Monday, December 15, 2008


I know, I know.  It's been almost a month.  I gave no conclusion to my time in Vienna, and have failed miserably to try and write such a detour of a transition that I met upon my arrival back in Memphis.  That was wordy.  But.  But!!!  I have grand news of subjective, epic proportions.  I received an email today from Laxmi (director of the orphan home I spent time at in Nepal last winter) that included photos.  I don't think I can convey the enormity of such a surprise.  For one, Laxmi doesn't exactly know English so the few emails that Britta and I have received over the past 8 months go something like this:  

All children fine.  Love you.  Ashish hospital.  Okay.  Festival and no school.  Very cold now.  

You get the idea.  Mixed with the facts that she never gets on the internet and the difficulty of actually putting photos on a computer over there, the following that you are about to witness is somewhat perplexing...and perfect.  Perfect timing for me as it swells my heart to workable proportions.  I miss these kids something awful and hope to visit next Christmas.  It's hard to believe Britta and I left almost one year ago already.  

So enjoy.  May it give a little jolt to your lifeline as well.

Because they're that cute.


I started crying when I saw this picture--Tulie, Jamuna, Gonga and Ashish are going to school now and looking much too itty-bitty to be wearing uniforms.  Nevertheless, adorable.


festival decorations--Sirjana is a great big sister

Sirjana (standing and wearing the outfit my family sent), Sima (left squatting), and Soniya all dark and gorgeous from the long hot summer.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

vignettes of vienna

It snowed today.  Dumped it all over the place.  At one point in the day the flakes were the size of thumbnails, light as feathers, and then I turned my head to feel small dip n' dots upon my hands and eyelashes.  Being from Tennessee, snow never quite gets less magical.  The majority of our group is still traveling outside of Vienna seeing as it's Saturday, but there were 8 of us today that kept running outside to stick our face toward the sky and decided to use our giddy energy on something more athletic, or in my case, more humorous:  ice skating.  

Bintu in action

Last weekend they opened the outdoor rink near Staatpark, and we thought that today's setting gave us few excuses not to participate.  I think I've ice-skated twice in my life, and neither one of those times was anytime recent.  So let's just say that the 3-year-old was definitely out-skating me.  It was like learning how to ski all over again:  100% muscle tension, crouching back/beant knee syndrome, the distant fear that that same 3-year-old punk would take me out and I'd break the other half of my body.  Ah, but I didn't fall once.  Considering the fact that I was too scared to try to be half-way decent, I don't think the balancing act was anything to be proud.  But the fact that we laughed, sang, and looked a fool altogether was more than worthy of a hint of pride.

Lately, I have realized how many things I've done in Vienna this go around that I never got around to or had inkling to pursue in the past.  It has given me great pleasure and a sense of satisfaction to love a place with more energy, effort, and surprise.  Six weeks ago, Denton, Matt and I sat together in a train compartment on our group's trip back from Italy.  We were accompanied by a Viennese couple who had been to Venice for a weekend.  It wasn't long until Martin, the husband, definitely the more gregarious of the two, stole my heart.  He told of his adventure to America in the early '70s during which he traveled cross-country by Greyhound bus: from New York to California, California to Macon, Georgia (because there was no way he was going to America and not stopping through Allman Brothers Band territory).  Turns out he's a pediatrician who ran in the Boston Marathon and has been in a cover band (mostly 70s music) for some years now.  He casually mentioned their next performance:  November 21st at The Little Stage.  We enthusiastically replied that we would love to try to make it.  Well, we made it:  that is, me, Denton, and Bintu (Matt meandered off to Amsterdam).  As we turned the corner from Pilgramsgasse U-bahn stop on the green line to see the sign for Little Stage we jumped at the realization that this was also an Irish pub.  Oh goodness--Irish pub in Vienner.  

There were most likely a hundred or so folks gathered (please take note, however, that I am the world's worst at projecting numbers in could have been 50 or 300, anyone's guess, really) together to hear cute marathon-running Martin's cover band in a rather small venue...they weren't kidding with the Little adjective.  Part of the overall exhilaration was actually listening to live music, and the other was when Martin's daughter in her early 20s climbed up onstage, grabbed the microphone, and belted out the most soulful alto.  We danced and laughed and, of course, sang along.  And when Tina Turner's "Proud Mary (Rolling on the River)" came to "Cleaned a lot plates in Memphis," you best believe I screamed my own alto Memphian voice to add to the hub-bub.  It just made the evening better when we gradually made our way to the front and Martin's sweet, quiet wife caught our attention, greeted us a hello, and turned to all her friends with our history.  During intermission Martin proved to be ecstatic over our presence and even gave his 'Nashville' and 'Memphis' friends a shout-out three more songs into their set.  We were the subjects of many a stare, and my first live show in Vienna ended up being a classic.

