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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ninety-Seven


I’ve been in Europe for 97 days. Ninety-Seven. 97.

That number makes me stop in my tracks. Ninety-seven is a lot of days. That’s 97 nights of sleep in over 15 different beds and hotels. For 97 days, I’ve eaten out at least 2 meals a day. I’ve had 97 days to juggled sightseeing and schoolwork and sleep. I’ve had 97 days of adventure and joy and excitement. In these 97 days, I’ve experienced summer, fall, and winter.  I’ve been to 11 different countries and 42 different cities. I’ve been blessed with an infinite number of opportunities these past 97 days, opportunities to deepen friendships, to learn new and challenging things about myself, and to see history come alive. I’ve been in a constant state of learning for 97 days. We learn in the classroom, yes, but most of the real learning happens on the street, in restaurants trying to communicate in different languages, in hotel rooms with different roommates, and inside my head, processing all of my experiences in overdrive. I have 10 more joyous days of new cities and new countries (and even a new continent! Weekend trip to Morocco, anyone?) before I head back to the US of A. But, what happens then?

I've been thinking a lot about stories lately, and how I will tell my story. How will I find the right words to give these stories the justice they deserve? My stories deserve to be told, I’m just not quite sure how to do that.

What’s it going to be like when we all go home in less than 2 weeks? No more new cities or churches to explore, no group dinners or long travel days, no more counting off one to forty to make sure everyone’s present and accounted for. My new normal will become a way of the past, and I’ll have to adjust to life without the 39 travel companions I’ve spent every minute of the last 97 days with. There is uncertainty as to what re-entry holds for each of us, but there are also an equal number of certainties on the horizon.

I know what it will be like when we all part ways in LAX on December 8th. I’ll watch the joyful reunions of my EuroSem friends with their families before hopping on one more plane homeward bound. Southwest will get me safely to Sacramento International Airport, where I’ll give my parents the biggest hugs I’ve ever given them in my entire life. I’ll spend the next weeks catching them up on my semester, narrating my pictures country by country and re-living the semester in hindsight, from my couch in suburban El Dorado Hills. I’ll wear big sweatpants and sweatshirts, thankful for a seemingly new wardrobe that doesn’t have to fit in Arnold, my trusty suitcase. I’ll sleep soundly in my own bed and eat vegetables and bake pumpkin bread and walk my dog, thankful for the trusty rhythm of home life. I’ll do all of the normal holiday traditions with a special gusto this year. This Christmas, this break, is going to be a little sweeter, a little more sentimental, because of the adventures I’ve had and the miles I’ve traveled these past months.

You see, Europe Semester is an odd mix of luxury, glorified camping, and migrant life. We eat three course meals whenever we go out for group dinners. I took bubble baths in Prague but skipped out on showers for a few days during our stretch of hostel accommodations in Austria and Switzerland. We ate the world’s best buttery croissants in Haarlem and found great joy in making ourselves omelets and eggs on their breakfast griddle. In Bayeux and Interlaken, on the other hand, we were content with cornflakes and a slice of bread for breakfast. 

Every few days, we squeeze everything back into our suitcases for a long day on the coach to a new destination. We pay for tap water and we pay to use the bathroom. We eat döner kebabs or pitch in for a cheap picnic to save our per diem to pay for postcards and chocolate and new clothes at H & M when we’re sick of what we packed. We squeeze five people into tiny hostel rooms with communal floor bathrooms one week and spread all of our stuff out in spacious apartments the next. You never know what the next few days might hold. Sometimes the rooms are extravagant and spacious, and sometimes you have to carry your 50-pound suitcase up five flights of stairs. When life is easy and straightforward, we say thank you. When life is challenging, we adapt and we grow, taking the situation in stride and experiencing another part of Europe together. We’ve been living this beautiful, unique lifestyle for 97 days.

Europe is showing me what it means to craft a way of being that makes life workable and sweet, even if just for a little while. I won’t live my whole life traveling through Europe, but I’m doing it right now, and I’m learning to do it well. Cheers to 10 more days of migrant life. Cheers to the holidays, to life at home, and to a new semester at Westmont come January.

I’ve been meaning to write four or five blog posts, but somehow time’s gotten away from me these last few weeks. Stay tuned for pics from Spain and Morocco! A late Happy Thanksgiving and a heartfelt good night, dear friends.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Firenze


10/20 - 11/9
I like to think of myself as an honorary Italian. I may not have any Italian in my blood, but a week in Rome and three weeks in Florence have given me a newfound appreciation for all things Italian.

In one month’s time, the boot stole my heart and my stomach. I immersed myself in the Italian lifestyle, enjoying afternoon siestas and generally slowing down the pace of life. Mimicking the Italian way of life meant I enjoyed a diet of pasta, pizza, and gelato. What was wonderful about these three food groups was that they never got old. Never. I was always excited to eat (who isn’t?), to find a restaurant and order gnocchi or carbonara or some random pasta dish that I couldn’t pronounce. I became a great fan of bruschetta, as well, and completed my gelato challenge with gusto (gelato every single day, for 31 days. Woot woot!) We had class a bit, not a lot, and it feels like we visited every church and museum in the entire city. We felt like locals after a few days, dodging the crowds of sludge (our fond term for tourist groups) and finding our rhythm in the city.

