The truth about Athens

The truth about the markets

Every guide book I read and every recommendation I received from friends and work fellows warned me about the smell and volume of the meat market. And, of course, the skinned lamb carcasses hanging upside down with feet and head still very much attached.

I went anyway, naturally, with my faithful camera slung over my shoulder.

What no one told me – and what someone definitely should have mentioned at some point – was that going alone, as a woman, to a meat market is probably one of the worst ideas of all time, ever.

All of central Athens is loud and slightly uncomfortable to walk through as a human of the female gender, but it’s all safe and I can handle myself.

I could not handle the meat market.

The moment I stepped under the thin roofing of the covered market area, every vendor within ten feet started calling out to me. At first it was stuff like, “Come buy meat. Best meat here.” Then it was stuff like, “You very pretty. Nice face. Where you from? Want dead lamb?”

I did the smile-and-nod routine as I walked past several stalls before stopping to snap a picture of some of the produce. Immediately, the tone changed. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but the camera had caused a stir. At first I thought they didn’t want me taking pictures – that happened more than once in Greece.

Nope. They all wanted pictures of their booths. My camera became a celebrity in 0.2 seconds.

“Take picture! My meat best!”

The increase in energy levels was harrowing. Word spread very, very quickly, because by the time I arrived at the end of the row, someone was literally waiting for me with a huge butcher’s knife asking for a selfie with me, the knife and his stand (of which he was very proud).

It all sounds harmless. Funny, even. And it was, sort of.

But I avoided the meat market for a while after that (though the fish section was worth the walk-through).

It wasn’t until my last week that I returned to the area. Just the fruit stands on the outer rims. I went with some other girls. Harmless, I figured.

WHO HARASSES WOMEN OVER PILES OF VEGETABLES?

It started out innocently enough. One of the guys behind the stand started making fun of our English. In a high pitch, he would mimic whatever we said. It was almost entertaining, so we let it slide. Then I laughed about something (in my unfortunate, ill-tuned cackle that really carries) and the entire row of vegetable dealers started parroting it around their stands.

LISTEN UP, GENTLEMEN. You can objectify my camera all you want and make a mockery of my native language, but making fun of my pitiful, unhelpable laugh is crossing so many lines!

I stared, amazed at their audacity, before stomping away to a distance beyond earshot and just within the line of sight of my friends. My less that charming laugh has been a sensitivity of mine since the bitter years of high school and here were these randos stringing it up a tree for amusement.

Arms crossed, eyes narrowed, I ignored the calls of the other marketers until my posse caught up with me. One of them was holding an orange.

“One of the guys gave this to me for you,” she said.

Begrudgingly, I took it from her. Apology fruit hardly makes up for the emotional damage of having a row full of complete strangers hit you where it really hurts, but it’s better than nothing.

The truth is, the markets weren’t the worst places in Athens. They were fun and the shouting and selling is part of the experience. No one was ever untoward. The same cannot be said for other parts of the city.

I’m finally understanding what so many women have complained about for years. I’ve been lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where you can walk down the street without feeling like people are eating you with their eyes, where you don’t have the distinct impression that to them you may just be a dead lamb hanging by its feet.

The truth is that the U.S. has done an amazing job cultivating an environment where all people are respected and viewed with propriety, regardless of gender. And if there are claims that areas in our country still exist where that is not the case, those should be taken seriously. Because feeling like a piece of meat in a market is not something anyone should have to experience.

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The truth about the cats

People complain about the cats here. I don’t know why. So much personality, so much sass, so little concern for literally anyone else in the whole universe. I liked all of them. The mangy ones, the quiet ones, the ones that hissed, the ones that climbed trees, the ones that jumped at their own shadows.

Yes, they smell. Yes, everything else smells because of them. Yes, I’m pretty sure there is a certain amount of rampant sickness in Athens that can be directly tied to the number of homeless cats.

But they enchanted me, and that’s the truth.

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The truth about transportation

Driving in Greece is a lot like playing bumper cars, except that magically no one ever seems to actually hit anyone (though maybe not for a lack of trying?). People park in driving lanes, drive on sidewalks (like, if you’re a motorcyclist, the sidewalk is one hundred percent fair game. Ten points if you hit a pedestrian), and cut the occasional red light.
Walking in Greece is possibly worse. Crosswalks are for babies and tourists. If you want to get to the other side of that six-lane street, you just walk yourself across it! The cars won’t hit you (as we’ve already established) and as long as you’re not taking your sweet time, they won’t honk or slow down either. Actually, they’ll never slow down, so don’t take your sweet time. Just go already.

