Long summer evenings. Crisp fall mornings. Apple picking. Thanksgiving turkey. All have come and gone for another year, and here we are on the cusp of Advent. …The fall has been good — and full. To jump ahead in seasonal metaphors, I’ve felt a bit snowed under at various points in the last couple of months, but that probably means I should try to jot down at least some of the highlights.

September in Paris

In September, friends from Knoxville, Randy and Linda Lind, invited me to join them for several days in Paris! It was right as the new school year was starting, but marvelously my school teaching schedule and the unpredictability of the first week or so of school meant that I didn’t end up missing any lessons.

I also got to reconnect with friends who live in Paris…with time to enjoy meaningful conversation, croissants, a fabulous music store…with Ernesto, Anne, and Pauline’s parents. (I guess I was happily focused on the visiting, and didn’t take any photos of these dear people!)

The time with the Linds was filled with sight-seeing, interspersed with rejuvenating cups of coffee, as well as conversation and laughter. We did a lot of walking, map-studying, garden meandering. (Who knew that there’s a vegetable patch hidden away among the flowers in the Jardin des Tuileries, next to the Louvre?)     

We also visited (twice, I have to admit) the wonderful cafe that friends introduced me to  my last trip to Paris. (James and Davenne, I thought of you so many times over the course of the days in the city I’ll always associate with you!) After a piece of quiche, I’m not sure if there’s anything better than a slice of cake from Le Loir dans La Théière (“The Dormouse in The Teapot”). Oh, and I should note that we enjoyed two splendid meals at the restaurant where Benjamin Franklin signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783!

One thing that makes Paris so wonderful is the crazy combination of pomp and circumstance, and quaint and obscure. 

Our day at Versailles was certainly a dose of pomp and extravagance. My goodness — the palace was beautiful, but in a rather ridiculous way. I think we might all have enjoyed the elegance of the gardens more than the glamour indoors.

Not to be guilty of missing any of the highlights of Paris, of course we took a stroll near the Eiffel Tower, though we didn’t venture up. Plus a visit to the Louvre.

And a wonderful trip to the Orsay.  

One additional thing I enjoyed was trying to keep an open eye for detail and patterns:           

In summary —  a wonderful few days with dear friends in a truly beautiful city.

Reflections

As October arrived, I was especially aware of what was happening this time last year — both Mom’s birthday on the 12th and her death on the 26th.

On her birthday this year, I spent a bit of time making a stream-of-consciousness account of things I’m thankful for about Mom:

I’m grateful for countless quiet, happy hours listening to Mom read. For her example of steadfastness in fulfilling daily routine — Bible reading and prayer, healthy and tasty and timely meals, laundry and cleaning. For the value she placed on written communication, keeping up with family and friends, asking questions, prioritizing hospitality, making special days special, enjoying tradition, appreciating things of beauty, taking interest in what interested others, reading widely, enjoying music, establishing routine, avoiding busyness for busyness’ sake. 

For listening well, for exemplifying putting her own desires behind others’, for taking initiative in the small things, for a ready laugh and quiet wit and emotional elasticity. For splendid meals — family favorites likes crepes, waffles, tacos, turkey tetrazzini, cheesecake, Christmas baking, Christmas breakfast, apple pancakes, homemade bread, omelet breakfasts, love for butter.

For her love of travel, adventuresome spirit for hiking or getting to know about other parts of the world. For her faith pointed outwards — in prayer and delight in hearing stories of missionary work, in reaching out to internationals locally. For her lack of preoccupation with things, yet careful stewardship of what we had and delight in things of beauty, often connected with a personal story in some way. 

For her presence and enthusiasm for my musical pursuits…attending lessons, guiding practice, sitting and writing letters or such while enjoying the “background music” of my practicing. For her readiness to learn, expand. For her freedom and delight in traveling to Vienna — her bottomless capacity for coffee, readiness to adapt, intentionality before/during/after in remembering and cherishing each person I described and whom she met….

…A couple favorite photos from her trip to Austria back in 2013:

…On the 26th, my flatmate and another friend from church joined me early in the morning for listening to a recording of the memorial service for Mom. It was a rather strange thing to do together, perhaps, but it felt very important to listen back through the service and, rather than doing that alone, in some sense introducing my mom to two of the people I know best here. Afterwards, we talked over breakfast — a typical Mom-menu of an omelet and toast.

Fall Retreats

Later that same morning, I headed off to our church’s annual retreat, located again this year in a quiet town in the middle of Austria, in an area sprinkled with lakes (and prone to lots of rain). It was a special few days. We were bursting at the seams of the retreat center’s capacity, with about 110 people. The theme of the weekend, which was right over the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, was the 5 Solae of the Reformation — salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone. We spent time considering together the foundations of our faith — plus enjoying blustery walks, damp morning jogs, and late evenings playing games.

The next weekend was another retreat, this time with my choir. It was one packed weekend, filled with half a dozen rehearsals, a wonderful morning jog through the fog and morning light of countryside Austria, and two extended evenings chatting. Good, but exhausting! There was just time, upon returning to Vienna on Sunday night, to try to catch a huge breath before diving into the busiest week of the fall!

