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Two-week travel journal: a second prelude to interning abroad

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of discovering beautiful places and winding up in embarrassing situations — a combination only traveling abroad can offer.

On our escapade across mid-Europe, my family and I have have visited Paris, the western coast of France, Bruges and Brussles, Belgium and eastern Germany.

Each place taught me different lessons to bring into my semester abroad. Of this I’m thankful, not only because, hopefully, same mistakes won’t be made twice (i.e. if you leave luggage in your car in Paris, it will get broken into), but also because I know my knowledge and experience will only build from here.

I could write at least 500 words on all I learned over these two weeks, but I know you’ll be tempted to stop reading after paragraph five (and hopefully not before). So here are some photos and some lessons. They’re in no particular order, but if you’re strapped for time, jump down to the Neuschwanstein (no, it’s actually spelled like that) Castle. It might have been the highlight of the trip. Now, I’m going to go get settled into my new flat on Rue Souveraine. Cheers!

Deauville, France 

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Lessons from this gorgeous, albeit ritzy, fishing village on the west coast of France:

  1. If mussels are in season in Europe, order them. They are delicious.
  2. Tudor architecture is grand in its own way.
  3. People dress to the nines in towns like this one…leave your ‘Merica t-shirts at home.

Omaha Beach, France // Ste Mere Eglise, France

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Lessons from an incredibly sobering day:

  1. History is important – take time to learn it outside of classrooms.
  2. You can hear statistics (like 9,387 souls are buried at this cemetery), but sometimes you have to see a visual to get it.
  3. Life as I know it has truly been bought at a price.

Bruges, Belgium // Ghent, Belgium

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Lessons from these wonderful, historic little Belgium towns:

  1. Belgians (especially Belgian monks) really, really know how to brew beer.
  2. Make sure you always see what a town is famous for (i.e. Michelangelo’s sculpture in Bruges).
  3. If you love a town from just walking around, you’ll love it even more from above. Find a way to get a bird’s-eye view.

Heidelberg, Germany

(not to be confused with The Berg, CoMo)

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Lessons from a town that’s been teaching Germany since 1386:

  1. Seeing the castle in ruin reminded me of this important lesson.
  2. Appreciate small moments for the gifts they are, like watching the sun set beautifully over the Rhine River.
  3. If you think maybe traditional German food and your stomach won’t get along, take the coward’s approach and go for Italian. Every time.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

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Lessons from one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been:

  1. We can build the most beautiful empire ever, but that doesn’t change the fact we’re going to die (sorry that sounds so depressing, but really though, read a little about the story of the king who built this place. He barely lived in the castle a month before he died).
  2. Life is short, so fill it with what you find breathtaking. For me, that’s nature. (complete 180 from the lesson above, eh?).
  3. Everyone should experience a real-life fairy tale at least once.

Paris, France

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Lessons from the big city:

  1. Don’t be an idiot (see paragraph three above).
  2. Time spent in a café is time well spent.
  3. A big, vibrant city has someplace for everybody. Take the time to find your someplace.
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Motion stillness: a prelude to interning abroad

Like many in my generation, I have a serious problem with being still.

Not so much in the short-term sense, though I still don’t think I could make it through a 60-minute math class without “going to the bathroom” (a.k.a. walking the halls and thinking about anything other than fractions).

I can’t be still in that I constantly have to be doing something. And once I wrap up that something, I have to quickly move on to another, hopefully more radical, something. And once that thing ends, well, you get the picture.

For example, I just wrapped up a truly life-changing summer interning at an urban home repair camp in Memphis, Tenn. Less than 48 hours after hugging my fellow summer staff goodbye, I was on a redeye to Paris. I’ll be traveling around with my family for the next two weeks before settling in Brussels for the remainder of the semester. My internship with the Financial Times (eep!!) will start less than a week after I get situated in the backyard of the EU headquarters. Talk about motion sickness.

I’ve had at least a dozen people tell me they’re jealous of how fast and how far I’m moving. And I know, these opportunities this year has brought me are incredibly rare. I hear all the time that traveling helps you “find yourself” or “better yourself.” And it does. Or it should.

But the further I travel the more I’m learning on the rare occasions when I simply allow myself to be still, to be content, to be where my feet are…that’s when I learn the most about the place I’m at. It’s also when I learn the most about me.

You see, travel is glamorous only in retrospect. Travel is leaving behind all you knew to be true, whether that means traveling to inner-city America or a new country. It should be uncomfortable and hard. It should force you to think differently than you did before.

Travel is getting to know a place beyond the tourist attractions and guidebook recommendations. It’s learning to see beauty in a city’s grit.

Travel isn’t this constant focus — that I’m so prone to — on the next place, the next something. The kind of travel I want to experience in Europe this semester is striving to be still and LEARN in the place I am, until the current picks up again to take me a little further down.

By the time I hop on a plane back to the states in early December, I’m not going to know Paris well. I’m not going to know London, Rome, and I won’t even know Brussels as well as I want to. But I do know that if I spend my time well in these places as a humble learner, I’ll gain what only experience can teach.

So on this adventure, here’s to being a sojourner, not a wanderer. Here’s to learning to soak up every minute of where I’m walking, not looking down the road. Here’s to finding that secret to the paradox of both being in motion and being still.

