Small Town (Not) America

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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.

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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… 😉

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

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“It’s complicated.”

Maybe not in the way you’re thinking. But once I explain, I have a feeling you’ll agree.

As you probably guessed, I met someone. (Living proof that God still occasionally works miracles!) And to make things even better, he is awesome. As in, really, really stellar. And apparently he likes me, and I also like him, which I’m told is a winning combination. So if we both like each other—and if he’s not a total creeper (which he’s not, haha)—then what could possibly be complicated about it?

Oh, that’s right! I’m living in Germany for the next 7.5 months. And he lives in the U.S.  “Sure, Steffi, 7.5 months is a long time,” you say, “But won’t you be moving back to the States when you’re done?” You’re correct; two points for you! But I’ll be moving back to Atlanta and, you guessed it, that’s not where this stellar fella lives. So as you can see, this makes things a bit “complicated.”

Adding to this complication is my usual dating strategy. You see, my (very limited) dating track record could be summed up with one word: efficiency. I am usually quick to determine whether a relationship is a dead end and, once I recognize that it is, I immediately call it quits. In the past, this has worked out in my favor. At the very least, it’s saved me time, energy, and prolonged heartbreak. It’s prevented me from pursuing relationships that won’t stand a chance and gotten me out of problematic ones before much time has passed.

But this time—dare I say it?—is different. On so many important levels. For instance, unlike my past suitors, this guy genuinely wants to get to know me. And he has gone to great lengths to do so, even driving 4 hours (each way!) to take me to breakfast while I was home over Christmas break. He asks great questions, sends thoughtful emails, and even read my entire blog from start to finish. (I don’t think my mom has even done that! And I’ve only done that because I wrote them!) So he is clearly interested in me as a person, and as many ladies out there will likely testify, that kind of interest is rare and precious.

And part of the reason that this time is different is that this guy is different. He’s super smart, he’s mature and confident, and he really, really loves Jesus. He has consistently surrounded himself with people who encourage him to grow, and his rock solid character and his established sense of community show how well this strategy is working. And to make things even better (and even more different), we actually click and even have the same nerdy sense of humor. Trust me; that never happens.

So this time is different, this guy is different. But this still begs the question: am I different? Sure, this fella is incredible and, to use some Christian-ese, he’s “pursuing me” really well. But I’m still a factor in this equation, and the jury is still out on how I will respond. My usual dating M.O.—to “efficiently” gather information and come to (historically negative) conclusions—now doesn’t work. For one thing, I’m halfway around the world for the next several months, which means I can’t exactly be efficient. And because this guy is so high quality—truly, he’s such a catch!—I don’t want to run. But I have no experience with long-term, let alone long-distance. How the heck am I supposed to navigate this?!

I don’t have any good answers. Because as much as I’d like a clear indication or a neon sign in the sky explaining how to approach this complicated situation, none has appeared. But I did recently find some encouragement in a rather unexpected place. Last week, I was scrolling back through my blog, and I decided to reread some of my own Valentine’s Day posts. After all, I needed to know what I had written about relationships–especially now that I knew who else had been reading them! And as I was sifting back through, I came to my post from 2014. I had written this one during a particularly difficult time for me in the relationship category. Things had crashed and burned with a guy that fall, and then the next potential suitor, whom I enjoyed very much, had just told me that he wasn’t interested in anything beyond friendship. And while I knew deep down in my heart of hearts that “this too would pass” and that everything would be okay, I couldn’t help feeling frustrated and discouraged all the same. Here I was, taking risks, putting myself out there, and having nothing to show for it yet again. Feeling down and looking for answers, I called my friend Sarah, and she asked me a question that’s stuck with me ever since:

Would I surrender the pen and let God write my story?

