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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.


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. 


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. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

I Left My Heart in Interlaken

9/7 - 9/11

Oh Interlaken. Interlaken, Interlaken, Interlaken. I left a piece of my heart in that little Swiss town. Nestled in the Alps, our long weekend at Balmer’s Hostel was incredible. We lived simply, enjoying real hostel life with small rooms, red and white checkered bedding, and two showers per floor. We ate bread and jam for breakfast and kebabs for dinner because everything in Switzerland is way too expensive for our student budgets.
Our view for the weekend

There aren’t enough adjectives in the dictionary to describe just how amazing this place is. Besides the beauty of it, there are so many amazing things to do in Interlaken that, if we had an unlimited budget, we could have stayed for a very long time. I did what I could. Paragliding. Biking through the Alps. You know, normal everyday stuff. When your Professor’s tell you it’s playtime, they mean business. You don’t question playtime on Eurosem - you just go.

So we went. The weekend was a nice mix of adrenaline and relaxation. I went paragliding for the first time – running off of a grassy hill until the ground beneath your feet has disappeared and enjoying the peaceful flight back down to earth. The views of the Alps from the air are incredible.

Sophie & I getting ready to go

That's me running off the side of the hill!

The view of Interlaken from the air

I wish I could capture the total beauty of this place, the rugged mountains steep and green, dotted with quintessential Swiss houses, each with different colored shutters. So. Many. Shutters. Peach and deep blue and green, purple and yellow and red.

Our Hostel

This can’t be real. I must have stepped out of real life and into little piece of heaven.
I half expected Heidi to be sitting on a hillside as we biked up from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen. I had never been on such an intense uphill ride with such crazy scenery in my life. 13 kilometers there and 13 kilometers back, with a quick hike to a waterfall in between. 
Riding through the Alp

Every 10 minutes I had to remind myself, “I am biking in the Swiss Alps.”  This theme of thankfulness is repetitive, but it’s been the theme of my year. I thanked God for 1,000 gifts before coming to Europe, and I’m experiencing so many more of his gifts as I explore this place. This creation is beautiful. The fellowship on this trip is amazing. We had a hot tub, piano, and foosball and ping-pong tables at our disposal in the hostel, and we took full advantage of them. A quick game of ping-ping before bed, listening to someone play a song on the piano before leaving for dinner, spending out last night in Interlaken in the hot tub. And did I mention the relaxation room? Six or seven rainbow hammocks in a wooden room overflowing with natural light.

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” –Kurt Vonnegut

Well, if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is. Yes indeed, I left my heart in Interlaken.

Friday, September 7, 2012

60 Hours in Salzburg

Written Friday afternoon driving through the Swiss Alps

How would I describe Austria? Green. Misty. Lush. Mountainous. Green.  Breathtakingly beautiful. And did I mention green? Peach, mint, and sunshine colored houses all sit in a row, with oversized bouquets of purple and hot pink flowers hanging from the windowsills. After spending a week in a concrete jungle, our short stop in Salzburg was much appreciated.

We had our first hostel experience in Salzburg, and I was pleasantly surprised. The rooms were quite cozy, but very clean and much nicer than I expected. We’ll stay at another hostel in Interlaken, where we’re traveling to right now, and another one in Geneva.

But back to Salzburg. This town is quintessential Europe. It’s small, it’s cute, and it has a castle you can see no matter where you are around town. We went to a concert at Mirabel Palace, where Mozart performed, and trekked up to the castle after dark. We walked through the city and marveled at Old Town with its creamy red marble and interconnecting squares. And of course, it wouldn’t have been Salzburg without taking The Sound of Music Tour. Twenty girls from our trip went on it, and our guide told us we were the most enthusiastic tour she’s ever had. Basically, we rode around to all of the important sights where the movie was filmed and learn fun stories about the cast. Oh, and did I mention that by the end of the tour we had sung every song from the movie? Yes, it was every girl’s little piece of childhood heaven played out in real time right before our eyes.

