Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Bethlehem kind of year

Have you ever had plans go awry? Had a "sure thing" dissolve in the mists of uncertainty? A well practiced tune go a bit flat? Yeah? Us too! In fact, our entire year seems to have trundled well off the track we thought we'd set for it! If we've been out of touch with your recently, feel free to click the links to 'catch up'.

Here was the plan - Erin and the kids return from the uncertaintly of a three month "exile" for medical treatment in the US. We'd be back together as a family, and Danna's kidneys would respond well to the "mini-chemo" treatment. She'd join Jad at the school just a couple hundred meters out our door, and they'd both have a great final school year here in Prague. Meanwhile, at work, I'd coast to the end of our three-year tour here in Prague.

Ahh... (I chuckle)... how plans quickly go awry! Erin and the kids were back from the US for about a month before Danna relapsed again, and she went back on steroids (so much for the the chemo-cure). Our intricately planned ski vacation (day care for Kyler, Ski School for Jad and Danna, and "ski-dates" for Erin and me) went south when half of us got sicker than dogs (and the other half had to take care of the sick dogs). I passed the "sickies" on to Erin and the kids, who were nice enough to pass them back to me just in time for the Prague half-marathon, for which I'd been training for months (bronchitis and races do not go well together). We zipped through the summer in pretty good fashion, and things kind of went back to plan... for a while. Danna started Kindergarten, but shortly after she did so, also started a new course of drugs that severely suppress her immune system. Meanwhile, I kind of disappeared from the scene (and banished any dreams of "coasting" at work) for a while when I simultaneously took over my boss's job for the rest of our tour here in Prague, entertained guests from the White House, and hosted 160 of my colleagues for a regional conference.

By the end of October, the Rubesh Jalopy looked to be heading back to the Autobahn when we hit another detour... by the name of Swine Flu. As you may have read in the news, severely suppressed immune systems do not get along well with Swine Flu, and Danna's combination of strong medications and underlying health issues made her high risk for complications. Vaccine? Nowhere in sight. Jad and Danna went from ISP (International School of Prague) to RSP (Rubesh School of Prague) starting in November. Erin went from Chief Domestic Engineer to Educator in Chief. Ever tried to homeschool a first grader and kindergartener with an energetic toddler underfoot? Yeah? Not easy, eh? As if teaching / babysitting / cooking / mothering wasn't enough, the search for H1N1 vaccine was on. We looked under each rock and around every corner - emailing Doctors, Senators, and even the White House! In the end, the US Army came through, and we got the entire family vaccinated at a nearby base.

By now, you're probably wondering... "Wow - that's great and all, but I thought this was going to be a Christmas letter." Well, I was thinking the other day about the challenges of this year... and realized that all this "planning gone awry" stuff is really nothing new. In fact, the central characters in the Christmas story had a year even more chaotic than ours has been! I'm sure you've all heard the story - but here's what stood out to me this year.

Joseph strikes me as my kind of guy. He was a planner - you kind of have to be, to be a carpenter! No doubt he spent months planning his wedding - only to find out his fiancee was pregnant. Talk about a change in plans! He had just about finished redrawing his blueprint, deciding to protect Mary and end the engagement quietly when he got a visit from an Angel. Hard to plan for that! Knocked back onto his original track by the heavenly visitor, the dutiful husband probably starting working on getting the house ready for the new addition. Until the next bombshell hit - this one in the form of the Roman Emperor! Before you know it, he and a very pregnant Mary are on the road to Bethlehem - over 100 kilometers away - to take part in Caesar Augustus' census. This is back before you could hop on the internet to plot the best route and reserve a room at the inn. By the time they arrived in Bethlehem, there wasn't a bed in town! As a planning Dad/Father/Provider that's gotta hit hard! Fortunately, the baby arrives safely, Mary's OK, and apart from a couple unexpected visitors with sheep and camels in tow, things are looking good. Soon it's back to the woodworking shop , home, and "the plan"... right? But no - now a jealous King Herod's after Joseph and son, and the story takes another dramatic and unexpected turn - an exile in Egypt!

Unexpected pregnancies. Angelic visits. An Imperial summons. Death threats and exile in a faraway land. And I thought our year had surprises! The thing of it is... even though Joseph's year probably was nothing like what he had planned, the twists and turns fit perfectly into God's design. Amid the chaos of upset plans and unexpected detours, God's plan was born - in the shape of an infant... lying in a manger. In the commotion of a crowded stable the Prince of Peace entered the world.

