "a farmer's wife"!


The underground cold storage where Zuzka keeps her fruit and vegetables

Throughout the afternoon, more of my family arrived. My uncle Pista and his wife Anka arrived next, happy to fawn over Isabelle. Pista reminded me of his visit to Canada when I was a child... how we went to a Bluejay's game... how he loved our old dog Muffy.



Ivan, Anka, Zuzka, me, and Pista

Next to arrive was Pista's daughter, my cousin Elenka, and her family.


Zuzka, now the family matriarch

Pista with his daughter Elenka

Anka did not leave Izzy's side all day.

Zuzka smiling at her great niece

We moved back inside, ate a little more, drank a little more, and in time, Zuzka's other son Emil arrived with his family. My heart felt like it would burst. Everyone came! They were all there to see us. We could all just be together.

Zuzka talking with Emil's children, her grandchildren

Emil is quite shy. But Jeff was keen to learn more about him. In speaking to his son, he learned about Emil's metalworking trade. Emil soon offered to show Jeff some of his work in his workshop, right in the backyard. It was incredible. And it was great to see Emil in his element. You can see some of his work here.


At the end of the afternoon, we all walked together down to the cemetery, where my grandparents and Zuzka's husband are all buried. Again, I was overwhelmed with the meaning of this walk. I felt incredible fondness and love for my family, and though in reality I was wrangling a toddler down the street, in my mind, I was walking arm and arm with my aunt Zuzka.


Izzy took her time, but Zuzka and Anka stayed near.

Finally, we were all together at the grave. It was a moment I will not forget.


I have a special fondness for these two.

And one last photo of all of us together. It was hard to say goodbye. I would like to promise that we'll be back, and soon, but we know the twists and turns that life takes. I held both Zuzka and Pista's gaze for a long time as we said our goodbyes. I only hope I can see them all again.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bratislava (Part 1 of our trip)

An overview of the city, taken from the castle

Michael's Gate, The Old Town

I love first impressions of a place. It's one of my favourite parts of travel. You can read a guidebook, plan your route, look at photos, but first impressions will always surprise. Like when we spent a week in London en route to Canada this summer. The smell of blooming lilacs astonished our desert-weary senses at every stop the train made. And our first morning, my eyes pricked with tears when we were greeted with the lovely sounds of an operatic street performance as we entered Camden Market. The senses simply take these experiences in, leaving lasting impressions.




But Bratislava was different. The surprise did not come in the form of a startling first impression. Instead, the surprise came in how the city welcomed me, enveloping me in a warmth I did not expect, in a strong sense of home. I simply felt that I belonged. It did not matter that I hadn't been for twenty years... that the streets and buildings were barely recognizable to me. Everything was familiar and inviting. It simply made sense. When I entered restaurants, I knew exactly what I wanted to order. And bakeries were the same. Yes, I will have that poppy seed cake. Why would I want to order anything else? And the beer... the Slovak beer very clearly spoke my name.

There was a peace and a calm I felt in the streets. Every day all I wanted to do was walk the same streets again and again, mingling with street cars and people who felt familiar. Just walk the streets my parents used to, all those years ago.



Jeff had a special fondness for the street cars.


I loved the food, the people whose sense of fashion I could not understand, the tree-lined streets and pedestrian zones. There was a quiet to this capital city that surprised me. On our last day, I stole away an hour by myself and walked down our street, Obchodna, the same street my father used to walk on his way home from work. I was filled with melancholy as I wondered what life was like for my parents back then, and what life would have been like for me if they had stayed. I sat on a bench and listened as a lone violinist played tunes I grew up listening to. And I felt sadness at having to go, even though I knew it was not my place to stay.

Quiet morning on Obchodna, standing near the entrance to our apartment, with Michael's Gate in the distance.

Obchodna at night. Shops & restaurants galore!

The Slovak Pub on Obchodna. Great traditional food. Highly recommended.


The main square in the Old Town


Since returning, friends have asked if I would recommend traveling to Slovakia. I start by warning them I am incredibly biased, but then I say a loud, resounding, "YES!" But truly, it is a beautiful country. And Bratislava is a beautiful capital. I recommend staying by the Old Town, where you are surrounded by gorgeous buildings and cobblestone streets, with the Danube just a short walk away. In fact, stay where we stayed... in one of Monika's apartments. Obchodna is a fantastic location, just 100 metres or so away from Michael's Gate, and with every kind of shop/cafe/restaurant you may need just outside your door. Oh, and make sure you get to my cousin Ivan's pub, Zbrojnos. It is literally right next to Michael's gate. Say hi to Ivan ... and have a Zlaty Bazant for me!

Ivan's pub

Kaiya helping Ivan set up for a concert

The building is over 700 years old!

Bratislava also has plenty of modern luxuries. There are two large shopping malls that were walking distance from where we were staying. I recommend Eurovea, which is beautifully situated on the Danube. Skip the shopping and hang out at one of the restaurants overlooking the river. Or just walk along the river and enjoy the massive playground. That's what we did! Aupark is another, older, shopping mall. It also has a massive outdoor playground and borders Sad Janka Krala, Central Europe's oldest public park.

While there is more I could say (ya, haven't even mentioned the castle), I'll let Jeff's photos say the rest. We're a team that way. ;)


Plenty of statues for everyone to pose with



St. Martin's cathedral

The food was a big hit


As were the fall leaves


And the parks

Walking to the castle our first morning

Castles are even more fun when they come with playgrounds!

And fun places to pose

At night, standing guard over the city

The opera house

In the main square

And Michael's gate, one last time