Tag Archives: life lessons

Gradtirement begins!

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My maternal side of the family is incredibly close knit, and I grew up surrounded by cousins who were as close as siblings. We are also incredibly Ukrainian, clinging fiercely and proudly to a culture that first Russians and then Germans attempted to wrench away from us. It wasn’t until Grade 2 that I realized “goomkah” wasn’t the English word for “elastic band,” and that other kids didn’t spend most holidays hanging out at their Ukrainian church until midnight.

I am literally “first generation and a half” Canadian, with a mom who was born in Canada but whose older siblings were born in German camps during the war. We knew the stories of the family in Ukraine and Belarus who had been lost during the war, and the miraculous reconnection thanks to the tireless work of the Red Cross with aunties and cousins presumed dead, but until the dawning of the age of easy internet access, we never dreamed of actually connecting with these faraway loved ones on a regular basis. But eventually connect we did, and now with an epic celebratory trip looming in need of a destination, I couldn’t imagine a more amazing destination than going ‘home’ with my mom.

However, there was no need to hurry straight there! While I have had the privilege of roaming throughout Europe before, my mom has never traveled in Europe outside Ukraine. So, while sitting in my apartment in China, I took the plunge and booked us flights arriving in Rome and leaving from Lviv three weeks later. Now we just had to plan all the fun things in between!

When you travel with the same someone as often as saratree tends to do, you inadvertently develop roles to expedite the planning process. I have definitely become the “things to do and eat” person, while Joshua is the “accommodations and public transit” expert. Realizing that I would need to step into the role of all of the above on this trip was, to put it mildly, freaking terrifying.

While I did have more travel experience than my mom, I felt woefully inadequate in the role of navigator (Josh seems to think my philosophy of “I always get to where I need to go…. eventually!” is amusing rather than functional, and let’s just say that my mother’s sense of direction is even more… ethereal than my own). Moreover, my mom was struggling with a chronic ankle injury that limited her mobility and caused her fairly constant pain. Was a cross-European backpacking trek really the smartest idea?

Maybe not smartest, but definitely most awesome.

A word about my mom. My mom is, as I alluded to above, a first generation refugee who grew up in the culturally and geographically challenging rural North of Canada. Her family didn’t speak English and she had never seen a city or running water until she was 14. She has faced unimaginable hardships in both her personal and extended family life, and worked for decades as a nurse where she was expected to cope with other people’s grief and pain on a daily basis. As a child, she suffered numerous health problems, including damaged veins in her legs that left her with constant and painful swelling in her left leg, and a ruptured eardrum that left her half deaf, caused by a drunken doctor attempting an ear exam.

I confess that because I’ve grown up with these things, I have taken them for granted for most of my life. Mom’s leg that was a different colour, or the fact that she wouldn’t hear you when you talked to her on a certain side, well… those were just normal parts of her, like her collection of matryoshka dolls or her hazel eyes. But living in very close quarters with her during this trip (and planning daily activities that pushed the physical limits of her normal relaxed retired life!), I saw the extent to which she is affected on an hourly basis by these things: whether it’s in the ankle swelling that causes sandal straps to not fit properly, or the careful selection of seats to ensure she can hear the waiter, or even something as simple yet tiringly constant as the quick glances towards and away from her “rainbow leg.”

And yet in spite of (or because of?) all this, my mom is the most gracious, compassionate, generous, and life-loving individual I have ever met. She has instilled me with a sense of joy in the everyday occurrences of life, as well as a sense of healthy respect towards suffering: it happens, it’s hard, so we need to support each other and learn from it.

Also, did I mention that she’s just super fun?

My mom seemed thrilled to have the chance to visit Italy (apparently she has been captivated by the idea of Pompeii since high school, of which I had no idea!), and I was equally thrilled to have the chance to play host in one of my favourite countries, despite all my worries about her well-being. I knew that if anything happened to her, not only would I feel horrible, but I would face the wrath of my three older siblings. It was one thing for ME to go irresponsibly gallivanting across the globe, but to drag along my respectable mother who was supposed to be relaxing in her much deserved retirement??

As it so often turns out, my fears were groundless. Every day, my mom astounded me with her strength, humour, and resilience. She was wonderfully encouraging to me in my newfound travel agent role, offering generous amounts of much appreciated reassurance and excitement. She appeared charmed by the vast assortment of accommodations I found for us, embracing the shared bathrooms and hostel breakfasts with aplomb. She bravely tackled Rome’s metro guarded by machine gun-toting militia, the scorching heat of the Foro Romano, the endless staircases of Venice. Most notably, she never complained. She would request to sit for a minute, or accept my offer to lug her suitcase for awhile, but she would never complain.

Our charming conglomeration of accommodations. I was VERY pleasantly surprised (read: relieved!) at how lovely they all turned out to be… I chose them mainly for price and location, and was keeping my fingers crossed for all the rest!

Our biggest hurdle… the infinite bridges & staircases of Venice (aka the city where my respect for my mom’s chutzpah quadrupled)
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Planes, trains, automobiles… and vaporettos

Life is hard. Challenges get thrown our way (sometimes more due to our choosing than other times!) But how different could our experience of challenges be if we simply stated what we needed, or what could be helpful, rather than resorting to ineffectual kvetching.

El Foro Romano: never fails to be utterly awe-inspiring

Hey Joshua… “[El Foro] is a good place to find a thumb.”
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My perennial favourite of the Foro – the Temple of Romulus (AD 307), with the original bronze door and the lock that STILL WORKS
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Mom taking her role as traveller-tourist seriously and not missing a thing!
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Views from Venezia

All life lessons aside, it was also just pure fun to play tour guide to my mom in bella Italia, a country I have now had the privilege of visiting for the third time and that still leaves so much to be discovered each time I arrive!

