Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Faith, Death, and Grief: Experiencing the Intellectual, Spiritual, and Emotional

“For in grief nothing "stays put." One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?

But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?

How often -- will it be for always? -- how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, "I never realized my loss till this moment"? The same leg is cut off time after time.”   C. S. Lewis-A Grief Observed
C.S. Lewis describes grief as a spiral, but one where you can never tell whether you're going up or down. He also says that faith is not real until it is tested, until faith is a matter of life and death. The last year has been a painful reminder of the fragility of life.  My family has said goodbye to young and old, sick and healthy, friends and family.  In total, I've said the final goodbye to eleven people.  In doing so, grief has become something intensely real.

Intellectually, I believe that God is real.  God is a loving, caring God with a plan for everyone's life.  God is in heaven.  He plan for each one of his creations is that we live our lives, die, and enter into eternal life.  Intellectually, my belief in heaven and God's mercy does not waver.  However, I can't process grief intellectually. It's a confusing state that has no clear cycle.
“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.”  C.S. Lewis-A Grief Observed
Spiritually, I know God is real.  I have felt His Grace in the sacrament of confession. I have been consoled in front of the Eucharist in Adoration.  There is an ever-lasting joy in talking with my Christian friends about our faith lives, a joy I experience no where else.  Spiritually, I believe in heaven. I rely on God's mercy every day of my life.  However, my faith at times feels more of a barrier to dealing with grief than anything.
“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand.” C.S. Lewis- A Grief Observed
Emotionally, I do not understand. Most of the time, the emotions trump all of the intellectual and spiritual. I don't want to live life without these people, especially the ones that I sought advice from.  I don't want to think about what they've left behind, who they left behind.  Even a simple smile from a friend can set off a chain of thoughts in my head that leave me nearly in tears at the thought of what my family and I have lost. Sometimes, the emotional leaves me in actual physical pain.
“The death of a beloved is an amputation.” -C.S. Lewis
That's probably what has surprised me the most this year, grief's physical pain...the sleepless nights, the heaviness in my chest, the growing pit in my stomach. the loss of appetite, the random tears while sitting in class, crying in bathrooms, and the emotional exhaustion.  About a month after my cousin Renee died, right before finals, I pretty much stopped sleeping.  I had to force myself to eat because I was never hungry and food never appealed to me.  Grief was so tangible, I thought I was going crazy. 
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”   C.S. Lewis-A Grief Observed
On top of the grief, I realized I suffered from a lot of guilt.  I felt guilty that I didn't pray hard enough, or that I didn't believe enough in my prayers.  God promises to answer our prayers if we have faith.  And it felt like He didn't answer mine.  To some degree, I feel the same guilt with every death from terminal illness, but I have realized that it is not a lack of my prayers that resulted in death. However, even though I realize that intellectually, emotionally I don't quite accept it.  When my cousin Chrissy was in the hospital, I told my mom that medical miracles don't happen to people I love...and to be honest, I believed it.  Today, I realize that was my emotions speaking, not my faith or brain, but it still is a weight I carry with me.  Why do so many people die of cancer or terminal illnesses?  Why can't we discover a cure yet?

Recently, I've been reading the Diary of St. Faustina.  Her diary highlights the trials of despair and depression.  While I'm convinced that I'm not depressed, I do find myself in the depths of spiritual despair on a regular basis.  Her description of this feeling is perfect.
The soul is drawn to God, but feels repulsed. All other sufferings and tortures in the world are as nothing compared with this sensation into which it has been plunged; namely, that of being rejected by God. No one can bring it any relief; it finds itself completely alone; there is no one to defend it. It raises its eyes to heaven, but is convinced that this is not for her – for her all is lost. It falls deeper and deeper from darkness to darkness, and it seems to it that it has lost forever the God it used to love so dearly. This thought is torture beyond all description. But the soul does not agree to it and tries to lift its gaze toward heaven, but in vain! And this makes the torture even more intense.
 In the depths of sadness, in the depths of grief, even just a simple prayer is torturous.  When Fr. Will died, I forced myself to go to Sunday Mass. I remember texting my sister because I was so confused by my feeling of distaste for church.  Reading St. Faustina, I kind of understand it a little bit better.  Thankfully, I felt better after Mass.
“The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just that time when God can't give it: you are like the drowning man who can't be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.”  C.S. Lewis
Tomorrow, I'm going to start counseling for grief.  I could probably work through it on my own, but it's a lot easier to talk about it with someone that I won't feel guilty for burdening.  I feel bad reaching out over and over to my friends.  Being the Debbie Downer isn't my role in life.  Being sad and dealing with sad feelings on a regular basis has become a difficult cross to bear.  Whenever bad news comes my way, my first reaction is "I am so done." My capacity for experiencing emotions is shot and I am ready to renew myself through counseling and an improved prayer life. Things are looking up though.  I'm excited to start talking to a professional and get back some semblance of normalcy.

