Okay, Good Riddance to Some of It.

Have you ever said, “I can’t wait for this year to end,” somewhere around September? If your answer was yes, you probably made that statement as a result of a year that seemed to have brought more sorrow than joy. This was 2018 for my family and me. So, goodbye 2018!

It isn’t so much that there was more sorrow, but it definitely loomed large. Thinking about the devastating losses is difficult, and writing about them even more so, but I’ll do my best. Then I’ll tell you about the joys.

At this point, you might be wondering, “If it’s so damn hard, why bring up the sorrows at all?” Well, it’s like this. Sorrow is a natural part of life, unfair and painful as it might be. We can’t avoid it. But the pain, loss and fear make the learning, love, and joy all that much more precious.

So, let’s begin with the sorrows. Then I’ll remind you, as well as myself, why we should always embrace the joys that come our way, and why we should always look for the surprises.

Sad Farewells

Rachel Zibula Celebrating Her 100th Birthday in November 2017 (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Rachel Zibula Celebrating Her 100th Birthday in November 2017 (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

This year began with the passing of my mother, Rachel Zibula on January 4 at the age of 100.  We buried her next to my father on a sunny, but bitterly cold, afternoon in Montreal. Joining Simon, Kevin, Gary and me in saying our final farewells were two of my oldest and dearest friends, the daughter and son-in-law of one of my mother’s few remaining friends, and one of her private caregivers.

My mother had outlived all her siblings and most of her friends, but her life had been filled with tragedy and loss since the day the Nazis marched into her home town in Romania. Yes, there were periods of happiness, but they were fleeting. My biggest regret is that I couldn’t make her life better than it was.

Also in January, Simon lost one of his Rotarian friends to pneumonia. Although I didn’t know Bill well, Simon truly liked and respected him. His loss was an unexpected and stunning blow.

On May 31, our beloved friend, Vikki Krebs lost her battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. And for the second time in less than six months, I tearfully dropped a shovel of dirt onto the coffin of someone I loved. She had beaten the odds, surviving 19 months following her diagnosis, but for her family and friends, it wasn’t anywhere near long enough. Vikki was a unique individual in all the best ways, and I could write pages about the amazing friend she was. Instead I’ll wish every one of you has, or will have, a friend like Vikki.

Vikki Krebs and Me on One of Our Meetups in New York (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Vikki Krebs and Me on One of Our Meetups in New York (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

A Bleak Outlook

Otto Posing in Front of a Sculpture on the Nieuw Statendam (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Otto Posing in Front of a Sculpture on the Nieuw Statendam (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

In late August, my precious Otto had his spleen removed along with a malignant tumor. This cancer is not uncommon in Labs, and is extremely aggressive. Without treatment, we might have expected to have him with us for a maximum of four months, so we opted for chemo.

Dogs don’t have the same side effects as humans do with chemo, so we didn’t feel as if we were prolonging his life by making him suffer. Also, along with the traditional treatment, he is receiving a new drug that has prolonged life in dogs with Otto’s specific cancer for an average of nearly two years.

We are four months into this nightmare, Otto has had four of the six prescribed treatments, and so far, there is no sign of metastasis. If you saw him, you wouldn’t know he has any kind of illness. So we will take every day Otto is feeling well as a true gift. This will not end well, but we hope he will have more time to play, wag his tail and be showered with love.

From Broken Hearts to Broken Bones

The Bell Tower in Pals (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

The Bell Tower in Pals (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

On a press trip sponsored by Costa Brava in late February, I broke my leg ascending the last stair coming down from the bell tower in the medieval village of Pals, Spain. I’ll spare you all the details, but we continued our itinerary and traveled to Italy and England. My cast came off six weeks later, and I was in a boot for only a week. But it wasn’t until several months later that the pain was completely gone.

All things considered, this challenge was nothing compared to everything else that happened this year. The pain in my leg may be gone, but the pain in my heart continues.

As if all the previous events weren’t enough, in September, our son, Gary fell off a ladder while doing a favor for a friend, and destroyed his left rotator cuff. We drove to Jacksonville, Florida to be with him before, during and after his shoulder surgery. He is now undergoing physical therapy, and should make a full recovery.