November Concert

November proved to be a busy musical month! Besides diving into some new chamber music projects, there were two choir concerts, plus the big project of the season — helping organize a concert/forum at church with visiting musicians from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

Months ago, my pastor put me in contact with one of the musicians from Redeemer, who was organizing a Europe trip with concerts in three cities — Munich, Krakow, and perhaps Vienna. The goal was to use a format that Redeemer has found welcome in their NY context — a concert, whether featuring opera, jazz, classical, musical theater, etc., with texts addressing a particular cultural topic (in this case, “tradition”), plus a discussion of how Christian faith interacts with the topic.

I was intrigued, and a lively correspondence ensued. The end result was a wonderful concert of Broadway tunes, all somehow connected to the idea of “tradition” and the opportunity for connecting the themes brought out in the music to Christian faith. It was exciting to see the church full, with a number of guests, as well as regular New City Wien folks.

The musicians’ week was packed with other activities, too — offering a masterclass to voice students, participating in a theater class at the local English-speaking Christian school, singing in a nursing home, and giving a panel discussion on “music and spirituality” intended for students at the music university.

On top of all that, the group was very much fun to hang out with. They made a huge impression on me by being so absolutely available, flexible, ready to serve. There was a lot of good conversation and laughter packed into the week. It was also very affirming at a personal level — seeing the musical arts connected with Christian thought and faith, without music being just a means to an end, but also being enjoyed and appreciated as worthwhile in and of itself. And, although I usually get excited and nervous about musical events where I am performing, I had those same feelings with getting to be on the planning end this time! A ton of work, but definitely the job highlight of the year!

Well, time to sign off for now. Next time, Advent and Christmas….

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Alta Via

In the welcome glance of placid sunshine and morning optimism, we head to the train station in Lienz, Tyrol, en route to the trail head. Along the way, we are intrigued to see hay bales in unlikely disarray and trees apparently buried to their knees in mud. <Hmm, must have been some real flooding.> Arriving in Toblach, just over the border into Italy, and inquiring for the bus stop, we learn that our bus is back in service as of this very morning, following storm-caused road closures. <Wow, fortunate timing!> Arriving at the lake where the trail starts and clarifying which way to head around the lake, we are told by three different individuals that the trail is (partially) closed, due to landslides. <WHAT?!> I have sudden visions of six days’ hiking in the Dolomites, anticipated for a year plus, suddenly imploding. From the front desk of the luxury hotel on the near end of the lake, I phone the local tourist office. When the woman who answers tells me that the trail is indeed open, I joyfully pass the phone to Stefanie for native-German-speaker confirmation that I have heard correctly!

So began a week in northern Italy with friends Stefanie and Anne! Since it’s way more interesting to catch a glimpse of the area than describe the trail footstep by footstep, I’ll try to keep my commentary to a minimum and stick largely to photographic reporting.

Day 1 to Rifugio Pederü

“The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars…. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness…and strips the forests, and in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!'” (Psalm 29)

We set off on the Alta Via I (literally, “High Way #1”) or Dolomiten Höhenweg (it’s Südtirol — part of Austria till after WWI, so there’s a lot of Italian/German signage) — first rounding the lake, beautiful even with the landslide debris floating on its surface, and then launching up the rock-strewn, path-obliterated slope.I guess the first 1 1/2 hours, maybe, we didn’t have a trail, but thankfully the mud beneath the rocky surface had more or less solidified, and we weren’t the only ones who had ignored the “trail closed” signs at the departure point from the lake. What was most interesting, and a bit alarming, was the state of the trees — those in the path of the rock slide, either felled or somehow still upright, had been stripped not only of their evergreen foliage but, to a large extent, also of their bark.

    Above the rock slide area, the landscape took on a more predictable outlook — a meandering trail with lots of ups and downs, past a couple of rifugios (the Italian version of the Austrian Hütte or mountain lodge). Seven hours later, the last stretch landed us about at the elevation we’d started at, after descending a ridiculously steep road (much better to be walking than driving), and we were glad to be able to relax over dinner at Rifugio Pederü. (The first three nights I was almost uncomfortably comfortable, given that I imagined a tiny bit of roughing it for a week.)

Day 2 to Rifugio Lagazuoi

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God…. (Psalm 36)

Our second day was the longest, as we wandered deeper into the grand landscape, and our destination for the day was the highest point on the trek. We started out heading up out of the basin where our previous night’s lodgings had been. Along the way, there were some intriguing rock formations — I really can’t comprehend the sights and sounds that must have accompanied the shaping of these hills. Then our way stretched out in a broad valley… …before heading up toward the pass (located in the middle right of the photo below):  After the climb up, we found some minimal shelter from the wind for a few minutes’ rest and a snack. With the clouds not looking so inviting, we soon headed down the precipitous other side.  Amidst the rock-strewn terrain, what should I find but Edelweiss (the one bit of flora I was particularly dreaming of seeing)!?!  Down from the pass, the sun was out again. It was pretty splendid to lie in a patch of grass and lazily observe the shifting clouds drifting above the solid mountains. Then, on and up — it was still a lot farther than it looked! At one point, we thought we heard voices on some nearby parallel trail, but couldn’t see anyone. Lo and behold, the voices were carrying from the massive cliffs off to our left, where a couple of climbers were part-way up the face. (Can you find them? Hint: They are wearing blue and red.)Closing in on our goal, we saw the first signs of the dugouts and tunnels that dot the landscape, leftover from WWI and the three-year conflict between the Austrians and Italians for the pass.   Arriving at the lodge, there was plenty of time before dinner — a three-course Italian meal! — to enjoy chatting with other hikers (German/Austrian and Israeli), who had some pretty entertaining stories of how the landslide threw a monkey wrench into their hiking plans, having intended to start a day or two before us. I also enjoyed taking the short path out to the actual peak, trying to absorb the grandeur of the mountains bathed in the light of early evening.