The truth is that Greeks are pretty no-nonsense about getting from A to B, and even though it took me eight days (and several minor panic attacks) to start crossing the street on my own, I feel like it grew me as a person and I respect Greeks so much more for it.

The truth is that sometimes caution needs to be thrown to the wind. Roads need to be crossed. You know you can do it and the only thing stopping you is a tiny bit of fear that the massive objects careening your way may actually hit you and a cultural norm you haven’t been able to break away from yet. Like, honestly, doesn’t that sum up so much of life as a twenty-something?

Just cross the road, already.

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The truth about the view

Athens is not a pretty city. It’s dirty and smelly and even the nice neighborhoods look a little forced. Someone said to me that Greece is the Mexico of Europe (no offense to either country), and I can see it. It’s poor and run-down. Tourists come to see ruins that are thousands of years old, and walk through ruins from just this last century to get there. In a row of houses, at least one will be completely missing and two more will be missing window shades or balconies.

But if you can find a hill to climb up (and they’re not hard to find), you’ll be treated to an unbelievable view. And I use that word because I literally could not believe what I saw.

The sprawling mass of the city, alone, could take the breath right from your chest. But just where the city ends, the sea begins. Like a lovely lady who is constantly changing evening gowns, she appeared silver one day and indigo the next. The sunrise would dress her in gold and the sunset would change her to pink.

Behind her, the sky would dance to the ever-evolving rhythm resplendent colors brought on by sunshine and starshine and storm clouds.

And the islands. You would never believe islands like this could exist. They rise out of the silky water and run to the horizon, fading with every mountain range until the last visible peaks are only a hazy purple or a foggy blue.

The truth is that you will never see the same view twice. Once you’ve seen the Acropolis, you’ve seen it. But you could stare at the islands of Athens for a thousand years and never grow tired of the sight.

The truth is that Athens is a living testament to the beautiful mind of our Creator. Never has man seemed smaller to me. Never has God seemed so, so grand.  

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The truth about Greeks

Greeks are all gorgeous. Let’s just start there. No wonder their cultural heritage is built up around gods and goddesses. They’ve got the looks for divinity. And the women are all really good dressers.

The men seem to be on a sweatpants bender right now, which feels to me like a throwback to toga days. And I get that comfort is important, but if you’re going to leave the house, you should put on real pants, bruh.

But let’s talk about them strikes. I was told to be prepared for strikes and riots. I did not realize just how frequent an occurrence those really are in Greece. Like, a country made up of hundreds of islands shut down the entire ferry system for THREE DAYS to make a political statement. Which would be a huge deal except that they do it all the time. National monuments, transportation systems – whatever they feel like striking about, they strike. Is it any wonder that the economy is in the dumps and there are houses that are literally falling apart in the streets?

But the truth is that it’s easy to judge. It’s easy to come in for three weeks and assume you know everything, or that your country or people do it so much better.

The truth is that Greeks have done an amazing job in bringing in the refugees who have fled to their shores despite the intense amount of controversy over the issue within their own borders and throughout the world.

The truth is that they can brew a really good cup of coffee and bake a lot of really good pastries.

The truth is that I’m glad I had a few weeks to get to know a new kind of people and I hope I will be able to understand my own a little better because of it.

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The truth about toilets

You can’t flush toilet paper in Greece. At least, that’s what they say. It could just be a huge conspiracy to make foreigners feel as uncomfortable as possible.

How Greece can be considered a first world country and not have the infrastructure to flush sanitary paper is beyond me. Did these people not also build massive marble temples that have lasted for thousands of years? CULTIVATE SOME PLUMBERS. HOW HARD?

I don’t know how I managed to get used to this, but I’m assuming I’ll get unused to it as soon as I get back to literally any other country with regular plumbing.

Okay, I’ll keep this one short.

The truth is that there are worse things than not being able to flush toilet paper, and after these three weeks in Athens, I’m aware of what some of those things are.

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The truth about streets

Alright, here it is. What you’ve all been waiting for.

YES, I spent 80 percent of my time wandering around completely and unreasonably lost.

Athens is not built on a grid, it’s built on a bunch of semi-circles and baklava-shaped triangles and if you overshoot by one street, you’ll end up in Macedonia (not that they’ll let you across the border). If you start out heading west, you’ll end up going northwest with a touch of elusive east-ness and a dash of ‘just kidding! you’ve been going in circles!’

Only some of the streets are labeled. They’re all very Greek names that start to sound the same after the dozenth one. And they’re mostly one-way to cap it off, so if you’re driving fo’get about it.