Although I delved into this question in my post two years ago, I think it’s worth revisiting because, as this entry shows, my relationship situation has clearly changed. And perhaps more importantly, I have changed. In the last two years, I have ridden many an up and many a down. I’ve had to walk straight into my insecurities, and I’ve come face to face with many of my fears. To quote The Hobbit, I’ve been “there and back again”, and much has happened along the way. And through all of these twists and turns and (mis)adventures, I have returned repeatedly to the same two truths: God is faithful. And I can trust Him. So even though this distance thing is hard—let’s be real, from an outside perspective, the timing of this looks terrible—and even though a part of me is terrified of the uncertainty, I can return back to the foundation, to the most important thing: God is working in this too, and I can trust Him to write my story. I just need to keep surrendering the pen, so to speak, and live it out faithfully as I can, one 6-time-zones-away day at a time. My God is good, and He won’t let me down.

Alright, that is enough romance-induced introspection for one day. I think I’d like to watch a non-complicated chick flick now. How about Love Actually? 😉

perfeto

 

“Where are you, Christmas?”

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The Christmas Market near Ku’damm in Berlin.

My dearest friends, acquaintances, and random people on the internet, I have some terrible news: Christmas is over. Today is December 29th, which means that we are now 361 days from our next Christmas. Thanks, Leap Year, for adding another day to our already-long Christmas wait.

We did our best to stretch it out and make it last. There were months of preparation, afternoons of shopping and crafting, hours of decorating and baking, miles put on the car or the Frequent Flyer miles compiled to visit relatives. Starting with Thanksgiving September, we listened to Christmas music, planned the decorations for our apartments and houses, and began plotting what gifts to buy our loved ones. And yet despite all of these attempts to extend our holiday season, Christmas cruelly reminded yet again us that it’s only 24 hours long, just like every other day of the year. And now here on Tuesday the 29th, the gifts have been unwrapped, the radio stations have ceased their Yuletide serenading, and many of us are already back at work, reminding us that soon—yes, very soon—life will return to its normal, everyday, often cheerless routine.

Now, I’m not trying to undersell Christmas or poo-poo it with a post-holiday depressed attitude. I actually had probably one of the most memorable and enjoyable Christmas seasons to date. After several weeks of enjoying Germany’s Christmas markets, I came home to Kansas and had a truly wonderful time with my family. We went to my Omi’s house and decorated Christmas cookies, we drove through our favorite neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights, and we even squeezed in a trip to Silver Dollar City, our favorite 1880s-themed amusement park in Branson, Missouri. Simple though it may seem, this Christmas with my family was truly lovely. And having been away from my parents since July—and from my sisters since far longer than that—I appreciated our time together this year even more than usual.

But now, whether I want to admit it or not, Christmas is over. In a little over a week, I’ll be flying back to Berlin, where the Christmas markets will have disappeared, the glühwein will be gone, and everyone will have settled back into their natural state of light-deprived semi-hibernation.

And now as I think about it, I can’t help but wonder: am I the only one who finds this a bit dissatisfying, if not anti-climactic? I mean, Christmas has the longest build-up of all the holidays. Can you name another holiday that has inspired so many songs (or so many covers of the same songs)? So many movies (and unnecessary sequels to those movies)? Can you think of another day of the year that is greeted with such anticipation by young and old, rich and poor, religious and agnostic alike? We go crazy for Christmas—some of us for months on end—and then before we know it, it’s over, and we’re left looking forward to this time next year, holding out the hope that maybe next Christmas will somehow last longer and be different.

I love Christmas. I truly do. But every year I experience this same discontented feeling. December 26th rolls around—talk about the most underappreciated day of the year—and I find myself wondering yet again, “Was that it?” Somehow it’s just never seemed fair to me that, after such a dramatic entrance, Christmas would just vanish so quickly without a trace. And I find this even more disappointing in light of so many of our favorite seasonal songs and movies, which remind us to have “the spirit of Christmas” and “keep Christmas in our hearts” all year long. Yes, I realize that these quotes come from cheesy, childish sources, and holiday movie specials are a poor choice for your life motto. But still for some reason, these phrases have always bothered me this year, and even more so this year. And now as I sit in my annual post-Christmas slump, I can’t seem to get them out of my head. Because it’s not just Disney who tells me these things; the Church does too, encouraging me to “live in light of Christmas” all year long. But what does that actually mean? And more importantly, how do we do it?

