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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Eat Well, Travel Often

I’ve been back on US soil for 22 days now.

Exactly four weeks from today, I’ll be on a plane to Europe once again, only this trip across the Atlantic will leave me there for almost four months. Even though there are a million and one things I need to do in the next 28 days, I’m ready to go back. I’m ready to breathe deep and trust God and dive head first into a million new experiences this semester will bring. It’s going to be a crazy, wild ride.

I’m not sure why I love to travel so much. All I know is that I have this intense desire to set foot on every continent, to try every local cuisine, and wander down every narrow street. My self-diagnosis? Wanderlust. My cure? Wild boar and venison in Austria, apple strudel and schnitzel in Germany, schneeballen in Rothenberg, and an absurd amount of gelato in every town we visited this summer. We climbed too many steps to the top of church steeples and abandoned fortresses and old castles for insane panoramic views and a burn in our calves that made my dad and I not feel so bad about the extra scoops of gelato.

I haven’t quite gotten the hang of this comprehensive flow that many bloggers have, seamlessly weaving stories together in these great glowing paragraphs. So for now, I’m content with my choppy little anecdotes, little pieces of what’s on my mind, random things I really like, and what my trip was all about.

I love the people you meet in airplanes. A girl with perfect English traveling home to Germany after her first year in college, a Mom with her four children traveling to Vienna to visit her parents, a man from Pennsylvania on his way to vacation in Istanbul. I love the bustle of airports, being a plane ride away from adventure. There’s a sense of community when you’re going through rigid security and trying to navigate unfamiliar airports. 

Double Dutch: It’s a very sing-songy language, Dutch, and it has this distinct rhythm. Arky-varky-du-du-du-du. My dad and I can pretend like the best of them, but this language is trick-y. The guttural “g” and the diphthong “ui” and all of the stinking jk’s. And for once, I don’t mean just kidding. You try pronouncing Gefeliciteerd met je verjaadag, beminnelijk, or ongelooflijk. I’ve made my case.

Vienna Calling: It was a wild, warm, jam-packed 4 days in Austria’s capitol city. In case you don't know, the Official Hagen Family Vacation Philosophy is as follows: walk ‘til you drop. Just walk, because you never know when, or if, you’ll be back in this place ever again. It’s a simple philosophy, but when I can barely move one foot in front of the other, it’s hard to follow. But we do. We sit on a bench for a second, or grab a scoop of gelato, and we’re off again. Because life can be just that simple if we’ll let it: just walk. For 19 days we wandered, no maps, no GPS, and most of the time with no end destination in mind. We wandered the streets and gawked at the pastries in the window and got very, very lost about as much as we ate gelato (and that’s saying something). About every other day we got really, seriously, I’m-so-mixed-up-we-could-be-on-Neptune lost. And I loved that. Purposefully lost. It led to lots of exploration and laughter, some short-tempered remarks, and that confused feeling you get when you’re focusing so hard trying to figure something out.

I’m thankful for authenticity. I love being unfamiliar, a tourist nomad in a far away land. On the one hand, I love seeing the touristy destinations – St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Opera House, Schonbrunn Palace, or Vienna Hofburg Imperial Palace, just to name a few. I love the perfect facades of these old European cities. The beauty is breathtaking and the history is rich and deep, deep, deep. But the best part about our visit to Vienna was the fact that most of the time, I didn’t feel like the typical tourist. We stayed in a second floor apartment on Borsegasse in the Inner Ring. We had bell peppers, hardboiled eggs, and warm, crusty bread with sweet honey butter and apricot jam for breakfast. We saw the city through the eyes of Ms. Edith, a 72-year-old Hungarian spitfire. We experienced the gritty, watered-down, real Vienna. Kids on the way back from school on the subway, friends without homes hoping for some change on the street corner, children playing in the park, a mother shopping in the grocery store. For four days I walked. I ate gelato and lit candles in Catholic churches and soaked in as much of Vienna as I could.

