A Backpacker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Duffel-bagging through rural Ireland :)
Duffel-bagging through rural Ireland 🙂

Backpacking (or in my case, “duffel-bagging”) is many things: an adventure, an exercise in minimalism, a diet. Above all, though, I contend that backpacking is a religious experience. Or at least it was for me.

I must start out by qualifying my status as a “backpacker.” My three weeks of living out of a bag was merely a short glimpse into the world that is backpacking. True backpackers do it for months at a time. Relative to them, I am a novice, an inexperienced tee-ball player with a view of the major league.

That being said, however, my three weeks of backpacking taught me so many, many things. Like, if there is free food, eat it. And if you pay for a meal, then by all means, eat the entire thing. Spoons and forks are precious commodities, and if your utensil is plastic, take it with you; you never know when you might need it. If a bathroom is free, then use it—even if you don’t need to. (Trust me, something dies inside when you have to hand over 1.50 euro just to pee) And the list goes on and on and on and on … don’t stop believin’… ha ha

On a more serious note, though, backpacking teaches you a lot about yourself, and, if you are a Christian, a lot about God. I could share with you all I learned, but I need to work on homework (I know, you thought based on my previous blogs and such that I never do homework. Well, I do…. Once a week. Ha ha). So, to keep things short (Me? Be concise? Wow. Miracles do happen.), I will just share with you my most memorable lesson and the story that goes with it.

Lesson: There are no coincidences.

I know you have probably heard that expression before. Either you agreed with it, or you opposed it. I’ve heard it my entire life, too, and most of the time, I tacitly agree with it. Yeah, sure, God is working. Yeah, sure, He has His hand in my life and what happens. But is He really involved in the little details? The minute day-to-day goings-on that even I don’t really care about? Before backpacking, I would have said “yes,” but I don’t know if I would have fully believed it. But now, I can’t deny it; God isn’t in the coincidence business. Here’s how I know.

If you have been keeping up with my semester abroad, you might remember that Jodie (Canadian friend) and I visited Budapest toward the end of February. Though I loved the city and had a wonderful time there, the experience itself wasn’t especially noteworthy, and, as such, I didn’t even have a blog entry about it. While in Budapest, we stayed at a place called “The Backpackers Guesthouse;” while we were there, we met a group of backpackers—4 guys (2 from Canada. Jodie was happy) and 2 girls—who had been traveling together for a while. We hung out with them a little bit during our two nights’ stay, but we didn’t go to the club with them or spend any significant amount of time with them. And when we left to come back to Graz, we basically said, “have a nice life” and then went on our way, never expecting to see any of them ever again.

Fast forward two months. Jodie and I are in Galway checking into Barnacles hostel when some guy asks the person at the front desk where he can find an internet café nearby. I didn’t notice his face (I think I was trying to dig my money out of my wallet or something), but after he left Jodie said, “Oh my goodness, I know him. I don’t know how, but I know him. I think he was at our hostel in Budapest.” Weird. But highly unlikely. And I didn’t see him, so I couldn’t make a judgment call either way. Plus, we were staying at a good-sized hostel, so even if he was here, our odds of running into him in the next two days was pretty slim. So we went up to our room (an 8-bed mixed dorm), where we saw a large backpack with the tell-tale Canada maple leaf patches sewn onto it. Hmmm. Two of the guys in Budapest were best friends from Canada. But that would be too crazy… there’s no way….

Way.

Sure enough, when we got back from the pub that night, Canadian-and-Budapest guy named John was there, staying in the same hostel, in the same room, in Galway, Ireland, of all places. What are the odds? There are none. Crazy.

After we reintroduced ourselves and shared several minutes of mutual shock and elation (we seriously couldn’t get over how bizarre this was), we settled down with our other roommates and started to play a drinking game. The same thing had happened in Budapest, and yet again, I politely declined, saying that I preferred to watch.
After an hour or so, when the others decided they were going to head out to a club and were getting ready, John stopped and asked me, “You didn’t drink in Budapest either, did you?”

I replied that no, I didn’t. And that he had a very good memory. He asked me the usual follow-up question, “Do you ever drink?” Instead of giving my standard answer of simply, “I have a gluten allergy” or “I just prefer not to,” for some reason, I said, “No, not really. I’m a Christian, and I want to honor God with all my actions. And I think that’s much harder to do after drinking a lot.”

