Monday, February 25, 2013

Life Lessons and Reflections

I'm sitting in my room, attempting to focus on doing my MathStat homework while snacking on the best chocolates in the world (this particular box of yumminess is Belgium chocolate from Verheeche, a chocolatier in Bruges), but I can't help thinking:  I've been in Europe for an entire month.  I'm a third of the way done with my trip.  I've already explored eight new countries.  Wow.  My life is crazy.

I've decided to take the chance during this milestone to reflect on what I have learned so far in my travels and studies.  I've realized that there is no way to explain the experience of this trip to people back at home, but I guess a good place to start is with the lessons I have learned from being here.

1. It's impossible to see all of Europe in three months.
I mean, I knew that coming in, but I thought that three months would be enough time for me to really feel like I've seen everything I absolutely must see and do everything I must do.  I'm learning that I'm just getting a taste of all these wonderful places.  I'm discovering that I'm never going to be ready to go back.  I've learned that I am going to come back to Europe and explore more as soon as possible.  Either through studying abroad again while in college or making my way over here when I graduate for my 20s adventures, I won't be gone for too long.

2.  I completely adore chocolate. 
I mean, I loved chocolate in the United States, but this constant access to incredible chocolates might be near the best thing that has ever happened to me.  I am having a terribly hard time deciding what I like best... Belgium, Swiss, German... It's worth every Euro spent and every pound gained.  I decided I will try to save money on food, so I have more to spend on chocolate.  It's incredible.
Side Note: One thing I havn't learned yet is how everyone over here is so skinny!  I mean, yes, they walk a lot, and, yes, portion sizes are smaller, but the incredibly delicious, fresh, reasonably priced bakeries on every corner in every city along with all the amazing chocolate.... I just don't get it.  And I havn't even been to Italy yet.  Well, I am for sure gaining weight on this trip, and I don't even care; the chocolate is so heavenly.  It's worth it.

3. There is no better way to really get to know somebody than to travel with them. 
Traveling brings out the worst in everybody.  It is inevitable when spending every moment of every day with the same people that you will get annoyed with them at some point, no matter how much you love them.  At the same time, it bonds you and connects you better than anything.  I am already so close with my new friends here, I feel like I know them completely and fully as if we've spent our whole lives together, and it's only been a month.  I can't even imagine where we will be at the end of the next two.  We've all seen each other in our moments of impatience, stress, frustration, exhaustion, and anger, but it's absolutely perfect because we can all see past those occasional moments and have amazing experiences together.  Traveling is not just about where you go, it's largely about who you go with.  Some of the best times I have had on this trip have had absolutely nothing to do with the location I was in, but the people I was with is what made it so special.  I know the friends I have made so far here will be very longstanding friendships because nobody could ever understand all that we've been through together.

4. I don't want to have my life figured out.
I have never really known what I want to do, but that used to always bother me and I wanted so badly to decide and make a plan.  Through this trip, I've become thankful that I don't know what I want to do next because I realized how huge the world is and how many options are out there!  I'm happy for the people who have their life all planned out, but I'm thankful for my position as well because I can be open to whatever God has in store for me.  All I know right now is that my life is going to be an adventure and God has it all under control so I don't have to worry at all.  I'm super excited for whatever comes next, but I am loving every moment right now and feel absolutely no need to know what the next chapter of my life story holds.
"If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast." -Psalm 139:9-10

5.  I am so thankful for the way my parents raised me.
(Thanks, Mom and Dad!  Y'all are the best!)  I firmly agree with the lessons my parents made sure I understood and the priorities they instilled upon me.
I was always encouraged to "expand my horizons," which can be directly translated to "try this weird new food I decided to cook for dinner tonight" by my dad, but also means don't sit in my own little bubble, even the Baylor bubble that we have created here in Europe, but to go out and meet the people and do things I never thought would have done and experience the culture and eat the food.  Embracing that lesson has made this trip so much more beneficial for me because, even in Europe, it is easy to hover around the American things that remind us of home, but stepping outside of my comfort zone is what has made this so incredible.
I learned at a young age how to manage my own money and make financially wise decisions; there's no need to go into how useful and important that has been for me because it's just so crucial.
My parents demonstrated my whole life how essential it is to praise God and trust Him completely in every situation, and having that priority shape my life has led me to use this whole trip as a big opportunity to praise God and all his creation everywhere I go.
Finally, my parents have unfailingly always focused on being grateful for the little things and seeing the bigger, positive picture whenever anything goes wrong.  I would say that constant positive attitude that I have seen in both of my parents throughout my whole life has helped more than anything on this trip.