I’ve been wrestling with these questions for the last several days (getting a head start by thinking about them before Christmas Day. #efficiency). And while I don’t have a perfect, 5-step formula or a catchy slogan, I think I’m at least starting to arrive at an answer: Christmas leaves us, but Jesus never does. Let me explain.

In one sense, the post-Christmas funk is natural. Experiencing an emotional low after such a significant and highly-anticipated day makes complete sense. I bet Mary and Joseph even their own version of this after the very first Christmas. After all, if your labor pains result in a sky full of angels and a room full of worshipping shepherds, the reality of late-night feedings and diaper changings must have seemed a bit anti-climactic—and they were caring for the Son of God! But you see, for them Christmas wasn’t the end of a story; Christmas was the beginning of their lifetime being Jesus’ earthly parents.

I think the same principle applies to us today 2,000-some-odd years later. Christmas reminds us that Jesus has come to us, but, just like for Mary and Joseph, His presence didn’t end when the manger had been filled with feed again and the shepherds had returned to their sheep. And it doesn’t end for us either, even when the decorations and lights have been taken down and packed away for next year. It’s no accident that Matthew’s Gospel refers to Jesus as “Immanuel” or “God with us”. John puts it so beautifully, saying that Jesus “became flesh and made His dwelling among us.

You see, Jesus’ story with us began on Christmas and continues today. And I think it’s only by remembering and believing this truth—that He came to us, He loves us, and He is present with us now—that we can keep “the Christmas spirit” and its accompanying joy, anticipation, wonder, and awe alive with us every day of the year.

So even though Cindy Lou Who was right in asking, “Where are you, Christmas? Why can’t I find you?”, her natural feeling of confusion and loss was only part of the story. Because although Christmas has already come and gone, the One whom we celebrate hasn’t left us and never will.

Well, that’s enough for one day. I’m feeling hungry. Christmas cookies, anyone? 😉

 

(Extra) Ordinary

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From the outside, it may seem like my life is anything but ordinary. I’m a grad student which means I’m (perpetually?) stuck in limbo between college and “real” adult life. I study history, which means that even when I do graduate and get a “real” job, it probably won’t be a “normal” one in the 9-to-5 sense. And because I study German history, I am spending a year in Berlin doing the research for my dissertation. And if all of that weren’t strange enough, we’ll just toss in the fact that I’ve been in Kraków the last three summers (trying) to learn Polish.

Even as I write down this mini resume of sorts, I find myself thinking that my life sounds pretty awesome and, oddly enough, if I weren’t the one living it, I’d probably be envious. And while I am enjoying it, and I am grateful for it, I can’t help but be struck by the sense of cognitive dissonance: that while my life and especially my current situation seem amazing on paper—or, perhaps more accurately, on social media—my life is actually quite ordinary, unexciting, and, well, normal.

You see, even though I’m living in Berlin, I’m not really a tourist. Yes, when friends come to visit, I show them around the city, take them on tours, and treat them to currywurst. And when certain really cool things happen—like attending the celebration for the 25th anniversary of German reunification—I’ll even post a picture on Facebook about it. But the reality is that I’m here to study and to work, which kind of makes Berlin an extension of my library office in Atlanta. Yes, it’s a much more exciting “office”, with museums and history and very tattooed and interesting people, but in many ways it’s still an office because I’m here to do my work.

Now don’t get me wrong; I am making time to fun things. I bought a year-long museum pass (which is fun for nerds, I promise!), I’ll be going to Karneval in Cologne (think Halloween costume party on steroids), and in a week I’ll be showing my best friend all around the city (I literally can’t wait!). But as awesome as these things are, they are more the exception than the rule, at least in how my time pans out. Most of my day is spent working in an archive, at my kitchen table or (less successfully) in the library. In the evenings, I may run, go grocery shopping, do laundry, catch up with friends, maybe watch TV and then go to bed. At 8 a.m., I wake up and start the process all over again, and the same continues until the weekend rolls around.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that, while I’m living in a really cool city with a fascinating history and a happening cultural scene, I’m still living here. And living includes a lot of really boring, ordinary, mundane things—things that don’t make the fancy Instagram-able cut. And in the midst of this ordinary-ness and my growing awareness of it, I’m starting to realize this: if life even in the most exciting places consists of a lot of unexciting things, then what we do with the ordinary must matter.