I took two girls from the center to the National Archeological Museum one day. I thought it’d be a nice treat for them. And it would have been if we hadn’t gotten lost for an hour in the middle of Narnia.

The truth is I will probably get lost in every city I ever visit, grid or no grid. Or, as a friend here likes to say, I’ll be creatively displaced. And as aggravating as it was to find myself asking, “Haven’t I been lost here before?” about twice a day, between the cats and the skies and all the lovely people, Athens was a decent enough place to get lost. And that’s the truth.

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The truth about the Acropolis

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Thursdays are dedicated to men’s outreach at the ministry center, so the ladies get the day off. I’ve taken this day once a week to see a bit of the city, wander around Athens, cater to the junior high version of myself who once poured over books on ancient Greece and Greek mythology.

I do it in good spirits, grateful for the opportunity many never get, but the truth is, I never wanted to visit Athens.

I have always held strongly to the belief that you shouldn’t visit your favorite places, the ones you’ve built up in dreams and imaginings. Because there is just no way that the real thing can ever live up to the idea.

So when I began my trip to the Acropolis on a frigid, blustery day, I tried to put away the 13-year old and approach this exploration without expectations.

The previous week I had gone to the Acropolis museum. It had been a quick drop in-drop out kind of visit. Frankly, the museum isn’t large. But it gave me some good background on the temple of Athena and the surrounding structures. When I would find myself standing beneath the arched columns, I would know that the faded carvings around the rim were depictions of centaurs carrying women away from a feast. (I did wonder, both in the museum and again on the Acropolis, how grown men could have actually believed in centaurs and fauns. Like, wouldn’t someone have eventually been like, “Bro, shouldn’t there at least be skeletal evidence of these guys? Do you know anyone who knows a centaur? Like, what the heck, man?” …Just my thoughts).

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The walk up the hill was quicker than I expected. Cold weather and brisk walking made the time fly by.

A whistle blew as I walked through the entrance and a guard raced down some stairs towards a girl doing a handstand in front of the entry steps.

“Stop! No funny pictures!” he shouted as the few passersby paused their ascent to stare at the bewildered girl. “You think this funny? You think this not serious? You take funny pictures?”

The poor girl just babbled incoherently, so taken aback by the outburst of the furious guard, who by this time had lathered himself into a righteous wrath.

“They’re not funny,” she tried to explain as he insisted she delete them. “They’re just for me. I’m not putting them anywhere.”

I could hear them squabbling all the way up the huge stone steps to the Pantheon until the wind whipped their voices into the distance. Most museums and monuments in Athens have signs that request visitors to be respectful of the history – no singing, no “funny pictures,” no nonsense.

By the time I found myself on top of the massive steps leading under the marble pillars of the entryway, I couldn’t feel my hands. My eyes watered from the wind and I had to pull my scarf over my head to keep my ears from retreating up inside my brain. The good news: no one else was there.

Pockets of other humans, yes. But the crowds were nowhere to be found. For all intents and purposes, it was just me and the Acropolis. And I wouldn’t have had our first meeting any other way.

The Acropolis is gorgeous, don’t get me wrong. Still standing after more than two millennia is quite an architectural feat. Both temples on the hill, and the crumbles in between, were visually stunning. And, like, really big.

But it wasn’t the ruins that stole my breath when I crested the top of the mountain. It was the view.

On one side, beyond a city of dirty-white rooftops, enormous mountains were enveloped in clouds that seeped between ridges of the ancient rock. When the wind picked up and the clouds pulled back, slivers of snow were visible on the peaks.
On the other side lay the sea. One minute it would be brilliantly, deeply blue, set against azure islands and indigo skies. The next minute, the clouds would break open, spilling golden sunlight on the water, causing the waves to turn silver beneath them.

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Someone I work with at the center here said Greek ruins make him sad. He reminded me that these once great structures were built to worship gods that don’t exist. Their pagan worship included forced prostitution and their false gods certainly had none of the power and wisdom attributed to them.

The truth about the Acropolis is that it is cheerless. These broken pillars are all that are left of a magnificent people with incredible minds – minds given to them by the God of the Bible, who they rejected and refused.

But God’s workmanship stands as glorious as it did they day he created it. His mountains, his seas, his skies.

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On top of the Parthenon, surrounded by the eroding testimony of man’s finite nature, I realized once again how great is my God, greater even than my largest expectations.

The truth about pineapples

“Why do you call it a pineapple?” Lukas asked as the tram rumbled gently along a blue coast.