Day 3 to Rifugio Averau

“The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; He utters His voice, the earth melts. …Come, behold the works of the Lord, how He has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth….” (Psalm 46)

 We woke up to a splendid breakfast buffet — hiking Austrian or Italian style is no way to lose weight! Breads of various kinds, cheeses and salami, yogurt and a variety of muesli, sweet breads, soft boiled eggs, tea and coffee. Oh my! I was glad I’d gotten up early, not only for the extra cups of coffee downed, but particularly for the splendid morning sunlight washing over the landscape. Before heading down the trail, we took the short jaunt out the peak again… …and then headed toward the highlight of the day’s trek — or maybe I should say the low-light, since headlamps were in order! …One of the ways down from the peak is through the 100-year-old tunnels, built like mazes into the mountainsides. We couldn’t imagine the deprivations the soldiers who built them must have experienced — exposed as they were to harrowing enemy fire and the perhaps even more relentless enemy cold…. We spent two hours in and out of various passages and traversing steep, damp steps down dark passages, in-between arriving at multiple portals overlooking the landscape below. Somehow war in such an environment seemed especially senseless — were the soldiers shouldering munitions or injured comrades able to appreciate the rugged beauty around them, or was their misery in the tunnels as unmitigated as that of those in the trenches in northern Europe, with the added element of alpine weather?  On the last bit of our descent, we got caught in the edge of a rainstorm, but all in all we were spared getting wet. From the pass at the foot of the mountain to our next destination, we managed to get slightly lost — but still got to the lodge before the building wind turned into a proper rainstorm.

Day 4 to Rifugio Citta di Fiumi

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge…. (Psalm 61)

 Day four was one of the most beautiful days on the trail. Although I was initially pretty disappointed to forego an over-the-peak route (questionable weather, and I couldn’t find anyone else leaving the lodge that morning who was taking that route), the route we did take was spectacular — starting with a brief bit of graupel (miniature, alpine hail) as we got underway, and then a chance to scramble around the base of this wonderful work of art: From there our path was a a steep descent, followed by a trail aiming back up to a beautiful lake and a rifugio that offered shelter in good time to bypass a rain shower and watch the fast-changing skyscape while enjoying a coffee. I decided to go local, and ordered an espresso with grappa. Man, the shot of Italian brandy (more or less) was so strong that I couldn’t even taste the coffee!  Our path led up to the next ridge/pass, then on and on in the same wonderful, ever-changing panorama of jagged peaks and unsettled clouds.   Along the way, we took time for shots of something besides landscape — a rocky seat, peanut butter and cranberry sandwich-making, and the other creatures inhabiting the terrain.  We enjoyed our lodgings for the evening — the first Alpenverein Hütte (mountain club lodge) of this trek. (The other lodgings so far were privately owned, but the ones sponsored by the mountain club tend to be family run affairs, small, and a bit more rustic!)

I foolishly decided to venture forth before dinner for a rocky scramble — only to discover I was really too tired for adding more to the day. But, I managed to get pretty soaked, since I didn’t turn around in time to beat the rain.

In the evening, we ended up playing a card game with another woman sitting at our same table. A widow, she was out hiking for an extended number of days, determined to enjoy again some of the same trails she’d enjoyed with her husband over the years. She turned out to be an interesting and lively personality — Austrian, but having spent all her adult life in France. She seemed as pleased to have been included in our rounds of cards as we were for her company, and she even jotted down the name of the game for her grandkids. …This is the fun of hut-to-hut hiking — the encounters, or sometimes repeated encounters, with fellow hikers, in a setting where everyone is simultaneously worn out and refreshed from days outside in the sun and fresh air.

Day 5 to Rifugio Tissi

“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. …When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8)

 A splendid find along the way on day five was a small farm advertising burro (butter) and formaggio  (cheese). Anyone who knows me well knows I’m quite a fan, so of course Anne and Stefanie and I had to stop. Not only did we enjoy the quaint scenes of morning on a small farm, but, with the help of another hiker who translated,  we managed to buy a wedge of cheese for lunch — and glorious glasses of fresh milk! What fun!  It was Saturday, so day hikers were out in full force, their numbers largely made up of young Italian families. Past the lake, the crowds thinned.  Arriving at our last lodge of the week, we were blessed with some of the best views of the trip — the ridge just above the lodge offered a 360 degree panorama, not to mention a precipitous view down to the lake at the foot of the mountain.  I felt like I could spend ages just sitting up there and taking it all in. The warm afternoon, the pleasant small talk with a young Italian couple also relishing the view, the subtle changes of light and color over the vast landscape of peaks and valleys — what a storehouse of happiness for cold, gray days to come!  After dinner, a whole crew of us traipsed back to the ridge for sunset — the master Painter, unwearied by all the preceding days of equal masterpieces, splashing fresh glory on His canvas of common grace. Later, when I thought pretty much everyone had gone to bed (it was all of about 10:15 p.m., but there’s sort of an unspoken rule of climbing into your sleeping bag by 10:00), I tiptoed back downstairs, in hopes of catching a glimpse of a meteor shower. A hum of Italian came from a small group of other would-be stargazers. I found a spot in the grass to stare up at the heavens — the Milky Way sprawling across the dark expanse and a few exciting meteors passing overhead — until it got too cold to wait for more meteors.

