Traveling Home

“How precious are Your thoughts, O God. How vast is the sum of them. If I were to number them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with You” (Psalm 139).

Ron Holder

May 3rd, 5:00 a.m., found me in a taxi (thanks, Mark and Karissa) bound for the Vienna airport. Given that I’d only booked the ticket at 5:00 p.m. the day before, four or so hours of sleep was pretty good. I hadn’t planned to be going home to Knoxville mid-semester, mid-week. But, no one plans the day of his Home-Going, either.

Backing up, Sunday evening I’d made my usual call home, managing only a short conversation with Mom and Hannah between Dad’s needs in the midst of a particularly rough day. I was content to postpone a proper conversation for the next day or so, sensing they weren’t really free to talk and also feeling the encroachment of a new work week about to begin and the need for a good night’s sleep. I certainly didn’t – and neither did they – guess the significance of the following few hours; I went to bed, oblivious to unfolding events six time-zones away.

Around 2:00 a.m., the last vibration of a missed call woke me. It didn’t take much creativity to see who’d called and know something was up. I listened to Hannah’s message and called right back, relieved they’d figured out the international calling code for Austria and found my cell phone number, but pulse-quickening with the hint of what was up on the home front. …Mom and Hannah were on the way to the hospital, following an ambulance. Dad’s rough night, morning, and afternoon had grown critical by evening.

What to do? Pray, yes, and then sleep. What more can one do from nearly 5000 miles away?

When the phone rang again at 4:30 a.m., I wouldn’t have had to answer it in order to know why Mom was calling. Dad had passed away either en route to the hospital or upon arrival. Mom and Hannah were back home, a doctor friend had come by and insisted they have a cup of something hot to drink, and both were going to attempt to get some sleep.

Sleep on my end seemed pointless. I perused airline websites for schedules and fares and, while waiting an hour on hold with Delta, got ready for work. The day was strange. I taught the three lessons I was directly responsible for, delegated work to willing colleagues for the following two weeks, met with my pastor and his wife, returned a library book that was due, booked tickets to fly home, made and received an array of phone calls, looked at stunning photos from my roommate’s weekend away in Slovenia, and welcomed four friends who dropped by to be of whatever help they could.

Note: I don’t intend to give, and I don’t suppose my readers want, a full report of the following two weeks. It would be impossible, even if anyone wanted it – any sort reflection would find that events raced ahead (albeit, without chaos) while emotions lagged (lag) behind, with no prediction possible of when fact and feeling will reunite. So be it.


Until you experience it, you don’t know just how much there is to do after someone dies. A myriad phone calls are demanded, and funeral and burial arrangements take time, even if a burial plot has already been acquired and even if a friend has already crafted a beautiful chestnut oak casket that was ready for when it would be needed…. Thankfully, we had two weeks to plan it all. And, at least we were all free to drop pretty much all our normal day-to-day tasks, freed up even more by the meals provided by friends and neighbors.

(The verse on the casket is what Dad told Mom his favorite verse was: “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” — Psalm 27:13.)



The first weekend I was back, Hannah’s fiancé Peter and his dad and sisters came for a visit. This had been long-planned as a chance for the future in-laws to meet each other, and everyone felt that the plan should proceed. We had a very good time getting acquainted, which included taking a hike in the Smokies (and observing both wildflowers and snow) and visiting the farmer’s market and the UT Trial Gardens.

100_6701 100_6703100_6708 100_6696 100_6698Knoxville’s “International Biscuit Festival” was one reason the Westons came down — not so much for biscuits, but because Hannah had an art show opening. Every piece had to be somehow biscuit-related, which meant everything from advertising, to self-portraiture, to allusions to Knoxville history, to Antarctic exploration, to word play and quoting poetry.100_6709For a gift for Mom for Mother’s Day, I managed to get a small garden planted – beans, corns, yellow summer squash, zucchini, and tomatoes – all somehow without her catching wind of what I was up to in the back yard.

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More Details

After the Westons left on Sunday, we had several days to gather the many remaining details together for family coming from out-of-town for a memorial service the following weekend. Hannah and I spent a lot of time sorting through family photos (with plenty of comic relief along the way), and with Mom we planned a memorial service…date and venue, pastor to officiate, friends to share memories, special music, reception afterwards (actually, we didn’t plan that – it was completely taken care of by friends of Mom’s at church), housing to arrange for out-of-town guests (graciously provided by friends and friends-of-friends), etc. Mom continued to spend uncountable minutes on the phone. Hannah put together a large collection of photos we’d chosen, and I practiced prelude music. One strange task was to decide together on materials for a lining for the casket. Hannah was the seamstress, determined to craft something beautiful to match the finely crafted casket, even if the three of us were the only ones really to see the finished work.

Family and Services

Between times, we had a few visits with friends and family locally – whether folks simply dropping by or something planned. Each a welcome gift.

By the following weekend, relatives from Mom’s side of the family were all arrived. Really a remarkable number came –from Missouri, Iowa, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Arizona. Holder relatives drove in from Nashville and Virginia. Peter came a second weekend in a row from Pennsylvania. (Alethea, sorry we didn’t get a photo with you before you headed home!)


Sunday we had a hymn sing at home in lieu of going to church elsewhere. Actually, the afternoon memorial service was like a really good church service, complete with music (hymns for prelude music, congregational hymns, “The Trumpet Shall Sound” from the Messiah, and Michael Card’s “Emmanuel”), Scripture (a reading from I Corinthians 15, for one), a wonderful homily from Dad’s good friend and fishing buddy Peter Stone (Scripture and stories woven together to honor Dad and exalt the Savior), and memorable stories (some endearing, some funny – some revealing sides of Dad I didn’t really know, or things I’d overlooked in the tyranny of the present or forgotten due to his decline these past years) from a variety of friends and family. The chapel at Cedar Springs was totally full, and there were lots and lots of people to try to visit with afterwards. Later in the evening, all the relatives in town came to the house for more time together.