Along with my mother's and Kenna's visitations the past month, my middle sister, Rachel, also came over for a week.  In addition, Sarah, friend I visited in Cheb, Czech Republic, the first weekend came down for her birthday weekend to reunite with Rachel and explore the glory of Vienna.  It just so happened that Rathaus Christkindelmarkt opened that very weekend.  We drank mug-full shots of rum (rather, we sipped 1/10 of the mug-full and threw the rest out), bathed in the unusual november sun and warmth, and enjoyed time together, yet again, in a foreign city. 

Sarah, Rachel and me at the Christmas Market drinking that juice

Rachel and me at Schonbrun Palace

Somewhere in between these visits, I got together with Balazs and Georg, friends of friends that I sat next to at Mandy and Eric's wedding reception 2 years ago.  Being great local hosts, they invited (and I subsequently invited 3 of my students:  Allison, Matt, and Chris) for dinner out in Grinzing (the Vienna Woods) known for its Heuriger cuisine.  Heuriger is an Austrian meal centered around their local wine served.  With vineyards surrounding our small restaurant, we enjoyed one another's couple in a truly native setting.  During our conversation, it came to our attention that Georg was just about obsessed with football.  We made mention that we would have loved to have gone to a match while in Vienna, and the next day I have an e-mail saying that he was able to get 6 tickets to the following week's Austria Wien vs. Rapid Wien local match-up.  So that Tuesday night, us four were off on another adventure including:  tour of Georg's family sausage-packaging company, gulash and schnitzel from a local restaurant, and the absolute madness of a 3,000 seated stadium.  I swear it was louder in that small stadium than a packed house in FedEx Forum for WWE Monday Raw.  These fans didn't stop for 2 solid hours.  Their 'head cheerleaders' stood with megaphone, green or purple make-up pending the team, flags serving as dresses, and with upmost loyalty and pride screamed songs and chants unceasingly...I'm pretty sure I was more impressed by the cheering sections than the football players.    The fear of post-celebration/rivalry fights (non-alcoholic beer was the only thing served due to past brawls) caused the local Viennese police to stand shoulder to shoulder blocking off the entire road's walking and driving transportation with helmets, shields, and clubs....We waited in the late, cold air for 30 minutes.  Intense.  Austra Wien upset Rapid 2-0.

And there you are, a glimpse into the ever-random, always-revolving views from this life at this particular time.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

walking on water

excerpts from Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

"We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.  If our lives are truly 'hid with Christ our God,' the astounding thing is that this hiddenness is revealed in all that we do and say and write."

"Our sins defeat us unless we are willing to recognize them, confess them, and so become healed and whole and holy--not qualified, mind you; just holy."

"But only if I die first, only if I am willing to die.  I am mortal, flawed, trapped in my own skin, my own barely-used brain.  I do not understand this death, but I am learning to trust it.  Only through this death can come the glory of resurrection; only through this death can come birth."

"In the realm of faith I know far more than I can believe with my finite mind.  I know that a loving God will not abandon what he creates.  know that the human calling is co-creation with this power of love.  know that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord."


Thank you, Kristen.  You are my sister and in my prayers.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

hooters and hikin'

Die Schweiz Collage

Halloween weekend 2002, a group of 8 girls met up with another similar group of fellas in Interlaken, Switzerland, at the tail end of their European fall break.  Some paraglided, others rode horses, and a few even dove through the sky from a plane with a man attached to their body.  It is not hard to fall in love with Switzerland--its romantic rivers that carve veins in between villages of quaint, delicate homes that map out valleys bordered by mountains of magnificence.  

And so it is that I returned with another group of fellas and a few ladies.  After an overnight train that dropped us off into the cozy town and an even cozier, crunker Balmer's hostel, Marc, Matt and I set off for a quick stroll up a hill.  Turned out to be not so quick, strenuous, and a mountain.  But to be outside hiking with weather pristine, skies the color of these photos, and good company is usually the formula for my perfect days.  That afternoon we enjoyed a lunch from the local COOP, Matt, Allison, Allison, and Chris went skydiving (Brad and Tyne followed suit the next day), and after some rest we prepared for dinner.  Being in Switzerland we thought fondue was the most appropriate dinner together, but after looking at a menu, we decided 49 bucks was a bit much.  So our American appetites looked across the street and was drawn in by the smell of burgers, fries, and tackiness.  I couldn't stop laughing at the irony of it all:  my first time at the classy establishment was in..switzerland.  Allison's club sandwich came with some kind of streamers on toothpicks, and the waitresses wore the same hideous nylon hose that resembled white plastic tubes on their legs.  Amazingly was beating Chris in foosball and Matt in ping pong...don't mess.  I gave Matt and his pipe company into the night under a cold starry black blackdropped sky.

