Sunday, December 31, 2023

2023 Wrap-up

 It's hard to believe that the last time I posted on this blog was back in April. I remember sitting down to write that last post about our visit to the concentration camp like it was yesterday. 

Turns out that visit basically defined the rest of my 2023 and it shaped me differently in terms of my priorities and even my feelings about life and living in general. 

It seems fitting now to wrap up another great year with some thoughts about it. 

These thoughts may or may not resonate with some people, but as I always say, I write for myself and that's purpose enough. I also wanted to do a wrap-up post because life is worth documenting. 

  • 2023 was a GREAT year. We got to travel as a family and visited several new places that sparked many unknown interests for me.  Iggy and I also got the chance to travel as a couple a few times and that's always refreshing, so I am very grateful for that one-on-one time. I also grew a lot as a person, as a wife, as a mother, as a friend...
    Among our traveling adventures this year:

- Spain in January (Madrid, Barcelona, Avila). All places in Spain are beautiful (it's one of my favorite countries!) but I particularly enjoyed our visit to Barcelona with Oliver since the last time we had been was when I found out we were expecting a baby boy so this trip was very symbolic for us, and also our day trip to Avila, where Gaby's confirmation saint was born. Faith is very important to me so it was great to experience that visit with Gaby. 

- Poland in April (Warsaw & Krakow). I will admit that if my best friend of almost 30 years wasn't from Poland, visiting it would have never been on my radar, but I will also admit that it's one of my favorite places in the world, and traveling with a "local" makes it even better. This time we also got to see our family from Finland who flew in to visit us there. How amazing! Memories for a lifetime!

- Iggy and I were able to "escape" a couple of times; once to Peru and Chile in May and then again to Seattle and Vancouver in October. It was great to recharge and spend time as a couple.  Those were definitely trips to remember. 

We also traveled to Boston as a family, visited Utah and Arizona in the summer, went on a Disney Cruise for Oliver's birthday and also went to Orlando a few times to take advantage of our Disney annual passes (that never gets old for us!). 
Every trip,  every place we visited, and every person we came across was a blessing and a learning experience. Thank you, God, for that! This year I also resolved to complete my "Fifty by 50" journey as I plan to visit all 50 states by the time I turn 50! I'm currently at 32 (not all happened this year) and look forward to checking off a few more in the upcoming year!

  • Personal growth was the theme of the year. I wrote a post about "Living with Intention" back in March and that is EXACTLY what I did. I invested in our marriage, spent my time doing things I truly enjoy, and made every effort to make a difference. Also, it was refreshing to cut off negative/toxic people from my life, to say "no" when I felt that was the right answer, and to stand for my beliefs even when it made some people "uncomfortable".

  • Faith: this year more than ever, I made my Catholic faith a priority. I actively sought out activities that aligned with my faith and enrolled in a 4-year long Spiritual Accompaniment course, which I hope to complete in the allotted time. I improved my prayer routine, attended weekly mass more often, and made every effort to make my faith "contagious".  What a joy it is to feel like I'm fulfilling a purpose that God set out for me. This year I intend to continue down this path and I am confident that it will bring me even more joy, a joy that I hope to share with everyone around me. 
  • I have TWO kids in high school!  Although it may sound silly, this one hit me really hard! I was terrified of Gaby starting high school; somehow I saw her as too "fragile" or maybe just "unprepared" in general, but as it often happens with kids, she impressed me and proved me totally wrong. Pretty quickly she was navigating the high school waters bravely and proudly and my stress levels went down a notch.  This is also the first year Oliver is alone in his school so I was feeling all the feelings. 

  • I have a daughter who drives... and has a boyfriend! Seeing my kids grow up has never made me "sad" but I would be lying if I said there aren't "omg, when did they get so big?" moments and these two were definitely that! Olivia started driving alone in September, and this December marked a year since she started dating her boyfriend Sam. The driving has been good but stressful, and Sam has been great! I love seeing her handle her life so maturely and graciously and I can only thank God for the work He has done in her and for continuing to guide me in being the best mother I can be.  I love you, Olivia and I am so proud of you!

