Bratislava in April. Gymnastics at skola, Birthday fool cuts her own cake with her new knife, and a road trip to Slovenia, while Miriam is away in the States.

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How many times do you get to hike up to the back door of the castle?

Pastor’s Letter, March 2014

I am writing this letter half-way through Lent. Spring has been settling on Bratislava — occasional cold winds notwithstanding – restoring my belief in the sun. Ursula, along with many others around her age, find their way outside whenever it is possible, to ride a bike for the first or thousandth time. Ursula’s training wheels keep her balanced for now, and she rides proud.

 

Esme is becoming a person — determined, stubborn, with a wonderful laugh. She eats more than we can comprehend. She does not allow Jeremy even a moment of contemplative time at church these days. (Though he may argue it has been a full five years since that was possible.)

 

Jeremy is painting more, so our kitchen wall of art grows. He continues to make his three ladies amazing food. We try to be adequately appreciative of such a spouse and Papa. I hope we sometimes succeed.

 

As for me, my Lenten discipline has been to get – and stay – healthy. Which tells you a little bit about my January and February. For health and strength and daily food, we praise your name, O Lord; we sing the grace before dinner. As many of you know better than I, health seems more precious each month, each year.

 

Lent began with the ashes of Ash Wednesday, and soon after, we were off to the High Tatras for a Lenten retreat with this year’s YAGM’s. Last year, at this same retreat, we enjoyed winter storms and amazing snow for cross-country skiing (not to mention mushing, that is Ursula and Jeremy pulling a five month Esme on a home-rigged sledge) on the frozen mountain lake. This year, instead we basked in blue skies and bright sun. With the remains of the winter’s snow, we even managed some spring skiing.

 

But perhaps the best group outdoor event was after a homemade American breakfast of eggs and bacon and French toast and maple syrup, we spent the day hiking further into the mountains, to Popradske Pleso, another mountain lake. There, we watched what none of us had ever seen before: One after another, helicopters circled down toward the lake, and from them lowered down to the frozen ice were mountain first responders with search-and-rescue-dogs in training in tow. We watched at least 4 dogs and their people make the descent to the surface.

 

Retreat worship was meaningful, and I’ve read the evaluations, so this isn’t just the pastor talking. The first night we sang Holden Evening Prayer and read from 2 Corinthians, Now is the acceptable time! On Tuesday, we followed the confession that many ELCA churches use on Ash Wednesday, in which we confess almost everything we have done or failed to do in the past year. Wednesday, we worshipped on the side of the trail, praying especially for the healing of the world, those we love, and ourselves, during this Lenten season of renewal. An older Slovak man hiked by in the midst of our worship, and I think he understand we were up to something on the snowy mountain path, for he stopped and smiled and said in faltering English – God you bless! On our last night, we heeded Luther’s call and “crept back to the font,” affirming our baptisms, and breaking the bread.

 

I think what is most dear to me is that these worship services actually mean something to the young adults serving through YAGM. They are grateful for the familiarity of prayers and songs in English. Though Lent may be a foreign land for them in Hungary, they hear the Lenten call to renewal in our worship together. At the week’s end they are revived and ready to return to their Hungarian homes.

 

Since that retreat, our family has been back in Bratislava, doing our best to settle into some manner of routine. It is — unsurprisingly — a routine that will be broken in a few days time, when I travel to the States for a congregational visit in California, and YAGM Country Coordinator meetings in Chicago and the Discernment/Interview/Placement event for next year’s young adult volunteers. (I will be gone for 12 whole days. I am still in shock at the thought of it. )

 

But for now, Ursula goes to Slovak kindergarten during the day; Jeremy and Esme keep up our house and home; and I prepare for mid-week services, Sunday worship, and of course Holy Week and the Three Days.

 

If you know me at all, you will not be surprised to hear how important is this time of preparation. I sit with the intern pastor, Kyle, and our cantor, Ivana, and discuss music choices for all the special services that will take place as Lent comes to a close and Easter slips into our world, and our laps and hearts and voices. We discuss how the Passion Readings – both Matthew’s on Palm/Passion Sunday, and John’s on Good Friday – should be read this year. We scout for interested lectors for the great Easter Vigil readings: Which one this year is calling you?  The Creation story of Genesis 1? The deliverance through the Red sea? Jonah in the fish’s belly? The fiery furnace?

 

And we also, in the Bratislava International Church assembly, get to pray for a little baby named Isla-Fe who will be baptized in our midst this Easter.