After morning coffee and a newspaper read, our group (minus the 2 skydivers) went on our Gimmelwald adventure.  And that it was.  We hiked high enough for our lungs to hurt and snow to rest at our feet.  The Jungfrau, also known as the Top of Europe, was our neighbor for our day's trip, and the faces of sheep and cow looked amused that we would even come into their presence.  We took photos and meandered throughout the small roads where no cars ride and a few residents stride.  Everything was right for a moment, and so it has been for the past few months.  Moments of peace and truth, community and clarity.  I am thankful for this time.  

May God's kingdom come and his will be done.  May his servants be given the strength to be imitators of his love and glory.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

sunset says, "we see this all the time."

I set my alarm for 3am.  And I woke up.  I've always written better in the middle of the night when the mind is somewhat untainted by a day's worth of thoughts and responsibility.  And so I hope to document the past few weeks when my mother flew to Vienna and we traveled by train, metro, bus, and foot to Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and, naturally, Osterreich.  

It was mandatory that she stay in Vienna at least 4 days in order to understand the diversity of beauty in this city.  An opera, a symphony, museums dedicated to Gustav Klimt and Friedensreich Hundertwasser, a handful of palaces, and a cemetery honoring several million (post-humously, of course) were just a bird's eye view of this beloved home's treasures.  Two Saturdays ago we reserved couchettes (a sort of bed) on an overnight train to Florence where our 'abroad' journey would begin.  Sleep is more of a theory on overnight rides for me, and without the companion of music my mind may have succumbed to the hypnotism of the train's rhythms and anonymity of dark skies and street lights.  

'For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti' - Sufjan Stevens
'Hey ya' - Obadiah Parker
'Seasons Change' - Corinne Bailey Rae
'Raining At Sunset' - Chris Thile
'In Your Atmosphere (Live)' - John Mayer - the last minute and a half...just put it on repeat.
'Daughters (Live)' - John Mayer
'Free Fallin' (Live)' - John Mayer
'Gravity' - John Mayer
'Worlds Apart' - Jars of Clay

Just to give you an idea of my sanity. 

With bags under our eyes and ache throughout our limbs, we walked into Florence at dawn, around 6am, Sunday morning.  We started our 6-hour tour with the cobble-stoned streets to ourselves...streets to ourselves.  This, in Florence, is a profound treat.  The stillness in a town where 25% of world's classic art resides makes your ears hear a little better and you start looking out the corners of your eyes in order not to be surprised by Caravaggio's ghost or Michelangelo's exhaustion. The silence wasn't exactly frightening because nothing can be too frightening at the beginning of a day, but it was eerie, like I shouldn't be there.  Or maybe that I shouldn't be allowed to be there.  But I was, and so was my mom, and we watched the sun rise over Tuscany's famed hills from Ponte Vecchio bridge.  

that sunrise from ponte vecchio

That afternoon we caught our train to Cinque Terre.  Six years ago, a large group of us escaped to this Mediterranean haven made popular by Rick Steves for the day (on our Italy group trip), and Austin, Josh, Hunter and I started hiking.  We went from Riomaggiore to Manarola, Corniglia and Vernazza.  Somewhere along the four (of five) villages we ate seafood spaghetti from a woman on the coast.  It has remained a favorite day in my life.  Having heard all the hype from my past experience, my mother was insistent on seeing such a place.  Cinque Terre doesn't disappoint.  


And, as in many moments in the livelihood of traveling, we met instant friends.  Unlike many of those moments, these were not just interesting roamers, they were more like kindred spirits:  Mariah and Tor.  When this quiet, handsome shaved-headed man in his mid-thirties introduced himself, I understandably repeated, "Tor?"  He casually responded, "Yeah, my parents were hippies and thought Tom was too common and came up with Tor instead."  I liked them immediately.  They have been married a couple years, live outside of San Francisco, and were traveling throughout Italy for 3 weeks to celebrate the end of long schooling in both their lives.  Mariah is now a psychologist who studied for a year in Italy twelve years ago.  They met working at a non-profit organization where they invested in the lives of teenagers, Tor just finished film school on top of co-fostering two teenagers while he was still single, and Mariah was busy reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  Yes, conversation was unceasing.  They sweetly invited Mom and I to join them for dinner after we had gotten settled into our hostel, and so we dropped our bags in Levanto (5 minute train ride from Cinque Terre) and wandered, ate, and communed with Tor and Mariah until long after sunset.  It is often I wished there could be a place on earth where blessed strangers could become dear friends.  