Day 6: Back to Town

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” (Psalm 90)

Finally it was time to leave the mountains and head back to town. On our descent, we were again surprised by the number of weekend day hikers, many with young kids in tow. Many, too, brought along their dogs, including breeds that looked more like little lap dogs. However, the dogs seemed to share their masters’ enthusiasm for the outdoors, trotting up the incline with good cheer sufficient to compensate for their short little legs. (If a year for humans equals seven for a dog, then there must be a similar multiplication factor for mileage calculations for small dogs!)

It was lovely to find a cool mountain stream for wading — even if less ideal to accidentally offload my backpack on top of an ant hill! By mid-day, we were back to town, where we found a cafe to perch till the bus came…   …having been blessed with six days with dear friends, splendid views, good health, tasty meals, and lovely fauna and flora….

Udine and Back to Vienna

Getting back to Vienna from the end of our trail was no small task. First a bus ride to Belluno, where we realized we had just enough minutes to buy train tickets and catch the waiting train on to Udine, where we’d already booked tickets for a return to Vienna the next day. Unfortunately, in the rush, the ticket salesmen misunderstood the destination name and sold us the wrong tickets. By the time we realized the mistake, there was no time to board the departing train, and the same man, rather disgruntled, exchanged out tickets for seats on what must have been Italy’s oldest, stuffiest, slowest model. Changing in Treviso (which we hadn’t meant to visit at all), we were rather dismayed to see a train heading to Wien Hauptbahnhof (Vienna Main Station) just about to pull out of the station.

But, after another train to Udine, we found the bus to the suburb where we’d booked an Air B&B for the night. Our Italian host greeted us as though long-lost relatives, his beaming face and exaggerated gestures the perfect stereotype of Italian hospitality. Although a sleepy-seeming little town, there was a delightful pizza shop, where we sat on bar stools outside, gobbling up the pizza and sipping at the wine that were both perched on the wide windowsill “table.” From there, we were directed to a gelato shop, which was the perfect way to polish off the evening!

The next morning we had time to look around Udine, with its ancient town square and relaxed atmosphere, before an uneventful train ride back to Vienna. Before I can write “The End,” I must say a specific, huge thanks to my cousin Rachael. She took the same route last summer, have planned it all out herself from her home in New Zealand, and she kindly asked if I would join her. When it because obvious that I couldn’t return from the States last summer as planned, it was a big disappointment to miss Rachael’s visit to Europe and the much-anticipated hiking trip together in the Dolomites. …This summer, it was tremendously helpful to follow in the footsteps of her thorough planning — and I hope there will be an opportunity to hike together (maybe New Zealand?) in times to come….

The End.

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Northern Highlights

St. Petersburg

In July I traveled to Russia for a week, largely because the Russian visa I acquired two plus years ago was still valid (it’s still a mystery to me why a three-year, multiple entry visa cost the same as a two-week, single-entry one), and I was keen to see St. Petersburg (especially in it’s summertime glory), which I didn’t visit last time. Most splendidly, a new friend from choir, originally from St. Petersburg, generously offered to show me around while she was on summer holiday back home — and, my friend in Moscow was also keen for another visit!

Now, I was a bit unsure that all the travel arrangements would come off as smoothly as they looked on paper. After all, the “multiple entry” label on my visa was in Cyrillic, which meant going in faith. And, I was a little nervous about the overnight train to St. Petersburg — when I bought my train ticket online, the website asked for a photo ID number but wouldn’t accept my U.S. passport. (Hmm.) My Austrian visa was in the middle of the renewal process, so that didn’t work; so I ended up giving the very unofficial-seeming number of my Vienna public transport card. Would the Russians find fault?

All my logistical worries proved groundless. Arriving in Moscow, I more or less sailed through customs, took my time sorting out the directions I’d been given for getting to the train station, and enjoyed the warm summer evening in between train and subway connections. To my great delight, the rather cheap seat I’d booked on the train to St. Petersburg turned out to be an upper bunk on the upper deck of a sleeper car, which was a lot more comfortable than I’d been expecting, complete with pleasant cabin-mates.

Arriving the next morning in St. Petersburg, my first impression of the city was the number of Chinese tourists exiting the train station. (Politically correct and historically informed statements aside, throughout the city it felt as if the ancient invading Golden Horde had transformed itself into the peaceable and art-enthusiast horde of Chinese sight-seers.) Thankfully, I soon found my way to the subway station where my friend Anna met me. We started the day together with a leisurely breakfast at home before embarking on a very full day of walking.

St. Petersburg is built along both sides of the Neva River, with small channels running through the city, in a strange way slightly reminiscent of Venice.

Thanks to my excellent tour guide, I learned that the capital was moved from Moscow by Peter the Great (1672-1725), who was eager to establish a “window to the west” and who was enamored by Western European art and culture. (Apparently, he forced his nobles to shave their beards and smoke cigarettes. Noblewomen were expected to adopt the dress of their western counterparts, despite the uncomfortably low necklines.)

A large fortress area, built by Peter the Great, was our first stop for the day. Later, we tried out the popular cuisine of the Caucasus, sat on the sandy beach of the river, and took a boat tour. The city was in the middle of preparing for a yearly naval parade, so their were plenty of boats and ships on the river.