Mother Nature’s Wrath

Simon, Otto and I were at a TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) conference in Corning, New York when Hurricane Florence loosed her destructive wind and rain on North Carolina. Since we couldn’t persuade our friends, Bob and Pamela to evacuate, we insisted they ride out the storm at our house, which is at a higher elevation.

Debris Line in Our Backyard After Hurricane Florence (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Debris Line in Our Backyard After Hurricane Florence (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

This was in mid-September, and their house is still uninhabitable. They are still living with us, and we won’t let them leave until they have a safe house in which to live.

Bob and Pamela weren’t the only victims of that “bitch”, Florence. In our subdivision alone, approximately 1,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged. Most of the roadside debris has been removed, and the foul smell left behind by receding flood water is gone, but I suspect we will be hearing the sounds of generators, chainsaws and reconstruction tools for a long time to come.

The devastation of the hurricane was widespread throughout the Eastern part of North Carolina. The recovery will be a long one. And, of course, government assistance is bogged down in the quicksand of bureaucracy. As soon as it was safe, thousands of volunteer relief workers poured into our area and began helping home owners with the cleanup. Most were coordinated through Christian organizations who’s volunteers were well trained, efficient and selfless. It is generous, hard-working individuals such as these who make me believe there is still hope for the human race.

On The Road Again

In late January, Simon, Otto and I traveled to NYC for IMM (International Media Market), a networking event for tourist bureaus, travel service providers and travel media. This proved to be a productive use of our time, as was the New York Times Travel Show the following day. The connections we made led to several of the press trips on which we were hosted throughout the year. But what gave us the most joy was spending an evening with my cousins, Susan and Aviv. The older I get, the more precious my extended family becomes, and the more I regret not having spent more time with them in the past.

Return to Ireland and Spain

A Perfectly Poured Pint of Guinness (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

A Perfectly Poured Pint of Guinness (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Following our first visit to Ireland in September, 2017, we couldn’t turn down a pair of inexpensive tickets back. So, we left directly after the travel show, and spent a week exploring Waterford, Wexford and Cobh, the last port visited by the Titanic before she began her fateful Atlantic crossing. We also were given a private tour of the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. Guinness was part of our 2017 post-TBEX Dublin fam trip, but our schedule was so tight, we were only able to spend a short time there. This time, Simon, Otto, and I were able to take it all in in a leisurely fashion, and it was definitely worth the time.

From Dublin, we flew to Madrid for two back-to-back volunteer sessions at VaughanTown, a language immersion program similar to Diverbo. As always, our generous, exuberant Spanish students taught us far more than we taught them.

From Madrid, we traveled by train to Barcelona for a hosted visit. We stayed at Hotel San Jordi, a unique hotel that is completely accessible to travelers in wheelchairs, but includes assistive services not found in traditional hotels. During the day, we were guided on an adapted tour of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, explored the music hall, Antoni Gaudi’s Guell Park and one of his many funky and fascinating houses.

We rented a car in Barcelona and drove to Girona for our final press trip in Spain. We explored ancient Greek and Roman ruins in the snow, had a pottery lesson in Quart, took in the beauty and history of Pals, consumed sumptuous locally inspired meals, broke my leg, and was bumped through cobbled streets in my wheelchair the next day for a tour of Girona from a women’s perspective.

Six Legs and Four wheels Will Travel in Italy

Hey! Don't the Italians Know How to Build an Upright Tower in Pisa? (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Hey! Don’t the Italians Know How to Build an Upright Tower in Pisa? (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Having been offered the choice of going home or continuing our planned itinerary, you know which one I chose – we flew to Pisa. We learned how airports transport people in wheelchairs from the ground onto a plane on the tarmac. On this trip I learned, through first-leg experience, that travel for people with disabilities has come a long way since I first began traveling in the 1970’s.

We didn’t have access to a wheelchair in Luca and Bologna, so I was a prisoner in our hotel rooms, while Simon explored and took photos. Otto was amazing, instinctively guiding me carefully and slowly on the few occasions when I absolutely had to walk.

Let me say here that Simon was a saint: making sure I didn’t put any unnecessary weight on my leg, bringing me wonderful meals when there was no wheelchair. And once we had a wheelchair wheeling me around cobbled streets and over rough terrain.