We awoke the next morning to the kind of sky where the sun rays burst through thick clouds dramatically, and dance upon waves.  We hiked just two of the villages, breathed gallons of fresh air, and left for Nizza Monferrato to visit with my friend, Rachel Stowe-Scarci, and her darling husband Giulliano.  Their cute and cozy apartment where the year-long newlyweds have lived was a inviting refuge for two nights, as was their company.  Tuesday, our full day with them, we spent the day touring Giulliano's family vineyards, the winery where they take their harvested grapes, and Rachel and I went to yoga.  First things first, the moment Giuliano took us outside of the winery with small plastic cups (just larger than a Protestant communion beverage), went to the container that held 100,000 gallons of wine, poured us cold, un-filtered, dessert wine, I knew that that very moment would be a good one to remember.  

Giuliano, Rachel, me, & Mama

The fog was caught in between the rows of grape farmland and gave the small Northwest Italian countrysides grand mystery.  It was a lovely contrast to slow down our travels and observe the sleepy town that made no money from tourism, and to distance myself even further from the whirlwind of hop-scotching across Europe through yoga...yes, of course, in Italian.  Being the fantastic hostess that she is, Rachel invited me along to her weekly class that met in a elementary school gymnasium in a nearby town.  About a dozen women ranging from the age of 20-50 took their instruction from a soft-spoken middle-aged man, who, incidentally, was the object of six out of twelve women's (above the age of 35) flirtation.  The combined factors of the foreign language, the 9pm starting time, our hunky instructor's whisper of a voice, and the elevator music turned classical turned Kenny G and Toni Braxton soundtrack made my rigid body quickly want to fall asleep on the wooden floor with only a thin foam mat to border my skin to its cool temperature.  Relaxing? Yes.  Entertaining? Absolutely.  Since I couldn't exactly concentrate on his more spiritual implications for our exercise, I looked to the gym's walls for amusement instead.  It was well-documented by the hands of 8-year-olds that Halloween was just three days away.  Witches and pumpkins were colored orange, purple and green; however, my favorite pieces of decor were the colored in pirates.  It was the stereotyped visual of a man with peach skin, an exaggerated snarl, crooked teeth, large hat, gold hoop earring, and the eye patch with a skull and bones taking the place of a useful eyeball.   It was so non-counter-culturally hypnotizing.  And, thankfully, the musical genius was redeemed by the Salzburger bus driver 4 days later with a bit of Bobby Dylan.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Post-yoga sweet slumber prepared us for the following day of trains...out of Italia into the land of Switzerland.  At the small town of Visp, we transfered to a local, posh train that slowly took us higher in elevation to the wealthy, elite, community of skier and snowboarder, snowbunny and bum alike, Zermatt.  We were welcomed by thick fog and heavy flakes of snow, and so we combatted the elements with hot chocolate, tomato soup, and buttery military defense a girl can ask for.  Thick white quilts covered the land, cemetery laying to rest approximately 37 people, trees, cars, and church steeples.  The morning was beautiful, and after our long breakfast, mother and child saw the fog lift for our final hour...the Matterhorn revealed the majority of its jagged face, and the father and son duo that slept above us on the hostel bunk beds were able to shred the gnar gnar after 80 mph winds the day before.  

Matterhorn:  Zermatt, Switzerland

It is hard not to be so satisfied with velvet snow, but our schedule pushed us onward to Salzburg, Austria--home of Redbull, mountains, and the worldwide spectacle of a 1965 Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

Our midnight arrival begged for slumber, and an early departure on The Sound of Music tour.  Sue, our bombastic, humorous British leader kept us going with the most touristy, cheesy, and fabulous bus ride filled with trivia and celebrity gossip.  From the gazebo where Josh danced with me 6 years ago (we were 19 going on 20), the family house, and wedding chapel, we ended  up spending 4 hours climbing every mountain and fjording most streams. 

small town outside of Salzburg, Austria

The evening was filled with fajitas and a hostel-wide viewing of that same 1965 really is spectacular how 75% of Salzburg's tourism comes from that one film.  

One major city left:  Munich.  The vast majority of the designated time was spent going to and fro Fussen, land of Neuschwanstein, the castle-making of crazy Ludwig and destination of all Asians and Americans.  The hike up was filled with the golden nature of autumn and the stroll down was highlighted by 4 euro bottles of water.  Returning to the streets of Munich, my instinct navigational magnetism took us to the downtown streets with lights, brezels, kirches, and one large rathaus, but it still had nothing on our Vienna Hogwarts Rathaus.

Eight days, four countries, and six cities later, Mom and I made it back to the comfortable confines of Hotel Theresianum.  Nothing like home after too many trains.  Sunday was spent resting, welcoming Kenna to a land on the other side of the world, and hearing the many anecdotes of my students and their even more impressive travels.  

And thus ended fall break zweitausendacht.  Monday was busy with Van Gogh, Schonbrun, perfume buying, and candy accumulating.  Mom, Kenna, Kayce and I ate good food and gabbed.  Tuesday morning I hugged my mama and sent her off to the airport.  Kenna time and Interlaken followed quickly thereafter.  Die Schweiss will undoubtedly be covered in the next few days.  