 

My sisters and brothers, whether you succeed or fail in your own Lenten devotions of fasting or prayer or works of mercy, may you continue to experience Lent itself as our shared prayer. Our prayer for the church’s, for the whole world’s renewal. This year and every year.

 

 

 

Ursula turns 5 on April 1st. And we followed our tradition and had a Pinata at Fellowship after Church on the Sunday before her birthday.

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Third annual Pinata Breaking at BIC. Nice to have a preassembled crowd for a 5 year old birthday party.

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Ducking the swing

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At home getting ready to bring the Hot Air Balloon Pinata to Church. Thanks to our friend who made this amazing Pinata,

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Pinata Survivor

YAGM Lenten Retreat in the Vysoke Tatry, and some pictures of Bratislava Life.

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YAGM Lenten retreat in the Vysoke Tatry.

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My favorite peak in the Vysoke Tatry.

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Ursula at ski school.

 

Esme watching her first Biathlon.  I think I have decided to become a Biathlon Father and now we must add Biathlon Course to requirements for future moves.

Esme watching her first Biathlon. I think I have decided to become a Biathlon Father and now we must add Biathlon Course to requirements for future moves.

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Exploring an Abandoned Military Base on a Hill in Bratislava overlooking the Iron Curtain.

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More Military base. Cameo is original I think, but the rest is recent.

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Ursula made her first edible dish tonight without anyone else’s help or instigation. Wild Garlic leaves and green onion in a citrus vinaigrette (which admittedly Miriam had made some days ago, but which Ursula found in the fridge), some additional lemon and sweetened Elderflower concentrate, and a rather serious helping of salt. Pretty good actually, if a bit sweet and salty. But hey my first dish was adding ketchup and mustard to a can of baked beans.

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Back to terrace sitting and the moon coming up between the buildings as the spring starts to warm up the evening air.

Hiking in Feb? The bizarre lack of winter continues even in the mountains, where we took a few days to relax and try to ski. Some skiing more hiking in mild weather. Lovely.

 

 

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Trip to Northeastern Slovakia and the Three Crowns with two friends.

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Starting into a canyon in Slovensky Raj

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Waterfall ladders in Slovensky Raj (Slovak Paradise) normally this would be an Ice climb at this time of the year, but we did get the whole place to ourselvesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

YAGM site visits in Hungary. 2 nights in Budapest, 2 nights in Szombathely, 2 nights in Szarvas, 2 nights in Nyiregyhaza, with some day time visits to Piliscsaba, Bekescsaba, Told, Gorogszallas, Nyirtelek, and Miskolc. Mostly we can do it all without a map now. Though I still wouldn’t recommend driving thru Budapest.

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Miriam gave a presentation at one of our companion churches fellowship hall on Sat. night. On Sunday she preached in translation at the next door church, but I was rather busy chasing Esme and did not manage any pictures that morning.

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Ursula was again making friends and running till exhaustion. Hungarian is just another language after all.

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We visited a new village for us, where there is an interesting arts program. Children draw the pictures, the mothers cross stitch the designs and sew the patterns into very nice bags. As always we are welcomed in with great hospitality.

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An impromptu talk for Miriam.

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Esme and I run out the door.

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And survey the land.

January Pastor’s Letter

This month I am having a hard time finding my place in time.

I find myself falling into memories of the recent past. The last three months of life here in Slovakia have been full.

Then there is the present. At this moment, it is actually snowing, which means that maybe Jeremy and I will find ourselves better able to live “in the present.” Instead, these last few weeks we have been anxiously-hoping-for-snow-and-trying-not-to-whine-about-it, but not-always-succeeding.

Then there is the future: We have come to the point that all long-term ELCA missionaries come to – the time of planning Home Assignment. This means that I find myself spending more time than seems possible or proper with my head in the future, writing emails to sponsoring congregations, calculating travel times (like from Spokane, WA to Sheridan, WY) and otherwise lost in months that do not even exist yet.

So here is my January pastor’s letter, in three parts, following from my addled state.

Part 1: Remembering things past

Esme was baptized on the second Sunday in Advent. To be a part of this powerful rite, her American godmothers, Jennifer and Josie, flew across the ocean. They poured water into the font during the Thanksgiving Prayer. Esme’s Slovak godparents, James and Jana, presented her with her baptismal candle (“Let your light so shine before others”) just before the assembly joined in a rousing “I’ve Just Come From the Fountain,” to welcome our new sister in Christ.

At the Bratislava International Church, we worshipped more than usual throughout Advent – gathering on Wednesday evenings to sing Holden Evening Prayer, and also gathering with the other three English-speaking congregations here in Bratislava (City Lights, Bratislava International Fellowship, and the International Baptist Church) for a special joint service of song and prayer.

