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. 
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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… 😉

boleslawiec
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.” 🙂

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. 😉