As I’ve been processing through this (often while doing boring things, like the dishes), I keep coming back to these words of Oswald Chambers: “Jesus Christ will not help me to obey Him, I must obey Him; and when I do obey Him, I fulfill my spiritual destiny. My personal life may be crowded with small petty incidents, altogether unnoticeable and mean; but if I obey Jesus Christ in the haphazard circumstances, they become pinholes through which I see the face of God, and when I stand face to face with God I will discover that through my obedience thousands and thousands were blessed […] If I obey Jesus Christ, the Redemption of God will rush through me to other lives, because behind the deed of obedience is the Reality of Almighty God.”

Now, there’s a lot going on in this paragraph, and I don’t know if I fully grasp it all. But after a few days of ruminating on these hundred-year-old words, I’m starting to see that the ordinary things that make up most of our lives really do matter. Boring, insignificant, and silly as they may seem at the time, they do have a purpose. And somehow, by being faithful in them, we grow closer to and become more like God. No, I don’t understand exactly how my dishwashing, toilet scrubbing, room cleaning, and grocery shopping come to have eternal significance–or even what that eternal significance that might be. But I can still attest to the fact, that somehow in some way, when we learn to commit even the most ordinary activities to the Lord, we encounter Him in them. And through His presence, a sort of spiritual alchemy takes place, and the once-ordinary things somehow become holy, set apart, and even beautiful.

I don’t understand it, I can’t explain it, and right now I can’t even think of Bible verses to specifically back it up. And yet all the same, I’m finding it to be true. And I’m finding that having this perspective can make even the most ordinary things seem (pardon the terrible pun) a little bit extraordinary.

Cry Baby

Ja, genau.
Ja, genau.

Alright, you asked for it. (Or at least by all your positive responses to my last blog entry, you implicitly asked for it). Apparently, people on Facebook and the blogosphere like it when I’m honest, so in an effort to give the people what they want, here is another very honest blog post comin’ at ya. Be careful what you wish for, haha.

Since my last post, things have been better, although the last week certainly contained its share of ups and downs. A particular set of “downs” happened on Tuesday afternoon when a slew of little things conspired to ruin my afternoon: the café where I decided to work for a few hours didn’t have wifi (even though it looked exactly like the German version of Panera!) Unfortunately, I only discovered this after purchasing an over-priced not-so-large “large” coffee. So I soon decided to relocate to the Staatsbibliothek (state library), where I could find a quiet space and hopefully accomplish something before heading to small group. But since backpacks aren’t allowed inside the library (#weird), I knew I needed to rent a locker. And I knew that these lockers only accept 1 Euro coins, despite being designed to take the 2 euro version. Since I didn’t have any change, I decided to make a quick stop by a souvenir shop where I could buy a poster I’d noticed a few weeks before. I finally located the store, which turned out to be an adventure: the store ended up being in the mall, which, of course, was not clear in Google Maps, and had moved to a different floor, which of course was not mentioned on the mall map. But after much unnecessary walking, I found the store, bought the poster, and headed to the library… only to discover that I’d gotten multiple 50 cent coins in change, but not a single 1 Euro. So I tracked down the library’s change machine, got a Euro, found a locker, transferred the contents of my backpack to an official “Staatsbibliothek” clear plastic bag and headed to the entrance. But as I began going through the turnstile, the not-so-happy librarian on duty stopped me and motioned to my computer. Apparently, I needed to take it out of the case. So I side-stepped awkwardly back through the turnstile, liberated my computer, and reassembled the bag to enter again…. only to hear in angry German: DAS MUSS RAUS!” Which translates roughly into politer English as, “you have to leave that computer case outside.”

And with that, I was done. I turned around, walked back to my locker, and then burst into unashamed and very messy tears. I knew I looked silly and that plenty of very normal, well-adjusted people could see me, but in that moment I just didn’t care. I’d had enough frustrating foreign cultural experiences for one day, and I simply couldn’t deal with it anymore. After gathering my things, I walked (still crying) to the U-Bahn station and headed home.

