Glory Days of Bruge

My travels have taken me from my home in the New World to the streets of Jerusalem in the Ancient World and many points in between and beyond to the ancient ruins of Asia. Outside my home country, I have spent most of my travel time traversing the Old World. In all my wandering, I haven’t seen a city that better exemplifies the Old World than Bruge.

The Belfry has dominated Bruge for centuries.

The golden days of Bruge were in the 15th century when the city was the commercial center of North/Western Europe. Bruge prospered in large part due to its proximity to the North Sea and the reshaping of the Reie River to encircle the old city.

Kruisport on the Reie River encircling the old city.

Water brought life — in the form of trade — and to facilitate that trade canals were threaded through the city to connect with the Reie. As a result, Bruge is known as the “Venice of the North.”

15th Century homes featured wooden fronts.

The Venice of the North.

Having been to Venice, I think the moniker is an unnecessary stretch as Bruge has a charm uniquely its own. That’s why six million tourists flock here annually to soak up the charming Old World ambience while enjoying all the convenience (and cleanliness!) of the 21st Century.

The Markt (Market Square).

Another view of the Markt.

There’s something here for everyone–museums for history and art buffs, upscale and discount shopping, fine and on-a-budget dining, all enjoyed amid the picturesque architecture of the Middle Ages.

My favorite thing to do here is simply to explore the streets. Doesn’t really matter where you go, one street is just as quaint as the next, each with its own charming aspect.

All of which leads me to believe Bruge hasn’t seen the last of its glory days.

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My Belgian Odyssey

My Belgian odyssey began last year when John and I visited Tournai. We were in the market for a nice European town to call “home base” for part of the year.

John walking the streets of Tournai.

We liked Tournai, talked to the local immigration office about obtaining residency and began that process which continued with the Belgian consulate in Atlanta.

We did, in fact, obtain a residency visa and made plans to return to Tournai this year and secure an apartment. We arrived in Tournai last Thursday and one of the first things on our agenda was a meeting with an accountant.

The USA and Belgium have a treaty in place to ensure that Americans who want to take up residency in Belgium — and Belgians who wish to do likewise in the USA — are not hindered by double taxation. John had researched the tax situation, but secured the meeting with the accountant just to double check.

Based on his research, John figured we’d end up paying an additional 12 percent in tax to Belgium which we were quite willing to do to enjoy living in the country part of the year with an eye toward one day acquiring dual citizenship. We figured the lower food, transportation and rent costs here more than compensated for the additional 12 percent.

The visit with the accountant, at one of the largest firms in Belgium, was an eye opener. Our tax obligation wouldn’t be 12 percent — but 40 to 50 percent depending upon how much “income” we withdrew from our investment savings.

Hmmm…the investments were purchased with post-tax income and taxes are paid on the investment gains; consequently, in the U.S., withdrawals from investment savings are not taxable because of the taxes already paid. But in Belgium, those withdrawals are taxed like regular income.

Needless to say, we won’t be residing in Belgium part of the year! Unless it turns out the accountant was wrong.

But my Belgian odyssey didn’t end in Tournai. We decided to make the most of our time in this lovely country. We left Tournai and headed, via train, to Bruges.

So I find myself in the lovely town of Bruges for a few days. There are certainly worse ways to spend my time!

The Market in Bruges.

Bruges streets are idyllic.

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Holiday Greetings from Tin Can Gulch

As I sat down to write this year’s missive, my mind kept focusing on a lovely Christmas card I received from a good friend and fellow volunteer at MUST Ministries. Not wanting to plagiarize the greeting card company, I’ll just say the card Ruth graciously sent me and my family was all about the blessings wrought by the people on our Christmas Lists. That got me thinking about my mailing list for this annual letter.

It has certainly changed over the 17 years I have been compiling this holiday greeting. The list is a morphing amalgamation of my life to date. Jobs and other professional circumstances, along with my pastimes, have informed it. Parenting shaped it. Marriage brought new names to the list while the deaths of friends and family altered it forever.

Some on my list engage with me often and others hear from me only once a year. Regardless of the regularity or irregularity of our communication, each name on the list is meaningful and important to me. I am grateful for the role – big or small – that each person has played in my life. Thank you one and all!

