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. 😉

eza-selfie
Last day at the Protestant Central Archive in Berlin!
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The Life of a Library Troll

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Steffi, aka “the library troll”, hard at work on her second written exam.

Hello, Blogosphere. It’s been a long time. Too long of a time. I have missed you. (And for the sake of my fragile self-esteem, I am going to tell myself that you missed me too.)

What kept me away? So glad you asked. I was studying for and then taking my PhD exams. Which meant that for the last 3+ months I did basically nothing but eat, sleep, and study… while occasionally skipping the first two. For all practical purposes, I lived in my study on the 5th floor of the library, becoming familiar with every one of its quirks, like how often (or not often) they cleaned the bathrooms and which students preferred to study at which carrels (I also gave nicknames to and had odd interactions with some of them, but I won’t go into that here). During these months, my main source of humor became awkward book titles like this:

tongue

…and, I’m ashamed to admit, the occasional cat video.

From the day I returned to the US in mid-August until I began my exams in mid-November, my life quite literally revolved around studying. I timed my working hours to match the bus schedule, spending most evenings in the library until the last shuttle left campus at 8. My definition of a “good day” shifted to mean “a day when I put my makeup on before getting to school”. By the end, it further devolved to mean “a day when I manage to put on makeup at all”. I essentially lived in my study room in the library; if I could have gotten my mail there, I would. Case in point: I kept a change of clothes, a blanket, and a stockpile of Dove chocolate in my file cabinet (who needs files anyway?). I befriended the staff at the café in the library’s basement, and I do not want to think about  how much money I spent on coffee—let alone how much caffeine I consumed, often in a single day. Besides the coffee baristas, my most consistent human interaction was with a) the library security guards and b) the staff at the book checkout counter. By the end, I’d expanded this social network to include those at the Music and Media library, where I stopped in every three days to renew my seasons of Downton Abbey. Outside of school, my life was pretty much nonexistent, or stripped down to the bare minimum: I slept, exercised, read my Bible and went to church, and (very occasionally) bought food and cooked it. And in an exceptional burst of energy—egad!—I attended a Halloween party. In other words, life was rough.

Steffi temporarily escapes the library to attend a Halloween party.
Steffi temporarily escapes the library to attend a Halloween party.

And I complained about it. A lot. Especially to my friend Ashley, who was also studying for her exams and happened to live in have a study room twoaway from mine. Misery truly loves company. In one of my lower moments (*cough* one of my many lower moments), I said, “Ashley, I hate my life.” To which she compassionately replied, “That’s okay; it will be over soon.” I respond by laughing uncontrollably. The rule that the 5th floor is a “quiet floor” clearly shouldn’t apply to permanent residents, haha.

And if exams weren’t bad enough, I also had deadlines for external grants. You see, as a European history student, I will need to spend next year doing research abroad (I know, I know. Tough life.) But to do that, I will need external funding. And in order to get that funding, I had to apply for grants. And to be able to apply, I needed to know what exactly my project would be. Which meant that, in addition to plowing through the 400ish books on my exams lists, I needed to get through a smaller mountain of literature for my project. After which I had to write convincing, succinct, and engaging proposals that would persuade people to give me lots of money. All of this needed to happen while I prepared for exams that would determine whether I could continue in the program. No pressure.

So as you can see, the months leading up to exams were rough. And the exams themselves weren’t exactly a walk in the park. At noon on three different days (November 17, 20, 24), I received a set of questions and was expected to submit my response by noon the next day. This meant writing for 12 hours straight, going home to “sleep” (or more accurately, to toss and turn for hours only to have nightmares about footnotes), and waking up before dawn to revise and submit. In the end, I wrote 79 pages in 72 hours before collapsing into Thanksgiving break. Last Thursday, I had my oral exam, during which my committee members (all 5 of them) could ask me any question they wanted about what I had written (or hadn’t written) and the material I’d read. Talk about an academic hazing ritual.

