Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Things I Have Experienced

I cannot believe that there is only a month left.  I am two-thirds done with my European adventure, and, goodness gracious has it flown by.  I’ve changed and learned and grown and seen so much, I feel like a whole new person, but it has just gone so quickly!

As I did for the one-third & one month mark, I am taking some time to reflect as I am at the two-thirds & two months mark.  This time, I have decided I want to talk about what I have experienced.  Of course, I can’t really explain everything I have experienced, it is literally impossible, and my whole blog is full of stories of my specific experiences, but I will do my best to give a general overview of my semester abroad overall so far.

1. Perspective
I have discovered that my identity as an American runs deeper than where I come from.  The way I think is completely American.  In my Intercultural Philosophy and Communications class, we basically just study how different Asian cultures think.  In my International Relations From a European Perspective class, we basically study how Europeans think and different ways to look at the world.  I could go into detail about all the interesting things I have learned about different perspectives and philosophies and how they shape culture and how to look at the rest of the world, but I will simply say that I have been blown away with how narrow my worldview is, just because I have lived in America my whole life.  Growing up in an American family, going to American schools, being shaped by my American peers… the person I have spent my whole life growing into becoming is just so limited by a narrow, American perspective.  I never even realized how biased my whole life has been.  It is amazing to discover how much more is out there, to see and learn and embrace what the rest of the world has to offer.  I'm not the same person I was before I left.  I don’t see the world around me the same way anymore.

2. Spontaneous Worship
A huge challenge this semester has been not having access to a regular, scheduled, organized worship service, where worshiping is set aside and laid out for me.  Yet, somehow, despite these circumstances, I have found myself moved to worship God more than ever before in my life.  Be it late at night in my room belting along to worship music coming out of my computer with Ellen, or wandering around a city discussing God’s goodness and love with Kristin, or standing in awe of God’s majesty at the top of the swiss alps with Jaime, or walking to class alone with my headphones in and beauty all around me.  For me, this semester has been filled with an attitude of worshiping Our God constantly.  It kind of just happened that way, I suppose God put worshiping Him on my heart, and I absolutely love living my life to the praise of my King.

3. History
I think it is accurate to say that, if not all, the grand majority of the churches I have been in are older than my entire home country.  It’s literally insane how old the places I have been in are.  I’ve walked where so many insane things happened in the past, history incomparable to America’s existence.  I never liked history, but being where it happened has had this huge, strange impact on me where I actually appreciate and feel like I can relate to what has happened and what it means for the future.

4. Communication
Talking to people is the very best way to learn interesting things and experience the culture authentically when abroad.  Everywhere I go I have had tons of memorable conversations (all carefully documented in my journal so that I don’t forget all the valuable things I have learned).  Maybe it’s because I am a words person, but the things that people tell me always leave such a strong impact on me that I feel like some of the most powerful moments of this trip have been spent in simple conversation with strangers.  I have not only experienced communication firsthand, but I have also been learning about it a lot in my classes.  In Intercultural Philosophy and Communications, I have learned about how different languages can be reflective of their philosophies.  For example, the Chinese do not have a word for “truth” because their philosophies do not seek to find truth and definitions like we do in the western world.  They are more concerned with the how instead of the what.  It’s such a different way to look at the world.  Also, in International Relations from a European Perspective, we have learned about how according to poststructuralism, the words we choose to use and our language has a profound message on the meaning we portray, and the dichotomies that make up language are not neutral.  This is so true; words and language have such a huger impact than we give them credit for.

5. Maastricht
Right now I am sitting in a little café sandwich shop place.  I saw delicious looking pizza baguette things in the window so I stopped by to order, but when I decided to sit down they told me that it would cost more.  Coffee is the same way; there are different prices for eating in and taking away everywhere you go, but it does not seize to continue to catch me off guard.  I can do my best to dress, walk, and act like I fit in, but, as soon as I open my mouth, my identity is discovered.  People try to talk to me, but all I can do is look at them with wide, confused eyes and ask them hesitantly “English?”  It’s equally embarrassing every time, but I know that in those moments, I am experiencing my hometown of Maastricht.  The tall, loud, happy Dutch people and beautiful cathedrals and cafes of this quaint little city that I walk by on my way to class have become home for me.