6. I really like being alone. 
Of course, I'm still an extrovert, so I don't like it nearly as much as I like being with amazing friends who I love, trust, and have a good time with, but being alone is nice too.  Even when going to beautiful places that lead me to worshiping our Creator with solid Christian friends, I need to take time to step back and just be by myself with God.  Be it at a coffeeshop, grocery shopping, wandering around whatever city I am in, on a train, or even in my bed before falling asleep, it's essential that I take a small amount of time away from other people.

7. The world is huge and everybody thinks differently.
I think that is the biggest lesson I have learned from my dutch classes so far ("International Relations from a European Perspective" and "Intercultural Philosophy and Communication").  It's been fascinating to begin to get a small view of the ways that people from other places and cultures think, and how they view me and my country.  I've realized my worldview is so limited and completely American-biased, to a greater extent than I ever would have thought.  I'm still learning about how other people think, so I will definitely post more about this later when I have a better understanding.  For now, it's just cool to realize how unaware I have been of the rest of the world for my whole life.

8. God has provided this experience for me, and I need to give back to Him.
I've learned that it's not about checking a billion places off the list.  I'm still figuring out what that looks like and means to me, but I want to make the most of my travel experience.  I don't want to miss anything, but I don't want to rush through everything either.  I need to find that balance.
Simply by being here, I get to experience Europe and my trip will be insanely memorable, unlike anywhere I've ever been before, and completely worth it no matter where I end up going or don't end up going.  I don't need to worry about going to all the best places, because my time here is not about me.  Being here is a huge blessing and a part of God's plan for me.
I am in Europe, a continent whose view of Christianity generally lies solely in a messy history of a mostly "dead" religion.  People here need to know God and need a better understanding of who He is and that He is completely good and still working in this world!  That's the reason I am here.
God gave me the amazing opportunity to be in Europe, and instead of focusing on getting the most out of my experience for myself, I need to focus on giving the most back to Him.  I'm still figuring out how to do that exactly, but I have learned that this time is not about me enjoying Europe.  I need to make sure that traveling the world does not distract me from my life purpose of bringing God glory.

9. The world is more beautiful than I would have ever imagined. 
And the most beautiful places, moments, and memories cannot be captured through a camera lens.

10. Be flexible.
 The most incredible, memorable, life-changing moments are never planned.  Witnessing these places and living this trip is no different than doing a google image search if I don't let my journeys effect me.  I travel with my heart, eyes, and mind wide open, ready for whatever comes my way and willing to learn, change, and grow from wherever the train takes me.
Also, stretching everyday is an amazing habit to form and makes you feel so much better, especially when you walk all the time.  I'm so glad Kristin, Jaime, and I started doing that.  So literal flexibility is really nice, too.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Gryon, Switzerland

It has been such an incredible, humbling weekend in the Swiss Alps.

Knowing Switzerland to be notorious for their prices, we packed fruit, peanut butter, and a loaf of bread, so a lot of our meals looked liked this, but we certainly aren't complaining because we saved a whole lot of money that way!

The train ride was long, but we kept ourselves entertained by chatting, journalling, napping, and attempting to get a bit of homework done.

Let me start by talking about our hostel.  We stayed at "Chalet Martin," an adorable cabin on edge of one of the mountains.  It was such a homey little place, full of people of all ages from all over the world relaxing after long days of skiing.  The view to the outside world was incredible, and the comfiness inside made you never want to leave.  The kitchen was constantly buzzing with people cooking pasta or chatting happily over bread at the table.

