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.
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Just Say “No”

Poland Cztery 111

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved words. Especially big ones.

My all-time favorite long English word (featured on my “About Steffi” page—yes, this word should feel special) is arachibutyrophobia, which is the fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth. Onomatopoeia (BOOM!) is another quintessential choice, and you really can’t go wrong with words like jurisprudence, rhododendron and flabbergasted.

At some point, I got bored with long English words. (Sorry, “antidisestablishmentarianism.” You just aren’t that cool. And let’s be honest, your “anti” and “dis” technically cancel each other out, and then all you have left is “establishmentarianism.”) So I decided to move onto bigger- and better-worded pastures. And where did I land? In German, of course. When I looked around and saw words like Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän (Danube steamship company captain), siebentausendzweihundertvierundfünfzig (7,254) and Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (beef labeling regulation & delegation of supervision law), I knew I’d found my Heimat.

This summer’s Polish intensive course added a new element to my long-word language obsession. Even though the words were substantially shorter than the aforementioned German giants, the consonant clusters should count for extra credit. Words like przepraszam (excuse me), dziewiȩtdziesiąt (90) and proszȩ przechodzić przez skrzyżowanie (please cross at the crosswalk)—these are the stuff of Slavic language learner’s nightmares (No lie. When the Russian students at Pitt complained about their language, their teacher would show the crosswalk sentence… and they never grumbled again).

And yet despite conquering the absurd precision of German and the next-to-impossible dreaded Polish consonant clusters, my hardest word is still one of the shortest in the English language. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to master this monosyllabic morpheme:

“No.”

That’s right, these two letters—or rather, the lack of these two letters—have caused me more trouble than any German, Polish, or antidisestablished word combined. For some reason, I have a ridiculously hard time saying no.

In high school, this meant that I was over-committed to too many things. The best (or worst) example comes from the second semester of my junior year when I found myself taking two AP classes, running varsity track, playing club volleyball, in charge of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and in the spring main-stage play—all at the same time. (I remember one particular afternoon when I had triple-booked myself and had no idea how to be three places at once… and then we had a snow day. Thanks for enabling me, nature!) College wasn’t much better, and I managed to fill up my plate(s) yet again to overflowing. If you’ve ever tried to keep full plates spinning, let me tell you a secret: it inevitably makes a big mess. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by the time I reached grad school, but history repeated itself (no pun intended). And that’s how I found myself exhausted, burnt out, and on the edge of tears when I arrived at my church’s small group leader retreat two weeks ago.

The week had been terrible—another classic instance of Steffi taking on too much and not saying no. As president of my university’s Graduate History Society, I’d been in charge of not one, not two, but three GHS events that week in addition to taking three courses and TAing for one. By the time I got to the retreat that Saturday morning, I was spent. And Ashley, my Education Pastor, could tell.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“Okay,” I replied.

“Really?” (with one eyebrow visibly raised)

“No,” I admitted.

“I didn’t think so. Let’s talk.”

So we did. In the course of a very tear-and-snot-filled hour and a half, God used Ashley to show me His heart—and the value of saying “no.” You see, all my life I’d never felt good enough. Yes, God had opened doors for me to do the things I love (like learning Polish this summer or going to graduate school for history), but I never felt content with it. Or more accurately, I could never let myself be content. Instead, I felt guilty about God’s blessings, so rather than receiving them with gratitude, I tried to add to them the things that I thought were somehow “more valuable,” such as leading a small group at church or doing one more extracurricular leadership activity. Driven by shame and fear, I constantly overcompensated and wound up over-committed… which left me feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, and guilty. Because nothing I did—and nothing I could add to my already-full spinning plates—was able fill the void I felt inside. And ironically, my attempts to add meaning and purpose to my life caused me to miss the calling God had so lovingly, graciously (and let’s be honest) obviously placed in front of me. By trying to make myself better, I was missing out on God’s best for me.