  • Family and friends are everything! I don't have many friends...I know A LOT of people but very few I can call "friends". I am forever grateful for the amazing family that God gifted me and all the friends that enrich my life on a daily basis. This year we were blessed with my aunt Laurita moving back to the USA temporarily (we hope it's forever), for all the time we spent together as a family and for all the deep conversations I had with the ones I call friends.  In the new year, I plan to continue to nurture my close relationships and reconnect with those who are missing in my life.  These are pictures of *some* of those special people in my life <3

  • Health is a gift we should never take for granted!  Iggy had minor surgery to remove a head lipoma in October and even though it wasn't a big deal, he did have to be put under and I was terrified. So many thoughts went through my mind and I broke down several times.  My mom also had a few health scares and so did my dad. I am thankful for my faith getting me through the dark days and I pray that God continues to bless us with healthy lives. I'm also thankful for Iggy's positive outlook no matter what. I love you so much!

And last but not least, I will talk about my "resolutions". I've never been a fan of limiting myself to resolutions but a very dear person I know gave me a "shortcut" idea that I liked and I will follow that.
So as per her suggestion, I will stick to thinking of:
  1. One thing I'm going to PAUSE. 
  2. One thing I'm going to START.
  3. One thing I'm going to STOP.

What are your resolutions? How was your year? 

Happy New Year, everyone! 

Monday, April 24, 2023

Auschwitz-Birkenau: A life changing experience (Part 2)

 *This is Part 2 of the story of my experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the biggest Nazi concentration camp in Germany-occupied Poland. Part 1 can be found HERE*

As I mentioned in Part 1, our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was incredibly life-changing. It is worth mentioning that only the girls and I visited the memorial since it isn't recommended for people under 14 years of age so to allow us the opportunity to visit the camp, Iggy stayed with Oliver in Krakow while we took the day trip to Oświęcim. I wanted to get that out of the way since many people asked if I had taken my little one on the tour.

The following are some others of the areas/things that stood out to me the most (this list is probably harsher than the one on my first post, so please be warned):

- The Barracks

Barracks were primitive wooden structures with large wooden shelves for bunk beds; the camp originally belonged to the Polish military before the country was occupied in the early 1940s and the place was converted into a concentration camp (as a matter of fact, most initial prisoners were not Jews but rather Poles, Catholics, and Gypsies). The original wooden structures were then adapted into brick buildings and some of the single-story ones, were transformed into two stories in order to house the most prisoners. There were 36 bunks per barrack; 5 to 6 prisoners were packed on a shelf to fit over 500 prisoners per barracks; the living conditions were totally inhumane in those infamous buildings.  In the brick blocks, prisoners slept on straw-strewn mats, and paper mattresses stuffed with so-called “wood wool” were placed on the beds or bunks in the wooden barracks. The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex is a somber sight; the thought of all those victims being tortured day in and day out is very haunting and even though I know a lot about Holocaust history (I'm an avid WWII reader), seeing it in person brought all those things I have read through the years to a different dimension. When touring the barracks, visitors are able to see the shelves used as bunk beds as well as the type of mattresses that people laid on and some other aspects of the living conditions at the camp. Touring the premises and hearing the harrowing stories made all my problems seem so small, it's a sorrowful feeling too complex to put into words. I will never complain about cold showers, bad weather or being slightly hungry, or not getting a full night's sleep. 

- The Train Wagons and Railroad Tracks:

Most of the prisoners in the camps were brought there under false premises; as I mentioned before, they were often told they would be "relocated" to Eastern Europe without any details. The prisoners were generally not told their specific destination and many even thought their lives would improve, even buying their own train tickets to get to their new location. There is a train wagon on display at Birkenau right next to the infamous tracks where the "selection" happened.  During the tour, visitors walk towards where the gas chambers were located to mimic the walk prisoners made on the way to their death. Walking never felt so heavy and I had never experienced so many emotions at the same time. The thought of all those victims' fates being in the hands of heartless degenerates made me absolutely sick.  Our guide did an incredible job at describing the "selection" process in an empathic and easy-to-understand manner and I can honestly say that I had never experienced so much sadness over hearing about something I already heard about a million times before. 

