Self-control abandons ship.


If I ever had the ability to say “no” to a cup of coffee, it’s gone now.

It’s so gone that even though my flatmate made coffee and left some for me (probably two little mug-fulls), I still made more after I drank that. Just because it’s Saturday and I have a lot of reading to do today. The coffee is always good here. Always. Julius Meinl, will you marry me? Oh wait, you’re dead. (If you want further proof that God is good, click that link to wikipedia, and you’ll notice that Julius Meinl coffee shops are in Austria… and there are three in the USA, all on the North Side of Chicago)

I’m slowly losing the ability to say no to cookies (keks) and waffeln now. In America, those little wafer cookies are not that tasty. They’re pretty good when you dip them in chocolate (what isn’t good with chocolate?), but otherwise, they aren’t that spectacular. Enter: Manner waffeln.

My team won the Ernest Hemingway trivia game yesterday in my first Hemingway seminar (which is the coolest class in the world, might I add, full of people who want to explore literature deeply), and this was our prize. We got a bag of the Schoko-Caramel Törtchen and a bag of little Spar brand Mounds. Since it was Friday and our class had already gone 15 minutes over, half of our team left without even looking at the prize twice (makes no sense. You have to stay late to win a game, which the prize is fabulous for, but then you don’t stay to get your share? people are crazy), so we divided up the candy by throwing it to people as they walked down the stairs. Then we started eating the Manner waffeln as we walked off campus.

Melt in your mouth is such an overused phrase, but my goodness. These really do. So much so that you seem to forget how many you’ve had. My fellow winners and I marveled at them as we walked, and after we’d eaten about four, one of them says to me, “Here, you take the bag home. You’ll enjoy them.”

I was floored. One, is it a compliment when someone can tell that you’ll enjoy having a bag of cookies all to yourself? Two, these were amazing, and his kindness to give them to me was unprecedented. Few people are so kind. I consider giving food the highest form of love and appreciation. The girl from Bosnia agreed, “yeah, just let me grab another, and you take them.”

I was touched. Perhaps a little too touched since not everyone considers food the highest expression of love, but I gratefully and with gushing took the bag home with me.

I have had to put it on a high shelf to keep myself from eating the whole thing before the weekend is out.

I will learn how to enjoy all the delightful cuisine of Austria (because I didn’t even mention all the bread and amazing dairy products and fruit and pizza) in a moderated way… perhaps but July 5th.

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Go before.


There’s something to be said for asking God to go before you to a new place. What does a person who goes before you do? He scopes it out. He finds you a group of Christian students that you can meet with on a Thursday night in March and feel so at home that you want to come back. He finds you coffee shops all over the place and prompts you to go buy a cappuccino when you arrive over there… over there are the good ones.

He picks the right dorm with the nice flatmates and the wonderful friend upstairs who helps you so much and has a soul much like yours. He makes you run into the right people at orientation so that you can be friends and shoves nice Canadians and French people into your path at lecture so that you’ll have even more friends.

He provides sunny days when you need it most and a bicycle that you are allowed to use when the key to the bike lock is on the shelf. He makes sure that there are lots of parks in the area and that there is a Hofer (Aldi) close to you so that you can save money on groceries.

He makes the laundry free and puts you in classes with nice people who actually like literature.

He makes sure that you don’t miss all the amazing Austrian treats (like you would ever miss those).

He actually went farther than you expected and planned out your next semester in Chicago for you. Oh yeah, the classes weren’t going to be enough for a semester, so how about an internship? Oh, and here’s a perfect place to apply. Have at it.

Goodness. God is a good trip planner. He’s also a great companion, if I do say so myself. Here, have a Manner cookie, Jesus. You deserve it. It’s the least I can do. No, really. Have one.

I’m feeling taken care of today. On my own in a foreign country, but I’m taken care of.

Beautiful German?


You’ve probably seen that video on Youtube that highlights how much scarier German is than other languages. True: German does have some harsh sounds in it. Also true: that guy doing the German phrases has got some scary problems of his own.

I’ve encountered a lot of people here that do, in fact, sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger (who is from a town quite close to here). I’ve also encountered a lot of mumblers. I’m sorry, was? was? was? I don’t speak German… much less unintelligible German. I’m working on it though. Duolingo works wonders.

I expected to start to hate German after a while, and there are certainly some days where I long for English all around me. Oh, the beauty of understanding everything everyone is saying! I suppose I’m just taking a break from eavesdropping for a few months. But I don’t hate German. I’m quite surprised by this.

It’s mostly because of people like my ballet teacher, who speaks so beautifully that I imagine bubbles or glitter floating out from her mouth when she speaks. Sure, she’s infusing French ballet terms into her speech, but she makes German sound graceful and lovely. She’s redeemed the language for me.