One of Florence's many churches
Our home for three weeks was right on Florence’s main street, up 108 stairs every time we came home and every time we left to grab a scoop of gelato or explore the city. Stepping out of the hotel, you’d turn left and reach the Duomo in less than a minute. Turn right, and after a few blocks you’d find yourself in the Palazzo Vecchio.

I’m a numbers person, so I’ve been keeping all sorts of lists the past few months:
Our church count up to this point? 56.
Our museum count? 41.

That’s right, we’ve been in 56 churches and 41 museums these past 87 days in Europe. Our time in Florence added to that list, and our study of art helped us look at cathedrals a little differently than we might have without the course. We’d take our time in each church, trying to give it the justice it deserved. Ceilings embedded with high relief scrolls surrounded by intricate gold detailing. Archways covered in mosaics or intricate roses, richly colored stained glass, paintings of the Madonna with Child, eerily similar to the last Madonna with Child (believe me, we saw quite a few in three weeks), yet entirely unique, another part of another sanctuary where the Lord’s name is praised.

We walked past craftsmen with their studio doors open, peeking in at the wooden toys or furniture or leather products they were making. We took notes on Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise and braved the throngs of tourists to position ourselves smack dab in front of the doors, with our diagram of quatrefoils in hand, determined to decipher these doors.

We took a trip out to Assisi one cold Sunday and enjoyed the view of Italian vineyards and orchards from its perch on the hillside. St. Francis’ city of Assisi is angelic and pure with its white and pink stone buildings. We wandered down tiny winding streets bordered by iron gates and Italian villas. St. Francis’ church fits right into the landscape with its many frescoes and blue and maroon mosaic tiles. The dark blue ceiling peeled to aqua in certain parts, creating a swirling Mediterranean sea. I sat and stared, thankful to find shelter from strong blow-you-over winds in such a beautiful church.

When browsing the artwork outside the Duomo or by the Uffizi Gallery, artists would ask if we were studying art. At first caught off guard by the question, we’d answer yes with some apprehension. As the weeks went by and we became more comfortable in our role as artists, we soon answered without hesitation. Yes, I’m studying art here in Florence. Is this real life? For three weeks, this was real life. Studying art and working on our different projects, walking to our normal lunch place and laying down roots in the city for a few weeks. Three weeks might not sound like a long time, but for us it was time enough to feel like a local.

One of my goals for Florence was to become an honorary local, at a restaurant, at a coffee shop, somewhere and somehow because this was our one shot to get to know a city for more than a week. This goal was met with wild success as I found myself a regular lunch spot and an Italian grandmother. We stopped in Sogni e Sapori our first week in Firenze, drawn in by its cheap sandwiches, pasta, and lasagna. The food was great, and cheap, and the hole-in-the-wall place catered to locals as well as tourists. Needless to say we were hooked, and went back almost every day for the rest of our time in Florence. After a few days we got to know Rocco and his family, little by little, until they expected us to come everyday and greeted us with an enthusiastic “Ciao!” upon our arrival. Rocco gave us Italian lessons when we couldn’t pronounce the menu right and recommended his favorite dishes. My go to dish in Europe, and especially Italy, has been the caprese. Tomato and thick slices of fresh mozzarella, with good olive oil and thick balsamic, always hits the spot.

After lunch at Rocco’s, we’d walk next door to a little grocery store and I’d scoop banana chips into a little bag, only buying enough for one day so I would have to come back again the next. Why? Because I’d found myself an Italian grandmother. She had long grey hair, a warm smile, and owned the grocery store next door to Rocco’s. She had me at ‘Ciao, Bella’ the first day I left her store and I was determined to go back, because the banana chips were so fresh, and because she just made me smile. We’d make small talk in broken English with a little Italian thrown in the mix, always leaving the store to her smile and ‘Ciao, Bella’. I’d leave with banana chips and a soaring heart, not sure why this little old lady brought me so much joy, but embracing her role in my life for a few weeks. Needless to say, I know exactly where I’ll be going next time I’m in Florence.
My Italian grandmother

From my bedroom window, I could see the very top of the Duomo (Florence’s massive cathedral) and Campanile (the bell tower). Throughout the day, from early in the morning to late in the night, the bells of the Duomo would ring, Sometimes they’d give one resounding gong and be done, and other times the bells would ring and ring and ring. When my patience was tested and I was tired of hearing the bells at 6 am, I reminded myself that these bells were ringing out our salvation.

The bells are ringing our salvation.

Every time the bells toll, they proclaim that Jesus is Lord, that He is alive and with us on this day and forevermore. I grew to love the bells, the constant ringing of our salvation for the world to hear.

Here’s to new perspective, to the ringing of bells and spaghetti alla carbonara and the lessons one can learn from a month in the boot. Thanks for the memories, Italy.

Friday, November 9, 2012

All Roads Lead to Rome


10/12 - 10/19

Oh Rome, where do I even begin. After our week in London, we flew from Heathrow to Roma, ready to start our month-long stay in the boot that is Italy. And let me tell you, the country delivered.

Fake designer bags lined the sidewalks and the warm sun shone down as if through a filter, grainy and soft. For seven days straight we walked, taking the buses or metro only a handful of times. The city is spread out but walkable, so we’d set off for entire afternoons searching for old ruins or art museums and walking until our feet pleaded for a break. From the Pantheon to the Trevi Fountain, down tiny Italian streets lined with smart cars and Vespas we wandered, taking in the tope and light pink color palette that is Italy.

