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 train...to 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

vienna & prague

karlskirche-first night


the ladies with tichy eis gelato

excited to be in prague

prague's charles bridge

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

easter in praha

Two years ago I came back to Vienna.  I stole the phrase ‘delicious strangeness’ from Ian McEwan’s Atonement to describe my re-immersion.  It was used when Cecilia came back home from being at university.  Older, independent, and now a woman, she recalls memories and imprints from her youth as she settles back into her bedroom, strolls around the yard, sits by the fountain, remembers hidden places—gratifying familiarity—delicious strangeness. 


So it was two years ago, and so it is now.  My first night here, last Thursday, I strolled down with my jetlag, jacket and scarf to Karlskirche.  I visited this same cathedral one of my first nights as a student six years ago, only then, I got lost (the kind of lost where the vastness of the city demands your respect; akin to the reaction of mountains when you find yourself cliffed out).  But not this time.  As a seasoned veteran I took my camera, sat, watched, and thanked God’s hand for placing me here—what a gift. 


In not even a week’s time, I have found this group of 28 students so easy to love.  Smart, kind, passionate, curious, they are eager to learn, find their way to 19 countries, explore, appreciate and include.  Matt, Bintu and I meandered our way to the Hundertwasserhaus Friday to experience yet another of Vienna’s eclectic treasures of art and architecture.  And before we knew it, Daniel took us all to Prague. 


The first day was an entire afternoon of free time to roam, so I ate lunch with Daniel at a classic, non-touristy Czech pub with warm, spicy food and cool, tasty beverages.  I spent the rest of my time walking past statues of Franz Kafka, signs that encouraged U.S. citizens to make their absentee vote count (sponsored, of course, by those crazy Democrats Abroad), wander across the most famous Charles Bridge where artisans sold their craft, and all the while kept my footing over the beloved Czech cobblestones. 


Tired and satisfied, our group settled quite nicely into one large hotel—with a bowling alley in the basement.  Naturally, we all went down and either made fools of ourselves or made fun of those making fools of themselves.  I was the latter, and it was fun.


The next morning we enjoyed the company of the most adorable, Eva, our stylish 27-year-old tour guide.  She had a very professional, contemporary, and realistic manner of speaking to us.  She went into depth about the reign of communism that began after World War II when the Allied Russians came in and that fell with the Berlin Wall in 1989, and that has not only casted a dark shadow over her generation, but how the new ‘democracy’ has been a painful experiment; in fact, she considers her entire generation a kind of painful experiment.  She spoke truthfully and with some shame about the rampant materialism that plagues younger people, and the atheism that is a considerable foundation for the same younger people.  There was an honesty in her that was respectable and trustworthy. 


Eva took us around the castle’s grounds where she convinced me that this very Prague castle has the largest castle grounds in the world…beats Versailles…believe it or not.   After walking down a couple hundred steps past pubs and stores, we stopped in front of Saint Nicholas Cathedral where she explained to us the traditional Czech St. Nick day and Easter.  And you got to hear about Easter. 


To her credit, Eva mentioned that we would not understand this custom before she told us the Easter story.  Apparently, single women spend weeks preparing elegantly painted eggs to give to suitors that hopefully come to their door on Easter.  The men, on the other hand, don’t do a thing until they all get together early that morning with their sticks.  Yes, their sticks.  These men and their sticks then go to the houses of the women they find attractive, knock on the door, and then proceed to beat the best looking women.  The best looking women then limp to the table where the detailed eggs lie and thank him for thinking so highly of her.  Soooo, Eva says that the next day, women desire to go to work or university with the most bruises or sore butts.  And in her words, the women who don’t have sore butts but instead are butt ugly have “psychological issues”…no joke.  Oh, and let’s not forget that this just encourages abusive relationships in an entire country. 


My mouth was open the entire time she told this story.  And she was right, I don’t understand. 


Easter aside, we had a delightful end to our time in Prague, and took the bus back to our home at Hotel Theresianum.  We are trying to eat Tichy Eis gelato as much as possible since it closes next week, had a movie night last night with Before Sunrise as our featured film (a sweet tribute to Vienna and good dialogue), and everyone is getting details in order for this weekend’s adventures.


