Sunday, November 30, 2008

An American Thanksgiving in the Czech Republic

So here's a little photo montage of us in Prague at Starbucks and in the snow, followed by our celebration of Thanksgiving Feast yesterday at Caleb and Iva's. Enjoy!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Speaking of Vienna...

Okay, so it's finally time for me to actually post about my birthday weekend. I've kind of said a little bit about a few of the things that we did, but I wanted to fill in a few more details, and also add a few more pictures. So we started out on Friday going to the Belvedere which is where we saw the really incredible Klimt exhibit. Before we went into the exhibit we walked around and checked out the palace, originally built for one of the kings of the Hapsburg Dynasty just because he wanted it. The view was really impressive and the photo taking really started there.

Rachel and I just couldn't help bringing back the Hong Kong pose. It's sort of in our blood after so much time spent there. I don't do it so often when taking photos here. People tend to sort of look at me like I've lost my mind if I do, but given the right company it just comes back to me as being the most natural thing in the world.
When we were leaving the art exhibit I saw this lady sitting near one of the statues and she just struck me. I sort of stood so that it looked like I was taking a picture of the statues, but I had to capture her, with all her contempt for the sun and the laws that would generally make people think they shouldn't sit behind the chain...
We continued our trip around the city, heading next for the amazing Schonbrun Park. The name means beautiful fountains, and we were very impressed by both the fountains, as well as the views and all the beautiful walkways. Within this park is also the first ever zoo, begun by Maria Tereza who wanted to be able to look at exotic animals, and therefore exotic animals were brought for her entertainment.

I won't guarantee that the photos are going to go in the way I ordered them, so I won't say which one is which, but one of these shows the amazing view down over the city of Vienna, and the one of the woman and the cornucopia is part of the amazing and enormous fountain in Schonbrun.
Next we made our way to the Christmas Market or Cristkindlesmarkt. It was set up in front of the Rathaus which is the city hall. Rebecca thinks it resembles Hogwarts from Harry Potter, and Rachel and I agreed that it was a very impressive building. They have the windows set up to be a massive advent calendar. Since it still wasn't December yet, we didn't get to see any of the windows open, but I can only imagine that it's very impressive.

After the Christmas market we went and did a little shopping. For a while I've been feeling like it might be time for me to start growing up. I mean, I was standing there, poised on the edge of my twenties, and it just seemed like the time to do something new and different and age appropriate. So, I went a little crazy, blessed by a 5o% off sale, and I bought a big girl coat. It's really quite beautiful, and just seemed like the thing to do. So after we took a break at the hotel, we dressed up and headed out to the Symphony, all dressed up and looking like we belonged there.

I have to say it was pretty amazing to experience the Vienna Symphony. I'm not generally the biggest fan of classical music. I mean, I don't usually pop it into my CD player and listen. Dad has always been a big fan, and every time I would get into a car after he'd been driving I'd have to change the channel on the radio, because to me, putting on a classical radio station is just like asking to be put to sleep. But being there in the beautiful concert hall really added something to the evening. The music was magical and moving. All the same, after the first set, we decided that if we stood there any longer we'd be asleep on our feet. So we moved on to a cafe (which is what you're supposed to do in Vienna) and had a bit to eat and something to drink before calling it an evening and crashing back at the hotel.

For some reason the pictures are loading really slowly today, so hopefully I'll be able to add them in. It's quite frustrating because I can only use my computer at Bartholomeus for one reason or another, so this is the only chance I have to put up pictures for a while. Really hope it works as this post would be rather boring without them.
On Sunday Rebecca took us to mass at St Stephan's Dom. I'd never been to a Catholic mass, and was rather entranced by the constant up and down of it. None of us really seemed to know exactly what we were doing, but we tried to keep up, and it kept us from falling asleep since most of it took place in German. The sense of ritual was fascinating to me. The formal costumes of the clergy, the swinging silver incense burner, oozing out scented smoke that rose to the amazing high ceilings of the ancient cathedral. I couldn't help but wonder about the people who have come here to worship over the centuries, or those whose sweat, blood, and tears went into the making of this incredible architectural gem.

