Heavy Holidays

christmas market
Christmas Market at Breitscheidplatz, Berlin.

Hollywood lies.

I’m not talking about Disney princesses and Prince Charmings. My frustration is at an even more basic level of expectation versus reality. You see, according to Hollywood, bad things happen in dark and empty alleyways. And according to Hollywood, sad scenes almost exclusively take place in the rain. But if the music is in major key and the setting is bright and cheery, then, according to Hollywood, the scene should be happy. And so it follows that, according to Hollywood, German Christmas markets should be among the happiest and safest places on earth.

But the events of Monday night in Berlin laughed in the face of this cinematic logic. Because while people were chatting, shopping, and enjoying life, the unthinkable happened. Evil—heartless, senseless, and unspeakable evil—revved the engine, jumped the curb, and left death and carnage in its wake.

Two days later, my heart is aching and my insides still feel numb. Because not only am I upset by the blatant cruelty of this tragedy–I mean, how could someone attack a Christmas market?–but this hits unbelievably close to home. You see, I lived in Berlin on and off for almost a year, and in the process, this city became like home. I care deeply about the people there, and the fact that someone would murder them is nauseating. And that they would hijack the truck of a delivery man from Poland–another country I have come to love–is as infuriating as it is heartbreaking.

But I’m also upset on another, perhaps more jarring level: last year, I stood in that very Christmas market with my best friend, chatting, shopping, and enjoying life. After a late lunch at the KaDeWe, we headed down to this market, where we sipped Gluehwein, bought souvenirs, and marveled at the colorful stars for sale. Out of all the Christmas markets I frequented last winter, the one at Breitscheidplatz was by far my favorite. With its massive Christmas tree next to the glowing-blue stained glass Gedaechtniskirche, this market felt particularly magical. That this very same place became the site of such senseless violence and that the people who died there were just like me is a lot to take in. If my research year had fallen just a little later, I could have been there on Monday night with them. One of those 12 dead or 48 injured could have been me.

These are heavy thoughts, I know, and they have been weighing on me since I got the news on Monday afternoon. Now as I sit at home in Kansas, surrounded by all the trappings and trimmings of Christmas, I can’t help but feel the disconnect. Between the sorrow I feel on the inside and the joy I’m supposed to exude on the outside. Between the happiness that Hollywood tells me should accompany this season and the suffering that is happening around the world. Between the darkness sitting heavily upon me and the light I so badly want to believe that Jesus came to bring.

All Advent season and well before Monday happened, I have been wrestling with these thoughts. The Hollywood version of Christmas claims to be “merry and bright” and a season of endless joy. But this year, Christmas seems anything but happy. The civil war in Syria shows no signs of ending, and the remaining citizens in Aleppo are facing almost certain death. The families of terror victims across France and Belgium, as well as those who lost loved ones in the racial violence in the U.S. this summer, are still mourning. And then there are the countless families who still grieve those lost in more “normal” but no less tragic ways, such as cancer, car accidents, and suicide.

Taken together, there is a lot of darkness and sorrow in this world of ours. And during these last few weeks of Advent, I have felt the weight of it, perhaps more acutely than ever before. How are we supposed to be filled with “Christmas cheer” when so much of the world appears to be falling apart? Where is that joy that I’m supposed to be experiencing? I find myself resonating with that old Christmas hymn,

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Aleppo, Berlin, and countless individual sorrows seem to mock the idea of Christmas. But then again, isn’t that the whole point of Christmas? That into the darkest places of pain and the most broken parts of humanity, God comes to us.

Even as I write this, I know that answer feels Sunday-schooly, perhaps even a bit trite. Especially if you’ve grown up in the church, it’s easy to say things like “God came to us” without thinking about what that means. But these last few weeks, and especially these last few days, have turned such Christianese-esque indifference into a luxury I can’t afford. I am hurting, and I want answers. And even more than answers, I need to know–deep down in the painful places–that God has come and that He cares. That’s my prayer as this Advent season draws to a close, that His light would shine into this darkness of our world and this darkness that I feel, and that I would remember again the rest of that old song:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Please.