The three classes we’ve been taking are on hold for the next month while we’re here in Italy so we can focus solely on Italian art. What’s great is that our professor for the month, Dr. Carlander, believes in what I like to call ‘experiential learning.’ Translation? We have class once or twice a week for an hour or two, and the rest of the time we go on excursions to museums or walk the city on giant art scavenger hunts, searching for different pieces to absorb and experience. We sit in parks with our sketchbooks and watercolor for hours on end, feeling like real art students as people pass by and stare at our work.

For the first time in my life, I’m learning how to appreciate art, how to sound art-smart and describe it in its proper terms. After two crazy packed months, I appreciate the pace of life here in Italy. Still busy, but a self-inflicted busy because I can’t sit still, because there is so much city that I want to explore. My adventurous heart got the best of me after visiting the Pantheon one of our first days in Rome. Our leaders tossed us a map and practically pushed us out the Pantheon, begging us to get lost and explore the city. We obliged, of course, and found our way to the Trevi Fountain to get our bearings, walking a good chunk of the city in one afternoon. Rome isn’t what I expected it to be and, after re-adjusting my radar from England to Italy, I’m embracing the Italian life one hundred percent. Carbs and gelato, life for a week in a lived-in city. Some would call Rome grimy, I like to call it lived-in. It’s all about perspective, right? A few bits from my week:

Our classroom here in Rome is actually an old theater. An Italian filmmaker has owned it for the past 30 years and every morning before class he gives us a little speech, leaving us with a nugget of advice and an old saying about film or beauty or being yourself. We only half understand it through the language barrier, but he has some pretty great quotes that we made sure to copy down for future reference. His best to date? “Make sure to never become wives. I’ll still work here, like a cigar turns into a chicken” and “have you found an Italian lover yet?” (He expressed deep concern when we were lacking in the Italian lover department.)

Location: My room is on the fifth floor of Hotel Amalia, meaning I get to walk 110 steps up to my room from the lobby and 110 steps back down. I’ve boycotted elevators here in Europe (except when taking luggage into or out of hotels), so these stairs offer a mini-workout multiple times a day. Mini workouts and lots of walking mean I don’t feel bad eating gelato everyday, which I’ve been doing…and will continue to do for the duration of our stay here in Italy. I’ve been looking forward to Italian gelato for a looooong time, and this next month is going to be a good, good month. Our hotel is a quick two-minute walk from St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican, as well, which means I somehow ended up at St. Peter’s late every other night, enthralled by her grandeur and majesty. I spent time in conversation and time simply soaking it all in, staring at the magnificent church and remembering the thousands of years of history beneath my feet, deeply grateful for the opportunities swirling around me in this season of life.

We’ve been visiting churches like nobody’s business here in Italy, taking in the artwork and architecture of each building. There’s so much going on in so many of these churches that my mind goes all ADD, eyes flickering every few seconds to the next stimulus. Gold cherubs, swirled tope marble, pastel ceiling frescos. The churches are beautiful and intricate and nothing like American churches.

Seeing the Sights: Our week in historic, ruin-filled Roma was packed with excursions. St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Capitoline Hill, the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, Circus Maximus, the Baths of Caracalla, the list goes on and on. We walked, we saw, we ventured, we conquered.

Did I mention that we heard the Pope (the one and only Pope!) recite a prayer in six different languages? Yup. He’s a boss, and it’s really cool that I can now say I’ve seen the Pope.

This is our life for a month, eating pizza and pasta at every meal, wandering the city for miles on end, questing in churches and commenting on the Corinthian columns and detailed reliefs. This month revolves around frescoes and ruins, around intricate relief work and mosaics.  I’m learning to appreciate space and beauty, to enjoy the meandering pace of Italian life and awake my inner artist from her sleep.

Some pictures from our week:





The group!

The Colosseum

Art in the park
Trevi Fountain



Sitting on the Spanish Steps at dusk after a good, hearty Italian meal, I felt full and content, enjoying the comfortable hum of conversation bubbling around me. I allowed myself to get lost in my own jumbled thoughts for a few moments, just enough time to breathe and hear myself think. This trip is a beautiful whirlwind of countries and cultures and schoolwork, of sights and laugher, of conversation and crazy memories I will be talking about for the rest of my life. I’m swimming in a sea of gratitude and thankfulness, for the little things in life, like the cheap light up balls vendors sell lighting up the night sky above me, to the big things in life. God’s overwhelming love, His unfailing grace, His unending faithfulness. The way he protects and strengthens me. The way His plan is so much bigger and so much better than any plan I could imagine. And the way he works things, on his time, and pops them into my life unexpectedly. I am a work in progress. I’m praying for God’s will to be done in my life, and I’m witnessing it unfold.

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transparent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world. -Sara Ban Breathnach

Dawn fades to dusk and another day is gone, leaving me with joy and thankfulness and another 24 hours worth of memories. I’m stocking up these adventures like gold coins, scratching my prose of thankfulness on page after page lest I forget one detail, one funny quote or the random gelato flavor I tried that day (lavender and white peach, anyone?). Each day here is heavy with the scent of God, an undercurrent strong and silent. It’s been a struggle to find quiet time on this trip – there’s always something to do or some place to explore, and my wanderer’s heart has trouble sitting still when I know Europe is out there waiting for me. I could use extra prayer and encouragement to put God first in that sense, because I know how important it is to be in the Word everyday. But God is so gracious, and I’ve been able to experience Him a little differently the past two months. When you travel, especially for an extended period of time, you get to see God in the eyes of a new culture. Our God in America is the same God of Europe, but sometimes He looks a little different. Before I left, people told me that religion was dead in Europe, and I wholeheartedly agreed with them. But being here for a few months, and traveling with a group of Christian students who regularly ask tough theological questions on the metro or around the dinner table, and experiencing many different religious traditions, I’ve see God, I’ve experienced His goodness and His faithfulness tenfold. Do I believe God is alive in Europe? Yes, yes I do indeed. Absolutely. Positively. Unequivocally.

