Saturday, July 3, 2010

Das Ende... und ein Anfang (The End... and a Beginning)

It’s here.

The moment I have been dreading literally since I got off the plane in Vienna on February 1st has arrived. It’s time for me to leave Graz.

How did this happen? Where does all the time go? How could five months of my life fly by so quickly? I don’t understand it, and I can’t even begin to make sense of it. One minute I was traipsing through snow on the way to my first German intensive course and feeling utterly confused by the milk section at the supermarket. And then the next minute—poof!—I am saying goodbye to all my friends, packing my suitcases, and writing my final blog entry. On Monday morning, I take the 9:26 train to Vienna, and Graz will cease to be my home. Likely forever. Unbelievable. But true nonetheless.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about this blog entry, about what I would like to say. Most of the time, I sit down and something simply comes to me; my blogs tend to spontaneously write themselves. This time, though, I’ve taken the time to ponder it, to mull over it, to really figure out what exactly I want to say. I apologize in advance for not being quite as upbeat and peppy as I usually am; it’s hard to be cheery when you feel like your heart is being broken into a million little pieces. I’ll do my best to be positive, but to act happy would be a lie, so I hope you don’t mind my honesty. If you do, feel free to stop reading now. If you don’t, please read on.

This week has been without a doubt one of the most difficult weeks of my entire life. I’ve been through hard times before, but this kind of pain has been unlike any I have ever experienced. It’s like breaking up with someone, moving away from your hometown, having all your friends move away, and having a root canal all in one. (For the record, I’ve never had a root canal, but from what I understand, they are pretty darn painful.) It’s like one of those bad dreams when you KNOW something terrible is going to happen and even though you try your best, you are powerless to stop it. (Have you ever had one of those dreams? Or am I the only one? Maybe I should see a psychiatrist. Haha) Anyway, to sum it up if you aren’t catching my drift, it really really really really REALLY stinks. Like rotten eggs, dirty diapers, body odor, and skunk spray all rolled into a ball and covered with pickles and mustard. And that’s pretty stinkin’ stinky. :/

One especially stinky thing is good-byes. Who in the world decided to call them “good-byes”? There is nothing “good” about them. No, they should be called “bad-byes” or “terrible-byes” or “awful-like-stubbing-both-your-big-toes-at-the-same-time-byes” (Yes, I have done that before. And, yes, in case you are wondering, it is horribly painful). But seriously. Goodbyes are anything but good. Trust me; this week, I have had to say a lot of them. Not fun. At all. :(

Speaking of these so-called “good-byes,” they usually result in me crying. Even though I am an extremely sensitive person, I really don’t like crying. Yes, I realize that the vast majority of normal people in the world prefer not to cry. It isn’t fun; if you’re a girl, it messes up your mascara; and if you cry hard enough, you’ll wake up with a “crying hangover” the next day, which includes puffy, red eyes, a dull and annoying headache, and a frustrating tiredness that doesn’t go away until lunchtime. I also despise crying for all these reasons, but I hate it for yet another: I look like the Grinch when I cry. No, really! I am not even kidding! Have you ever seen the movie “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”? You know how he smiles creepily with the sides of his mouth curling up really high? Picture that with blonde hair and white skin instead of green skin and you are picturing me crying. Trust me; it ain’t a pretty sight.

Or another crummy facet of leaving: packing. I HATE packing; I totally abhor it. In other words, I would rather do almost ANYTHING besides pack. Such other more enjoyable activities (relatively speaking, of course) would include: being stung by a bumble bee on the nose, running down a gravel street barefoot, listening to nails scraping a chalkboard for five minutes straight, or eating a nice big “proper” portion of haggis. (If you know what haggis is, then you should realize that this is fairly disgusting meal choice. If you don’t know what haggis is and you have a week stomach, then I recommend that you continue not knowing what haggis is. Ignorance is bliss.) Anyway, packing stinks. How in the world am I supposed to fit five months worth of souvenirs, shoes, kuerbiskernoel, and summer dresses (Don’t ask me how many I bought here. H&M is dangerous) into two suitcases that not only weigh less than fifty pounds but also are arranged in such a way that nothing breaks? Mission impossible. (Cue music clip here). I hate packing. :/

Okay, I’ve been silly for long enough. It’s getting late here, and I should move onto the main course of this blog post. In America, we call that the “meat and potatoes.” But I’m in Austria still, so I’ll call it the “Schnitzel.” So here’s the Schnitzel…

As I already mentioned at least once, this week has been unbelievably difficult. I don’t want to leave this place and these people, and I hate that I have to. But in the midst of this pain, I’ve been reminded of God’s faithfulness, and I’ve been learning some final lessons along the way. Here they are:

1)Tears are good.: Yes, letting out one’s emotions is a healthy activity, and it’s far better than keeping things bottled up inside. However, tears are also good in a different way. Grieving and tears are a response to the loss of something we care about. If we didn’t cry, it would mean that we didn’t miss whatever we lost. And if we didn’t miss whatever we lost, it would mean that we didn’t enjoy it. That would actually be tragic. Thus, tears are a good sign; they show that we really and truly were happy.

2)It’s not “goodbye”; it’s “auf Wiedersehen”:
One of the hardest parts of bidding adieu to all the amazing friends I have made in Graz is realizing that I may never see them again. Unlike high school, there are no 10-year reunions to look forward to. At the same time, though, I have to remember that I have no idea what the future may hold. God brought these wonderful people into my life once; who’s to say He couldn’t bring them back into it again? So in the meantime, I am trying to act in faith, treating these not as goodbyes, but rather “auf Wiedersehen” which translates into “until we meet again” or “see you later.” This isn’t the end of these friendships; it’s only the beginning. Plus, now I can go anywhere in Europe—and even to Mexico and South Korea AND Australia—and have friends to visit and stay with. ;)

And the most important lesson of all:

3)God was, is, and always will be faithful and good. ALWAYS.

This final lesson is one that God has been teaching me for a long time now, beginning waaaaaaaay before I came to Graz. But during my time in Graz, He has reminded me of this truth and has revealed it to me in countless different ways. One overall theme sticks out to me, though; and it started my first week in Graz.

On my first Sunday here, I ventured by foot 1.75 miles (uphill partway) in the snow in traction-less Ugg boots to church. Unsurprisingly, I managed to get lost on the way and ended up arriving half an hour after the service started. This meant that I was just in time for the sermon, but I had missed the majority of the worship music at the beginning. At the end of every service, though, they play one final worship song. On this particular Sunday, it was a German version of one of my favorites. It’s called “Blessed Be Your Name.” The entire song is awesome (If you have time, I recommend looking it up on youtube or simply finding the lyrics online), but the bridge is what stands out most to me:

“You give and take away; You give and take away. My heart will choose to say, ‘Lord, blessed be Your name.’”

As I already mentioned, though, I got to hear the German version that Sunday. The same part of that song in German is this: “Egal was Du mir gibst. Egal was Du mir nimmst. Du bist und bleibst mein Gott. Und Dir gehoert mein Lob.”

One of the coolest things for me about learning and living in a country with another language has been getting to see how certain words and ideas are expressed differently. In many cases, I have discovered that I actually prefer the German phrase to the English (For instance, the word “schlag” or “whipped cream” is one of my favorites because it so accurately captures the essence of the dairy product you put on your apfelstruedel. It’s not cream; it’s schlag). I’ve also really enjoyed reading my Bible in German because it gives me a new perspective on the meaning; different languages express concepts differently.

That being said, the German version of this song really stuck out to me. I’m assuming you are not a German expert, so let me translate it for you:

“It doesn’t matter what you give. It doesn’t matter what you take. You are and will remain my God. And my praise belongs to You.”