Mondays’ burial service was much simpler and smaller. Because Dad was in the Navy for a few years, he chose to be buried at the Veterans Cemetery, a tract of land looking over the Holston River east of town. It seemed rather foreign to me, but the service included a 21-gun salute and the playing of taps (quite impressive). The best part of the service was singing “Be Thou My Vision” – the acoustics were excellent, and people sang parts. The pastor’s words were perfectly suited, I thought…excerpts from Psalm 90, John 17, Romans 15.

In the late afternoon, the relatives still in town (just 10 of us by then) gathered at the house – first there were some rounds of croquet (a Holder – and especially Ron Holder – favorite), and then an unhurried dinner and conversation and stories.

Monday before the burial and again on Tuesday there were lots of goodbyes to say, as family headed back home around the country. I changed my return ticket from Tuesday to Wednesday, in order to have one evening yet with Mom and Hannah. Now I’ve been back in Vienna two and a half weeks, but any report on that will have to wait.

So, that’s all for now.

p.s. Any personal comments please send to my email address rather than posting them as comments here. Thanks.

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A is for Adventures, B is for Budapest, C is for Croissants

100_6488For most of the Easter holidays I traveled to visit friends outside of Austria. To minimize travels costs – and maximize time with friends – I decided to take a bus to Paris, then a budget flight to Budapest, and then a train home to Vienna. I was prepared for the bus trip to be awful, but it was – unbelievable – almost pleasant. Two seats to myself the whole time, books to read, snacks to eat, frequent breaks. I could recommend it! The one strange bit was stopping at a border check, I think in Liechtenstein. They collected our IDs, ran a check, and then returned the whole stack. (I didn’t really like the people in front of me in the bus sorting through the stack to find their IDs — what if someone took my passport?!). But, one person proved to cause a border patrol dilemma; and, after much time passed, we went on without him.


Arriving in Paris, I made my way to the address I’d been given for James and Davenne, friends from Knoxville. I met James in grad school at UT, and his wife Davenne is currently working on art history doctoral research in Paris. The days in this iconic city also included visiting Ernesto, a cellist friend I know from Vienna and concerts together, and Pauline and her family. Pauline is a Parisian violinist, a dear friend, and Hannah and I visited her and her family in Provence the summer Hannah visited me here.100_6286 100_6447 100_6448

100_6294Rarely have I enjoyed an equally relaxed vacation – so often I am unnecessarily anxious about work left behind, or confused by not having to be busy, or not sure what hosts or fellow travelers are expecting. However, Paris was a gracious gift – wonderful conversation and outings with friends, easy-going but active approach to sight-seeing, and (how could it be otherwise in Paris?) such incredible food…whether a roadside treat of crepes, or a “simple” (i.e., splendid) dinner cooked by a real Frenchman, or a “simple” (i.e., fabulous) soup and salad supper at Pauline’s, or heavenly butter-rich pastries that disappeared with delight and were walked off over Paris’ sprawling landscape, or bread and cheese and apples picked up at the local grocery for a very satisfying picnic, or sitting in a café with the most glorious piece of lemon pie beckoning. (Note: If too much culinary talk annoys you, read further at your own peril – or practice the virtue of forbearance, and offer a prayer on behalf of those tempted by gluttony in the face of the glories of the cheese board and butter-infused pastries.)


The first evening James and Davenne, their landlord, Ernesto, and I headed to an organ concert at Notre Dame. It was a late evening, because afterwards the landlord (temporarily in Paris and staying with James and Davenne) offered to make dinner. Of course, this had to mean before-dinner drinks, then a spinach/cheese tart (accompanied by a carrot salad Davenne had made), followed by mash potatoes served with chicken and crème fresh on top, followed by a cheese course, followed by bananas flambé. A bottle of white wine disappeared with the first two courses — and Jean-Pierre (the landlord) was sure we needed a nice bottle of red to go with the cheese. After all of that, I really needed the espresso to end the meal (now nearing midnight) before finding my back to the hostel where I was staying for one night. …It was cool to exit the subway station with a view of the distant, lit Eiffel Tower.

The next morning I walked an hour to James and Davenne’s place, passing a couple of familiar spots (Notre Dame, Pompidou Center). Ah, the smell of browned butter (do you sense a theme?) and of croissants, the view of huge and colorful meringues in the shop window of a patisserie. 100_6274

100_6294…Sipping PG Tips tea and sharing three pastries was a great way to start the day together. We went to an English speaking church for quite a decent service and then walked pretty much all afternoon — to the Eiffel Tower, over to the Arch de Triumph, down the Champ de Elysee, and then to meet up with Ernesto for a concert — then back to their neck of the woods for crepes. Quite a lot of good conversation along the way. Chilly and cloudy weather, but no real threat of rain. …Finally, I made it to Pauline’s place at midnight. Her family is extremely hospitable – the first night I was there none of them were there, but instead two Swiss guests, a German friend, and me. Most were leaving the next day, and a Korean student was arriving, along with our hosts themselves the following day!


Monday morning I did a bit of reading for uni and popped out long enough to find a boulangerie for a breakfast. (Can you believe that a splendid almond pastry is only about a Euro fifty?) After an exodus of the other Kempf-household temporary inhabitants, I walked toward James and Davenne’s, taking in a bit of the Jarden des Plantes (botanical gardens) on the way. (There were poppies blooming, of all things in March.) I practiced a bit of piano on James’ keyboard, and after baquette sandwiches for lunch, we caught up with Davenne at the library where she had headed to do a bit of research. They wanted to take me to a wonderful tea and cakes shop nearby the library – absolutely fabulous!!!! We split the most glorious big slice of lemon pie with magnificent piled-high meringue, as well as a lovely pear and chocolate tart — both with shortbread crusts. Man, oh man.