6. Vulnerability
As much as I have experienced Maastricht, I constantly feel vulnerable to the fact that I don’t really belong.  Even after being here for two months, I don’t know and understand all the cultures and customs.  Even without the language barrier, I can’t function like a regular citizen.  I imagine this is mostly because I leave Maastricht every weekend and live with fifty other Baylor students, so it’s easy to just spend the weeks in the mini “Baylor bubble” we have created here and be a tourist on the weekends, so I never really have to emerge myself in the culture.  But I have chosen to make myself vulnerable.  I go out on my own and put myself in those uncomfortable situations where I don’t know how to express myself clearly or what is socially acceptable to do.  I’ve discovered that no matter how hard I try, I can’t quite fit all the way in.

7. Traveling
It is possible to leave your country, but never get outside of your comfort zone.  I’ve discovered the difference between being a tourist and a traveler, which is something I always heard people talk about, but I never understood.  Every big “city to see in Europe” is laced with a nice little tourist zone, where visitors can come, “see the sights” of the city, and experience a fabricated, touristy, artificial culture.  I have definitely fallen trap to a lot of those places, but I have learned to travel off the beaten path and into the heart of the places I go.  Of course I absolutely love meeting other travelers at the touristy sites and in the hostel, but I also love going places that are harder to be in.  Of course, it’s easiest to be brave enough to venture into those unknown places with friends by your side, and it’s fun to experience that with people you like, so I am so thankful for the wonderful friends I have gotten the chance to travel with on this adventure.

8. Community
Being here with 50 other Baylor students who I have gotten to know and live in community with has been incredible.  I have formed friendships with incredible Christ-followers who have built me up and taught me more about God and helped me grow into myself, all of whom go to the same school as I do, but I likely never would have met them otherwise.  I know that the strong relationships I have built with these people will stay with me as we all return to Baylor because they have been such an essential part of my growth and development and have loved me through all the stress and craziness of traveling.  I have made friendships that will last me a lifetime.

9. Chocolate
Experiencing incredible chocolate on a daily basis and being able to compare different amazing chocolates has turned me into a total chocolate snob.  My daily chocolate consumption levels are evidence that I am definitely experiencing this part of the European culture.

10. Passion
I have learned a lot about myself: what strikes me, what I care about, what I prioritize, how I respond to different situations, how I like to do things, and really overall who I am.  I am capable.  I can be the person I have always wanted to be.  I should never sell myself short or think that I am not good enough, because I deserve the very best and can truly do anything through Christ.  Traveling has revealed to me a lot that I never knew about myself and has put me in weird situations as I process and comprehend both the good and bad.  As I have grown and learned about myself, I have discovered a lot of what I am passionate about: global freedom and justice, adoption, a life attitude of learning, helping underprivileged, and much more, but above all sharing Jesus.  I’ve realized that I don’t want to waste my life on things I am not passionate about, and this discovery made me want to reshape my future to run after the things I care about.  Of course, I am still figuring out what this looks like, but I am excited to see where it takes me.  I’ve discovered that I can’t not do something about the things that I care about.  I need to change the world.  I need to impact people.

I want to keep learning and traveling the world and telling people about Jesus and hopefully righting some wrongs along the way.  Reasonable life goal?  I would say so.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, which we renamed Burrrrlin due to the weather, is a city with a rich artistic culture and eyeopening history.  If you want to read more about it, feel free to hear what Kristin had to say in her blog post about our weekend by clicking on that link.

As we explored the city this weekend, the highlights included:

meeting a ton of wonderful people and learning all about their lives (that was probably, as always, my overall favorite thing)...

a neat, artsy, hipster outdoor market...

stopping at Starbucks every time the weather was bringing us down, which was nice because there are actually a good number of Starbucks in Berlin, as opposed to zero in Maastricht...

an adorable carnival thing with cute shops and all (where I got delicious chocolate-covered-Strawberries)...

having a wonderful girls night with Kristin, Jaime, and Sydney...

the artsy part of the Berlin Wall, called the East Gallery, where artists paint murals on the wall in remembrance of the terrible past that should lead us to never repeat our mistakes and as a reminder that everyone deserves freedom, justice, and love, so we need to stand up for what is right...

delicious bratwursts everywhere all the time and delicious Asian food when not eating bratwurst (I know, not what you would expect, but Asian fast food was everywhere and so good)...

and finally the greatest chocolate shop I have ever been in, full of delicious German chocolate, a chocolate making museum exhibit, and a chocolate restaurant (I spent more money there than anywhere else I went this weekend.)

I loved wandering around Berlin and finding happy pieces of the city to enjoy, but the respect and remembrance of the past that the people thankfully hold onto makes it impossible to avoid the sadness of the city as well.  In ways I would have never imagined affecting me like it did, I got to witness the rich history of World War II.