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

patricia in pula

In the week and a half between the day I got this job to Vienna and left for Vienna, there was one new destination I knew I had to visit: Croatia. There have been rumors and stories humming in my head about this lengthy coastal, homeland of Toni Kukoc for several years now--how it rivaled the scenic beauty of Greece and still remained unaffected by the suffocation of too many tourists. And so upon my arrival, I leeched myself upon Allison and Matt and their similar weekend plans toward Croatia. It turned out that none of us had too many specifics in mind--we just wanted to go. The southern part including Split was what most of those rumors included, but it seemed days away by train and not worth the exhaustion, and then, naturally, Daniel came to be our finest resource. He encouraged us to spend half our time (again, weekend...3 1/2 days more or less) in Slovenia and then go to a village in Northern Croatia that was just a smaller version of Split. So with a couple days of reviewing suggestions, booking hostels, and hoping for the best, we jumped on a train toward Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital, Thursday just after noon.

We arrived early evening with slight mist and eager anticipation: we were staying in Hostel Celica, former prison turned art gallery/creative living quarters. We weren't disappointed. Apparently, some 800 Slovenian artists have contributed into the building's transformation giving 20 something individual cells unique character and layout. You should check it out for yourself:

my prison cell for a night--the wooden contraption over
the window comes down as a table...yes, very cool

I thought the entire concept of this hostel was a beautiful shadow of the gospel. To take something that bred death, darkness, loneliness, and hopelessness and turn its confines into a building that supports exploration, safety, economic sustainability, and, of course, partying is an idea that we should practice more often. Death to life, darkness to laughter, toxic to restorative. Now I'm not saying that we should go ahead and close all our active prisons to open alternative businesses such as hotels, restaurants, museums, allthewhile training the former inmates in professional skills...okay, maybe I am... (: Maybe I'm just scared that our culture/world has forgotten how to use their imaginations...or perhaps it's that we never knew how.

Truman, a 21-year-old American stationed in a German Airforce base, had just returned from Iraq and was on a mini-vacation to regain his sanity. He was in search of community and proved to be a great tour guide of the town from his 4-day stay in Ljubljana. 20% of the population is university students, so needless to say, the town was humming with activity. We ate falafels and had a good conversation with a Bangladeshi man studying economics in Slovenia...of course his English was perfect and he wanted to peacefully converse over the economic state of affairs and America's next president. He was brilliant and made us some darn good falafels. The next morning thunderstorms boomed in the surrounding mountains to suggest that we move on to the coast of Piran which meant an inadequate stay in Ljub, but there's not much you can truly savor in one weekend's worth of jumping through two countries.
And it turns out that we made a great choice. Our hurricane winds off the coast of Piran offered a rather entertaining afternoon and subsided just in time for a crystal clear evening. The entertainment came when we all decided to change into our bathing suits, run through the small alleyways around our hostel and jump into the Adriatic Sea. Bernard, a Canadian visitor at our hostel saw us in the lobby, asked where we were from, and responded by, "Of course, Americans." We're representing our nation well in Slovenia, no worries. I'm pretty sure I laughed for an hour straight, and shivered simultaneously.
After warming up, we hiked up to their local church and further to the quaint castle with its grand panorama.
Piran, Slovenia
We spent a riveting night in our hostel's warm lobby resting and chatting it up with Bernard and his wife, Patricia. I would guess they are in their 50s/60s and come from Banff National Park, Canada. We bonded over a common love for mountains and the close proximity between Glacier and Banff, and realized that we were both headed toward Pula the following day. Following that conversation, the four of us decided that the Travel Channel should start airing a show entitled, "Patty in Pula"- one, because it sounds fabulous, and because Patricia would inevitably do a darn good job representin' Pula. Catchy, isn't it?

between Piran and Portoroz

We awoke to glorious blue skies and had a good chunk of time before our afternoon bus to Croatia, so we walked to the nearby town of Portoroz, drank cappuccinos, and laid out on one of the ports. I highly recommend this lifestyle. It was a pretty unanimous declaration that Slovenia is a splash of heaven on this earth, and what we saw of Croatia wasn't too bad either. All bus rides should be as pretty as the one we took that afternoon. Seriously, if Greyhound guaranteed Croatian coasts, I wouldn't even think of any other form of transportation.

And so we arrived in time for a sunset over a horizon of water, and gave ourselves a quick tour of Pula (Patricia had already headed on to the hostel, so we were lacking our guide, unfortunately).
Post-dusk we checked into Pula Youth Hostel located on the beach, went out to get oven-baked pizzas, slept, and woke up to a chilly sunrise. Then we left. An entire day of travel was performed without a glitch, except for the fact that the Slovenian train men couldn't get it through their heads that they weren't supposed to stamp our Eurail Passes. Just shake your heads along with me on that one.
After such a weekend, I am rethinking whether or not God wants me to spend the rest of my life renting out motorbikes in Piran, writing Slovenian poetry, and continuing my addiction to coffee and suntans. I wouldn't exactly be opposed.

