It’s that time of year again. Time to look back on the year and take a moment to realize just how poorly we’ve transitioned into adulthood.
With the burning desire to prove our parents’ friends (and the entire editorial staff of the Huffington Post) wrong about who we are as individuals and as part of the most condemned and berated generation of all time, we turn to our laptops and iPads to tap out our resolutions for the new year.
Hope, promise and eager anticipation for a fresh start to hum through our veins (the humming could actually just be coffee or wine or too many Christmas cookies in one sitting – who knows?) and the glimmer of our future selves becomes momentarily visible.
Here we go. Basic New Year’s Resolutions for the very basic millennial.
Drink more water. (This is basic. Like, if we can’t figure out how to add water into our daily routine, mankind has not evolved nearly as much as the history books say we have).
Read 20 books. (In February, this is going to change to 10 books and we’ll probably get through two in total and read the first three chapters of four more).
Start showing up ten minutes early. (I don’t know about the rest of us, but because of who I am as a person, this is never going to happen. We’re putting it on the list so we can point to it when under social duress).
Start reading the paper more. (It’s important to know what’s going on in the world. That said, I don’t actually think any of us can afford a subscription to an actual newspaper, and now that I think about it, I’m not totally sure how I would even go about that. Where do newspapers come from anyway? So this will probably be a “Google news” thing that slowly turns into a “I read the first several paragraphs of stories that come across facebook instead of just the headline.” Baby steps).
Hit the gym, baby! (Ha! Hahahahahaha! Okay, joke’s over. Moving on).
Do my own taxes. (Mom’s been doing mine for long enough).
Detox from social media. (And then blog about the experience, complete with photo documentary of what we did with life while not on Instagram which we shall post as “latergrams” captioned with pithy, soulful quotes from “Anonymous”).
Build on my savings account. (From now on, we’re only taking money out for emergencies and brunch).
Travel. (We’re making this one as vague as possible so that next December we can be like, “Oh yeah, I totally visited my friend in Riverside for like a weekend. What a great place!” and it will still count).
Spend more time in nature. (This is never going to happen, but it’s on the list).
Finish things I sta-
You know what, this is silly. It’s 2017. I am literally drinking from a bottle of wine labeled “White Girl.” The first load of laundry I’ve done in two weeks is tumbling gayly in the dryer. And I just parallel parked my car in the dark. I’m pretty sure this is as good as I’m going to get.
There it was. Bright red and gleefully tucked beneath the clear folds of plastic wrap and blue ribbon, my very first “Teacher’s Apple.”
It’s an idea I have loved since I first spotted it in the soft colors of Norman Rockwell paintings kept in a book beneath our living room coffee table. Giving the teacher an apple. How classically, iconically American.
Needless to say, it wasn’t really something I experienced in the Czech Republic. Oh, I was begifted with plenty of little treasures, but apples were never a thing there as far as I could tell.
So beginning at my new little school this year, ten minutes away from where I grew up, has been…Well, it’s been a long time in coming.
My tumultuous year away from my Czech students in Prague was reaching an excruciating peak in March when I was contacted by this little school to see if I was interested in a teaching position.
Already, I was mapping out a survival plan for my remaining three years of college education here in San Diego and teaching part time at a tiny Christian school was just not in the cards. It wouldn’t be Prague, you know? And I would be too busy.
But I have trouble saying, “No” to people, so the next thing I knew, I was in the middle of a phone call with a board member and then in the middle of an interview with the entire school board and then negotiating hours.
None of it held any large office space in my mind. I was in the middle of several meltdowns in April and May, mostly involving finals and anxiety about my trip back to Prague in the summer for some final goodbyes and a little closure.
And all the while, I assumed I would turn the job down eventually. Something wouldn’t work out. Because how could it? This school wasn’t mine. It wasn’t Prague, remember?
And yet an insatiable curiosity kept pulling me along. This was no longer an inability to be an adult and say, “No, thank you, but I just can’t.”
There was a turning point, I remember.
During the full-board interview, after being sufficiently and terrifyingly grilled on my values, virtues and skill sets (most of which I may have slightly oversold), the Chairman leaned back, pointed his sharp eyes on me and said in his gruff voice, “Is there anything you’d like to ask us?”
I thought for a moment, whispers of my little Czech students still echoing in my ears all these months later, and said, “Tell me about the kids.”
All heads turned to the Chairman, who had been to this point the most intimidating figure in the room. He softened. He smiled. He said, “Let me tell you about them.”
I don’t remember what he said, but I remember how he said it. He said it with the same tenderness I have felt for my own little okurky. He said spoke about them with affection and hope, as though he could vividly see all the promises held in their futures lined out like golden stepping stones and he wanted more than anything to help them jump from one to the next.
And I knew that feeling so well.
So I took the job.
I rearranged my school and work schedules. I found minutes in the day I didn’t know existed until I had all the time I needed to make everything fit. I read text books. I made lesson plans. I drafted a friend into decorating my classroom for me.
And on the first day of school, I found myself on the receiving end of an apple. The girl was quick about it. She placed it in my hand and then dashed away.
For three and a half hours, I made my way through high school level English and Spanish. Then I packed my things, locked my classroom and dashed off to campus to begin a round of back to back college lectures.
All week, I was in and out so quickly, I barely noticed the flurry of paperwork and signatures and beginners ‘how to’s’ I still needed to walk through. I did notice the other teachers graciously asking, “How’s it going? Are you doing okay?”
And I was, surprisingly.
After teaching several hundred students of all grades in a different language in the Czech Republic, a room of six high schoolers who all understand English seemed too easy. It was like training for a marathon and then running a mile.
On top of this, it was good to be back in the classroom. Indoctrinating a new generation of children on the importance of adverbs and explaining complex grammatical concepts with shoddily drawn stick figures. Having a little room with a little desk to sit behind (or on, as is more often my case). Having tiny people just bursting to ask questions, push buttons and grow into themselves.
It wasn’t until Friday, the end of the first week, that I felt it. A realization. A revelation. A homecoming.
As my new students waltzed out of the room, practically singing, “See you on Monday!”, tripping over themselves to get to lunch, I felt a little tug on the cords of my heart. The same tug I always felt when school let out in Prague. It would be a whole weekend before I saw my students again.
My new school isn’t my old one. I knew that going in. I am very aware of it now. And I know that nothing will replace what Prague was to me.
But I think God knew I needed to be back in a classroom. I think maybe he’s been wanting me here and I was too stubborn to go on my own, so he just kind of pushed me into one.
When the Chairman bustles into my classroom with his gravelly voice and his broad smile and asks, “How are you doing?” – I tell him I’m doing well, that I like it here, that it feels like a good fit.
But the truth is, it’s more than that. It feels like home.
“Did you get any rest?” Rachel asked me, lowering herself into the deeply cushioned chair next to my corner of the couch.