We saw the two palaces used to film the house, the gazebo, the lake where they tip over in the boat, and took a beautiful drive into the mountains. The church where the wedding was filmed was breathtaking in person, and the lake town of Mondsee was as cute as can be. So, we ate gelato and sat by the lake over looking the Austrian Alps. It was one of those glittering moments from this trip that I don’t want to forget. Because my time here, this trip, it is a gift. A huge blessing. So, I’m taking this glimmering gift and running with it for all it’s worth. 

We just crossed the border into Switzerland, and soon we’ll stop in Zurich for a few hours before heading to Interlaken. We’re onto country #4 on this wild adventure. I’m trying to pay careful heed to God, to recognize that every part of this trip is a gift from him. The days in class, the late nights reading, the wandering adventure to find the most authentic locals-filled place to stop for dinner, all is a gift. It’s hard sometimes, because our days are overflowing with so much that the most time I have alone is in the shower, and even that’s as quick as I can make it. But I see the beauty of creation everywhere, in the misty, misty Alps, so misty that when we went up to the Eagle’s Next yesterday (Hitler’s Austrian hideaway), instead of gorgeous views of the Alps and valley below us, all we saw was fog, white fog and mist so dense I had to squint at times. But I’ve learned to give thanks in all things. Because, a true saving faith is a faith that gives thanks, a faith that sees God, a faith that deeply trusts. It’s my job to receive the gifts, no matter what the Giver chooses to give. So here’s to another city, another country, another opportunity to bring a little bit of the divine into everyday Europe Semester life, and another chance to shamelessly celebrate God’ s glorious creation.

Elizabeth and I at Hellbrunn Castle in Salzburg

Emily & I at the Eagle's Nest 

Out in Prague

Dessert on the terrace at the Charles Bridge in Prague

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ich Bin Ein Berliner

Written Tuesday afternoon en route to Salzburg.

A few things about Prague before I dive into our week in Berlin:

A little shout out to all the Bachelorette fans out there - the marionette shop that Emily and Jef went in on their date in Prague this past season was RIGHT next door to our hotel. Literally, smack dab next door. Several girls and I confirmed it through video footage, and took a picture outside the shop.

The Czech currency was also quite an experience to use because the exchange rate is about one dollar to 20 Czech crowns. So, when six of us shared dessert and hot chocolate on our last night in Prague, the bill was 600 crowns! Sounds like a lot, but really it was only $30. Whenever I bought something, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t spending an exorbitant amount of money. And when I got a 2,000 crown note from the bank, I took a picture with it.

Leaving Prague was also an experience worth mentioning. Imagine 40 Westmont students pilgrimaging across Prague, with a semester’s worth of luggage in tow, to reach our coach. That deserves a whole post in itself. Lets just say, we stopped traffic at a busy intersection with a spontaneous police escort. Thankfully, we all made it safe and sound. It’ll be a miracle if we make it this entire trip without anyone getting hit by a car, bike, or bus. Pray for us friends, pray for us.

Speaking of wild things, our schedule in Berlin was insanity with a shot of crazy. Last week hit all 40 of us with lightning speed. It was a bit disorienting, because we went from playing in Prague to the reality of early morning lectures and concentration camp visits. We were up by 7 and sometimes not back to our apartments until 10, with reading still to be done for the next day. It was a wake up call, loud and clear, but we all made it though, and we made it through together. It was one of our busiest weeks of the entire semester, and I can say with certainty that most of us are ready for the quieter pace of Salzburg.

If our time in Prague was very surreal, the past week in Berlin was very real. The city is bustling and loud and very livable. We went from beautiful, historic Prague to the gritty reality of city life, with streets littered with graffiti and cute coffee shops and lots of construction zones. We stayed in apartments on the corner of Gormannstrasse and Linienstrasse on the edge of East Berlin’s fashion district. We spent most of our time in East Berlin, which was the communist sector before the reunification of Berlin twenty-two years ago.