And so I said “no” to being a small group leader this year—a very unexpected take-away from the small group leader retreat, to say the least! Though in hindsight, I shouldn’t have said “yes” in the first place, God was sovereign over that decision too: if I hadn’t initially agreed to be a leader, I would have missed out on a huge lesson about a very little word. You see, contrary to popular (or at least, Steffi) belief, saying “no” isn’t a sign of failure or weakness. Rather, it’s an indicator of maturity and strength. While I definitely have a long way to go, I’m starting to understand that sometimes the best way to say “yes” to God is to say “no” to something else. As finite human beings, we can’t do everything, but by God’s grace we can do some things to make His kingdom come—things He’s specifically prepared in advance for us to do. With His help, I’m going to follow His call wherever He leads. So here’s to living in freedom and obedience…

…one two-letter word at a time. 🙂

A very serendipitously timed text message from this week.
A very serendipitous (big word!) text message from this week.

(78) Days of Summer

You meet the coolest people at foreign language programs, and these friends prove it. :)
You meet the coolest people at foreign language programs, and these friends prove it!

Das Leben ist ein Abenteuer. Życie jest przygoda. Life is an adventure. And for me, so was this summer.

This particular adventure began last October. My advisor was in town for a few weeks, taking a break from her sabbatical in Germany. She invited me to lunch and over a dish of gluten-free pasta asked me the question that every first-year graduate student dreads: “What exactly do you want to study?” I was about to reply that I wasn’t sure, that I was still trying to figure it out, and that I needed a little more time when out of my pasta-filled mouth popped, “I think I’m interested in Eastern Europe.” To which she immediately replied, “Well, I guess you need to learn a Slavic language. How about Polish?” So after lunch, I got on the Internet and ran a search for Polish language programs in the US. I found two that looked promising: a ten-week program in Pittsburgh with an abroad component in Krakow and an eight-week one in Indiana. So I decided to apply to both. If I got in and got funding for one of them, great. If not, then I’d find something else to do. Simple, right?

All winter long, though, I found myself worrying. What if this was just another dumb Steffi idea that sounded promising but then turned out to be a waste of everyone’s time and money? After all, if I didn’t get some kind of scholarship, there was no way I could afford it; foreign language classes are expensive. And even if I did get in and receive some funding, what if I didn’t learn enough Polish to actually use it? This felt like a fool’s errand, and the confused reactions (“Huh?”) I received from most people who asked about my summer plans seemed to confirm my fears. After I submitted my application, I shared these concerns with my mom, and (as usual) she gave me great advice.  She explained that in the Old Testament, Gideon was unsure, and he asked God for a sign. Gideon laid a fleece or a piece of sheep wool outside overnight, and told God that in the morning if the fleece were wet and the ground dry, then he would believe. Sure enough, God did just that. Still unconvinced, Gideon asked God to do it again, but this time make the ground wet and the fleece dry. Again, God answered, and Gideon believed. Along these lines, my mom suggested that I also pray for affirmation about my decision to learn Polish:  If God would provide for me financially, then I’d know I should learn Polish and this wasn’t just another Steffi-style pipe dream. So with this in mind, I waited to hear back from the programs and prayed for clarity with my $8,000 “fleece.”

And then the craziest thing happened: God answered! On Good Friday, I got an email from the Pittsburgh program with my acceptance letter and scholarship information. But though they offered a substantial amount of money, it still wasn’t enough to make the class affordable. The following Monday, I called the program director that Monday to see if I could transfer into the cheaper program without the month in Kraków. To my astonishment, she offered me a different package, one that would cover almost the entire program cost. My figurative fleece had dripping wet—and I was going to Poland!

And as if that weren’t enough, God continued to provide, over and over and over again. When I was looking for a place to live in Pittsburgh (where I knew absolutely no one), He gave my mom the idea to contact the local Lutheran church. And then He prompted a family at that church to connect me with their friends who needed a house-sitter for the summer. It could not have worked out more perfectly. And the Cookes (the family that stayed behind) became my unofficial “host family,” picking me up from the airport, welcoming me into their home, feeding me absolutely delicious food (their last name is very fitting!), and even driving me to campus when I accidentally overslept and missed the bus.