Anyway, my first weekend in Graz I heard this song, and it’s kind of been in the back of my mind all semester long. Then last week, when I was feeling especially sad and had one of my many breakdown/crying moments, this song popped back into my head. Suddenly in the midst of a flood of my tears, I heard myself singing those words. And immediately I understood.

God gives us blessings and lets us enjoy them, sometimes for a long time, sometimes only for a short while. But then the time comes, and the “good thing”—whatever it is—comes to an end. It hurts to lose it; we hate the pain it inevitably brings. It’s so easy to become depressed or to get angry with God, saying, “Why did you do this to me?” But He gives us the blessing to begin with. And He is allowed to take it away. It doesn’t always make sense to us; in fact, most times it doesn’t at all. Still, that’s just the way it is: He gives, and He takes. The question is this: What will our hearts choose to say? "Lord, blessed be Your name”?

God gave me the best experience of my life so far—better than anything I had ever dreamed possible. I am so thankful for the blessing that Graz has been and for all the ways He has changed me and refined me and grown me during my time here. I am so grateful for all the incredible friends I have made and for the memories that will last a lifetime. Unfortunately, though, the time has come, and He has taken it away. Though it hurts, and though my heart feels like it is breaking, I’ll still choose to say, “Blessed be Your name.” And now as I move back home to the States, I know that God’s faithfulness goes with me. Though He takes away, He gives again. And so, I am excited to see what adventures lie around the bend. Or, in one my very favorite German phrases “um die Ecke” (“around the corner”). For though I know not what the future holds, I know Who holds the future.

To everyone who has read my blog, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I feel so honored that you would find it worthy of your time. To all my friends at home, I’ll be seeing you soon. To all my wonderful friends in Graz, I love you all more than you can ever realize, and I cannot even begin to describe how thankful I am for you and how blessed I feel to have been your friend. We’d better stay friends, okay? Okay! :) And to anyone wondering, though this is the end of my Graz blog, I will continue writing and will keep sharing it with you.

Thanks again for everything. Remember today how loved you are, both by me and by the One who has been making the impossible possible for more than 2000 years. God bless.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Heute und die Ewigkeit (Today and Eternity)

Life is funny sometimes. Not in the “haha” laughing sort of funny way, but in the “hmmm, let me stop and think about that for a moment” sort of funny. This semester in Graz has been chalk-full of laughably funny moments—too many for me to count, in fact—but it’s also had its fair share of the other kind. Right now for me is one of those moments.

The clock is ticking, as my time here in Graz swiftly grows shorter. And while I have definitely been doing everything I can to pack in as many fun memories as possible (like hiding under benches to avoid being soaked while watching the Italy game, hanging out until 12:45 a.m. at Stammtisch, dancing ridiculously at the Neubaugasse basement party, hosting an international dessert night, cheering on Australia in their game against Ghana, running as hard as I could 1.36 miles uphill at the Kleeblattlauf, and partying it up all night long at the 26th USI-Sportfest, which is the largest student-run party in Europe, in case you were wondering), I’ve also taken some time to stop at think about things. Honestly, I would rather not ponder what is happening; it makes me too sad. But at the same time, part of me knows that it’s necessary, that I need to do this. Does that make any sense?

So I started thinking today about this semester in Graz and how unbelievably incredible it has been. I’ve been trying so hard to hold onto it, doing everything in my power to not let it go. But life doesn’t work like that, unfortunately, and things are finite on this side of heaven. I was really struggling with this last week (well, since February 1st when I arrived, to be entirely honest), and then I came across this quote by C.S. Lewis from his book The Screwtape Letters. (Note on this text: The Screwtape Letters is a fictional correspondence between two demons. Therefore, the “Enemy” referenced here is actually God. Don’t worry, it confused me at first glance too ;) :

"The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity[…] He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity or with the Present.”

That’s kind of a weighty quote, so let me break it down. Basically, God wants us to focus solely on eternity (during which, if you are a believer in Jesus as your Savior, you will be with God in the most perfect of places) and with the present, aka where we are right now. Not with the past; that’s over and done with. And not with the future, at least not until it becomes the present. ;) And then it’s not the future anymore, is it?

I just got off the phone with my little sister Weasel. (In case you don’t know this, I have two younger sisters. They are 18-year-old twins, and they are waaaaaaaaaaaay cooler than I am. As in, I want to be like them when I grow up. Just saying. Oh, and their actual names are Anneliese and Kirsten, but everyone, and I mean EVERYONE calls them “Weasel” and “Rascal.” And I just get called “Steffi.”How boring). Anyway, Weasel and Rascal just got back from two weeks at Kanakuk, which is the Christian sports camp where I worked for the last two summers. (I was a camper for nine years before that, so this is my first summer since I was ten years old that I haven’t been at Kanakuk. Krazy.)

Anyway, the twins both filled me in on the adventures of Kamp, how much fun they had, and all they had learned. Then Weasel got back on the line and said she had something special to tell me. On one of the days, the director of the camp had a question-and-answer session with the older campers; the kids could ask whatever they wanted, about life, love, God—you name it—and then the director would try to answer. One of the campers asked the question that has been on my mind a lot lately (and by “a lot lately” I actually mean “almost constantly”):

What is God’s purpose for our lives?

I’ve heard a lot of different answers to this question. None of them seem to quite satisfy me, though, maybe because they all have been super theological, and I’m just not quite smart enough to grasp them. This one, however, was not only on my level (which is that of an eight-year-old), but it also clicked. Curious? Read on…

“Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, that is God’s purpose for you. God wants us to live in the present, serving Him wholeheartedly with whatever we are doing. And when choices come our way and we have to decide what to do, it’s not a matter of “right and wrong,” rather “right and left.” Whatever we choose to do, God will use it for His glory. And if He wants us to go the other direction, He’ll get us there somehow. The point is to live in the moment—seeking after Him alone. If we do that, He will take care of the rest.”

If I’ve learned anything these last few months in Graz (and trust me, I’ve learned A LOT… just not necessarily school-related things), it’s how to live in the moment, just like the C.S. Lewis quote and the answer to the camper’s question. Today is all we have been given; tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. All we can do is live, right here and right now. And that’s exactly what God has been teaching me to do, one unbelievably incredible day at a time.

I know this has been a very quote-heavy blog post, but I’d like to add one more for good measure. This is one of my absolute favorite quotes of all time shared with me by my best friend of all time. It’s from Jim Elliot, the missionary who was killed by natives in Ecuador in the 1950s. This quote has become one of my life mottos. Here it is:

“Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.”

That is my prayer for you today. Be all there. And live it to the hilt.

God bless. And thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Almdudler und die Lesezeichen (Almdudlers and Bookmarks)

Servus! (Austrian for “Hey!”)

It is an absolutely gorgeous afternoon, and I have chosen one of the most beautiful places in Graz to write this next blog update. I am currently sitting in the park of Schloss Eggenberg, a restored 18th-century country estate on the edge of Graz. From my chosen bench, I have a perfect view of the Schloss (castle, though, in this case more like a really big house) and its lush green front lawn. Though the sun is shining, I am under the cool shade of a ring of elm trees, whose leaves peacefully rustle as a gentle breeze blows through. To complete this perfect scenario, I am snacking on a bunch of impossibly red cherries, which I bought at the farmer’s market. Ah, life is good.

(I should also add that, in addition to delightfully fragrant and vibrant rose bushes, the Schloss Eggenberg gardens are also home to at least a dozen real-life, honest-to-goodness, blue-as-can-be peacocks. Very, very noisy peacocks. Have you ever seen the Pixar movie Up? They sound just like Kevin the Snipe. No joke. There! They are erupting again! Haha.)