In other news, it’s hard to learn ballet in German when you don’t really know German. I’m learning counting very well though. I think I can go from eight down without even thinking about it. First, second, third, fourth, fifth, these are all in my vocabulary now.

Also, ballet is just about the funnest thing I’ve ever paid 26 euros for. The only other thing I’ve paid 26 euros for would be groceries, so maybe they’re a tie. Either way, there’s something enjoyable about trying to be graceful while keeping your balance.

So that’s my day in a nutshell, realizing that German isn’t so ugly. Also I ate four cookies. No shame.

Green and blessing


Green has been calling me for quite some time. The emeralds and limes and olives, the natural hues and the natural hues woven into garments. My closet is turning green, and the world is turning green again.

Spring is a time to revel in the green that we’ve found again after such a long time apart. I sat on the chilly ground outside the main building on campus yesterday for as long as I had time. The ground isn’t thawed out yet, and it was hard and cold under me, but the sun poured warmth down onto my arms and face, so cold ground wasn’t a big deal.

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We all sat there, every one who had the time. No one seemed concerned with having grass stains or dirt on their behinds when they stood. No, they were content to sit and soak and lean against their backpack or tree or friend.

I felt pretty foreign as I sat there, hearing “Ja” and “Danke” and all the longer phrases to which those responded. But the sunshine was a unifier. We all sat or lay there as long as we could, waiting for class or dusk or a hand up or an invitation to dinner.

Then today I flew to campus on the rusty bike, feeling the wind on my face and that burn in my legs (I’m telling you, if I don’t come back to the US with the most toned legs I’ve ever had, then I will have no explanation for all this soreness). I felt like the most picturesque faux-European in my black peasant dress and long, dusty rose sweater. To be perfect, the picture only needs a basket on the front full of fresh flowers and a bell that actually works.

Completely here and completely wishing to have all that is familiar with the foreign. Amazing how you can want both. I suppose this is one of those times that people would say, “you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.”

Or in my case, “You can’t stay home and leave at the same time.”

So duh. So true.

Either way, no matter how much I miss my people and not having to ration my American peanut butter and speaking in English and my church, I’m so happy to be here. Yesterday, Jesus and I were walking home from class, and I felt like I needed to tell him that I was disappointed with something. I felt him reply, But look at this and this and this… I know that was disappointing, but what about that? Yeah? Didn’t I do good with that one? and that one? 

And I had to give Him credit and praise, because it’s wonderful, and I am so blessed.

Love and pancakes.


Austria is not America. And I bake a lot in America. I was hoping to bring that habit here, but then I got scared because the flour’s different, there’s only one word in German for baking powder and baking soda – like they’re interchangeable, but they’re not -, and I heard horror stories about rock solid cookies or flat cake online.

So, naturally, I bought baking supplies a week ago and let them sit on my shelf while I gathered up the courage to try to make something.

Finally, this morning, I mustered up all my courage and did this:

Makin’ banana pancakes, pretend like it’s the weekend. 

It did feel like the weekend because my dad often gets fancy with breakfast on Saturdays or Sundays. And I don’t have class on Mondays, which made the day even more weekend-ish. Throw in a dash of sunshine and about 3 cups of coffee, and you have a truly lovely morning.

Then add in Beth Moore on Youtube, and it gets better. Really, God bless the creators of Youtube and the user who puts these videos up. It’s hard to not have a church here (well at least, not an English-speaking church), so having someone preach at me in a Southern accent for twenty minutes is soothing.

I watched the end of the video called “The Alabaster Box” today, where Beth is talking about Jesus’ response to the Pharisee when he criticizes the woman who pours perfume on Jesus’ feet. “Simon, I gotta story for you: Pretend that there are two people who owe a debt. One of the debts is big, and the other is small. The person they owe the debt to forgives both debts. Which one of those people is going to love the guy more?”

And she goes on to talk about how it’s not really that one has a bigger debt and one has a smaller debt, it’s that one of them realizes the enormity of their debt and the other does not. Neither of them can pay it, so it’s too big, regardless of dollar amount.

So, of course, I started thinking, well, what was my debt like?

I’ve thought about this before, how my testimony of life before Christ wasn’t a life without Christ, it was just a life that wasn’t about Him. It was a life in church and in a Christian school where God just kept reeling in me closer over time. It’s not that dramatic. But the freedom is. Maybe it was a small debt if you count some sins bigger than others or count the years without Jesus since I haven’t lived long enough to total very many, but it was still a debt I couldn’t pay and freedom I couldn’t grant myself.

I suppose it doesn’t matter what you’re in for if you’re in jail, does it? If you don’t have the key, what good does it matter if it was petty theft or serial killings? If you know you can’t set yourself free and someone comes along who can, well, doesn’t that make them the primary object of your affection? Doesn’t it make you want to throw yourself at their feet and clean their house from top to bottom and bake them triple chocolate brownies and spend hours and hours just listening to them speak?