“Because of the spikes, I think,” I said, giving the fruit in his hand a concentrated stare. “And because it’s a fruit like apples are, I suppose.”

He laughed at me and shook his head.

“It’s a silly name,” he said. “Ananas is much better.”

We had already established that pineapples are called ananas in both Spanish and Czech but our tram was taking its sweet time in getting the crew to our destination, so the pineapple kept coming up.

“What is it in Farsi?” I wondered aloud to our companions.

“What is what?” asked Samir. One hand gripped a bag full of groceries and one eye followed the bouncing energy of his young son, *Samaneh.

*(For their privacy and protection, all names in this post and those I will post about while in Greece have been changed).

“What is the word for ‘pineapple’ in Farsi?” I asked.

“What is a pineapple?” he asked me.

Lukas held up the pineapple by its foliage and said in his native German tongue, “Ananas.”

Ananas,” Samir repeated. “We call it that also.”

I glared at them both incredulously and tapped Ali on the shoulder. “What do you call this fruit?” I asked, pointing to the subject in question.

Ananas,” he assured me, smiling.

I didn’t believe any of them.

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Saturday, January 9, 2016. By 1:30 that afternoon, about the time we were rolling past sloping beaches along a smooth, steel river, I had been in Greece exactly three days. It seems like a lifetime already.

I came to work with an organization that reaches out to refugees, primarily Syrians, Afghanis and Iranians, but I have been told that the center has hosted Nepalis, Nigerians and more when occasion necessitates it.

The team is primarily Greek, German and Finnish, with the notable addition of a Dutch girl – ‘Kiwi’ as the refugee kids call her – and several American women. For an ametuer linguist like myself, this is heaven. Most of our time has been working at the center, but Saturday is a day off and the interns decided to take a trip to the beach.

Lukas, Johannes and Doro, our German contingent, had led the charge. On Thursday, after our work at the center was finished, they invited me out for coffee with Kiwi to make plans. Sitting at a little table in the middle of a square beneath the shadow of the Acropolis, we sketched out the weekend.

In the morning on Saturday, we girls would take the metro to Neos Kosmos, getting lunch supplies on the way, and meet the boys at the tram. The boys would go to the market to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables (hence, our peculiar pineapple) and invite some of our Afghani and Iranian friends to join.

While waiting for the group to collect at the tram stop, Lukas asked me to guard the pineapple so he could buy a volleyball from a nearby vendor. Thusly, our discussion about the name of said fruit began.

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It took us several false starts to find the perfect beach spot to settle at. We got off the tram three times before we all agreed, “Yes, this is where we should spend the day.”

“We have nothing but time,” Ali reminded us after our second attempt to find a patch of sand to set up camp. We had landed upon an empty beach, only to find that it was empty because of the stench and garbage. Dragging our feet and our empty stomachs back to the tram stop, we waited for the next carriage.

But it was worth it. A pebbly shore and brown-sugar sand with room to bounce the volleyball and several jetties to isolate us from the crowds was just a few stops further down the line. We spread out blankets and unloaded our lunch.

Samaneh took off in search of little rocks. He is five years old. His mother and brother are both waiting for him in Sweden. When the paperwork goes through, Samaneh and his father, Samir, will join them there. Today, he was content to search for pebbles in the sand.

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Kiwi and Samir’s friend, Hassam, both played an active part in watching and playing with the little guy whose unending well of energy and distraction was both commendable and inspiring.

Kiwi studies Farsi at university. As far as I can tell, she speaks beautifully. At the very least, her interactions with those who speak Farsi are beautiful to behold, but so many human interactions are when they are sincere. And hers are sincere.

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Drinks were poured, bread was sliced and passed around, cheese was fought over with friendly aggression and the pineapple sat in the middle of it all like a king among his royal subjects.

I thought for a moment how strange it was to be sharing lunch with people from four different nationalities (myself representing a fifth). On the surface, we don’t have much in common. We only met through mutual connections with a church and church-related ministries.

So Christ. We have Christ in common.

Ali, a prankish kook, gleefully gave Doro lessons in Farsi in exchange for some German vocabulary while the rest of us watched and laughed and ate. When the language lessons petered out, Doro and Johannes grabbed the volleyball and instigated a game that I made a point of staying out of.

Kiwi and Samaneh were busy collecting rocks and building walls, so I took a walk along the beach.