Amazing new discoveries with Mom, such as our blissful Santa Marinella beach day

First time in the Pacific!!!
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The rainbow puzzle box of Burano
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Late night strolls down to our favourite neighbourhood landmark
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And then, with coins thrown into Trevi to guarantee yet another return (it’s only had proven success thus far for me!), it was ciao! to the Romantics and hallo! to the Germanics as we boarded our Schlafwagen to Vienna…

(To be continued!)

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Tuxtlayork

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After a week settling into my new Mexican home, I was informed that another exchange student from Columbia would be arriving the next day, hosted by my host’s best friend (conveniently also named Valeria). As I tend to be, I was leery about introducing someone new into my comfortable Mexican life… but (as is so often the case), I should never have worried. Sandra “La Columbiana” arrived in full force the next morning, flooding Mexico with “usted” (the respectful form of address is used almost exclusively in Columbia, even between dating couples) and exclamations of “chiquitico” and “poquitico” (the Columbian diminutive form manages to be even more adorable than the standard Spanish diminutive).

Warm, generous, wildly affectionate and wickedly hilarious, Sandra was a welcome addition to my exchange experience. From our first day spent together exploring the many parks of Tuxtla, it was evident that the four of us fit comfortably together, and rarely a day or night passed without us going out for micheladas, going out dancing, or sleeping over at one of the Valeria’s houses.

La Marimba, Chiapas’ signature sound, de la Parque Chiapasonate   

Getting pulled into a sexy catwalk/dance contest hosted by a clown in the park. After some Ukrainian Baptist dance moves that I believe only thoroughly bewildered the crowd, La Canada won second place! My prize? A light-up hippo keychain and a heart balloon.    

The next week, we found out that one more exchange student would be joining Tuxtla for the summer – a chico from Venezuela who was studying medicine in España. We went to his SCOPE welcome dinner more out of curiosity than anything: he was a research student while the rest of us were clinical students, and he would be living on his own by the university campus instead of with a host family, so the expectation of seeing him regularly was low.

However, Andrés had the definition of buena onda, the Latino description for that indescribable quality possessed by truly genuine people that irresistibly attracts you to them. Impulsively, we invited him out with us the next night for more micheladas… which turned into a uninterrupted string of beautiful days and impossibly fun nights together.

In all the roads I have travelled, las cascadas de Aguacero is the most breathtakingly beautiful place I have ever seen   

Enjoying pollo asado for lunch after miraculously keeping it dry walking through the falls  

Reina de la cascada! 😛 (gracias a Valeria para encontrar mi corona jajaja)            

It wasn’t only the insane weekends spent dancing until 6AM in Sancris that made our time together unforgettable (although those certainly helped 😉 ). It was also the mornings after dancing, when we’d go out for breakfast empanadas at noon in the Mercado de los Dulces and argue about body image and health education in our respective countries. It was the long afternoons in Andrés’ apartment, watching Amityville Horror (not my choice, I assure you!!), eating Rockoleta chili suckers, and discussing our countries’ views on homosexuality, our own views on sexuality in general, and all the social/political/religious/personal elements that affect our relationships whether we want them to or not. It was sharing stories about taking night shift at the hospital, our agreements and disagreements regarding doctors’ bedside manner, our arguments about antibiotic use. It was the twelve hours round-trip to Palenque that we spent crammed in a combi together, careening through the jungle and tipping precariously over mountain cliffs, trying to sleep wrapped around each other like the canned tunafish we shared for supper on the road. It was the long afternoons spent lying on Valeria’s bed, sharing pictures from our incredible day and stupid memes on Whatsapp.

While out dancing at a club in Tuxtla, we got our photo taken for a local pop culture magazine. Apparently I’m a bigger deal in Mexico than in Winnipeg!

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Afternoon sliding fun at Rancho Nuevo with new Sancris friends
  

Sancris 3.0: Midnight birthday celebrations with more wonderful new friends  

“Hay figuras…” Informative and hilarious guided tours through Las Grutas by local kids    

This is the golden reward of an exchange. Unlike, say, a conference, where you have the opportunity to talk to people of different backgrounds and cultures, but only for an isolated moment in time; an exchange gives you the gift of actually living and breathing and eating together in a real snapshot of your life. Having the gift of time allows you to spend time doing absolutely nothing together, thus cultivating a level of comfort that paves the ground for even more genuine conversations. And surprisingly, it is the in-between times, the times between ridiculous adventures and intense conversations, where you learn the unexpected things about yourself and others that you can both laugh at and challenge each other on.

We were five individuals of different ages, skin colours, faith backgrounds, language backgrounds, travel histories, sexuality, and definitions of family. One of us can’t handle spicy food. One of us doesn’t drink. One overuses antibiotics. One didn’t know what cystic fibrosis was. One of us was terrible with changes of plan. One was terrible with punctuality. We were all medical students, all determined to improve the health of our world around us in some way, with different resources at our fingertips, different supports at our back, different goals in front of us. And wherever we went next, we would all be immutably changed by our time spent together in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico.

Valeria, Valeria, Sandra, y Andrés, como podría describir la importancia de su amistad en mi vida? De nuestros conversaciones, de las historias de sus vidas, del tiempo que pasamos juntos, he aprendido un chingón de cosas de ustedes que van a cambiar mi vida por siempre! Muchísimas gracias para desafiar mis pensamientos y me daban apoyo y amor cuando lo necesitaba. Tienen siempre una casa y una amiga loca en Canadá! Los quiero muchísimos, mis bebés, y los extraño. #Cancún2016!!