People often suggest talking to a priest.  Believe me, I am.  That's the only way I haven't turned my back on God.  But priests don't necessarily have training in psychology and counseling.  There are times we should turn to professionals who understand the science of the mind.  That's the beauty of Catholicism there is no contradiction between faith and science and we can rely on science when necessary.
“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, 'Blessed are they that mourn,' and I accept it. I've got nothing that I hadn't bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.” -C.S. Lewis
Hopefully in sharing this, others who have been dealt difficult blows in life will have more insight into their feelings.  Hopefully, my family and friends might be encouraged to seek out help for themselves from professional counseling. If you're dealing with anything of a mental nature...depression, grief, eating disorders, suicide, self-harm, etc...please seek out help.  God has given us the tools to get better and you just need to reach out for them.

Over the past year, C.S. Lewis's book "A Grief Observed" has been instrumental in helping me comprehend these feelings.  As you can see here, much of what he has said heavily influences my perception of life.  His words have guided me to this understanding of the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional aspects of grief.  He helped me process things on my own and I HIGHLY recommend this book to anyone.  Secondly, for those in spiritual despair, whether from grief or otherwise, I recommend St. Faustina's Diary as it puts into words the troubles of the soul while showing the great mercy of God that can work through us.
In Memorium

Jerry Petkash, Cousin
Renee Jaczkowski, Cousin
Irene Sommers, Great Aunt
Chrissy Ayres, Cousin
Meryn Hodges, Family friend
Hazel Weber, Great Aunt
Joseph Weber, Cousin
Roger Connor, Uncle
Fr. Will Propsero, S. J., Spiritual father and friend
Ronnie Kuskowski , adopted grandma
Rhonda White, Aunt

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

If Life Was Easy...It'd be Boring!

A year ago, somewhere right around this week in May, my dad and brother showed up in Gdansk.  I didn't really think I missed them much until I started crying in the airport when Joey gave me a hug.  My year in Poland was hard, and I've been fairly honest and open about that for the last year...so I don't feel the need to super rehash all the things that made it a rough year.

So a year ago, I was looking at the light at the end of the tunnel.  The excitement I felt about grad school was overwhelming because, well, it HAD to be easier than living in a foreign country, teaching classes I knew nothing about, and with very few friends.  Right?  Hahahaha.

Grad school is an entirely different beast than living abroad, but some of the skills I talked about in my reflection on a year abroad have actually come surprisingly in handy.

Fear of the Unknown is Useless
ANYONE who has had any brief academic discussion with me knows that math IS NOT my subject.  In fact, I jokingly told an internship supervisor that I hated math...and he asked how I got my internship.  Luckily, over the years, I have become more open to new things, which led me to fall head over heels in love with SPEA's quantitative program.  I still panic when a new big word like heteroscedsaticity pops up, but I'm getting better at dealing with it.

Public Speaking isn't so Bad
Teaching four classes a week for a year pretty much eradicated fear of public speaking.  I mean, I still get a little jittery inside, but as long as I prepare well, there's no problem!

"I don't know" isn't a bad word
Grad school is a place where readings and concepts and equations can get stuffed down your throat faster than hot dogs at an eating contest.  I'll modify this lesson a little bit, but "I need a break", "I don't understand", and "I don't know" are all phrases that I've used repeatedly. Being able to say "I don't know" is a knowledge of my boundaries and knowing boundaries is crucial to maintaining sanity.