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Then James headed to French class, and Davenne and I walked part of a promenade similar to NYC’s High Line. Not much makes for a better afternoon than a good walk and meaningful conversation. Then we headed back to the flat, via the grocery store, and got started on dinner…vegetarian lentil stew, along with potato/turnip pancakes and turkey breast “steaks.” Salad, bread, cheese. Butter fried apples, with rum-soaked raisins, topped with crème fresh. (Of course we had to go all out – the landlord was our guest this time!) More “Frenchness” from the landlord — such as describing how the French have to guard the names of their cheeses – Brie and Camembert are places, not just types of cheese! Fun!

100_6337100_6336Tuesday I started out with a walk (and pastries), met up with James and Davenne to visit the Jardin du Luxembourg, and then we proceeded to Montmartre/Sacre Coeur. 100_6340 100_6351 100_6353 100_6354


Everyone was feeling pretty tired, but I soldiered on with more sights in the afternoon – a huge park on the western outskirts of Paris, then back to the Arch de Triumphe (and up all the stairs – the elevator was out of order).100_6382



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In the evening, a group of us went to a fabulous concert that a friend of Ernesto’s had arranged tickets for. Vivaldi, Mendelssohn, Shostakovitch, etc. Really fabulous.

I came home to the Kempfs’ to find Pauline’s Mom, the German friend, and Pauline sitting around drinking tea and eating the zucchini bread I’d brought! I joined the circle of tea drinkers and ended up staying up late with a second wind of energy!

Wednesday morning I met up with Ernesto in the northern part of the city, near where he lives, for some Rachmaninoff and Piazzolla music. Good to play together again! Then he made us lunch before I met James and Davenne at the Louvre. It can be hard to visit a museum with friends. However, we were all up for two or so hours of looking, with over-lapping pace and taste. So, it was perfect. …I’d decided I was going to feel bad if I didn’t go, and it wasn’t as expensive as I thought it would be. And, how cool to go with an art historian! We focused on Dutch/Flemish painting, and also saw some other worthy pieces. A Rembrandt painting of lace was about the most amazing, plus a huge oil painting that somehow looked like it was in watercolors (Italian, I think).


100_6423    100_6425We also saw a museum curator giving one statue a bath (so we thought) or repairing it in some way. Interesting:

100_6437       100_6435 We ended up at Pauline’s for dinner, with Ernesto joining us later. We had a wonderful combined meal and, again, delightful conversation. It was fun to have friends from different spheres all enjoying each other.

And a few more photos (the first for any Jerome K. Jerome fans):

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Thursday I had to say goodbye to Paris. But, the trip wasn’t over! On to Budapest! Budapest, from my short acquaintance, feels a bit like Vienna and Prague mixed. Definitely eastern European feel, with architecture that harks back to Hapsburg days and the glories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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Marianna Szivkova KUGThe first evening Marianna had a concert, which was great! Afterwards, we sat around in a Hungarian pub eating pizza till nearly midnight.


The next day Marianna showed me around quite a lot – “Buda” is particularly wonderful. Located across the river from “Pest, ” it commands a lovely outlook over the Danube and wider city and boasts an incredibly beautiful church and other wonderful architecture.100_6455 100_6493 100_6457 100_6501 100_6502 100_6497 100_6486 100_6460 100_6490  100_6469

We also saw the basilica and parliament in Pest, met friends at a beautiful cafe (where you can feel free to buy something fancy, prices being lower here), and returned home for lunch. At 17:00, I went to the opera (Wagner’s Parsifal, traditionally played on Good Friday), which lasted till 10:00. I’m not a big Wagner fan, but it was a lovely opportunity – beautiful hall and just 1000 Ft. (about 3 Euros), since Marianna’s former teacher, who was singing a minor roll, had extra tickets on hand.

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On Saturday I had breakfast with Maria (Marianna’s mom – Marianna had to head back to Vienna already on Friday evening). We didn’t talk a lot – her Hungarian and Russian and my English and German left us with precious little common language!), but smiles and hand signals and a few words were enough!

I explored on my own for much of Saturday, visiting an Easter market, Parliament (fantastic architecture – I’ll know to book a tour in advance next time, as it was already sold out), strolling through a large island park. In the afternoon I took the train home to Vienna. What a wonderful trip!100_6523 100_6585 100_6587 100_6586


The next day was Easter! So, up bright and early (Daylight Savings) for a run, then organizing things for the morning church service. Our small Easter choir sang an arrangement of the American folk song “I Know that My Redeemer Lives,” and the day – both at church and afterwards – was spent festively.

Monday several friends came over for an Easter brunch. I had wanted an excuse to extend the celebration – why not embrace the 40 days of the Easter season? So, I baked Mom’s recipe for hot cross buns and a couple quiches. It was a wonderful, relaxed visit. Most of those invited didn’t already know each other, but we found plenty to talk about.100_6600

Tour Guide and Tourist

Just as brunch was wrapping up, James and Davenne arrived from Paris for a week or so! It was a very spontaneous idea that they would come visit me in Vienna, but why not? More good visiting and another city to enjoy together.100_6602


Of course, I had regular work duties (and they brought some work along, too), but we still found time to walk around Schönbrunn, study blown and painted eggs at an Easter market, watch a great movie with Pauline (Woman in Gold – based on a true story about art restitution after WWII; I especially enjoyed all the familiar sights around Vienna, including a church square practically across the street from where I currently live), go jogging with Davenne, and bake a lemon pie that rivaled what we’d tasted in Paris.100_6605     100_6610

While James and Davenne held down the fort for the weekend (my flatmate was away), I traveled with one of my school classes to Munich for a history field trip. Munich was the birthplace of the Nazi party and remained the party headquarters throughout the war. So, there is a lot of (infamous) history, and we visited both a documentation center and the university where a student uprising led to disastrous results (if you know the movie Sophie Scholl…) We also saw some of the city sights. (I caught myself feeling funny that I could speak German in this city that is both very different than Vienna, and also similar in other ways!). It was a privilege to get to know colleagues a bit better.100_6655 100_6625 100_6653 100_6650

…A story from Munich:

The priest starts the sermon with the statement that the Resurrection was not an historical event. Wait – did I hear that right? Maybe it the echo-y hall, the language barrier. He carries on: No one saw the Resurrection as it happened, so it can’t be proven. But, he appeared (bodily? In some sort of inner experience?) to the Disciples, to the disciples down through history who have believed, met Him in some way, spread the message. The Resurrection is a present reality to be experienced and believed, not a historical fact that may or may not have actually happened.