- The Faces of Auschwitz:

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial holds a collection of 38,916 registration photographs taken between February 1941 and January 1945. The preserved photos, 31,969 of men and 6,947 of women constitute only a fraction of a vast Nazi photo archive destroyed during the camp evacuation in January 1945. These photos can be seen in one of the rooms and each one is very haunting. They show the faces of sad people who were clearly suffering at the hands of pure evil.  Each photo has a name, prisoner number, and two dates: the date of "deportation" to the camp and the date of death.  Most of the dates aren't even a month apart, which means that some of these people did not survive long at the camp. The way the faces are captured is riveting and this was one of the few exhibits that I did not want to leave.  I somehow felt these people were talking to me; I experienced a strange connection to some of the faces and names, and for a moment I could feel their pain by just staring at their photographs.  What a sad, sad, sad thing to see. 

-The Wired Fences:

Barbed wire fences were one of the means of controlling prisoners at Auschwitz and the whole camp is surrounded by the remnants of those fences. During our tour, our guide told us about the many prisoners that would jump to their death by electrocuting themselves on the fences. The desperation was such that they would willingly run into the double fences and meet their ultimate fate. Most fenced areas also have lookout towers where the Nazis would monitor all the prisoners at all times and especially during "roll call", which often took over 20 hours in whatever inclement weather. 

- Gas Chambers & Crematoriums:

This part of the tour was extremely crude and raw; it was probably the second hardest for me (I haven't mentioned the worst) and for other people as well.  As part of the guided visit, we walked inside one of the crematoriums (which people often call "ovens") where they murdered thousands of people. There was such an eerie feeling invading the moment and everyone in our group was visibly uncomfortable and very moved. 
After the crematoriums, we walked into one of the gas chambers just outside of the camp. As many pictures and movies I have seen of what the gas chambers looked like, walking through one where thousands of people perished was an experience I will never forget.  Walking through it, I was able to see how big they actually are and where the holes in the roof were to drop the Zyklon B. It's hard to put into words the overwhelming grief and heartache I experienced during the time I stood inside that crematorium and next to the remains of the gas chambers. 
We were told the biggest gas chambers were bombed by the retreating Nazis towards the end of the war in an effort to eliminate evidence of the mass murders that occurred at the camp. When I asked why these remains were untouched, our guide replied "Because they are a grave", referring to the fact that the piles of "ruble" contain many of the victims' remains which are considered sacred. She said this camp is the biggest "open grave" because even the ground visitors walk on is made up of human remains. 

- The Room of Hair:

This room was, WITHOUT a doubt, the HARDEST part for me; the most emotional and disgusting at the same time. The room was originally used as a storage space for the camp’s belongings, but after the war, it was discovered that the Nazis had been collecting the hair of prisoners as part of their grotesque experimentation and dehumanization efforts.
The prisoners of Auschwitz had their entire body cut and shaved when entering the camp, often told that it was done for hygienic purposes; for other victims, their heads were shaved after they were killed in the gas chamber. It turns out that some of the hair was found to have been used to create textiles, such as blankets and carpets, for the Nazi army and at times even to make the uniforms that the very same prisoners wore. 
The room of hair houses large heaps equaling a total of 7 tons of human hair, that were found in bags after the camps were liberated. Walking through the darkly lit room, and seeing the piles of hair was something that simply took my breath away. Even decades after the Holocaust, these piles of hair remain there as a reminder of the atrocities that once plagued humanity and a memory of the millions of lives lost during one of the biggest tragedies in history.  
For obvious reasons, I did not take any photos in this room; I was incredibly grief-stricken and the pain was too much to bear. 

The last part of our tour took us around a memorial that features plaques in all the languages spoken by the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau (19 total) with an inscription calling for reflection and mourning and most importantly a warning for humanity to never forget this happened. 

It is extremely difficult to fully describe the profound impact this visit had on me. It's amazing to see how much a person can change by approaching these horrific stories with empathy and how much we can learn and grow even from the darkest things. There are many more stories and many more things to tell about this concentration camp but there will never be enough words to convey how much this experience touched my heart.  Would I do it again? Probably not!  But I am glad I did and it is a memory that I will cherish forever. 

Thank you for reading! Now let's keep on changing the world by thanking God for each blessing at a time and sharing the goodness with others!

Happy Blogging!