I'll add a new one to all of this....
Life is hard...get over is
I really thought that grad school was going to be easier than Poland.  At least my life would be in English right? Hah.  Grad school has it's own language of statistics and finance, things I've never really experienced before coming to IU.  It's hard...in a different, but still difficult way than Poland.

So the conclusion I've come to is that life is never easy, just different kinds of hard.  But it's those really hard moments that make the good days and triumphs so much sweeter.  I am who I am because I have struggled.  If life was easy, it'd be boring. 

The most important thing I've learned at SPEA this year is the value of friendship.  While grad school was hard (yes, I cried a few times), having friends to help bear the burden, proofread assignments, and argue about research methodology made those really bad nights much fewer and further between than last year in Poland. 

I'm ready to kick my last two finals butts and enjoy a wonderful summer...hopefully filled with a few trips to Lake Monroe, s'mores, and lots of barbeque.  But I'm going into the summer, with the realization that it will bring its own challenges (probably commuting 2 1/2 hours a day is high up there).  Just because school's out, doesn't give me a free pass at life.  Luckily, I have good friends and a family who is aaaaaaaaaalways there for me!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Blessings of Life's Fragility

It's been a while since I've had time or energy to write for my own personal edification, grad school is hard.  Some of life's events though have caused me to ponder hard the fragility of life and how people come into ours, change us, and exit again.

All the pictures I took to Poland for decorative purposes
Anyone who knows well me knows that I am emotional and sentimental.  I value relationships, friends, memories.  My walls are usually covered in pictures.  My family is of utmost importance and I consider most of my friends family.

One things I've been blessed with is the ability to see how people change me.  I can name people that I haven't talked to in fifteen years who had an impact on my life.  Thus the loss of friends, no matter the reason, hits me hard.

Over the past year and a half, two very influential people in my life have been fighting cancer. To say it weighs heavily on my heart would be an understatement.  I pray constantly for their healing, physically and spiritually.

The crazy thing is though, in the midst of the suffering, both of them have ministered to my own soul.  They have forced me to evaluate how I treat my friends and family, to reconsider the gift of life.

Today, I was talking to my mom.  I'm struggling with letting go of my desire to keep these people in my life and giving God the final say.  Selfishly to some extent, I pray for their healing.  These are people I know for a fact have changed my life positively by being a role model, a spiritual counselor, and probably praying for the conversion of my faith more than I ever realized.  I know the impact that they have had on the world so why wouldn't I want them to stay in the world?

My mom's answer was simple.  We have to remember that no matter the love in our hearts for an individual, "ultimately they were His first."  It hit me like a ton of bricks.

Our lives were made by, for, and through Him.  It's for His glory and ultimately to get to Heaven that we exist.  I may not understand His plan or like it right now, but for the glory of God, I will continue to pray for understanding and peace in my heart.

Earthly life only has one end, but Christ promises us eternity, "I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?" (John 11:25-26)  

Knowing this doesn't make the sadness of their suffering easier, but it reminds me that one day, I'll be reunited with those that left the earth before me.  Hopefully starting with my friend Brent who died when I was only 11.  He's one of those persons who I'll never forget because he was one of the first real friends I had.  It's only through death that we'll be reunited though.

Life is short, and it's something I've been reminded of from a very young age. It's important to invest in these kinds of relationships, the ones where you know someone so well that their absence leaves a hole in your heart because that hole means that you were changed by them. The hard part is allowing God to fill that hole, to heal it, to not become bitter or angry.

Approaching death from a Christian standpoint leads me to believe that death isn't really death at all.  As Scripture tells us, one day we will say "O death where is your victory?  Oh death where is your sting?"

1 Corinthians 15:51-54 
But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.
Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:
"Death is swallowed up in victory."

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Some not so brief reflections on my year in Poland as a Fulbright Scholar

One year ago, I got on a plane to Poland.  I had a one-way ticket and little idea of what I was going to do, where I would live, who I would meet, and mostly how I would change.  With a million questions and no certainty (even about simple things like housing!), I arrived in Warsaw and eventually settled in Gdansk.