“Not really,” I said. Early evening light filtered into the livingroom of the house I had once lived in for two years. The day was hot and muggy and we were both glistening, despite the coolness of our new surroundings. It’s a long walk from our hotel rooms on top of the hill to the house at the bottom (during the late summer evenings, you can sometimes see fireflies along the path in the forest, but I’ve not managed to spot any this trip).
Rachel tilted her head sideways and eyed me, looking every ounce the schoolteacher she is.
“Why not? What were you doing all afternoon?”
“Mopping up the bathroom,” I said. “And crying.”
Rachel smiled. Not a happy one, but a knowing one. She understands, about the crying at least.
“Why were you mopping the bathroom?” she asked.
One of my roommates, a girl from the American team who had come to help with the English Camp, had had a disagreeable moment with the shower in our hotel room and we didn’t have time before church to mop up the lake left in the wake of their dispute. So following Sunday lunch at the house, I trekked up through the forest alone to our room and found myself knee-deep in water, wet towels and something unexplainably sticky.
Then I rehung all my laundry around the open window, hoping they’d dry out better in the fresh air than in the dank of our bathroom before I packed them for a final time in the evening.
Then I broke the bathroom hairdryer trying to shortcut the hang-dry process with a pair of shorts.
Then I stared out the window for a while.
Then I sat on my bed and cried. For about two hours.
I don’t know why I came back to the Czech Republic, to be honest. Technically, I came to help with an English Camp the church puts on every summer. Technically, I came to see my former students and fellow teachers one last time before their school year let out. Technically, I came to catch up with a few dear friends I had to leave behind when I returned to San Diego last July after living and working in this beautiful country for two years.
But I couldn’t tell you what I was really coming to find. Peace? Closure? The missing remnants of my broken heart so I can piece myself back together before resuming my new life in San Diego?
Why had I come back to Prague? What a truly awful, horrible, stupid idea. Because I knew this moment would come. This afternoon when I’d be sitting on this couch for the last time, wishing with all my heart I could stay, knowing I’d have to leave.
I wish I could explain why leaving Prague last year was so devastating to me. It’s a question I have thought about a lot this summer as I have revisited forests, fields and the homes of friends I know so well. My breath still vanishes when I cross Charles’ Bridge. My eyes still linger on the horizon whenever St. Vitus Cathedral stands against it. Prague is always new for me. But it also has the feel of a very old friend, one who knows me perhaps better than I know myself.
Every sidewalk I traversed this summer led me down a thousand memories of the city and its people, each in a different season. Every friend I visited refreshed my mind and loosened my tongue to the Czech language (which, sadly, I have only been able to speak with my cat for the last year, and she’s not much of a conversationalist). And every day, I remembered anew why this place feels so much like home.
Which is unfortunate since I don’t live here anymore. And I find myself asking God, “Why would you give me this just to take it all away?”
“Have you ever thought about moving back?” Rachel asked me, echoing a question I’ve heard maybe a hundred times.
Of course, is always my answer. I’d give my right leg to be here forever. Sometimes I wish I was Czech or wonder whether my Czech friends feel special to belong to a people and a place like this.
In fact, even the difference between returning to San Diego, which was difficult and stressful, and returning to Prague was shocking to me.
They say you can’t go back. You can’t go home again. That was totally true for me. When I moved back to San Diego, it felt forced and awkward. I had become a stranger in the town that raised me. I had chased a different wind and had changed with the current, such that the old seas felt rough and strange to me upon return.
Okay, I realize this all may sound a little over-dramatic, but I just don’t know how else to explain how I’ve been feeling for the last year. Not that I haven’t adjusted, made new friends, started new ventures. But in the still moments before sunset, the walks from my car to the house when the stars are out, the muffled laughter of people enjoying themselves right here, I find myself somewhere else. Somewhere far away, in a time that almost seems imaginary, as though I fell asleep for two years, dreamed a wonderful dream, and woke again to a world that has moved on without me. And it leaves me feeling heartbroken and lost.
I thought ‘coming back’ would be the same with Prague. I had been away for a year after all. Would I recognize this place? Would it remember me?
Prague surprised me. I instantly felt pieces of myself fall back into place as I immersed myself again in a culture and a language. I visited my school and saw my students and fellow teachers. It felt like I had never left. Like I had been gone only a day.
And I’m wondering if this is because the ‘Home’ where we begin is a launching point, setting us up for flight and a future. To return is impossible because it represents the past. But the ‘Home’ we create on our own is our future. Coming back is easy and natural, like finding your way back to the path that leads you onward.
So why don’t I just move back? Get a teaching position again? Make my own way of things?
I first considered moving to Prague in 2010 after a short term mission’s trip when it was obvious that there was a need for workers in the field. I felt so called to go. For three years, I waited, planned, prepared. Finally, I was accepted to go as a missionary associate for two years, with the possibility of extensions. It was so hard and yet so easy to struggle through those two years (five, if you count the three years in San Diego it took to get me to Prague) because, at every step, I knew that this was where God wanted me to be. And in my heart I knew I wouldn’t leave Prague unless God sent someone to replace me or made it very obvious he wanted me elsewhere.
In a way, He did both. So I left.
I’m in San Diego because it’s pretty clear to me that God wants me there right now. And I’m not unhappy.
Not unhappy, but I’ve been missing something. For months now, I’ve noticed the lack of something very important in my life, something I long to have back.
I’ve lost my joy.
I’ve been missing the delight of waking up every morning and knowing I’ll get to see all my students, I’ll get to walk through fall leaves or winter snows, I’ll get to learn new words and practice old ones. I’ve been missing my friends from school, the women who opened up their lives and hearts to me. I’ve been missing impossibly clear Czech skies, feathery forests and wayside flowers. I’ve been missing the life I had and all the joy that came with it. I have this fear that my two years in Prague were the best I may ever get, nothing will ever be quite so golden. And even though I know in my heart that this is probably untrue, it’s hard to fight the feeling. Especially sitting in a house that was once home, looking out a window into what was once my world and my future.
“It is hard having your life in one place and your heart in another,” I finally said.
Rachel gave her head a little shake, sympathy in the highest degree, and we waited for the evening devotional to begin.
The dear man who led us through Scripture and then prayer began quickly and finished quietly. We read only three passages, each about the sacrifice of the Christian life. For us, living safely and happily in the first world, the Christian life doesn’t require many sacrifices. Certainly not the pain of death. Not torture, not imprisonment, not persecution.
Literally, all I have to do is live by the Word of God and follow His direction in my life. And in return, He has given us a peace that passes understanding.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.And the peace of God,which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
All this I know in my head, but it has taken a year for that knowledge to work its way into my broken heart.
Suddenly, I felt a lifting of my spirit, a calming of my soul.
My world of hopes and dreams here in Prague seem like an awfully small sacrifice to make for the One who gave me all.
Sitting there in that living room, I suddenly felt myself breathe for what felt like the first time in a year. The idea of being able to bring a sacrifice to the altar of the Lord brightened my soul in a way I didn’t expect.