And tonight it's Wednesday, October 22, 2008. I picked my mom up from the airport this morning, and we have quite an exciting 2 weeks planned together. We leave for fall break this weekend: Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and, of course, Osterreich.

Ciao ciao for now.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

trip mom

That's what some of my sweet chillun' call me.  Here are some favorite photos of them.

Bintu & Chelsea in Budapest

Bintu, Allison & Allison pose at the Coliseum

Some of the gang at the Spanish Steps in Rome

All the ladies minus Bintu our first night in Florence

Marc, Matt & Denton in Pisa 

buona sera

This afternoon I went for a walk.  There is a park not too far from our hotel in Vienna, just south of the Belvedere, and for some unknown reason I had yet to visit it over the months/years I've been around.  I sat on a bench, Henri Nouwen in hand, and kept being interrupted by fall.  The tree in front of me wore mustard yellow leaves burnt around the edges as if they were carefully dipped in dark chocolate.  As I listened to the Amelie soundtrack and watched the tree, the bouncing accordion music made me dance from one leaf to the next and with the couple sitting across the pond, and the woman walking her dog.  So many things were happening at once:  autumn, words, sounds.  Therefore, I practiced the only true skill I've somewhat honed over the years, observing.  It's the closest thing I have to a vocation.  And as I observed my surroundings, the Spirit ended up observing me.  

(Nouwen's The Inner Voice of Love)
'Acknowledge Your Powerless'
"One way you keep holding on to an imaginary power is by expecting something from outside gratifications or future events.  As long as you run from where you are and distract yourself, you cannot fully let yourself be healed.  A seed only flourishes by staying in the ground in which it is sown.  When you keep digging the seed up to check whether it is growing, it will never bear fruit.  Think about yourself as a little seed planted in rich soil.  All you have to do is stay there and trust that the soil contains everything you need to grow.  This growth takes place even when you do not feel it.  Be quiet, acknowledge your powerlessness, and have faith that one day you will know how much you have received." 
Two weeks ago I wrote about travels in Cheb with Sarah, the closing of Tichy, and the hospitalization of one of our students...well, that week turned out to be our very own mini-plague.  I spent the vast majority of my time at the hospital, fixing soup for the ill in my Harry Potter cup purchased at a thrift store down the road, and passing along a well-tested thermometer.  And then I fled to Budapest....with about a dozen (healthy) students the day before we left for Italy.  I had spent a rather humorous 4 hours in the Hungarian capital 6 years ago with Holly, Hunter and Austin.  We arrived just in time to miss the spas (our main objective), grab a meal, and run to the last train leaving for Vienna.  This time, we started out in similar fashion.  We all literally ran to grab the earliest train out of Vienna to have optimum time in Buda and Pest.  The adrenaline rush lasted most of the night as Chelsea, Bintu and I had the best meal thus far (even when comparing to Italy) in Europe, and meandered down to Hero's Square with its castles, museums, statues, and climbable trees.  Since our earlier meal had given us wings, we walked the streets back toward the river.  The weather could not have been more pleasant and I could not have been more taken with Budapest.  The pleasantness turned to rain by morning, but we got up early enough to soak our sore bodies in the best Hungarian baths there were to offer.  Eleven girls and one speedo-renting Matt giggled and sighed as our skin was smoothed and muscles relaxed.  Our train got us home with just enough time to nap, pack, and pile in a night train to Rome.

hero's square-budapest

Similar to the Prague weekend one month ago, our week in Italy was a 32-member event (28 Studentin, 3 faculty [that includes me...yes, faculty], and one Daniel Kravina).  It is our second, last, and greatest group affair with 4 days in Rome, 3 in Florence and 2 in transit.  The way the week itinerary is prepared by Daniel, our week is non-stop from start to finish--a kind of baptism by fire.  Just an hour or two after we'd awoken from a restless night on the train, we were whisked away by 4'10" Roberta for the grand tour of Roman Ruins which is, essentially, the entire city.  From the Coliseum, Forum, and Arches to the remnants of where they (who 'they' is, I'm not really sure) say Paul was imprisoned while in Rome, it was an exhausting day (first of many) filled with floods of historical and artistic education (again, first of many).  