We spent a fair amount of time just relaxing in the hostel, and it was so nice to have a weekend that truly felt like a getaway because we weren't busy sightseeing the whole time.  Making dinner ourselves and playing card games after felt like we were truly taking a break from it all and retreating in a cabin in the middle of a snow-covered wonderland.  Cuddling up on the couch by the fireplace with a wool blanket and delicious chocolate with my dear friend Jaime was absolutely perfect.

Of course the mountain cabin was lovely, but the reason we were there was for the swiss alps skiing experience.  We rented our skis and gear right from the hostel Saturday morning, and then took a train up through the mountains to the slopes.  The view was unbelievable.  It put us in total awe at our Creator.  My camera didn't make the journey, but pictures wouldn't have done it justice anyways.

The skiing part was a semi-disaster, but I wouldn't have had it any other way.  Jaime is the most patient and loving friend ever and I am so insanely thankful for her friendship and that we spent this trip together!  She waited with me, walked with me, encouraged me, and never left me through all my terrible skiing failures, even though she was convinced that it was all mental.  By the end of the day, I finally made it safely the entire way down the side of a swiss alp without stopping poorly or falling once!  It felt like such a huge success.

But before all that, there were some incredibly hilarious, pathetic, embarrassing, wonderful moments worth sharing.  First, on our very first ride up the t-bar ski lift thing, I fell and was being dragged by the lift, so I yelled for Jaime who was ahead of me, and while we were figuring out what I should do, she fell, and so we both rolled out of the ski lift area in the snow into some random track, which we had to take for our first time down.  As we sat in the snow trying to figure out what to do after struggling to escape the t-bar lift we both fell out of, a few little kids laughed at us.  It was quite the perfectly hilarious way to start the day.  Then later on, Jaime wanted to take the regular ski lift because she was snowboarding and the t-bar thing is really hard for snowboarders, so I went with her, but we ended up on this really hard run that was definitely far out of my league.  I think I can sum this run up by saying I hit a little girl (who was totally fine, she was way better than me, it just made me panic a lot and feel like I was endangering the general population by my presence), tears were shed, all confidence lost, but the knowledge that the only way down the hill is... down the hill forced me to push onward however I could.  Jaime encouraged me and stuck with me through it all, which was just amazing and I could not have done it without her.  A random stranger stopped and helped me a bit too, which really just made my day and gave me just the motivation I needed to finish.  Finally after successfully skiing down the last portion of the terrifying run, Jaime got stuck (again because of her snowboard, which you can't really maneuver as well as skis) so in the end I had to drag her by one of my ski polls until we got back to a place that went downhill.  It was just so hilarious how pathetic of a sight we were to see in the midst of all the pros who come to ski in Gryon.

Of course, our lack of ability to compare with anyone else out there simply enhanced our swiss alps experience.  At one point when we desperately needed a break and were in the middle of a cloud so it was literally impossible to see anything so we were not about to start heading down the side of the mountain anyways, we decided to stop at the bar at the top of the ski lift.  We drank delicious hot chocolate and sat in fantastic lawn chairs in the middle of the most gorgeous mountain range in the world, watching people who were all basically pros do cool tricks off of the jump hills that our seats were over looking on the edge of the mountain.  That experience alone would have been worth the entire lift ticket cost; it was incredible to just sit and witness the beauty of the mountains, allowing them to be a simple reminder of God's presence.

Being in a small, swiss ski town exposed us nicely to the culture of the locals.  It was so fun to go to a "jazz" concert (which was really just fun dance music slash maybe light rock) in french at the local bar and watch all the people we saw instructing ski school and running the medical stations up on the mountain that afternoon dancing like crazy, all still wearing their bright red snowpants.  We tried to figure out how to dance like the locals did (mostly I would just describe it as simply "fun and weird"), as we joined in the dance.  We had no fear of making fools of ourselves anymore because we had already done so on the slopes and we couldn't comunicate with the locals anyways because they only knew a bit of broken english at best.  It was a ton of fun.