I sit with a group of 11th graders and fellow teachers from our Catholic school in Vienna, taking in morning mass in the Holy Ghost church in Munich, after a weekend of exploring the city and its history. Afterwards, the kids head off on an hour’s photography project, and we teachers opt for a café in the sun on the main square. The talk turns to the sermon. We all agree that the Resurrection cannot be empirically proven, but then opinions divide. One of our number suggests that the value of the Biblical narrative of the Resurrection, or of other miracles, is chiefly in the meaning behind what’s written, and a more metaphorical reading is a gracious and enlightened response to the doubts engendered by what we are taught by the laws of nature and the findings of science. For my part, I think it makes a world of difference whether Jesus actually rose again or not. If Jesus is maybe risen, why, for crying out-loud, do we pray to Him, request His presence, or celebrate His Cross?

The “real meaning” behind the miracle is for me inseparable from God actually intervening in a surprising – miraculous – way in history and, on the other hand, quite independent of my propensities to skepticism or unbelief. 

It was both a good and frustrating discussion with the other teachers. I wonder what the students took away from the sermon, or from similar messages they get at school or perhaps in their local parish. Will they relegate the Resurrection to the realm of metaphor? Will they turn in disbelief from an empty fable, an embarrassingly outdated story? Will they be robbed of the joy and power of the Gospel by trying to force God into the walls of the world He created? Or, will they cling to Him, the Ground and Source of reality – the Truth who upholds them in faith and doubt, who has stepped into their world and who will appear again (“to be marveled at among all who have believed”)?

…On a lighter note, what some people do in a park in Munich on Saturday morning:

100_6645 100_6647…Shortly after I got back from Munich and then James and Davenne headed on to visit her brother in Berlin, I welcomed other guests from Hamburg! Some will remember my writing about Olga, the dear friend and violinist who lived with me and Rachel for a number of weeks last year. I got to meet her roommates in Hamburg last July, and so now Olga and Vero made a trip together to Vienna!

Sadly, I didn’t have as many free hours as I would have liked to have had! But, Olga got to show Vero around the city, and we shared good talks, some walking, and a visit to Olga and my favorite café, among other things. It was great to have Olga back at church for one Sunday, as well as for the German home group mid-week. And, a time with Olga wouldn’t be complete without some ridiculous giggles – and serious conversation. Two reasons I cherish this friend!

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Although the people who have peopled this post all deserve more space, my readers are probably not only in a culinary-vocabulary-induced-stupor, but a bit überfordert (overwhelmed) with sheer words. So, I will bid each “Adieu!” for now and sign out with one last photo.100_6682

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The Sun Coast (and other February happenings)

…Books pile on desks and shelves, quotes insinuate themselves into Word documents, and the hands of the wall clock circle with a slow determination. It’s the month of February, and the library is populated not only with the cacophonous array of languages and opinions of authors over the centuries, but by the students wishing to distill what they’ve read into fresh and elegant prose, not to mention somehow to assimilate their own never-before-thought-of insights. 

…Waves roll in over the cold sand, the morning sun promising balmy afternoon temperatures. I jog along barefoot, wondering if I’m going to work up the courage to jump in the chilly sea. It’s February and the semester break. The average Austrian is off skiing, but I’m in warmer climes, taking in the absolute luxury of the Spanish coast.

So, what’s been going on in Vienna lately? First, a look at a trip to Spain and then to more scholastic and day-to-day affairs!

Costa del Sol

Some time before Christmas a friend suggested that we spend the week of our semester holidays in Spain, as she had access to a remarkable discount on an apartment at a resort near Málaga. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to head there, but the idea proved rather irresistible. …It turned out to be quite a lovely week with Megan (right) and Genny (left)!


For starters, the resort was a bit out-of-this-world — ocean view from the terrace, beautiful landscaping, swimming pool(s!), gym, access to the beach, etc. Even though it was hardly lying-in-the-sun-on-the-beach weather (a bit chilly yet), we were a bit like a kid with a cookie in each hand and not knowing where to start munching first!

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Besides lounging at the resort (and supposedly working on university tasks or what-not), we visited the surrounding towns, soaking in the lovely architecture and relaxed pace. The first afternoon we took the bus to Marbella — the highlights were a nice bakery and an open-air market (where we bought a rather huge quantity of Brussels sprouts, incredible olives, and chestnuts to roast).

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The last afternoon we took the bus and train to Málaga, birthplace of Picasso. We visited a museum dedicated to his works and landed briefly in the most delightful wine bar/restaurant for some of the sweetest wine and most savory olives imaginable.

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The other two day trips were a bit more of an undertaking. Mind you, if we had been traveling with a car, it would have been a somewhat different picture. But, renting a car was really out of the question, and the buses (and trains) were fine — as long as you weren’t in a great hurry!

The afternoon (after about five hours of travel) at the Alhambra was very memorable! An extensive network of palaces and gardens, the Alhambra embodies the beauty of Moorish art (think arabesques, carved plaster, seemingly infinite variety of geometric patters, and characteristic Moorish arches) and also stands as a reminder of just how old Europe is in the eyes of Americans. It was already old when, after the Reconquista in the 1490s, Ferdinand and Isabella made the Alhambra their royal seat and Columbus sailed to the New World.

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Probably the most outstanding elements of the visit were the fountains (in an otherwise rather dry area) and the elegance of the architecture design, adorned with exquisite patterns.


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The other day’s outing was to Gibraltar, an island of British territory located at the end of Spain. I’ve always heard of the “Rock of Gibraltar,” but I didn’t realize that it’s really a small mountain, perched as if ready to leap across the narrow strip of water separating the European and African continents.