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Auschwitz-Birkenau: A life changing experience (Part 1)

 I am pretty confident that when someone is planning a European vacation (or any kind of vacation), visiting a former Holocaust concentration camp is not at the top of the list. One may think that it can be very somber and even morbid to visit such places and my own husband stated at one point that he wasn't "too sure" about monetizing a place of tragedy. All those things can be valid reasons to stay away from this type of "tourism" but I am here to tell you that putting those reasons aside is something to consider. 

Our visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was an absolutely life-changing experience, one that I will treasure forever and will intentionally use to become a better person, to ensure that a tragedy of such proportions and its consequences are never forgotten, and most importantly to be ever aware of the number of blessings that I receive on a daily basis, even the smallest things like a cup of water or a chair to sit on, that often go unnoticed.

Let's start by talking about how to get to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. The camp is located about 45 miles from Krakow, one of the largest cities in Poland. It is easy to reach by car or train and the trip there is about an hour long.  We took a train at the Krakow Central Station and paid 30 PLN per person (about $7) for the round trip (Krakow-Oświęcim-Krakow); the train is very comfortable and the traveling experience was very smooth.

 Once there, we walked for 20 minutes to the concentration camp. There isn't really much to see in this town or on that walk so you can always opt for a quick taxi/Uber ride to the memorial instead, which takes about 4 minutes and costs less than $8.

Tickets must be reserved ahead of time and they cost 90 PLN per person (about $21). The place can only be visited with a guide and the tour is offered in several languages (Polish, Italian, Spanish, Russian, English, German, and French). Visitors are allowed to enter up to 30 minutes before the scheduled reservation, which allows time to go through security checks, claim your set of headphones, and watch an introductory movie about the story of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Our guide (Beata) was very punctual, friendly, and incredibly knowledgeable; she also stated during our visit that some of her family members had survived the concentration camp so her narration was very relatable and heartfelt. 

The following are some of the areas/things that stood out to me the most:

- The Main Gate

Arbeit macht frei is a German phrase meaning "Work sets you free" or "Work makes one free". This phrase could be found at the entrance of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps.  It seemed to suggest that there was a way out, when in reality, entering the concentration camp was a death sentence for most. 

Walking through that gate moved me in ways that are hard to describe. As soon as I saw the iconic gate, I choked up and couldn't hold back the tears; the thought of millions of innocent people of all ages having walked through that very same gate with their fate unbeknownst to them is probably one of the saddest things that has crossed my mind. And this was only the beginnig of the tour...

- The "Shoe Room"

Among the many exhibitions found at the memorial, there is a special room called the Shoe Room, where visitors can see a huge pile of the victims' shoes behind a glass pane. It is estimated that over 100K pairs of shoes of all sizes are kept in that room. This room had a profound impact on the three of us and it was incredible to see how even normal everyday items like shoes can trigger such deep emotions of grief and even anger.  Seeing the details on some of those shoes brought the tragey of the Holocaust to another level for me. 

- The Suitcases:

Before they were taken to the concentration camps to die, many of the victims were told they would resettle in Eastern Europe and were advised to pack their most precious possesions into suitcases. The unsuspecting victims wrote their names on said suitcases which contained treasured items, believing that at some point they would be returned to them. Most of the contents of those suitcases were stolen by Nazi soldiers and sent back to Germany to be divided as war spoils; the victims never saw their treasures again. Now those ownerless suitcases are packed in piles in a room behind a glass pane and they serve as a reminder of lives lost. Another very moving exhibit that opened my eyes to the unsurmountable evil that humanity is capable of. 

- Glasses and Prosthetics:

Heaps of eye glasses and prosthetics taken from Auschwitz victims can be found in another one of the main exhibits at the memorial. These harrowing imagery evokes the tragey which saw more than 1.2 million people perish at that site and it is such a sad thing to see.  I took the time to observe some of these items and take in  some details that gave life to my thoughts. I experienced a deep sense of sorrow and (strangely) a sense of guilt for so many innocent victims. 

- The Death Wall:

Between Block 10 and Block 11 stands the old "Death Wall" (reconstructed after the war) where thousands of prisoners were lined up for execution by firing squad. Prisoners were killed by SS men with a shot to the base of the skull from a small‑bore weapon. After the execution, the corpses were taken to the crematorium. The wall is made of a soft material to avoid richochet from the fired bullets. It is estimated that thousands of prisoners were executed in cold blood agains that wall.  It is now a memorial of incredibly somber proportions and it is one of the spots where I broke down during our visit. This is a place of prayer, mourning and deep self-reflection. 