We visited the beautiful “Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood” (built as a memorial for the assassinated Czar Alexander II).        I also spent a while exploring the State Russian Museum. Late in the evening, we enjoyed the long walk home — it’s a late-night culture (at least in summer), and the buildings and bridges are beautifully lit along the wave-tossed Neva.

On Friday we started with good conversation over another leisurely breakfast, and then around noon we took a bus to Petershof, a former royal residence sporting opulent fountains, fantastical statuary, extensive gardens, and a view out to the Gulf of Finland. We took a boat back, taking in views of the approaching city. The harbor cranes looked to me like the ungainly skeletons of robotic dinosaurs.The evening attraction was being out late enough to see the draw bridges on the Neva open for the nightly shipping traffic — around 1:30 a.m. Of course, one must be sure to be on the correct side of the said bridges, since the subway doesn’t run all night!  What was just about as intriguing to me as the views of the city by night was the fact that at 1:15 there was still a discernible deep, deep blue in the western sky, above a cloud bank on the horizon (see photo below!) — and when we went to bed at 3:00 a.m., it was most definitely getting light! (In case you are as geographically challenged as I am, St. Petersburg lies a bit north of Stockholm, Sweden, or about on the same line as where the Canadian provinces meet the territories.)On Saturday I checked off the main item on my St. Petersburg wish list, a visit to the Hermitage, former royal residence/government complex and now home to one of the great art museums of the world, rivaling even the Louvre for size and opulence. Funny side note: Wondering how the museum got its name? Apparently, one of the queens particularly liked a certain room, which — besides boasting small indoor fountains, a picturesque stair to a small gallery on an upper floor, a decorative peacock in a large class case, and an exit to a garden courtyard — could also accommodate all the necessities of a private dinner without the bother of servants present. Hence, the queen’s “hermitage.” Here’s a glimpse:The building, even minus the art hanging on the walls, offers ample reason to visit. The decadent apartments for this and that royal figure — one room almost completely overlaid with gold, another showcasing immense jade urns, a third fitted with mirrors even on the ceiling to give the sense of greater space — were definitely over-the-top. Many of the rooms had beautifully painted ceilings, which were easy to overlook, what with everything else to look at.          Although I enjoyed some truly ancient Siberian art and lots of galleries that I can’t remember anymore, I aimed, as is my wont in any art museum, for Dutch art and spent quite a while observing the Rembrandt painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s not actually my favorite Rembrandt, but partly because of how it features in Henry Nouwen’s book of the same title, I wanted to see it. I found myself wondering what the tour group guides were saying about the piece, whether any glimmer of the story sifted through to the hearts of passersby, or afresh to my own.Museum sickness (what we called it growing up when you are sated on art and your feet feel like they might fall off) having set it, I called it a day and retired to my own “hermitage,” the company of a book, at a nearby cafe.

A quiet evening at home, including watching impressive YouTube videos of Anna’s uncle, a professional accordionist, playing Bach and Strauss, brought the days in St. Petersburg to a close. The next morning I took the fast train back to Moscow.

Moscow

Sunday afternoon I arrived in sunny, warm Moscow and realized I could squeeze in a museum visit and lunch near the Kremlin before heading to Alexandra’s. In the process, I managed to get caught in a torrential downpour — maybe I should have paid more attention to those dark clouds! Finding my way later to my friend’s place was surprisingly easy. I was tempted to pat myself on the back, pleased with how much simpler it seemed to navigate the subway lines than when I was there two years ago. However, I eventually discovered that the difference was not due to my matured navigational skills, but to the fact that since May the stops have been announced in English as well as in Russian….

(Side note: The Moscow and St. Petersburg subways are works of art. The Moscow subway opened first in 1935, and the Art Deco/Art Nouveau era origins are well-preserved. Today the system is a sprawling network, but basically every station I saw was not just functional, but also artistic.)

It was a good reunion with Alexandra, whom I originally met when we were teaching at the same school outside of Vienna several years ago. She’s one of the more vivacious people I know, able somehow to combine walking in the door from two weeks out of town with making company feel at home and sauteing chanterelle mushrooms for supper.

Monday morning I woke up to the smell of pancakes. Man, that could send me back to childhood Saturday mornings — sleeping in, whole-wheat apple pancakes frying (if you can use such a word for the healthy, substantial — and delectable — variety Mom made), maybe a bit of Bugs Bunny, and even what we called “gum day” (Saturday being the one day of the week Hannah and I were allowed to chew gum).

In the afternoon we visited a reconstructed wooden palace and sprawling park, and oohed and ahhed our way through a vegetable market morphed into a hip place to grab lunch.     In the evening Alexandra had to teach a dance lesson, so I went along to entertain myself in the nearby park. My oh my, it was quite a cool experience. Forget any stereotype of somber Russians and cold, bleak city streets. Enter summer. A long pedestrian bridge over the Moscow river, young people perched atop the upper arc of the bridge’s suspension. Down below, on the river bank, people dancing — salsa, waltz, Irish jig, practicing cheer-leading moves. Up the bank, a steady stream of people walking, cycling, and generally enjoying the summer vibe. I enjoyed people-watching and made some more progress on the book I’d brought along. (Side note: The Hunchback of Notre Dame — I didn’t feel quite up for a more appropriate Russian novel — ends horribly!!! I don’t think I ever saw the Disney or musical version, but there’s no way they could have ended like the book! French 19th century literature, with Gothic overtones, meets the pessimism of Thomas Hardy.)