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Light shining into Darkness. Stars for sale at the Breitscheidplatz Christmas Market.
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The Year in Zahlen (Numbers)

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I’ve never been much of a “numbers person.”

When I was in school (and by ‘school’, I mean the kind where I still had to take math classes), this made things like Geometry and Calc II rather unpleasant. And when I was applying to graduate school, this arithmetical antipathy led me to enroll in a remedial GRE math-prep class. It’s a good thing too; thanks to the class (and my self-imposed intensive study sessions at the local public library), my math score jumped from abysmal to relatively decent.

But it’s not just the “complicated math” like Calculus or problem-solving math like on the GRE that gives me trouble; I also manage to struggle with very basic numbers-related things…. Like, counting. You have no idea how badly I wish I were joking. If you tell me to count anything–sheets of paper, dollar bills, rooms in a house, I guarantee that 2 out of 3 times, I will get it wrong. And if I count it twice, I will get two different numbers. I can’t even be trusted to  measure ingredients correctly when I bake. (This may be why my favorite gluten-free cookie recipe has a one-one-one ingredients ratio…) With groups of people, I am hopeless. And with small children? Even worse! In fact, the only way I survived being a kamp counselor—or, more accurately, that my kampers survived having me as their counselor—was that I learned to assign them each a number at the beginning of the week and trained them to count themselves. #winning

But although I’m not a numbers person, I know they can be very important, as my accountant mother and my engineer boyfriend frequently remind me (yes, that “complicated ” fella and I made it official 7 months, 1 day and 22 hours ago… but who’s counting? 😉 ) I may not “get” numbers, but I still have a lot of respect for their quantitative capacities. So in a show of solidarity with all you math-inclined folks out there, I’ve compiled some stats from this last year.

Housing/Places I’ve stayed:

  • I left for Europe on July 31, 2015, which was 420 days ago. Apart from 3 weeks at Christmas and 10 days in May, I have been in Europe that entire time.
  • During those 420 days, I have stayed/spent the night in (at least) 37 different places. Only 3 of those were for a month or more. The maximum uninterrupted duration spent in one housing arrangement was 3 months and 5 days.
  • I’ve stayed in 11 Airbnb or Airbnb-type places for a total of 43 nights in 7 cities and 5 countries.
  • I have worn flip-flops in the showers of 9 hostels in 7 cities and 4 countries. *Note: the maximum duration was 10 nights total. And this included my 27th birthday.
  • I spent the night in 4 hotels in 2 countries for a total of 10 nights. The maximum stay was 4 nights, and that’s because Groβ Särchen didn’t exactly have other housing options.
  • And last but not least, I have enjoyed the spare rooms, pull-out couches, and/or incredibly comfortable floors of 10 friends in 6 cities and 3 countries over a total of 28 nights.
  • And of these 37 places I have stayed in the last 420 days, 26 of them were from the end of April until the middle of August.**
  • **Author’s note: spare yourself the trouble and don’t do the math. Although I did my best, the numbers probably don’t add up.

And why was I traveling so much?, you ask. While I’d love to be able to say that I was vacationing my way through Europe, most of my trips were for research. And speaking of research….

Research:

  • I have visited 11 archives in 8 cities and 2 countries.
  • I have presented my research 3 times in 3 cities and 2 countries…. in German.
  • I have photographed thousands of documents and, as a result, lost approximately 57 GB of space on my computer.
  • I have read through/interacted with/taken notes on at approximately 300 files. (I wish I could give a more exact number, but my computer decided to die 2 weeks ago… thank goodness for online backups!)
  • I have spent approximately 320 hours in Polish archives. And close to 4x that (i.e. 1,280 hours) in German ones.

And to get to all those research-related (and the occasional fun) destinations, I had to…

Travel!

  • I have made 18 journeys on planes. 5 of these were trans-Atlantic.
  • I sat (or, in some very overcrowded cases, leaned against my luggage) for approximately 40 hours on trains.
  • I attempted to sleep on at least 12 buses*. (I purchased 2 more bus tickets, but failed to use them).
  • In addition to all this traveling within and beyond Germany, I have transported all or most of my belongings across Berlin via public transit at least a dozen times.

