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 woke up this morning, and Rivaz still insists on sparkling under dark and foreboding clouds.  But nothing could keep us from our plans to visit Lausanne, one of the most famously beautiful cities in western Switzerland.  And sure, the beauty is important.  But what was our first stop in this Swiss city?  Why, a chocolate shop, of course!  Durig Chocolatier, to be precise.

My obsession with chocolate has known no limits, and this past November, I even paid the $50 admission charge to attend New York City’s Annual Chocolate Show in one of the enormous pavilions on the Hudson.  (Trembling from all the caffeinated truffle samples, I made the incalculable mistake of grabbing a sushi dinner with a stomach full of chocolate!)  But I had it on good authority that Durig was Switzerland’s most amazing chocolate shop, so I took hearty advantage of this opportunity to sample, savor, and devour.  The kind chocolatier, whom I affectionately called Willie Wonka, even allowed us to have a glimpse into the world of his chocolate-making factory, demonstrating how the truffles are made and packaged.  Had I not been married already, I might have proposed…

We walked through the wind and rain, hiking our way toward the stunning cathedral on the hill.  By now, I’ve seen so many cathedrals that it can be difficult to arouse much awe.  But what this particular church has going for it, in my opinion, is the incredible view that worshippers can enjoy on their way in and out of the church.  It is as though there is a continuation of the presence of holiness, from the internal space to the external creation.  It says a lot about a city when it can be perfectly cold and wet outside, and yet, the city still resonates with one’s idea of what constitutes beauty.  While I may not have seen the city sparkling under the sun, I certainly agree that Lausanne deserves its reputation.  It is one of those places that I’d be intrigued to visit again.  And again.

Switzerland!  Whatta place!  I can feel the neutrality seeping into my bones, and the clock-shops and Swiss banks serve as an ever-present reminder that this is a place protective of its time and money.  No wonder they stay out of the warpath.

Rick Steves says that Geneva is worth skipping on a trip through Switzerland, and I’m trying to figure out why.  Rick probably doesn’t have the interest in Reformation history that a group like ours does, but he does tend to have his finger on the pulse of what makes a European excursion worthwhile.  Still, it’s 2009, and this year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin (Jean, as he would have preferred).  We celebrated with a trip to his church in the center of the old town.

It was eerie, walking around a place that was so central not only to history, but also to an entire way of thinking and of believing that has trickled down through the centuries and landed itself in my own mind and heart.  I’m no expert, but I would guess that Calvin is an incredibly misunderstood figure in history.  What passes for “Calvinism” might not actually be reflective of his own theology.  My favorite story we learned about him was that this very church used to have an exquisite pipe organ, but during Calvin’s time, as people were fleeing persecution because of the violence brought about by the Reformation and were flocking to Geneva, Pastor John Calvin made the decision to melt down the pipes of the organ in order to use the metal for bowls and utensils so that the people might be suitably fed.  This certainly presents a different picture of the man so often associated with systems of severe doctrines.

When I think of the connection that Switzerland has had with so many influential thinkers in the Christian tradition– Calvin, Brother Roger, Karl Barth– I can’t help but wonder if there is something in the alpine air here that inspires people to think beyond themselves.

Whatever it is, I hope I get a whiff of it…

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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Today has been a pretty incredible day at Taizé, and, while my American friends ventured to town in order to find a restaurant, I stayed behind and was rewarded with some of the most thought-provoking and wonderful conversations.

After lunch, I sat in a circle with Julia, Eva, Dorota, and Kristina (German, Austrian, Polish, and German, respectively), and we talked about our difficulties with our mothers, with ourselves, and with God.  It was amazing to hear each of these young women– with various degrees of fluency in English– articulate some of the same struggles that I have had my whole life.  How do we make our mothers proud?  How do we get a sense of who we are supposed to be?  How can we believe in God in a day and age of such violence and suffering around the world?  It was remarkable, and I was overwhelmed with a feeling that maybe– just maybe— the experience of Taizé is not supposed to be an individualized spiritual quest.  Instead, maybe it is the very communality, the very togetherness of our being here that tells us something about who we are and who God is.

I have always wanted to have friends all over the world– and not just American friends who relocate.  I want German friends and French friends and Polish friends and Russian friends.  I want Korean friends and Australian friends and Iraqi friends.  And here, in this small space in this rural place in France, I have, miraculously, made such friends.  And indeed, it is life-changing.

I am still astonished by the fact that these young people come here.  We pray together, we eat together, we work together, we sleep together.  And, somehow, mysteriously, God is at work in it all.  God prays with us, eats with us, works with us, sleeps with us.  God gives us space to be here.  Our pilgrim God who has journeyed to us has made the space for us to journey to God.  I find this amazing, and I watch as the young people are drawn here.

Somehow, I get to be a little part of this story.  God’s story.  Taizé’s story.  My story is somehow a part– maybe even an important part– of the story, at least, insofar as my story intersects and intertwines with others’.

Remarkable.  Humbling.