We were able to rent a wheelchair in Florence, so I was no longer a prisoner, and we definitely enjoyed the city. It was in Florence where we embarked on our next English immersion experience. We were taken to the small village of Sarteano in Sienna Province, where we spent a week in a renovated 12th century monastary. Like their Spanish counterparts, our Italian students were delightful. Although the building wasn’t completely wheelchair accessible, I was still able to participate fully thanks to a little ingenuity and a lot of teamwork. Stay tuned for the complete story some time next year.

Six Legs and Four wheels Will Travel in England

From Italy we flew to England, spent a night in Sheffield with our niece, Katherine – who somehow knew I was missing an Indian meal – and her husband, Matthew. The next morning we caught up with our niece, Charlotte for some precious quality time.

From Sheffield we drove to York, where we met our great niece, Lara, for the first time. She is the daughter of our niece, Emily and her husband, Simon, and the first of the next generation of our family. At two months, Lara didn’t have much to say for herself, but she was still a delight to fuss over and cuddle. My sister-in-law, Elizabeth had arranged a wheelchair, so one of our first outings was a visit to the National Railway Museum, which Lara seemed to enjoy as much as we did.

Specially Designed Car for Touring the Jorvik Viking Experience in a Wheelchair (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Specially Designed Car for Touring the Jorvik Viking Experience in a Wheelchair (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

The next few days were spent visiting the Jorvik Viking Center, the York Cocoa House and one of my favorite cathedrals, York Minster. During this time, I was able to get a new cast, since the swelling in my leg had gone down. This one was much lighter and, since I was given a choice of colors, it was red.

Following a week of Elizabeth’s and Mark’s warm hospitality, we worked our way to Birmingham to catch our flight to Dublin and then home. On our way, we managed to become the center of a three-car sandwich. Apparently, the young daughter of the man driving the car behind us asked him to explain the sign on a sex shop they were passing. That instant of distraction sent him into the back of our car, and made us gently nudge the rear end of the car in front of us. Getting everything sorted out and getting to our hotel took hours, but no one had been injured, and it was all very civil. The man who started the chain of events took full responsibility for the accident, but I wouldn’t mind betting that part of him was relieved not to have needed to answer his daughter’s question.

Before arriving in Birmingham, we enjoyed a home-cooked meal at the new home of our niece Ali in Leamington Spa. We also spent an evening with her sister, Susanna, enjoying beer and Indian food.

During this whirlwind of activity, Simon’s sister, Christina and her husband, Peter, met us for lunch and some long-overdue catching up. I am truly grateful for my family in England. I just wish they weren’t so damn far away.

Four Legs In China

Days after we returned from our European trip, we left for a photography workshop for Simon in Baltimore. By then, I was in a boot, and with Otto’s steady guide work, I was able to function quite well while he was in his sessions.

A week after that, the boot was off and we were on our way to China. Unfortunately, I had to leave Otto behind for bureaucratic and health reasons. He stayed in Charlotte with Kevin and his yellow Lab, Knox, playing and being spoiled rotten.

Since this post is already longer than it should be – yes, it’s been a hell of a year in so many different ways – I’l keep my narrative short. There will be more on China in the months to come.

Once upon a time, I would have cringed at the thought of a 13-hour flight, but now it’s just a long and uncomfortable means to an end. We landed in Beijing on  a smoggy afternoon, and learned very quickly that every morning in China is smoggy. The air was so foul, I was coughing up gray crud by the end of the first of our two weeks. What I can’t understand about China is how such a technologically advanced country can’t manage to provide clean air and water for its population.

Now that my rant is out of the way, I have to say that China has some of the kindest people, most stunning scenery, most fascinating attractions and best food you’ll find anywhere. We visited Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. Each had its own charm, highlights, and downsides. We climbed towers and walls, wrapped ourselves in the peace and tranquility of a Buddhist temple, and tried new foods. And in case you’re wondering, there wasn’t an egg-roll to be found. Thank goodness!

Sunrise at a More Remote Section of the Great Wall of China (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Sunrise at a More Remote Section of the Great Wall of China (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

One of our highlights was meeting one of my travel writer colleagues in Shanghai. He has been living in China for over ten years, so his advice and suggestions were invaluable to two China neophytes.

China shines when it comes to public transportation, and trying to rent a car isn’t necessary, so we walked everywhere. Although I was out of my cast and boot, Simon still bandaged my ankle every morning. Despite this precaution, I was in agony by day’s end. Still we both want to return to China to explore more of this ancient and enigmatic land.