While the above numbers can show a lot–such as why my marathon training has been less-than-ideal or the reason my suitcase wheels have broken… twice–they don’t show everything. Because although my math friends out there may disagree, the most important things in life cannot be quantitatively measured. So why did I bother compiling these stats and sharing them with you? Simple.

Because each of these numbers represents areas of growth.

You see, in the midst of all the apartment-hopping, research-tripping, and stuff-schlepping, I was also changing. And as a result, behind each of those numbers is an example of where I learned a little better how to handle life, rather than letting life handle me. Adulting can be hard; adulting in a foreign country (or foreign countries) can sometimes feel impossible. And although I had my fair share of anger-, frustration-, and tear-filled moments, the process of going through them–of having to figure out logistics, troubleshoot, and problem-solve–was not in vain. Because slowly, little by little, across these last 420 days, I grew. I learned to be self-sufficient. I gave up my constant need for a plan and for control. I adapted and went with the flow. I started to let go and to trust more easily. I became more grateful for the little things, like trans-Atlantic phone calls and unexpected hugs. And most importantly through this entire process, I think (or at least I hope) I became more like Christ.

And so it seems fitting that, as I look back over these last almost-fourteen months, He is the One who stands out. I can’t help thinking of a quote from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest: ‘Faith is unutterable trust in God, trust that never dreams He would not stand by us.’ Two years ago I typed those words on a digital sticky note on my computer’s home screen, in the hope that I would one day believe them. Now here at the end of my research year, I can say that–while my faith is still far from perfect–I trust Him more than ever before, and I know that He really does stand by us. In the midst of uncertainty and changes, He is faithful. And if we continue to seek Him, over time His faithfulness will water and tend the mustard-seed of faith inside our souls.

That said, my time abroad is almost at its end. In 6 days, I will be boarding a plane bound permanently or ‘für immer’ to the States. On the one hand, I have a good sense of what waits for me there: hugs from family, reconnecting with friends, and transitioning back into Atlanta grad-student life. I will no longer be lugging my belongings all over Europe, and I will finally be able to unpack my suitcases once and for all. But though I look forward to more stability and to having a place to call home, I also recognize that this ‘familiar’ life will bring its own challenges and uncertainties. I’m going to have to start actually writing my dissertation, reverse culture shock is real, and gosh darnit, Atlanta’s traffic will still be as terrible as ever. So in the midst of this transition, I’m going to choose to trust in my Savior, knowing that He who was with me these last 420 days will be with me on the other side of the Atlantic too. He is faithful; I’m trusting in that, hoping for that, and choosing to rest in it.

… Or I guess you could say that I’m ‘counting’ on it. 😉

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Last day at the Protestant Central Archive in Berlin!

(No) Going Solo

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Sushi Party! 🙂

I am a hopeless extrovert.

When I was younger and less self-aware, I tried my best to be introverted. I checked out dozens of library books at a time, so I could spend countless alone hours reading them… but even then my sisters and I would end up reading together or (worse) pretending we were make-believe librarians and patrons. After sixth grade, I got permission to take my Latin textbook home over the summer, so I could study grammar on my own. I used it twice, preferring to spend my days at the pool with my sisters instead. I even attempted to have an imaginary friend—I mean, how much more introverted can you get than that?—but it didn’t work. I got so bored. So I gave up and returned to real people. After all, they are much more exciting.

Despite these childhood attempts at denial, I think I’ve always known that I’m extroverted. Even in my early teens, I showed definite signs of needing to be with people. During one summer when I felt particularly lonely (none of my school friends lived nearby, and there were very few kids on my block), I habitually rode my bike around the neighborhood, just hoping that a new friend would magically appear. Pathetic, I know. Fortunately, though, for my sanity (and for my non-creeper status) I did make a new friend that summer. Courtney and I met at the swimming pool, and I spent the rest of the break hanging out with her and her 7 siblings. Talk about an extroverted dream-come-true.