Ursula would want me to mention her favorite Advent activities: The BIC Children’s Program at worship on the fourth Sunday of Advent, and (she would add) “don’t forget that we also had the Christmas program at my school!” She and her classmates trilled out Slovak Songs about little (baby Jesus) Jezisko, as well as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” to finish the show.

Then came Christmas, and with it, many Blyths! Jeremy’s immediate family was (amazingly) able to come for two weeks to Slovakia. We were able to gather for multiple meals in our home with 8 adults and 5 children throughout the Christmas season. Ursula and her two older cousins spent the whole time dressing up, putting on shows, doing art projects, and even managing a little sledding and skiing, in the snow we finally found on a trip to the High Tatras.

Part 2: Living in the Present

There is a delight to returning to simple routines, though perhaps more delight for us who so often get to break them. We wake up; I make coffee; Jeremy drives Ursula to school. At the end of the day, we sit and eat what Jeremy has made for us; we bathe the girls, and put them to bed. I am more than a little excited these days, for I am now reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to Ursula before bed. (I am not sure that I am reading it so much for her enjoyment as for my own.)

In between dawn and dusk, I meet with congregation members, communicate (a lot) via email, plan worship, prepare to preach, lead Bible Study, write recommendations, meet with the BIC intern, talk with the YAGM in Hungary about their frustrations and joys, go for runs, try to pray – for the unity of the church, for the world in all its need.

But in the middle of the present (which has been rather grey — did I mention? – until today), Jeremy and I are also hard at work planning the future.

Part 3: Planning for the Future

Sometimes it seems simply wrong to spend so much time organizing for the future. If now is the acceptable time, and now is the day of salvation, then we do well to live in the now where Christ is surely coming to meet us, feed us, grace us with the very presence of God. We do well to settle into the flesh and blood reality that is for me life in Bratislava, late January 2014. Shouldn’t I tune my senses to the present? Taste daily bread (now); listen carefully to the people around me (now); hold my daughter’s hand as she toddles around the room (now)? Live today in all its mysterious grace?
But I am a planner by genetic constitution. My head is more often than not in the future. And while I do not always think this trait is altogether healthy, it is at least required in my work as an ELCA missionary. So I can feel so very justified – even if I wonder if this is how the Gospel calls us to live.

All that to say, we are planning trips, right and left:

In February, we will travel once again around Hungary for eight nights, to visit our young adult volunteers, make plans for possible new YAGM sites next year. I will also have my first experience of guest preaching in translation, at the Lutheran church in Szombathely.

In March, we will lead a Lenten retreat for this year’s YAGM’s in the Slovak mountains.

In April, I will leave Jeremy and the kids for 12 whole days (unheard of, for our family, though we know so many families who must deal with separation all the time) to go to California and Chicago. I will visit one of our sponsoring congregations, and take part in the yearly event where young adults interview and discern and are finally placed in YAGM country programs around the world.

In May, after we have worshiped our way through Holy Week and taken a few weeks of Easter to catch our breaths, we will all be off for two months of Home Assignment visits to more supporting congregations and of course, family and friends. The itinerary looks, you might say, brisk.  We are hoping to travel thru WA, OR, ID, MT, CO, WY, UT, SD, NE, IA, IL, MN, MI, IN, PA, D.C., NY, NJ, MD, and VA. We ask for your prayers as we prepare for this time: We will need all the health and grace that God can provide us.  (Of course we also think that traveling across the country for two months is one of the better ways to spend one’s time.)

I am living in past, present, and future these days. I wonder about all of you, to whom I am writing. I imagine it is a balancing act for you as well, a juggling act with time, wondering how to live in the present, when past and future are both pulling at you?

I am no expert. But these days, I am trying to regain my morning routine of Morning Prayer that has been somewhat disrupted since Esme’s birth:

“Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise.”

And, “ In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.”

And, “Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

And, “Let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God.”

I join my lips with the prayers that call me out of my obsession with past or present or future, and root me in Christ. Who was and is and ever shall be world without end.

Whew! What a month and a Half. Epiphany, Christmas, Esme’s baptism, Miriam’s Birthday, Esme’s Birthday and Thanksgiving. Not to mention Advent and the Markets, which I didn’t even get a picture of this year.

Sunset in the Tatry

Epiphany for us meant remembering how much we like the snow and miss it when it does not come around (sorry to all the cold folks in N. America, but we were jealous), and for Esme it was the realization that she could walk.

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The Blyth family all flocked to Bratislava for Christmas and then we traveled just a bit further to get to the mountains so we could all be together in one house for a few days again.