Here’s to jumping overboard into a sea of grace and gratitude everyday, to appreciating every moment and always being on the lookout for a chance to pay it forward.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Mind the Gap & God Save the Queen


I’m just going to throw this out there: I loved London. Loved it. I could have spent weeks there, and of all the cities we’ve been to it’s one I could see myself living in somewhere in the future. It took a few days and a few double takes to remember that I could actually read the signs in England without playing some odd game of charades. The common language helped us feel more at home, sure, but the city is just really classy and alive. We were schooled in culture for eight nights, unknowingly enrolling ourselves in a crash course in the arts. Let me break it down for you:

The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe Theater: seeing a Shakespeare show at The Globe is something that everyone should do at some point in his or her life. It’s authentic and fun, and slightly scandalous since the British are more comfortable with humor most Americans would deem inappropriate (i.e. a man whipped off his pants onstage and proceeded to finish the scene in a thong and nothing else).

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: I’ve been to plenty of concerts in my day, but this one tops anything my ears have ever heard. I felt like I was listening to a movie soundtrack or something. If the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra could narrate my life I would be the happiest girl on the planet.

Swan Lake: I was inaugurated with my first ballet here in London and I absolutely LOVED it! I was nervous that it would be boring (remember the four hour opera in Paris? That’s what I was afraid of), but it was amazing! The sheer number of swans, with their perfectly coordinated jumps and graceful choreography, were mesmerizing.

The Lion King: Elizabeth and I saw this show together and let me tell you, it delivered. I’d seen it before and I’d see it again in a heartbeat. We were five rows from the front in the center section next to the aisle, so we were in on all of the action when the cast came down the aisle in their crazy-amazing costumes. It took me back to Africa for a few hours, and if you know me, you know how much I love that continent. The whole London play experience is one of my favorites: heading over to Leicester Square to search for discounted tickets, going out to dinner, taking the tube and navigating to one of the many theaters huddled under umbrellas, I felt cool and cultured going out more than half of our nights in the city. I went through the same process again with two other friends to enjoy my fifth and final performance of the week: the Phantom of the Opera.

Two midterms and five museums rounded out our visit, along with a trip to Cambridge and constant use of the tube to explore the city. London taught me to love tea and hot soup. I learned proper umbrella etiquette and caught myself reverting to a slight British accent every once in a while. We ate fish and chips throughout the week and thanks to the ‘look right’ and ‘look left’ signs spray painted into the sidewalk, no one got run over by a double decker bus. More London greatness for your enjoyment:

The Bed and Breakfast we stayed at was on Gower Street, just two streets over from the University of London. We’d walk to campus to have class every morning, blending in with other students speaking English and carrying backpacks. School felt more normal doing it with the masses. Good thing, too, since we had to buckle down and study for two big midterms. Oh, the joys of balancing travel and school.

27 = the number of museums we’ve visited so far. (Yes, twenty seven museums, I know, it’s crazy). I still love them, though, and we’ve been lucky enough to see lots of really well put together museums. The cool thing about museums is that the stuff we talked about in elementary school or studied in high school textbooks, we get to see it with our own two eyes. The Magna Carta, the Rosetta Stone, mummies from ancient Egypt, Grecian vases from 600 BC, it’s all here, about 3 inches from my face behind a pane of glass.

Tate Modern: I got a taste of modern art this week, and I tried to get as much out of the experience as possible. What I realized, walking through room after room of sculptures and odd installations is that these pieces mean so much to the artists. They put their heart and soul into these works. I needed to consciously verbalize that fact before I could move forward and appreciate them, even my very limited level of appreciation. Where we non-artsy folks see scribbles, they see art. They transform, bringing redemption to old junk and blank canvases. It’s true that yes, I could paint a few dots and call it modern art, but I didn’t, and they did. There’s more to modern art than meets the eye, themes and symbols and emotions that far exceed the obvious medium being used. And once you get over the fact that you’re looking at a few splotches of color or a chair or whatever it is, once you get past that and really look, you breathe life into the art. You allow it to be what it needs to be for you. I’m really stretching myself with this whole art thing, trying to be vulnerable and appreciate the art that I get to see on this trip.

Cambridge: We enjoyed a crisp, sunny Saturday in Cambridge, wandering the art fair and farmers market and coffee shops filled with students. We got to tour all of the different colleges and hear little boys in white and red robes in King's College Choir perform, their perfect voices filling the chapel with sweet falsetto melodies. I love that Cambridge is a college town, and I would definitely go back there again. (Grad school abroad, anyone?) Also, did you know that if you go to Cambridge you can get your bachelor’s degree upgraded to a master’s degree after two years by writing the college a nice 50 pound check? Yup. No extra school required. Crazy, I know.