So what am I doing here, relaxing in this little slice of paradise? Thinking, of course. And not just about anything, but about a lot of different things. This semester has been unbelievable; every day I feel the need to literally pinch myself just to make sure I’m dreaming. That it’s actually been real, that I have had all these incredible experiences, and that I have made such wonderful friends and such unforgettable memories—it just seems impossible, as if it’s too good to be true. In that sense, I would say that Graz hasn’t just been living in a dream—for me, it’s been a dream come true. I have learned so much and grown so much, and God has taught me so many, many things that I will be pondering and processing in the months and years to come.

Unfortunately, though, life on this side of heaven is finite, and even the best things must come to an end. To call this reality “difficult” would be a gross understatement. My semester in Graz has been the best thing that could have happened to me. Never have I felt so myself; never have I felt so alive. Never before has something felt so right, as if I am exactly where I need to be. So how am I supposed to do this? How can I possibly leave such an incredible place? Those questions will need answering at some point, but not yet. I still have some time. The fat lady may be lumbering toward the stage, but she hasn’t started to sing.

The real question, the most important question, the one I have asked God day after day is this: How do I make the most of what I have left? Or, in the words of the Apostle Paul in Acts 20:24, how do I “finish the race and complete the task the Lord has given me”? For weeks on end, I struggled with this question, trying to find an answer. And then last week, completely out of the blue, one came to me.

I was having my daily time with the Lord (many Christians call it “quiet time.” I like to call it “quality time”, because my day is worthless without it). I had just finished writing in my prayer journal about this very topic, asking God for the ump-teenth time “How do I do this?” As I picked up my Bible, the pages had fallen open to some passage in Ezekiel. Marking those pages in Ezekiel was a sheet of paper with notes to a sermon from a year or so ago. And on the back of those sermon notes, in my own half-legible handwriting, was exactly the answer I had been looking for:

“Give it to God and He will do more with it than you ever could on your own.”


Let me pause here to demonstrate how, in my opinion, this was no accident. You see, as a recovering packrat, I have a lot of stuff jammed into my Bible: notes from friends, lists of prayer requests, actual bookmarks, and a bumper sticker. Periodically, I like to look through this miscellany, reading the notes, praying over the requests, moving the bookmarks, and thinking “Why haven’t I put this bumper sticker on my car yet?” About a week before this epiphany, I had done my routine read-through, and I had definitely NOT read that quote. It was scribbled on the back corner of one paper that had been wedged—er, folded nicely and stuck—between two other papers. Thus, when I opened my Bible to the random Ezekiel passage, the front side of the paper showed, and the side with the quote was stuck facing backwards and underneath it. In other words, in order to see it, I would have had to make an effort to see it.

So the fact that my Bible would have just happened to turn to that page and just happened to have the correct side facing up so it just happened to be the first thing I saw after I had been asking the question all together means… that it very likely couldn’t have “just happened.” No, on the contrary, it must have been God’s almighty pinky finger that caused that page to fall just-so because I needed to read it. And even if it wasn’t literally God’s baby finger (which, since He is God, must be absolutely ginormous), I do believe that God used my own words to speak to me.

Since reading that, I don’t feel confused anymore. It’s as if the fog has lifted and I can see clearly now (the rain is gone / I can see all obstacles in my way… just kidding). Now I not only know what to do, but I even know how to do it. Every day, every moment, everything I do or word I say or opportunity I have, I simply give it over to God. And then He takes care of it. Isn’t that awesome? It’s such a freeing feeling, to know that God is the one in control and that He has everything in His hands and as part of His plan. I don’t need to have my knuckles turn white from my stranglehold on the rest of my time here. No, on the contrary, I need to offer it up to God with open hands. And the best part is this: giving it to God doesn’t mean “giving it up” or “giving up on it.” Instead, it means getting it back, but better than I could have ever imagined. Why? Because He can do more with it than I could on my own.

So that, in a sense, is why I am here at Schloss Eggenberg today. I’ve given up worrying about my time and being depressed that it’s almost over, and I’m trying to live in the moment instead. And not just going through the motions, but really and truly living it and enjoying it for all it’s worth. That means biking 2.5 miles to hang out at the Schloss Eggenberg Park. It means taking the dressing up and enjoying the sunset from the top of the Scholssberg with my gal friends. It means having my own random photo shoot around Graz. It's explaining the intricacies of the awkward turtle to a friend from Sweden. It's getting and Almdudler from the spritzer stand in the middle of campus, and making traditional Czech sauerkraut soup for a real Czech friend, and winning the newbie league of the trivia contest at the Office Pub. It means laughing and smiling and loving where I am and who I am with even when I know that the curtain will soon fall. I hope and pray that I don’t leave this mentality behind in Graz, but that I carry it with me wherever life takes me. God doesn’t promise us tomorrow, but He promises to be with us as long as there is a today. And that, in and of itself, makes today worth living.

And with that my friends, it is time for me to sign off for now. My bag of cherries has been transformed into a pile of pits, and I need to get ready to go to the Opera to watch The Sound of Music tonight. Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, I pray that God will reveal Himself and His impossibly amazing love to you today. God bless.

Trueffel Pasta & Die Blaustufe (Truffle Pasta & Shades of Blue)

Note: I started writing this blog entry on 31. May. I literally haven’t had time to finish it until today, ten days later. I plan on doing another update with more current information soon. Just fyi. :)

Well, hi again! Yes, I’m back, just like Arnold Schwarzenegger. (I totally just spelled his name wrong and then Microsoft Word corrected it for me. You know you’ve made it when your last name is in Microsoft Word’s dictionary spell-checker! Haha)

Okay, so before I begin, I need to get something off my chest:

Ireland, I’m sorry. I thought you were the fairest country in the land, but I’ve met someone better. No, it’s not Snow White, and there are no seven dwarves. It’s, it’s… Slovenia. Don’t take it too hard, Ireland. You’re still beautiful and all; it’s just that Slovenia is… more beautiful. Gorgeous, in fact. She definitely wins the Miss Europe pageant. But Ireland, you still have a great personality; you get the Miss Congeniality award….

Haha. But seriously.

You may have noticed from previous blog posts that I am kind of obsessed with Ireland, and I still am. But then I went to Slovenia and, well, Ireland may have just gotten beat.

No bigger than the state of New Jersey, Slovenia is wedged between Croatia, Austria, Italy, and Hungary. As part of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia was under the Communist ruler Tito and, while limited areas were available for tourists to visit (My parents went to Lake Bled during the 1980s, for instance), the vast majority of this bite-sized country remained closed off behind the Iron Curtain. Since the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991, however, Slovenia’s unbelievable natural beauty has become accessible to anyone. Anyone who has heard of Slovenia, that is. For most of the world, though, Slovenia’s veritable secret garden has remained just that: secret. Until two weekends ago, I too had no idea. Now I know. And if you continue reading, you will too.

So where should I even start? How can I best describe to you the country that took my breath away over and over and over again? Well, in the words of Fraulein Maria, the very beginning is a good place to start.

It all began with a long weekend from Friday May 21st to Tuesday May 25th. (Here I need to give a shout-out to the Holy Spirit because Monday and Tuesday were holidays due to Pentecost Sunday. Thanks, Holy Spirit! :) ). What’s a girl to do with a five-day weekend in Austria? Go to Slovenia, of course! And that’s what I did. On Friday afternoon, I went with my Italian friend Michela to Maribor (a small, semi-industrial Slovenian town about an hour from Graz) to go on the tour organized by the ESN (Exchange Student Network). Maribor wasn’t all that exciting (one of my friends aptly nicknamed it “Maribor-ing), but it IS the home of the world’s oldest grapevine. It’s more than 400 years old and produces several liters of ridiculously expensive, relatively low-quality wine each year. But I guess if you’re that old, you can get away with it.