Today I spent more than half the day with sweet Chelsea.  She had her purse stolen yesterday, which included everything but the kitchen sink.  For future knowledge, if you lose your US passport in the city Vienna just give me a call.  After spending hours figuring our way to the Embassy we find that passports are issued at the Consolate.  Oh good, where in the world is that?  Again, call me.  Chelsea and I later found our way to the Austrian Police Station and a Western Union on the other end of town.  We are such pros at appearing lost and in need here in Vienna.  She is our Georgian Belle with the friendliest demeanor, most inviting smile, wakes her roommate up with a “Good morning, cupcake,” and desires to know and understand people from around the world.  What a trooper she has been in light of losing everything, and what a cohesiveness she brings to the group. 

And what joy it is for me to know and understand these students of Wien Zweitousandacht. 




Thursday, September 18, 2008

one long sigh

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Yesterday morning I put on my long-sleeve shirt.  Before I did that, I snuggled under blankets as the cool wind came through open windows.  Yesterday, the world turned to fall—well, the world, being the world within the borders of Memphis.  This much-anticipated metamorphosis is not uncommon; it occurs the middle of September every year.  However, like an obvious literary device, this change of season cued a paralleled adjustment within my own life. 


I came back from Nepal at the end of spring, and as summer began so did a new relationship, different plans for location, vocation, permanence.  And summer was one long sigh.  As she was beginning to give up her fight a few weeks ago, so was that relationship and those plans.  So with long sleeves came a freedom I didn’t desire but have embraced, and the quintessential gift of a few months in Europe. 


Soon enough I will be lighting candles in cathedrals, staring at works of Caravaggio, Klimt, Michelangelo, and sipping coffee in coffee shops that inspire you to write and dream and become something new. 


Soon enough. 


But let’s talk about the long-sleeve day…yesterday.  Both emotionally and physically, the past month has left me sitting on the steps, drinking coffee, praying, and watching the wind blow the limbs and leaves of the trees in the distance without touching my own skin—as if something was happening right in front of me, but was reluctant to inform me of any decision, shift in pattern.  Then the wind pushed through the trees and against my face and over my thoughts to lead me to Austria in just two days.  And to WWE wrestling that night. 


Now, let me explain.  There is nothing about professional wrestling that has ever intrigued me; in fact, I have always found it quite repulsive.  When Britta and I traveled to Harka Orphan Home last January, we quickly realized that the 15 children not only had a television in the middle of the jungle, but all they watched was the 24-hour WWE wrestling channel.  We would soon find out in the next few weeks that that was all any of the children in the surrounding villages watched.  It blew our minds. 


As two women who advocate non-violence, creativity, being outdoors, and nurturing the imagination, we cringed every time the children adoringly watched the masculine soap opera….and even more so when they tried to emulate such grotesque lifestyles on their bunk beds and bedroom floor.  Once, when we took a few of the kids to Chitwan National Park, Ishwor saw protective ropes surrounding a garden and excitedly began to climb through them and onto flowers yelling, “Wrestling!” as if they recreated a pen just for his entertainment.  Their one true obsession. 


Repulsion, however, turned to humor when I came back to Memphis from Nepal only to find the hidden secret of all my children on our street and around our neighborhood:  it was their one true obsession as well.  It seems that if the good news of Christ looked anything like John Cena, every child in the world—that had a television with a 24-hour WWE channel—would be saved.  Alas, the gospel calls its followers to die to flesh in order to live in the substitutionary body of Christ instead of trying one’s best to kill each other in the flashiest, sexiest of wrestling rings. 


Now, with the understanding of such a global phenomenon, I thought it much more hilarious to go with Cedric (C-Rock, his wrestling persona) to Monday Night RAW as a kind of farewell-for-now event.  And what a cultural experience it was.  I think the only place more diverse in Memphis is the Greyhound Bus Station.  Whether it was the wrestler who resembled Sloth from the film, Goonies, that invoked the crowd chant, “Brush your teeth (teef)” or the painfully obvious dramatic scripts they insert for cheap thrills and/or boos, I found myself shaking my head or looking at Cedric next to me in order to copy his ruckus. 


 And with such a classy exit, I say ‘Shalom, Y’all’…and…


Auf Wiedersehen.

Friday, September 5, 2008

wien, osterreich

my greatest friend, jocelyn, once told me that i had the most unpredictable life of anyone she knows. most of time i don't like this. today, i do.

in the midst of heartache i went to nashville, and after 48 hours of visiting, i left nashville with a job.

in about a week i will be flying to austria to be the women's chaperone/leader/matriarch for the Lipscomb Vienna Studies semester program. it's still humorous to me at the moment.