After almost two months of being home, I've had some time to really reflect on this experience and identify key areas of my life, both professional and personal, that my Fulbright experience really helped me grow.

Personal change in a foreign setting is rapid, violent, and painful at times, even more so in a different language.  There were days when I wanted to quit and come home.  Days where I didn't understand WHY things had to be so hard.   I cried in the bathroom of a mall on multiple occasions, especially when I was camped out stealing McDonald's internet in my apartment search.

Great lows bring incredible highs though...I loved when my students were engaged in a class discussion (and hated when I had to end it).  There were days I imagined a permanent move to Poland, working within the education system and teaching students American culture.  There were days that I was able to help out another American struggling with grocery shopping or transportation.  There were days of serious happiness where I didn't really miss home that much.

So what did I learn?

Fear of the unknown is useless
I was flexible before, but Fulbright forced me to adapt to the unknown.  There were so many unknown variables in my life when I moved...what am I teaching, where am I living?  I stressed out and it was hard.  I literally worried myself sick upon arriving in Gdansk Towards the end of the Fulbright, I learned to embrace the unknown.  Missed a train?  Find a new adventure.

This played out noticeably in my travel plans.  My first trip to Prague was planned out with specific sights, the best routes to see them, and places to eat.  My last trip to Barcelona was the opposite.  I found opportunities for awesomeness on the fly and adapted my plans to fit them.

Public speaking isn't so bad
If you know me, you know I love to talk.  It might surprise you to know that public speaking terrified me.  My brain works so fast that sometimes stupid things come out of my mouth.  In a friendly conversation, it doesn't matter.  In class, I have time to contemplate.  In front of a group of 100 strangers, nerves make me talk more and faster and stupid things come out.

Well, teaching university classes forces you to get over that...fast.  With four classes a week for 1 1/2 hours, I was in the limelight quite a bit.  After I adapted to the university, I started volunteering in high schools as a cultural ambassador.  At the end of the year, I could give an extemporaneous speech (aka without notes) about a variety of issues.  My favorite talk by far was called "The Legacy of the U.S. Constitution: The Role of the Founding Fathers in Modern Debate."  It traced the current political debates (abortion, gay marriage, drone strikes, etc) back to amendments in the constitution and explored the various interpretive camps.

"I don't know" isn't a bad word
Stemming from the fear of saying stupid things and hate of public speaking is the dreaded unanswerable question.  I don't really remember exactly which date the 19th Amendment was passed...or which one repealed prohibition.  I learned that the kids didn't care.  Saying "I don't know" was an acceptable form because they could recognize that I was knowledgeable on the issue based on my presentation, that I was interested and passionate.  And (unfortunately sometimes) human knowledge is finite.

In the classroom, people were usually concerned with the bigger picture.  Why did prohibition fail?  What led to the federal government granting women suffrage?  What is the state of women in American politics today (a fascinating lecture I gave at the American Corner for Women's History Month!)?

Self-knowledge is the most important thing in the world
How much do I miss the hours I had each week of quiet, alone time?  I don't think it's even quantifiable!  The self-realization and actualization that comes from having time alone is incredible.  While I was teaching full time, there wasn't much else for me to do during the day since most of my friends worked and went to school.  So I had hours each day to think and read books that I was interested in.  I wrote Catholic blog posts and really discovered where I want God in my life.

There was so much me-time that sometimes I thought it sucked.  I was lonely, didn't have a huge group of friends, and most of all I missed Central.    In retrospect, the amount of time I was able to invest last year into discovering my hopes, dreams, and fears is probably the most wonderful aspect of my year abroad.  I figured out who I am (at least right now).

I've instituted a 10 minute quiet time every day when I get home.  It doesn't matter what homework I have or how hungry I am.  When I get home, I turn off my phone, ignore my computer, lay on  the ground with my eyes closed and just absorb the quiet.  This might be come the best part of each day...quiet to delve into my spirit and see where I need to grow and what I need to refresh.