Tuesday I took a walking tour of part of Moscow, and in the afternoon Alexandra and I visited another garden.  Back home, we ate the lemon cake I’d baked in the morning and took a walk to an overview of the city lit up at night.

Wednesday morning I flew back to Vienna, having enjoyed good times with friends, seen many beautiful places, managed to eat beet root and herring salad at least three times, and been reminded that cities are intriguing and exhausting! As good as the trip was, I felt so happy to get home to Vienna, and have the customs agent at the airport greet me with the customary “Grüß Gott!”

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Welcoming Summer

With summer in full swing, it’s time to review the past couple of months, which have been full of normal routine, the end of the school and university semester, visitors from afar, and travel enjoyed.

Visitors

In May, dear friends from Knoxville arrived for several days, between celebrating a doctoral graduation in England and returning to their home in Lebanon. It was a huge gift to have them visit — with time to explore the city together, a certain requisite amount of Viennese coffee and cake, and especially good conversation. I was particularly grateful to have friends here who knew Dad and Mom, not to mention who are good listeners, ask good questions, and are both intensely serious and enjoy a hearty laugh. A single paragraph and a couple of pictures can only give a tiny glimpse of how much the time meant to me. Thank you, Mike and Stephanie!

End of Semester

The school year ended uneventfully, with the usual requests from students to be allowed to play in the garden rather than bother with lessons, and with a teachers’ outing to a lake. (I tried stand-up paddle-boarding for the first time, with particular determination not to fall in, as I’d forgotten a swimsuit.) …University finished off with one paper to write for a class on secularization theory (I wrote about Charles Taylor’s idea of a basic human longing for “fullness,” comparing and contrasting that with the Classical concept of “happiness” and the Christian idea of “joy,” as Lewis describes it), plus an exam for a class on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (which meant twenty minutes talking with the professor, whom I have appreciated very much this term, and who sent me out with a copy of a book off her shelves, which was a pleasant surprise).  …At the music uni, though I’m not studying there anymore, I enjoyed participating in a friend’s studio recital, playing a Martinů trio for flute, cello, and piano. …Choir wrapped up with a glimpse of our fall program and a relaxed dinner at a choir member’s place outside the city (exploring the extensive and rather wild yard/garden laid out on the steep hillside, enjoying everyone’s home-made dinner contributions, and watching one of the kids fall into and get fished out of the goldfish pond).

Baking

Perhaps in part as a result of various baking experiments in preparation for helping with Hannah’s wedding cake last summer, I’ve had rather a lot of fun with further baking projects. A morning strawberry picking necessarily inspired short cake:

Colleagues coming for tea prompted a lemon cake:

Brunch inspired a cinnamon twist bread:

And, the fourth of July featured another lemon cake, disguised with my favorite icing — whipped cream and sour cream — and decorate for the day: 

Summer

The first outdoor adventure of the summer was a hike and overnight on the Schneeberg, a mountain not far from Vienna, with roommate Jessica and friend Anne. In summer mode, I made sure to pack sunscreen and plenty of water. However, after a hot, sticky climb up the warm and humid Klamm (gorge), we were shocked to find that the mountain above was by no means basking in warm sunlight. Instead, we enjoyed (or endured) one of the windiest hikes we could have imagined, arriving hours later at our destination nearly teeth-chattering cold!

With the end of the school semester finally arriving a couple of weeks later, it seemed that summer must have truly arrived. My flatmates’ birthday on the 1st of July was a good occasion to inaugurate the summer by enjoying midnight ice cream Sundays on our roof terrace and sleeping under the stars. Despite the rather chilly night and cool wind, it was quite splendid.
The next day, Jessica’s parents arrived for about a month, combining days in Vienna and the surroundings, plus some travel further afield. They generously invited me to join in their Austrian adventures, which started with a day cycling along the Danube (or taking the boat, depending on preference), along with friend Anne. The day was grand, and started (and ended) with rather some unforeseen challenges of bike transport.

     The next four days, the four of us headed to the region known as the Salzkammergut. Although the name refers to the the salt (“Salz”) deposits that were a valuable resource as far back as the 2nd millennium B.C., today the region is synonymous with a multitude of lakes, the Eastern reaches of the Alps, and the many quaint towns nestled in valleys and along lake shores.The first night we stayed at a lovely resort on the Grundlsee, a long, deep lake with splendidly clear water.

   We pretty much dropped our bags and headed straight for a swim. Jessica and I managed to swim out to a buoy, which, we were surprised to find, seemed to be marking a source for drinking water. Then, we spent a while exploring the fauna on the undersides of lake rocks, with the help of Jessica’s biologist mom. I wasn’t particularly impressed by her identification of leeches, but was comforted by the fact that they apparently only enjoy fish as prey. (Now, some of you are going to think the lake wasn’t so idyllic as it actually was, so a few pictures to reassure you.)

     After a fancy dinner, a thunderstorm giving way to a beautiful evening, and some rounds of cards, the trip was very much off to a good start.The next day we took a ferry across the lake (about 5.5 km), then walked to the next lake — again ideal for a swim.       In the afternoon, we were off to our next destination — first a short drive to Tauplitz, then a chair lift up to the mountain plateau, then a walk to our Hütte (lodge) for the next two nights. Certainly more rustic surroundings, but perfect for a couple of days of typical Austrian mountain pleasure.