I love being surrounded by unfamiliar places. I feel right at home when signs are in different languages and I can’t understand a word of the conversations around me. I think I love it so much because it reminds me that I am so small, and God is so big. There is so, so much out there that I haven’t yet seen or experiences. The newness of these places I travel to opens my eyes and my heart to the beat of the world. There is good everywhere. There is gorgeous beauty on every continent. There are friends without homes and crime and hurt on every continent, too. But you can’t let the bad stop you from exploring and living your life. Because the end all and be all is that God is always good.

I overdosed for three weeks on a combination of castles, palaces, vineyards, old people, gelato, schnitzel, and churches. Add four-course meals, a pinch of public transportation, cobblestone streets, and old-fashioned doors, and a sprinkle of polizia with big guns, toilet dragons, and hundreds of years of history beneath my feet, and there was my vacation in a nutshell. But there's more, my time across the ocean went deeper than just my stomach. I felt really torn at times because I was seeing all of these beautiful churches, but I didn't see anyone in them. I had a really hard time, and my heart got really heavy, because I felt like Europe was a godless place. I didn’t expect to feel that way and I didn’t like the way it felt. Are people actually using these churches? Are they coming here to bend their knees and cry out to God in prayer? Or is there too much history, too much blood and conflict, in Europe’s past to celebrate and embrace and walk with God today? The only people I ever saw in church, besides tourists, were around the age of 65. I was strikingly aware of the absence of people my age. Where are the youth? Are they in the church? I felt disoriented, tangled and caught between questions and confusion; I didn’t know where God was or how He could bare to stare at all of the empty pews week after week.

But no, no no no. God, He is there, of that I am certain. I simply need to choose to see Him, even if many people choose not to. I need to live out eucharisteo, this lifestyle that has led me to thank God for 951 gifts in 5 short months. I need to take a breath and live the hard eucharisteo. It caught me off guard, this realization. I didn’t expect to be challenged spiritually while on vacation, but God has a funny way about His timing, and I should have known better than to think complacently about these three weeks, or any time in my life for that matter. There is always room for spiritual growth, at no point will I ever be too full to say no to God’s moving and shaking of my heart.

National Pride. The Germans know what’s up with national pride, let me tell you. Cheering squads at every major American sporting event pale in comparison to the mob of flags, leis, face paint, and anticipation the hours before, during, and after a German soccer victory. We had the privilege of watching the Germany vs. Greece Eurocup football match in a German biergarten. And let me tell you, it was an experience.

Even in the little town of Regensburg, every biergarten was filled to the brim and a handful of big screens were brought into public squares, where people packed in like sardines to watch their beloved players beat Greece. We found enough space in the corner of the biergarten, ordered a few beers, and proceeded to hoot and holler following the locals’ cues. We talked with a really nice girl with perfect English who had just finished medical school. When we apologized for keeping her from her boyfriend and friends, she surprised us by answering that they had just met the people they were sitting with. Her boyfriend was deep in discussion with them, so we assumed they all came together. That’s exactly the national pride I’m talking about – I love that the Germans just sit down at a table with people they don’t know, order a beer, and pretty soon they're friends. There’s comradery, and old-fashioned friendship, and people generally lookin’ out for each other. We could learn a thing or two from these guys.

After the victory, we paid for our beers, said goodbye and thank you to our new friend, and made our way through the maze of people crowded on the streets. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper, and everyone felt like it was their civic duty to honk their horn every 15 seconds, not in agitation of the driver in front of them, but in celebration of their country’s victory. Combine that with yelling, fireworks, and people sprinting through the streets waving the red, yellow, and black flag I’d come to see so often, and the sound just might have traveled all the way to Greece. I loved every minute of that night. The sense of unity and pride and the twinkly lights strung across the biergarten – it was definitely one of my favorite memories of the trip.