The bus drops you off still in Spain, and then you get to walk across the border, going through passport control on the way. The first strip of land is actually an airstrip — runways to both sides and arms like at a train crossing ready, apparently, to block foot and car traffic when a plane is ready to land.

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Gibraltar is really an intriguing place. On the one hand, there are obviously a lot of Spaniards who live and work there, and not everyone knows English. On the other hand, the currency is pounds, there’s PG-Tips tea in the gas station super market, and bright red mail boxes give the impression of being straight from the British postal service.

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Besides shipping off a few postcards with special Gibraltar stamps and eating Indian take-away from a fabulous hole-in-the-wall spot, we of course took in as much of the local historical sights as possible. Taking the gondola up the mountain, we were first greeted by the terribly over-friendly monkeys that have established their own kingdom, probably without asking the Queen’s permission. Both Megan and I experienced a greedy monkey jumping on our backs in search of the snacks packed in our backpacks — very cheeky indeed!


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From the top we had a good view of a bit of Africa rising above the mists. That was quite cool! Meandering back down, we stopped at a natural grotto and also at the tunnels made during the Napoleonic Wars and expanded during the world wars.

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The last morning at the resort, I decided that it was worth a plunge indeed.

Back in Vienna

Back in Vienna, school started right back up, though university was off for the whole month of February. That meant enough time to put together a sizable paper. For my class on Augustine’s Confessions, I decided to focus in on the 10th chapter, which in some ways ties together the largely narrative earlier chapters and the especially theological last three. The book deals with various themes, but particularly the idea of God’s presence and of finding rest/peace in Him is a recurring thread. In chapter 10, Augustine asks where he can find God and how he can know God amidst his ongoing struggle with sin. Both questions lead him to the conclusion that encountering God is chiefly God’s gracious gift — countering and overwhelming the limitations of man’s capacity to grasp God’s presence and glory and man’s propensity to double-mindedness.

I’d like to say that I achieved a new understanding of the concepts of God’s presence and rest — but that would be to think I could work that up on my own! Anyway, writing term papers, whatever the subject, doesn’t tend to be restful — especially if you are coming up with 9000+ words (in English!), and a goodly percentage of the 90+ footnotes are in Latin! But, hopefully it will bear some fruit.

Paper-writing aside, there have been plenty of other things to keep one busy. Although spring seems ’round the corner, there’s bit a bit of ice-skating yet (a good flatmate “date”):

School is plugging along, and now the new uni term has started. At church, we are continuing to see growth — hopefully in depth as well as numbers. Today we had an experimental second service, as we are beginning to outgrow our space! Meanwhile, the church calendar is pointing us toward joyful Easter celebrations in the coming weeks.

I’ll close with a favorite quote that seems appropriate not only to the season, but to the new work week beginning and the ever fresh need for renewed perspective and vision:

“…with Easter, God’s new creation is launched upon a surprised world, pointing ahead to the renewal, the redemption, the rebirth of the entire creation….[E]very act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of true creativity—doing justice, making peace, healing families, resisting temptation, seeking and winning true freedom—is an earthly event in a long history of things that implement Jesus’s own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation.” (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope). Amen!


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Waltzing into 2016

In keeping with my New Year’s resolution to post once a month, it’s time for an update! A month ago, I was in Knoxville, enjoying Christmastime with family and friends!

The two plus weeks were filled with cherished holiday traditions (baking cookies with Mom and Hannah, singing Christmas carols, enjoying the fragrant Christmas tree, listening to Handel’s Messiah and van Williams’ Hodie, and other Christmas favorites), significant nondescript family time (that’s not a negative [non-]description, but it’s not very interesting to blog about sitting around drinking coffee and chewing the fat), lots and lots of wedding talk with Hannah (quite fun), and a number of good visits with friends – dropping by old neighbors’, finding friends willing to dive into deeper conversation, enjoying a wonderful and beautifully icy hike up Mt. LeConte….

100_5865100_5860   100_5876100_5874 At the same time, the trip was not easy. Dad seems to be in about the same place as when I was home over the summer. Everyone who I talked with back home wanted to know how he was, but daily life (even for those who rejoice in good health) tends to be rather unremarkable. Especially for a prolonged illness, how does one convey the painful monotony of each day, the unforeseen hurdles, the relentlessness of it? How does one even pretend to “report” accurately? How to even communicate one’s own, undefined participation in the suffering of another? “O Lord, you know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. I awake, and I am still with you” (from Psalm 139).

…Coming back to Vienna I had hardly any jetlag and jumped pretty much right back into the routine here. That said, I sometimes feel like I live torn between two worlds – cherishing friends far and near (wherever I find myself) and sometimes at a loss to communicate on either shore of the Atlantic what it is that constantly tugs in the other direction.

…In Vienna in the winter, after the Christmas season passes and the Christmas markets close, certain other intriguing cultural icons materialize. You know you are in Austria – where skiing is the domain of 3-year-olds on up – when you climb on the tram, and the info screen is a summary of the snow levels and number of lifts open at the nearest slopes. Or, you know you are in Vienna – where the coffee culture is celebrated – when the winterizing of the rose bushes in the public gardens is accomplished with the help of burlap coffee sacks.

100_5897   100_5901 100_5899 100_5900 You know you are in Austria – a country that boasts a lake with a 25-km ice-skating loop – when hundreds of people turn out on a Saturday night for ice skating  in front of the city hall (this year the area boasts three skating rinks, connected with ice paths through the park). And, perhaps most of all, you know you are in Vienna – home of the waltz – when ball season comes.

This year I’ve managed to take in two balls. The first was a charity ball put on by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was pretty unusual seeming to have a bishop show up at a ball!

The second was quite spontaneous. Elisabeth, a friend from the first school where I worked, asked me if I’d like to join her for the Blumenball (flower ball) at the Rathaus (city hall). Her boyfriend and his boss were working there for the evening (as DJs), and there was an extra ticket. Well, why not?