History came alive before our eyes this week, whether we were ready to face it or not. Even though I know that history is coming alive today and is going to come alive again tomorrow, each time it does it hits me like a little electric shock. We saw bullet holes in the columns of museums because the city got turned into Swiss cheese during the war. We saw the area that used to be Hitler’s Nazi headquarters. If it hadn’t been for our guide, Gabe, we never would have known the historical significance of those blocks. Instead of looking up at Hitler’s balcony, we were looking up at apartment buildings and a Pecking Duck Restaurant. A few hundred feet from that, we saw what was Hitler’s garden and the bunker where he committed suicide, which is now under a parking lot. And a few hundred feet from that is the Holocaust Memorial, with its 2,711 concrete blocks. The deeper I walked into the monument, the higher the slabs got and the more disoriented I felt. The ground sloped in arching waves and it was hard not to drift off to one side and run into the concrete slabs. Just down the street from that we came to the Brandenburg Gate and later saw pieces of the Berlin Wall at Postdamer Platz. Bam, hit with all that history on one walking tour.

Friday, instead of having class at our normal classroom here in Berlin, we took the U-Bonn and a train out to Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, the former concentration camp in a suburb just outside Berlin. We had class in the old armory building and spent a few hours walking the camp, hearing stories of hope and faith and strength that helped people survive in these awful places. The wrong thing happened at the wrong time for these people. But, instead of leaving the camp feeling hopeless and defeated, I left feeling hopeful, which may leave many of you shaking your heads in confusion. It was chilling to hear the stories of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, but I didn’t feel anger. With the sandy gravel crunching beneath our feet, we walked the same walk prisoners and guards walked, day after day. Prisoner and guard, victim and persecutor, all of a sudden everyone blended together and all that I was left with was a longing sadness, a seed of hope. The average age of the young men training to be guards at Sachsenhausen was 20.7 years of age. The old commandant of Sachsenhausen eventually moved onto Auschwitz. 9 tons of human ashes were thrown into the river nearby. Sachsenhausen was a concentration camp, not an extermination camp (those were only in Poland), so it wasn’t a prime location of the killing of Jews in the Holocaust. Instead, political prisoners, socialists, Jews, career criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others were forced to stay in the camp and work in the forests or factories near by. Over 10,000 communists were killed on the grounds of the camp in Compound Z and their bodies burned in the furnaces. Walking through the camp, I thought about my grandfather. He fought in World War II, and he was one of the first to come across one of the concentration camps in Germany, most likely Dachau, possibly Sachsenhausen. I can’t imagine what he saw. I had one of those moments that I do every so often, because even though he’s been gone for over 10 years, I wish he was still here, so I could ask him about his experience. I’ll never know if I walked through the same concentration camp that he walked through all those years ago. There’s a part of me that’s convinced that he couldn’t have felt an ounce of the hope that I felt in Sachsenhausen, but then again, maybe he did, because even though awful things happened, they liberated the camps, and many lives were saved. What can be gained from hate and resentment?

What resonated with me from my time in this camp were the stories of hope. How Martin Niemöller, a preacher held in solitary confinement, held an Easter service with the Commandant and 2 guards. One guard, Iron Gustav, murdered more than 400 people with his own hands. After the war, if you can imagine, he found faith in God. He allowed individuals to testify against him without claiming innocence, like so many other Nazi guards did at their trials. Iron Gustav was convicted, spent time in prison, and died in a retirement home in 2004.

Take just a second and stop.

Think about what a story of grace that is, that God would be so gracious on this man, and that he would find faith after being so far away. Harry, the senior prisoner at Sachsenhausen, was in and out of concentration camps for 12 years. As he left Sachsenhausen for the last time, he stole an SS teaspoon. When friends from the camp would come visit him for tea, he would give them that spoon until they recognized it and practically jumped out of their skin, giving Harry a belly laugh every time. There are ways to live strong and happy lives, and the prisoners’ here field-tested them all. From the cabaret Harry put on in the laundry barrack to the cartoons of potatoes on the walls of the kitchen, it’s all about perspective. You can’t deny the terrible things that happened in Nazi Germany, but when you walk into Sachsenhausen, you can’t deny the hope and strength that most of us felt leaving the camp. I’m thankful for Gabriel, our trusty guide here in Berlin, and that he would narrate such stories of hope and faith during our time at the camp. It was fitting, though, that the sun peeked out from behind the clouds and filtered through the trees as we left Sachsenhausen, together, a community 44 strong, and stronger because of the day we spent there.