My faith is really important to me
This might seem like a duh to my close friends.  However without a serious support system, I really started to rely on serious prayer to get me through the tough days.  When I said there were days I wanted to quit, I mean it.  Some days, I'd come home from class totally mentally and emotionally drained, with no happiness, and sit on my bed and cry.  Dealing with a limited knowledge of Polish, a crazy bureaucratic education system, family issues miles away and less than engaged students would take everything out of me.

In those moments of despair, I never lost hope.  There was always God and boy did He get a lot of talking to this past year!  In terms of learning myself, I really grasped how Catholicism is an integrated part of my life.  And I've made a serious commitment to exploring how that faith will translate in real world actions.  The details will surely take another future blog post.

There is nothing in the world like a hug
My first half of the Fulbright was lonelier than the second half, but right before Christmas I experienced a Christmas dinner with a student group.  I called it my "Christmas Miracle".  Amid all these strangers, I found acceptance and love...and it was an incredible experience to be hugged!

Not to mention the tears that surfaced when my brother hugged me in the Gdansk airport in April!

My family is absolutely incredible

My family was awesome during the whole year.  They sent cards and care packages (peanut butter!); skyped me in for major sporting events (GO BLUE!); put up with my crazy moods some day; but most of all, they let me go.   There were some days I'd text a million times, Skype for three hours, and send a dozen Facebook messages.  Other days (or multiple days in a row), they wouldn't hear from me except a "Good night, I'm alive".  Some days they wouldn't even get that.  I know it was the hardest thing my mom's done in a long time, but they did good with accepting my big move.  Mom didn't even cry (at least in front of me!).

I don't know if they know how awesome they were during this time.  After a major confrontation happened with some friends, I called home and since mom had to go to work, dad talked me down.  My dad doesn't really DO crying girls...especially his daughters.  But he was so patient and awesome with me that I eventually calmed down.

So a year after arriving in Poland, I can confidently say I'm a different person.  I'd like to think I'm a better person.  The challenges of life abroad, especially teaching abroad, were hard even seemingly insurmountable at times, but I did it.  And I might not have accomplished everything perfectly or with the most logical solution or in the most efficient thought processes, but I did it.

Today, I talked with my advisor and officially decided to leave my MA program in Russian and Eastern European Studies.  While I love Poland and the Fulbright helped me cultivate my knowledge of their culture and language, my love is a personal hobby.  I don't forsee becoming an academic in the near future or joining the foreign services.  Actually, after a year abroad, I don't think I ever want to join the foreign services.  While jumping the foreign hurdles makes you feel accomplished, it's exhausting and wears you down.  I don't think I'll be ready for that again anytime soon.

That being said, I'm eagerly looking forward to 2016 when Pope Francis hosts World Youth Day in Krakow.  Hopefully, I'll be able to put my Polish skills to good use in a group of American pilgrims!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Finding Human Dignity...with Chicken Tomato Pasta

Sometimes God works in mysterious ways...other times He comes at us with a 2x4 saying "GET IT NOW?"  Human dignity is something I try to talk about on a regular basis when I am evangelizing.  If people (including Catholics) understood the Catholic teaching of human dignity (every human being is made in the image and likeness of GOD), then I think Catholicism might have a better reputation.  Seriously, almost every "rule" in the Church stems from this idea that our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit.  They're to be cherished and cared for carefully.

Unfortunately, the teaching on dignity is an easy one to talk about, but sometimes difficult to put into practice.  It's easy to judge, to see someone as inferior.  It's a daily struggle because human nature is to compare.  However by comparing, oftentimes we're losing sight of the truth of human life...everyone is made in the image and likeness of God.  A theme?  Perhaps...but it's safe to say that while I love the concept, most of the time I struggle with practicing it fully.  So God came at me with a 2x4 this weekend.

Over the past three weeks, I've been volunteering at the Bloomington Bike Project.  In return for volunteer hours, they help you build your own bike from scratch.  Last Saturday, we were working on my bike and two guys walked up looking to buy a bike.    I helped them start looking at the bikes we have, but they were strangely evasive about what they wanted the bike for (to get to and from campus, just around town, to work).  Turns out, Marcus and Kevin are homeless.