But in case I wasn’t absolutely sure about my extroversion, I got an undeniable confirmation when I started grad school. During fall break of my first year, my roommates left town, which meant that I had the entire weekend to work uninterrupted on a term paper. Although I did no strenuous physical activity, got a decent amount of sleep, and drank plenty of way too much coffee, by the end of day three I was completely exhausted to the point that I could barely keep my eyes open. Somehow, though, I managed to muster up the energy to meet a couple friends for dinner. And then, like magic, within just a few minutes of hanging out, my body and brain had come back to life. This wilted extroverted flower had been revived, thanks to the water and sunshine of human interaction.

As I’ve gotten older and periodically put down more roots, my simple extroverted need for people has shifted and perhaps even matured. While I still enjoy small talk, I now crave deeper conversations and the community that often accompanies it. In the last several years, I have come to appreciate and long for this type of community more and more, and God has consistently provided it, at the Kanakuk Institute, in Atlanta, and now this year in Germany. He has continually brought wonderful people into my life—not just to quench my extroversion, but to encourage me and challenge me and help me to grow in my faith. Saying goodbye to these friends was the hardest part about leaving Atlanta, and again it was the most challenging thing about temporarily leaving Berlin this spring. I’m a quintessential people person who also needs community. And as I headed out for two months of research in Poland, I couldn’t help feeling rather discouraged and alone.

Yes, I knew that God was going with me. And yes, I knew I would still be able to talk with my family and friends at home and abroad. But the prospect of spending the summer by myself in Poland wasn’t exactly appealing. Don’t get me wrong; I love Poland. But apart from a few people in Krakow, I didn’t actually know anyone here. And since I’d only stay in each city for a few weeks at most, I didn’t foresee myself making any friends, let alone finding any real community.

But as you’ve probably figured out, God has a way of providing for our needs—and going above and beyond in the process. On my first Sunday in Wrocław, I visited an international church. By the time I returned home that afternoon, I’d already been prayed for, received a half dozen hugs, gotten at least that many phone numbers, and had been invited to Bible Study that Tuesday night. Later that week, I left my Airbnb studio apartment and moved in with a Polish girl from the church. Over the next four weeks, I went out to dinner and ice cream, attended a percussion recital/concert, watched Finding Dory (in Polish!), and ate a whole bunch of homemade sushi and chips and salsa (not together) while watching the Polish Eurocup soccer game. When I left Wroclaw this past Sunday, I was sad but also overwhelmingly grateful. I had come to Wroclaw feeling empty and spent, and I left completely refilled.

And as much as my inner-extrovert is happy, I don’t think my current joy stems from simply being around people. After all, one of the world’s loneliest places is in the middle of a crowd; encounters with people are not automatically life-giving. No, my heart is full because God used His people at the church in Wroclaw to minister to me. He used them to listen to me, to laugh with me, to pray with me, and to give me lots of hugs. And in the process, He reminded me that we weren’t made to go it alone. In the Christian family, there can be no “Lone Rangers” or “Hans Solos”. For although God can and does encourage us individually, He often most clearly channels His love to us through other believers. That’s one of the reasons why in His almost-last words to His disciples, Jesus instructed them to love one another, because through this the world would know they are His people.

And that is exactly what I experienced in Wroclaw: God used His people to encourage my soul. And even though I was physically present with the Wroclaw community for just a few weeks, I will never forget their hospitality and kindness. And I really will thank God every time I remember them–both for their encouragement and for reminding me so tangibly of the value of community.

Alright, that’s enough blogging for today. I need some human interaction. Anyone up for a quick phone call? 😉

Schlepp-tastic

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My last three weeks. Proof that not all travel is Instagram-worthy.

I. Hate. Packing.

And by “hate”, I mean that I would rather be hung upside down by my toes while being tickled, be stuck watching Groundhog Day on repeat, or spend an entire day doing nothing but coloring books. In other words, packing is one of my very least favorite things to do.

