Friday, March 26, 2010

Black Diamonds

I have a story, over a month old, that is still begging to be told. In late February, Sarah, Florian, Tracey and I piled into Florian's Jeep and drove over to Macedonia for a skiing weekend. I hadn't skied since I was 14 years old, so I was a bit nervous. We arrived in Mavrovo late Friday night, accompanied by rain. The hotel service was beyond wonderful. I have never stayed at a place that made you instantly feel like family. A yummy meal was whipped up for us, followed by dessert crepes. We went straight to bed anticipating a day full day of skiing.

Saturday morning came. We all bought our lift passes. I was told that the easier hills were at the top of the hill, which alone was odd. Being the Balkans, we received no map of the area. The four of us climbed on the single chair lifts and headed up the hill. I literally fell out of the chair lift instead of gliding off gracefully and immediately thought, "Oh boy! I'm off to a great start!" The man at the top asked if I was a beginner. I said, "How did you guess?" He exchanged worried looks with his fellow ski patrol. I asked, "So, where are the beginner slopes?" The man pointed off in an ambiguous direction. I took that to mean, "You're on the bunny slopes."

I earnestly prayed that whatever skills I had learned in ski lessons 16 years ago would suddenly surface. At first, I was amazed by what I remembered and even thought, "Gosh, it's all coming back to me." Sarah was snowboarding along side Florian and Tracey and I were a bit behind. Suddenly, the path became narrower and the hillside steeper. I lost control and went crashing into a snowbank. I dug myself out while Tracey took pictures, both of us laughing uncontrollably. It only got worse. At one point I resorted to taking my skis off and sliding on my rear end. By the end of the run, I was ready to turn in my skis. We finally made it to the bottom only to discover a different chair lift that was off to the side. Sarah was already on and yelled to Tracey and me, "The bunny slopes are at the top of this hill; come on up!"

We were all safely at the top and found some friends from Tirana enjoying a break in the lodge. I said, "So this is where they are hiding the beginner area?" Sarah said, "Um, yeah. You just went down a Black Diamond run." Holy smokes, even thinking about it now, I'm grateful to be alive! The rest of the afternoon, I spent with Mary, Violeta and Florian relearning how to ski and getting my confidence back. By the end of the afternoon, I was actually excited about skiing.

Sarah's new friend! This was seriously the cutest puppy I've seen in a long time.

The four of us returned to the hotel. We, once again had a lovely dinner with a lovely Macedonian wine. We played card games and enjoyed the fire in the lobby, with our clothes drying.

Game Night!

The next morning, I was more optimistic about a day on the slopes. It was a beautiful day, with a gentle falling snow and a semi clear sky. We got to the hill, only to learn that the slopes at the top were shut down due to wind. On that note, I flat out refused to ski the Black Diamond slopes, turned in my skis, and spent the rest of the day playing in the snow and drinking hot tea.

Was my time wasted? Not hardly! I'll always look back on this trip as an enjoyable experience with my enjoyable friends. I just know for certain that I'll never amount to much of a skier... Sarah and Tracey are heading to Slovenia for a spring break ski trip (they'll also be skiing in Italy and Austria too!). I'm heading the opposite direction to the Greek Isles. It's probably for the best!

*Note: These are all Tracey's pictures. I was too busy trying to stay alive and didn't have the time to take any shots at all!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


These last three months have been rather busy. Twice a week, the swim team has been traveling the 30 minutes to the only competition built pool in Tirana. It was a huge time commitment, but it was worth it. The swim team, this year, was made up of 5 middle school girls, 2 middle school boys, 1 high school boy, and 1 little 5th grade boy who is too young to compete. Swimmers, usually, are a focused, motivated group and this team was no exception. The swimmers worked extremely well together and responded to Florian and me respectfully. That's why, when their parents asked us, we did not hesitate to agree to stay an extra day in Budapest and chaperon the team. Not only did we have an excellent meet, but we had an excellent time seeing the city too!