The perfect afternoon in London combined shopping and exploring. One afternoon we wandered Notting Hill and Portobello Road, stopping in vintage stores and Cath Kitson and Hummingbird Cupcakes. We bartered for sweaters at the largest antique market in the city and convinced each other that yes, that was a great purchase, even though you don’t have any more room in your suitcase. London had some amazing shopping, and at least 25 of our 40 indulged in new clothes at the savior of all stores: Primark. The boys of our group found it first (mad props to them), and we all agreed that we’d shop exclusively at Primark if it came to the States. Seriously, this store was amazing…and relatively cheap…and so cute. Just another reason leaving London was bittersweet.

High Tea: A trip to London wouldn’t be complete without high tea. We indulged ourselves at Fortnum and Mason (they supply the Queen with all of her tea), and enjoyed a classy afternoon in the tearoom. Did you know that milk and sugar make tea taste so much better? I didn’t know it was okay to supplement tea like that, but now I know better and am slowly but surely learning to love this hot beverage. Our long afternoon at Fortnum and Mason was perfect, a chance to drink tea and eat cakes and take a breath, debriefing about what we’d been learning about ourselves and the world. I love the women on this trip, and I love how we can be vulnerable and real with each other. 

My time here has been precise and piercing, exactly what I didn’t know I needed it to be. That always seems to be the case, in my life at least, that the best things in life are unexpected. So here we are, on this journey, one brave step at a time. Cheers to the miles it took to get here, and the many miles still to come.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Belgium and the Netherlands


“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” –Cesare Pavese

I was born to travel.

I knew that before coming on this trip, but fifty-seven days on the road have solidified that fact. I thrive on a trip like this, constantly moving and seeing new spaces and experiencing new cultures. I understand that people get tired of living out of a suitcase and using hand motions when words don’t translate, but I love it, I love it even more than I thought I would. I step outside our hotels for early morning travel days with a smile on my face, glad to venture onto the bus and end the day in a new place. It never gets old. My inquisitive mind has a bad case of wanderlust, and right now Europe Semester is the perfect cure.

What’s interesting, though, is that I love a good routine just as much as I love to travel. My personality is an odd combination of yins and yangs. I was worried that Europe Semester would be hard because we’re always moving, always going, and always doing something different, but it’s not. My definition of routine has morphed into this variable change I’ve become accustomed to. Some days we spend the bulk of our time in class, or in museums, or on excursions. Some days are entirely free for us to spend as we please. You never know what’s around the river bend. It’s good, this unfamiliar way of life. It keeps us engaged and on our toes.

As I type, I’m in Rome, Italy. We’ve been here for six nights, and soon we’ll move onto Florence, where we’ll live for the next three weeks. It’s the longest stop on our semester itinerary, and I’m excited to plant roots, learn a bit more Italian, and really get to know a city. It’s been a few countries since I’ve blogged, so let me take you back a while…back to the land of brick houses and chocolate and cobblestone streets: Brugge, Belgium.

Just about every other store in Brugge was a chocolate shop and let me tell you, the Belgians know how to do chocolate. It’s a good thing we only stayed in Brugge three nights, or else we all would have been in trouble with the amount of chocolate and waffles we were consuming. And if it’s not a chocolate shop your walking by, it’s a lace store, or a waffle stand. Complete the picture with narrow cobblestone streets and brick houses squeezed close together and that’s Brugge. The city is cute and simple and touristy, so our quick stay there was perfect. The best way to see Brugge is on two wheels, so a few of us rented bikes for a leisurely ride one afternoon. After successfully navigating narrow streets and heavy traffic, we rode around the canals and out into the countryside, passing cow pastures and quaint neighborhoods and signs we couldn’t read.

In the blink of an eye our time in Brugge was up and it was off to Haarlem, the Netherlands. Oh Haarlem, cute, little Haarlem. Just thinking back to the tiny Dutch town makes me smile. It’s just a quick train ride away from Amsterdam and it was the perfect location for our stay. We could go into the city when we pleased or stay around Haarlem and enjoy it’s quite atmosphere and picturesque Dutch streets. A few of us ventured a bus ride away out to the North Sea one Sunday morning for a few hours of fun. It was cold and windy, but we ran into the sea like she was a long lost friend, prancing through the waves and rolling up our pants so they didn’t get too wet. We took panoramic pictures and watched locals surf in the churning, jagged waves. It was a perfect morning, the perfect escape from the stress of midterms and crunch of class work we were all feeling.

Holland is the land of bikes and French fries and sing-songy words, with windmills and brick houses defining the landscape. The language is light and pretty, with a nice beat to it that makes even the grumpiest man sound like he’s in a good mood. But their pronunciation is killer. You try to pronounce ingewikkelder or voorbeelden or moeilijk. Yeah, it’s crazy. My simplified guide to creating your own Dutch word (which I often did): add a double vowel and a J and call it Dutch. The J’s are normally silent, and as long as you sing the words with a smile on your face you should be just fine.

We actually didn’t spend much time in Amsterdam, but the time we did spent there was great. I’ve been to Amsterdam twice before, including just a few months ago with my parents, so it was really nice, and almost comforting, to be back in a city that I was already familiar with. We walked along canals lined with orange and red trees just starting to change colors for fall, and we got good use out of our umbrellas because it rained most of our visit. We looked in tiny shops overflowing with delftwares before visiting the Anne Frank House and enjoyed perfect dinner and dessert crepes at The Pancake House.