To my surprise, the conversation didn’t stop there. He continued, telling me that he was a Christian too, or at least that he had been an altar boy as a kid, but now he didn’t believe any of it. He asked me if I was saving myself for marriage, and I said yes. And he wanted to know if I really believed all of it, and I said, yes, that my faith is the most important part of my life. I think he asked me a few other things, which I can’t remember now, but I do remember this. At the end of our conversation, he said, “I’ve never met anyone like you before.” Wow.

A few minutes later, they headed to the club. Jodie and I saw John again briefly the next day but didn’t talk to him again except to say good-bye (with, of course, a “maybe we’ll see you again” ha ha). And that was basically that.

Someone far wiser than I am has likened God’s work to a tapestry. Countless threads of various vibrant shades are woven together to create a masterpiece of unspeakable beauty and intricate detail. As individual threads, we only get to see our little section; our perspectives are so limited. And even though we may know that this incredible tapestry exists, it’s very easy to forget that we are a part of it or to doubt its existence altogether. Sometimes, though, God gives us a moment to see from His point of view; He gives us a glimpse of the big picture, of his magnum opus in the making. For me, the conversation with John in Galway was one of those moments. I don’t know whether anything will come of it or if I will ever run into John again, but I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the great Artist is at work in John’s life, and that He made our threads cross paths again for a reason, though I may never know it. But this I believe with my whole heart:

There are no coincidences, only a masterpiece in the making. 🙂

(Originally posted on April 30, 2010. For more of my study abroad adventures, visit http://steffi-in-austria.blogspot.com/)

Advertisements

Light and Dark

(Originally Posted on August 2, 2010.)

Well, I’m back.

“Back” in two senses of the word: Back to writing a blog, and back in the United States of America. The former seems natural; the latter, well, doesn’t.

To give you a brief recap, I left Graz early on the morning of July 5th (fortunately, I was stuck on a train with a massively large group of Austrian tween-agers going on a school trip; they were all too busy flirting with each other and comparing their cool new handys or cell phones to notice my bawling.) That afternoon, I caught a flight to Paris, France, where I would spend an AMAZING week hanging out with my favorite Parisian of all time, Anne-Sophie, and her parents. After taking in as many sites as possible, musing over Mona Lisa’s thoughts, marveling at Versailles (and checking out my reflection in the Hall of Mirrors), feeling quiet sorrow and pride at the cemetery at Normandy, and getting proposed to one night on the Eiffel Tower, the time came. I bid a painful good-bye to Anne-So, hopped on a plane to Vienna, spent the next day weighing and repacking my things (and mailing some of them home), and hanging out in one of Vienna’s lush, beautiful parks. That evening, my dear friend Jennifer, with whom I was staying, took me to her favorite restaurant where I enjoyed my first—and last—Viennese Wienerschnitzel (to everyone who doesn’t know: “Wienerschnitzel” really means “Schnitzel from Vienna;” Wien is German for Vienna. Hence, real wienerschnitzel can be found only in Vienna). The next morning, I got up early, gathered my things and headed to the airport. There, I boarded Austrian Airlines flight OS 093 and at exactly 11:30 a.m. Central European Time waved goodbye to the country I came to know and to love, the country that will always hold a piece of my heart.

Approximately 9 hours and 36 minutes later, I landed in Washington D.C. After going through customs, picking up and rechecking my bags, missing my originally-scheduled flight, calling my mom to let her know that, yes, I was indeed still alive, I boarded a second airplane—the airplane that would take me to Kansas, home.

Since landing, life has been a whirlwind (or in Kansas, maybe “tornado” would be a more appropriate word). It’s been so wonderful to see and spend time with my family, including my grandparents, to eat food that I didn’t have to cook or pay for, to catch up with best friends, to sit inside with air conditioning (this is a recent development; our house’s AC broke on the day before I got back and just recently got fixed), and to take a moment to relax and recuperate. In all those respects, being home has been very nice.

At the same time, though, it’s been… weird. Just. Plain. Weird.