Shouldn’t it?

Habit hike.


I’m pretty sure that I started a post in my head earlier today, before my three cups of coffee wore off, but now I haven’t the faintest idea what it was about. Hopefully it wasn’t the start of a Freshly Pressed post.

Since we last talked, Graz had another beautiful day of sunny weather, which I celebrated by going for a hike with my friend up to the ruins of a castle built in the 11th century.

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There’s something so fascinating about old stuff. When I was in the castle, I was mostly preoccupied with taking pictures of all of it and making sure I didn’t miss any good views, but now I’m wondering about all the people who lived there til it was struck by lightning and burned down.

What’s it like to live in a castle on top of a tall hill?

Lonely? Exhilarating? Cold? Beautiful? How do you get your food? Do people come to see you? What do you do with your life?

What am I doing with my life?

Since I’ve only had one class so far, I’ve basically just been walking, seeing, taking pictures, cooking, and eating. Primary emphasis on the cooking and eating. I’m not sure what being hungry feels like anymore – and I know I need to scale back. I think my new philosophy will be “If I don’t buy it, I can’t eat it.” And I won’t resort to theft.

I’ve also journaled every single day. This is unprecedented in my life. Are you surprised? Don’t be. I may be able to blog consistently now, but it was hard enough to me to succeed at doing that on a regular basis. Something about wondering if someone was going to find my journal someday and publish it (how many of you have wondered the same thing? Anne Frank, you’ve set a precedent…) kept me from being able to be honest in there – and thus made me not want to journal. If you can’t be honest, what’s the point?

After I started counseling last semester, I got over wondering if someone was going to find it. It became too vital to write down all the things I was feeling and working through. There was no other way for me to set these issues aside. I had to process them in writing.

Now that I’ve learned that I need to process by writing (and now that I have so much to process – so many new feelings and old feelings in new places and new experiences and old experiences in new places), I’ve clung to my journal each morning like it holds all the answers. In reality, it holds no answers, no words til I write. Really, it’s just the place where I can stop my thought cycle.

There’s something to going somewhere new to start something new. I’m in a new place, starting new habits, and beginning a new chapter.

 

Content with spring


Today was just beautiful. Oh, can I just say how happy I am to have escaped at least a couple months of Midwestern winter?

IMG_20140308_145311 IMG_20140308_145322My favorite street: Sporgasse, shining in the sunlight. Don’t let that guy’s down vest fool you; it was a gorgeous day. 57 degrees with nothing cumulus, cirrus, or stratus in sight.

Oh. That was my word today. I just kept saying it to myself. Oh. oh. Oh, happy day.

I had my windows open all day, letting sunlight and fresh, spring air float in. I keep saying that Austria is the best place to be homesick from, and today was a good example of that. I always miss my family, and I see things all the time that I wish I could share with all the people who aren’t here. But there’s sunshine and good food to try and sunny, cobblestone streets calling my name.

I went “downton” with the intent to find deodorant at Bipa (I know, about as exciting as it gets) and ended up finding great souvenirs, some for my family and friends, some for me. Gift giving is part of the way I love people best, so I almost felt like I was with the people I bought something for. I’m starting a shelf in my closet for souvenirs. I may have to leave half of my wardrobe here in order to take them home, but that’s okay. I work in retail. I can replace my clothes.

Also, in case you’re wondering, I did find that deodorant, too. No worries.

Spring is such a beautiful thing. We have beautiful days and don’t have to sigh that they’re going to leave soon. There’s the promise of more to come, even better ones. Emerson was so right in saying that nature reflects the human soul. It’s spring for us, too.

 

Bells and echoes.


The church bell rings every fifteen minutes here, a tradition carried on from the time of no watches or cell phones to check the time. It rings out and echoes into the quietly busy city, the sound waves rushing along cobblestones and bouncing off stucco buildings.

Do words ever ring like that for you? Bouncing through the synapses in your brain, thunking against one side of your skull and then the other?

I didn’t volunteer to read much in my creative writing class this past semester because I didn’t know how to share something I wasn’t sure was good – not just good but good in a new and exciting way. The whole semester was a struggle against self-doubt, an attempt to muster the confidence I’d felt at some point in my life… when was that? what did it feel like?

But there are words that ring in my ears to combat the doubts.

I sat in class like every other day, not volunteering to read what I’d just scrawled out in the five minutes we were given for an exercise. My professor asked for volunteers as always, only picking people if no one offered. I made unfortunate eye contact with her at that moment – only unfortunate because everyone knows if you make eye contact when the professor is  asking for volunteers, you’ve just volunteered.

“Ashley, will you read yours?”