Because getting caught up in it all, while taking the time to learn from it all, that’s where the true glamor of travel lies.

Weeks 7 & 8: Transforming portraits

It turns out time moves quickly when you spend the summer on rooftops.

Part of my heart feels like we’re just getting started on the houses in Binghampton. My aching knees and stiff muscles say otherwise, however. Part of me wants to hang on to the community I’ve found here. The other part is so excited to use what I’ve learned on the next adventure.

How can you summarize an experience as vast and deep as this one? As I’m staring at this computer screen, I’m finding that you really can’t. What I can do is just give simple portraits of those in Binghampton who have impacted me the most this summer. These are silent and mostly invisible warriors who stood in my life during this summer for love and hope.

The homeowners

 Ross&Sharon

I have this nervous tick where anytime I’m stressed or nervous or puzzled, I play with my ponytail. Those who know me really well know when I start playing with my hair, that’s the time to offer up a helping hand or comforting words. Let’s just say I played with my hair a lot this summer. By week two Mr. Ross and Ms. Sharon, the wonderful homeowners on Eva Street that brought me into their home this summer, had my nervous tick down. And just about every other tick about me. Whenever rotten wood seemed unending or campers nailed shingles in upside-down and I started up with my ponytail, Mr. Ross and Ms. Sharon were always there to ask me how I was doing and if they could do anything for me. Ms. Sharon’s little grandbaby who lives with them, Nevaeh (heaven spelled backward), could put a smile on everyone’s face like none other. Seeing the way Mr. Ross and Ms. Sharon love this precious little girl was a visible picture of the love they gave to me and anyone who stepped into their home.

Nevaeh

Whether a cold drink at the end of a hot day, home-cooked meals or a simple smile and “thank you,” Mr. Ross and Ms. Sharon subtlety served me all summer long. At the homeowner banquet SOS hosted after our last week of camp, Mr. Ross told me, “We had a house, but now we have a home.” I didn’t give them a home. SOS didn’t give them a home. But by partnering with this loving family for a summer, I sure found a home in Mr. Ross and Ms. Sharon.

SOS extended family 

Isaiah

About once a week this summer I would see a white pickup truck drive up to Mr. Ross’s house. The bed was usually filled with old cans, picked from the street, eventually headed to the recycling center. A Binghampton neighbor, always wearing a T-shirt, suspenders and a soft smile, would drive to nearly all SOS sites on any given week. Mr. Isaiah has been a part of the SOS extended family since a team worked on his home several years ago. My home church played a part in repairing his home that summer and he hasn’t forgotten a single name or face. It seemed like every time it was getting really hard to stay positive or motivated, Mr. Isaiah would drive up, wander over to the side of the roof and say, “Well hello there, Ms. Caroline.” Once he climbed the ladder and was helping my campers tarp a plane of the roof at the end of the day, and I didn’t even notice till they were done.

No matter what, Mr. Isaiah was always willing to provide help or simply a wonderful hug. He is a beautiful picture of the circle of blessings between SOS and the Binghampton community. SOS spent a summer partnering with him on his house and he has not ceased to care about SOS staff members ever since. He told me every week that He was looking out for me. What an amazing picture of overflowing love.

The neighborhood 

Cameron

I saw things this summer that tempted me to despair. I saw broken men hide behind bottles, harmful relationships spill over into fights on porches and lost kids follow what they see before them. This summer has taught me while there is sadness in Binghampton, there is a hope that far overshadows any darkness. Day two of camp, two 13-year-old neighborhood boys came up to the worksite, asking if they could help. Cameron and DeWayne, cousins who live a street apart, are “classic” cases of the neighborhood. Both are growing up without a father. Both have relatives in jail. Both have experienced home violence. And yet, instead of following the examples they’ve had, both chose to spend their entire summer hanging out with me on a hot roof, learning about construction and Jesus. Halfway through the summer, Cameron’s sister, Telera, joined our ranks as well.

It was nothing short of astounding to see these three kids grow and mature over the two months we spent together. They went from being shy and petrified of the roof to being bold and regular roofing champs. Working alongside them taught me a whole lot of patience, but far above all, it taught me that hope, faith and prayer can truly transform hearts, lives, and with persistence, neighborhoods. Though I felt like my role this summer was to teach, the lessons these kids and the neighborhood taught me far outweighed anything I could have offered them.

—–

Tomorrow I will be packing up and leaving the SOS community and Binghampton family for a time. It’s so tempting to wallow in how much I am going to miss these wonderful people who were so beautifully put into my life this summer. But I know I am called instead to great excitement and joy in being able to take all the lessons I’ve learned from Memphis into the great unknown. From Mr. Ross and Ms. Sharon, I’ve learned how to look for ways to serve everyday in the small things, and how to do so with a humble heart. From Mr. Isaiah, I’ve learned love for others does not and should not fade. From those three crazy, amazing neighborhood kids, I’ve learned there is no worldly cycle too strong to be broken. I’ve learned to hope and rejoice in the small victories.

This summer I’ve seen a few people, empowered in light, transform neighborhoods. Our summer staff – more than 40 strong – will disperse into the world, leaving but not forgetting this place that is now a part of us. How exciting is it that we now get to take these lessons to other people and to other places? How incredible it will be to see how the world is transformed.

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