I have never been into history in school or anything, so, coming into this weekend, I really only knew enough about World War II to survive AP US history in high school, which is a pretty American-biased class anyways.  I didn't really have a grasp of what happened from the european perspective.

Needless to say, after checking out Checkpoint Charlie (the crossing point of the Berlin Wall), I spent a ton of time in the Topography of Terror, reading all about what exactly happened in Germany only 70 years ago, and, boy, did it break my heart.

The hardest part for me was thinking about the German people who somehow ended up being brainwashed into following Hitler, stuck in a war that was boosting their economy, with terrible things happening under the beautiful veil that Hitler so carefully laid over many average people's eyes who didn't dig deep enough to find the truth.  It's sad to imagine an entire population of people, the majority of whom claim to be Christians, believing that certain people should be removed from society simply because they are different.

Saturday afternoon, Jaime joined Kristin and I as we took an hour long trip outside of the city to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which had the most powerful impact on me, probably of everything I've done so far in Europe.

Note: feel free to skip this paragraph if you don't want unpleasant images in your mind. Just go right on to the next one.
I stood in a room looking down at basin for washing, that for years was crowded with desperate, cold, dying, innocent people, fighting for access to a few drips of freezing water, for only half an hour a day when they were allowed to wash.  For the other 23.5 hours each day, the basin could be used as a place for prisoners to be drowned, if the police felt like it.  Right where I stood, less than a hundred years ago, a dying man was kneeling with his head forcefully shoved underwater.  Then, another prisoner was instructed to carry the dead body to the cellar, and throw it on top of the piles and piles of the other dead.  If a prisoner misbehaved, he was tortured by a fellow prisoner.  They believed in creating a hierarchy of the people in the camp and putting them in charge of one another to keep them from banding together.  The torturer was possibly a prisoner of war who was in the concentration camp because he tried to help save jews, or possibly a jew who was in the camp because of the family he was born into.  Whoever it was, both the torturer and the tortured were trapped to their death within those towering walls with absolutely no hope of coming out alive.  If they were a part of the small group liberated in the end, the experience was too painful for them to even celebrate their freedom.

Every room felt like that.  Every little piece of plastic explaining what happened in each location told a different story of terror, disgust, hurt, and hell.  It completely broke me down.  Just thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach again now.  I won't torture you with anymore terrible details, but I will tell you that I will never see history, or humankind, or the world around me the same way after being the the place where that happened.

The world is full of evil.  Of course, there is also goodness, but we cannot deny the evil.  There are terrible injustices in the world today; in many parts of the world, people are still tortured and killed through things like human trafficking, as they were in the concentration camps 70 years ago.  It is so good that Germany does not ignore its past mistakes, and the people don't forget this war so that they don't repeat this in the future.  We also cannot ignore the current state of the world.  I want to do everything I can to save people.  That's all there is to it.  Witnessing this suffering makes me want to scream to the world that there is freedom in Christ, that God came to earth to so that we can spend eternity in paradise because He loves us, that this fact is just as historically true as the painful truth of World War II.

Everyone deserves freedom, love, and justice.  I believe this can only happen through Christ.  I don't know exactly how I can get involved in saving people from injustice, but I am going to figure it out and do what I can.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

St. Patrick's Day in Ireland

Ireland is absolutely, breathtakingly, indescribably beautiful.

The most magical moment of the trip was seeing a rainbow on one of the trains.  It was such a blessing to be in Ireland, and be reminded of God’s promise and the beauty of small miracles.

We stayed in a lovely little hostel (pictured below) off on a country road (pictured to the right) right outside a tiny town that was about an hour bus ride from Galway on the west coast of Ireland.  It was a lovely change of pace, difficult for transportation, but completely worth it.  One of the highlights of the weekend was going out and about in that small town, meeting some of the locals and talking with them.  The Irish folk are so friendly, loud, welcoming, fun, and love their Guinness in their pubs.  It was a fun culture to witness and be welcomed into for the weekend.

Molly and I spent a lovely day in Dublin wandering the streets and experiencing Irish city life.

We went to the exhibit to see the Book of Kells (basically an incredibly old, treasured manuscript of the gospels that survived all these years) and a beautiful old library in Trinity College full of ancient books.  Here’s an expert from my journal about that experience:

“The library was beautiful and it’s so neat that it can actually be used and people check out the books to actually read them!  (under strict supervision)… seeing the imagery and symbolism of the drawings in the book of Kells [was my favorite part].  I wish we still put that much thought and value into our copies of the gospels.  It’s so beautiful how much work was put into literally spreading God’s word back then.”