Why do I hate it so much? So many reasons.

  1. It’s stressful. You have to think through so many potential outcomes and plan for them. And no matter how hard I try, I still manage to forget something essential.
  2. I have an over-packing problem. Even when I was a kid, I would manage to fill a massive duffel bag every time we took weekend trip. And to this day, no matter how hard I try, my luggage is still always at—or slightly over—the weight limit.
  3. Whatever you pack, you then have to carry.

The most memorable example of #3 happened when I was leaving Austria. When I booked my ticket, the two 50-pound bags were still permitted on international flights. On the night before I returned to the States, I left my suitcases in a train-station locker on the way to the airport, so I wouldn’t have to haul them across town the next day. What I failed to notice, though, was that this particular train station was under construction. Which meant that a) I had to navigate a series of zig-zagging hallways to get out of the station, b) throughout these hallways were scattered random sets of stairs, and c) of courses there were no working elevators. As a result, what should have been an easy exit became a weight-lifting obstacle course. In mid-July. By the time I finally escaped the train station and made it to the airport, I was, quite literally, a hot—and very sweaty—mess. Not a great way to start a 9-hour flight.

That was 6 years ago. I’ve done a lot of traveling since then, so you’d think by now I’d be a professional packer. And in many ways, I have definitely improved. I’ve since invested in a lighter suitcase (which makes such a difference), I’ve discovered the trick of rolling your clothes to make them fit, and I now own a small traveling scale, so I can check the weight of my luggage before I get to the airport.

But probably the biggest game-changer has been my new packing strategy. Several days before I leave, I commandeer a large open space (usually my younger sister’s bedroom. Thanks, Rascal.) and make several piles: of must-bring, of maybe-bring, and bring only if absolutely necessary. Then I spend the next few days sifting through and rearranging the piles. By the time my trip rolls around, I know that I have what I actually need.

This worked really well for my flight to Europe last summer. I managed to fit an entire year’s worth of things into a single 50-pound suitcase. But unfortunately, I’ve had to pack many times since then, most recently for a three-week research trip in south-central Germany. And because the start of this trip coincided with the end of my lease in Berlin, I also needed to move the rest of my belongings to store them at a friend’s place. And thanks to timing (getting back from a short weekend trip that Sunday and flying out early Monday morning), I couldn’t follow my “start early, eliminate often” strategy. And that’s how I got stuck lugging around an unnecessarily heavy suitcase for three weeks.

Side note: you don’t realize how much stuff you have—or how heavy things are—until you have to carry them everywhere via public transit. And I had to carry them everywhere: in the last 22 days, I’ve stayed in a total of 9 places, which means that I have also moved my belongings at least nine times. And the midst of all this stuff-schlepping, I had ample time to contemplate why the heck I was carrying all of this stuff and to ask myself why in the world it was so darn heavy.

I already knew the reason, though. Because I didn’t get to take out the random extra things before I left. On their own, those little things were basically nothing, but together they added up. If I had just been able to reevaluate my suitcase’s contents, I would have had a much more pleasant journey… and my shoulders wouldn’t hurt so badly right now.

As I was dragging the suitcase (yet again) through Berlin yesterday, I realized something: in the same way that I was dragging around more than was necessary in my suitcase, I often lug around more than I should spiritually. Whether it’s “big things” like getting a job or “small things” like where I am going to research next, I tend to schlepp around way more in my spiritual suitcase than God intended. Instead of lugging them around endlessly, He wants me to carry them to Him. That’s why 1 Peter 5:7 says, “Cast all your anxieties upon Him, for He cares for you” and Psalm 68:19 tells us that God “daily bears our burdens.” But because God respects us, He won’t just take them away; He asks us to bring them to Him in prayer. And it doesn’t just happen; we have to actively do it. In the same way that I pack the lightest when I take the time reevaluate, I also live most freely when I consistently take stock of my cares and consciously give them to the Lord.

Alright, that’s enough writing for today. I leave for the States for 10 days tomorrow, and I need to finish packing…

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No, that’s not staged. That’s actually how my suitcase looked as I was writing this blog post. 