Our year? Definitely not one for the planner in me! But if the story of Bethlehem is any indication, God uses the shattered pieces of our best laid plans to accomplish His purpose. Among the joy of presents, trees and wrapping paper this Christmas lies the reminder that the real reason for the season will continue to guide us, and give us
Peace no matter how many unexpected twists and turns our path takes.

God bless, and Merry Christmas from Prague!

Monday, October 5, 2009

When Daddy can't be Superman

Dads out there - you know this already, I'm sure. From the day your first kid is born, certain hidden super powers start to emerge. Brought to life by the magic of that first glimpse of a wrinkly, helpless, crying little person, you soon realize that you can DO things you just couldn't do before.

You have the power to banish all variety of "owies" with nothing more than a kiss and a band-aid. Superhuman strength to toss squealing kids into a pile of pillows. Inhuman wisdom in answering life's important questions. Supernatural engineering skills to fix just about any broken toy with nothing more than a scrap of duct tape, a couple of toothpicks and a tube of super glue. It's great being a superhero! Until you hit that shard of Kryptonite that rips through even your most impressive powers and makes you realize that you're just... a Dad. Who can't fix everything after all.

My Kryptonite lurks inside my five year old. An insidious, unrelenting villain has a hold deep inside her. Just when you think he's been banished back to his evil lair, he rears his ugly head again - like he did last week. Danna's battle isn't with something you can see, touch, or banish with a quick burst of superstrength - but with a disease that's got a grip on her kidneys, and just won't... let... go. And last week, when Danna's cute five-year old cheeks started getting puffy again, despite her low sodium diet, despite her regular course of steroids... we knew it was time to head back to the drawing board.

And this Super Dad feels small. Powerless. And - can a superhero even admit this? Scared.

So - allow this scared not-so-super hero introduce you to the real hero in the Rubesh family. She stands about 3 feet 9 inches tall, and has beautiful brown hair, freckles and grey-green eyes. She loves ice cream (chocolate please), Hannah Montana and Princesses. She stages dance shows in the bay window and enjoys dressing up her dolls, toddler brother and cat. She's an excited Kindergartener, is learning to read, and "writes" long letters to imaginary friends.

She takes her own treats to birthday parties, where she can't eat the snacks the other kids can. She has her own special "salt", popcorn, chips and crackers... looks a little longingly at the "good stuff", but doesn't complain. She's stares down any incoming needles in disdain - and barely whimpers when she has to give blood... yet again. She's not quite sure why the pants that fit her fine last week are uncomfortably tight this week - but she rolls with the punches and finds another pair. She's a great pill swallower, which is good. While many kids her age might have multivitamin with breakfast, she swallows potent cocktail of 8 pills each day. One will suppress her immune system. Another weakens her bones. Together, they should help her kidneys keep on doing their thing.

She makes me laugh. She breaks my heart. But most of all, she makes me so... incredibly... proud... all at the same time.

Danna's my little girl - and my true Superhero. And as she battles this villain - and I stand by helpless - all I can do is love her. And use whatever powers I still have at my disposal to keep her smiling through her fight.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Viennese Cuisine - Third Culture Kid Style

OK - so there Erin and I were - surrounded by the fine culture, class and cuisine of Vienna. Erin's mom (still my favorite mother-in-law) bravely volunteered to corral the kids for a weekend, and we had jumped on just about the first train out of town. So... like I said, there we were, standing in the U-Bahn station, heading to our hotel, when I saw it. Beckoning at me from the other side of the tracks. My camera was, of course, stuck in the very bottom of my bag. "Erin!" I yelled. "Get your camera - QUICK! Take a picture of THAT SIGN!" Being a mom who rarely has more than one hand free at a time, Erin's camera is small, svelte, easy to pocket and unpocket... and burgundy to boot. She sprung into action and grabbed this shot:

Now to someone who hasn't grown up in Sri Lanka - the sign on the left may not mean a whole lot. An ethnically dressed character posing next to a sign for... grasshoppers? Not quite, my friend! Ask any Rubesh (of the Don Rubesh lineage) about hoppers, and you'll get the salivation of a Pavlovian dog at a handbell choir recital. Hoppers are like... Guiness to an Irishman... Steak to a Texan... fine wine to a Parisian... Schnitzel to a Viennese.