And if I could see God’s faithfulness in Pittsburgh, it was written in neon flashing signs everywhere in Poland (… in English, so I could read it, haha.) Looking back on my four weeks there, I can’t help but be overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by all the incredible people at the Prolog language school, by my wonderful classmates from all over the world, by all the thought-provoking and meaningful conversations we had, by all the unforgettable places we visited and things we saw, and by all the memories I’ll carry with me forever. Oh yeah, and by all the Polish I attempted to learn. 😉

This summer was undoubtedly one of the best and most rewarding of my life thus far. Not only did I make so many new friends (Shout-out here to Lenna. Thanks for being my Kraków buddy… and for putting up with my terrible sense of direction!), but I also reconnected with old ones (Thanks for coming to visit me in Kraków, Mirek! And for letting me hang out with you in Paris, Anne-So!). And as if that weren’t enough, I even got to spend 3 days in the neighborhood in Germany where I was born (Danke schön to the Mauntz family and to all the neighbors, especially the Timpes and the Bergens! Y’all are awesome!)

As I write this, I am sitting in seat 21A on Lufthansa flight 444 back to Atlanta. When I boarded a smaller plane to Pittsburgh 78 days ago, I had no idea what was in store for me. But God knew. Even before that afternoon last October, He knew. He always knows, and He always has everything under His perfect and sovereign control. Yes, life is an adventure. And I’m so thankful to be along for the ride. 🙂

Some of the kindest people (and the best cooks!) I've ever met. Thanks for being such a blessing to me!
Some of the kindest people (and the best cooks!) I’ve ever met. Thanks for being such a blessing to me!
Before we finished our study abroad semester in Graz, Mirek and I pinky-promised that we would see each other sometime in the next 5 years. So of course we had to do the same thing again this time. :)
Before we finished our study abroad semester in Graz, Mirek and I pinky-promised that we would see each other sometime in the next 5 years. So of course we had to do the same thing again this time… and take a picture of it.
Lenna deserves an award for being one of the best travel buddies ever. And for being a great friend. Kocham ciebie! :)
Lenna deserves an award for being one of the best travel buddies ever. And for being a great friend. Kocham ciebie!
Much love to my favorite Parisian Anne-Sophie. Thanks for spending your vacation days with me! :)
Much love to my favorite Parisian Anne-Sophie. Thanks for spending your vacation days with me!
Dinner with the neighbors in Niederhoechstadt. Such a wunderschoene evening and one I will never forget. Thanks for making me feel so special and loved!
Dinner with the neighbors in Niederhoechstadt. Such a wunderschoene evening and one I will never forget. Thanks for making me feel so special and loved! A perfect end to a fabulous summer.

The Bus(es) That Got Away

Port_Authority_bus_Pittsburgh_3216Be careful what you pray for.

I learned this lesson a few summers ago at Kanakuk when I thought it would be a good idea to pray for a sense of humor. Not five minutes later I encountered the worst toilet clog of my life, and because I was a Unit Coordinator (aka Kamp’s go-to person for tasks that no one wants to do), it was my job to plunge it. I’ll spare you the gory details, but it may or may not have involved a live cockroach. Sick nasty.

Then there was that time during my junior year of high school when I made the mistake of praying for humility. The next day as I was running terribly late (as always) for my first hour English class, I somehow managed to stab myself up my nose with the wrong end of a mechanical pencil. When I hobbled into class with blood gushing out of my very sore nose and a very embarrassed look on my face, all my classmates just shook their heads and laughed. Talk about humbling… or just humiliating.

This summer, I’ve been praying that God would grow me in new and substantial ways. For the last several years, my time working at Kanakuk has been an integral part of my spiritual development. When the Lord didn’t call me back to Kamp this summer, my first thought was, “Oh no! How am going to grow this summer?!” Hence, I’ve been asking God to mold, shape, and refine me, even though I’m not at Kamp. I’ve also been praying for inspiration for another blog post. Today God answered both of my prayers simultaneously, and I’m pretty sure I could hear Him laughing.