From there we moved on to a small classic cafe. Cafe Leopold Hawelka, was established sometime in the 1940s. Rebecca gave us a nice little history, and we were fortunate enough to see the original Leopold, shrunken and hunched over in his bulky winter jacket and knitted blue hat, heading out to see the city. His son, who is now in charge of the business was the one who served us. Everything in the cafe is as it has always been. The ancient upholstery and tilted ceiling fans, the worn wood floors and walls engraved with the past of a people always passing through. It was amazing to find ourselves breathing the smokey air that has hung within the walls for decades. For a moment or two we really felt a part of this city. Starbucks just can't deliver that.

From there we took the underground out of the center of the city and headed to the outskirts where the Central Friedhof (cemetery) is located. This cemetery, built shortly after the death of Mozart, is the final resting place of the great Viennese composers Beethoven, Bach, Strauss, and Schubert. I must confess my amazement as I stood in the circle of their graves and thought of the old worn piano books of my youth. Sitting before my mother's beautiful piano, young and without any concept of where this music originated.

The cemetery was immense, and without Rebecca, our faithful guide, we would have seen little of any import, even if we were to meander for hours. She guided us well, and showed us some of her favorite spots. I was especially taken by a couple old women, tending to the graves of some distant person of import to their lives. The monument they were servicing was to police officers who lost their lives during the time that Hitler decided that Austria really ought to be his. We wandered around a large section of Russian graves as well, then made our way to the Jewish section from before the war. It's a miracle these crypts and stones were not destroyed, but remain to speak of a past of relative peace and community between a diverse group of Austrians.

After the cemetery we headed back to get some food and then we made our way to Hundertwasser House. This amazing piece of architecture really amazed me. I'd been told by some of my students that I really needed to visit it, so I was glad it was on Rebecca's list of places we really had to see. The man was a genius along the lines of Dr Seuss. His buildings are bright and colorful and they twist and turn in creative lines of fun and excitement. I could have spent a really long time there, but it was cold and getting late, so we wandered through artsy gift shops and used the Modern Art Bathroom, then headed back to the hotel.

We were only at the hotel for a moment or two before heading back out to the Christmas market to see how they looked at night. There is such a special feeling in the air at these markets. Something besides the rather insane cold. The scent of mulled wine, fresh bread, pine branches, roasted sausages and fried potatoes colors the air and fills everyone with a sense of holiday excitement. The crowds press and undulate around the stalls, and an organ grinder sent a musical tribute to the season out to all the people who had a moment to stop and listen. The colors were bright in the dark night, and I found myself dreaming of the season to come.

Tired and cold, we headed back to the hotel and I felt the immensity of the moment. It was the last night of my twenties. An era complete. It's been a decade of travel. I've been out of the US almost as much as I've been in it during the last ten years. I've stood in awe of the diversity God has seen fit to grace the world with. From ancient cathedrals to the most beautiful modern skylines this world has to offer. I've breathed in the smell of forests ancient and tropical, climbed icy peaks and basked in the sun of tropical coasts. Planes, trains, and various and sundry other automobiles have transported me over miles and miles and miles. On the train home from the Thanksgiving Retreat last weekend I was talking to Bill, one of our teachers, and it didn't take long for us to decide that I have definitely covered more than a million miles of country in my short lifetime. And there is so much more to come.
Tired, and possibly battling a fever, I came home on Monday and was greeted by the friends I've been blessed to have here in the Czech republic. They'd planned a taco dinner followed by drinks and dessert at Bartholomeus in our own private room. It was the perfect way to enter in a new decade with all the questions of the future and curiosities of a life well traveled.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Well, it's Thanksgiving morning in the Czech Republic. That's kind of a contradiction in terms seeing as how they don't actually celebrate Thanksgiving. But it's the morning of Thanksgiving and I'm in the Czech Republic, so somehow it all meshes together in my head.
It's strange the way holidays tend to dominate the way we think about days. Growing up in America I was so accustomed to just expecting certain days to be free from work. However, living in Hong Kong and the Czech Republic have shown me that having such expectations can be really detrimental to ones way of thinking. I will not be free from work today (or all week as some are stateside.) If I had the thought that today should be a day of rest, a day spent with family, I would no doubt be in despair. You see, today, I'll be working for ten hours. Not exactly a peaceful sort of thought.
But there is still much to be thankful for. I've given my daily students a Thanksgiving project, and if they manage to at least come close to the parameters I've set for them, I won't have to do a whole lot of teaching this morning. And Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to use fun activities in all my classes, and hopefully get people thinking about the things in life that really matter, the things they have to be thankful for.
I'm also thankful that, even though this can probably be seen as my second worst Thanksgiving, for the simple fact that I'll be working ALL day long, it can't even come close to my worst Thanksgiving. My second year in Hong Kong I ended up missing the big Thanksgiving party at Amy's house because I was in the hospital with a baby all evening. It took longer than my usual shift and I had no time to eat until I was on my way home. I stopped in the little 7-11 in the entry of Queen Mary Hospital and picked up a little bag of crispy noodles and a fanta. Not exactly an exciting Thanksgiving feast, but I was hungry and in a hurry. Unfortunately, about the time I got home I found myself feeling rather ill and ended up puking up aforementioned crispy noodles. Gotta say that was the worst Thanksgiving I've had.
Well, class will be starting here pretty quick so I ought to be going. I hope this Thanksgiving finds you thankful, whether you're in the ideal setting surrounded by family and food and fun activities, or far from normality working hard possibly in a foreign land. To live and breathe is enough to make one thankful...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On the go again, naturally