After an afternoon in Maribor, we headed to Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia. Don’t let that name intimidate you, and don’t try to pronounce it like it looks. It’s not “Luh-JUB-luh-Jana” as I thought it was for my first month in Austria. It’s “loob-lee-yah-na”. Just let it roll off your tongue like music. Be careful, though; it might become one of your favorite words and you might become addicted to saying it, and it will randomly come out of your mouth involuntarily. Not that I would know anything about that…. Haha

Anyway, we were in Ljubljana where we stayed at a place called Hostel Celica, which incidentally used to be a prison. Unfortunately, though, we opted for a normal room instead of the converted prisoner cells; they were too expensive. I’ll have to save up more money if I want to go to jail. Just kidding. On Saturday morning, Jodie (from Canada) and Anna (from Sweden) met up with us. We spent the entire day wandering around Ljubljana (say it again), sampling food from the huge open-air market (where we bought a kilo of cherries and an extra-large case of strawberries for 10 euros), drinking ridiculously cheap coffee, and taking photos of all the super fun and random graffiti. (Ljubljana seriously has the BEST graffiti I have ever seen! It included, but was not limited to: rainbow-colored dustpans, Ron Weasley faces, angry owls, bunny rabbits and much, much more). Unfortunately, everything closed at 2 p.m. (on a SATURDAY. And I thought Austria was bad!), so we were severely limited in our sight-seeing, shopping, and eating options. But we still had an enjoyable time, nonetheless.

On Sunday morning, we bid adieu to Michela who had to go home to Italy for some school obligations and then said hello to our new best friend: a silver 2010 four-door Opel. Here is side note to all wanna-be European travelers, specifically wanna-be Slovenian travelers: Travel with someone who can rent and drive a car in Europe. It’s seriously the ONLY way to experience Slovenia. I can’t even count how many times I thanked Anna for coming with us on the trip; neither Jodie nor I are insured to drive in Europe, so without Anna, this unbelievably amazing, once-in-a-lifetime trip that I will never ever forget would have never been possible.

Okay, so we rented a car. And that is where the real adventure began. Here I need to add a disclaimer: No matter how well I try to write or how many or few words I use, I am doomed to fail; Slovenia is so incredibly beautiful that trying to capture it on paper is like attempting to catch a bubble; it won’t work. But, nonetheless, I will give it my best effort because fortunately, unlike bubbles, Slovenia won’t pop. :)

Our first stop was Predjama castle, which dates from the early Middle Ages and—get this—is built into a cave in the side of a mountain! How cool is that?! Very cool. Next, we visited the Skojan caves in the Karst region of Slovenia. Karst is a type of landscape typified by rugged limestone and sinkholes; water seeps through the porous limestone underground where it forms caves below. Although Ireland is also known for its Karst landscapes (the Burren country on the west coast), the “original” Karst region is found in Slovenia. The Skojan cave system is one of the largest in Slovenia and also one of the most unique. Why? To quote Norman Maclean, because “a river runs through it.” And not just any river, a river of such power and magnitude that it created huge chasms and dizzying depths that made almost wet myself when I walked over them. At one point in the cave tour, we had to cross a bridge over a 75-meter deep canyon with the river rushing through the bottom. As if that weren’t intense enough to think about, our tour guide told us that this wasn’t even the deepest canyon; in a section of the cave not open to tourists, there is a chasm 200 meters deep—about three times the size of the one we crossed. Yikes!

Now I must take a momentary detour from my descriptions of natural beauty to shift to an equally important topic: FOOD. Not only did Slovenia prove to be the most beautiful place, it also was the yummiest… er, or it had the yummiest food. On the recommendation of Jodie and Anna’s roommates, who had visited Slovenia by car about a month before us, we went to a Gasthaus known for its truffle pasta, in the middle of Slovenia’s wine country. Literally in the middle of it—as in, we had to take windy roads intended for miniature tractors through fields of grapevine trees. You know a restaurant is good when they don’t even have a menu, and this one definitely didn’t. After we sat down on the terrace, the owner/cook (who spoke virtually no English) came up to us and asked, “Pasta?” (to which I replied “gnocchi”, which is a potato-based pasta). Twenty short minutes later, our lives—and stomachs—were forever changed. Some people have near-death experiences and they get a glimpse of what heaven looks like. Well, that evening, my tastbuds got a glimpse of what heaven tastes like. I’m not kidding. It was without a doubt THE BEST MEAL I have ever eaten, and if not the actual best, it was definitely second. I have seriously never tasted anything that compares to it; it was INCREDIBLE. (see my face in the picture above if you don’t believe me). Amazing.

Afterwards, we watched the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen (Sorry, Oklahoma). We were overlooking the Adriatic Sea and the rest of the wine country. Sooooooooooo lovely.

That night we stayed at Hostel Xaxid in the town of Zazid (spelled differently, pronounced the same). The roads to get there were so narrow that Jodie and I had to get out of the car and guide Anna through them—multiple times. The population of the town of Zazid can be likened to its street size: dinky. 75 people call Zazid “home.” Naturally, in a town that tiny, people become very close, like family; in fact, all 75 people regularly rent a large bus and go on trips together, like one giant family vacation. Cool, eh? They immediately welcomed us as honorary members of their family; as soon as we had unloaded our luggage, our hostel owner (whose name translates to English as “soul man”) invited us to a “Fish Picnic.” Where, of course, we ate fish—the itty bitty kind that you normally throw back. Interesting. The next morning, he cooked us a delicious homemade breakfast (I tried my first soft boiled egg!), which we thoroughly enjoyed. Then we explored the town of Zazid (which would have taken about five minutes total, if that, but we stretched it out) before we hit the road yet again.

On this day, we decided to explore the Slovenia coastal region. We stopped at a few towns, dipped our legs in the sparkling blue Adriatic Sea, and then decided we were hungry. So what did we do? Hopped over to Italy for some gelato, of course! :) Yummy. Late in the afternoon, we started making our way over to Lake Bled, where we would be staying the night. But on the way, we were a little sidetracked when we encountered an unbelievably color-not-found-in-nature, naturally turquoise river. Yes, you read that correctly: TURQUOISE. So, of course, we stopped and took a ton of pictures; we even found a small boat tied to the shore, so, of course, we took pictures in it, too. Then, after winding our way through some treacherously curvy mountain roads (Note: When a turn is more than a 90-degree angle, a GPS gets confused. And when a turn is a 180-degree angle, a GPS gets really, REALLY confused) before finally making it to Lake Bled. We ended up having to make a detour to get to our hostel. The main road had been indefinitely blocked off for archaeological work; when putting in a pipeline of some sort, workers had discovered the remains of an original Roman road. Apparently, this area was a tourist trap 2000 years ago too. :)

The next morning after sleeping in a little bit, we headed over to Triglav National Park, which is a few kilometers from Lake Bled. You know the expression “the best keeps getting better”? Well, that describes my experience in Slovenia to a T. Just when I thought I had seen the most beautiful thing possible (i.e. a naturally turquoise river or a sunset over the Adriatic Sea) I was blown away by something equally, if not more, enchanting. Triglav National Park, or at least the area we explored, consists of a river bordered on both sides by huge rocks. These rocks come so close at one point that they appear to almost kiss each other, or at least touch. Guests in the park can follow a footpath that hugs these large rocks and crosses over the river. But, just like always, Slovenia isn’t content with being normal, so of course this river isn’t any old river. It’s BLUE. Not murky “blue” like a river in Kansas, but glimmering, shimmering, almost glowing, filled with all different possibly shades of blue. It’s seriously stunning. I think my jaw dragged along the ground the entire time; I was so in awe of it.