Prague is not something God is taking away from me. It is something He has given me, which I should be delighted to return to him to make room for the new plans He has for me whatever or wherever they may be.
Logically, it doesn’t make sense. It is very truly a peace that passes understanding. And, although it didn’t come all at once, that evening I began to realize it personally.
I trooped back through the forest to the hotel that night with another friend from the team.
“I really want to see fireflies,” I told him. “This is my last chance before I go home.”
In the dark, I could hear him laughing, but he made a point of staring into the abyss of the shadowy creek for bobbing lights with me. We found none.
I sighed. Not even fireflies? Like, I understand that God gives and takes away as he pleases, but not even one little firefly? You know, as a consolation gift? Is that too much to ask for?
We kept walking, my friend bending the conversation as softly as the curves in the road.
And then I saw it.
Glowing unmistakably, it flickered a few yards in front of us. Beating nearly as loudly as my friend’s heavy footsteps, my heart seemed to pound uncontrollably as we slowly approached the little creature.
“It’s not a firefly,” my friend said, crouching on the pebbled pathway near the grass where our new acquaintance lay blazing like a supernova.
“No,” I said, entranced. “He’s a glow worm.”
A dozen memories of Czech mountains and Czech children and all the glow worms they’ve brought me over the years blinked before me.
“Should we take him with us?” asked me friend.
“No,” I said again, feeling a smile spreading warmly across my face as we watched the only glowing insect in the whole forest beaming before us. “His place is here.”
He’s not a firefly, but he’s something – a reminder from the Lord that he hears me. That I’m not alone. That he’s sending me back to San Diego for a reason. Just like he sent me to Prague for a reason.
Prague is my glow worm. Beautiful, magical, moving, but not mine. Prague and the people in it belong to God and it is time to let go of the idol I have turned them into, to give them back and trust that they will be just as safe in his hands as they’ve ever been.
Coming back to San Diego was no easier this time around. I still feel so deeply sad to leave a home I hoped was mine. But my heart is healed, fully back, not inside me, but in the hands of my Savior. I’m ready to love again, adventure again, find a new home with a new people, if that’s what he asks me to do. What a little sacrifice, to live this life God gave me unto him and no other.
And with that readiness has come the return of my joy.
Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges was a book I was raised on. Beautifully brought to life by the art nouveau illustrations of Trina Schart Hyman, the story captured my childhood imagination with distant lands and faraway places.
As Saint George, mounted on a valiant steed and bearing a red cross upon his white shield, follows the fair Princess Una into a realm terrorized by a dragon, I too trailed behind them, lighted by images of faeries and magical creatures, led by the dim glow of adventure ever on the horizon.
Northern Ireland looks a lot like the pages of that fairy tale. Green and gold fields lie in patchwork patterns, stitched together by rows of hawthorn bushes. Brick cottages line country roads like red-capped mushrooms leading towards a fairy castle. And sunlight, softer than stardust, falls from magnificently clouded skies.
After leaving Prague, which was just as difficult as I expected it would be, I found myself on a bus speeding towards Belfast to spend a day with one of my very most favorite families, literally ever. I like to break up the trip home with a stop in Ireland because 24 hours on a plane is just no bueno, and I couldn’t leave Europe without seeing the MacArthurs.
They picked me up from the bus stop, drove me southeast into the countryside, put me up in a room inside their beautiful Georgian dollhouse of a home, gave me a spot of tea, and sent me to bed, which was basically the best welcoming reception of all time.
That feathery sunlight woke me up the next morning, which was incredible considering how dark a morning it was, complete with the foreboding winds of a coming storm.
“Victoria’s going to take you around today,” Mrs. MacArthur told me over cereal, hot cross buns and tea.
Victoria seems exactly the same since the last time I saw her 18 months ago. There is something about youth that keeps a person growing, and yet unchanged, like a star that churns in the abyss of the galaxy where time cannot reach its effervescent twinkle.
She’s a pretty girl, sweet and unassuming, with a perfect blend of joviality and tempered enthusiasm. And she’s just gotten her driver’s license.
So it was with mild trepidation that we both began our morning’s adventures, her as she got behind the wheel of a car, and me as I climbed into the left side of the vehicle.
Our first stop was Greyabbey cemetery, and the road that took us there wound through a collection of villages decked with flags and bunting from the most recent public holiday.
“Those are for Prince William of Orange,” Victoria explained. “He defeated someone on July 12, but I don’t remember who. And this used to be a castle we’re passing but I’m not sure who it belonged to.”
Where information was lacking, charm and general pleasantries about the countryside was used as substitution. For Victoria, this magical place is just home. For me, it’s a strange new wonderland and I spent most of the day picturing myself traversing it on a grey horse with a gleaming sword (and a super pretty, probably impractical princess dress).
“Do you ever think that whoever owned that castle could be your lords today if we were still under that kind of governance?” I asked as we pulled into the gravelly car park.
“I guess not,” she said. “I don’t think I really know the area that well. This is actually only my second time to the abbey. I only discovered it a week ago.”
Greyabbey was built in the 12th century by a group of people whose names we could not pronounce and therefore cannot remember. Most of it still stood erect, minus the roof and about sixty percent of the walls. But the beautiful arches and the front edifice remained. It was huge.
Wandering through the garden, past plants like mugwort and vervain, felt very Medieval indeed.
And then the graveyard. It’s stone markers falling over, crumbling to pieces, it looked derelict and forgotten. Most of the tombstones dated back to the 17th and 18th centuries. These people lived and died before my country was ever born.
We got our fill of nostalgia and wandered back to the car. Next stop: Victoria’s grandparents.
George and Rosemary live in a quaint brick house. A sunroom off the kitchen juts out into the brightest flurry of garden flowers you will ever see. Blazingly orange nasturtiums and baby-pink wall roses nestled between shocks of purple and blue flowers and doves and pigeons lighted in and out of low-creeping tree branches. What a garden!
In the sunroom, a blue-and-white tea table was set with little cups, plates of potato bread, jams, honey, berries and a tea pot snuggled deeply into a tea cozy.
Rosemary led us to a sofa and Victoria took a seat at one end. One more spot was open next to her and a wooden chair sat just beyond that. Suddenly, years of flipping through Norman Rockwell picture books came flooding back to me. This was a real tea. I was expected to sit like a real little lady, probably with legs crossed at the ankle and back straight, as Victoria was already so aptly demonstrating. Thrill filled my soul. Tea time.
I sat down and was asked questions by Rosemary about my life and plans, and when she got up to busy herself around the kitchen, George came out of the garden woodshed and took up her place.
Was I a student? What did I study? Did I work? What kind of journalism did I do in the States? Where was I coming from? Did I like Prague? Had it been hard to leave? Yes…some changes are very hard, indeed.
George led us in prayer before tea began.
“We thank you, Lord, for all these good gifts,” he said, his deep brogue bending wide in sincerity as we approached the feet of our Creator. “And let this food nourish our bodies today – even Mary’s, though she is herself a journalist.”