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If you have never seen a beach in Greece, let me describe it to you. The sand is thick and soft but speckled with colored rocks. Water laps the shore in modest waves that barely break, like the continuous breath of the bay as it sleeps. In fact, between our shore and the one on the nearest island in sight, there doesn’t seem to be a single disturbance on the surface of the water. Only the island rising out of the sea interrupts the smooth horizon. And it is quite a sight. It, and the islands behind it in varying shades of shadow-blue, is a monster. It is a mountain birthed from the sea. It is the nose of a sleeping giant lying just below the surface of the water. Boats pass by it and birds fly over it and no one seems to notice it but me.

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By the time my feet were ready to return, the sky was dimming and the volleyball game had ended. Kiwi pulled out a guitar and we sang songs in German, English and Farsi.

The languages we share in bits and pieces, but the content unites us completely. Only with the Word of God can strangers be brothers and enemies be friends.

Ali grabbed a knife and assisted Johannes in slicing up our pineapple as Hassam and Samir helped the girls maintain a decent chorus. Occasionally, Ali would jump into a song with a round of “Happy Birthday” just to throw us all off course.

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Before the last of the light left the sky, we took selfies and group pictures in front of the waterline. Johannes and Ali were brave enough to jump into the water and swim around for a bit. (“Okay, I was wrong,” Ali admitted as he shivered next to us fifteen minutes later. “That was a bad idea. We should not have gone in.”).

Then we all watched the sun slip behind those islands like a drop of gold blazing a path through the velvet sky.

We munched on the last of the food and divied up the remaining chocolate, bread and fruit. Collecting blankets and bags, we marched back to the tram stop in the dark.

I watched my companions as the tram slinked its way once more into the heart of Athens. What different roads we all have taken to lead us to this spot. A cynic would say it was chance. But we know better.

We know that it is God who has charted our course, and for many on this tram, only a faith that He will bring us to its end will sustain us during stormy seas.

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Samir said to me when the day was finished, “I will forget my own name before I forget this day.”

Fellowship is sweet. It is precious. And to see brothers and sisters in Christ drink it up with such fervor is a joy I am not likely to forget either.

Three days in Athens and I have been humbled. Humbled by the courage of people who have faced tremendous adversity. Humbled by the kindness I have been shown by people who did not know me when the week began, who speak a different language, have a different history and use a different word for a fruit I have always known as a pineapple. Humbled by the greatness of the God who has brought us all together as heirs to a promise we do not deserve.

The truth about flying

“Never again,” I promised myself as the wheels touched down on a snowy tarmac in Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport. “I will never fly again.”

I spent a good six months trying to find a way back to the States that didn’t involve an airplane. A bus across Europe, a train across Russia, a ferry to Japan, a cargo ship to the West Coast. It would have taken weeks and been tremendously expensive, but in my mind, it also would have been very, very worth it. I hate flying.

It isn’t just that it’s uncomfortable and strenuous. It’s that I will wake up mid-Atlantic in a minor panic attack, sobbing hysterically while some stranger snores next to me. It’s that I can feel the cabin pressure before I even board the plane and ascending and descending feels a little bit like losing my soul through my ears. It’s that I will have a headache for days afterwards and not be able to eat anything until the last of the jetlag completely wears off.

It’s that flying is literally the worst.

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I don’t know where I was flying over at this point. All I know is that I probably had a massive headache and a nose bleed.

Why it didn’t occur to me that by going to Athens I would have to get back on a plane, I am still not wholly sure. But it didn’t and here I am, once again reliving the nightmarish experience that is flying in the 21st century.

A lot of glamour is associated with travel, perhaps unduly. We no longer live in the age of Pan Am stewardesses and steamer trunks. The Wright brothers may well have cringed if they could see the cattle drive our airports have become.

As a kid, I knew I wanted to fly. This was in part because of a book about two children who go to visit their grandparents. They are served delicious meals on the plane, they are taken to the cockpit, they get to pick their suitcases off the luggage carousal. Their teddy bear comes along for the whole adventure. What a time!

Let me tell you now, it’s all a lie.

The truth about airports is that it is much more of an ordeal than anyone will honestly tell you.

So let’s be honest.

Firstly, you need to know that trying to rush through an airport is the hardest, most awful experience you are likely to have in the first world. This is mostly because airports are created to slow everything down to a third their usual pace.

Want to check your bags? Let’s weigh everything you own and sticker it to death.

Want to get to your gate? Take off all your clothes and put them in a box so we can x-ray them. And it doesn’t matter how quickly you can strip off your belt, shoes, jackets, watches and remove liquids, laptops and cell phones from your baggage, we will take our sweet time getting you through that metal detector.

Want to board the plane? Wait for two hours in the terminal for no reason.