Even before coming to grad school, I’d been dreading this process. And for the last two years I had watched in quiet horror as the date moved closer, and the temporal gap between me and these awful, awful tests grew smaller and smaller. How in the world would I make it through all the material? And what if, after reading and studying for months on end, I still wasn’t good enough? What if they didn’t pass me? What if I didn’t have what it takes?

These thoughts plagued me on and off for the last two years, and most intensely, for the last three months. And then all of a sudden–or, more accurately, after 45 minutes of the oral exam–they were over. Done. In the past. And before I knew it, my advisor was giving me a huge hug and telling me that I’d passed.

It’s already been a week since that moment, and the initial euphoria has long since worn off. I made so many ecstatic phone calls (this is the closest I’ve experienced to getting engaged, haha—so many people to tell!), got a ridiculous number of likes on my Facebook status (again, like getting engaged), and have finally returned to a semi-normal schedule. And as bizarre as it feels to sleep in, bake cookies, and not look at my computer for an entire day, the thought I can’t seem to shake is this: They’re over. And I did it.

At so many points along the way, I didn’t believe I would make it… and in the beginning, I was angry and bitter about having to do this. Taking these exams was the last thing I wanted to do. But at some point my mindset shifted, and I found myself buckling down and learning to bear it, taking it one day (or book) at a time. Some days were better than others. And some days all I wanted to do was cry. But by God’s grace, I kept putting one foot in front of the other, trying to trust that every day brought me closer to where I needed to be. And apparently that’s what happened, because the exams are over, and I passed.

This is the first of what I’m sure will be many blog posts about my exams experience (when that’s all you do for 3 months, you have very few other topics to write about, haha), and so I resist the temptation to cram in everything I’ve learned. Instead, I’d like to end this first entry with this quote by Oswald Chambers. I read it in early August, back when this crazy awful adventure was just beginning, and it stuck with me through this whole process:

“God does not give us overcoming life: He gives us life as we overcome. The strain is the strength. If there is no strain, there is no strength. Are you asking God to give you life and liberty and joy? He cannot, unless you will accept the strain. Immediately you face the strain, you will get the strength…”

I now think I understand–at least partially–why God chooses to let us go through difficulties rather than bailing us out of them: If we don’t go through the strain, if we never face the gauntlet, then we’ll miss out on the strength. I used to wonder if difficulties were worth it, and I couldn’t see why God would let us experience the hard times. But now I get it. Only by facing our challenges, only by rising up to and overcoming them do we grow and do we move one step closer who God intended us to be. There are no spiritual short cuts; we don’t get to teleport to Mordor to destroy the ring. God has always been more concerned with the process anyway; that’s why this whole discipleship-thing takes a lifetime. No, it’s not always fun. Yes, we will complain, want to quit, and (more often than we care to admit) curl up in a ball and cry. But it’s the perseverance, the “stick-to-it-iveness”, the pressing on that matters to God. In the strain, our character is forged.  And through the hardship our faith moves from the sentimental to the substantial.

No, I didn’t enjoy the last three months, and I (quite literally) thank God that I’ll never have to go through exams like this again. But at the same time, as much as it stunk, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Because in addition to all the “book-learning”, I learned firsthand the value of perseverance and endurance. And that, I suppose, makes all the endless days of studying worthwhile.

Phew, that wore me out. Does anyone know of a good coffee shop not in the library? 😉

Having been freed from the library, Steffi celebrates. :)
Having been freed from her study, Steffi (formerly known as the “library troll”) celebrates. 🙂

My Kansas Comfort Zone

Kansas :)

Kansas. My home, sweet home on the range. Although I’ve never actually seen “the deer and the antelope” play (probably because I grew up in the suburbs), I am a Kansas girl through and through. I love wide open spaces, sunsets that take up the whole sky, and—gluten intolerance aside—waves and waves of amber-colored grain.

Having lived elsewhere for the last 7 years, I like to shamelessly exploit my Kansas-ness as often as possible. For instance, whenever I meet someone new and they ask me, “Where are you from?”, I always reply, “Kansas…. But I’m not in Kansas anymore.” For my birthday, my mom surprised me with a real, true, honest-to-goodness Dorothy costume, complete with ruby-red slippers, and I’ve been brainstorming places to where it ever since. Kansas-isms even pop up in my daily vocabulary. Without thinking, I frequently find myself saying things like…

-“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” (No sense worrying about that yet.)