“Oh, did I just volunteer myself?” slight laugh, slight blush, stirring in my seat to pick up my piece of paper sheepishly and read what I’d written.

“No… I just know you’re a woman of courage.” She said it like she was sure, with a friendly expression that almost put me to shame for not wanting to volunteer in the first place. Maybe it was she who had the courage.

I don’t remember what I read or what the reaction was (but it wasn’t tomato throwing or intense booing, which is always an encouragement), but I remember those words.

They echoed in my head.

On days where I didn’t think I could get up because getting up meant living and walking and moving and talking… and feeling. On days where my breathing is constricted and there’s something sitting on my heart that makes it beat more frantically. On days where newness causes wide eyes and frozen facial features and tight abdominal muscles.

I hear that over and over woman of courage… You’re a woman of courage. I know you’re a woman of courage. I know you’re a woman of courage.

I’m sure she has no idea how those words have buoyed me, how they’ve bounced around in my brain, reminding me of something I’m not always convinced of. Perhaps, in this case, someone else believing it (or saying they do) and hearing it over and over again has made it true of me. Perhaps, in this case, I have been courageous because someone told me I already was.

Ballet beginnings.


I started ballet today.

In my mind, this is how it was going to go:

Girl in pink leotard with matching pink tights throws a long, slouchy sweater over her outfit, slings her ballet shoes over her shoulder, and rides her bikes gracefully to a beautiful ballet studio where she points her toes and holds her hands just-so. Her perfect bun on the top of her head moveth not, and her face remains placid and serene.

Right.

So in actuality, I wore purple running shorts and a yellow t-shirt with a gigantic record that says “Jon Foreman” on it to my first ballet lesson. I got on the rusty-rusty bike and pedaled hard all the way there (getting past by other cyclists all the time). Since it was only 48 or so degrees out (but sunny), I got a lot of strange looks from my fellow cyclists… who were wearing down coats and hats.

It wasn’t a classy start, but who says you have to always look the part?

Next time, I’ll wear leggings.

Anyways, the lesson (despite being in German for the most part) was everything I dreamed it to be. My skills, grace, and flexibility are lacking and not very exciting, so we can just talk about how no one else is good at ballet in my class, either. Hooray for boating together.

We pointed our toes and our pointer fingers. We jetéd and pliéd and held onto the ballet bar. It was beautiful. And hard. And I have a feeling I’m going to be sore tomorrow. We also stretched… Ah. Splits. They do not happen naturally.

I treated myself to grocery shopping afterwards because it’s my guilty pleasure. Of course, I had to walk there through the cemetery, but oh well. What’s another 40 minutes of walking after 30 of biking and an hour and a half of ballet? Let’s just be active and then eat ALL the calories we can.

Then, when I got home, there was a package waiting for me at my friend’s apartment (sometimes my mail gets delivered there by a strange happenstance), and lo and behold, it was the birthday package from my parents, complete with LIQUID VANILLA (two bottles, which should last for a couple months), NORMAL CINNAMON, and GARLIC SALT (from Penzey’s).

Oh, be still, my heart.

I can hardly wait to wake up and make French toast with the vanilla and cinnamon. Oh, the joys of eating.

Flying rust bucket


Without any question, my superpower of choice is flight. I can do invisibility pretty well on my own, and super strength just isn’t appealing. When am I going to need to lift a car?

No, I want to fly.

And I sort of did today.

My flatmates have an extra bicycle that we all share. If the key to the bike lock is on the shelf, the bike is up for grabs. So, I grabbed it today. The bicycle is old. The chain is pretty well rusted, and the shelf on the back wheel doesn’t stay in place, so it makes a rattling noise when you pedal. It changes gears all by itself sometimes, and you have to hold the lever for a while to get the bike to recognize that you want to gear down or up. You can only use one of the hand brakes because the front post is sort of loose… so I just use the back brake.

In spite of the difficulties, the bike has wheels that turn. So I flew on it today through the streets of Graz, in traffic and in quiet streets, through intersections and crosswalks. It felt exactly like I thought it would: smile inducing, heart lightening, hair blowing. Somehow, this bike really gives your legs a workout, whether it’s changing to a lower gear while you’re trying to go uphill or just making you pedal a lot harder then usual on flat ground.

My legs shook when I walked downstairs to the laundry room. Yep, that was my workout for today. Faster than walking, cheaper than the tram (actually, infinitely cheaper… it’s free). Yes, I like this bike.

It’s a little rust bucket that takes more out of you than it should, but I like it. Thanks to a workshop I did for a class last year, I know how to take the wheel off and patch the tire if need be. Unfortunately, that’s not one of the issues we’ve got. Still, the rust bucket flies.

Not getting hit by a car or hitting a pedestrian was one of my small victories for the day. That and successfully buying postcards and stamps (using my meager but growing German skills).

On to an Ash Wednesday service.