Today is the other day that I knew would eventually come, but I didn’t expect to feel quite the way I do as I sit in my window seat and look at the Swiss countryside fading beneath me.

This is the end of the first of three trips I will make to Europe over the next year.  But this is the only one that I have done largely on my own, without my husband or a particular traveling partner beside me.  I have chosen where to go when and with whom.  I have figured out train schedules and fares, restaurant menus and tips, and places to sleep and visit.  I have made friends with Germans and French people, Spaniards and Swiss.  And I leave this Continent with more of a sense of self than I had when I first stepped foot here back in that warm April day in Barcelona.

I learned, for starters, about the sorts of things that irritate me, both about myself and about others.  Traveling brings out people’s rough edges, those things we can safely set to the side when we’re at home.  I learned that my edges revolve around my fears and loneliness.  If I feel lonely or isolated, I tend to get more quickly annoyed with others than I ordinarily would.  And if I feel afraid or threatened in any way, I have a hard time admitting it to others or dealing with the war that wages in my head over shoulds and shouldn’ts.

I went for a long walk last night by myself through the vineyards and paths of Rivaz and the surrounding Swiss villages.  I was indeed alone, but I felt like I was on a walk with the Creator of it all.  I took my time strolling around, watching the incredible sunset over the Alps reflecting its colors on the surface of the water.  I could feel my tired body getting more tired by the minute, but I pushed myself further and further.  If there’s anything that I have learned about myself, it’s that I can indeed be pushed to limits that I never would have approached before– I can survive narrowly being pick-pocketed, I can figure out how to get from one place to another (even in a language I don’t speak!), I can power hike up a mountain to enjoy a quick but life-giving view, I can not let a rainy day ruin my enjoyment of beauty.

After this flight lands in Newark, I’ll be greeted by my husband who has been busy packing the belongings we’ve accumulated over the past three years of marriage.  In three days, we will both graduate as Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.  And in a week, we’ll be turning over the keys to our apartment– the only home we’ve known together– as we embark on the next adventures laid out before us.  Peter will be traveling to Israel and Palestine.  He’ll then travel to Germany, where, in one month, I will meet him for another month of travel.  I am eager to return to the U.S., where my husband and family call home, but I know that I leave a piece of my heart behind in Europe.  I hope that I can find it when I return.

Until then…

Adventure seeker on an empty street

Just an alley creeper, light on his feet

A young fighter screaming, with no time for doubt

With the pain and anger can’t see a way out

It ain’t much I’m asking, I heard him say

Gotta find me a future move out of my way

I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now…

I am leaving Taizé today, and after a full week of being here, I think I finally “get” what is so special about this place.

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This community was started by a Swiss immigrant to France named Brother Roger.  He chose this location precisely because of its poverty and isolation, and, in the middle of World War II, he felt that he wanted to live among people who were being directly affected by the violence.  He wanted to be a presence of peace and reconciliation in a troubled place.

It’s hard to imagine such a picturesque place being disturbed by war and sadness.  And yet, decades after Brother Roger founded this community, violence erupted once again, reminding all who gather here that violence is not some abstraction that we can shelve and ignore.  The fact is that the seeds of violence and sin and despair lie within us all.

In 2005, Brother Roger was murdered– stabbed to death by a mentally-ill woman who had wandered into the Church of Reconciliation (the centerpiece of Taizé) during an evening prayer service, crossed into the Choir, and attacked Brother Roger, killing him almost instantly.

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The community did not react with violence or anger.  Instead, the community continued to exist as it always has, as a witnessing community where peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness (even in the face of murder) are at the core of every action, every word, and every intention of the community.

The spirit of hospitality that welcomes young people to gather and pray with the brothers day after day is the same spirit that allows for young people to welcome others from different countries, cultures, and languages into their own hearts and lives.

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It’s funny:  I was physically and emotionally uncomfortable for most of my time at Taizé.  But, having had this experience, I am forever changed.

And I can’t wait to go back.

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Taizé: Take Two

06.05.09

My partner in silence-keeping is a quiet German girl named Julia (pronounced Yoolia).  She is sweet, but she does not think she speaks English well so she does not speak much at all.  I can’t help but feel embarrassed that I am so uni-lingual.  I know Spanish pretty well, I can vaguely remember some Italian from college, but, for the most part, I’m useless over here.  I have fallen head-over-heels in love with French, but, contrary to my expectation, English and German are the languages I am hearing most here in Taizé.

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But Julia and I communicate very well when she opens up– it just takes a little bit of patience.  Patience, I’ve got.  I have to have it while traveling and being here or else I’d go insane.  But, I am still struggling.  This place is exactly what I was told it would be, but it is still nothing like I imagined… sort of like marriage.  I want to BE here, I want to make friends and have good conversation with people from around the world.  BUT!  I also just want to hit the road and get back out there on my own, having the grand adventure I was having just a week ago.  I want to be sleeping well and eating good food.  I want my wine to come in a glass cup with a stem.  I want more coffee and less bread.  And I want some Claritin.  I want, I want, I want…

But, I have what I need, I suppose.  I have a lunch sitting in my stomach (albeit not one I care to write about), I have a bed to lie on, water to drink, people to talk to, a place to pray, clothes to wear.  It is so difficult to be satisfied with these things.  It is difficult to do my work here– sitting in a cold, damp, bee-infested field, telling teenagers to keep their shirts on their backs, their hands to themselves, and their voices down.  It is difficult not to be frustrated when I can’t understand other people.  It is difficult to settle myself long enough to pray, to think, to reflect.