But although the library crying incident was a new low (or at least a new recent low), it didn’t get the final word on my week. That night, I was really encouraged by my friends at small group… even if their prayer for me was simply, “Lord, please help Steffi’s mess”, haha. On Wednesday, I attended a university welcome event and made a new friend. On Thursday, I found out that I received a two-month research stipend for Poland—my advisor didn’t even expect me to get it!—so that was a very pleasant surprise. Over the weekend, I ate delicious homemade fish tacos with friends. And then I pulled two almost all-nighters to watch the Royals win their first World Series in 30 years. So all in all, my week turned out far better than my not-so-auspicious Tuesday afternoon foreshadowed.

But I guess life is often like that, isn’t it? Or at least it is for me. I go through rough patches and dry spells, and when I’m in the middle of them (think, last Tuesday) I feel as if they’re never going to end. I get frustrated, I get discouraged, and I get frustrated and discouraged by my frustration and discouragement. Talk about a meta-level mess.

Librarians don’t normally have the ability to make me cry. But sometimes, like last Tuesday, they do. And I guess I’m learning that this emotional rollercoaster with all its daily ups and downs is okay. It’s okay to be frustrated, and it’s okay to cry. I just have to keep going because, even though things may be crummy in this moment, they will probably get better very soon. And even if they don’t get better right away, good things are still coming from it. Especially in the difficult moments, I’m learning to become more honest with God and to trust deep down that He cares. Verses like “as a Father has compassion on His children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him” and “He catches our tears* (*even the librarian-induced ones) in a bottle” are becoming more real and meaningful to me. And so even though this emotional rollercoaster often stinks, and I’d oftentimes prefer not to be riding it, deep down I’m learning to be grateful for this experience.

… At least I am right now. Ask me again after my next trip to the Staatsbibliothek. 😉

Berliner Blues

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When I started this blog a loooooooooong time ago (in “internet years”, 4.5 years is an eternity), I planned to post here often. Although I started out strong, life got busy, and after a few months I faded off. I had a new burst of energy in 2014 and made a New Year’s resolution to write once a week. However, this soon became “twice a month” and then faded into “almost never” once the semester got crazy.

Sometimes, like when the school year is in full swing and crunch-time is upon me, I simply don’t have the time and/or mental energy to write. This was the case during my first semester of grad school and then during my initial summer learning Polish. It turns out that learning to decipher academic texts and (impossible) Slavic languages can be equally exhausting. During other times of infrequent posting, I simply haven’t had consistent access to the Internet or a computer. My summers working at Kanakuk are the best example of this.

But there are other times when my lack of posting isn’t due to my lack of internet connection or energy. Sometimes, I simply have trouble figuring out what to say. Paradoxical though it may sound, in these moments I feel as if I have both too much and too little going on in my mind. It’s in times like these that I go into “avoidance mode”, looking for every possible excuse to avoid opening up a blank document on my computer screen. For instance, tonight (note: I wrote this post last Friday) I ran 6 miles, skyped with friends, cleaned my room, washed all my laundry, and even baked* a cake (*not from scratch). As I was finishing up all the things, I then tried to find something else to do next. And though I was this close to curling up with an episode of Sherlock (news flash: I finally got Netflix!), I wandered back to the kitchen table and began writing the words you are reading now.

You see, most of the time when sit down to write a blog entry, I have a pretty clear idea of where I’m headed. I’ll already have chosen a funny anecdote for the beginning, and I know basically which point I’d like to make. Which is another reason I was avoiding writing this tonight: I have no idea where this is going and, as you probably noticed, this post isn’t particularly funny. But I sometimes life is like that, and so tonight I guess I’ll just share with you what’s on my mind.