They hung around for a while helping out.  When the shop overseer told them to pick out a bike to take with them, the guys were astounded.  Apparently, even in a nice semi-rural area like Bloomington, people aren't incredibly nice to the homeless.  Since I wasn't working on my bike, I helped them tune theirs up (crazy, I can tune up a bike now!).  We fixed brakes, raised seats, and replaced broken reflectors.

As we were nearing closing time, I started talking about how excited I was about  going home to eat dinner.  Marcus asked, "Whatcha eatin'?"   One of my fellow Speons (nickname for students in SPEA, my program) had given me fresh tomatoes the night before, so I had cut them up and thrown the tomatoes, some chicken and green onions in my crockpot.  "Fresh tomatoes and chicken?  Can we come?"

At first, I would have been taken aback by his question.  Two strange, homeless men asking ME, a single, female college student for dinner...seriously?  I'm poor...with so many loans.  Get real.  But...for some reason I said yes...without too much afterthought.  (side note: safety first, I was intelligent enough not to invite two strangers into my apartment...I went home and got the food and we met at a park for a picnic).

Imagine my surprise at church on Sunday when the Gospel is about a banquet.  Christ tells us to invite people to the banquet, not because they can repay us, but because they are people.  How often do we look past the human dignity of a person because of what they wear, where they live, who they are?  I know I do on a regular basis.  I walk past a beggar without making eye contact...try to slip unnoticed past someone passing out flyers.  Just because they're doing things we are uncomfortable with does NOT make them less of a person.

It was literally so easy to serve Marcus and Kevin.  A simple yes, and a little less food on my plate this week, but I didn't starve.  Marcus actually asked if I was American because he said Americans aren't this nice.  How sad is that?  If every Catholic did ONE thing each week to acknowledge the dignity of a human who might be doubting their self worth, imagine how much better the world would be.

I don't know if I'll ever see Marcus or Kevin again.  Kevin was moving to Nashville this weekend to live with his mom, but Marcus is in Bloomington for a while.  He has plans to build a business and buy a house.  Do I know if he'll accomplish it?  Nope.  But by simpling listening to his hopes and dreams, I was able to acknowledge his dignity.  It's not hard to make someone feel special.

So I challenge you to find something dignity-building to do this weekend.  Compliment a well-dressed girl/guy on their style, give some time to an elderly woman walking her dog, sit down with your parents and look at old pictures.  Take the opportunity to actually live out the Gospel in your life!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Hilarious American Encounters: Reverse Culture Shock

Given the comedy routine I give about life in Poland, I figure it's only fair to take some time to talk about the really WEIRD things I think Americans do or moments I've found myself completely taken aback by American culture in the past month and a half.

First off, I feel really bad that I haven't written here in a while.  My life was far from boring since I've been back in the U.S., but with the non-boringness comes extreme business.  A post for another day though!

So I went straight from Poland to my family in the south.  A lot of my time in Poland speaking Polish was hanging out with little kids because they spoke my level of Polish (infantile).  So when I started talking to my five year old cousins in Polish, it's safe to say they were weirded out.  As was the Mexican waiter at a taco restaurant when I said "dzieki".    Or when I freaked out in the Wendy's drive thru with my cousin because the worker KNEW I SPOKE ENGLISH.

The change to employees talking to me in English off the bat and being confident in my ability to communicate effectively was insane.  As was the feeling of walking around a grocery store, talking to my aunt in English and not having anyone stare because I didn't speak Polish.  I actually called my mom and told her how weird it was to not be stared at.

A week or so after I got back to Michigan (so 2 1/2 weeks in the States), my parents took me out for 50 cent ice cream cones.  My dad paid for $1.50 with a $20 and the cashier didn't bat an eye.  If you haven't heard about the Polish stores often yelling at you for using large bills or not having exact change and from time to time just refusing service because they don't have enough change, then you, like my dad, wouldn't think that was a weird experience.  I just stared at him in sheer horror and said, "You can't do that!".   Then the cashier DID bat an eye, probably thinking that I'm a psychotic person off of my meds, but seriously stores here have change...it was a strange concept.

