07 November 2011

Celebrity Guest Appearance!!!

Not long after I left for Luxembourg Brett got to go to build some houses with some of the coolest people who occupy this planet (i.e. anyone who's ever been involved with the Fuller Center for Housing). I wanted to hear all about it, so he wrote me little "blogs" every day while he was there.... and I'm excited that he let me share some of his cool experiences here! Traveling is fun, but I think these are the sorts of things that make a real vacation :)... enjoy!

After failed attempts to travel to Haiti and then to the Congo to build with the Fuller Center, I figured a domestic trip might be my last shot to have some fun while alleviating substandard housing conditions. That’s why I seized the opportunity to head down to Louisiana for the 3rd Annual Millard Fuller Legacy Build. I was also glad I could drive to the worksite, instead of further subsidizing the commercial airline industry by purchasing non-refundable tickets. The 1100 mile drive to Minden, LA was the perfect chance to put some miles on my “new” 2000 Honda Insight. This chick magnet averaged 67 MPG on the drive down, making this a very inexpensive adventure!

A local Methodist church camp was kind enough to provide free lodging in their cabins. Unlike what I remembered from summer camp as a kid, these cabins were equipped with heat, AC, a toilet, and HOT showers! Ours also came with a golf ball sized black widow spider to greet us in the bathroom. My roommates were a bunch of retired guys who had been working with Habitat for Humanity since the beginning, and told stories ranging from mishaps on past projects to their experiences working with Jimmy Carter. They were also eager to give construction tips and tricks to their young bunk-mate.

At the registration dinner Sunday night, the plans for the week were laid out. Eight new homes would be built on Millard Fuller Drive, and 7 nearby houses would be refurbished. Upon registering, we were given toolpouches, pencils, and cool t-shirts, then treated to a Mardi-Gras style celebration. Amidst all the excitement, I managed to lose my shirt and toolpouch. There are probably pictures of me attempting to dance floating around the internet somewhere, too. It was great to see friends from the Bike Adventure again!

I was assigned to work on house number 4, a new build led by a carpenter from Pennsylvania named Barry. There were about a dozen of us, including a few Americorps volunteers, building this home for Ms. Rose Fuller ( no relation to Millard and Linda Fuller). In order to complete the build in one week’s time, the concrete slab for the foundation was poured in advance, and the majority of the materials had been delivered to the site. Our first task was to find numbered sections of the framework for the house and bolt them down to the foundation according to a provided set of blueprints. I’m told convicts from a local prison had been onsite prior to our arrival to assemble the house frame, then disassemble it in order to make sure things went smoothly for us. Whatever the story, things fit together easily. In less than one day, we had erected the whole structure of the house, and had mounted plywood to half of the roof. I ran the hammer-drill used to run screws into the concrete. If I ever end up with carpal-tunnel, I’ll know why!

Go figure, it rained the night after day one-- before our roof was installed. We arrived the next morning to an inch or two of water inside the house. We were able to sweep it out and set up a fan to dry the inside of the house, and work resumed. In spite of the rain and chilly temperatures, the external “shell” of the house was put together by the end of the second day. We installed the tin roof, windows, and vinyl siding the following days, as well as electrical wiring. I got plenty of experience installing electrical boxes, hanging vinyl siding, mounting soffit, and installing a metal roof. That’s a great thing! I definitely feel like I could build my own house from scratch if I wanted to, just based on everything I learned while working on this house.

At the end of the day Friday, it was time for us to dedicate the house to the new owner, pack up, and go to the closing dinner. Unfortunately, we just weren’t able to finish everything on the house. If you drove down the street, you would think the house is done—everything outside looks great (minus the lack of landscaping). The inside could still use a little help. The electrical and plumbing were done, and the sheetrock was hung and mudded. However, the walls needed to be sanded and painted, the cabinets still need to be installed, the floors need finished, and the appliances need to be moved in. That sounds like a lot of work! Luckily, the Webster Parish Fuller Center will be finishing up the work we couldn’t get done in time, but it will probably be a while before the family can move in. We held the house dedication ceremony with the homeowner, regardless of the state of completion of the home. It was definitely satisfying to meet the people who would benefit from our labor and also hear their appreciation. Ms. Rose (the homeowner) would be raising 3 little boys in the house we built (her grandchildren, I think). It was cool to think we could provide the boys with the opportunity for a better future.

