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Wednesday, November 28, 2012


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


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.