After gaping at the beautiful park, we headed back to Lake Bled. Before I came to Slovenia, Bled was the only area of which I had heard. My parents had visited it back when they were stationed in Germany during the 1980s, and they loved it. My friends who had visited Bled raved about it, and I was expecting to be blown away as well. To be honest, it was pretty, but I wasn’t all that impressed. I think if Lake Bled were the only place I had seen in Slovenia, I would have been wowed. But having seen tons of incredible sights already, Bled was slightly disappointing. Granted, when my parents came, Slovenia was still part of the former Yugoslavia, and Bled was the only area they were allowed to visit. That being said, I am so thankful to be living in the post-Cold War world for many, many reasons, but especially since it now is possible to visit the entire country of Slovenia. I can’t believe Yugoslavia had been hording such beauty for so long. Crazy. Luckily, now they are learning to share the sLOVEnia. ;)

After Lake Bled, we drove to the Bohinj area to check out a glacial lake. Having been let down by Lake Bled, I wasn’t expecting much from this lake. Yet again, though, I was very pleasantly surprised. Like the other Slovenian bodies of water, Lake Bohinj is incredibly blue. Located somewhat near Austria, Bohinj is a mountainous region, so this lake is surrounded on all sides by small mountains. These two factors—the surreal blue and majestic mountains—alone would make Bohinj beautiful. But this next characteristic makes it absolutely spectacular: the sand on its banks is white. Caribbean beach white. So, taken together, Bohinj is a dazzlingly blue mountain lake with Caribbean beaches. Wow. The effect is breathtaking.

Experiencing such astonishing natural beauty got me thinking. And as I was thinking, I couldn’t help coming to some conclusions. Here is what I wrote in my journal while I was in Slovenia:

“God is the ultimate hopeless Romantic. An artist, a creative genius, He is desperately, completely, unabashedly, obnoxiously, obsessedly, unashamedly in love with us. He has to be. That is the only plausible, only possible explanation for the beauty I have seen these last few days in Slovenia. He Himself must be beautiful to create such matchless beauty. Who else would think to put a Caribbean beach in the middle of the Alps? Or to make a bright turquoise river? Or to put every possible shade of blue in the river passing through Vintgar Gorge? He must be. He has to be. That’s the only possibility.”

The One who puts “colors not found in nature” into nature loves you. Through beauty like that of Slovenia, He reveals His heart for you and for me. He’s a hopeless Romantic who loves us so much that He created unspeakable beauty for us to see—and not just to see it, but to experience Him through it. His creation is like a sonnet or a love song penned since the beginning of time for us to read and for us to hear. More than anything, He loves us. And more than anything, He wants us to love Him back.

The Mastermind of Creation wants to give you a love beyond compare, beyond words, beyond anything you have ever known. Won’t you let Him?

Thanks for reading. God bless.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Regnerisches Wetter und die Parkbank (Rainy Weather and Park Benches)

Hello friends.

Before I start this next blog post, I have a favor to ask of you. You might have noticed from my previous blog posts (sparse though they may be) that I am having the time of my life here in Austria. This has been the best three and a half months of my life, and I am so so so grateful to have been able to experience it. I have learned and grown so much, I have had some unbelievable experiences, and I have met incredible people whom I am very blessed to call my friends. But every day the clock ticks and my precious time here continues to slip away from me, like water through my fingers. Not a moments goes by that I don’t wish I could freeze-frame time or at least make it slow down. I try my best not to think about it because I simply can’t bear to. But it’s going to happen all the same; all good things must come to an end, and my Erasmus semester is no exception. So in preparation for the inevitable, I humbly ask you, my friend, to pray for me. Please. I don’t know how I am going to handle it or how I will be able to cope. It’s going to be one of the most difficult experiences of my life thus far, and I am really not looking forward to it. Even now I am crying as I write this. So please, friends, if you think of it, please pray for me. I am really going to need it. Thank you so much.

Whew, enough of that for now. Let’s move on to happier things, shall we? We shall.

One of my dear friends (official shout-out to Natalie Coleman) commented that I seem to travel more than I go to school. Well…. Yep. That’s definitely the case. Especially now. God bless Austria for being a Catholic country and for cancelling class on all religious holidays. And God bless Himself for having most of those religious holidays fall into the spring semester. As if the three-week Easter break were not enough, last Thursday was Ascension Day (in German “Himmelfahrt.” Yes, pronounced just like it looks. Jesus has a sense of humor.) Since I don’t have class ever on Wednesday or Friday, this meant that I had a five-day weekend. Woo hoo! :) So what’s an American girl to do when given a five-day weekend in a foreign country? Travel, of course! And travel I did!

Early Wednesday morning, I took a train to Hallstatt, where I spent the day and night. On Thursday, I headed about ten minutes away to a town called Obertraun, where I saw some amazing ice caves. (They were sooooooooooo cool! Pun intended.) Then on Thursday evening, I went to Salzburg, where I met up with Jennifer Lawmaster (another official shout-out!). Here I must say that Jennifer, though she is technically from Norman, Oklahoma, is in actuality, a local Salzburgian (yes, I just made up that word). She studied abroad last spring at the University of Salzburg and LOVED it. In fact, she loved it so much that as soon as she got off the plane in Oklahoma last July, she started doing everything she could to come back. And it worked. She has an internship this summer at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna and has a Fulbright for the next school year to teach English in Bavaria (aka southern Germany). In other words, she is AMAZING and, to use a shamelessly American phrase, super legit.

On Friday, we went to a small town called Berchtesgaden where Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest is located. Unfortunately, the weather was terrible; there was too much fog, so we weren’t able to go to the Eagle’s Nest; if we had gone, we wouldn’t have been able to see anything. Oh well, that’s just another reason for me to come back. But we went to Koenigssee instead; it’s like a fjord, and it’s soooooooooo beautiful. So that was way cool. On Friday evening, we went back to Salzburg (or Sbg, as Jennifer calls it), where we just happened to run into David Roos, my Swedish friend. I knew he and Anna (a Swedish girl and one of Jodie’s flat-mates) were coming to Salzburg, but I thought they get there until Saturday morning like Jodie. But they were there on Friday, and we just happened to find them. Cool, eh? That evening, we walked around the city (Fyi: the weather this weekend was terrible all over Europe, including Salzburg. As such, we started affectionately referring to Salzburg as “cold, rainy-burg.”) As we were walking around, we stumbled upon a huge pep rally/celebration in one of the main squares. The cause for celebration? Soccer, of course! (we are in Europe, after all). The Salzburg Red Bulls (named for Redbull, which has its world headquarters in Salzburg and is a huge sponsor of the soccer program there) had won some kind of championship. Friday evening was the official celebration with the team and all the fans. It was really fun to be there. Also, it reminded me of July 2006 when I was at the World Cup in Stuttgart. Good times, wonderful memories. :) After loudly cheering and singing a round of “Wir feiern die ganze Nacht” (translated: “we’re partying all night long.” It’s the most popular German party song. Youtube it and listen for yourself; it’s very catchy, and I bet you’ll love it to.), we went to a hole in the wall pub. Literally, a hole in the wall. It was in a cave that during World War II was used by the Nazis as a radio station. And now it’s a pub. Pretty nifty, very strange. Oh, and I now have something in common with Tom Cruise (who’d a thunk?). He hung out there while he was shooting his newest film Knight and Day with Cameron Diaz in Salzburg. But don’t worry; I won’t be converting to scientology. Haha.