And so commenced our tea. Delightful, from the first sip to the last breadcrumb. I especially enjoyed the “traybakes,” a scrumptious compact of biscuits, candied cherries, marshmallows and sweetened condensed milk. But before reaching for a butter knife, stirring my tea or taking a bit of something laid out before us, I would glance over at Victoria first to see if I was doing it correctly.
When tea was finished, Rosemary showed me her collection of tea cozies, which she sells online (and which you should totally look into if you’re at all into the tea scene).
Then she packed us a picnic lunch and filled our arms with gifts and goodies for the road, and we were ushered on our way.
Several runaway strands of sunlight christened the start of the afternoon as we drove past the local lough, which, I later learned, has the largest presence of organisms of any lough in Ireland (or something along those lines. I mostly just remembered that it look pretty).
We parked on the slope of a hill and walked a short ways through a stronge breeze and grey sunshine to the top where Scrabo Tower stood proudly and alone against a pale sky.
Around us, Northern Ireland stretched out like a blanket, covering the world we could see in deep greens and golds. To one side, the Irish Sea sidled along the coast, bringing the Isle of Man and the shores of Scotland just into view.
“They were going to build a castle here too,” Victoria explained as the wind rattled our jackets (I was wearing a jacket and a hoodie because it was freezing. Victoria barely had a sweater on).
“Why didn’t they?”
“I guess they got lazy,” she said.
The tower was tall and dark, made of thick brown stones and covered with moss around the base. My head filled with images of knights climbing the hill, fully armored, ready for siege or ready for rest. What a world this must have been only a few hundred years ago.
We climbed back down the hill for a spot of tea (again) and lunch. Sandwiches were pulled out of our hamper and chocolate and traybakes were distributed. I rambled on and on about fairy castles and dueling knights as Victoria sat in patient silence.
“This is beautiful,” I finally said.
In an instant, that word brought me speeding back to the Czech Republic, beneath amber rays of sunlight and skies as big and open as the universe. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point in the last six years, home for me became the winding curve of the Vltava covered in hoar frost and the gentle sloping of forested hills and spired villages. The feeling was so powerful that not even the enchantment of a day in a fairy land with my wee little friend could distract me from the sudden rush of heartbreak that welled inside me.
I don’t know what I had been thinking, going back to Prague. Because, although my six weeks in the Czech Republic were a dream, I knew, I knew, leaving was going to break my heart a second time.
Our last stop of the day was a pottery barn where we could hide from the rain that had begun to plop down against the countryside. The weather was beginning to reflect the somber churnings of my mind, so bright colors and sponge molds were a welcome relief from it all.
Victoria is a pottery pro. Her plate was finished and looking fine a good half hour before mine was. She patiently sat and watched me painstakingly etch out my feelings onto a plate, disguised as clouds and birds and seascapes. I threw in a few faerie mushrooms as well, just because.
When we got back to the house, the heavens had opened up on us and rain was coming down with sincerity.
Dinner wasn’t for a few more hours so Victoria and I agreed we had both earned a nap. I shut the door to the little guest bedroom on the second story, the view of hawthorn trees blowing in the gale framing my window, and fell fast asleep into dreams of home.
Dinner was a wee affair, with just the four of us there to enjoy the delicious food and splendid conversation. Mostly, we talked about other missionaries, some I had met in Madrid when I first ran into the MacArthurs, others I had only heard about from them. Lots of people coming and going from one spot on the map to another, wherever the Lord calls them to serve next.
Finally, we piled into the car one last time and went into town for ice cream and coffee. Victoria grinned eight shades of happiness behind her cone and cup.
Curled up next to a window that looked out onto a street splashed with rain, we continued to chit chat about life and the world. This little family exemplifies Christian hospitality, such that I am humbled and inspired in my own Christian walk because of them.
And it was a good reminder for me.
I’m sure the Lord is using these good people for more important tasks than simply helping one lost Pilgrim find the path of purpose again and the way home, but on this day, that is exactly what they did. They reminded me that God calls us to serve in many places and none of them will be home, for home is heaven.
“The Fairy Queen has sent you to do brave deeds in this world. That High City that you see is in another world. Before you climb the path to it and hang your shield on its wall, go down into the valley and fight the dragon that you were sent to fight.”
-Margaret Hodges, Saint George and the Dragon
Who knows where we’ll be called to go under the banner of God’s Kingdom? To the darkest parts of Africa or the glimmering lights of cities who do not know our Savior, or even right back to our own front door. All these adventures we must first embark on before we can truly go home, and when that day comes, every tear shall be wiped away and all that was lost will be refilled with the goodness of God himself.
And I will rejoice to see the MacArthurs right there with me, joining the throng of the church invisible, brought to completion at last.
Every good adventure includes a rucksack. It’s the standard wayfarer’s pack. It’s the modern-day bindle for the millennial yuppie traveling the winding roads between Paris and Rome or Hanoi and Bangkok.
I’m here to tell you that it sucks.
Nothing is worse than a heavy rucksack when you’ve been meandering around for six hours, even at a “slow pace” (and for those who’ve never met my most recent traveling companion, Katka, “slow pace” really means “quick jog or I’m leaving you behind”).
Katka is helping me write this post because it was a shared adventure (“And we both survived”) so the following advice comes from both of us.
Italics are Katka.
“Whatever, there is such heavy censorship here, I bet barely half of what I say is going to make it in.”
So, here are NINE THINGS THAT ARE WORTH THE WEIGHT in your traveling pack.
Traveling is a hungry business. You’ll be tired, you’ll be excited, you’ll find yourself waiting in train stations and at bus stops and you’ll be hungry.
We suggest snacks.
“But not cheese.”
[*Katka would like to clarify that she loves cheese and that she’s upset that I’m not using exact quotes to convey how she feels.]
We packed a bunch of typical Czech snacks in Prague, including several small rounds of hermelin cheese, and stuffed them into the tops of our packs. Our train left at 5 a.m. and we later caught a bus that dropped us off in Bratislava, Slovakia around nine in the morning.
We were tired (probably mostly because we stayed up too late the night before binge-watching TV shows) and hungry. So we took out our Czech pastries, yogurts, crackers and fruit candies and had a veritable feast on a park bench.
As the week progressed, we refilled our snacks several times (the cheese didn’t make it but we didn’t manage to throw it out for an unfortunately long period of time). In Budapest I discovered Kinley Ginger Ale. Katka seemed to find watermelon in every town we stopped in. Sacks of coconut cookies and local candies found their way into our bags, though not for long.
The 2 liter bottle of ginger ale actually lasted quite some time, but, honestly, it was worth the weight.
UNNECESSARY PERSONAL HYGIENE ITEMS
The difference between travelers and tourists, they say, is in how much your luggage weighs.
(“Why are you using italics for that? Italics are my thing.”)
A traveler, someone who is going to explore and experience, has no room for things like makeup or hair dryers, they say.