So I have a ton of photos from Vienna, and even a couple from my birthday, that I will be posting presently, but life in this republic never seems to slow down long enough for me to breathe. Tonight I'm heading out once again to Prague, and tomorrow morning I'll be on a train to Breclav, followed by a "coach" out past Hodonin for the ESI Thanksgiving Retreat. Generally I'd be really looking forward to this venture, especially as it means a short teaching week, but things are just extra hectic right now and I'm sick to boot. I started feeling a cold coming on early last week, and it made for a rather miserable train ride to Vienna. I managed to pull it together and had a great time running around the city, but since coming back to Cheb I've just been exhausted. Yesterday I taught for 8 hours to make up for the time I'll be missing tomorrow, and also had my Czech class, so I feel like I've only been home about an hour since returning from Vienna. I'll live, but I'd much rather be curling up in my bed than getting on a train around 8 this evening.
Enough of my complaining. I'm sure it'll be great to see all the crew from Central Europe. Wonder if there'll be any snow this year...
So I do promise some interesting catch up posts in the future, but for now I need to get home to pack and drink some hot citrus juice with honey to keep my boss happy:)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Running all over Vienna

Well, no pictures to post just yet, as I'm still out of Czech, but I'm having a great time here in Vienna. Rebecca had a huge agenda set up for us today, and we've really been taking it all in. Starting with a walk to the Belvedere Palace, we took in a fabulous display of art. Originally begun in 1908 to celebrate the monarchy, Gustav Klimt brought in the greatest artists of Austria at that time to join together in blend their diversity in a massive display of art. With people dressed in their cultural costumes for a three mile long parade and a complex set up with all sorts of different stages for art and even a cemetery, they came together to share their art with the world. 100 years later they've recreated much of the original displays, and we were able to wander around and take it all in. The most amazing section, naturally, was the Klimt room. They've recollected a number of his most famous works that were a part of the original room, and those they weren't able to get were replaced with black and white replicas. I was so taken with some of them, I could have just stood and stared for hours. But the tour must go on!
I could go on and on recalling the traipsing we did, but it will no doubt be a lot more interesting when I have pictures to go along with it. We weren't able to take pictures in the gallery anyway. Let's just say that by this point it's about 11:30 and I'm really ready to sink back in to bed.
We've got a full day ahead of us tomorrow and I can't wait to see what more this incredible city has to offer. It's also just great to be able to keep up Rachel and Rebecca. Who'd have thought I'd be hanging out with the Tennessee girls I met in Hong Kong in Vienna. Life's a crazy thing.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pause for Reflection

