Small Town (Not) America

My home for the week. 🙂

When you’re doing research for your dissertation, you go to where the sources are. Sometimes, that takes you to major European capitals, like Berlin. Other times, you travel to smaller but still prominent cities like Hannover or Koblenz. But occasionally, you find yourself researching smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

And, as you probably guessed, this week happens to be one of those times.

Although my dissertation frustration is still ongoing, I had a breakthrough shortly after posting my last blog entry. Thanks to some intensive Googling, the German white pages, and some old-school snail mail, I tracked down an archive with some really important sources. And that’s how I ended up in Gross Särchen, a tiny town in the German middle of nowhere roughly halfway Dresden and the Polish border.

Here I should point out that, though I hail from suburbia, I’ve been to my fair share of small towns. One doesn’t grow up in Kansas and go to school in Oklahoma without experiencing a few places that barely qualify for their dot on the map. Plus, during my semester in Austria, I’d visited several tiny European towns. And so through my experiences at home and abroad, I’d come to the conclusion that most small towns share a few common features. For American towns, this usually includes a gas station/convenience store (often with a Casey’s Pizza), a grocery store, and maybe, just maybe a stoplight. For European towns, the list would feature public transit and/or railway access, a church, and a small town square with maybe a restaurant or two and certainly an ATM.

… Or so I thought.

My first clue should have come while I was planning my trip. In response to my query on the Deutsche Bahn website, I received a message that “no routes were found” between Gross Särchen and Berlin. A similar search on Google Maps revealed that, while I could get here via public transit, I would need to take a bus. No train station = Clue #1.

My second clue should have been the housing situation. After I’d confirmed the dates with Herr Ness (who has the archive in his apartment), he offered to check with a nearby inn to see if they had rooms available. Upon hearing that they were booked up, he gave me the contact info for another bed and breakfast in the next town over. No second hotel option = Clue #2

My third would-be clue was closely tied to the first and second. For while I now had a way to get to my research location and a place to stay in the neighboring town (the hotel there luckily wasn’t full), I had no way of getting between the two. Another quick check on Google Maps showed that there were no connecting bus routes. Fortunately, Herr Ness offered to drive me each day. No bus routes = Clue #3.

Despite all of these very obvious clues, I was still fairly clueless about just how small this town would be. That is, until the bus dropped me off in a cul-de-sac in the middle of nowhere. Thinking that the bus driver must have been confused—after all, two different town names were listed on my ticket; maybe he had dropped me off at the wrong one—I pulled out my trusty Google Maps app and put in the hotel address. But to my surprise, I was in the right place, and that cul-de-sac was the closest thing to a town square this little dot on the map had. Three minutes and an abandoned-barn sighting later, I found myself at the front door of the Gasthof (Bed & Breakfast) where I’d be staying for the week.

If the preceding events could be considered hints or clues, then what happened next was a dead giveaway. And as I stepped inside the Gasthof’s restaurant/reception area, all conversation ceased and everyone turned in unison to stare at me. If it wasn’t clear before, it was painfully obvious now: I was in a very, very, very small town.

This in itself shouldn’t have been a problem. As an awkward person myself, I have (almost) no trouble with odd social dynamics. And I’ve traveled enough that I’ve grown rather accustomed to sticking out like a sore thumb. Besides, at least I was in Germany, where I could speak the language. No, my problem would be one of a much more tangible—or you might say “liquid”—nature: I didn’t have any money. That’s right, I’d managed to leave Berlin without making it to the ATM. Which meant that I’d showed up in the German version of Mayberry with a whopping 10 Euros and 73 cents in my wallet. And somehow those funds needed to last me for the week. Oops.

Here I should stop to clarify that, although my situation was looking rough, it could have been worse. My room came with breakfast and, since the restaurant was connected to the hotel (as I learned during my oh-so-awkward entrance), I could my meals “on my tab” to pay with my room at the end of the week. This meant that I needed to find a way to stretch my accidental 10-Euro budget across four lunches. With a pre-rumbling stomach, I stopped my mental calculating and called it night, hoping that I’d find a way to make it work. Otherwise, this was going to be a very long and hungry week.