We’re here to tell you that for your own comfort and peace of mind, it is so worth it to bring an unnecessary personal hygiene item.
“Speak for yourself, lady.”
I brought a curling iron. It’s small and light. I only used it twice. But it was there when I needed it. When did I need it? When Katka rolled out of bed looking like perfection for the fourth day in a row and I was just sitting there collecting dust and flies. So I showered in our rather difficult hostel restroom facilities, let my hair air dry (which took about two seconds in Budapest, or shall I say the fiery pit of hell, and then plugged in my curling iron. Ten minutes and two missing fingers later, I looked like a human again. It was just the pluck I needed to get out and follow Katka’s break-neck pace for another day.
Sometimes travel is exhausting and you need to look your best to feel your best. That’s not being a tourist, that’s being human. Bring the hair dryer.
“You know, just this morning I thought of something else we could add to this list, but then I forgot it.”
For the most part, Katka and I couldn’t afford to eat three meals a day on the road, let alone go to nice places to consume nutrients. However, we did splurge once or twice.
We cleaned up and put on pretty skirts and walked around town without looking homeless.
It was lovely.
I think, to experience a city, you have to see the slums and the skyline. Places are orchestras, complete with harmonies in both treble and bass. To only listen to one piece of the melody would be to miss the song completely.
So do your hippie travel thing with your handkerchief scarves and ratty, been-there shoes. It’s a good way to get places.
But a set of nice clothes that you can stash in the bottom of your bag and pull out for a morning church service in the country or an evening in the pretty lights of a city will round out what you see in your travels.
This may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at how strong the urge is to leave it out when you test out your pack for the first time and realize that it weighs roughly that of a small elephant. When you begin pulling things out and asking yourself, “Will I really need this?” the answer to your book is yes.
I brought my copy of Noam Chomsky’s “Who Runs the World,” that I purchased in Iceland’s quaint excuse for an airport this summer. The book is frankly a mess, but it kept me engaged and interested during every lag in our trip.
“Hey, I was the one who kept you engaged and interested. Why do you think I even went along?”
For example, there was this one time when we were waiting for a train in the middle of absolutely nowhere (and by that, I mean Csopak, Hungary). We had 40 minutes and nothing but fields and a pub we couldn’t afford to eat in to keep us occupied.
Katka decided to go exploring. I stretched out on the grass, kicking off my shoes and diving into Chomsky’s oversimplified opinion of world affairs.
For the most part, Katka and I spent every waking minute together, rambling through the countryside and cityscapes of the former Habsburg Empire. But there were moments when we both needed a break from traveling – be it for the sake of our feet, our minds, “Or our mental health” – and during those moments, I’m so glad I was willing to lug around a book.
This may be one of those things you just don’t think to bring, especially if you are on summer break and would like to think about school never, ever again.
However, we would like to proposition the thought that taking advantage of that otherwise useless and bureaucratic piece of plastic may be the best decision you can make as a traveler (assuming, you are in fact a student).
Where did that ID get us? Into museums, onto buses, and into the sympathetic hearts of people hoping a more educated generation will not screw the world up as badly as we’re likely to.
Okay, cynicism aside, the ID was great. And worth stuffing into your wallet.
“I don’t want to say anything about student ID’s. I hate student ID’s. My picture is the stupidest ever and I just want to forget about it.”
I know what you’re thinking, or rather, how hard you’re laughing. Go running? On vacation? Or, like, ever? Ha. Hahahaha.
HOWEVER, running did several important things for us.
“Really? Like what?”
It got us out of our hostel when we weren’t sure what else to do. When it’s hot and sticky and Budapest or Bratislava feels like the inside of a closed honey jar that’s been left out in the sun, it’s easy to think that waiting life out in your hostel is the best possible option.
But pushing yourself through a run will give you a good look at your new city and you’ll probably find the only breeze available (depending on how fast you run, of course. My run is a like a limpy trot, so not a lot of breeze there).
And you’ll cover a lot more ground than you would have otherwise. Go running on the first day. Get a glimpse of what’s out there to see. Then go back and walk through it all later.
“Also, going running will make you feel like a hero. I feel like a hero. And now my legs look nicer.”
Like, I shouldn’t even have to be telling you this. Hopefully this is already on your packing list. But if it’s not, it should be. The road is a dirty place and clean water, soap and towels are grossly underappreciated in America because we don’t realize that the rest of the world doesn’t just give them out for free.
So yeah, hand sanitizer.
That’s all I have to say.
(“If you’re Mary, you’ll bring like eight, at least. You always had hand sanitizer. Remember when that one crazy woman spit on you on the bus? And then you like bathed yourself in sanitizer? And people thought you were weird?”)
. . . That’s all I have to say.
SOMETHING FOR A FRIEND
I brought my crazy intense rucksack (“Oh, I thought you were gonna say ‘friend’”) because I am an American and I believe one should go big or go home. This meant that many of Katka’s belongings ended up temporarily or permanently housed in my pack. Things like running shoes, changes of clothes, weird food things and like, a lot of flack for it all.
Occasionally, during our semi-regular spats (which are par for the course when you travel with one person for more than two days), I considered dumping her things into the Danube or giving them to someone homeless and in need.
We’d walk the streets of wherever – Vienna or Brno – not talking because, you know, friendship tensions. (“Friendship tensions? I can’t believe you said that. Rude.”) Katka would be a half-mile ahead of me and I’d be meandering behind at my own jolly pace (carrying the 80 pound rucksack, mind you, darling). The streets would float away beneath my feet like a stream and I just had to keep following. And I realized anew in every city that we probably wouldn’t be getting lost. Because Katka knows what the heck she’s doing. It’s a new feeling for me, to get to follow the leader and not worry about where we’re going or how we’ll get there. In exchange for an extra pound or two of luggage, Katka lifted a huge weight off my mind. It was a fair trade.
“I can’t believe you’re saying nice things about me. Who are you?”
If you can help your travel buddies carry something, it should be the very least you do for them.
A SENSE OF ADVENTURE
We’re interpreting this one broadly. Adventure could be the cheese we left in our bag for three days. It could be the liter of ginger ale we picked up in the Hungarian lake region. It could be wet clothes we repacked because we had no choice (honestly, 90 degrees all week and it rains the one day we decide to do laundry? What is life?). A sense of adventure, where the rucksack is concerned, is a go-with-the-flow kind of attitude and it has as much to do with you as with your pack (obviously).
Throw caution to the winds. Buy the sandwich. (“The sandwich? More like that whole bottle of wine we took down in Budapest.”) Bring the extra shoes. Carry the extra weight because it will make your back stronger and your memories … um, more intense?
We rang the doorbell a second time. After bouncing on anxious toes for a minute, we heard the crackly voice of a man over the intercom.
I raced to the speaker right above the doorbell, both set into the old stone of a doorframe in Budapest, Hungary. It was almost midnight and it was still hot out.
“We have reservations for a room here but our bus was late and we missed check-in,” I said, the words hurrying out on a wave of concern.