You cannot be late to the airport because there is no way to make up for lost time. You cannot speed up this process.

So when I got off the train at Union Station, Los Angeles, with the choice of taking an $8/1hour bus to LAX or getting a cab for half the time and three times the price, I chose the cab. I regret nothing.

We had a nice chat, the cabby and I. That is something I will say for travel – you meet nice people (Unless you end up in the Moscow airport, in which case, sucks to be you pal).

I practiced a little bit of my newly acquired Farsi on him, which he then helped me correct. He, in turn, told me the entire religious history of Armenia, Turkey and Persia. When we got to the LAX departing terminals, he groaned miserably and said, “I have airport tomorrow. I am to be here all day.”

I know how you feel, sir.

He pulled up to the curb, unloaded my bag from the back and shook my hand warmly. “God helps those who help others,” he said to me, a sparkle in his eyes. Thanks, cabby.

A slightly magical moment quickly dissolved into a half hour line to get through security. I was directly behind twenty Japanese high school marching band players who had come out for the Rose Bowl. They proudly wore their uniform hats and chattered loudly across the roped off lanes.

For some reason, they security guard held up the line on my passport and I sweated like crazy for 90 seconds thinking, “Am I a terrorist? What if I did something on accident that could be taken as a security threat? How will I explain to them that this is all just a huge mistake?” I do not enjoy having my patriotism questioned by people who make me walk around in socks in a public area.

The truth is that airports make communists of us all.

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Chilling in a terminal. Trying to make the best of it. You know, the norm.

I once spent a night in the Zurich airport. The first thing I noticed was how unaffordable everything was. Walking through an airport can be a charming adventure as you hurry past duty free shops with perfumes, chocolates, fine liquors and an assortment of super fancy stuff you’d probably never buy. Being STUCK in an airport for an extended period of time is less fun because then you have time to meander around and look at all the things you will never be rich enough to purchase.

Don’t be fooled by the primly dressed girl stacking chocolate bars like some kind of ad from 1961. THAT CHOCOLATE WILL EAT YOU ALIVE. It is so EXPENSIVE even the Queen couldn’t manage. It’s a dream of mine to one day be able to afford something (anything) from one of those stores. More specifically, I’d like to be able to drop sixty bucks on those gourmet chocolate boxes that are listed as “buy 5, get 1 free.” I don’t know what I would do with six boxes of chocolate, but I’m sure I would figure something out during the flight.

The truth is, even if you can afford to get inside an airport, your pocket book still probably can’t handle the boutiques and specialty stores. Heck, mine can barely tackle the pre-packaged sandwiches and water bottles in the little corner shops where poor people try to find food so they don’t die of mal-nurishment before getting to their gate. Airports are expensive. Especially that one in Zurich.

I could feel the headache building before I even got on the plane to Moscow (this may have been early-onset dread at the thought of spending an 18 hour layover in the Moscow airport – without a visa they won’t let you leave).

After finding my seat and discovering that Russian airlines doesn’t really “do” English, I prepared myself for a long, long flight. Mentally buckling up is crucial to the flight survival process.

So is being careful what you eat. In-flight meals are a hit or miss. Anything with fish is automatically a miss – I don’t care how good it sounds when they give you the choice. Beef over pasta. Pasta over chicken. Avoid eggs.

Both meals I got on the Russian airliner were rough. The first one had a seafood salad. I am not entirely sure why I even bothered to eat it. At that elevation, your head will tell you to eat things your stomach knows you shouldn’t. Between the flakes of wilted lettuce and uncooked shrimp, there were pieces of smoked fish (unidentifiable) that resembled what I image dragon flanks must taste like.

Another meal had a salad (I think?) with both chicken slices and a hard boiled egg. I’m sorry, it’s bad enough that we’re going to kill a chicken in the prime of its life and serve it in a poorly composed salad, but to neighbor it with a chicken that wasn’t even given the chance to break out of the shell is just so morbid. I couldn’t. I was so close to tears it’s almost humiliating. To add to the sad irony, this death trip for them is the only time these flightless birds will ever get to fly.

Everything on the food tray comes in little packets or containers. I had finished clearing out each little compartment when I found a packet of mayonnaise. Those discoveries are stressful because suddenly you start wondering, “What was this supposed to go on and what the heck did I eat instead of it?”

The only thing you can really count on is the bread. The bread will always be bad. The butter is unspreadable and the roll is brick-like in both texture and taste. I used to feel bad not finishing mine. What a shame to put an uneaten portion back on the meal tray for the stewardesses to dump. Then again, if they had wanted you to finish it they should have served food and not stones.