Honestly, the last few weeks have been kind of hard. In theory, everything should be great. After all, I’m a single adult living in Berlin, I can travel around Europe whenever I want, and I have easy access to some of the best culture, museums—and chocolate—in the world. And in that sense, I suppose that I am “living the dream.” But just because it’s a dream doesn’t mean it’s perfect. I miss my family and friends, I miss my church, and I miss my life back home. Yes, technology is awesome, and I am so grateful for What’s App, Facebook, Skype, email, FaceTime, iMessage, etc., but coordinating around time differences can be tricky, and my friends and family have their own busy lives. And, let’s be real, even with all the above resources and apps, they still haven’t invented a way to receive trans-Atlantic hugs.

Here I should pause and say that I’ve met some wonderful people here in Berlin. God was so good to lead me to an amazing church my first Sunday (the pastor’s wife is even from Nebraska! #Midwest), I’ve joined a small group, and I’m starting to make some friends. But friendships, by nature, take time to deepen. And though I am doing my best to be patient, a huge part of me misses having people who really know me. I’ve moved enough times to know this will eventually happen, but in this moment, I can’t help craving that feeling of being mutually known and loved.

Berlin is an amazing city, and I’m really thankful that my main archive just happened to be located here. (How different a research year I’d be having if I were stuck in the middle of nowhere!) This is a perfect place to be studying German history, the museums are incredible, and there are more cultural and academic events and opportunities than I could possibly ever take advantage of. But Berlin is also very big—very, very big. Especially compared with itty-bitty Krakow or university-town Graz, Berlin is gigantic. And while I’m starting to figure out how to efficiently navigate the S- and U-Bahn and I’m finally biking places without getting (quite so) hopelessly lost, Berlin still feels massive. And it should; after all, 3.6 million people live here. And as a result, it’s easy to feel very, very small and very, very insignificant.

So there you go. It’s a Friday night in the party capital of Europe, and I’m sitting at home blogging about how I feel homesick, lonely, and insignificant. Lame though I know it is, this is just where I am right now. So, other than Netflixing my cares away, what am I supposed to do? And how should I respond when the dream I’m living also comes with some less-than-stellar feelings?

I don’t have any perfect answers. (If I did, I probably wouldn’t be writing this rather pathetic blog entry.) But in the midst of my less-than-awesome mood—which is not in any way helped by Berlin’s perpetually gray sky—I have found comfort in these two verses. Genesis 16:13, “You are a God who sees’,” and Psalm 139, “You have searched me and known me… If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” All of these things that feel so absent right now, God promises to provide: He is the Friend who never fails (and is never 6 or 7 time zones away), He knows me completely and loves me wholly, and He fills each day of my life with value, worth, and significance.

I know that my homesickness will eventually pass, that I’ll develop deeper friendships here, and that I’ll start to feel more connected and at home in this place. Someday, hopefully not too far down the line, Berlin will join my growing list of “homes away from home.” But right now, in this moment and on this Friday night, I’m not there yet, and things still feel rather crummy. And while I don’t feel okay, I guess God wants me to trust that everything will still be okay. And maybe He wants this to be an opportunity to grow my faith, to believe that His words are true and to trust that He is caring for me even now.

Alright, that’s enough writing for tonight. Maybe it is actually time for Netflix. Sherlock, anyone? 🙂

Easy as 1, 2, 3

“She could, but she didn’t want to. She wanted to, but she couldn’t.” … The second one is how I feel about Polish.

If you want to feel great about yourself, don’t try learn Polish.

Seriously, I can think of no more effective way to feel incompetent, insufficient, and all-around dumb… except maybe by taking Calc II as a history major.

In case you aren’t aware, I started learning Polish in June 2013, when by a series of seemingly random events I ended up at the University of Pittsburgh’s Summer Language Institute. When I first started, I didn’t even know what pierogi or pączki were; I just politely nodded and smiled when people talked about them (though by now I’ve eaten more pierogi than I could possibly count, haha). That first summer, I spent 10 weeks in intensive language courses, with the first 6 in Pittsburgh and the last 4 in Kraków. I continued last summer with another 6 weeks in Kraków, and this year, thanks to the kindness of the University of Pittsburgh Summer Language Institute staff, I’m finishing up another 6-week course in Kraków before my research year in Berlin.