“Sorry, hotel is closed,” said the man.
“No, but we have reservations,” I said. I could feel my blood pressure surging.
I’m getting pretty good at traveling. Contrary to what one might think, being good at traveling is not the ability to get from one place to another in a seamless fashion. Rather, it is the ability to remain seamless in composure as one encounters every conceivable disaster that inevitably accompanies leaving one’s comfort zone. Coming to Europe this summer, I was delayed for three hours in an airport, nearly missed a connection in Iceland, almost lost my luggage in Berlin and barely caught my bus to Prague, all while shouldering a 35 pound rucksack (how to pack a rucksack should be a post in itself). But what amazed me was how easy it all was. The last three years must have made me immune to the gut-churning, heart-pounding, eye-watering feeling of being lost (“It should be called being ‘creatively misplaced,’” a friend in Athens once told me). I have been creatively misplaced a lot.
But not having a room to sleep in at midnight in a strange city was a first for me.
There was no response on the intercom so my friend and I assumed he had hung up on us.
Katka and her family agreed to let me stay with them while I’m in Prague. She and I decided to take a week to see parts of Europe neither of us has been to yet.
The bus that morning had taken us from a city we both consider home to the neighboring town of Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. Bratislava is nice enough, but it’s not Prague, and by 6:30 that evening we were on another bus headed for Budapest.
This was not a city I ever planned on going to. Three years ago I would have written it off completely (and did, several times), in the hopes of traveling to more refined locations like Rome, Madrid, Dresden, whatever. Budapest sounded like a ragtag city for wandering yuppies.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
A little window slid open in the heavy wooden door we were standing beneath letting a broken beam of pale light out into the dark street.
“Hotel is closed, not open till weekend,” said the man from the intercom, who looked as blearily grumpy in person as his voice had suggested.
“But we have reservations,” I said again, a small whimper escaping my chapped lips.
“New hotel. Not open till weekend,” he repeated before shutting the window in our faces and taking with him the only real light on the street.
Katka and I looked at each other. We both enjoy a healthy dose of adventure, but this was a quite a spoonful and there didn’t seem to be anything sweet to help it go down.
We were both hot, sweaty, tired and sore (I’m in the middle of cross country training right now and Katka is making sure I get my miles in, so neither of us can feel our legs, which makes walking a difficulty).
“What do we do now?” asked Katka, her enormously large blue eyes blinking up at me with question and a trace of annoyance.
I had one job. Literally one. Book the hostel.
“Let’s walk back down the street,” I said. “Maybe we missed something.”
Back down the block, past the sleeping bums who had curled up in front of doorways, past the Sir Lancelot night club that seemed to be open but deserted, past the rows of silent trees and silent cars, past two taxi drivers…
Taxi drivers know everything. If I ever decide to take over the world, I’m building my secret service entirely out of taxi drivers and waiters.
Katka doesn’t like taking the lead on talking to people we don’t know (because she’s smart and likely to be the last of the two of us to get kidnapped and murdered), so I walked up to the two men who seemed to be having a comfortable chat, leaning against the side of their cars.
One of them was thin and wiry, dragging on a cigarette, clothes too big for his frame. The other had a beefy belly and thick arms. His eyes seemed much more alert but a lot less kind. Neither seemed dangerous, but that was probably just because they were wearing capris.
“Hi,” I said, approaching the duo, realizing that this too was something I would not have been comfortable doing three years ago. “We’re looking for our hostel but it’s not here.”
They spoke no English and the only Hungarian I have picked up so far is the word “Yes,” which I’m still fairly certain I’m mispronouncing.
But, like knights with glistening armor and gleaming swords, they came to our rescue. They talked amongst themselves for a moment before the skinny one pulled out his phone and looked up where our hostel should have been. He followed our well-beaten path down to the end of the block, had the same conversation with our grouchy doorman (but this time in Hungarian), and stopped some random guy entering his apartment to ask about the hostel (that dude didn’t speak Hungarian or English and we were all just like, well, okay, great then).
He made several phone calls, pulled up a number of webpages and addresses on his phone, showing me each in turn so I knew what valiant steps he was taking to help us.
Finally back at the taxi, the larger man gave his friend the smile that said, I think it’s cute that you found these two little strays, but you’re going to have to put them back where you found them eventually.
“We should just go to the McDonald’s and get internet,” said Katka. Neither of us have data and we both hate ourselves so much for it.
I offered our hero 1000 HUF (which is like two and half cents in USD, but infinitely cooler than American currency because they’re called forints, guys). He declined rather profusely and we scooted on our way so he could shuffle in the passengers coming up to the car. I hope he had a bumper night. I also hope one day he gets a castle.
The McDonald’s was basically a castle itself. Three floors overlapping each other with balconies and weird jetties decked with tables and booths climbed downward toward the register in center of the building like and inverse Mayan temple.
An unpleasant security guard (and the only unfriendly Hungarian I have met thus far) told us to order food before we used the internet (which, honestly, would have been reasonable to ask if he hadn’t done it with such lip). We got a large orange juice and pulled up our hostel booking.
“Oh no,” I said, feeling my stomach fall through my seat. “Katka, you will not believe what I did.”
“Really?” she said, calmly sipping the orange juice and looking up other hostels in the area. “Because at this point I think I’ll believe anything.”
“I booked the wrong day,” I said. “I guess I didn’t take into account that we wouldn’t be staying overnight in Bratislava. It was so last minute.”
Katka didn’t need excuses or explanations. She needed a place to sleep and a refill on the orange juice. The least I could do was the orange juice.
When I came back with a second cup, she had found us a place to stay. Because she’s awesome.
“We might as well stay here the whole trip,” she said. “Can you cancel the other booking?”
I did, swallowing bitterly the 19 EUR deposit I had already paid for.
Once more, we shouldered our packs.
Our new digs were pretty nice and right in a lively pub area where lights and faint chatter carry out onto the street late into the night.
When Budapest woke us up the next morning, we were ready to meet it.
Coincidentally, this hostel (LOL Hostel, for those curious) serves the greatest cup of coffee I have tasted on this continent. Ever.
Budapest is beautiful, as can be expected. We lazed around in a Turkish bath for most of the scorching afternoon, found a quaint little spot for lunch, took a couple of pictures. Took a nap.
When the sun went down, Katka and I both strapped on our running shoes and headed down to the river.
We run at different paces (mine being a bit of a wobble at the moment, and Katka’s rather resembling that of a Cheetah racing to take down something small and innocent). I started off well enough, but she passed me quickly. I looked down at my phone and liked my time (I’m on Nike+ Running if anyone wants to add me – let’s race!). I’m learning that we all go at our own pace. If life is a competition, it is only with ourselves.
Around me, the city was aglow with the love-struck fever of summertime. Couples sat along the stone retainer on the river, their feet hanging over the edge. Families strolled along the path that runs along the bank and bikers and backpackers rested their weary limbs on the benches overlooking the water.