   Tuesday we took a hike all together to two more lakes. I dubbed the first “the Caribbean,” as the colors of the shallow water surrounding two tiny islands lent a decidedly tropical aura. The water wasn’t the only colorful sight to see. We were apparently hiking in prime wildflower season. (Judy, thanks for all your photos, including lovely flower specimens and lake views!)On the way back, our party split — the parents headed back to the hut for a relaxed afternoon, and Jessica and I set out to see if the afternoon’s weather would allow us to get to a peak (and, preferably, back to shelter) before the predicted rain arrived. Neither of us was expecting the absolutely fascination landscape we encountered. Quite in contrast to the type of boulder fields one finds in the Rockies, our trail led along and up what seemed more like one gigantic, continues slab, but pockmarked with countless holes and crevices/crevasses…rough patches that looked like mountains on a raised relief map…organ pipes (Just guessing: if I were standing at the bottom of the photo, I might be about 1/8th inch tall)…odd, heart-shaped outlines, which might have been fossils…and signs of new life….

 To our extreme delight, we even came across half a dozen or more ptarmigans, which seemed to be still in spring garb — white bellies to blend in with any lingering snow, but otherwise in the perfect camouflage for their rocky surroundings. (Can you find the birds in the picture below?) Well, we did make it to the peak, and back down to the hut — before the rains came.      As Jessica said, the Austrian diet — heavy on pork, hearty dumplings, and other fat- and carb-rich delicacies — truly makes sense after a long hike in the mountains. The evening finished off with games and reading, as did the previous nights.

The next morning, there was time to work in a quick peak hike before breakfast. Our scrambling was put to shame by the appearance of a Gämse, or chamois, who was surprised by our early morning intrusion on his domain, but not at the least risk for being overtaken.   Breakfasted and packed up, we stopped along the way to the chair lift down the mountain to peek into a beautiful chapel — with acoustics well-suited to a couple hymns — before we proceeded.On the way back home to Vienna, we made a stop at the Dachstein ice caves. Although I was picturing caves within the glacier, instead the tour showcased a cave that, unlike most caves that maintain a very moderate temperature, is influenced by frigid drafts, which cause water seeping through the limestone to create fantastical ice sculptures. Back in Vienna, I’ve enjoyed the past ten days with quiet tasks and good visits with friends, while Jessica and her parents continued their adventures with a trip to France. Now they’ve returned, and I head off this afternoon  for a week in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Cheers!

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Spring in Austria (and Germany)

It’s a Sunday morning — bright blue sky, cool breeze but warm sun. Birds offer practically the only audible commentary on the beauty of the day, as my perch on our rooftop terrace is just far enough removed from the sleepy city to give a sense — if I were to close my eyes — of being on holiday on a quiet beach somewhere. Glorious.

…Funny what complicated beings we are: Here I’m enjoying having nothing between me and the heavens, while the past weeks I have been slowly coming to an inner articulation of the pain of “rooflessness.” Repeatedly in the last weeks, a troubling image has come to mind: I am in a house, but there is no roof.  The image begs the question, “Where do I fit? Who has by back?” …It’s not a question of belonging, per se. Who is more blessed with sister, brother-in-law, aunt and uncles and cousins, friends locally and around the globe? It’s really a question of who is “over” me, as God’s representative, shall we say, in the sense of both authority and shelter.

In the past days, I’d say this existential question has been addressed by deeply needed confirmation that it’s the local church, and the leadership of that church, that bears that responsibility. Like most people of my generation, or perhaps humankind in general, “authority” doesn’t tend to have a positive or endearing ring for me. But, when exercised in love, I’d say it gives a feeling of home.

Easter

Easter feels like a while ago by now. It was a fairly full week of church and other Easter-related activities. I joined a few other musicians, part of a larger short-term OM Easter outreach team for a couple of small concerts in two nursing homes. Although the first location offered a piano that was so horrid that it was really funny, it was a good opportunity to share some classical and sacred music in new settings. Particularly in the second nursing home, the residents, and the social worker who helped organize the event, were so appreciative. It was also neat to see the extra-large-print Gospels of Luke and John be eagerly accepted by some of the residents.

On Friday there was a meditative Good Friday service at church. Saturday I baked hot cross buns, a family tradition, and in the evening participated in an Easter concert, for which the nursing home concerts were a bit of a rehearsal. My part was to accompany two vocal pieces and provide two hands for a couple of piano duets (Brahm’s “Hungarian Dances” — fun pieces!). It was a particular joy that a surprising number of friends showed up (despite public transportation havoc created by a train wreck in one of the main stations). After the concert, I went with a friend to just the first bit of the Russian Orthodox Easter mass. A friend sings in the choir, and I love Russian church music. But, the service is basically incomprehensible, extremely long, and requiring the congregation to stay standing. We left after an hour (about midnight), but I think the service went till 2 a.m. or later.

Easter Sunday was a festive service. It was good, even if a squeeze, to join our two services into one. Extra music (of course!), visitors (including two friends I’d invited, which was a real pleasure), and a shared meal afterwards. In the afternoon, Jessica and I enjoyed dying Easter eggs at home before heading off to a dinner at our pastor’s house (more good food, a hilarious dinner game, and good conversation). Easter Monday, a holiday here, was full, too. I hosted an Easter brunch for a few friends, like last year. It was pretty laid-back, the first guest arriving at 10 a.m. and the last leaving at 4 p.m. Afterwards, though, I was totally exhausted. I’m afraid I was sort of going through the motions of celebrating Easter with church services and hospitality, but in retrospect it was all good, and all a bit much.