Out into the world again

If there's one thing I've learned from traveling, it's that no matter how amazing the mountains are, or how incredible the history and the food is, the people are always the most beautiful things. Here's something I wrote down because I didn't want to forget it... in a little hotel in Germany, on my way to Rome on October 28th. (Don't worry, there will be more about Rome soon!)

I’ve been nervous about this trip. I still don’t feel settled and confident on my own in Luxembourg, and now I’m going out of my way (and spending money, which I always have a hard time doing) to add more uncertainty and general unrest to my life (a.k.a. adventure). Plus it’s last minute and poorly planned. I bought my plane ticket a week ago, the decision of whether I would drive to the airport early in the morning, or get a hotel nearby the night before, was put off so long that I ultimately reserved my hotel room 10 minutes before I left on this adventure. Things haven’t really felt simple, safe, comfortable... home-like… since I began on this spontaneous journey to Europe, and it's been starting to wear on me. So perhaps a similarly spontaneous long-weekend trip to Rome was not what I needed. Or perhaps it is!
I’m not in Rome yet, but I’m in that hotel room I reserved a few hours ago, in Sohren, Germany, preparing to get a little sleep before my flight out of Frankfurt-Hahn airport tomorrow morning at 6:20am. The drive here was about 2 hours from work in Colmar-berg, Luxembourg, and although it wasn’t long it wasn’t exactly relaxing. I drove through the usual city traffic to some narrow, wind-y, typical Luxembourgish roads, and started to feel relieved when I got onto the highway. However, I guess I haven’t driven on a true European / German highway yet. Vehicles are going at speeds ranging from about 100 km/hr to probably about 250 km/hr, all on the same road, so if you’re traveling at a reasonable (in my opinion anyway…) speed of maybe 120-140, you’re stuck between tail-gating a trailer full of donkeys, and pulling into the left lane in front of someone who may be going twice your speed. I guess it wasn’t really that stressful, but I definitely don’t know why my car has cruise control.
Then in the dark, with an hour left in my journey, I exit the highway toward my destination, and enter the craziest winding road I think I have ever experienced. Probably not quite as narrow as the Lux roads, but many more hair-pin turns and of course full sized semi trucks coming in the other direction… and no street lights anywhere to be seen. I’m sure it was a beautiful mountain in the daylight, but for some reason, alone in the dark, it was a little less pretty. It reminded me of that show on the history channel where the truckers risk driving into Himalayan valleys to deliver cement. Probably a little overly dramatic, but in any case... even though I had no idea what to expect from this totally random hotel I’d booked (my co-worker’s advise when I booked it was “just make sure there are no rats”), I was ready to arrive to just about anything. This is where I am in awe (as I seem to be so often these days) at how lucky I am!
The hotel is easy to find… a huge street sign (one of those stereotypical ones that you'd probably see marking streets in Disney world with 100 signs pointing in every direction… I wish I took a picture) points me in the right direction. I search for the entrance, but not finding it I try the adjoined pizza shop, hoping someone will speak enough English to help this linguistically challenged, stressed out, mess find a place to sleep. It may have just been a show for the tourists, but the restaurant was decorated in exactly the way I would assume an authentic German home would look like, and it smelled like a wood burning fire place (and pizza of course). And I was greeted by an impressively energetic, kind hearted, grandfatherly man who fluently speaks 5 languages!!
He immediately said “Melissa! The American!?”, showed me to my room, and invited me for pizza. Dan will be happy to know that I did indeed eat the pizza… because it was the only thing on the menu… and this part sounds creepy, but the grandpa guy even gave me this cool drink in a tiny wine glass. I guess you had be there :). I was impressed when he talked with me in perfect English, but all evening it seemed like greated every guest in a different language. I asked him how he learned to speak 5 languages, and he said 5 girlfriends. Figures I guess :).