-“This is slower than molasses in January.” (Molasses is thick. January is cold. Enough said.)

-“Let’s not circle the wagons here.” (Don’t freak out and become unnecessarily defensive.)

-“The pioneers get the arrows; the settlers get the land.” (The more morbid human version of “the early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”)

In case all y’all (the plural form of “y’all”) couldn’t tell, I am truly a Kansas girl at heart. Sure, I may make the occasional disparaging comment about its being a “flyover state” or literally the middle of nowhere (to those of you who can’t find Kansas on a map, here’s a hint: it’s in the exact center of the continental U.S.), but deep down inside I really do love my home state. I’m proud of our Civil War heritage, I love that KU invented basketball (and has been dominating it ever since), and I will defend KC barbeque as the best until the day I die. I can’t imagine being from anywhere else.

But as much as I love the land of Dorothy and Clark Kent, I’ve discovered some downsides to growing up in Kansas. Because I am from Kansas, I have a natural aversion to the following things:

Hiking: In general, hiking requires hills, and in Kansas, we don’t have many of those. In fact, I’ve showed pictures of the Flint Hills–in my opinion, the hilliest and most beautiful part of Kansas–to my Georgia friends, and they respond with, “That’s nice. But where are the hills?” And unfortunately, they are right. Compared to Georgia, Kansas is flatter than the backside of a cow pie. As a result of spending most of my life in Kansas, I had never been hiking.

Rock Climbing: No, one doesn’t need actual mountains in order to rock climb, but as sources of inspiration they sure come in handy. Because Kansas is severely lacking in mountainous regions, rock climbing for fun never really crossed my mind.

Heights in general: In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, Kansas doesn’t have many high places or large drop-offs. I first realized how deeply this flatness had infiltrated my psyche when my family visited the Grand Canyon before my junior year of high school. We stayed at a hotel about half a mile from the edge—and I felt perpetually on edge. Don’t get me wrong; it was beautiful. It just wasn’t my cup of unsweetened tea.

Needless to say, moving to a state full of mountains and hills and trees (so many trees! Oh my!) came as a bit of a shock. And then when my new friends asked me to do things like go hiking, rock climbing and other heights-related things, I didn’t know what to do. Part of me wanted to join them—after all, I love a good adventure—but the other part of me was scared. So for my first year here, I didn’t join them. I stayed home as they camped and hiked and climbed parts of the Appalachian Trail. Pulling the “I’m from Kansas so I don’t like _____ activities” card, I missed out on a lot of fun.

But though Kansas was a convenient scapegoat (states don’t usually argue back), in my heart I knew that it wasn’t really to blame. Because as much as I wanted to pin my apparent disinterest on my upbringing or origins, deep down I knew the truth:

I was scared.

Scared of failure, scared of embarrassment, scared of trying something new and being utterly, terribly and hopelessly bad at it. Imagining all the possible worst-case scenarios and the humiliation that would inevitably come with it, I concluded that it would be better not to try. After all, if you don’t take the risk, you have no chance to fail, right? That felt safer. And safer felt better.

But is it?

Over Christmas break, I sat with that question, looked myself hard in the eye, and finally gave an honest answer. No, safer is not better when “safer” is the product of unfounded fear. Better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all. And try I would. I made it my New Year’s resolution to try hiking and camping and rock climbing and all the other non-Kansasy things that had scared me for so long. I’m only a month into this heights-filled journey and it’s come with some bumps and bruises (both emotional and literal), but it’s been so rewarding and liberating thus far.

So here’s to stepping out of comfort zones (Kansas or otherwise) and to the life—real, true life—that is waiting on the other side.

… Hopefully, we don’t just end up in Missouri. 😉

Braid pic atop a peak during my first 11-mile hike. :)
Braid pic atop a Georgia peak during my first 11-mile hike. 🙂

Just Dance

“Always do the thing that scares you.”