Oh my, oh my! One hundred thousand flowers, including hordes of orchids. Hundreds of elegantly dressed couples of all ages. Vast main hall where, after the traditional opening dance (performed by dozens of couples, all the women in white gowns), the floor was opened to all for the following eight hours or so. Staircases and hallways and other rooms with smaller dance floors. Did I say there were lots of flowers?


We did a lot of watching people dance, as the two guys were busy working. However, Elisabeth and I managed a bit of line dancing and a rather hopeless attempt at the complicated quadrille (at midnight and again, slightly less hopelessly, at 2:00 a.m.).  However, at something like 2:30 a.m., just after we’d eaten some sausages (totally Austrian, if not exactly fitting with ball attire and atmosphere, in my mind), Erwin and Norbert could take a break for a waltz or two. I’m not a good dancer at all, but my lessons in the fall paid off a bit. The best part of the night might have been dancing the Vienna Waltz just before 5:00 a.m. Sailing around a hall with parquet flooring and vaulting ceiling, with a long ball gown, and a guy who really knows how to dance, is quite a lot of fun.


100_5893 For lots more photos, click here.

While most of the guests left, we still had all the sound equipment to pack up. Man, it seemed like a lot of work at that time of morning, but finally everything was packed and loaded in the van. I walked home at 7:15 – with enough time to sleep for an hour. I’d rather foolishly promised a friend to go running at 9:00!

Lest it sound like all I’ve done the past three weeks is dance from one elegant engagement to another, there has been a decent amount of work for university (plus school teaching, of course). The winter term runs October through February – with some written assignments to be turned in by March 1st. So, I managed my first uni essay exam yesterday (Old Testament Israel) – nice professor and small class, though I was less fond of the deconstructionist (in my view) reading of the biblical text, or of the minor detail that I could hardly ever stay properly awake for a whole class. The course on the history, religion, and culture of Oman turned out to be interesting; maybe someday I’ll see more than the airport. (I think I flew through Oman on the way to India in 2004???)

The hermeneutics class proved to be my favorite – a wide sweep of backgrounds and opinions among the class members (from no biblical background, to a Catholic priest, to the lone [?] Protestant); incredibly well-informed, young professor, who did a great job juggling the diverse class; interesting assignments, mostly about the book of Jonah. The last class – and the most challenging – has been one on Augustine’s Confession. I’m in the throes of figuring out exactly what I’m going to write my paper on (10 pages, single-spaced, seems long to me), but it will have something to do with either Augustine’s/the Confessions commentary on music or on the concept of God’s rest. Thankfully, I can write the paper in English!

Well, as usual, I’m blogging late at night before an early more train or plane. More on that next time!

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Time Flies

…Carols waft from the open window of the classroom. The children’s voices, 20-odd of them, are glad, melodic. On this warm December day, busy as usual, does anyone hurrying along outside stop a moment to listen? “Leise rieselt der Schnee, Still und starr liegt der See, Weihnachtlich glänzet der Wald. Freue Dich, Christkind kommt bald. (“The snow falls softly, the sea lies silent and still. The wood shines with Christmas cheer; rejoice, the Christ Child comes soon!”) 

…Roses bow with the weight of summer past, of morning rain. They droop elegantly, oblivious to the background noise of morning traffic on wet streets. Parliament, city hall, a theater standing solid and silent, a sparsely populated park — the early-bird tourist, the student on the way to class, the hobby runner.

1        2        3   +             1        2        3   +            1        2        3   +             1        2        3   +           With varying levels of success, a dozen couples try to remember the invisible pattern charted on the dance floor. Ladies, remember to always look left (Side benefit: it saves you the trouble of staring at your dance partner, who is a complete stranger). Gentlemen, don’t watch your feet. When one lives in Vienna, one should learn to waltz.

…Sweat dripping, better judgment protesting, I tentatively ease my down the 70-odd curving stairs with the box that’s so big that I can’t see my feet and that must weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 pounds. It’s moving day, and I’m determined to have as much as possible to the ground level before friends from church load it up to schlep to the new flat. Typical I-can-do-it approach, even if a minor miracle that I don’t end up a pancake.

…Flour. Chocolate (lots). Eggs (8). Sugar. Apricot jam. It’s Baking Day. With Mom’s 70th birthday around the corner, the best thing I can think of is to bake a Viennese Sacher Torte and ship it, minus the whipped cream. …Steam-oven wonder. Trimming. Layering. Ganaching. Nibbling and licking up so much dark chocolate I’m tired of it. Waiting for news that the post has arrived.

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Saying Hello

So. It’s the week of Christmas, and I fly home tomorrow for the holidays. Somehow the intervening months since I was home in the summer have sprinted by, and every time I thought of writing a blog post, I got overwhelmed. Maybe I need a not-quite-New-Year’s resolution about various ways I do (or don’t) keep up with friends around the world….

So, here’s a time-lapse version of August to December:

Summer in Tennessee (and New York and Pennsylvania)

After 20 months away, I wasn’t quite sure what it would be like to be back in the States for the summer. Odd things seemed, well, odd — like people not automatically taking shoes off upon entering a house or the popularity of hanging an American flag out front.

Superficialities aside, I realized that it can be hard to reconnect after too long away. The well-meant questions — “What are you doing in Austria?” and “How long are you staying?” — were at times extremely overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start — not wanting to pontificate about life in Europe,  and at the same time not knowing what would be really interesting to tell. And, like any effective question, one question raised others — or rouses the inner questions already rumbling around — what am I doing here? What are my long-term plans?

100_5586 - CopyInner ruminations aside, the time at home was great. It started out in the best of ways — a few days with friends Kathleen and Matt and their little gu100_5615 - Copyy in upstate New York. Rambling around the picturesque town of Saratoga Springs, morning coffee and conversation on the front porch in idyllic August weather, a hike in the Adirondacks, a fabulous picnic and outdoor concert, visiting the horse-racing track for morning warming up…. There’s nothing like seeing friends in their native context and finding out that time and distance are not an impediment to deep friendship.