So, my first trip to Germany was an unexpected, and very welcome, beautiful experience. And, at the very least I suppose, there were no rats!
"We touch other peoples lives simply by existing." - J.K. Rowling

06 November 2011

Catching up!

Once again I have abandoned my blog... but never fear! It has only been a short while and my absence owes only to the many new, excellent adventures that have been occupying my time! I'm back, and I have lots to share, so look for more posts about Italy, Germany, and Belgium, and lots about good friends along the way :).

First though, I want to go back to where I left off two weekends ago (~ October 22nd). At this point I was still feeling pretty alone (and tired of not being able to share everything with the people I love), but also determined to continue to fill my time with adventures, and not stop appreciating the opportunity I've been given.

When I'm feeling a little down one of my favorite things to do is find a new place to run... and lucky for me there are lots of new places in my life these days! Saturday morning I thought I'd search for the best places to run in Luxembourg and found this article about an olympic runner who claims that her favorite place to run in the entire world is Luxembourg City (she's from Luxembourg, so she may be biased, but still... I'm sure she's run in a lot of places)! So armed
with the suggestions in the article, and my well used map from the tourist office, I set out from my house for what was definitely one of the coolest runs I've ever been on (perhaps rivaled only by the bike paths in Boulder, CO :) ). I descended into the valley, or the Grund (which I think, literally translated, means "low city"). It's filled with crazy old architecture, gardens, a river, and little pubs and shops. Then I happened upon a beautiful bike path, and decided to go a little further than planned (another sign of a good run!). It took me along the river, under some crazy old bridges, and past some locals preparing their gardens for next year. I think I also passed the water treatment plant... it smelled a little like the Cuyahoga (mmmm home :) ). Then on my way back I decided to take the public elevator from the low city to the high city, and run through the downtown shopping district to get home. Luckily Luxembourg has had uncommonly beautiful weather every weekend I've been here so far. It wasn't quite warm, but super sunny with no rain in sight--pretty much a perfect Saturday morning :).

Then for the afternoon I decided I'd try to catch a tour of the Luxembourg "Old City" that I'd read about on the Luxembourg tourist office website. I guess it makes sense, but I've found in my adventures recently that I can go see something beautiful in nature and be awed into appreciation immediately, but with man-made beauty it adds so much to the experience to know the story behind it. So thanks to this tour, I now know all about all the cools things I ran past in the morning :). Here are some pictures!

The Grand Duke's business castle (he also has a castle that he lives in in Colmar-Berg where I work... I wonder what its like to have two castles... :) ).

The old monastery (right of the river) and the monks' gardens (left of the river), which are now kept up by the city of Luxembourg. I'm not sure who gets to eat the veggies though... I should have asked :).

This was inside the tunnels carved into the old city wall. Soldiers used to live in here to protect the city.

This is one of my favorite pictures... the river is beautiful!

I also got to talk to some of the other tourists (about things that aren't round and black, and don't involve spreadsheets :) ). I met a couple from Michigan who were touring Europe for their anniversary and took a few pictures for me. They took trains from Frankfurt (Germany), to Amsterdam (Holland) and Bruges (Belgium), and toured France on bikes! I've determined that all kinds of people might decide to take a vacation to Paris or Rome, but if you decide to vacation in Luxembourg then you're probably pretty interesting people :).

While I was at the tourist office I also picked up a book of 201 "rambling routes" in Luxembourg... basically the book has maps of 201 very well marked hiking trails all over the country! I went on a hike on Sunday that brought me to this beautiful lake... but I think that all getting the book really did was make me sad that there's no way I'll be able to hike all the trails while I'm here :).