The Dutch definitely get an A in my book. They know how to make great French fries and stroopwafels and windmill cookies that taste like fall and winter married in sugar. The people were great, and despite a few close calls with the thousands of bikes in Amsterdam, no one got hit. Bikers in that city mean business, they have the right of way and they don’t mess around. It’s funny that Amsterdam is not my favorite city in the world, but it’s the one in Europe that I’ve been to the most. Adding Haarlem and the North Sea to a few of the other Dutch cities I’ve visited, and I can confidently say that I like the Dutch. How can you not like a people who eat toast with chocolate sprinkles on it for breakfast? Precisely.

Here’s to life on the road. To feeling alive and knowing that where you are right now is exactly where you’re supposed to be. The trip is more than half way over, and I’m savoring everyday that I get to spend in these places, with these people, learning and growing and getting lost in Europe. Stay tuned for a catch-up post on my crazy, wonderful week in London, and my time now in Roma. Ciao!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Brothers of Abbaye Saint-Martin De Mondaye


One of the reasons I love to travel so much, I think, is because I love staying in new places. Guest bedrooms or cruise ships or the carpeted floors of dorm rooms - I love setting up a new home, even if it’s only for a few days. I’m all about a good home base. When I find that base, whether it be a tiny shelf or a spacious room, I feel like I’m home, and I feel like I can do anything. I can run and explore and soak in the culture, and I know that I have my little space to come back to once it’s time to hit the hay.

For the past four days I’ve had a rather unusual home base – a room in the Abbaye Saint-Martin De Mondaye, an Abbaye in the countryside of Normandy, some 20 odd miles from civilization. I loved every minute of monastic life, especially going from the hustle and bustle of Paris to the cows and pastures of Bayeux. In case you didn’t know, in 4th grade I wanted to be a nun (think Maria from The Sound of Music), so this stuff is near and dear to my heart. Some basic fun facts about monastic life:

The Abbaye has been a place of worship for over 8 centuries. 23 monks live here, ranging in age from 22 to 83. If we’re being technical here, the brothers are called cannons, not monks. Monks spend their days in total seclusion; these men live in the abbaye and during the day, work out in the surrounding towns as seminary teachers, prison chaplains, or priests. They take monastic vows of celibacy, eat each meal in silence, and only talk in the recreation room. They have given their lives to Christ, and in Christ they are free. They worship together and with the community several times a day and wear white vestment robes and brown leather sandals.

During the day, instead of hanging out with the brothers, we ventured off to Mont St. Michael one day and the Normandy beaches another.

Mont St. Michael was beautiful, a tiny piece of land with some of the most intense tides in the world, causing it to become an island during high tide. The best part of our day at Mont St. Michael? Deciding to forget about our per diem and go café hopping through the cute, tiny main street. A panini to go and people watching crowds of tourists. Specialty crepes at a cozy little bar upstairs from a gift shop. Reading poetry and drinking hot chocolate on an outside terrace.

Normandy: On the 6th of June 1944, over 10,000 young soldiers paid for our freedom on the beaches of Normandy. We’d watched Saving Private Ryan the night before, and from the inside of the command center on Pointe Du Hoc, I could see the scene playing out in my head. The day was sobering, full of reflection and perspective. When we got off the bus at Omaha Beach, it was a resort perfect afternoon. I walked the beach, willing myself to face the realities of what happened, yet yearning to glaze over the painful truths. My feet hit the sand and the water, the same sand and the same water that too many young men lost their lives on.

We were at Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.’s grave in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial when it started to rain. At first it sprinkled, then it poured, buckets and buckets of cathartic rain, tears pouring down from the sky. Our umbrellas stayed on the bus where we’d left them, and we stayed in the cemetery, paying homage to the men and women who keep our country free. Olive trees and sculpted foliage surrounded the manicured grass and rows upon rows of white crosses. What gets me every time I visit a war memorial or cemetery is the older generation of men and women. I begin to imagine them my age. I imagine them at war, and I imagine all of their friends that left for war and never returned, never got the privilege to grow old.

Our Abbaye is just ten short kilometers away from the Normandy beaches. It took 4 days for the Americans to gain those ten kilometers and reach the Abbeye, but they did, and on June 10, 1944 Abbeye Saint-Martin de Mondaye became the first liberated Abbeye in France. To stay in a remote place with such rich, rich history is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.

I took my three nights of monastic life very seriously, which included attending a few of the abbeye’s vespers services. Our group of 40 has gotten very close the past five weeks, and combined with our boisterous enthusiasm for life, we’re quite a noisy bunch. But stick us in an abnormal situation – i.e. living in a monastery in France and attending vespers with monks – and it’s amazing how quiet we can be. We’ve learned to be adaptable these past few weeks, and we embraced the opportunity to smell incense and sing the psalms in French with our new monk friends. We stole glances at them, timid with awe, wanting and willing to understand their unique lifestyle, and they looked at us, 40 American students who invaded their normally small vespers, with similar expressions.

We were able to take a tour of the abbaye one night and had the monks ventured from their rooms around 10 pm, they would’ve been surprised to find 44 people in their hallway, soaking in details of monastic life from one of the Fathers. My favorite room? The library. Picture Beauty and the Beast on a smaller scale and there you have it. The monks know what’s up when it comes to libraries.

I loved every minute at the abbaye. Three nights of monastic life, sans make up and sans internet, was exactly what I needed. The weather was cold and windy and rainy, fitting for the lush countryside and secluded nature of our stay. Our rooms were simple and bare and we ate bread and hot chocolate for breakfast. Dinner was monk made, warm, hearty, and served with their special brew of alcoholic cider. The brother’s cooking was a much-needed break from three months of eating out. We took turns doing dishes and huddled onto beds to play cards at night. We wandered the country lanes to get our bearings, picking blackberries and looking out at the acres and acres of land.