During my study abroad orientation classes last August and in Austria, the directors warned us about a nasty little thing called “reverse culture shock.” But no amount of warning, cautioning, or mental preparation can really make you ready for it. To anyone who has never studied abroad or had the chance to experience this odd phenomenon, let me explain. Reverse culture shock happens when someone leaves his or her home culture to live in a new culture or place for an extended period of time. This person gets accustomed to the new culture, adapts to it and learns to live in it at least for the time being; in a sense, it becomes like home. Then when that person returns to his or her home culture (either willingly or by force, or in my case, by an expiring student visa), he or she must suddenly readjust to the home culture, which has now—strange as it may seem—become foreign.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Well, in a way it is. Crazy… but so true.

“Reverse culture shock” involves more than remembering to say “excuse me” instead of “entschuldingung” (or in Alex McAulay’s case “please” instead of “bitte”). It goes beyond the basics like converting dollars to euros and vice versa and refreshing oneself on how to drive. Rather, it’s learning to fit a new, different, likely improved version of oneself into the situation where the old, pre-study abroad version used to live. And that, let me tell you, is far easier said than done.
Living in Graz and traveling in most of the countries of central Europe changed me. Meeting people from all around the world, hanging out with them, and becoming friends with them changed me. Listening and dancing ridiculously to all sorts of crazy-beat techno music… changed me. Every experience, every adventure, every seemingly miniscule thing that happened to me changed me and made me into who I am right now, here, today. I’m a different girl than the one who left on January 31st, and, to be entirely honest, I like the new version of me much better. But I’m back again to my former situation. How do I keep from reverting to how things were, to who I use to be? How do I keep being the new me?

A lot of things didn’t change a bit. My bedroom walls are still lime green; my sisters still give insanely tight hugs; my cell phone still has my homemade Tenth Avenue North ringtone; and I am still terrible at parking my car (Every time, without fail, I have to pull back out and readjust. Always.) Dollar bills still have George Washington’s face, this world keeps on turning, and Kansas thunderstorms and sunsets still take my breath away.

And I still have the same blonde hair, same brown eyes, same size 10.5 feet. If I look the same on the outside, why do I feel so different on the inside? And what, if anything, can I do about it?

As you might have noticed, I really like quotes. Unfortunately, most of the time, I can’t remember them very well. Sometimes, though, a good quote will pop into my brain at exactly the right moment, precisely when I need it, like a sunbeam straight from heaven. Other times, one will come exactly when I need it but really don’t want it. This week, I have been feeling very sad about Graz and have been missing my life there terribly. At a particularly low moment when I was silently wallowing in my own misery, this quote flashed into my mind. I tried my best to ignore it because, honestly, I would much rather have continued being sad and feeling sorry for myself. But the quote persisted stubbornly. And I guess I am glad it did. Here it is:

“Don’t forget in the darkness what you learned in the light.” ~Joseph Bayly

Although the quote is probably fairly self-explanatory, let me break it down since I could use a refresher. Basically, when God teaches us something in the good times—when the sun is brightly shining, the birds are chirping, and all is well with the world—He wants us to remember it, and not just when life is good. On the contrary, when the going gets tough, He tells us to think of His lessons from the light—and keep going.

I don’t want to sound selfish. I realize that my struggles over missing Graz are small and trivial compared to what so many other people experience. I am not in the business of comparing heartache or hardship, but I do believe this: pain is pain—regardless of how big or small it may seem to others. What matters less is the type of darkness; far more important is how we respond to it.

And so now I must ask myself the question that we all should ponder: how do I respond to pain and the darkness that comes with it? Am I going to crawl into a corner and cover my head and cry to myself? Or will I look to my God and remember the lessons He taught me in the light?

If you followed my Graz blog even a little bit, you would have noticed that God showed me a lot this semester. He grew me and changed me and transformed me in ways I would have never thought possible. On top of that, He showed me so much about His love and provision and WHO He is. He taught me to trust Him and to have faith in His promises, knowing that He would never let me go.

Here in this post-Erasmus “darkness,” so to speak, I have to remember His lessons from the light. I also know that this phase will pass, and the sun will eventually shine again as brightly as it did before. I know that it will. Why? Because that’s what He taught me, back in the light.

Whether you are in a dark patch right now or catching some rays in the sunshine, remember that He’s with you. Always.

God bless.