I love checking up on the blogs of my friends around the world. It's always so fascinating to get a glimpse into their lives, and I truly hope that people find something of interest or inspiration in the things that I write as well. It's difficult to keep everything up to date. Life happens. It comes in and carries me away. Without easy computer access in my house it's hard for me to find a time when I feel like spending extra time sitting in my office (like now) or when I want to spend extra money for a drink so I can sit in Bartholomeus. Life is full of distractions on a daily basis, so I certainly don't blame people for getting behind. All the same, when I check a site regularly for a couple weeks with no updates I tend to leave it be for a while. It's always interesting how those moments when I leave it be the person decides to suddenly write endlessly, or in the case of people like my friend Ann Ong, to do a month of posts. If I've suddenly gone a month without checking on her, I can suddenly find myself with a whole lotta reading to do.
The point of this little diatribe is that yesterday I discovered I'd let a blog sit a bit too long and had some serious catching up to do. Thursdays generally being long, I decided to enjoy a brief moment when I wasn't overly loaded with things to do to catch up on the life of Rebecca Smith. I'm going to be seeing her tomorrow in Vienna, and it's always best to do your homework before hanging out :) I always really enjoy reading her blogs when she's updating. She has so much to offer and share, and such a beautiful honest style.
As I read through Rebecca's accounts of the past month or so, I came across a passage that really spoke to me. In days of late I've been going through one of those dark nights of the soul. I've been really searching for the purpose of my time here. As I've struggled with ideas of identity and direction I've found it difficult to make sense of life in general. I know that God is in control. I rely upon that fact with every fiber of my being. He is in control, and he is also good. Without the second half, where would the point be. But there is more to it than that as well. Not only is he good, but he is also loving. His total goodness would clearly leave no room for any member of faulty humanity to stand. But he is able to take his goodness and balance it with his love; to accept our weakness and our total inability to live lives that are always pleasing to him.
I am far from answers. Far from any real semblance of meaning. But these words that Rebecca quoted in her blog really woke something in me:

(Nouwen's The Inner Voice of Love)
'Acknowledge Your Powerlessness'
"One way you keep holding on to an imaginary power is by expecting something from outside gratifications or future events. As long as you run from where you are and distract yourself, you cannot fully let yourself be healed. A seed only flourishes by staying in the ground in which it is sown. When you keep digging the seed up to check whether it is growing, it will never bear fruit. Think about yourself as a little seed planted in rich soil. All you have to do is stay there and trust that the soil contains everything you need to grow. This growth takes place even when you do not feel it. Be quiet, acknowledge your powerlessness, and have faith that one day you will know how much you have received."

I live my life in an endless state of powerlessness and variety. When I read these words I think of the transience of my life. The title I have taken upon myself speaks of the restlessness of my desire. Ever searching. Ever looking for something more to fill me.
I obsess about the future, and fight to make it what I dream. I look for people to meet the needs that cause me to curl up and beg for oblivion at night. I've lived a life focused on an unspecified goal. I've sought to discover the meaning of the rejections, the slights I feel have been dealt to me.
Being still is one of the most difficult things imaginable to me. I hate being totally still. In high school it was my goal to be a perpetual motion machine. This was partly due to confused ideas of physical perfection, unattainable through any natural means. However, as time has passed I've created within myself a need for action. To do only one thing at a time seems a waste. As do things like eating and sleeping. They take up time and money, and yet seem to achieve relatively little. Their purpose is only to consume, and all the while I desire to produce. To produce, you might ask, and it would be a very good question.
The thing is, I don't have the slightest idea what it is I'm supposed to be pouring all this time and effort in to. Or I have ideas, but don't ever get around to them. I mean, I know I'm supposed to write. I know it deep down inside of me where the heart and soul throb together in the dark. To write words that will speak to others, to play out the things I've learned by watching them and listening to them and dreaming of what being them must feel like. But in my quest for action the very time I seek to create for production is spent elsewhere.
I've heard of, and even known in wider family circles, people who have managed to spend all kinds of money with nothing to show for it. In a sense, I can see how that can happen with the waste of time. I can have these very good ideas that never reach fruition because I manage to come up with twenty other possibilities and then I don't get anything done at all.
I feel that I'm rambling, and not really achieving what I wanted to do with this time either. I'm heading for Vienna tomorrow. I have a solid 8 hour train ride to get through. I will be alone. Just me and my journal and my ipod and a passel of strangers, journeying through the leafless countryside of Europe. I don't want to take the words of Nouwen completely literally. I don't think he's saying that, in order to heal we have to have a place on this earth to call home. I don't think he's condemning those who travel. What he is speaking to is the restless nature that tends to inspire such constant change.
When I lived in Hong Kong I can remember feeling so alive. I got to a point where I was able to just go through my life breathing. Part of the reason I didn't think too much of the future was because it freaked me out. Especially my first year there. I'd come to find that dreamlike place to be more reality than anything I had ever experienced before. If I thought about leaving I was left with a sense of dread, so I learned to just drink in the moments as they came. I want to do that again. Not because I'm afraid, but because only by living the life that is right in front of me can I really experience the moments I was meant to live in.
I do think I spend too much time creating a sense of busyness. But at the same time, it's how I create energy. Too much solitude and all I want to do is curl up and reenter that deep depressed cocoon of sleep. What I need to do is find some sort of balance. Some way to settle myself into the life God has given me to live, and to soak in the experiences he has blessed me to have. My mind is full and bursting, and the thought of hours with my journal are refreshing...
Tomorrow to Vienna!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Time to share some pics of the Italian Party