Bayeux is beautiful, and I am blown away by the monks and their faith in God. We, so often, live our lives and then our faith follows. These men live their faith, and then their lives follow. I have trouble trusting God with the little details of my life, and they willingly give their entire lives to God, many joining the community in their twenties. They work hard and live simply in meditation, seclusion, and prayer.

I will never forget what one of the Fathers said when we asked him about religious life in France. Despite the fact that faith and church attendance are diminishing, he brought up the Great Commission at the end of Matthew. No matter how small the faith community is, the gospel of Matthew promises that Christ is with us to the end…and that is sufficient. Why would you ever despair when Christ is with you now and will be with you until the end of time?

Simple words. Perfect words.

I have so much to learn. From life, from the world, from the brothers here at Abbaye Saint-Martin de Mondaye. My soul needed to hear those words.

Christ is with us until the end, and that is sufficient.

Perspective.

We are just a small, small piece of the puzzle. I will never forget it, hearing the Christian calling articulated in such a concise, precise way. Christ is with you ‘til the end, and that is sufficient.

It is amazing, and truly a testament of God’s grace, that I, a 20-year-old girl from a nondenominational contemporary church in California, could spend time in a remote abbaye in Bayeux, France, and worship and learn from Catholic monks.

I soon realize that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within. –Lillian Smith

Goodnight from Brugge, Belgium. We’ll be here enjoying waffles and cobblestone streets until Saturday, when we head up to the Netherlands.

Rest assured, friends, Christ is with us always, even to the end of the age.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

You Can't Be A Wimp on the Paris Metro


9/15 - 9/22

What a crazy, crazy week it has been. Paris in the fall is spectacular. It was exactly what I hoped it would be, nothing like I thought it would be, and so much more all in one. It’s cliché to love Paris, but I can’t help myself. Accordion players playing La Vie En Rose on street corners or metro stops, old French men with their cigarettes and tiny dogs perched in café windows, kebab stands and the crepes, don’t even get me started on the crepes. Sugar, nutella, crème de marron, chocolate, nutella and banana, banana and jam, the combinations are endless. You can never go wrong with a good crepe.

All this makes Paris sound like a breeze, but the week was more trial by fire than leisurely stroll down the Champs Elysee. But it was good, It was good and hard and tiring and exactly right all at the same time.

Sometimes, finding a balance on Europe Semester is hard. A balance of schoolwork and sleep, of exploring the city 12+ hours at a time and knowing when to call it a night. We’re all trying to find that balance, and Paris was the perfect opportunity to test our skills. We split sightseeing and nights out with seven museums and ten hours of class this week. I debated stricter immigration laws in our Contemporary Challenges class and tried (somewhat successfully) to keep sickness at bay.

Was I prepared for the week and it’s crazy glory? No, not particularly. But I was open and willing, willing to persevere and experience and let Paris teach me through each little moment, each conversation, and each incident. Good thing, too. Here’s a little taste of the past week:

We kept our eyes peeled and thankfully, no one fell prey to pickpockets or gypsies this week, despite how insane the Paris metro is. First, let me just boast for a second about how good we are at navigating the metro. I may be directionally challenged when operating a motorized vehicle, but my metro skills are way above par. Second, it is certifiably insane how packed the metro gets. On more occasions that not, we packed in like sardines and hoped for the best. Never before have I pushed so hard to fight my way on to or out of public transportation.

You can’t be a wimp on the Paris metro, that’s for sure. Elizabeth and I learned that fact very quickly when, on our first (and most crowded) metro ride, we got left behind, zooming onto the next station while the rest of our group watched with shocked expressions. Trying to get 44 people off the metro on the same stop is a big task, and we fought our hardest, but the metro won. I laughed at our luck, and we doubled back at the next station only to meet up with 3 other Westmont kids who hadn’t gotten off, either. Later on in the week two girls and I were accosted while exploring the city (on three separate occasions in one day), and concluded that not only had we found the sketchy areas of Paris, but for safe measure we should probably go places with guys.

I went to my first opera this week, and what an experience that was. The Marriage of Figaro is a Spanish opera written by an Austrian man, sung in Italian with French subtitles…and we speak English. It was 4 hours of confusion and song and drama and craziness that I wouldn’t change for the world. Staying awake the whole time was a major, major accomplishment.

Versailles was amazing. It lived up to my sky-high expectations of grandiose and gaudy  - I can’t imagine living in a place with so much marble and gold and mirrors. Whatever you do, don’t get me started on those gardens. Beautiful and vast and oh so pristine. I could’ve spent a week wandering and biking and row boating the waterways and grounds of Versailles.

My perfect French moment: stumbling upon a foie gras festival after going to mass at Notre Dame. Picture crowds of people sitting on the banks of The Seine, drinking wine and eating cheese and buttery baguette sandwiches and cantaloupe. We joined them with our sandwiches and crepes, and I felt very, very French.