The last thing I want to talk about is playing in the snow.  Jaime is from California, so she constantly got super excited just by the presence of snow, and it really made me appreciate simply playing in it, as we did on multiple occasions this weekend.  I will end this post with a journal entry about being in the snow of the beautiful swiss alps:

"I never thought I would feel comforted by being in snow (especially considering how I decidedly moved away from cold, harsh winters...) I had sort of forgotten some of the things I love-- from eating icicles to just laying in a pile of snow to catching snowflakes on my tongue to that moment when you step on a huge pile of snow and your foot sinks so deep that you just fall in.  Even walking with a blanket of snow under my feet and snowflakes in my face made me feel at home again-- despite the beautiful mountain range that I constantly had to just stop and admire... which is nothing like my flat suburban home.  But, boy, did that view lead me to praise God!  I also love being in a cloud up on the mountain.  Although it is far too terrifying to ski in, not being about to see anything because of a cloud is like being a a misty, magical, dream of endless white."

Thursday, February 21, 2013

More Blogs!

So we all know my writing skills are subpar, so I thought it might be a good idea to give an additional perspective of my travels through my friends' blogs, which I absolutely love and find to be incredible, captivating reads.

If you would like to read about what I did in London in incredible details as written by an amazing journalism major and see more pictures from that trip, you're invited to check out my fantastic roommate Ellen's blog post about London by clicking on that link!  You won't regret it, she is an incredible writer and gives a very nice play by play of literally everything we did including tons more pictures and details than I did.  Warning: it's pretty long.

Or, if you really liked the stories from my Bruges day-trip, you can read more about that trip on my dear friend Kristin's blog post about Bruges (it's a real quick read) by clicking on that link!  She tells a couple different stories in her blog than the ones I told in mine, so if you read them both, you get the whole idea of what we did.  Enjoy the new stories and much more fluid, beautiful writing!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bruges, Belgium

Since my friend Kristin and I didn't have class today, we decided we would take a day trip to get waffles and chocolate.

It was just perfect.

Last night when in prayer over how to best spend my summer to further God's kingdom, I was overwhelmed by the Spirit with the idea that I am in an incredible place where God's light is clearly fading, and I am not doing everything I can to spread the gospel right now, which is just so wrong!  Then this morning when waiting at the train station because I forgot my Eurail pass the first time around and had to go back, Kristin and I got into conversation with a woman who was having a hard time with a man she was with and was trying to figure out where she wanted to live for the rest of her life. She described the beauty of a simple life to us, allowing us to slow down our thoughts of big city adventures and imagine the loveliness of life in the countryside. After listening to her share her story with us in her broken English, Kristin asked her if we could pray for her, and she gratfully let us.  It was so cool for us to have the chance to share Jesus's love with her before hoping on our train and heading out on our midweek daytrip! If I hasn't forgotten my Eurail pass, we would have never met her. It's crazy how God uses situations.

In Brugges, we decided that instead of looking through a camera lens, we wanted to look through our hearts (quote credit to Kristin) as we saw the beauty that surrounded us. So whenever we came across something beautiful, we stopped and just admired it, chatting about it or standing in silence. We didn't take pictures of the magical places we went to, but we really witnessed the magisty with our hearts and it led us to praise God together. The unphotographed beauty I witnessed today that will be forever engrained in my memory as perfect without trying to capture it in a picture includes a gorgeous canal with beautiful bridges and windowsills looking out onto the water, quaint streets of beautiful brick buildings of all different shades of red, the most incredible gothic cathedral I have ever set foot in with jawdropping sculptures and architecture even when under construction, a fantastic city center of cobblestone streets surrounded by cafes and shops of every variety, tons of chocolate shops that ignite all of my senses simply by the smell when I walk in, the secret gardens of a secluded convent from the 1300s that look like they came straight out of a beautiful movie, a park by the river full of incredible swans swimming peacefully, and a monestary in which God's presence was clear.