So I'm not really much into writing at the moment. Sort of distracted and feeling distant. But I thought it would be nice to finally post a bit and put up a few pictures from the Italian party Laura slaved over a couple of weeks ago. It was a pretty amazing event, although I didn't feel quite as styling in my dressy outfit as I did dressed up for Halloween :)

Here you can see how nicely she made up the table. Also the menu that Laura made up. Jonathan spent quite a bit of time in Italy and speaks fluent Italian and he helped with the words, as well as doing most of the cooking.
The party planning chefs gone WILD!

Here we are sitting at the table and then you can see the amazing dish that Jonathan threw together.

Here you can see us all dressed up. I was counted in as one of the party throwers, but basically all I did was clean up the house a bit. Ah well.

This last picture is from the morning after on our way to church. I was so captivated by the drops of dew clinging to the spidery filaments. What a wonder...

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Halloween takes over Cheb!

We had a super great pub night this time around. It was really fun that it happened to coincide with Halloween so we really went all out. I've always had a lot of fun with dressing up for Halloween, so it was extra fun to have an excuse to go a little crazy. Most of the time when I wander around the city I end up being stared at for speaking English, but on Friday I actually had an excuse to be stared at!
We started out with a party in the morning at school. It was a lot of fun to see how much all the students got into the festivities. Granted, most of them waited to dress up until they got to school, whereas I wandered around the streets with my full make up on. Good times.

Here are some pictures of my classes all dressed up. The first one is of my L2 group and the second is of the L3s. They were all super cute! I loved it.

I have a ton of pictures from the night, so it's hard to narrow them down,so here are just a few of my favorite shots from the evening.
Here are three of my L2s in their second round of costumes. Since they didn't want to wander around dressed up all day they just wore black with little masks in the evening.

Here I am with my colleagues enjoying being able to be the crazy teachers for the evening.

And I don't really have any good category for the rest of these. It was all just a lot of fun. You can tell I really got into it all. I know I'm a poser, it's just too much fun!

The last one is of me with the guy who told me that I could call Cheb my home for now if I wanted. His name is Honza and he came without a costume on so I did his eye make up and we decided he was my monster for the night. Good fun.
I guess I'll just end this one here for now. I have some great pictures from the Italian party we had on Saturday night as well, but they don't really go with Halloween so well. Let's just say I was sporting a VERY different look for that party. I'll try to get them up in a few days. I've heard a rumor that the internet should start working in my flat come Saturday, but at this point I'll believe it when I see it :)
Okay, for some bizarre reason when I put this post up it didn't do things as ordered and so the picture of me and Honza is the first in that last grouping instead of the last one. Go figure. Why can't this thing just do things the way I tell it to. Ai ya!