Picture (and address) firmly on memory card, our first stop in Vienna, after checking into our hotel just outside the Schönbrunn Palace was Colombo Hoppers. Eager to dust off my rusty Sinhala, I eschewed the German menu and ordered off the cuff in the majority language of Sri Lanka to our waiter - who clearly had no idea what in the world I was saying.

Fortunately, our host and the owner of Colombo Hoppers seemed happy enough to trade German for my oddly accented Sinhala, and we soon settled on a good variety of string hoppers, curries and fruity drinks, all the while serenaded by Sri Lankan baila on the stereo and the whine of mosquitoes (imported from the Replendant Isle, I'm sure)

Looking for Viennese Cuisine with a kick? Look no farther than Colombo Hoppers - as the sign in the metro says, its just down the road from the Pilgamgrasse U-Bahn station on the U4 line.

Not to be outdone, the very next day, we hopped off a perfectly good (and dry) streetcar and into the pouring rain when Erin spotted her equivilant of Sri Lankan cuisine - Restaurant Beirut. We were the first ones in the door for lunch, and the tabbouleh was fresh off the cutting block and delicious. Our waiter/chef did not look very Lebanese, and we soon discovered that yes, we were actually speaking in Arabic to an Indian who cooked Lebanese food in Austria, and whose first language was English. Go figure!

One thing to keep in mind while dining in Vienna - don't forget a well-stocked wallet. Classy eats like these don't come cheap... and apparently, between cutting up parsley and frying falafal, they haven't had time to fix the credit card machine at Restaurant Beirut.

If you're looking for a quick warm up after all this traipsing around town to find decent eats, look no farther than one of Vienna's famous cafes. One like Daniel Moser, on Rotenturmstraße, for example. It has the best coffee in town (really, their awning says so)... and, they've been serving it since 1685 (really, their saucers say so). Actually - it was good coffee... very good coffee!

We did actually find traditional Viennese cuisine on our last night in town - it must have been authentic - we could actually hear the chef pounding the schnitzel through the kitchen door.

Between all this fine eating and drinking, we did actually get to see some of Vienna. Here I thought that Prague had some impressive Palaces and gardens. After wandering through the Hapsburg's summer retreat at Schönbrunn Palace, and the other palaces, large and larger that litter the city, Prague's best all seem rather... quaint and provincial... .

The best way to get around town? The U-Bahn's not bad, but you really can't see much. A much more "in touch" way to tour the city is from the seat of a Vienna Citybike. Here's the idea - walk up to a kiosk, insert your credit card as a deposit, and unlock a bike that's FREE to ride for an hour. Lock it up at another one of the 60 or more stations scattered around the city, and then return to check it out for another free hour of riding. Exceed your free hour? You'll be charged all of one Euro for the next hour. The bikes even work in the rain (we tested them to make sure!)

Bike are fine for getting around Vienna - but for the trip back to Prague, Czech Railway's Pendalino high-speed trains are the ticket! Smooth, quiet, fast and fully air conditioned, these things are like flying - but at ground level. Four hours after pulling out of Vienna's Sudbahnhof, we were back at the decrepit, filthy Hlavni Nadrazi main train station in Prague (don't worry, they're renovating it).

Buy your tickets online and speed off to Vienna - for a weekend of excellent cuisine, multilingual conversations, impressive palaces and free biking!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Birthday Dollars

Ever since I can remember, my brothers and I each got a very special birthday card each year. Inside, in addition to cute pictures, birthday wishes, and occasionally a stick of chewing gum, there was always a single dollar bill. Growing up in Sri Lanka, we treated these dollars like pure gold - hoarding them in our secret hidey holes, counting them up, and waiting eagerly until the day when we would be in America and could spend our treasure! Grandpa and Grandma Miller (mom's parents) never forgot a birthday - and never forgot a birthday dollar - no matter how many thousands of miles away we were!

Now that we're all grown up and parents of our own kids, we don't get birthday dollars anymore. But sure enough - just like clockwork, Kyler's second birthday card appeared in the mail from Oregon. This time, it flew all the way across the US to a military mail dispatch center in New York. From there, it hopped a plane across the Atlantic to Prague, and from our Embassy mailroom into my backback for the run home. Kyler opened up his card, and out fluttered a single dollar bill. He's not sure quite what to make of it yet... but I'm sure he'll soon join his brother and sister in carefully stashing his birthday dollars away at the bottom of his piggy bank.