Another shopping experience had the exact opposite situation.  I was buying a few things for my apartment.  The total was something like $5.39.  Since I only had a $5 and a $20, I decided to dig out change and be "polite" to the cashier.  No one in line behind me was appreciative that I spent an extra minute or two counting out a quarter, dime, and four pennies.  NO ONE.  I could hear the sighs and sensed the eye rolling.  If only they knew what life was like in Eastern Europe when you didn't have ANY change...you apologize to the cashier (Przepraszam, nie mam :(  )

And lastly, a much more recent occurrence was on the bus today.  As each person got off, they thanked the bus driver.  And as I observed it at each stop, I could help but think to myself, "Wow, this is adorably endearing thing in this country."  And then I realized it was MY country.  The stereotypes about the Midwest are true...we're all incredibly polite.  Now I just have to work on remembering that it's normal and people aren't trying to get something from me!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

33 Cities and 33 Photos from my year abroad!

I decided to put together a quick photo display of each city I visited.  Seeing as over the entire year I took over 6,000 photos, choosing one to represent the culture or beauty of each place I visited was quite challenging.  Hope you enjoy!

Torun, Poland
Inside a house at the Ethnography museum, typical of this region in Poland
Wroclaw, Poland
Known throughout Poland for beautiful landscape, canals, and architecture...taken off one of the famous bridges
Prague, Czech Republic
First snow of the year...walking down the another famous bridge!

Katowice, Poland
My first time visiting distant relatives fell on a Polish Independence Day
Zamosc, Poland
A Renaissance square named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site 

Lublin, Poland
One of the few Jewish tombstones left in Lublin after the German and Soviet occupations.

Vilnius, Lithuania
Christmas with my family, learning how to count in Lithuanian by playing Battleship 

Budapest, Hungary
A rough night in Budapest, NYE brought out all the sidewalk champagne vendors
Bratislava, Slovakia
The main city square in Bratislava as dusk falls on the city
Vienna, Austria
The Danube river in Vienna is filled with fantastic graffiti...a young man at work
Paris, France
The Eiffel Tower from the Bells of Notre Dame...GARGOYLES!

Marrakesh, Morocco
Inside a four star Moroccan restaurant, I'm obsessed with the lights.

Atlas Mountain Pass, Morocco
If you look closely, you can see the Bedouin's iPod cord hanging out of his ear

London, England
A unique view of the London Eye
Oxford, England
One of the many prestigious colleges at Oxford

Canterbury, England
The interior of the Canterbury Cathedral was under construction...sign is funny because God is overhead too.

Dover, England
A really long detour from Canterbury to Oxford took us to the Cliffs of Dover

Lisbon, Portugal
Ash Wednesday, the remnants of Fat Tuesday partying in the streets

Fatima, Portugal
The main, old cathedral in Fatima, where the Blessed Mother appeared to three children

Nazare, Portugal
Two friends and I spent a lovely Valentine's Day lunch in this oceanside town
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Holland is well known for its tulips!

Antwerp, Belgium
The view from a gigantic ferris wheel in the city center

Brussels, Belgium
Belgian waffles became a serious obsession of mine!

Bruges, Belgium
Took a boat ride through the canals in Bruges, there really is not a bad photo in the city!
Westerplatte, Poland
Westerplatte is where the Nazis first attacked Poland.  The Poles defended their country honorably and ferociously.

Lodz, Poland
When Poles moved from farms to apartment complexes, they set aside garden areas where people grow all sorts of delicious things...from apple and cherry trees to blueberry bushes to carrots and onions.

Krakow, Poland
A tiny church on the outskirts of Krakow built in the 15th century. The walls have original paintings on them.

Alesund, Norway
The sunset at 11:30 pm in Norway was incredibly beautiful...and really late at night.

Zakopane, Poland
Morskie Oko, perhaps the most famous lake in the Tatra mountains, in the middle of a giant rain storm

Dunajec River, Poland
A traditional Polish rafting trip down the Dunajec River, my cell phone thought I was in Slovakia

Stutthoff, Poland
The gate house for Stutthoff, a concentration camp near Gdansk

Barcelona, Spain
The main market in Barcelona was decorated for the festival of St. Joan

Gdansk, Poland
A glimpse of the Motlawa River and the old town of my home for a year!