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Cousins around a tree getting ready for Christmas Eve service.

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Wow, what lucky people we are that this (and other treats) came to our door this Christmas.

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Two good friends traveled across the ocean for a visit and to become Esme’s Godparents.

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Esme on her Baptism day with her 4 Godparents.

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Miriam’s birthday and the lovely cake.

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Esme’s Birthday

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Thanksgiving with the YAGM crew and the American teachers in Slovakia all together at the School in Bratislava where many of them teach. Lots of People, Lots of Pie.

Death, Life, and Images from Romania

Pastor’s Letter, November 2013

Death, Life, and Images from Romania

 

Part 1: Death

It is November, so we must talk about death. After all, even if the leaves weren’t brown and crumbling underfoot, All Saints Day marks the month’s beginning. And in Central Europe, you cannot easily overlook this holy day that looks death straight in the face.

In the last days of October, flower vendors flock in cities and villages. On All Saints day itself, whole families and solitary widows process to the cemeteries to place bouquets and candles at gravesites.

It is good to go at night, and wander around the graves. Votive lights illumine your path. The old and the young are there, praying in hushed whispers or with sighs too deep for words. They are remembering and grieving their beloved dead. You can too.

At worship on November 3 at the Bratislava International Church, we marked All Saints Sunday. We lit votive candles around the Paschal Candle and baptismal font. We shared holy communion with all the saints. We sang, with gusto, “Shall We Gather at the River” and “When the Saints are Marching In.” And I realized, after celebrating All Saints in so many different assemblies for 37 years, why this Sunday festival is so important for me.

I am one of the many these days who has no one hometown, no one graveyard where most of my ancestors were laid to rest. My grandparents’ bodies are buried and ashes are scattered in unfamiliar places I will rarely have a chance to go. So the best space I have to remember, grieve, and mark the dead is liturgical space.

Ursula asked me if we can think about Great Grandma Jean (who died just a few weeks ago) when we walk through the foreign cemeteries of Slovakia. I said – of course, my darling. (Memory, not to mention grief, need not be tethered to a specific geographical location.) But even wanderers like myself long for some familiar, dependable space to touch down, year after year, and remember.

For me, this space is the church, especially on All Saints Sunday. The church in various local manifestations – the Bratislava International Church; and First Lutheran Church in Plains, Montana; and Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Betsy Ground, Guyana; and Saint Peter’s Church in midtown Manhattan. Year after year, in assembly worship, I remember my dead. Year after year, on this holy day, God renews me in faith, and holds out to me the mystery of the resurrection.

Part 2: Life

November is a month to speak of death, but also of life. These last months have been full of rich and beautiful life for our family, here in Central Europe.

I have continued to treasure the communal life of the Bratislava International Church and the individual human lives that gather here. Every fall new men, women, and children join our Sunday gatherings around Jesus’ table, and our conversations at Next Apache café during Fellowship hour. This fall, new voices have joined the choir, new minds have graced our Bible Study with questions. People have to join us from China and Kyrgyzstan and Romania and Singapore. People have come back after summers away in Canada or the United States or New Zealand or South Africa. People have come carrying their broken pasts and uncertain dreams.

I have a new intern pastor, Kyle, here with his wife, a nurse practitioner. Once again, I find myself blessed with the responsibility of helping someone learn what the life of a pastor is about — even as I am still figuring that out myself. In any case, intern pastor Kyle and I pray together and lead worship together, and I try to share with him what my teachers have taught me:

Preach the damn Gospel! (I give tribute to Dr. Wengert.)

Every Sunday someone has come to worship in desperate need of resurrection, so we must take this odd pastoral calling seriously.

Treasure Word and Sacrament; know that they hold us more than we can ever hold them.

Beyond life in the Bratislava International Church, there is new life for our Young Adults in Global Mission as well.  I have visited all five of them by now in their Hungarian homes and workplaces. Meredith is teaching Sunday School in translation and working with Roma teenagers at an after school program. Chelsea is connecting with teachers and students at the Lutheran elementary school, as well as getting to know the local Roma Government Program in her town. Thad is living with a Roma family in a rural village, and working with the Filadelfia Lutheran church outreach programs there. Mari is serving meals to people without homes in Nyiregyhaza, and playing with puppies and kittens at the animal shelter in her spare time. Ole is teaching religion to high school students and building relationships with Roma women at their pentacostal house church.