Night had transformed the murky green waters of the Danube into hushed currents of dark indigo that reflected lights from the ferries traversing the river between banks of shadows. A tram crossed over the glistening Chain Bridge, each window lit so that as it slid through the dark it looked like a procession of druids floating through the evening. The castle stood above it, still and lustrous.
Budapest surprised me with its beauty, its culture, its sense of self.
I finished my run with a new personal best time (don’t get excited, folks — my personal best is like a quick walk at this point). Katka was waiting for me on the bank of the river, her own run long completed. We both knew our legs would be sore in the morning.
As a kid, I always wanted to be a traveler. As a teenager, I always wanted to be a runner. It’s taken a long time, but I’m finally turning into a bit of both.
Nothing else of who I am has been what I expected. I was hoping to turn into someone elegant and refined, much like this cities I once wanted to visit. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and wonder how on earth I ended up being this somewhat clumsy, somewhat lost, very self-deprecating anti-romantic with two half jobs and a tattoo. Sometimes I worry that I turned into the wrong person. Why am I not Paris? Why am I not Rome?
Maybe these are the critical musings of every twenty-something as we struggle to meet our own expectations in the face of a reality we hadn’t planned on.
But this week I realized that I am not as afraid as I used to be. I’m not afraid of getting lost, of losing things, of making mistakes. Because I’ve done all that. And this restless wanderer I have turned into has also made me stronger, bolder and insatiably curious.
So I feel a little like Budapest today, and it’s a nice surprise.
Sunshine washed the field in a perfect golden haze the last time I walked away from a college baseball game in 2013. I had been covering Southwestern College’s team for a local paper and the season was coming to an end, just as a new one for me was about to begin.
That was the month before I left America, just a few short weeks before I packed my bags and boarded a plane to Central Europe where a whole new future awaited me.
For the most part, I was ready to go. I had been planning to teach in Prague and work with the church there for three years (since the summer I graduated from high school, for the sake of precision). But walking up the hill from the dusty diamond, I realized very keenly that I would miss this. I would miss baseball.
One day I’ll tell the story about how I got into sports reporting. It was part accident, part ego, and no one was more surprised than myself.
But this isn’t a story about beginnings. This is my attempt at explaining to all of my confused, amused family and friends why I have been so obsessed with baseball this season. So the only relevant information you need to know about my beginnings with covering this sport is that it took me two and a half games and one wikipedia search of baseball terms to understand I had found something I really, really loved.
It is also important to know that Prague changed me. Specifically, being a middle school teacher changed me, or brought out something in me that I didn’t know was there before. Some of you followed all this on my travel blog as it was happening, but not even I realized just what a different person I had become until I came home. The problem is that when you are shaped in one place and then move to another, it takes a while to find a spot where you fit again.
And the full-time student life I moved into didn’t really accommodate my inner sunshine-seeking, people-watching middle school teacher.
Moving home, leaving Prague, was the hardest thing I have ever done.
It was only natural that, upon returning from Prague after two years, I would find my way back to baseball. I write for my college paper where some of the Jaguar coaching staff still remember me from 2013. I also write for a paper in East County covering high school and community college games.
Four months of baseball have seen me climbing trees and hanging over outfield fences with my feet jammed into the spaces of rusty chain link fences, or kneeling in the dirt (and mud – thanks, El Niño), angling for that perfect shot.
One particular game in Eastlake had me picking through piles of trash behind the outfield fence next to the home dugout. I squatted in the mud next to a wheelbarrow filled with murky water and ignored the weeds brushing against my ankles. When it comes to angles on the field, the stretch between second base and third is my favorite and I would literally squat on an ant hill to get a good view of it.
Barely two innings had gone by when rain began to lick the back of my neck. Tucking my camera beneath my coat, I trekked back through the mud to the bleachers where fans were taking cover under jackets and backpacks.
Fighting the crushing feeling that we were about to get rained out, I pushed my lens through the gaps in the fence and took a few snapshots of the batter as the wind began sending torrential sheets of water down onto the field. My fingers were numb, my clothes were getting soaked and I could tell my camera was not going to be a happy camper after this experience. I wanted to be grumpy, but all I kept thinking as a stupid smile pushed its way over my chattering teeth was how lucky I am to have this job, to be at a baseball game on such a day.
El Niño and I were definitely not friends. I know the rest of California was ready for some wet weather, but rain means cancelled games.
I obsessively checked the weekly Google weather forecast twice a day to make sure game days were still clear. Cancelled games absolutely wrecked me.
But when the weather was clear, it was beautiful. The first time I ever noticed spring in San Diego was season I covered baseball, back in 2012. Outside the classroom, away from my computer, the baseball field opened up to me the glories of early March. Sunlight clearer than glass cut across the field and breezes rippled the mesh on the outfield fence. Warm in the sun and cold in the shade, every sound seemed crisper and every color seemed brighter. Butterflies fluttered by and insects hummed in the grass. And on a baseball field, the afternoons lilted by slowly, taking their time.
I remember sitting in the dirt next to the SWC dugout at an away game at City College in Balboa this April. Several times an inning, planes swept through the pale blue skies above us, and the tops of Downtown’s beautiful skyline popped up over the outfield fence. It was a warm day and the dust billowed into columns whenever runners slid into the bases. Luckily for me, City’s field is grossly uneven. Third base is elevated nearly a foot from home plate. Sitting on the dirt, I could see the bag almost exactly at eye-level. My camera snapped up every dusty third-base slide that afternoon.
I have two distinct memories from this game. The first was realizing that this is exactly how I hope to whittle away Friday afternoons for the rest of my life: sitting in the red dirt of a baseball diamond with my camera, watching a game unfold.
The second was getting spit on. One of the sophomores to my right took a swig from his water bottle and spat into the dirt, but the breeze picked up the salivinated Aquafina and thinned it into a mist that caught the right side of my face.
Every normal instinct I possess told me to be upset about getting spit on (because, ew, obviously), but I was just too happy to be at a baseball game in perfect weather with a fantastic view of third base. So I wiped it off without a word. I may have even smiled a little.
And I thought how lucky I am to have this job, and to be here at a baseball game on a day such as this.
But I am obsessed. When the team lost, it ruined the best of days. Wins made my whole week. The only page open on my phone more often than Google weather was the Jaguar schedule and results page, which I refreshed obsessively during away games to keep track of the score.
I wore my lucky shoes on game days, carried around a can of corn in my backpack on weeks when defense was struggling and was late to more math classes than my GPA will probably forgive me for on account of needing to stay at the game for just one more inning.
There are plenty of reasons to like baseball (the lingo, the superstition, the magic of the ninth-inning comeback). But the more people raise their eyebrows at my over-the-top obsession with the sport, the more persuaded I’ve been to figure out why I love baseball.
And I think I’ve finally figured it out.
See, the thing about being a dugout reporter is that it gets me up close to the game. And not just close enough to see streaks of red as the baseballs whiz by me (or, on occasion, at me, as has happened several times in foul ball territory).