Going to Pot(tery)

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I’ve done a lot of dumb things in my time, and I’ll be the first to admit that my life feels like a long series of blonde moments. And while this inherent blondeness permeates most all areas of my life, it manifests itself most acutely while I am traveling.

The first problem is my poor sense of direction. Although this had been a “known issue” for my entire life, my parents first recognized its extent during my senior year of high school. That winter I was started taking an acting class at a theater downtown. I had taken this route dozens of times in the past, but this winter was my first time driving there on my own. After the class finished at 10 p.m., I drove myself home… until I found myself at a Waffle House in the middle of nowhere. Trying to keep my composure, I called my mom, and together (with the help of Google Maps) we pieced together where I was and the route I needed to take. For 18th birthday a couple weeks later, I received a Garmin GPS with my parents’ encouraging explanation: “so you don’t die.” Sweet.

Other times, logistical problems have been my downfall. For instance, during my semester in Austria, I planned to meet a friend in Ireland over Easter break. To do this, I needed to take a train from Graz to Vienna and then another train to Bratislava, where I would catch a flight to Dublin. All should have gone perfectly except for one tiny detail: I forgot to check where the airport was in relation to the train station. Turns out that, like most airports, Bratislava one was a good ways out of town. After a very expensive taxi ride, I did catch my flight, but I left my some of my pride at the Bratislava train station.

And sometimes I fall victim to plain, old-fashioned mix-ups. One of the most memorable happened over Thanksgiving weekend my senior year of college. The Oklahoma State-Oklahoma “Bedlam” football match-up was in Stillwater that year, so my sisters and I decided to cut our break short in order to cheer on our cowboys. Here I should note that the trip to Stillwater is ridiculously simple. It takes exactly 5 hours door-to-door with 2 left turns: one to get on I-35 heading south from Kansas City and one to get on Highway 51 heading into Stillwater. Back when I chose to attend OSU (not long after my accidental Waffle House experience), my parents exclaimed with relief, “The drive is so simple, not even you can mess it up!” And I hadn’t messed it up—until that Saturday. About halfway through our trip, we pulled off for a bathroom break at a rest stop. In this section of the Interstate, the only rest areas are McDonalds/gas station complexes located between the north- and south-bound highways. When we pulled off, the parking lot on the south-bound side was full (apparently everyone was going to Bedlam), so I drove around to the other side. After we’d taken care of business, we got back on the highway and continued our trip… and then we started seeing signs for Wichita again. Yep, you guessed it; I got straight back on the highway, having forgotten that I’d driven around to the other side. Navigational Universe: 1; Steffi: 0.

These are just a few select examples; the actual list goes on and on. So it’s safe to conclude that, when it comes to travel, I’m not exactly the sharpest bulb in the box or the brightest knife in the drawer. But although these above examples are each unfortunate, one of the most embarrassing, most frustrating, and most discouraging of my failed travel experiences happened two weeks ago. Let me explain.

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you’ll know that I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Poland. But you probably don’t know that I am mildly obsessed with Polish pottery. It’s colorful and bright, every piece is handmade, and it’s incredibly inexpensive—what’s not to love?! But although I love Polish pottery, I don’t own much of it. So I decided to change that, by buying some pottery to take back to the States when I’m there for wedding in May. The best place to purchase this pottery is in an itty-bitty town called Bolesławiec, where the factories—and, more importantly, the factory outlets—are located. The easiest way to reach this town is by car, but since I have a fear of driving on the German Autobahn, I decided to go via public transit. The only way to do this was as follows: take a 6 a.m. bus from Berlin to Görlitz (on the German-Polish border) and then 2 trains from Görlitz to Bolesławiec; reverse said route to reach Berlin again at 12:30 a.m. When I checked my schedule, the best and perhaps the only time for this crazy all-day shopping safari was Saturday April 16th. And so I booked my tickets, put my soon-to-be-filled carryon suitcase by the door, set my alarm for 4:47 a.m. and went to bed.