Life this year is stretching, unsettling, and challenging these young adults, and sometimes, it fills them with joy. I – and sometimes my family along with me – get to glimpse bits of the new life into which these young adults are being immersed. You might call it – being washed by the Holy Spirit in Hungary. Often the Holy Spirit doesn’t work in the ways you prepared for. The Spirit has a way of scooping you up into unexpected life where the days last forever but weeks fly by.

As the coordinator of the YAGM program in Central Europe, I get the pleasure of checking in, and sharing lots of meals and coffee around Hungary.

Of course there is also life going on in our own home. We’ve had a good rhythm these past couple of months. Ursula goes to school in the morning and learns more Slovak songs that we can count. Esme naps like clockwork, and shrieks loudly when she wants food or drink or attention, though she remains adorable enough to keep. Jeremy and I try to keep Mondays as a Sabbath day and go for long walks in the parks of Bratislava. Jeremy holds our household together, though amazingly enough I have started to cook pots of soup and even bake scones for the first time since I was pregnant with Esme. Jeremy is stunned to remember such a thing is possible – Mamas can make food too?

Part 3: Images from Romania

In the middle of so much death and so much more life, we made a trip into Romania during our recent visit to three YAGM’s out in eastern Hungary. I close this letter with a few images from our four days of travel in a country brand new to our family:

  • Sixteen (we counted) working horse carts traveling on the same roads with us and the semi trucks
  • Rolls of vinyl flooring (“vinylay” we called it in South America), a cross between linoleum and wallpaper, which we hadn’t seen since our time in Guyana, for sale all over the open air markets
  • Painted and mosaic saints covering every inch of wall and ceiling in the Orthodox Cathedral of Sibiu; and front and center, Mary Magdalene, announcing the resurrection to the gathered disciples (I have seen the Lord!)
  • An old woman in that same cathedral, coming up to Ursula and me, speaking in fervent — if incomprehensible to us – Romanian, gifting us with a loaf of bread that fed us all the way home to Bratislava
  • A young man with long hair and without legs, smiling and wheeling his wheelchair confidently down the same dark street where we were walking, startling us with his strength and speed
  • A campfire sparking, near the tent sheltering our two sleeping children; overhead the moon peaking between fast moving clouds; around us the outline of the southern Carpathian Retezat mountains. (Truthfully, it was not unlike camping in Montana, though the place names lend an air of the exotic.)

In closing, we continue to be so grateful for you – the family members and friends we love and miss, the congregations who support us with prayers and monetary gifts. Thank you. You remain in our thoughts and prayers. God be with you and those you love during this November season of death and life, thanksgiving and harvest, on the edge of Advent darkness and light.

We took a nine day trip thru Hungary to visit the YAGM and squeezed a few days in the middle to travel into Romania for the first time.

On the Road Again

On the Road Again.  These two can road trip.  One afternoon we did 5 hours without a stop and crossed a border into Romania.  It doesn’t seem possible to me now as I write it, but they did it.

YAGM site visit in Nyrtelek.

YAGM site visit in Gorogszallas.

Visiting with YAGM Thad and his host family

Visiting with YAGM Thad and his host family in Gorogszallas

The market in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary with YAGM Mari and Thad

The market in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary with YAGM Mari and Thad

We are lucky to stay in an apartment of a Pastor while visiting Nyiregyhaza.

We are lucky to stay in an apartment of a Pastor while visiting Nyiregyhaza.

In front of the children's center.

In front of the children’s house in Gorogszallas

Swinging around some great buildings

Swinging around some great buildings

Into Romania for the first time for our family, which means among other things Orthodox churches.  This is an amazing interior from Sibiu, Romania.

Into Romania for the first time for our family, which means among other things Orthodox churches. This is an amazing interior from Sibiu, Romania.

Night scene in Sibiu, Romania

Night scene in Sibiu, Romania.  The lighting was so good in part due to a Bollywood film production that was shooting that evening.

Houses with eyes

Houses with eyes

There are many working horse carts in Romania.

There are many working horse carts in Romania.

Great Outdoor Museum in Sibiu which has many buildings from various periods, which have been transported and re-erected in a beautiful setting.

Great Outdoor Museum in Sibiu with many buildings from various periods, which have been transported and re-erected in a beautiful setting.

An old wooden church

An old wooden church

Another night scene in Sibiu.

Another night scene in Sibiu.

Camping without any lights in site during a full moon in Transylvania

Camping without any lights in sight during a full moon in Transylvania

Esme is almost one year old, and we always try as a family to go camping on our birthdays.

Esme is almost one year old, and we always try as a family to go camping on our birthdays.

A very nice field to sleep in.

A very nice field to sleep in.

Morning mountain peak
Morning mountain peak