Thursday night, we arrived in Hungary and drove the hour to the school. And what a school. The green eyed monster certainly stirred within me. Not only does Budapest have a pool, but they have state-of-the art computers (everywhere you turn) and an amazing library that's at least 4 times the size of the Tirana library. Impressive. The athletic director said that he went cross country skiing in the back field just a few weeks ago. No wonder I got a form letter back saying, "Thanks, but, no thanks," when I applied to this school. Florian and I left the swimmers in the hands of exceptional host families, who truly treated the kids as their own. We proceeded back to an awesome hotel on the Buda side of the city.

We met up with two parents from school who had decided to come along and cheer on the team and to see the city. Christie and Alan remind me of my own mom and dad. We went to a pub down the street from our hotel that served Hungarian food and Belgium beer. You can't go wrong with either! It spooked me when, for an instant, I could feel my brother's spirit lingering next to me saying, "You came here without me?!"

The next morning, I had as many butterflies in my stomach as our most nervous swimmer. (This girl was swimming three events in a row and was terrified!). We are a small school swimming against huge schools like Moscow, Warsaw, Budapest and Prague. I naturally wanted to be around the coaches from Bucharest, Kiev (though Bucharest and Kiev are much bigger than Tirana) and Zagreb. Less intimidating that way. We had three swimmers entered in the first event, the 200 Freestyle. To everyone's delight and joy, all three made the finals. And it just kept getting better. Over the two days, we had three swimmers earn bronze medals in the 50 meter freestyle, 100 meter butterfly and the 100 meter freestyle. Most of our swimmers swam in the finals, earning us lots of points. One young lady took 40 seconds off of her 400 meters free event! We ended up in 5th place out of 8 schools. This may seem low, but we knocked the socks off comparable teams. (The other four schools were competing with 20 swimmers as opposed to our 8). We were so proud of our team. They were so proud of themselves too. It's hard for small schools to compete against powerhouse teams, but they did it and were amazing to boot!

This swim meet became about seizing opportunities. One of our middle school boys seized the opportunity and swam a 50 free against a Hungarian Olympic swimmer who attended the meet as an exhibition swimmer. Needless to say, our student swam his best 50 time ever, even beating his 50 time that had earned him the bronze medal. I also seized an opportunity and swam on a female coach freestyle relay team. We came in last (swimming against two male coach teams and two incredible high school teams) but I had so much fun competing. I was the second fastest coach on our relay team, which was really surprising. All those Sunday afternoons that I spend with Tracey and Sarah at the pool have kept me in swimming condition, apparently. At the close of the meet, many students began jumping into the pool. I had just swam the relay, so I didn't mind jumping back in too. Before I knew it, two of our girls had jumped in fully clothed. Florian, fully clothed, jumped in right behind! Soon our entire team, but one student was swimming blissfully in the water.

Sunday was our full day in Budapest. We had a tour of the Castle Hill in the Buda side of the city, and of Gellert Hill. The story associated with Gellert Hill is quite dramatic. The king who converted the country to Christianity sent for a monk from Rome to teacher his son and his subjects their new religion. The subjects were quite hesitant to leave their pagan ways. They captured the monk, for whom the hill is named for, stuffed him in a barrel, hammered long nails around the barrel and sent him rolling down the hill into the Danube River. Ugh.

Quick story about this statue: One of my boys said, "Look Miss DeKorte, Skanderbeg!" Skanderbeg is THE national hero of Albania, famous for holding back the Ottomans from the rest of Europe. Well, it turns out that this stature was also of a general who defended Hungary against the Turks. That's how we say ironic.

We ended the day at the Szcheny Baths, swimming outside in the snow! Truly, this was the best experience for a bunch of water people! The warm waters were relaxing and soothing. We went to one of the cooler pools to swim some laps and race each other. The kids were in heaven in the whirlpool area. I must admit that this pool was the most fun; you could be caught up in the whirlpool and just glide along.

We all stayed at a hostel outside of the city. Luckily, one of our girls in Hungarian and could interpret for us at the lovely family run facility. Literally, no one spoke English! Mean Miss DeKorte made the rule that the boys were not allowed in the girls' rooms without a coach. So after we took a snowy walk in the woods to the nearest market, we piled in a room and played charades and 20 Questions. Then it was lights out for all.

I absolutely loved working and traveling with this group. The swimmers kept me laughing and busy all winter long. I'm glad that I have my Monday and Wednesday afternoons back, but oh how I miss the team already!