It has been 10 days since our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau and the truth is that I am still processing everything I saw and everything I lived while on the grounds.  The visit changed me in ways that I'm still trying to figure out. 
In the interest of not making this blog post unbearably long, I will divide the story in two parts (more if necessary). I hope sharing this experience can incite some reflection amongst my readers and friends so that we can all collectively change our way of thinking, our way of thanking and eventually become better people overall. 

To be continued...

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Living with intention

It's crazy to think that it's already March 2023 and the last time I sat down to blog was 5 months ago. I promise it's not for lack of ideas but rather lack of time; life has a way of "getting in the way" of this leisurely stuff that I enjoy so much and I probably haven't made the best effort to carve out the time to do it either. 
But the other day Oliver (of all people) asked me if he could read my blog and proceeded to "demand" that I tell more stories so he could practice his reading. Funny, I know, but also cute because he seems genuinely interested in what his mom has to say, so I will oblige...

Ever since 2023 started (and probably way before that), I have set out to LIVE WITH INTENTION, which basically means living a better-balanced life, full of meaning and purpose.  It means choosing activities that are engaging and worthwhile and especially activities that would make me a better person. I got tired of wasting so much time on mindless activities and being on auto-pilot; at some point I felt like I was "done" with the lack of self-awareness and with making unconscious choices, from the things I said to the things I ate, to the people I befriended, and so on. 
But "Living with Intention" also means saying "no" to things and to people. It means putting yourself first in situations where others used to be first. It means rejecting ideas and plans that don't add positivity to your life, it means changing, it means growing. And growth can be painful, growth can be tedious, and it can be isolating because it forces you to leave behind old habits, comfort zones, and even friendships.

In late November last year we took a family trip to Portugal and I found myself immersed in the peaceful landscapes that country has to offer  It was a trip with no set itinerary and no expectations, but more of a wanderlust vibe, where no one was waiting, no on was rushing, we were just there! Surprisingly enough, the relaxed nature of that trip opened my eyes to my own flaws, my own intention-less attitude at times, my lack of intensity and purpose and I realized living with intention matters and that's how I always want to live, enjoying the little things and being PRESENT. (I will blog about this amazing trip soon)

Some of the things I must do to LIVE WITH INTENTION and the questions I ask myself are as follows:
  • Choose activities that matter: How am I spending my time? Am I keeping my beliefs, values and priorities in check? Are the activities I do serving a positive purpose in my life? What's most important to me? What do I want out of life?
  • Work toward betterment: Am I on a path of self-improvement and personal growth? What can I do to be a better person? Personal growth requires intention, work and understanding. Am I asking God to hold my hand when I'm weak? Am I praying enough? Am I prioritizing myself in difficult situations?
  • Enjoy the moment: This is a big one for me, especially because I am a mom and have a tendency to "rush" through things, often missing the little moments because... stuff! I have been making an intentional effort, for example, at taking less photos and experiecing more moments instead. Being more mindful of the present moments has helped me increase my self-awareness, build stronger relationships and decrease stress and worry. This requires A LOT of effort, but I am willing to keep working on this because I don't want to regret not enjoying the little things. 
  • Strive for balance: Am I working toward balance and overall wellness? Am I caring for all areas of my life the same? Am I spending too much time on some things and too little on others? Taking the time to get re-centered has been the main goal for me this year. I have put "time limits" on some of my phone apps, distanced myself from social media and consciously decided to share less of my life on the internet.  It does the soul good to keep some things private!
  • Make a difference: Am I doing enough for others? Am I giving back to the community? Am I being sensitive to others' needs? Am I using my God-given talents to make the world a better place? Helpful actions toward others is always beneficial to one's mental wellbeing.  There is something magical about helping others and giving of my time to make a difference but I always question whether I'm doing enough or I'm doing too much and that goes back to finding that balance I know I need. 
These and many other things are part of my "goals" and self-reflection this year. I know that living with intention can lead to have more passion, more focus and more attention to our actions, which can enrich the experience and our life in general. That's who I want to be! How about you?

These are some photos from that Portugal trip I mentioned. These are snippets of the "little things" I enjoyed BIG when doing things with intention.