The morning came far too quickly, but I still managed to get to the Berlin Südkreuz station a whole 15 minutes before my scheduled departure. And then I waited…. and waited… and waited. No bus came, and since the one bus in the lot didn’t have my destination listed, I assumed it wasn’t mine. Plus, I expected the bus to be coming from the main station, as was the case for my trip to Groβ Särchen (aka “hotdog town”) a few weeks before. And so I didn’t think anything of it… until it pulled away and no other buses came. With a sinking feeling in my stomach and a rising panic in my chest, I called the 24/7 bus service line, and—you guessed it—that non-labeled bus was mine. I had perfectly organized my trip, woke up well before dawn, and shivered for 15 minutes only to stand stupidly on the sidewalk and watch as my bus drove away. Epic. Fail.

But I wasn’t just upset; I was livid. How could I have been so stupid? Was my brain not screwed on straight? Why didn’t I think to just ask the bus driver? Why didn’t the bus driver ask me if I was one of his passengers? (after all, I clearly fit the description of ‘female passenger with hand luggage’ that was surely on his checklist). What the heck was wrong with me? My self-loathing soon mixed with tears, as the early-morning state of sleep deprivation began to take its toll. Angry, frustrated, and embarrassed, I took my still-empty carryon home and went back to bed.

A two-hour nap and some coffee later, I sat down to journal through what had happened. I’d clearly made a mistake—and a pretty laughable one, at that—but why did I react so strongly? And why, of all the emotions that I felt (including anger, frustration, and sadness) did shame and embarrassment rank toward the top? After all, no one besides my mom and a select few friends even knew about my day trip to Poland. Shame and embarrassment stem from the judgment, expected or real, of others. So if no one besides my closest friends and my mom knew I messed up—and their response would be to give me a virtual transatlantic hug—why did I feel so embarrassed and ashamed?

I puzzled over this question for several minutes, between sips of much-needed coffee. And as so often happens when I prayerfully journal, I soon arrived at an answer: I had made an idol of my own competence. Or put differently, I had made “not making really dumb mistakes” central to my worth and identity.

You see, as much as I make self-deprecating jokes and share my failures and misadventures on this blog, deep down I long to have it all together. Yes, I enjoy making people laugh with my often-unfortunate exploits, but if I’m honest, I’d much rather do things right the first time and not make dumb mistakes. And while I think it’s normal to want that—after all, who wants to be a basket case all the time?—at some point I took it too far. Somewhere along the way, I crossed over from a normal/good desire to be on top of things into making it my identity. And when you place your identity in anything finite, when you start to see yourself through any earthly lens, it will inevitably shatter.

But fortunately for me, and for all of us, the story doesn’t have to end there. As soon as I recognized my sin, God was quick to remind me of His grace: Christ died for me. And because of that, I am immeasurably valuable, incredibly treasured, and unbelievably loved. God’s love for me and what Christ did for me—these are what define me. These make up the core of my identity. Yes, I may try to find my worth in other things, be it academics, accolades, or successfully catching a 6 a.m. bus. But even as I chase after these other sources of worth, God always reins me back in, gently shattering my mirror of false identity and lifting my gaze back to the Cross, where it belongs.

Alright, that’s enough for today. I think I’ll spend the evening planning another trip… 😉

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Yes, I did end up making it to Boleslawiec a couple days later. The locals were clearly happy to see me. 

 

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.” 🙂

Perfect “Time”-ing

This semester has been a whirlwind.

The next step after passing my exams in December was teaching my own class. “The Making of Modern Europe”, as the class is cleverly named, covers almost 500 years of—you guessed it—European history. We’re currently in week 6, and we’ve made it from the Reformation through the 1880s. Yikes. On a practical level, this means that every Tuesday and Thursday, 24 undergraduates show up in room 118 because they want to learn from what I have to say… and they don’t want to lose points due to my strict attendance policy. To get ready for these 75-minute class sessions, I spend significant time writing lectures, making PowerPoints, and searching for nerdy history memes like these:

newton meme

einstein you matter

And, of course, the occasional YouTube video:

As you can see, it’s been a lot of work (there aren’t as many appropriate history memes out there as you would think!), but also a lot of fun. After all, I’ve always loved a captive audience, haha.