100_5642 - CopyFrom New York I flew home to Knoxville! The weeks flew by. Visits with many friends — one-on-one, in groups, spontaneous, planned, repeated. Coffees, dinners, walks, farmers’ market, acquarium….

One of the biggest highlights of the whole trip was a day hike with Hannah to a favorite spot in the Smokies (the Chimneys, for you locals). The weather was sublime, and we were up to the top and back down before lunch time — having planned a scandalously wonderful picnic (featuring fried chicken) to be enjoyed atop a boulder in the middle of the mountain river. After baking (ourselves) for a couple of hours and wearying of our books, we decided to jump in. It was deliciously cold.

Another day we took a picnic to the university’s trial gardens — we persuaded Mom to join us — followed by a grand game of frisbee on the wide lawn.

Of course one can’t be home without some good home cooking. Thanks, Mom, especially for the homemade pizzas and the waffle dinner!

Two highlights were special out-of-town guests. One weekend Aunt Susan came from St. Louis. In an obscure mercy, time almost seemed to slow down for two days, making room for wonderful conversation, games and needed laughter. The next weekend Peter, Hannah’s boyfriend (now fiancé!), flew in from Pennsylvania. It was great to get acquainted with the future brother-in-law!100_5643 - Copy

Together the three of us drove up to Pennsylvania, where I got to meet Peter’s family. Then, Hannah and I traveled on to visit cousins in both Philadelphia and Jersey City. In both places, I got to meet new additions to the family. The last evening in NY, we four adults all sat around trying to put off saying goodnight, knowing the visit had been too short as always.

100_5684A New Nest

Arriving back in Vienna, I still wasn’t entirely sure where I would be living. Also, it is the first semester here that I am not studying music — so, there were various factors to make life feel rather unsettled.

However, I ended up indeed moving into a new flat with a new friend from church. It has been fun getting to know a new neck of the woods, and the part of the city is100_5687 really superb. The flat is also above and beyond my imaginings. Beyond logistics, Jessica (the new flatmate) and I have enjoyed a good bit of cooking/baking, decorating, and hosting events. Two weekends in a row we had 30 people in the flat — fun but exhausting!

One of the occasions was my birthday. I decided I’d invite as many people as I am in years. There was a Hobbit theme, as 33 is the year a Hobbit comes of age — seemed like an excuse for something special. I wrote a speech, and guests solved riddles and worked on a Tolkien trivia quiz. Jessica surprised me with a riddle of her own making, the solution revealing a gift friends had put together toward a potential keyboard…!


Out-of-the-ordinary happenings aside, work is somewhat similar this year to last year. I’m again at Sacre Coeur, a private Catholic middle and high school, this year with 11 lessons spread out over the first half of the week. Four of these hours I work on my own with half-sized classes; these hours supplement the students’ regular English lessons. The other seven lesson I accompany history, geography, biology, and religion teachers, and we do their subject-area lessons in English.

Otherwise, I’m still working as the church secretary, teaching a once-a-week English conversation class for adults, and working with  a couple of piano students.


The big change this year is not being at the music uni. I am already rather nostalgic! It was a sad day that my student card ran out, meaning I can’t practice there any more. I’m grateful for the friends made, the musical skills honed, the sense of feeling at home with the wide, quiet corridors and familiar faces and grand-piano-graced rooms — and, to be honest, it’s also been pretty fantastic to have a break from piano.

But, I haven’t really left school — just changed campuses. This semester I’m taking a few courses in the religious studies program. They’re all in German, though I can do some of the written parts in English. One is on the Confessions of Augustine — might not have taken it if I’d known it would include a bit of translating Latin…. One class is a hermeneutics class — very interesting. The third, a lecture on the people of Israel in Old Testament times — I’m not so keen on the seemingly deconstructionist view of Scripture. The fourth class — totally different — is a weekend block-seminar on the history, culture, and religion of the country of Oman. Also quite enjoyable. Since my presentation was first (2o minutes in German was very tiring!), I’m done with that class — just have to show up for the remaining weekend. Although the semester is challenging (it winds up with a large paper due at the end of March), I’m glad for the chance to begin to get to know a few classmates.


In the past months, our new German pastoral assistant has moved with his family to Vienna, and the church continues to grow. This year, we made our first attempt at a choir for the Christmas service, which was fun. There are conversations afoot in various local churches about how to help long-term with the influx of refugees in recent months. …It was interesting to observe a bit of the short-term aid being offered in the main train station. I went a few times to help, either sorting clothing donations or preparing a simple breakfast. Certainly a different view of the city — a tram rumbling by while a retiree from Vienna, a young Czech guy, and I wash fresh persimmons at a fire hydrant spigot; an Afghani (?) boy helps set out things for tea and coffee and practices writing his name and mine in a tentative script; a huddle of young men gather around a cell-phone charging station; the make-shift volunteer area combines a sort of hippie feel with Germanic efficiency of clothes-sorting and food storage…. The flood of newcomers has slowed for now, but there are long-term needs and opportunities, for sure!

Odds and Ends

Looking back through photos of the past months, I should mention the yearly Long Night of the Museum — was this year really my fourth time? A lighting exhibit was the most photogenic part of the evening.

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Other city events included a rather random light show near my new flat. Two grand museums (art history and natural history) face each other across a plaza, and for a few nights there was a light show projected onto the buildings.


Wrapping Up

The Christmas gifts are mostly wrapped, and I’m basically packed. Since I have to get up in about 2 hours (eeks!), I guess I’d better wrap up here and get a smidgen of sleep.

I wish each of you (and those who didn’t read this far) a joyful Christmas and renewed strength and hope for the new year — “life up your voice…, do not be afraid; say…, ‘Here is your God!'” (Isaiah 40:9).