At exactly 12:29 the next day, Herr Ness kicked me out for “Mittagspause”, and I began scouring the streets street in search of food. The first two restaurants I found were closed; that’s okay, one glance at the menu posted outside told me I couldn’t afford them anyway. Walking further along, I came upon a shop advertising schnitzel “to go”. But unsure whether that meant ready-to-eat schnitzel or the take-and-bake kind, I decided to keep walking, with my rumbling stomach and jangling Euro coins providing an unfortunate soundtrack to my day.

That’s when I saw it. Eureka! The capital “S” design that is a universal European sign for a savings bank! Against all odds, in this itty bitty town I had found a bank! Hustling across the street, I ran to the sign, only to have my hopes dashed. Though the “S” sign was indeed for a bank, it was for a “Fahrbar Filiale” or a mobile branch. So yes, there technically was a bank, but it only parked in this spot from 2:30 to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and 11-12 p.m. on Fridays. Just my luck.

So close and yet so far…

Annoyed, frustrated, and increasingly hangry, I headed back down the street. Before long, I came upon a bakery, and these words on the window caught my eye: “Hotdogs 1,55”. I didn’t need to be a math whiz to know that this price was in my budget (and I didn’t have to be a genius to realize that I wasn’t going to find any other food), so I went inside and ordered a hotdog. I must have sounded especially pathetic because she gave me some cookies to go with it.

And so, for the last four lunches, I have eaten a hotdog, mustard, and cookies at the bakery. No, it’s certainly not the most filling, tasty, or nutritious meal of my life, but it’s already become one of the most memorable… and not simply because of the difficulty I had in finding it. I hope I always remember this meal for a completely different reason:

It reminded me to be thankful.

You see, God has been unbelievably good to me, showering me with His blessings and more than providing for all my needs. I have a wonderful family, incredible friends, and the chance to do work that I (most of the time) love. And yet, although I have countless reasons to be thankful, I very rarely take the time to express my gratitude. If I like it when other people appreciate me or tell me “thanks” when I do small and very temporary things, how much more should I take the time to thank my Heavenly Father for caring for me? Every day, day and in and day out, He showers me with His blessings, and yet I take most of them for granted. I accept the gifts without even stopping to recognize, let alone thank, the Giver.

Monday afternoon and then every day during lunch this week I have been reminded to pause and thank God. For His kindness, for His goodness, and for hotdogs. And even though it’s just a small thing, and I still have such a long way to go in cultivating a heart of gratitude, I can’t help but think that this small-town week brought me a few more steps in the right direction.

Alright, that’s enough writing for one day. Now I need to look up bus schedules. I should probably make sure there is one back to Berlin tomorrow… 😉

The one place where I’ve ever had a “usual.” 🙂

Party in the US-eh?

It’s my least favorite time of the year.

Or rather, it’s my least favorite time every four years. That’s right; it’s election time.

Yes, I realize that Election Day isn’t until next November, which is still way off in the distant (but here before we know it) future. Honestly, I don’t mind the actual Election Day. I wouldn’t call it my favorite quadrennial 24-hour period; however, it doesn’t arouse feeling of intense antipathy like the true object of my loathing: Pre-Election season. Maybe “loathe” is too strong a word (I am rather prone to hyperbole), but it does frustrate and aggravate me. Why?

My first reason is simple: conflict and I don’t get along. As you might remember from my family’s great Southwest misadventure, I don’t enjoy conflict. Whereas some people might drink it up like a Route 44 during Sonic’s “Happy Hour,” conflict is not my cup of tea.  (Fun fact: America’s first Sonic Drive-In is located in Stillwater, Oklahoma. There’s also another one less than a mile down the road. Too much of a good thing? I think not. 🙂 ). Hence, the pre-election season of inter- and intra-partisan conflict makes me want to hit the road rather than drink it in.

However, I understand that conflict can be healthy and, because everyone is wired differently, people aren’t going to agree on everything. In a free country, the ability to express our opinions without fear is one of our most precious rights. Peaceful discussion is a positive response to conflict. I’m not suggesting that politicians circle up, hold hands and lead our nation in a round of Kum-ba-yah, but I believe we can be a bit more civilized in our approach to politics. For instance, mud is nice. Mud is harmless. Mud belongs on the ground, where it can help pretty flowers grow. Mud does not need to be slung at other people; it’s all fun and games until someone loses a contact—or their reputation. When political debate degenerates into name-calling and opponent-bashing, its value depreciates, and my confidence in the candidates drops significantly. On the other hand, if candidates present well-reasoned points, seek to emphasize their own strengths, and don’t focus unnecessarily on their opponents’ weaknesses, I can take them more seriously.