The truth about airplane meals is that they will most likely cultivate a dislike for food in general which can last up to several days. At best, they are an opportunity for the person next to you to invade your personal space and judge you for the amount of butter (or mayonnaise) you put on your brick-roll.

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Finally getting real food in Moscow and a.) not knowing how much anything costs and b.) not feeling like eating anything but lightly-salted fries and green tea because your stomach is STRESSED OUT.

What I dread most is falling asleep. Or rather, not falling asleep as is generally the case. It’s like the movie Rocket Man where the monkey steals the dude’s sleep machine thing and he has to stay awake in space by himself for like a really long time before they get to Mars and he goes nuts.

A day before I left, I ran down to the pharmacy section of Target (where I get all my cheap meds) and debated whether or not to get a sleep aid. You see, I’m slightly terrified of taking a sleep aid and not being able to fall asleep because I have the longest limbs in the universe and I simply do not fit comfortably in a plane seat, making rest an unattainable goal. Being exhausted but not being able to sleep because it is literally painful to curl into a position that might give one’s head a chance to rest against something would be my Rocket Man equivalent. I would go nuts. I have gone nuts. I’d rather not do it again.

I popped an Exedrin (I think?) right after we took off but it didn’t really help the headache. I took a ZzzQuil right after the evening meal. It didn’t work either.

By the time we landed in Moscow, I was a hundred percent over it. Somewhere past hour 10 I found myself folded into a mess on my seat asking myself things like, “What if I lose the tweezers I borrowed from mom?” and “Can babies get sucked out of plane windows? Should someone make sure the mom in 2B is not letting her kids get too close to the them?” All of these seem like rational concerns when your brain is literally melting out your eyes as you plummet through the atmosphere in a tin can.

The truth is, it’s going to take more than one heavy dose of over-the-counter druggage to get you through a flight, and it’s likely that at some point you will still look out your window to see a breathtaking stretch of Arctic ice laying flat across the horizon as far as the eye can see, glowing beneath the moonlight on top of a murky blue sea…Only to realize as the sun comes up that you’ve been looking at the tip of the wing all night and you are probably nowhere near to polar ice caps. Disappointment is unavoidable.

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Raining in San Diego. Snowing in Russia. January across the globe.

I arrived in Russia around 3:30 for the longest, most heinous layover of my life. The airport in Moscow is nice enough. It feels like walking around the inside of a snow globe, except that half of it is covered in white wrap, like how they cover things at Disneyland when they’re under construction. Also, no one looks happy to be there. So yeah, a Disneyland-esque Soviet snow globe.

If you visit enough places around the world, you come to realize that, while stereotypes are limiting and silly, they are also not entirely without basis. I did not meet a single friendly Russian in the airport (granted, they do work in an airport which is DMV equivalent, so we’ll extend a little grace before judgment). I was barked at to sit down in a restaurant, whistled at to get a check, and glared at while trying to pay my bill. It was like they were all part of a cool, exclusive grumpy club that I couldn’t be a part of because I don’t work in an airport in Russia.

And yet I loved them. Maybe it’s the middle school teacher in me, maybe it’s the masochist in me, but Russians are basically my favorites now and one day I will meet them when I am not brain-dead between flights.

Also, Dora the Explorer in Russian is the number one way to start a new day.

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Moscow airport, the snow globe filled with little Russian children and rude Russian waiters.

I spent most of the flight to Athens reading. Sleep was out of the question. I was headed into my third time zone change in 36 hours and didn’t want to throw my sleep schedule off anymore than necessary. And as we’ve discussed already, I don’t sleep well on planes.

We began our descent and I looked out the window. Beautiful blue water speckled with gorgeous islands lay below us, basking in a soft winter sunshine. What a welcome.

The islands struck me especially, given the stories we see about refugees fleeing to Greek islands on dangerous seas. This last week, dozens of bodes washed up on Greek and Turkish shores. It’s hard to imagine crossing those expanses of water at night, wondering whether you’ll get to land safely. How spoiled we are to have the promise of safe travels in the relative comfort of modern transport. And somewhere to go.

I think the journey by plane to Athens didn’t cross my mind when I decided to go because the destination was so important. For most of us, sending money and prayers is all we will ever be able to do for these people fleeing their homes (never to return?). So what an honor to be able to serve personally, even if it is doing no more than giving them hot cups of tea while they wait for their transports to the border.