When Grandpa and Grandma got married and Grandpa started work as a pastor, he was just as likely to get his salary paid in a tithe of eggs or chickens as in greenbacks. They raised a family of five kids and sent them out into the world to start their own families... but their jobs didn't end there.

In college, Grandpa and Grandma's house in the tiny town of Creswell, Oregon was my haven - a place to unload the stress of the week, get my laundry done (by Grandma) and fall asleep in the lazyboy, belly filled with a homecooked Sunday lunch of Pot Roast followed by a bowl of ice cream, a couple of peaches, and an oatmeal cookie. Their house just outside of Eugene always had a neat smell to it. A smell of home during a time when this third-culture-kid was busy trying to figure out where in the world "home" was. We'd work our way through Grandma's archive of photo albums - documenting our family history on pages of 3x5 prints behind cellophane sheet protectors. Play a game or two of dominos. Watch Pat Sajak or Alex Trebek on the TV set. And then, laundry done, I'd head back to another week of college life.

With the birthday card last week came Grandpa and Grandma's loving touch from many miles and three generations away. They're older now - Grandpa's Alzheimer's has really taken a toll in the last year. Grandma's arthritis makes it harder each year to write the greetings on the birthday cards.

But their calendar is marked with the birthdays of all their kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, stamps and cards are bought, and many times each year, a dollar bill wings its way across the globe to find great-grandkids just starting out life's journey. And though Kyler's too young to understand it now, someday I'll sit him down on my lap and tell him about his dollar bill. How it can smell like a Sunday roast right out of the oven, a scoop of vanila ice cream with a fresh-baked cookie on the side... and a lot of love from many miles away.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A little slice of Holland

With "Tayta and Jiddo" (Erin's parents) in Prague for a visit, we drove to Holland this weekend. OK - not really to Holland, but it kind of felt like it! The Eastern end of Lipno Lake, along the Czech-Austrian border was "discovered" by Dutch developers several years ago, and a bustling little resort town - including a marina, a golf course and a ski area - has sprung up out of nowhere. Today, just about all the signs appear in three languages - Dutch, German and Czech, and every other license plate is from Holland.

We were looking for a family friendly hotel within easy striking distance of Český Krumlov, and stumbled across the Lipno Lake Resort via the Internet. A couple emails later, the van was packed, kids' bikes loaded on the back, and we were on our way. Minus potty stops and a lunch break, we rolled into the the resort reception in Lipno nad Vlatavou just about three and a half hours after we left Prague. A signpost pointed out the number of kilometers to Prague... and to Amsterdam!

The resort was all the website (in Dutch, German, Czech, and poorly translated English) billed it to be. We picked up our keys from the friendly Dutch park managers, plunked down a wad of Czech cash, and found our home for the weekend - and it was nice.

Our "LLR8S" apartment featured three bedrooms spread over two floors, a spacious dining room, kitchen and living room, balconies overlooking the lake, and a sauna! Cool! The kids wasted no time staking out their beds and testing the sauna.

We've tried out quite a few apartment-type hotels around Germany and the Czech Republic in the last few years, and this one was by far the nicest. The pool ("heated"), playground and trampoline right outside the apartment didn't hurt! What makes this place really nice though is the location - wedged between Lipno Lake on one side and a ski resort on the other. In the summer, mountain bikes take the place of skiis on the lift, a ropes course is in full swing, people are zipping down the bobsled run, and the evenings echo to the sound of live music.

Lipno Lake is a great place to bring your bikes - even if you're not planning on riding down the ski slope, bike and inline skating trails run along the lake, and crisscross throughout the forested hills. Don't have room to pack them? Pick up a rental by the hour, day or week at any one of a number of rental spots - including one featuring the latest downhill bikes at the foot of the ski slope!

Lipno Lake Resort's "sister property" the Lipno Lake Marina across the road features the "Aquaworld" mini indoor water park. If you're staying at the resort, keep your receipt and present it at reception for a full refund. The lake was still a bit cold this July weekend... but the strip of sand just beside the Marina made for Kyler's first beach experience and was fun anyway (Kyler doesn't look convinced in this picture!)

Lipno a great home base to use for all variety of day trips - including our trip to Český Krumlov - one of the Czech Republic's most beautiful "Castle Towns". A day's just about enough time to tour this town - and explore the country's second-largest castle complex (after Prague Castle).