Since it's a Tuesday in the middle of February, basically the most untouristy time of year possible, we got to really see the little city as it is, and we absolutely fell in love with it. We got to talk with and buy chocolate from the cutest little old chocolate shop lady I have ever met. We talked with the woman running her handmade Belgium lace shop about how she made it, and she gave us a little demonstration and left us with the simple yet powerful remark that "making something is always fun." We stopped in the middle of a monestary and prayed for each other and our future husbands. We wandered in and out of any place we thought looked interesting, talking with locals (even just asking for directions) and eating lots of Belgium chocolate all the while.

I am so thankful for my friendship with the wonderful woman of God I got to spend the day with, praising Our Creater together, praying for one another, and sharing our lives with each other in Godly fellowship. LOVE YOU, KRISTIN!!!!

(enjoying my ice cream and hot chocolate sause waffle)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Edinburgh, Scotland

We took a train from Inverness to Edinburgh, which was incredible because we got to watch the gorgeous Scottish highlands and countryside roll by, while having fun playing a very competitive game of spades.

Edinburgh was a blast.  We only had one evening there, so we really had to make our time count.  We went out to dinner and explored the Edinburgh nightlife for a few hours, which was a lot of fun and I would highly recommend.

Then Ellen, JW, and I decided we needed to do the Edinburgh sightseeing around 2:30am, naturally.

So we hiked up Calton Hill to see the city from above and all the beautiful monuments up there.

Boy, was it incredible to witness with no other tourists in sight, the city all lit up, and the shadows of the monuments hanging over us, just barely visible by the light of the city below.

Perfect way to enjoy all of Edinburgh before heading back home to Maastricht the next morning!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Inverness, Scotland

For carnival break after a few days in London, we went to this beautiful little city in the middle of the Scottish highlands to enjoy nature, Scottish culture, and Loch Ness.

We took a beautiful walk in the wildlife along the river, which was a very calming, lovely change from the craziness of London.

We went shopping and bought some fun Scottish clothes; the boys tried on kilts and got in trouble because we were at a nice authentic Scottish shop, and they did not appreciate us trying them on just for fun with no intent to purchase. #hilarious

While all my friends took a nap, I decided to walk around town just my camera and I for a couple hours to see and experience everything because I wanted to get some good views of the beautiful countryside.  

It was so peaceful, fun, and a perfect opportunity to get some alone time, which I cherish so so much.

 I'm learning how to balance my time so that I get sufficient alone time to happily spend the rest of my time in my mates' company.

After my walk, I was ready for a fun evening of Scottish pubs, cider, scotch, ice cream, singing, dancing, chatting, and getting to know each other.

The following morning, we took a cruise of Loch Ness to Urquhart Castle, which we explored for an hour, followed by a visit to the Loch Ness Exhibition Center, before heading back through the gorgeous highlands to Inverness.  The countryside, Loch Ness cruise, and castle itself were all absolutely stunning.  I have no pictures of any of them.  To explain, I will include a exert from my journal:

"It's crazy how old the place was, and the rich history and life of the beautiful castle we were walking through.  I forgot my camera battery in the hostel so I couldn't take pictures and was pretty upset, but it ended up being awesome because I was more focused on what matters: enjoying the beauty for myself and really taking it in and thinking about where we were and the history of the ground we were standing on and being fully present with my friends; instead of just focusing on getting the best picture I can, which often becomes my goal with a camera around my neck."

The last thing I want to mention is that before leaving Inverness, I had the greatest dessert of my life:
Bailey's Rich Dark Chocolate Pudding
which is not American pudding, but I really have no idea what it is, except that it literally tastes amazing and changed my life and the texture more resembled cheesecake than pudding, but it was incomparably better than cheesecake.

Friday, February 15, 2013

London, England

The conclusion I reached from my three day trip to London was simply that I would have to return to London someday, for an extended period of time (like live there for anywhere from 30 to 365 days before I die).  I need to go back.

I love everything about London, from the incredible public transportation system, to the gorgeous theatres advertising awestricking musicals on every corner, from Cafe Nero coffee shops, to shopping beyond belief, and from insane palaces to beautiful countryside.