On Saturday morning, Jodie arrived, and we spent most of the day doing—of course—“Sound of Music” sightseeing. Unfortunately, the famous living, musical hill is far out of town, so we didn’t get to go there, but, thanks to Jennifer, we were able to see most everything else, including, but not limited to: the Van Trapp house on the lake, the Abbey and the gate where the children come looking for Fraulein Maria, the cemetery (used as the model; the actual one was in Hollywood), and the church where the real-life Maria got married. Way cool. Then on Sunday, we got to visit all the museums in Salzburg for FREE. Sunday was the official “Day of the Museums” in Austria, so they were all free. :) Super duper. We checked out where Mozart was born, where he lived, and lots of other interesting historical places. All in all, it was quite a lovely weekend.

Now, though, it is time to share one quick highlight from my travels.
As I already mentioned, I spent Wednesday in Hallstatt, aka one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It’s on UNESCO’s world heritage site list, and with good reason. The town dates back to at least 800 AD when people started mining salt from the mountain behind it. (The town’s name literally means “city of salt”. Very creative). Nestled between the mountain and a huge lake, the town is breathtakingly beautiful; I couldn’t quit staring… or taking pictures. I think I took about 500 in Hallstatt alone. Haha. Anyway, I had wanted to visit Hallstatt ever since last semester when I took a study abroad prep class. For one of the assignments, I had to make a powerpoint presentation about the country where I would be going. When I was looking for pictures of Austria, google images led me to Hallstatt. And it was love at first sight. So naturally, I had to see it for myself.

Having done a bit of traveling, I have come to believe that adventures are best when shared. At the same time, however, it can also be good to take a day by oneself, to experience something on one’s own. My day in Hallstatt is the perfect example.

As I already mentioned, I went to Hallstatt by myself… well, myself and Rick Steves, rather. (He’s the tour guide book, and he’s awesome! If ever you come to Europe, you HAVE to bring him along. It’s essential.) So Rick and I wandered around Hallstatt for a little bit, and in about 15 minutes, I had seen the entire town—twice. There isn’t much to DO in Hallstatt; it’s more about seeing it. So I enjoyed the view and took it in until 2 p.m. when the tourist office reopened after the lunch break. I knew I wanted to hike up the mountain/hill, but I wasn’t sure where to start and which path to take. The nice woman at the tourist center gladly helped me, and she gave me a map of the two main routes up to the salt mine at the top; she recommended that I visit the mine, so I decided I may as well. She also told me that there was one of the two routes was especially scenic. Now, if you know me at all, you probably have noticed that I am not the most directionally-gifted person in the world. Therefore, I managed to make the only possible wrong turn, therefore leading me up the less scenic route. That’s okay; it was still very pretty (Austria couldn’t be ugly if she tried. If I were one of the other countries, I’d have a serious inferiority complex.) I made it to the top, huffing and puffing my way along, getting to the mine just in time to take the next tour. (Side note: The tour was interesting enough, but the best part was getting to use the “horizontals” which is basically a miner’s version of sliding down a banister—a very loooooooong banister. And you get to go really fast because they make you wear scrubs with a special material on the backside, so you slide more easily. It was super fun; the eight-year-old in me definitely enjoyed it… and yelled “wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” the entire way down. Heehee :) ).

Anyway, after the tour, I looked at my map again and found the more scenic way down the mountain back to town. As I was walking, I started to sing some of my favorite worship songs, even translating some of them into German (or at least attempting to). The more scenic route was definitely more scenic. I think I stopped every five seconds to take a picture of the woods or of the perfectly serene lake below. When I was about two-thirds of the way down, it started to rain. Opening my umbrella (for once in my life, I was actually prepared for inclement weather), I spotted a single bench to the right of the path.) This bench was perfectly situated under a couple trees so that their branches had successfully blocked it from the rain thus far. Feeling rather tired and welcoming the chance for a brief break—with an unbelievable view—I decided to sit down. And as I sat, the strangest thing happened. I started talking out loud with God, but not just talking like I normally do; no, I mean really pouring my heart out to Him.

I can’t speak for everyone, so correct me if I am wrong, but I think that every person, regardless of gender, social status, religion, nationality, or whatever, at some point questions why they are here. Is there a meaning not only to life, but specifically to my life? Is there some reason, some definite, specific, tangible reason that I exist? Why am I here? Why am I alive? And do I matter? Maybe I’m just weird, and maybe I am the only one who contemplates those things. If so, then disregard everything I have said and am about to say, because this doesn’t apply to you. But if you have ever pondered any of these questions, please keep reading.
Anyway, these questions are ever-present with me, sometimes consciously and other times just in the back of my mind. On this particular day, though, and at this particular moment on an empty bench in a rainy forest overlooking Hallstatt, all of them decided to bombard me at once. Now, I am not a perfect person by any means, and I am certainly nowhere close to having the faith I need to have. I have my doubts many times, and I have questioned God before and wondered if what I believe is actually true. For some reason, though, that afternoon on the bench was different, as if suddenly my questions came with an unprecedented urgency, as if my very soul, the very core of my being was dying to know the answers. I HAD to know; I HAD to. I started crying as I asked them, over and over again. God, why am I here? God, why did you make me? Do you really care about my life? Do you really have a plan for me? God, why am I here? Over and over and over again. My heart was aching, burdened with an indescribable pain, waiting, hoping for, desperately needing an answer.

And then it came.

Psalm 139 is one of my favorite Scriptures. When I went through a particularly ambitious Scripture-memorizing phase several years ago, Psalm 139 was one of the first passages I chose. Nowadays if I have trouble falling asleep at night (which is often the case), I quote this whole chapter in my mind, and it helps me drift to dreamland. Thus, since I already knew the chapter, it seems only natural that it would come to mind at that critical moment as I sat on the bench. But as I have already noted many a time, there are no coincidences; without question, God made me think of it.

You see, all of a sudden in the middle of all my questioning, I stopped. And the words of Psalm 139 started coming out of my mouth instead. I said verse after verse multiple times aloud, trying my best to believe the words. Then I came to verses 13-16:

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

As I spoke those words, saying them over and over and over again, something incredible happened: I started to believe them, and it was as if God himself had spread a healing balm over my hurting, weeping soul, as if I went from being soaking wet with teeth chattering to being wrapped tight in the warmest, softest blanket in the world. In that moment, my heart understood the truth: God loves me. He made me. He knows everything about me. He is intimately involved in all the details of my life. Nothing can ever separate me from Him. Because He loves me.

And guess what? He loves you too.

Wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, and wherever you’ve been, those truths are the same for you. God made you. He cares about you. He is intimately involved in your life. And He desperately wants you to love Him back. My prayer is that you will experience this firsthand, like I did on the soggy park bench that day.

Thanks so much for reading. God bless.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Rucksack und Tapisserieware (Backpacks and Tapestries)

Backpacking (or in my case, “duffel-bagging”) is many things: an adventure, an exercise in minimalism, a diet. Above all, though, I contend that backpacking is a religious experience. Or at least it was for me.

I must start out by qualifying my status as a “backpacker.” My three weeks of living out of a bag was merely a short glimpse into the world that is backpacking. True backpackers do it for months at a time. Relative to them, I am a novice, an inexperienced tee-ball player with a view of the major league.

That being said, however, my three weeks of backpacking taught me so many, many things. Like, if there is free food, eat it. And if you pay for a meal, then by all means, eat the entire thing. Spoons and forks are precious commodities, and if your utensil is plastic, take it with you; you never know when you might need it. If a bathroom is free, then use it—even if you don’t need to. (Trust me, something dies inside when you have to hand over 1.50 euro just to pee) And the list goes on and on and on and on … don’t stop believin’… ha ha

On a more serious note, though, backpacking teaches you a lot about yourself, and, if you are a Christian, a lot about God. I could share with you all I learned, but I need to work on homework (I know, you thought based on my previous blogs and such that I never do homework. Well, I do…. Once a week. Ha ha). So, to keep things short (Me? Be concise? Wow. Miracles do happen.), I will just share with you my most memorable lesson and the story that goes with it.