What does your list look like? You have one even if you don’t label it “Christmas List.” Just ferret through the Rolodex in your mind or check out your Contacts file on your computer or smartphone. We all have that list of names and the holidays are a great time to pause and contemplate the lives reflected on it and how each and every one has touched our own.

One thing that has certainly altered my Christmas list in recent years is traveling. It took my list global! John and I continue to do as much globe-trotting as I feel comfortable doing! No, I never ask my Traveling Man to settle down. When I reach my limit, I head home to rejuvenate while the Energizer Bunny who looks remarkably like my husband just keeps on going…and going…

This spring, we dropped in on Megan in Amsterdam before boarding a river cruise with friends. The castles along the Rhine really are spectacular, but it was watching a guy water ski down the river that stays with me!

Skiing on the Rhine.

We ended our cruise in Basel, Switzerland and spent a couple of days exploring that beautiful city along with a day trip to Lake Lucerne.

Upon departing Basel, we flew to our favorite city, Paris, for a month. Three of our children, Megan, Shannon and James, joined us, along with a couple of their friends. John and I then ventured to Tournai, Belgium, a lovely, little city near the French border we plan on spending much more time in moving forward. Got to improve my French!

We got home in May just in time to welcome our grandson, William, for a week’s visit. The biggest and best news in the Longino Clan is that William is going to be a big brother. Trevor and Eleanor are expecting twins!

William and me.

Summer heralded in a road trip for John and our youngest daughter, Tiana, when she moved to Las Vegas for a few months before returning to Georgia to gear up for graduate school. Then, John and James trekked to McAllen, Texas to volunteer with Catholic Charities. The guys provided aid to those crossing the border seeking asylum. Through it all, I stayed home to write…edit…and write some more.

This fall, we joined friends on an RV excursion down the Oregon Coast. John proved why he’s the Best Husband Ever by driving me all the way back to Waleska when I unexpectedly decided to cut my journey short around New Orleans to return home to finish work on my novel. John deposited me at the Gulch and headed right back out to visit son #3, Rollin, in Jacksonville before finishing our RV trip in St. Augustine, Fla. where we had arranged to meet our good friend, Robert of Backingdom – so named because he’s British and newly skilled at backing up a trailer camper.

Meanwhile, I finished! Sarah’s Way, a historical novel, was published in early November. There’s more than one person on my list who encouraged, supported and inspired me in the pursuit of my lifelong dream to write fiction. I am forever grateful to those wonderful souls. Without them, I’m not sure I would have persevered.

A large part of my corporate career involved writing – everything from ad copy to business plans. I quickly developed a thick skin, learning early on that every corporate executive is a critic when it comes to the written word – or just about anything creative. One of my first managers put it more graphically when he said, “Donna, people are like dogs. They have to piss all over stuff to make it their own.” True dat.

So, it’s been both affirming and humbling to have people tell me they enjoyed reading something that comes straight from my heart. The most poignant review came from my mother over lunch one day. I dedicated Sarah’s Way, my first published novel, to my mom, so of course, she’s not going to say anything too negative! But when she told me, “It’s REALLY good!” with a hint of surprise in her voice, I was touched beyond words. She wasn’t just being the good mother she’s always been – she actually enjoyed the story I told. For a writer of fiction, there’s no greater compliment.

A lot of people on my list have purchased my book on Amazon. I sincerely thank you for participating in my life’s dream. May the culmination of my aspiration provide a lesson in persistence and the power of the list!

May you and yours have the happiest of holidays.

The family.

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Rocks of Glory

What a difference a year makes. Last year we attempted to visit Yosemite National Park, but found it almost impossible to even drive through. A school break and folks fleeing forest fires overwhelmed the park. There wasn’t a parking spot to be found much less a campsite.

This year is a different story. We are camping in the national treasure for a couple of days, breathing in all it has to offer.

Of course, the centerpiece of Yosemite are the towering walls of granite…El Capitan, the Three Brothers, Half Dome…that call to climbers all over the world. Rocks of glory.

The rest of Yosemite is glorious as well. It epitomizes the value of the entire park system, places to, as naturalist and conservationist John Muir said, “…play in and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.”

Yosemite is such a place.

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A Beacon in the Dark

Into my heart’s night along a narrow way I groped; and lo! the light, an infinite land of day. — Rumi

Cape Meares lighthouse.