The day was doomed for disaster even before I walked out the door. Instead of going with my gut (and with the weather forecast), I decided to trust my own temperature gauge and went with jeans instead of a skirt. By the time I made it to the bus stop half a mile away, I was sweating like a pig, and my fitted gray t-shirt (another poor wardrobe choice) made sure that everyone could see it. Whoops. It would only get worse from there.

This would be a good time to let you know that I’m in Pittsburgh this summer attempting to learn Polish—emphasis on the word “attempting.” More accurately, I am getting my backside kicked by the Polish language for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. While my coming to Pitt and participating in this program is an answer to many prayers, that’s another story entirely. So in the interest of time and space, we will return to the original story about my day.

On Tuesdays, the Summer Language Institute provides inexpensive pizza for students to buy for lunch. However, instead of distributing the pizza at a convenient, central location (i.e., the building where ALL language students have class), the directors decided to set up shop at a different building about a five minute walk away. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem; however, they failed to publicly announce this decision. And because I needed to use the restroom, I got separated from my classmates and had no idea where to go. This meant that I searched in vain for pizza on multiple floors of the 36-story Cathedral of Learning before finding out where I needed to go. By the time I finished the Pitt edition of “Stairmaster 300” and then hiked across campus and back, my pizza was cold and my gray t-shirt was sweaty yet again. Yippee.

But this afternoon definitely took the cake… and ate it too. After class let out at 2:50 (I feel like a high school student again. Eek), I made a detour to the library to return a book. Five minutes later, I reached the bus stop at 5th and Bigelow just as both buses I could have taken pulled away, one after the other. In theory, the buses should come every fifteen minutes, but in reality, they come when they feel like it, if at all. 25ish minutes later, I hopped on the 71A and rode it to ALDI, where I planned to finish shopping in time to catch the next bus. But—de ja vu—I walked out of the store only to watch it drive away. Moving my groceries into the shade, I waited… and waited… and waited… and waited….

……………………… and waited…………………………………………………………………………………………

………………………………………………and waited…………………………………..……………………..

………………………………………………………………………and waited for a bus that never came.

With my milk and ground turkey now fifty-five minutes warmer, I rolled up my pant legs and started walking. I’d made it 0.5 of the 1.6 miles home when a bus (a different one; I still don’t know what happened to the 71A) picked me up and took me to my neighborhood. Finally, at 5:36 p.m., bedraggled, smelly, and with a shirt now in various shades of gray, I arrived at home. What. A. Day.

At some point this afternoon (maybe when I was waiting for the bus the first time), my prayer for the summer popped into my mind, and all I could think was, “Dang, have I got a long way to go before I become like Jesus.”

It was just a bunch of small things—wearing the wrong clothes, missing the bus(es), having to walk across campus for pizza—but that’s all it took for me to get frustrated, annoyed, and more than a little bit ticked off. Now I’m not saying that frustration, annoyance, and anger are inherently sinful; emotions and feelings are a normal part of being human. However, just like a bruise is an outward sign of broken blood vessels, so can frustration be symptomatic of sin deeper down inside of us. Given the right (or wrong) circumstances, this inward sin will manifest itself on the outside. This afternoon, God gave me a glimpse of my inward ugliness, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

You see, I like to be in control of my life, to make things go according to my timetable and schedule; I call myself “responsible” and “mature.” But whether I choose to admit it or not, the truth is that I really want to be the god of my own miniature universe, where everything revolves around me and my convenience. When something goes against my plan and the rubber meets the road—or the buses fail to come down the road—I get angry and frustrated and upset. Days like today reveal the giant gap between my “Jesus is Lord” lip service and my actual life service. How often I return to humanity’s major pit-Fall and seek equality with God. Lord, have mercy on me.

All that to say, today turned out nothing like I expected, and I would have definitely never chosen it for myself. But as much as it stunk in the moment (and I literally stink as a result), I’m very thankful for it. Because as unpleasant and frustrating as today was, I know that God used it to make me more like Jesus. Even when I mess up, I can rest in the knowledge that His grace is sufficient, and He’s not giving up on me. So I’ll keep praying for Him to refine me, even though it means I’ll probably have more days like today.

… besides, it still seems a lot safer than asking for a sense of humor. 😉