Lesson: There are no coincidences.

I know you have probably heard that expression before. Either you agreed with it, or you opposed it. I’ve heard it my entire life, too, and most of the time, I tacitly agree with it. Yeah, sure, God is working. Yeah, sure, He has His hand in my life and what happens. But is He really involved in the little details? The minute day-to-day goings-on that even I don’t really care about? Before backpacking, I would have said “yes,” but I don’t know if I would have fully believed it. But now, I can’t deny it; God isn’t in the coincidence business. Here’s how I know.
If you have been keeping up with my semester abroad, you might remember that Jodie (Canadian friend) and I visited Budapest toward the end of February. Though I loved the city and had a wonderful time there, the experience itself wasn’t especially noteworthy, and, as such, I didn’t even have a blog entry about it. While in Budapest, we stayed at a place called “The Backpackers Guesthouse;” while we were there, we met a group of backpackers—4 guys (2 from Canada. Jodie was happy) and 2 girls—who had been traveling together for a while. We hung out with them a little bit during our two nights’ stay, but we didn’t go to the club with them or spend any significant amount of time with them. And when we left to come back to Graz, we basically said, “have a nice life” and then went on our way, never expecting to see any of them ever again.

Fast forward two months. Jodie and I are in Galway checking into Barnacles hostel (see picture above), when some guy asks the person at the front desk where he can find an internet cafĂ© nearby. I didn’t notice his face (I think I was trying to dig my money out of my wallet or something), but after he left Jodie said, “Oh my goodness, I know him. I don’t know how, but I know him. I think he was at our hostel in Budapest.” Weird. But highly unlikely. And I didn’t see him, so I couldn’t make a judgment call either way. Plus, we were staying at a good-sized hostel, so even if he was here, our odds of running into him in the next two days was pretty slim. So we went up to our room (an 8-bed mixed dorm), where we saw a large backpack with the tell-tale Canada maple leaf patches sewn onto it. Hmmm. Two of the guys in Budapest were best friends from Canada. But that would be too crazy… there’s no way….


Sure enough, when we got back from the pub that night, Canadian-and-Budapest guy named Tom was there, staying in the same hostel, in the same room, in Galway, Ireland, of all places. What are the odds? There are none. Crazy.

After we reintroduced ourselves and shared several minutes of mutual shock and elation (we seriously couldn’t get over how bizarre this was), we settled down with our other roommates and started to play a drinking game. The same thing had happened in Budapest, and yet again, I politely declined, saying that I preferred to watch.
After an hour or so, when the others decided they were going to head out to a club and were getting ready, Tom stopped and asked me, “You didn’t drink in Budapest either, did you?”

I replied that no, I didn’t. And that he had a very good memory. He asked me the usual follow-up question, “Do you ever drink?” Instead of giving my standard answer of simply, “I have a gluten allergy” or “I just prefer not to,” for some reason, I said, “No, not really. I’m a Christian, and I want to honor God with all my actions. And I think that’s much harder to do after drinking.”

To my surprise, the conversation didn’t stop there. He continued, telling me that he was a Christian too, or at least that he had been an altar boy as a kid, but now he didn’t believe any of it. He asked me if I was saving myself for marriage, and I said yes. And he wanted to know if I really believed all of it, and I said, yes, that my faith is the most important part of my life. I think he asked me a few other things, which I can’t remember now, but I do remember this. At the end of our conversation, he said, “I’ve never met anyone like you before.” Wow.
A few minutes later, they headed to the club. Jodie and I saw Tom again briefly the next day but didn’t talk to him again except to say good-bye (with, of course, a “maybe we’ll see you again” ha ha). And that was basically that.

Someone far wiser than I am has likened God’s work to a tapestry. Countless threads of various vibrant shades are woven together to create a masterpiece of unspeakable beauty and intricate detail. As individual threads, we only get to see our little section; our perpectives are so limited. And even though we may know that this incredible tapestry exists, it’s very easy to forget that we are a part of it or to doubt its existence altogether. Sometimes, though, God gives us a moment to see from His point of view; He gives us a glimpse of the big picture, of his magnum opus in the making. For me, the conversation with Tom in Galway was one of those moments. I don’t know whether anything will come of it or if I will ever run into Tom again, but I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the great Artist is at work in Tom’s life, and that He made our threads cross paths again for a reason, though I may never know it. But this I believe with my whole heart:

There are no coincidences, only a masterpiece in the making.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Guinness und die Rothaarige: Die Gruene Insel (Guinness and Redheads: The Emerald Isle)

I know, I know; you thought I had dropped off the face of the earth, never to be heard from again. Mach dir keine mehr Sorgen! I am still alive and well and ready to blog again!

I feel like I begin every blog post with an apology for how long it’s been since the last time I updated. This post is no different; I am very sorry that it’s been more than a month since my last post. I especially want to apologize to my G-Little Stephanie Drymon begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting, who has been reminding/chastising me for the last several weeks for my lack of updates. And so, G, this one is for you. :)

Yes, it’s been over a month since I have written, but I definitely have a valid excuse this time. I was on Easter break—and not the American Easter-break variety, with Good Friday or Easter Monday off (or maybe both, if you’re really, really lucky). No, this was the Austrian variety, which meant that our “long weekend” was 23 days long. Fantastic. Thank you, Austria. :) So what’s an American to do when she is in Europe and has no responsibilities for almost a month straight? Travel, of course! And that is exactly what I did.

On Friday March 26th, I left Graz and took a train to Vienna, where I took another train to Bratislava (the capitol of Slovakia), where I took my first-ever Ryanair flight to Dublin, Ireland.

I don’t know if I have ever told you this before, so let me confess it once and for all: I am kind of obsessed with Ireland, and I have been for as long as I can remember. Back during my tap-dancing days as a child, I tried to take traditional Irish dancing classes, only to learn that you had to have Irish ancestry to participate. I was crushed. I can’t think of a specific, concrete reason for my love for the Emerald Isle, but I have always felt this way. Thus, naturally, it has been my dream to visit Ireland, so the nine days I spent exploring the land of rainbows, Guinness, and leprechauns nothing short of a dream come true.

Dublin was awesome! I came to appreciate Dublin and Ireland’s history during a fascinating 3-hour walking tour; I attended a Palm Sunday church service at Christ Church Cathedral; I toured the Guinness Storehouse, where I “poured ( and enjoyed) the perfect pint” and received a certificate to prove it, and experienced the city’s nightlife in the Temple Bar district via a pub crawl. Dublin was a blast.
My Canadian friend Jodie met me in Dublin; on Monday, we headed to Galway, which is on the west coast of Ireland. A university town, Galway is known for its pubs and student culture. Unfortunately, it’s also known for its rain. It poured the entire time we were there, so we didn’t get to experience it fully. But that’s okay; we didn’t actually end up spending that much time in Galway anyway; instead, we went on two bus tours. Unlike that of many European countries, Ireland’s image isn’t associated with cities and history; instead, much of its fame is tied to its beautiful scenery. And let me tell you, they don’t call it “The Emerald Isle” for nothing; all that rain definitely pays off. As a tourist, the best way to experience this landscape is via bus tours, so Jodie and I went on two in Galway. The first one was to Connemara, the classic rolling green hills; it was so beautiful! Unbelievably so. The second tour was to the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren Region, which is a rockier coastal area. The Cliffs of Moher were insane! (I guess that’s why they are known as “the Cliffs of Insanity” in the movie The Princess Bride). But seriously, they were HUGE! I’ll attach some pictures, so you can sort of appreciate them. While many people went past the “do not pass” barrier to enjoy the full beauty and danger of the Cliffs, I, like the true Kansan I am, stayed safely behind the chest-high concrete wall. But even from my relatively safe position, I couldn’t help being in awe and fear of the sheer majesty and power of the Cliffs, especially when the wind picked up. At one point, the wind was so strong that I couldn’t stand still; the wind was pushing me, whether I wanted to move or not. Luckily, it didn’t start to snow until after we had taken refuge in the comfort of our bus.