Travel On the Home Front

In mid-May, we spent three days in Virginia boning up on some history. We began in the morning with a hosted visit to the first settlement at Jamestown. In the afternoon, we visited Yorktown, the scene of one of the American Civil War’s most decisive battles.

The next day, we were in Hampton, visiting museums, enjoying a river cruise, meeting interesting business owners, and learning why Hampton can be an excellent choice for a family vacation.

In August, we were hosted in Durham, a three-hour drive from New Bern.  This was where we finally decided we needed to spend more time exploring the treasures of the state in which we live.

The Joys of Another TBEX

September took us to TBEX at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York. Before the conference, we spent two days on a hosted visit to Arlington, Virginia, where we discovered a true gem a stone’s throw from Washington, DC.

We arrived in Corning two days before the conference. On the first day, we visited Tanglewood Nature Center. Then were hosted by Chemung County Tourist Bureau for individual glider rides. Simon and I both found the experience exhilarating, and would do it again in a heartbeat.

View from the Cockpit of the Glider Before Release from the Tow Plane (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

View from the Cockpit of the Glider Before Release from the Tow Plane (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

The following day, we teamed up with our ToTravelToo, friends, Jane and Duncan for a day of exploring wineries and breweries in the rain. 

As always, TBEX was a wealth of information and networking. Simon and I separated so we could take advantage of two different one-day pre-conference fam trips, and were hosted for a post-TBEX four-day visit to Rochester. Neither of us had ever visited the city before. However, after spending four packed days exploring Rochester’s many museums, music venues, restaurants, and producers of local libations, this is a city we would gladly visit again.

A Fractured Fall

In October, we discovered livermush in Shelby, North Carolina, and the origins of pimento cheese in Charlotte.

Our original plan was to end our travels for 2018 cuddling our new great nephew, Nate, courtesy of our nephew, Jonathan and his partner, Tamara, a native of Holland who now speaks with a British accent.

From there, we were going to travel to Italy so I could see Bologna for myself and to see Venice, which we had to postpone because of my broken leg. This was the first part of our trip, which we had to cancel because of Otto’s treatment schedule. So, we regrouped and squeezed in three days in Rome before embarking on the maiden voyage of the Holland America Nieuw Statendam to Fort Lauderdale between Otto’s treatments.

At this point an eight-day crossing following stops at Cartagena, Malaga, and Funchel on the Portuguese island of Madeira, was just the relaxation we needed.

Before leaving for Rome, Simon, Otto, and I spent Thanksgiving in Jacksonville with Gary and an overcooked turkey. Why don’t these guys listen to me?

Christmas 2018 (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Christmas 2018 (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

For Christmas, we were back in Jacksonville. As usual, Simon, the boys, and I watched movies, played cards (they killed me at Palm River Gin), and cooked up some terrific meals. This is the time I love best, being with the people who mean the most to me, and for whom I would willingly give my life.

New Beginnings

So, with a handful of days remaining in 2018, My family, friends, and I look toward 2019 with the hope of a better year. Vikki’s husband, Steve, is anticipating the birth of his second grandchild in January, courtesy of older son, Michael and daughter-in-law, Marissa. And in August, his younger son, Adam, will marry his high school sweetheart, Ellen. These events will be bitter-sweet, but we will all embrace the future with celebrations of life and love.

In late January, we will drive up to NYC to attend the 2019 IMM and the New York Times Travel Show. But this time, we will be returning home. It is impossible to make arrangements for overseas travel for the foreseeable future because of Otto’s treatment schedule and health concerns. I have decided that as soon as Otto shows signs that his health is beginning to fail, I will apply to Guide Dogs for the Blind for another dog. Otto is irreplaceable, as were Regal, Buffy and C.J.. But I can’t conceive of traveling without a guide dog because of my four phenomenal fur babies.

We will continue to explore North Carolina and surrounding states. I will continue to write and Simon will continue to take brilliant photos. We will spend as much time with our boys and our friends as possible. And perhaps most important, we will keep living life to the fullest. Let our sorrows make us stronger and may we savor our joys and blessings.

What were the highlights of your year? Let me know in the Comments. I hope 2018 was a good year for you, and wish you an even better one in 2019.

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