For how heavy and real this week was, we had plenty of fun in Berlin. The whole group went out bowling on our last night, and earlier in the week some girls and I found a Russian restaurant with the best Russian food we’ve ever had. I got a caprese salad at a little Italian café down the way from us two nights in a row because it was so good. The memories and friendships the group is making over food and drink makes me so happy. We tried to have a karaoke night, but after getting to the karaoke bar (an adventure in itself with 30 of us navigating a sketchy part of town after dark) we found that it was 21+. Since when is anything 21+ in Europe? We improvised, as we have so often on this trip, and managed to have a really fun night despite the lack of karaoke. Some random tidbits to wrap up Berlin:

Sometimes, I feel like we’re on our own version of The Amazing Race. A Europe Semester example of a detour: the U-Bonn you need to take to the Jewish Museum is under construction. Find another way to get to the museum, or you may be eliminated. Everything we do, whether it’s roaming the streets for a place to eat or navigating subways or “minding the gap” and trying to keep our group together, everything we do is an adventure.

We got weeklong U-Bonn passes, so we could ride on Berlin’s extensive subway system whenever we wanted to. By the end of the week, after a few failed U-Bonn attempts going the wrong way, we were navigating the system like pros.

In our nationalism class this week, we’ve been talking about identity. Of course, at church this Sunday “who am I?” was the title of the sermon. Some girls and I went to Berlin International Community Church, and I was so encouraged by how diverse and welcoming the church was. Sometimes I forget that I have brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world, but the warmth and love of God radiating off of BICC was incredible.

Imagine us, a group of 44 Christians traveling Europe, living in East Berlin, one of the most atheist parts of Europe, for a week. We sang worship songs during Vespers at Gabe’s apartment on Sunday night, and people stared up at his open windows, stopping for a double take at the sounds they were hearing.

Today is a travel day, and probably our most complicated travel day of the whole semester. We got out of our apartments this morning by 7:30, all of our luggage was loaded onto the coach and we were off for the quick ride to the train station. It was the epitome of community getting all 44 of us, and our luggage, onto the train in about 3.5 minutes. It felt like game day, all the guys throwing the luggage through the door and everyone jumping on so no one would be left behind. 10 seconds after our last person and last piece of luggage were on board, the doors closed. Europe Semester 1, Train 0. The train went from Berlin to Munich, and now we’re on another train from Munich to Salzburg. I’m currently looking out the window, so thankful for the lush green scenery of Austria rolling past me. After a week in a dirty city, the dense forests and bright green, rolling hills are precious gifts. Fun fact: The Sound of Music was filmed in Salzburg! And they play the movie on repeat at the hostel we’re staying at. Some girls and I are going o try to take the Sound of Music tour! This movie was a huge part of my childhood, and needless to say I’m stoked. We’re onto country #3. I’m thankful for the journey so far, I’m thankful for the crazy times in Berlin, without anytime to process or think or breathe, and I’m thankful for the quiet that this travel day has been. We’re stopped at a trainstein for a minute, and I just saw two women wearing traditional dirndls. We’re in Austria, all right.

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” –Miriam Beard

That quote basically sums up how I’m feeling. I’m learning and living in community and my ideas of living are growing and being molded by my experiences on this side of the ocean. We’ll arrive in Salzburg within the hour, check into our hostel, have dinner, and then trek up to a castle. So here’s to a new week, a slower week, a little more time to breathe in the countryside of Austria, and all the lessons we will learn from this beautiful country.