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So, here I am at Taizé.  I thought it would be a life-altering experience, and, I suppose it still has that potential, but it is all so other.  It is not idyllic.  It is a real place with real people, and that always poses real problems.  And real joys.

Some realities:

– I am getting to know so many people– Polish, Russian, German, Lithuanian, French, Argentinian, Swiss, Italian, Dutch, etc.  Americans here are rare, but not totally non-existent.

– Today, Elizabeth (the red-headed German) said that she thought I was like “sunshine.”  I cannot say how good that made me feel, how kind that was to hear.

– In many ways, I think I am still learning how to love myself.  I think this is ok.

– I can’t help but wonder what people do here if they do not believe in God and if they do not pray or meditate?  What brings them here?  What brings any of us here?

Looney Cluny

02.05.09

So, I am no longer the solo traveler, and I feel pretty ambivalent about that.  On the one hand, it’s nice to be reunited with some friends from home.  On the other hand, I sure loved traveling alone.  I had no idea it would be such an invigorating experience, that I would learn so much, and that I would be able to keep myself company, all the while making friends along the way.  I am truly filled with gratitude for the journey so far.

But phase two of my trip is upon me: I have met up with a group from back home in order for us to travel together to Taizé, France.  And, in preparation for that experience, we have arrived in Cluny, a picturesque French town that is haunted with Christian history.  During the Middle Ages, it was the site of an enormous monastery, the largest Christian building in the world until St. Peter’s Basilica was built in Rome.  But during the French Revolution, the building was nearly entirely demolished, and visitors of the town can wander around the ruins and wonder at the enormity of the structure that used to exist.

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When I arrived yesterday after a harrowing train-bus-hike adventure, I checked into the beautiful hotel (thankfully, knowing I wasn’t footing the bill!) and took a luxurious shower in my hotel room, one of those showers that feels like a wall of water rushing over your body.  But of course, the SECOND I turned off the water, the phone rang.  My group was here to meet me.  I rushed to get ready (after figuring out how to turn off the automatic hair dryer!), and I went downstairs to greet everyone, happy to play the quasi-French hostess for the rest of the day.

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A few members of the group went to catch up on some jet-lag sleep, but the adventurous ones came along with me to explore the ruins and make the all-important patisserie run.  I don’t think I can ever look at food the same way after making this trip through France.  Patisserie, boulengerie, cafe, or restaurant– the French have a way of making even the simplest of fare into works of art!  A croissant?  Voilà, on a plate of fine china with a paper-lace doily beneath it.  A cup of coffee?  Voilà, in a fragile cup with a saucer, a cookie, a mini-pitcher for cream, and a delicate spoon for blending.  Even a simple breakfast is an indulgent experience: grapefruit, brie, ham, cheese, oranges, bread, jam, honey, croissants, coffee, tea, prunes, and elegance to boot!

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It really is the small stuff in life that matters, the details that make all the difference.  We kid ourselves thinking that we must have only that which is grandiose or large-scale.  We look to celebrity culture as something toward which to aspire.

If only we’d open our eyes to the beauty of simplicity…

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Learned from Carcassonne:

– Let your history be haunting; illuminate it at night; let your hair stand on end as you hear whispers in dark corners…

– Let fat stay on the meat; the flavor is intoxicating.

– Be bold!  Make friends on the road! (People make wonderful companions…)

– Walk in the rain, even if it’s cold; don’t miss out on any experience because of “bad weather.”  There is no bad weather, only bad attitudes.

– Drink rose wine and eat good cheese.  Presentation of food is key.

– Some people are still really upset with the USA.  (Sidenote: Racism is not a uniquely American phenomenon).

– Drink everything in wine glasses.

Learned from Arles:

– A whistle is intended as a compliment.  Take it in stride.

– Be grateful always for your own bed, your own sink, your own shower, and — vitally — your own toilet!

– The French sure love their carbohydrates in the morning.  Tread lightly.

– Sometimes you end up at your destination by getting lost first.  And that’s ok.

– A dinner for one is not at all a lonely thing.  Eat alone more.  And eat well.

– Learn more about Van Gogh.  You might be soulmates.

– Get drunk on color.  Watch the light dance around you.  Marvel, and take pictures.

Learned from Avignon:

– Allow some time to become friends with a new place.  You always do.

– Your body can handle more than you think it can: walk, climb, push yourself!  You are sore everywhere, but you feel SO good.

– Views from on high are spectacular.  See them more.

– If the opportunity arises to live in a castle, you should really take it.  Even if you are a part of the clergy.

– People-watching is a cultural-immersion experience.  Partake liberally.

– Ask for help when you need it.  Don’t judge people based on how they look.

– Say “voilà!” more.

– Riding buses can be humbling.  Ride buses more.

Learned from Vaison la Romaine:

– Funky hotels are the greatest thing.  Always try to get a room with a view.

– Sometimes the journey is more difficult than the destination is worth.  Although, sometimes, they are about the same.

– Go to bed early.  And sleep.

– A boulengerie is a bakery.  It does not serve coffee.

– A quick jolt of caffeine can be all you need.  Then, start to hike.  All the good views are from on high.