The desire to help our fellow man is perhaps one of the greatest attributes of our innate humanity. As our plane landed in Athens and I reeled from the quick change in altitude, my steadying hope was that it would all be worth it. That coming here I can do good, even if in just a small way. That I can be one of the faces that greets people who have left horrific tragedy and be an ambassador for humanity and a glimmer of hope for the future. That they might see there is good in the world even if the road to get there is long and dark, and it is worth it to try.

The truth about flying is that it is beautiful simply to have somewhere to go and a way to get there.

The truth about New Years

This time last year I was 16 hours into one of the worst years of my entire life. Sick, exhausted and extremely rumpled, I was lying on a wooden floor in an apartment that belonged to a stranger I hadn’t met yet. My sister Sarah and two Czech friends were making the best of a saggy couch and the German girl with us was nodding off on the edge of an unmade bed. It was a small apartment.

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Berlin ate me whole, that week. For the two-ish days that we were there, I felt miserable, physically and emotionally. The physical I could understand. Sarah and I had stayed up till 3 a.m. the night before to celebrate the new year on the icy flanks of Petřín Hill. We shivered on a wet bench for three hours to watch the city below fade into an ever-growing cloud of smoke till we could no longer see the fireworks that were popping off all around Prague. Our cider tasted like dog food, our jackets were insufficient and both of us are much more comfortable with 10 p.m. bedtimes. Only the countdown, which the crowd around us shouted out in four or five different languages, and the slippery hike through snow and ice back down to the trolleys (during which we were given a free sparkler by someone we didn’t know) redeemed our frigidly wet adventure.

We got up the next morning at 6:30 to catch our bus to Berlin and I was dreading the return to a city I knew loathed my existence.

We have never been friends, Berlin and I.

Our friends met us gleefully that afternoon at the bus stop and fed us waffles. We walked through the confettied, fire-crackered streets. I hadn’t booked a hostel because they promised their Indian friend had room for us at his flat.

He didn’t. I realized this as I rolled in and out of moody consciousness on his hard floor. When I woke up fully, he was sitting on the edge of his bed next to our German friend. As far as first impressions go, I have made better.

He had not been expecting us, but was taking it all in stride. When you’re twenty-something and life throws you a sticky mess and a headache, the answer is nearly always pasta. So we went to the Italian place down the way and procrastinated on our decision about housing.

Sarah began to wane in the seat next to me surrounded by a pile of pizza crumbs and pasta plates and I finally insisted we figure something out.

We didn’t. We just went back to the apartment and watched a Bollywood film. Most of us fell asleep before the film ended and we ended up sprawling over the couches and bed of the very tiny apartment, only to be woken at 6 a.m. to help him clean it so he could get to the airport on time.

By 7 o’clock, we were on our feet and out in the cold again, looking for somewhere to eat.

Over the course of the day, I was dragged from parks to monuments with stores and souvenirs in between. I wanted to die.

The emotional misery I have less of an explanation for. I tried not to be a downer, but I certainly wasn’t maintaining my normal level of cheer. Life is peaks and valleys, and while my peaks are high and often, my lows can be a long, long way down.

Looking back now, the trip is one of my favorite memories from 2015, even if it was dreadful to live through. I think I knew even then that it was a precursor to the twelve months ahead of me, though I couldn’t have known how familiar I would become with the valleys of my mind.

It’s been a year, folks.

Last night, I rang in the new year with friends I didn’t know six months ago, people who have become very dear to me. There was a lot of bitterness in my voice when I said farewell to 2015, but I don’t think there should have been.

This year has shaped me. Sometimes I look in the mirror and don’t recognize myself. If I hadn’t been there the whole time, I may not have believed just how much I have changed.

I am so anxious about the next twelve months. Actually, for the first time ever, I am so anxious about the rest of my life. I am no longer the girl with the plan, another part of the aftermath of 2015.

I decided as I drove home last night in the early hours of a year in the making that I wouldn’t be scared this time. To live in Christ is to live boldly. If I truly believe that there is a God who created me with a purpose and has a plan for my life, why should I be anxious?

We make promises for the new year, like going to the gym, drinking more water, reading more books. The goal isn’t to drink more or read more, the goal is to become healthier and to broaden our minds.

My goal is not to be unafraid, but rather that my lack of fear will be a reflection of my conscious decision to trust the Lord with my future every day this year, just as he has taken care of my past.

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Berlin was not kind to me, but if I could go back and choose to avoid our first few meetings, I wouldn’t. It uniquely prepared me for a journey I did not realize would ask so much of me.

If 2016 is another 2015, I won’t complain. I don’t need the years to be better if I am the one changing.