Grocery stores are some of my favorite places ever! Everywhere I go, I mosey through grocery stores like a booklover through a bookstore or a woman through a shoe store. Not only do you get to see some crazy unique foods (like large toothpaste-like tubes of mayo and mustard!), but the chocolate is a lot cheaper than the tourist stores. Like, really, really cheap. You see, my dad and I have this thing about chocolate…and pastries…and gelato. Everyone needs a mid-morning snack, so why not make it authentic? That’s our philosophy, and we’re sticking to it.

Amsterdam, the city where bicycles have the right-of-way over pedestrians and you can’t get coffee at a coffee shop. It left me very confused though, because the na├»ve blonde in me wasn’t sure where you actually could get a cup of coffee. Places would advertise coffee, and I didn’t know whether to believe that you actually could get a hot beverage there, or if it was the other sort of substance the town is known for. I wasn’t about to open my mouth and ask, but I think you actually can get coffee in coffeehouses…but don’t quote me on that one. Besides seeing many of these coffeehouses and the Red Light District (interestingly centered right outside churches in some areas), we visited the Tulip Market and wandered until we found a quiet canal walkway - all the while keeping an eagle eye’s watch for oncoming bikes. If I hadn’t pulled my mom up onto the curb a few times, she would have been bike bait.

Surprise of the day. Remember the First Rule of Hagen Family Vacations? Well, our just walk philosophy particularly shined through in Wurtenburg, Germany at the Residenz we visited. I was tired and hot after a long day trip into Rothenberg, and didn’t really want to take this extra tour. I expected it to be a little museum, frankly, and I didn’t feel like being very studious. Cue the bus pulling up to this giant fortress-palace-mansion and my jaw on the floor. Expectations blown. Attach a gorgeous public garden and festival with food vendors and live music, and it was my own piece of early evening heaven. To think that I was just going to go back to the ship instead of this! No, sir, I’ve learned that you’ve got to just keep walking, keep exploring, because you never know what you may discover around the next street corner.

So here’s to adventure, to tired feet and full stomachs and friends together, whether that’s in your backyard, at your local Chili’s, or across the world. Eat well, travel often, my friends.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

And A Happy Fourth of July To You, Too

There is something extremely comforting about being home today. Somehow, I’ve managed to spend the last three or four 4th of July’s everywhere but the big US of A. When you’re not in America, and no one is waving flags, lighting fireworks, or walking in parades wearing ridiculous red, white, and blue outfits, the holiday loses some of its edge.

But fear not, that edge was back today. The grocery store was filled with people buying watermelons and hot dogs and big bags of ice. Our cul-de-sac was overflowing with camping chairs, tables of food, and little kids running around in swimsuits. Our nation is celebrating today, bleeding red white and blue.

Oftentimes, I am guilty of placing America last in the national pride category. Compared with other countries, I just don’t feel like we’ve got that spontaneous patriotic spunk. Thankfully, today I was reminded that yes, we’ve got some spirit up in this neck of the woods. It may take a little planning, and a certain day marked on the calendar, but judging by the lines at the grocery store and flags in front of houses, we’re doing alright.

You see, I’ve spent the past 19 days wandering Europe, so today I soaked in the feel-good patriotic vibes, restocking my dose of America love. As happy as I would have been to stay put in Europe a little (or a lot) longer, it’s fitting that we made it back home in time for this day.

Jet lag: All I have to say is ouch, jet lag kills. I’m trying to overcome the desynchronosis with a good burger and vanilla ice cream, but so far it’s not working. It’s 10:09, and I can barely keep my eyes open.

Mama: My mama left her voice in Amsterdam, which means that my dad and I have taken over post-vacation household duties. The laundry’s done, groceries are in the fridge, and the dog is home. It also means that we spent quite a few hours today on the couch, catching up on episodes of The Bachelorette. It was quite a productive day.

Fun Fact/Stay Tuned: Sailing the rivers of Europe with baby boomers and grandparents is quite the experience. Brace yourselves because yes, I spent my vacation with 150 grandparents. And yes, I brought the average age of the ship down considerably. Stay tuned for post-vacation ramblings, stories, and photos.

I’m currently watching a fireworks show on TV and another out my front window. Happy birthday, America.