Finally, I highly dislike the pre-election pandemonium because, to me, it highlights not our progress but our shortcomings. Please don’t get me wrong; I love my country. I am so blessed and thankful to live in a land of freedom, opportunity, and more blessings than I can even begin to enumerate or appreciate. However, for all our successes, we also fall incredibly, terribly, and decidedly short. Regardless of your position on the political spectrum, you can find flaws in our country’s system. Whether in foreign policy, moral issues, involvement or lack of involvement, the U.S. has disappointed you somehow and to some degree. This makes complete sense. Human beings aren’t perfect; therefore, anything we create or engage in will also be defective. It’s the nature of sin’s beast. In the face of this inevitable failure, it’s easy to become disenchanted and discouraged, resigned to the impossibility of change. I personally fall into this trap often, believing that simply because action is hard, inaction is better. But we aren’t called to give up. No! We need to get up! And do something. But what?

As a history major, I love to study the past and glean lessons from it. And fortunately for me (and by association, for you), this week at the Kanakuk Institute has been centered on exactly that. And conveniently, we have been examining the Kingdom of Israel and its leaders, a topic which relates perfectly this blog. (Gee, it’s almost like that was planned or something. Haha). So what have I learned that could apply to election season? I’m so glad you asked! Here goes…

1. Down is Up. Yes, I am directionally challenged, but that’s not what I mean. What I mean to say is this: Humility matters. If you truly want to be a leader, you must learn to serve. Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27). The Kingdom Era is full of people who exemplified true servant leadership, from prophet/judge Samuel doing whatever God told Him, to Jonathan passionately supporting his best friend David’s becoming king, even though he himself was the rightful heir. When selecting leaders, we should look for people with genuine humility, those who truly value others as more important than themselves. But more than that, we also should strive to be unselfish servants, whether or not we hold “leadership positions.” After all, Jesus is the King of the Universe (aka a REALLY big deal), and He chose to serve us. If that doesn’t blow your mind, then nothing will. This was His whole purpose, not to “be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). And He wants us to do the same.

2) Think Inside Out. If Abraham Lincoln were to run for president in 2012, would he be elected? Pretend that the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation never happened, so you have no history on which to base your decision. Would he win? And would you vote for him? Honestly, I think “Honest Abe” would lose. Why? Because of his looks—or lack thereof. Tall and gangly, Lincoln had an unimpressive, high-pitched voice; his eyelids drooped; his asymmetrical face sagged. In short, Lincoln was not a handsome, enchanting fellow. Based on that description, do you think he would have made it past the primary? Probably not, and one of our greatest presidents would have been lost to the ages. In a time of unbelievable technological advancement, when we can see anyone’s picture online instantly and—if we don’t like what we see, we can change it through makeup, Photoshop, or surgery—it can be so tempting to focus on appearances. Israel had the same problem; they wanted a king who would look good, be impressive, and compare to those of the surrounding nations. So God gave them Saul who fit their description and, to put it mildly, was an abject failure. In stark contrast, God chose Saul’s successor David based not on his Abercrombie-looks but on his heart. As 1 Samuel 16:7 clearly states, “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” If we want leaders of solid character, then we would be wise to follow His example and look to the heart, because that’s what truly counts.

3) God’s Got It. This statement applies to countless facets of life, but here specifically, I mean that He has the whole political process in His hands. (Kind of catchy, eh? Sing with me: “He’s got the whole political process in His hands; He’s got the whole political process in His hands…” haha) I realize that this may seem a bit extreme or bold, so let me explain. God doesn’t necessarily meet voters in the booth and give them a vision, nor does He individually check every chad to ensure that none are left hanging, but His will is ALWAYS done. Because God is sovereign (fancy talk for “supreme” or “absolute”), He works through and cares about everything, including governments and elections. Nothing can happen outside His will, and His plans cannot be thwarted. As Daniel says, “[God] changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them.” (Daniel 2:21). So even when the result may not match up with your “plan,” remember that God is working out His, and that is infinitely (literally) more important.

As we head into the coming election season, I challenge every voter—including me—to take these lessons to heart. If we choose to elect leaders with character and humility, and if we trust God to take care of it, our country will be forever changed—for the better. And even if I still don’t like the pre-election season, this truth makes my every-four-years frustration a little more worthwhile. 🙂