Maybe I heard this quote in a movie. Or on a bumper sticker. Or in a fortune cookie. I’ve never been good at remembering sources of quotes. Which probably means I’m a bad history major. Oops.

Anyway, regardless of where I heard this quote, it really stuck with me. In many ways, I try to follow its advice.  My affinity for backfliping off the flying trapeze into the swimming pool at Kamp and my desire to gallivant in non-English-speaking European countries are both prime examples of this. Overall, I consider myself to a gutsy, daring, chutzpa-filled person. Except in one instance.

Recreational dance class.

I know what you are probably thinking: why in the world is a girl majoring in history and German and minoring in Religious Studies take a Recreational Dance class? Well, back in the day when I was just a wee little prospective OSU student, I went on a campus tour. Before this tour, we watched a promotional video. And in this promotional video, a student talked about his recreational dance class. At that precise moment, I decided to take a recreational dance class. Now, four years later and in my final semester of college, I finally got around to doing it.

Here I should interject that I don’t have a fear of dancing. On the contrary, I’ve always had a certain fondness for it. When I was really young, my parents enrolled me in tap dance classes, and by fifth grade, I was in classes with the high school girls at my studio. And if music has any kind of distinct beat—especially the Europop or Techno variety (For a sample of the music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-Mwh3PL6h8)—I will most likely bust a move or at least be very tempted to. So dancing itself isn’t the issue. It’s the “social” aspect that, well, complicates things.

You see, I’m a girl. In “social dance” lingo, that means I’m a follower. So I, along with my fellow females, get to follow the leaders, i.e. the guys. In theory, this is incredibly simple; I shouldn’t even have to think about anything, since I just do what the guy leads me to do. Spinning? Sure! The pretzel? No problem! The Candlestick? You betcha!… In theory. As William Shakespeare said, “Aye, there’s the rub.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myJj0mNNe1Y&feature=related)

Unfortunately, for me dancing isn’t just a simple game of “Follow the Leader”. No, it’s “Follow the Leader” meets “Simon Says” set to a specific rhythm and minus the actual instructions. In other words, it’s complicated. For some girls (including most of my classmates), this is piece of cake. Easy as pie. Cool as a cucumber (I thought I’d toss in a healthy food idiom for good a change. Why are all our idioms about junk food?). But alas, for me, this following-to-music business is not so basic. Put simply, I stink at it.

BUT that’s okay. At least, I’m convincing myself that it is. Because no matter how bad I think I am now, I know for a fact that I was far worse before taking this class. So regardless of whether I manage to perfect the Candlestick or if I still get hopelessly twisted up during the Pretzel or fail to miss obvious cues from the leader about how he is going to spin me, it’s ultimately going to be okay. Why? Because I’m doing it.

Before I went to the first session at the beginning of the semester, I seriously contemplated dropping the class. I made lame excuses that my schedule was too busy and I wanted to have my late Monday and Wednesday afternoons free to do other things, but the truth was simple. I was scared. I knew I was a terrible dancer, and I knew I would likely have a hard time in the class, and quitting before I started seemed like an easy way out—an easy way out and a HUGE mistake.

You see, if I hadn’t taken dance, I would have cheated myself out of so much. I would never have learned the difference between the East Coast and Western Swing dances; I would have never figured out how to two-step without tripping over myself, and I would have never met the fun and amazing people who make my Mondays and Wednesdays so much brighter. But most importantly, I would have never realized that I can dance and that dancing is really, really, really fun. And that, in and of itself, would have been a borderline tragedy.

Comfort zones aren’t a bad thing; don’t get me wrong. It’s important to have a place where you feel safe and secure, where you know what you are capable of doing and doing well. However, the longer I live, the more I realize that it’s hard to grow and to learn within the climate-controlled, plush-lined, freshly scented confines of your comfort zone. It’s too, well, comfortable. True self-discovery, genuine adventure, and moreover real life awaits us on the outside. So don’t spend the rest of your life as a wallflower. Do the thing that most scares you and step onto that proverbial dance floor… Even if you have two left feet.