roman coliseum

We stayed in a Catholic monastery for our entire time in Rome.  Some of the nuns were crabby, but it was a delightful experience with a large garden, chicken coop, and a fancy crucifix above the front door on which Jesus was wearing a neon halo.  Pretty impressive.  Foodwise, Daniel never failed with our scheduled dinners one of which was a kind of international mission--the waitresses were missionaries from South America, Southeast Asia, Africa, etc, with wide smiles, the peace of God, and the mandatory task to lead each guest in Ave Maria. (oh, and the best gnocchi I've ever had came from the missionaries)  Then there was pizza, pizza, pizza and gelato 3 times emphasized as well.  Just stick around the Pantheon and you can not only find 101 flavors of gelato, but about the same amount for pizza.  One night, a small group of us wondered to a pub down the street from our convent (which a pub in Rome is strange anyway), and just so happened to sit at the booth where a large Jack Daniels sign decorated the wall.  And just so you know, whenever any European asks where you're from, the response to Tennessee never gets Elvis or music in general, but Jack Daniels.  International fame.  It was there I had my curry risotto...yum...and per usual, the deliciousness made me think of my Asian meals...I'm pretty sure my students are tired of hearing me talk about Nepal.  I stuck my hand in the Mouth of Truth for my love of Audrey and Gregory, and spent a long time in the small apartment of John Keats's memorial.  In 1820, he came with his friend to Rome.  One year later, at the age of 25, tuberculosis killed his genius.  And so, perhaps poetically, at the age of 25 I walked into his bedroom and thanked his tragic life for giving us 'Ode to Autumn' among others.  Young brilliance is confounding.

Then we were off to Florence where 25% of the World Heritage Masterpieces are nestled into one tiny town filled with Americans.  Daniel calls it the Disneyland of Italy.  In just two days we went to 7 museums, among of course, the Academy in which stands Michelangelo's glorious David, and the Ufizzi Gallery that holds Bonticelli, Da Vinci, and Caravaggio.  

ponte vecchio-florence

In the midst of trying to absorb at least a pinch of the Renaissance explosion, some of us went to Pisa for dinner.  Honestly, I think most of the time there was spent trying to think of creative ways to 'hold up' the Leaning Tower with both legs, or 'push it over' with an effortless pinky.  It is a strange existence.   

when in pisa...

I might have to say that I even enjoyed this long week to Italy even more than 6 years ago.  Most of that reaction is because of Rome.  It was just far too overwhelming to me back then with it's 2 lines of a Metro, but now, maybe after living in more chaotic cities than itself, I loved Rome.  Loved it.  Also, I felt this trip allowed me to get to know the group so much better.  Through girl talk, cultural observations, a common love for the man below, and thoughts of God and our response as his servants, last week was a perfect example of what makes this program in Europe so indispensable:  community.

the one, the only, daniel kravina

With only a couple days of recoop time here in Wien, I'm off again in just an Slovenia and Croatia!  Two of the three Allisons, Matt and I will be exploring three different towns over the weekend (2 being on the coast!).  I'll have stories and pictures soon and very soon.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

the coup for gelato

It is Tuesday evening as I write from Vienna. The last day of September was beautiful here. So beautiful, in fact, that I threw my blanket and jacket in my bag and headed off to the Burggarten (one of the parks near downtown) just before noon. The sky was the color of my nephew's eyes, the leaves a shifting green, yellow, orange. And it was there, underneath a shifting tree, that I sprawled my blanket taken from the good people at United Airlines on grass and wadded my jacket beneath my head. There can't be many better perspectives than from under autumn trees and picnic skies.

Of course, just an hour later I came back to the hotel to find a group of my students waiting next to an ambulance. Um, not okay. Michael came back from Salzburg Sunday night real sick and hadn't been able to keep any food or liquids down for two days. Dehydration led to the hospital. So it happened that two of his good friends and I hopped in the car with Hotel Theresianum's Employee of the Year, Florian. What a guy. In every way, to every student, he goes out of his way to serve and care for us. Today, he works the night shift starting at midnight, but just so happened to be in the area, so he took it upon himself to spend the better part of the afternoon showing us to the hospital, acting as our translator, and making sure everything was set up for Michael in his room. Unbelievable. Michael already looked better from the IV and should be released tomorrow morning.

Now, it is dusk and a gentle rain just joined me out on the patio--shelter is nearby. But that's just today. And we need to go back and recount some other agreeable moments.

This past weekend was our first free travel of the semester. There were groups to Venice, Munich, Salzburg, and Poland. Poland proved to be a little tricky, humorous, and altogether annoying for the group involved. Cameras, money, and ipods were taken from the train ride, their hostel was shady and unnerving, and the only thing they did there was go to Auschwitz--the Nazi's deadliest concentration camp during World War II. All in all, they weren't the most chipper kids when they came back. But they came back.

As they all got on their separate trains Friday after class, the worried mother in me (ha) convinced myself it would all be okay...and hopped on my own Cheb, Czech Republic to reunite with a friend from Hong Kong days, Sarah. Working the train system is a little bit like riding a bike or getting back into my car after months away, but there is still that subtle sense of urgency to make sure you get off at the right station, transfer to the right train, and not sit in an angry German's reserved seat. Everything went smoothly across Austria, into Germany, and finally to the border Czech town of Cheb.

