Well, it’s been an intense week, so I thought I’d lighten it up a bit with that time we went to Sintra, Portugal.
Sintra is an Unesco World Heritage Site — and for good reason — when you step off the train to Sintra, you feel as if you’ve stepped into a fairy tale.
That is, except for one minor itty-bitty detail — everybody else in the world seems to be trying to visit this magical place at the same time. It’s really crowded.
We had planned to jump on the bus system that looped around to all the sites, but the wait to get onto one of the buses was well over an hour!
So we decided to hoof it — despite all the nice people we passed on the road who told us it was too intense a hike for our family of eight — we just figured they were soft Europeans and we were rugged Americans, and we would be just fine.
In hindsight, they were probably right, but I’m still really grateful we took the more difficult path.
Had we gone the easier path we would have spent much of the day standing in line and missing some truly beautiful views. We also would have likely missed one of our favorite memories of the trip, so hands down it was the right choice.
But, back to our hike. It began, pleasantly enough, right through the shops and restaurants in town. It certainly didn’t seem too difficult.
Finally, we left the outskirts of the little town and came upon a winding path, full of interesting plants and beautiful architecture, that led all the way to the top.
The first challenge was that it was really hot — about 90 Degrees and incredibly humid.
With this heat, came a wee bit of complaining from the oldest members of our rowdy crew. They were pretty sure that we should have listened to the nice locals and avoided this precipitous hike.
There we were, sweating our way up this windy trail, which became so narrow and rocky that we had to take all the littles out of the stroller and carry them up for the rest of the hike.
My left hip has never been the same after birthing a few big babies — so I could only lead with my right leg — which made me look a bit like Quasimodo (the hunchback, not the rapper). Not my best look.
So, I did what any Catholic could do in that moment — I decided to offer it up for all the intentions of our trip. I prayed my hip wouldn’t give out and that God would give John and I the strength to hoof it up these paths with a little grace.
For John, the complaining was getting to him — he’s a superman of sorts who tends to muscle his way through most physical challenges, but surround him with whining or complaining and even this superman begins to lose hope.
After what seemed to be an eternity, we finally made it to a view of our destination: the Castle of the Moors.
I have to say, despite the challenges, it did not disappoint! The grounds were absolutely beautiful. It was worth all the effort.
There was just one problem: those Moors failed to take toddlers and small children into consideration with their planning — knee-high walls were the only barricade between a two year old and a few hundred foot drop off below.
The walls on the inside were even worse, they were more like curbs separating you from a 30 foot drop onto boulders and cobblestone.
There were some rails in spots, but I had the sneaking suspicion they were only put in places where people had actually fallen to their death before us. Not exactly a consoling thought when you have 6 kids you want to keep alive.
John and I had to carry our two year old and 5 year old up and down the steep stone steps in the hottest part of the day, trying our best not to topple over the walls ourselves.
It had it’s challenges, but still, the beauty was not lost on us.
Of course, we were slowed down considerably by our passengers, so our four oldest got ahead of us and we couldn’t see them anywhere.
Do you know those desperate prayers you say as a parent, prayers like, “Lord, let them be okay. Please don’t let them fall off the ledge to their death. Please help us find them — and please, Lord, help me not to kill them when I do find them”.
I like to believe God smiles at prayer like those. He knows what we’re thinking, anyway, might as well be honest about it. I took a moment to say some honest prayers to God.
A few texts and unanswered phone calls, turned to shouts across the Moorish remains, which finally led to a faint voice in the distance that answered back. We had found them. Phew!
We decided to celebrate by standing in yet another line in the Portuguese sun, waiting for sub-par ice cream and sandwiches from concessions. Somehow it tasted delicious after all that exercise.
Fortunately, there were places to cool off before we headed towards our next destination.
We gathered together, across from the entrance, and John decided He was going to get real with the kids. That’s right, he was going to be vulnerable, and share straight from his heart.
His speech began in a shady spot overlooking the beauty of the valley below. There he stood, hot, sweaty, and a man on the edge — literally and figuratively.
So he began, “Guys, I have to be honest. I’m on the edge. I can handle cliffs and mountaintops and hiking in extreme conditions, but I can not for the love of me handle all the complaining and second guessing. I’m about to throw in the towel and say let’s turn around and go back home. I am that fed up with it all”.
There he stood, superman, ready to throw in the towel.
In his defense, a few days before this, he had been pick-pocketed in Barcelona, followed by our barely escaping the city before a terrorist attack occurred, followed by trains and planes, heat and hunger and exhaustion — it was understandable that he was on the edge.
There he was, a man being vulnerable with his children, waiting for a response from them, waiting for some sort of apology for the grumbling, complaining, and failure to follow simple directions.
My oldest daughter was the first to speak up. Surely she would have some kind words to reassure John in this moment.
She looked John straight in the face, and said, “Um, can you button up your shirt? I can see your chest”.
In her defense, remember when you were a teenager and every “embarrassing” thing your parents did was multiplied by 1,000? She was so focused on his hairy chest, that I don’t think she heard a word he had just said.
With all the hoofing kids around and strollers and heat and craziness of it all, the top three buttons of John’s shirt had come undone. There he stood, hairy chest exposed to the world. You need only have added a few gold chains and called him Guido. Not John’s best look.
But John was never one to like being corrected, so he did the only thing he could do, he unbuttoned one more button. That’s right. He called her bluff.
It was sort of comical — that is, it would have been if John didn’t look like he was just about to lose his mind. There he stood, a man on the edge, having been honest, and clearly that honesty had gotten him nowhere.
At this point, our three oldest children looked as if they were hoping the earth would swallow them up — had John overplayed his cards? Had he taken it a bit too far?
Not to mention the fact that our family of 8 was an unusual site in this part of the world, so passersby slowed down to stare as we continued our stand-off.
There I stood, wondering what I could do. It was like I was watching a train wreck in slow motion, but I couldn’t do anything to stop it.
What happened next surprised everybody — most especially me. I walked straight over to John, with his hairy chest exposed and I stroked his chest hair like a fine Persian rug and said to my kids “What a fine, hairy chest it is”.
Let me assure you, I am not a PDA type of person, so my response shocked everybody — including myself — but it was like a Holy Spirit moment, because then the laughter came.
I’m not sure exactly how we got there, but all the craziness of the day, the challenges, the vulnerability, and the ridiculous responses of all of us had led us to an out of body experience, of sorts — we could finally appreciate the absolute ridiculousness of it all.
In one simple moment, everything changed. Somehow what was looking like the worst moment of the trip, became one of the best moments of the trip. It was one of those golden laugh-till-you-cry moments, and it came at the most unexpected time in the most unexpected way.
Why am I telling you this story? Well, maybe it’s because I want you to realize that we are just a normal family. We fight, we argue, we complain — and traveling has a way of intensifying all of that — but time and again, God meets us in these moments of real life and somehow makes it better.
We are so tempted to try to control life and all our surroundings, and what this little story illustrates so well is that real life can’t be controlled.
Real life is about letting go, about walking forward in faith, and about seeing how God will provide exactly what you need exactly when you need it most. Every single time, He amazes me.
He gave us the grace we needed in that crazy moment, He gave us the gift of laughter, which provided us the grace to say we’re sorry — and we began again in that moment. And so can you. You really can.
And that is the end of Part 1. Come back next week for Part 2.
Sharing over at Kelly’s.