In addition to teaching, I’ve also been hard at work writing my dissertation prospectus. “Prospectus” is a fancy academic-sounding word for “proposal.” Although these can range drastically in length (I’ve seen some that are 55 pages long), in theory this should be 20-page document explaining the background, logistics, and purpose of the project that will consume the next 3-5 years of my life. No pressure, right? At the end of March, I will “defend” my prospectus before my committee (ie, faculty who work on similar things) and a public audience comprised of whoever wants to come. Since I’m scheduled to defend next month, I need to have my project well defined and well-articulated very, very soon. Last week, I had a major epiphany about what I’m doing, which was fantastic, but it also meant that I needed to completely rewrite my earlier proposals. And since my advisor and I agreed on an “internal deadline” of this Tuesday for her to review my proposal before I sent it to my committee, I suddenly had a lot of work to do.

So, if this semester has been a whirlwind, then this past week was an F5 tornado. Not only did I need to plan my usual two lectures (and locate the accompanying memes), but I needed to rethink, research for, and rewrite my prospectus. Add to that the fact that I had promised my students I would their first papers and provide a study guide for the midterm by Thursday, and I suddenly had a lot on my plate.

Now, I’ve been through stressful and high-pressure weeks before. One doesn’t finish college and get through 2.5 years of graduate school without a fair share of late nights (or all-nighters), near-overdoses on coffee, and coming down to the deadline-wire. In that sense then, this week was nothing new. Infrequent, yes. Unpleasant, definitely. But not unfamiliar.

In theory.

In reality, this week was very different. But not because of the stress level, but because I was in a terrible mood for much of it. As in, abysmally bad. Like, getting annoyed with pedestrians for crossing the street. Or wanting to curse out a driver (*cough* multiple drivers) for not using a turn signal. Or with virtually anyone who got in my way or made my life even slightly more difficult. Even when I was serving at church, I found myself wanting to reprimand a toddler for simply being too toddler-y. Yep. I was a mess. And all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball, pull the covers over my head, and let the bad mood pass. But, thanks to the aforementioned tasks looming on my to-do list, “sleeping it off” was the last thing I had time to do.

To make matters worse, I couldn’t figure out what the heck was wrong. I don’t normally hate pedestrians (in fact, as a runner, I usually am the pedestrian), I don’t usually use mental expletives while driving, and I never before in my life have gotten so frustrated with a toddler. What in the world was wrong?

Then on Monday evening as I was stewing, I found a common denominator in my recent moments of irritation: I felt pressed for time. The pedestrian crossing the street made me slow down, the guy without the blinker ended up getting in my way, and I would have rather been working on my prospectus than watching the toddler. I felt like I wouldn’t get everything done, and so I reacted with anger and frustration.

A year or so ago, I read a book called Time Peace, in which Ellen Vaughn makes a similar observation. She argues that our responses to life are intricately linked to our view of time. If we think we have too little time, we will be stressed out and explosive. But if we believe we have enough time, we are more apt to be patient, loving, and kind to those we meet and to ourselves.

Vaughn then insists that our perception of time directly relates to our view of God: if we believe that He is eternal (ie, that He exists outside of time) and that He has unlimited resources at His disposal, then we can trust Him to provide us ample time for us. Ultimately, then, it’s not “our” time anyway; God gives us time to steward and use for His Kingdom purposes.

Not every time I get moody can be explained by my view of time. Stress is a real thing, deadlines are scary, and sometimes life truly does seem to ask more of us than we can handle. But even in those times—especially in those times—our Heavenly Father desires for us to turn to Him, so He can provide us with the energy, grace, and time we desperately need. For in the midst of the chaos, the deadlines, and the stress, He is our Source of peace and rest. The Psalmist captures this well:

“But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in Your hand.”

Well, that’s enough for today. I need to start looking for memes for Tuesday’s lecture… 😉

einstein space time