Our only regret? At just three days, this stay in beautiful Southern Bohemia was just a bit too short!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Kindergarten Graduate

Last Thursday, our first official graduate came home! It seems like just yesterday that we sent "Big J" off to KG, Wall-e backpack firmly in hand. A year of letters, drawings, baking, recess, reading and new friends has just whizzed by, and Jad's now officially a "1st Grader!"

Jad's favorite part of Kindergarten? "The math - because I like math. Also I love math because it is really fun. My favorite class was all of the classes. Almost all of the people in my class were my best friends"

In other words, he's had a great first year and has done well, despite being uprooted for a three-month exile to Oklahoma mid year. Jad's actually reading - something I don't think I was doing at the end of Kindergarten... and before long, he'll be able to read himself the Asterix and Obelix books he loves!

Reading a book

A plant-growing project

Counting beans

With buddies Ray and Ken (and assistant Danna) during a baking project

So now - off to 60 days of summer vacation, and then Danna starts up in the fall!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Castle with a Playground

Hidden Prague
Secret spots off the beaten cobblestones of Prague

What: A shady retreat far from the bustle of "Tourist Prague"
Where: Vyšehrad Castle - V Pevnosti 159
Public Transport: Vyšehrad metro stop
Map: Click here
Price: Free!

Once upon a time, the legend goes, Princess Libuše had a vision. A dream of the future glory of the city of Prague, sited on seven hills. Though revered for her wisdom, the sensibilities of the time just didn't have room for a woman leader. She rose from her throne and dispatched a delegation to fetch her a common ploughman named Přemysl - who she promptly married. Together, from their fabulous palace at Vyšehrad, they founded 400 years of rule under the Premyslid dynasty.

Today not much remains of the castle of the "Castle on the Heights." Perched on a rocky promintory out of sight of the teeming hordes crowding Charles Bridge, the sun-dappled pathways that wind through the ruins of Princess Libuše's home offer a welcome break from the crowds.

Most folks that actually make it up to Vyšehrad come to visit the 11th Century Church of St. Peter and St. Paul or the Slavin Cemetary housing the bones of Czech luminaries such as Dvořák, Mucha and Smetana. While those sights are fascinating, we came mainly for the playground!

Tucked in a shady glade just above the St. Martin Rotunda lies a fabulous playground, built from rough timber and surrounded by totem-pole like statues of key players in Vyšehrad's history. Ladders lead up to towers connected by bridges, while "secret tunnels" quickly carry you to the edge of the play area. The playground's surface is deep gravel, forgiving enough to soften just about any misstep by tiny feet. Our kids' main concern was who was going to get to ride the zipline first! The play area is circled by benches where you can relax in the shade while the kids work out all their wiggles.

Don't forget to take in the scenery from the battlements of the castle. With a commanding view of the Vlatava river below and the much more visited Prague Castle and Mala Strana in the distance, it's an unfamiliar, but breathtaking view of the city.

The castle complex is large and fun to explore, but a challenge for strollers - a mixture of cobblestone alleyways, shady paths, and curious passageways through ancient walls and tunnels. The labyrinth just outside the "New Provost's Residence" makes for a fun diversion for the kids. The large lawns guarded by statues under canopies of green are a perfect spot for picnics.

The quickest way to get to Vyšehrad is via the metro - the aptly named Vyšehrad stop on the red line is about a 10 minute walk away.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Herring

What do you get when you mix two expatriate families, gorgeous spring weather, a turkey and some herring? A unique Easter Eve smorgasbord a la fresca!

Admittedly... turkey and herring don't usually go together. But when you combine a Butterball Turkey with Swedish Meatballs, lingonberries, boiled potatoes and cream sauce, (oh yeah - and a couple bottles of pickled herring) the result makes for great Swedish-American eatin! Even here in the middle of Central Europe, good Scandinavian Cuisine is only as far away as the neighborhood IKEA (correctly pronounced "ee-Kay-ah", by the way).

Did I mention there was a trampoline in the backyard? And barbequed chocolate-stuffed banannas for desert?

The reviews from the junior gourmets were unanimously positive:

Jad: "I liked the meatballs and the gravy!"

Danna: "I liked jumping on the trampoline. And also I liked the meatballs!"

Kyler: "Babaaaa! Babaaa!" (Kyler-ese for "Spiderman" - one of the toys he found)

And the turkey? I think we have at least one new Swedish fan of this American bird!