Rambling down Oregon’s Highway 101 the past few days, passing one lighthouse after another, I am reminded that people can be like lighthouses. Stalwart sentinels in the deepest, darkest night.

My mother was the first lighthouse in my life. She has been a beacon of kindness and understanding in the darkest times.

Heceta Head Lighthouse

But my mother is not the only person who has lit my way. Acquaintances, friends, and at times, even strangers have served as compassionate guides during my journey. Afterall, none of us ever really succeeds alone. An honest look back reveals varying degrees of help and encouragement along the way.

The lighthouses along the Oregon coast aren’t as varied as people. They are all quite similar in size, color and construction.

Cape Umpqua Lighthouse

In their consistency, they remind me of my faith — a constant source of light throughout my life. Despite my questioning nature, I am always drawn back to its reliable beacon, finding comfort in its steadfastness even amid life’s storms.

Anne Lamott, a novelist and political activist, said: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”

Would that we all serve as a beacon in the dark during someone’s storm.

Shine on!

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Mountain High, Valley Low

The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.

So said John Muir, that famous naturalist and conservationist, who spoke, wrote and philosophized so eloquently about the environment.

Muir was particularly fond of the mountains. I share his affection, having preferred the mountains to the beach since I was old enough to have a preference.

Teton Pass in Wyoming

So, it’s no surprise that on this, my third jaunt across the country, John and I spend alot of time exploring mountain highs, though we will visit the spectacular Oregon coast again.

This transcontinental trip has been particularly poignant for me since the United Nation’s dire report on climate change was made public just as we got underway. Hurricane Michael, the second catastrophic storm to pummel our coasts this season, served to emphasize the report’s severe conclusions.

I have viewed the splendour of each majestic vista and wondered what it will look like in 50 and 100 years. Will my children and grandchildren enjoy the luxury?

Fall in southern Idaho

The irony of my concern is not lost to me. After all, I am burning a tremendous amount of fossil fuel to traverse the country in a terribly fuel-inefficient vehicle. All my recycling and the significant reduction of beef and dairy from my diet won’t balance the scales of my carbon footprint on this trip.

Therein lies the problem. I do some things to reduce my environmental impact, but not enough. I am a micro example of a macro problem. We passed wind farms in Missouri, Utah and Idaho — but not enough to make a difference. We drove by solar farms as well, but not enough to make a difference, because the oil wells we passed in Kansas are still pumping and the cattle on miles and miles of land across Wyoming are still, well, farting. (Cows contribute more to global warming than all the automobiles in the USA.)

And so it goes. Humanity catapults toward catastrophe doing something — but not enough.

Muir’s words encompassed a day. They were the longing of a human to take in as much natural beauty as possible before the sun set and hid the scenery in the darkness of night.

For me, the words are much more melancholic. It’s a big, beautiful world full of light and color and I feel driven to absorb as much of its natural splendour as possible while it irrevocably changes, ultimately lost in a darkness that my grandchildren may never see lifted.

I document what is so that they and theirs will know what was.

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The Garden that Old Dog Built

Some of the best sites to see on the road are found where you least expect them. Such is the garden that Old Dog built.

If you ever find yourself on or near Highway 53 in Calhoun, Ga., make sure to stop by the Rock Garden. It’s nestled behind the Calhoun Seventh Day Adventist Church right on the four-lane.

Open from dawn to dusk and free-of-charge, the Rock Garden is a labor of love. Conceived by Dewitt Boyd — a folk artist who prefers the moniker “Old Dog” — the garden began more than a decade ago as a place for his family to play. Old Dog used his artistry to create exquisite fairy tale structures out of pebbles, wire, cement, and shells.

Today, there’s dozens of these handcrafted pieces laid out along a quiet stream. Castles and quaint villages dot the pebbled walkway.

Along the magical path, you’ll spot an amazing replica of Notre Dame…

complete with flying buttresses and stained glass. Old Dog and a cadre of volunteers labored over the construction of the cathedral for 27 months.

Flying buttresses.

When I visited today, an incredible replica of the Coliseum was underway.

As you take a stroll through the small, rock garden, remember to peek inside the structures. An exploration of the innards of a castle revealed a little romance…

while a cute puppy took a nap.

It’s a lovely way to spend an hour or two. You can bring a picnic or pause to reflect at a number of picturesque seating areas along the garden path.

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