I really cannot explain all the images and imagery and how powerful it was to witness art that reflects different aspects of God in a super old copy of Jesus’s life story, but all I can say is that it was an incredible experience and everyone should go see it for themselves.

We saw the outside of the famous Guinness factory…but as I think I say pretty decently in my journal, “Guinness Store House: Walked in.  Molly and I decided we didn’t care enough.  Walked out.”

We enjoyed delicious apples at a little market we randomly came across in some back streets for local farmers full of cute old Irish folk.

We enjoyed the beauty of St. Patrick’s Cathedral where we made some friends from Singapore and walked around the park outside, taking in the beauty and weather and atmosphere of the lovely place of God.

We stopped briefly at the most adorable mall I have ever been in called “Stephan Green’s” and looked around a little, before having a delicious lunch at a huge Irish café, which included a mint which mocha, one of the most delicious coffees I have had.

We concluded our day in Dublin with some time at a piano music store, where Molly played and I sat and enjoyed listening.  It was a wonderfully peaceful and completely random.

Dublin was lovely and a ton of fun, but the highlight of the trip was probably our day spent on a bus
tour of Irish countryside to see the Cliffs of Mohar.  Here’s an expert from my journal about the day:

“Taking the bus through such beauty in and of itself was completely…. Breathtaking.  Made me want to spend time just walking around the beauty of Ireland and exploring the small mountain towns and beaches.  It was surreal…

I was reading Leviticus, and seeing beautiful lambs as I was reading about how they had to be slain for a sacrifice really put the weight of sin and the destruction it causes into perspective."

We stopped at a small farm, which was absolutely splendid because we got to walk through the beautiful land and climb a little stony mountain for an amazing view and learn about typical life in the countryside of Ireland, right in the middle of the authentic Irish world: we were right outside a village with a grand total of two stores and nine pubs!

The Cliffs of Mohar were breathtaking.  The water was sparkling, beautiful, and tempting.  The cliffs were far more amazing and huge than they look in any picture.  Everyone needs to see these for themselves.  The waves crashing against the rocks far below you and the wonder and awe of how this kind of land structure happens is an unreal experience.  It was an amazing sight.  I really can’t explain it, and the pictures do not do it justice.
We made a few other stops on our tour, including a tiny adorable, typical Irish countryside town for lunch (where I had an amazing chocolate dessert bar thing); a beautiful, old castle (which we drove by many of, they are literally scattered all around Ireland randomly); and the rocky shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean.

“It was neat to see the Atlantic Ocean and know that at the other end of the vastness lies my home.  This is the same ocean that I’ve swam in from Florida before.”

Our trip ended on St. Patrick’ Day, which we spent in Dublin.  On train on the way there that morning, Molly and I sat by two 16 year old girls who live in the countryside of Ireland.  We spent a good hour and a half talking with them and learning all about growing up in the Irish countryside!  It was such a good way to get to understand the culture and lifestyle, and it was fun to get to know the girls.

Our time in Dublin was all about watching the parade, and watching the people who were watching the parade.  Boy, was it insane.  The streets were completely filled with people, Irish and tourists alike, mostly drinking, but plenty not, and everyone excited.  The parade was huge.  There were a ton of American college and high school marching bands, which I
first thought was weird, but then I remembered that every single little town, city, or tiny neighborhood in the countryside in Ireland has their own parade today, so all of Ireland’s marching bands are spread out across the country preforming, so they must need people from outside Ireland to have in the huge main Dublin parade.  My favorite part was the random floats with beautiful, extravagant costumes and dancers all around.  Molly, Ellen, and I took turns climbing up onto a poll in the ground to see the parade over the crowds because it was impossible otherwise.

It started raining as soon as the parade ended, which was perfect for the parade, but not perfect for our walk back to the train station to get to the airport to head back to Maastricht.  Long story short, after a late flight forcing us to miss the last train back to Maastricht, Molly and I had to spend the night in the Brussels Airport, which was definitely an experience that could have been a lot worse because we had access to a nice, clean, free bathroom and we were in a heated, safe place.  We made it home early Monday morning.

Despite a less than pleasant ending, the trip was amazing.  I absolutely love Ireland and am so glad I got to spend St. Patrick’s Day there!