I get to see the players and the coaches work out pieces of their personal stories as each game unwinds.
I hear the dugout chatter. I know which pitchers wish they got played more. I hear them wonder to their pals behind the batting cages how much harder they have to practice to get put in. So when they get to close out a winning game, I understand what the smile on their face really means. I know which players have trouble controlling their emotions on the field, so when I see them swallow their cuss words and walk off a strikeout with heads held determinedly high, I understand what they’ve actually accomplished. I’ve been with these boys all season so I know who needs a big win and who just needs to get on base today, who has their hopes set on transferring to a university and who has their hopes set on that scout noticing them.
And just like that, my own problems fade away. I get caught up into the hopes and dreams of thirty 19 year olds. And it feels a lot like being a middle school teacher again.
I knew coming back to San Diego wasn’t going to be easy, not because this isn’t home anymore, but because there is another spot of the world that also feels like home, and my heart feels constantly broken as it tries to be in both places at once.
Even in the joy of perfectly good days, there is a longing for my classroom on the other side of the planet and the little people who were mine for a season. Sometimes I get into my car to drive home from school or lace up my shoes for a run and find myself sobbing into my hands, a song from the radio or my iPod unexpectedly pulling me back in time to the golden sunshine of my classroom, the faces of my students, and the dreams we built together.
But I never feel like that on the baseball field. In fact, sometimes that’s where I go when the longing gets too heavy. I’ll just sit by the edge of the field and stare at the empty grass. Birds peck their way through the outfield. Shadows stretch across the diamond like the twisted branches of an enchanted tree, and I fall under its spell.
Finding a place where we feel like we belong is one of the great, often unspoken quests of the human heart.
I thought my place was Prague. But for now it seems to be next to a baseball field and I can only think how lucky I am to be here, in a life such as this.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Self-admittedly, I have always been a little self-righteous. It began innocently enough – as most sins do – something good rooted in a sinful nature that eventually turns into something not so good.
I grew up in a home that taught me to love knowledge, love truth, love the practice of it. And because of that, a very large part of my identity is founded on a pride in knowing and following the truth. I build up a castle of facts around myself so that when I am faced with conflict or adversity, I have ground to stand on.
Truth is my fortress.
Several years at college, in the workforce and then on the other side of the world have done a lot to change my view of the world. Issues I used to take for granted, used to stubbornly defend as the absolute truth, I am seeing are more complex than my 16-year old mind could have understood at the time. The details aren’t important beyond mentioning that only what I believe about my faith has remained completely unaltered.
Since coming home, I have begun to see much more vividly how far I have branched away from the views of my family and friends (and now I understand why they say never to discuss religion and politics at the dinner table).
It has felt isolating, to be honest. No one prepared me for that. I certainly still align myself more with the views of the community I grew up in than say, the far liberal left. The unfortunate result is feeling like I don’t really fit in either group.
Maybe other millennials are feeling the same way. This is what our parents wanted, right? They wanted us to grow up and become our own thinkers.
But I’m afraid I have played the part of the bitter idealist for too long. I have been the tortured, enlightened martyr in the fight for perspective and balance that every secretly hates talking to for more than four minutes lest I begin another rant. And it was yet another journey that has begun to cure me of my own self-importance (which, though much less self-righteous in nature, has manifested itself similarly).
Athens is quite a place to experience. What a city of paradoxes. Greeks are a people divided by a courageous compassion for those washing up on their shores and a fearful self-focus, making them apathetic to the needs of humans in the throes of great tragedy. It’s a ruined city built around a city of ruins – both of which are celebrated in their own way. And it’s a city with ancient people and modern people; tourists, foreigners and refugees.
It’s an amazing place to build a church.
I visited three churches while I was there, all of which were freckled with different nationalities, different worship backgrounds, different theologies. It was uncomfortable for me and my frigid protestant background.
My self-righteous spirit was much more awake during those services than my humility ever was, as it critiqued and criticized every aspect of the worship. There is a Biblical way to have a church service, there is order and method for a reason. The liturgy, the depth of our hymns, the fencing of the table, the preaching of the word all has ordained structure! I’d be screaming on the inside as I sat through a messy fifth chorus of “Good, Good Father.”
Following one of the services, the congregation of Greeks, Americans, Sri Lankans, Iranians and North Africans piled into cars and drove to the seaside. It was time for a baptism.
Now, I was raised as a paedobaptist, which means we baptize our infants as a sign that they are born into the covenant family of God, whether or not they are elect believers. I have seen several adult baptisms, one in a backyard pool in the Czech mountains and another in a church baptismal in the South.
This one was different. Perhaps because I was already feeling so rigidly defensive of my own beliefs and practices.
We spilled onto mushy white sand, which was littered with trash and seaweed. A huge storm had rolled over the night before. The debris seemed to suggest that the sea had gotten sick and thrown up whatever was in its belly onto the beach.
We picked our way to the water’s edge where four Iranians stood, ready to give us their testimonies. They were all refugees. Some had left their homes seeking God, others had found him along the way. Some had been rejected by their families and spouses because of their faith in Christ. Some had left good jobs and good lives to come to Greece. Each one had made a dangerous journey. Each one had had to leave the community they were born into to join the family of God. Each one gave up their world for the next.
The sun was still low in the late-morning sky and it turned the water into a silver sheet of ripples. So bright were its rays, so clear was the sky, that all we could see were the silhouettes of our new brothers and sisters as they were lowered into the water and brought back up, new creations in Christ Jesus.
An African woman to my left began to sing a song I have known since childhood. It’s one of those songs I have written off as shallow and repetitive, but in the context of this baptism it took on new life.
I have decided to follow Jesus No turning back, no turning back.
The cross before me, the world behind me No turning back, no turning back.
It was a long way down for me that morning. You don’t realize how high your horse is until someone clubs you in the stomach and knocks you off.
I am so narrow-minded.
The impatience I once had for people who grew up with different values than I did, I now have toward those who don’t apply these values the same way I do. My stubborn insistence that I am right has made me unkind and uncaring. Some child of God I am.
We should seek the truth, but we must speak it in love. Our castles of fact will not serve us well if we cannot learn how to invite others in with winsomeness and charity.
God’s people come from all over the world – in it, not of it. We are born into different cultures and traditions. We will disagree on how to be good stewards of this earth or godly citizens beneath the authority of men which God has placed us under. We will even disagree on what it looks like to be a child of the Risen King. Our churches will have different flavors and our Christian walks will be the varying tunes of a mighty orchestra that rises in harmony to the ears of God, the Great Composer.
And if the beauty of a broken people united and made perfect in Christ were not enough to strip away self-importance, the reminder that we are all refugees in the eyes of God, washing onto the world’s shores with nothing to give brought me back down to my knees.
In the damp sand of an ancient shore on a very clear day, I remembered the second greatest commandment. It is not, love the truth. It is love your neighbor.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.