After the Cliffs, Jodie and I had a little adventure… Initially, we were going to take a public transport bus from Galway to Doolin, our next stop on our tour-de-Ireland. Then we discovered that the Cliffs of Moher bus tour was scheduled to stop in Doolin along the way. The tour cost 10 euros; the bus without the tour cost 12. So of course we took the bus tour. We had brought our bags with us and had asked the driver, and he said it would be no problem. After getting on the bus at the Cliffs, we reminded him to drop us off in Doolin, which was on the way to the next photo opportunity. But, of course, just our luck, wouldn’t you know, he forgot to drop us off. We got to the next break—a miniature version of the Cliffs of Moher a little farther up the coast—when he realized his mistake.

He felt awful, but he didn't have time to take us back, so he told us it was only "an hour and a bit" to walk back to town. Apparently “a bit” is a standard Irish unit of measurement meaning “an hour and a half” because the walk was really 2.5 hours. But we didn’t know that, and we really didn’t have any choice, so, of course, we started walking…. And walking… and walking. We walked for about 25 minutes on this road in the middle of nowhere Ireland, with a car passing us every five minutes or so. We looked looking super homeless, carrying our bags and holding our thumbs out. Cars kept passing us. It was getting kind of late, going on 4:45 or so, and we didn’t seem to be getting any closer to our destination. I thought the Irish were supposed to be notoriously friendly, but they seemed to be falling way short of that stereotype. Our feet hurt, we were feeling kind of discouraged, and I started to pray…
Then finally, all of a sudden, a silver sedan slowed down and pulled over. Inside were a young Irish couple who owned a restaurant in the town next to Doolin. They took pity on us and drove us to the crossroads that would take us to Doolin. In 10 minutes of driving, we covered what would have taken us at least an hour and a half by foot. They dropped us off—after we thanked them profusely—and then pointed us the way to go. And so we started walking again….
Unfortunately, Doolin is a very tiny town, and its main road doesn’t get much traffic. We walked for about ten minutes without seeing any vehicles, until finally a large white delivery-esque van pulled up. Sketchy? Yes. Were we a little nervous? Yes. That is, until we saw the driver: a 20-something, red-headed, freckled, honest-to-goodness Irish dairy farmer with water-proof boots that went up to his knees. He stopped, asked us where we were going, and we told him. He got out, stuck our bags in the back—along with all the cow feed—and then drove us straight to the front door of our hostel. It was, in a word, precious. So sweet. And so very, very Irish. :) If you are going to hitchhike anywhere, Ireland is the place to do it; the Irish hospitality pulled through, and we couldn’t have been more grateful.

Doolin was absolutely adorable; I would estimate its population to be 500 people, if that. And they all hang out at the same three pubs, because the town only has three pubs. We went to O’Connors, which had been recommended by our dairy-farmer hero (aka my future husband. Ha ha); unfortunately, we didn’t see him there. :(
Just so you know, the stereotypes of Ireland are all true, as far as I could tell. The people are genuinely friendly (even to sketchy-looking hitchhikers), many of them have red hair, and they love to spend countless hours sitting in pubs, drinking Guinness (and Bulmers cider—my favorite!). In many areas, Gaelic is the official language; all signs are written in both Gaelic and English. And traditional Irish music is alive and well and as popular as ever. That was probably one of my very favorite parts of being in Ireland: sitting in pubs and enjoying traditional Irish impromptu jam sessions. It was so incredibly cool. I loved it. In Doolin, though, Jodie and I were in for a special treat. Normally, the music was only instrumental; a few guys would play together. But at O’Connors, a little boy whose family was sitting at the table next to ours, joined the men and began to sing the song “The Galway Girl.” The way he sang, the way everyone clapped along, the pure Irish beauty of the tune—it was so surreal and so beautiful. Everyone, including I, was transfixed by him; I couldn’t have taken my eyes off him if I had wanted to. Definitely one of the coolest experiences I have ever had, and I’ll never, ever forget it. Gosh, I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.

After Doolin, we moved onto Killarney, which is farther down the west coast. Our hostel was called “Paddy’s Palace”—a very liberal use of the word “palace”, but if you stayed one night, you got one night free. When you’re backpacking, you can’t get much better than that. ;) Our first day, we rented bikes and rode through Killarney National Park, which, of course, was beautiful. A definite highlight was Torque Waterfall; unfortunately, it started to hail just as we got there. Only in Ireland can you experience sunshine, rain, and hail within the same hour. Haha. But it was very cool, and after spending so many days sitting on buses, riding a bike was a definite treat. The next day, we did the Ring of Kerry bus tour, which took us through more breathtaking sites in the Irish countryside. On the Saturday night before Easter, I headed back to Dublin, where I would catch my flight to Pisa, Italy, the next day.

Dublin on Easter was phenomenal. While I was wandering around that morning looking for a church, I discovered that O’Connell Street, one of the main central streets of Dublin, was blocked off. Curious, I asked why and was told that there would be a parade and a ceremony. With nothing else to do (the church service wasn’t until the afternoon), I decided to stay and watch. I went through a security checkpoint and found a place to stand directly opposite the General Post Office. There, a woman handed me a program for the ceremony. Then I realized that I had accidentally stumbled upon something very important. I’m assuming that you, like me, don’t know much about Irish history, so I will fill you in. Basically, Ireland didn’t like being under British control, so in 1916, while England was preoccupied with World War I, some Irish patriots decided to take action. On Easter Sunday (or maybe they actually did it on Easter Monday; I can’t remember), they armed themselves and took over the General Post Office and tried to take Dublin Castle (which, incidentally, isn’t an actual castle. Go figure.) But the Irish aren’t very good at strategizing, and it turns out that a handful of civilians don’t really stand a chance against the professional British military. In the end, the uprising was a failure; the Irish were forced to surrender, and all the participants were executed. However, these patriots didn’t die in vain; they had hoped that their sacrifice would stoke the flames of Irish nationalism and get their fellow citizens to take action for freedom. Several years later (in 1938, maybe?), their struggle paid off and their dreams were realized; Ireland was granted its independence.

Ever since then, the Irish commemorate the selfless sacrifice of these rebels by holding a ceremony on Easter Sunday at the General Post Office. It’s like their version of Independence Day, but without the bunting and the fireworks. And I, unwittingly, managed to get a front-row seat to the action. All divisions of the military had their bands play, the President and Prime Minister and all other important Irish people came in their individual motorcades, and then three fighter jets did a fly-over. It was awesome. And just like the little boy’s song in Doolin, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never, ever forget.

The rest of my Easter break included a week in Italy (Pisa, Rome, Florence, and Venice) and then 5 days in the Czech Republic (Prague and elsewhere). But now I need to go work on homework, so I don’t have time to write about them in this post. However, I will do my best to make time to fill you in on the rest of my Easter adventures.

Having spent nine days in Ireland, I came to this conclusion: I HAVE TO GO BACK. Nine days was simply not enough; I LOVED it. Here’s an analogy to describe my feelings: The U.S.A. is my family, Germany is my ancestors, I’m currently in a long-term relationship with Austria (I think we are beyond the dating phase), but I have a HUGE country-crush on Ireland. Don’t tell Austria, though; he might get jealous. ;)

As they say in Ireland, “thanks a million” for reading to the end (I hope you enjoyed your study break, G-Little), and I will update you again soon. Have a wonderful day wherever you are! God bless! :)