Alright on to the highlights of my London trip:

Of course, I first have to talk about the musicals I saw: Jersey Boys and Billy Elliot. For Jersey Boys, Ellen and I got incredible seats, and I enjoyed the show from the very edge of mine. I went to see Billy Elliot on my own, which was an experience I absolutely loved because I got to be so engrossed in the musical and did not have to worry about socializing with the people around me and forcing them to accept mr for how freakishly excited I get about shows.  I laughed, cried, and had my heart filled with that indecribable feeling that only a good play gives me for both of them, but my favorite was definitely Billy Elliot.

Another highlight was running around the British Museum with Liz, trying to see everything in just 3.5 hours and breaking as many rules as possible (basically just climbing on things and drinking tea) without getting kicked out.

Similarly, exploring Harrods with Liz and Anisha was incredible. That store is like a museum of modern luxeries. It was a weird experience though, I will explain how it made me feel by including a part of my journal response to it:

"I am thankful to not have been raised spoiled, to have grown up in a house where we don't waste money on brand names... I'm thankful that as I walked through, instead of thinking about how much I want things, I was thinking about how ridiculous the whole place was and how much world poverty and hunger that store alone could end.  Instead of wishing I was wealthier... I was thankful for not being that wealthy or living that lifestyle.  I'm super grateful for the way my parents raised me to think like that; they are so amazing.  I am so blessed!"

Of course, there are all the London classics: Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminister Abby.

We rode the London Eye (biggest ferris wheel in all of Europe and best view in London) to see it all from above, which was super cool.

And, saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, which was so hectic!  There were a bajillion people there, definitely every tourist in London that day was at the palace and then add plenty of locals.  I felt like I was a part of some incredibly important historical event just because of the shear number of people there.

Also, Ellen and I spent a beautiful morning running around and seeing sights while the rest of our friends slept in a bit.  We got a total of about 4 hours each night while in London and Scotland, but it was completely worth it.

That morning while wandering the streets of London with our cameras and map, taking in everything and soaking in the simple joy and peace of sightseeing, we enjoyed the London Bridge (which is hilariously lame, and not the bridge pictured here, but rather the bridge you walk on to get a good view of the bridge pictured above), Shakespeare's Globe (pictured below), and St. Paul's Cathedral (to the right).

I almost forgot!  We went to the London Ice Bar for 40 minutes, and then got cold right as our time ended, which was perfect.  Everything was made of ice, even the cups!  It was cool (literally, ha, bad pun).

On Valentine's Day, we did a bus tour that took us through beautiful England countryside to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and the City of Bath.

Windsor Castle was BEAUTIFUL, and the town of Windsor was adorable and very quaint.  Here is my journal entry about it:

"It was super neat to see how the different Monarchs of England contributed to the architecture of the castle--- so there were many different styles in the castle.  And to walk where the queen of Englad has walked was super neat.  It's crazy how the royal family is so glorified and makes so much money just to be a celebrity!  They don't do anything politically really.

The cathedral in Windsor castle was weird.  It was a beautiful building for sure, but a bunch of past monarchs were buried there, and it's where they all get married, and the church feels like it was built more to glorify the royalty than God.  Everything worships the English royalty of the past, and God kind of got put on the back-burner  it felt like.  It was weird to be in a Christian Church that gave the impression that the royal family is greater than God.  

The changing of the guard at Windsor castle was really cool!  and we didn't even plan to be there during it!"

Stonehenge was super neat!  It's crazy how long civilization has been in England and trying to figure out what the ancient people were doing with those stones and why they went through so much effort to arrange them that way.  It's pretty cool. 

Bath (home of the Roman Baths, ancient hot springs) was a fun, quaint city!  Anisha, Liz, and I wandered around together, until I decided I needed ice cream so I separated and went to a little ice cream shop by myself.  I had a nice long conversation with the old man working there; he was super nice and told me all about his life of making ice cream and recognizing the best ice cream.  I love the opportunities I get to chat with locals and get to know the city when I wander around by myself, and the ice cream was fantastic!

We spent our last night in London getting dinner in Chinatown (soooo good!) and wandering around the city at night, which I hadn't gotten to do yet because I had been going to musicals.  It was fun to walk around and see everything!