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Three years ago yesterday I was arriving in Vienna on a rainy, chilly September afternoon. At the present moment, I’m enjoying an overcast afternoon with sister and cousins in New Jersey, on the eve of traveling back to Vienna tomorrow afternoon. To keep up tradition, here’s the past year in books!

General Reading

boysThe Boys in the Boat (Daniel James Brown)

This is the best book I’ve read in the last year! Chronicling the team of rowers who against the odds won their event in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the book also offers another angle on mid-century history. Not often have I found a biography/history book such a pager turner or the sort of book to make your heart race with the suspense!






The Supper of the Lamb (Robert Farrar Capon)

What a funny book! The author, an Anglican priest and chef, combines cooking, baking, and philosophizing about life and family and food with a wit and humor that are delightful. If you have an aversion to butter, don’t bother reading it. If you love to eat well and celebrate God’s goodness in the gift of palate and pen, you are sure to enjoy it.


sayers“Are Women Human,” “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,” and “Why Work?” (Dorothy Sayers)


These three witty essays are each a quick read. “Why Work?” is a wonderful meditation on the nature and purpose of work from a Christian perspective – quite a wonderful alternative (in my opinion) to Arendt’s belabored approach.




Home (Marilynne Robinson )

Last year I read Gilead, a novel shaped out of the letters an aging father writes to his young son. Home follows the same characters, but from another angle…an [all-too-]believable tale of misunderstandings and search for belonging.


zu lautBin ich zu Laut? (English title: Am I Too Loud?) (Gerald Moore)

Any collaborative pianist will appreciate the title of this book (in English, Am I Too Loud?). It’s the memoirs of accompanist Gerald Moore and an interesting inside glimpse into the career of the author himself and his collaboration and friendship with almost countless other musicians.


The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien)

To keep up tradition, yet another year in Vienna with Tolkien!tolkien

And the Mountains Echoed (Khaled Hosseini)echoes

Last year I read Hosseini’s more famous Kite Runner. His third novel  (I haven’t tried the second) is not surprisingly a convoluted story line and not happy. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest the book, but I sort of like that he doesn’t tie up all the loose ends in a neat (or fairy-tale happy) ending.




The Diving-bell and the Butterfly (Jean-Dominique Bauby)

diving bellA fascinating, short book by a young Frenchman who finds himself launched by a massive stroke from an elite fashion magazine career to a hospital ward. Reduced to communicating through blinking his left eye to signal which letter his typist should write, he crafts a sensory-rich, humorous, sarcastic, endearing glimpse into his shrunken physical world and the wider world kept open to him through one eye and a hopeful spirit.


Ehe (English Title: The Meaneheing of Marriage) (Tim Keller)

A small group of women from church read together Tim Keller’s book on marriage. Although I’d already read and appreciated it in English, it was a good experience to re-read it in German and to discuss the book with people coming from different cultural and church traditions.


Books for Study

There were several books I read this year that I probably would not have come across except because they figured into a couple of religious studies courses I was taking at the university.

orthodoxyDie orthodoxe Kirche: Ihr Leben und ihr Glauben (English: The Orthodox Church: Her Life and Her Faith)

Happily, one text seemed to cover about all that the professor for “Einfürung in Orthodoxe” (“Intro to Orthodoxy”) included on the oral exam at the end of the semester. Granting that it was a cursory overview of a branch of the Faith dating back multiple hundreds of years, it nonetheless gave a helpful overview of Orthodox church history, theological distinctives, liturgical practices, and particular modern-day theological and ecumenical topics.

The Politics of Jesus (John Howard Yoder)yoder

For “Political Theology and Philosophy of the 20th Century” we read an array of essays and books, including one title each that we were expected to present on at some length in the seminar course. I chose to present on a title that sounded interesting, only to discover later that the author is the father of an acquaintance in Knoxville. Small world. It was an interesting read. Although I appreciated the author’s conviction that the life and teaching of Jesus express an ethic that has practical implications on the personal and cooperate levels, I was less convinced by his occasional leaps of logic.

The Stillborn God (Mark Lilla)stillborn

The evocative title kept me wondering for most of the book what the title actually meant. After decrying how politics and religion tend to form a volatile mix (in mid-century Europe, for instance) and praising attempted separation of church and state (think post-Enlightenment secularist tradition), he ends up calling the secular state itself “the stillborn god,” an (in his mind, at least) noble attempt that may not be able to deal with modern political and social life.


Political Theology (Carl Schmitt)schmitt

This book apparently invented the phrase “political theology.” It’s a short, somewhat confusing read. According to the author, the authoritative political leader assumes the absolute authority of a divine figure, standing above law and convention in times of national emergency and acting in a sort of messianic role. The reader doesn’t have to wonder why the author’s ideas were appealed to by the Nazi party.


sphereThe Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (Butler, Habermas, Taylor, West)

This short book was primarily made up of transcriptions of four talks and the ensuing discussion between four prominent philosophers, addressing religion in the public sphere. Quite interesting. I’d possibly be interested to read more by Cornel West, an African American philosopher who calls himself “bluesman in the life of the mind, and a jazzman in the world of ideas.”


The Human Condition (Hannah Arendt)

First off, I have to admit that I only waded through about half of this book. It’s still sitting in a manageable-looking Adobe Acrobat file on my computer. Perhaps if I hadn’t worked at reading it when I was quite so busy and exhausted, and if I hadn’t been reading from my computer, I could have finished it. As it was, the half I read seemed to do an excellent job of 1) parsing terminology and 2) assuring me that philosophy is not my cup of tea. She goes into great detail to describe how man uses and purposes his energetic output. Oh, dear, that sounds silly and confusing! But, what words are left when Arendt claims that man’s “work,” “labor,” and “action” are all significantly different categories that have deep historical and cultural ramifications? Eeks!

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Good Things Come in Threes

This gallery contains 105 photos.

It’s mid-August and HOT in Vienna. From my perch at the kitchen table, with a fan fighting the summer heat wave, it’s high time for an update — featuring Haleys, Hiking, and Home. [Disclaimer: the title of this blog post is … Continue reading

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