I finished my first Bill Bryson book while I sat next to a young Austrian professional reading his own comical novel. Goodness gracious, I have never in my life seen someone laugh so hard while reading. Three times he had to place the book on his lap, remove his glasses, and wipe the tears from his eyes. At first it was endearing, but by the second stop when he departed, I was glad to see his humoured self go. Nothing can be that funny--maybe Dave Chappelle.

I love trains for the people watching (the bigger picture is that I love Europe for the people watching), and after my obnoxious Austrian laugher left, I fixed my gaze on a elderly couple sitting opposite of me down a few seats. They looked like they had lived a long life together through World Wars, communism, recoveries. And as I watched the woman's hands they reminded me of my grandmother's hands. One of my last days in Memphis before I left, I spent some time next to her while she slept in her bed fighting the grogginess of pain medicine. When she awoke from restlessness she looked at me and said, "Hey, sweetie pie." I sat softly on the bed and grabbed her hand. My grandmother has large hands for her size (larger hands than my own) with large knuckles that I stroked while I prayed. And they were warm. The kind of warm I felt during our sleepovers in that same bed eighteen years ago. The kind of warm that makes you think cold never existed. I am thankful for the ways God reminds us of himself, of those we love, and even those we don't love. I am thankful for the old woman's hands on the train.

cheb town square

some more czech graffiti

me and sarah drinking some eastern european pop

the birthday party surprise

walk in the woods

After 7 hours of watching people I made it to Sarah in the Cheb train station close to 10pm. Sarah worked for a total of 3 years at Mother's Choice orphan home in Hong Kong where both my sister and I met her (summer of 2004, for me). The next summer we chilled in Memphis as she participated in my sister's wedding festivities. We haven't seen each other since. And our reunion couldn't have started with a bigger bang. That night was their first English speaking pub night. Context: Sarah is in her second year of teaching English in the small town of Cheb. The school year just began, and to encourage all years to speak in English, they do a pub night weekly where all 7 English natives come and spread the love. I made 8. Not only did I immediately meet all of Sarah's fun natives of the USA, but her adorable (mostly) students as well. There was one guy named Henry who looked like he should have been a Scottish rugby playing sleezeball. Well, he is married with two kids, owns a hotel, has a horrible accent, terrific vocabulary (definitely busted out 'Allegedly' on me), and is convinced that the greatest music came at the end of the 1960s. And I couldn't disagree.

Our late night turned into a nice late morning. Sarah took me on a lovely tour of her newest home filled with castles, cathedrals, graffiti walls, birthday crepes (which was, essentially, an ordered strawberry crepe that came out looking like a birthday party), and a hike on the first perfect day of my European days. We wandered, she introduced me to the Czech soft drink, Kofola, and we talked about life, love, and the fate of writers (more specifically, English majors). It was a delight to catch up with her and fellowship. And we may go on a Berlin excursion later this fall.

Seeing that everyone made it back to Vienna, for better or worse, yesterday's glorious day was celebrated by all in a variety of ways. Bintu, Chelsea and I went walking around Schloss Schonbrun Palace. We watched children run, tourists take pictures, ducks swim in ponds, and mothers push their babies all around the decorated gardens of the late Maria Theresa (mama to Marie Antoinette). A couple hours later we added a few more fans of gelato to mourn the last day of Tichy Eis. As we walked out of the U-Bahn to our destination, we saw that 75 Austrians had the same idea. It seemed that we had underestimated our plan of action. We divided our group into groups of three across the unorganized mass throwing Euros at the women in pink and white striped aprons. Give me gelato. For the first 15 minutes, Mandalynn, Bintu and I thought our side of the unorganized mass was a clearly defined line...clearly not. With my limited German, I tried to nicely tell a couple women to make their way to the back of the line. But apparently we weren't playing the same game--or maybe speaking the same language. My patience was running thin and tension was rising in the crowd. A coup could have developed at any moment to overthrow the gelato into cups and cones and bellies. The more women (always women) tried to push their ways in front of us, the more I realized that I was a foot taller than them all and that God gave me these hips for a reason. "Erdbeer, Bananen, Haselnuss!" I yelled, and came away with my cup held high so that the crazy common folk wouldn't do anything rash. In another ten minutes each one of us convened near the street...triumphant. And so it was that Tichy closed down for the season. It was worth the battle.

I think I'm going to Budapest for the night Friday with a small group, and then our entire crew leaves Saturday night for a week in Italy! Hooray, more gelato!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


i took a photo of this man 6 years ago...same flower and all.

czech grafitti

the famous astronomical clock

good times bowling

jewish cemetery