Friday after class, we enjoyed lunch at the upscale Café de Flore, only to find ourselves caught in a storm on the way to The Louvre. So we did what we could, we embraced Paris in the rain, sans jackets and with two umbrellas for six girls. Sufficiently wet and slightly overwhelmed, I clutched my handy map and set out to conquer the Louvre. Fifteen minutes later, I threw in my invisible white flag of surrender, tossed my list of paintings and room numbers aside, popped my ear buds in, and wandered. I pondered angelic faces, men in armor, babies with chubby legs, and lots and lots of nakedness. Would I have gotten more out of The Louvre had my visit been narrated by an academic audio guide instead of my country crooners? Probably. But I’m ok with that. I’m hoping to cultivate a new appreciation of art and art museums this semester. So far, it’s not looking so hot, considering I did more people watching than art watching in The Louvre. My ‘room for improvement’ category is wide open.

Besides climbing the Eiffel Tower and Arc De Triumph for beautiful views of Paris by night, some of my favorite times were spent in the Latin Quarter and the Left Bank. I bought a watercolor print and browsed the green stalls of the Left Bank, stopping to gaze at Notre Dame or the boats passing through The Seine. I balanced these quiet moments with time in the Latin Quarter, lively and full of good food and laugher. In between these two places was my new favorite bookstore: Shakespeare and Company. It’s a safe haven of books and creative juices and struggling writers living upstairs. It has a piano and mismatched seating squeezed between shelves and shelves of old books for reading, not for sale. Upstairs in Shakespeare and Co., I plopped down on a window seat to take a breath trying to wait out the rain. I did the only thing that made sense in that moment: I picked up a book off the shelf, only to find that I’d grabbed The New Ambassadors by Edwin Gilbert, a book about contemporary Americans in Paris. Fitting, since that’s what I was last week. I saw the good and the bad, the homeless gypsies begging by ATMs, soldiers walking through the train station or the Eiffel Tower, their fingers on semi-automatic weapons. It’s an interesting time to be in Europe, with the euro crisis unfolding and the latest riots thanks to a recent American film critical of Islam and a similar French cartoon.

You win some and you lose some, and that was especially true of Paris. I won some, and I lost some. We only made it up to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower because the top was closed. I barely put a dent in The Louvre. As we drove further and further from Paris, I could hear the Versailles gardens calling me back. There are still so many museums to learn from and streets to wander and crepes to eat. My conclusion? I’ll have to come back to Paris again, no questions asked. I’m content with the week I spent there, and ready for what’s ahead on this grand adventure. But Paris, we will meet again, of that you can be sure.

A few pictures to balance out my lengthy prose:

Crepes and hot chocolate with the girls

All I wanted from Paris was a picnic under the Eiffel Tower, and I got it. 


Versailles!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Redemption Story


9/11 - 9/14

Geneva taught me an important lesson: don’t judge a city by the street your hostel’s on.

Basically, our hostel was in the ghetto of Geneva. We were told not to walk two blocks in because we’d have walked right into the red light district. Stay by the lake and travel in packs. We were stuck in purgatory. We’d just left Interlaken – beautiful, breathtaking Interlaken – and next we’ll be in Paris. Poor Geneva got the short end of the stick. So for the past four days, we’ve been stuck in this awkward phase, longing to be in Paris and not impressed by Geneva.

But all is a gift, even the gifts or places or situations that seem manna-strange. I’m determined to eat the manna, I’m thankful for the gift Geneva has been. I’ve gotten 8 hours of sleep every night, some good chunks of homework done, and I haven’t felt the pressure, or desire for that matter, to go out and explore the city, because there’s not much around our humble hostel abode. I’m ready for Paris, I think we all are, but I’m reminding myself to live in the moment. I’m in Geneva, Switzerland, Geneva, Switzerland.

And this is a story of redemption, now, remember? The same story of redemption told over and over again, in each of our lives and in the lives of people before us and the people that will come after us. Geneva was redeemed. She was brought out of exile on a beautiful Thursday afternoon. After class we piled onto public transportation and ventured over to the Old Town of Geneva. I breathed a sigh of relief as we hopped off the tram; this is what I was hoping for. Tree lined streets, parks with big white marble gates and rod-iron fences, crowds forming around intense games at life-sized chessboards. Cute shops, dusty antique stores, and cafes dotted the hilly, cobblestone streets.

So I did what I’d done so often with my parents this past summer  – I climbed. Up the windy staircases of the Geneva Cathedral, ducking through dark rooms until finally I emerged in the open air. Need to clear your mind? Climb some stairs and get a panoramic view, a fresh perspective of a city you’ve already passed judgment on. I soaked it all in, the kaleidoscope of roofs and windows and chimneys too numerous to count. The mountains on three sides and the beachy lake on the fourth. I ate my apple and breathed and thanked God that I was wrong about Geneva.

To finish up Switzerland:
·      We hopped the border to France on Friday and spent some time in a glacier ice cave in Chamonix. It was crazy. And cool. And beautiful. I need a new word besides beautiful. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

·      Swiss currency is probably my favorite currency in the world. Its lovely with its rich, saturated colors and oddly sized coins (the ½ franc coin was the size of a penny), but that still didn’t make up for how expensive everything in Switzerland was. We’re all excited to be back in the Euro and an all -around cheaper lifestyle.

Magic happens when you allow it to, when you clear your palette and open your mind to whatever may come. God has been so gracious to us on this trip. His protective hand is upon us and before us and after us. It’s time for 8 days in Paris. Goodbye mountains, cows, chocolate, and watches. Hello crepes, baguettes, berets, and all things French. I’m ready to see Paris in the fall.

Good night, friends. Thank you for reading this, for investing yourself into my life and my stories this semester. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for your prayers and support and friendship. Y’all are the best.