If you’ve ever tried learning a foreign language, you know that the acquisition process comes with ups and downs. But when you’re riding one of the “ups”, you feel like you can conquer the world; nothing is too difficult for you. You can have conversations with native speakers (who aren’t your teachers), you can befriend the local grocery store clerk, ask for a half kilo of mushrooms at your neighborhood produce market, and even correctly answer that guy on the street when he asks you what time it is. When these moments happen, you feel amazing, great, fantastic, like you can conquer the world. And when you have those moments while learning Polish, you find yourself this close to buying one of these t-shirts:

superpower

But the Polish-gods don’t like people to be happy, at least not for very long. And sure enough, as soon as I was finally feeling confident about my Polish-speaking skills, I encountered my worst language-learning nightmare:

NUMBERS.

Yes, I know what you are thinking. Counting is one of the most basic parts of every language; everyone who’s ever ordered a taco knows how to count to 10. And I did learn to count to 10 way back in my first week at Pittsburgh. But that’s not how Polish numbers work. In fact, they very rarely look like that, unless you’re counting to three before taking a picture or playing hide-and-go-seek.

You see, the numbers are easy if all you’re doing is counting or basic math. But heaven help you if you want to actually use them for anything else. Want to buy two bananas to share with your two sisters? You’re going to need two different words for “2”. Hoping to find 2 chairs so you can say that you and your friend are sitting on these 2 chairs? Again, you’re going to need two different words for “2” (and these will be different from the two “2’s” you already used in the first example!) That’s right; Polish has something like 18 different ways to decline their numbers! That means there are approximately 18 different ways to say “2”, depending on the gender, number, and case of the noun you’re describing!

But the number insanity doesn’t stop there. Because as if the above examples weren’t terrible enough, the Polish language has a special set of numbers that are only used when describing groups of men and women (but you have to KNOW that there are men AND women in the group; you can’t just assume), groups of children and/or baby animals, and permanently plural nouns like scissors, glasses, and doors. Just to recap, that’s—

Special numbers for CHILDREN, BABY ANIMALS, SCISSORS, AND DOORS.

The other day a friend told me that a Polish language textbook began with the following sentence: “the Polish number system is so complex that no one has ever successfully explained it fully.”

Quit while you’re ahead? More like, “quit before you even start.” Which is what this particular friend did.

One thing is for certain, Polish is not for the faint of heart. In fact, if I had known exactly how difficult it would be, I’m not sure I would have started. Some days I find myself wishing I had opted for an “easy” language like Italian or French. And yet for some reason—maybe I like challenges, something about communism intrigued me, I like to sound cooler than I am?—I decided to go with Polish. Deep down, I knew that if Polish were easier, it wouldn’t be worth it.

The other day as I was complaining about Polish numbers (yet again), I realized something: I use the same exact language to describe my walk with Jesus. Christianity, like Polish, is not for the faint of heart. If I had known how difficult, confusing, and frustrating following Jesus could be, I may have thought twice about it. Sanctification (the process of being made more like Jesus) can be challenging and painful, and oftentimes I feel like I take one step forward for every two steps back. Right when I feel like I’ve finally mastered a spiritual concept, I then find out that there is so much I don’t know or understand. Or to continue with the Polish metaphor, I then discover whole slews of scissors and doors and baby bunnies waiting to be numbered. And that can feel daunting and discouraging.

If I’m honest, sometimes I get really frustrated with this life of discipleship. Sometimes the criticism and correction—gentle, loving, and well-intended though I know it is—feels like a bunch of red marks on my grammar homework. But then I have to remember that a) Jesus never said that following Him would be easy (kind of like the “spoiler alert” at the beginning of my friend’s grammar textbook), and even more importantly b) the most worthwhile things in life tend to be difficult. The challenge creates the beauty. What’s true of Polish is even more so for our walk with Jesus: not easy, but therefore worthwhile.

Well, that’s all I have time for today. Now I need to get back to my homework. Before I start, though, has anyone seen my scissors? I had two pairs, but one seems to have disappeared… 😉

Cute, but terrifying.
Polish: the only language where 6 baby bunnies are terrifying.