As a side note, the spring weather one expects around Easter time (at least in the northern hemisphere) was quite unpredictable this year! Two days after Easter it snowed in cold, windy gusts more or less all day long. Even though nothing stuck, it was an odd throw-back to winter!

Building Community

CHOIR WEEKEND: In March, just before our April concert, the choir I’m singing with gathered in a small town a couple hours outside of Vienna for a weekend of rehearsals and getting acquainted. Well, I got to get acquainted with a number of folks, but many of the members have been in the group for numerous years!

Besides six rehearsals between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, there was time for morning runs with two other choir members, lots of conversation over meals and evening bottles of wine, and a walk into town (a rather popular pilgrimage destination). I continue to be grateful for the friendly people and lovely music! Our next concert is June 1st. 

SMALL GROUP RETREAT: The weekend after Easter I went along on a retreat organized by one of the home groups (Bible study groups) from church. I can now say that I have stepped foot in all nine Bundesländer (states or provinces) of Austria. We camped out (not literally) near the large and extremely shallow Neusiedlersee, which forms part of the border between Austria and Hungary. The weekend included valuable discussions on our topic of “joy” and a decent dose of happiness. Image may contain: 11 people, people smiling, people standing, sky and outdoor

The highlight for me was the bike ride we took Saturday morning. All 12 of us — covering about a 35-year age range — braved a blustery day for a splendid jaunt to the lake (which includes an interesting wetland area that is a real bird sanctuary). Some of us extended the ride for a tour through an area of vineyards, where we were rewarded with coming across what looked to me like the most perfect hobbit homes.

A Week in Germany

If the month of April hadn’t been full enough already, it ended with a trip to Germany. A group of 9 of us from our church in Vienna joined about a 1000 others for a conference (Evangelium 21/Together for the Gospel) that was commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and considering the five “solas” (“solae”) of the Reformation for Christians today — Sola scriptura, Sola fide, Sola gratia, Solus Christus, Soli Deo gloria. There were guest speakers from the U.S., as well as German pastors  — wow, rather a lot of input for 2 1/2 days!

The days in Hamburg also included getting to catch up with a friend (thank you, Olga!), as well as visiting a church I quite enjoyed. Monday I took the bus to Berlin for a couple of days of sight-seeing.

Berlin is very different from Vienna — bigger, and with a more modern vibe. There are certainly old buildings, too, but it’s not the same type of grandeur the Hapsburgs promoted in Austria. It was a rather strange visit, in some ways, for me. I arrived on May 1st, which was one year since Dad’s death. I felt like I should somehow make note of the day, but it was odd being alone with my thoughts, and far from home in Tennessee or Vienna. I listened to the recording of the memorial service while I was on the bus from Hamburg, and I decided I should enjoy a big hamburger and fries at a favorite restaurant (which Dad would have fully approved of!). (That got postponed till the next day, but was still a good idea.)

…A few city highlights bear proper describing: First off, the first afternoon I enjoyed a really great 4-hour guided walking tour.  Our guide had a PhD in history, but was enjoying a change of scenery from academics and giving city tours instead. The tour ended next to the Konzerthaus, so I decided to see if there were any concerts that I might be able to attend spontaneously. Happily, although I didn’t manage a rather expensive concert, I did get in on a documentary film paying homage to the world-famous pianist Alfred Brendel. A very unusual guy, to say the least (!), but certainly interesting. He unexpectedly showed up at the question and answer session with the film producer afterwards, so that was an added bonus.

I did a lot of walking in Berlin. In fact, aside from taking public transport from the main bus terminal to my hostel upon arrival, I walked everywhere else. Fun! The other prominent feature of the visit was lots of museums — a bit about the Cold War (really hard to imagine living in such an arbitrarily divided city) and a lot about WWII. Very heavy, but impressive, exhibits that gave both an overview of the atrocities of the war and sought to highlight the stories of individuals and families. 

Having read and re-read in times past an extremely good biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I made a point of visiting the museum about resistance movements during the 3rd Reich. One of the best parts of the trip was visiting the Zionkirche (Zion Church), where Bonhoeffer was a youth worker (catechism teacher) to young people in a part of town that at that time was decided underprivileged. (Today, the church sits in a gentrified neighborhood.) When I walked into the church building mid-week, late afternoon, I was surprised to see a children’s church service just about to start — a group of young families gathering, home-made refreshments laid out in the back, an Easter egg hunt (why in May?) being laid out on the church lawn.  A small photo/text display at the back summarized the church’s history and Bonhoeffer’s role. I have no idea of the soundness of the church’s theology currently, but it was somehow beautiful and moving to see a lively congregation gathered in that space and think about the role one of its former churchmen played in a costly living out of the gospel in the not-too-distant past.

Besides walking and museuming, I enjoyed catching up with a friend, as well as a few refreshing hours spent reading in cozy cafes.

Well, I could carry on, but I’ll spare my readers more text this time around and close with a handful of photos — spring flowers, in a park with friends, a roommate photo op, and a sun-set photo from the terrace. Glad summer is around the corner.  

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New Year and a New Routine

January 12th — two months ago — I arrived back in Vienna; it seems like a long time ago. A welcoming committee of friends from church met me at the airport, which was really lovely, and then my pastor went to the visa office with me to make sure I really got my visa (which was supposed to be picked up by the 12th — I hadn’t means to cut it quite that close, but my flight out of NY got delayed by a whole day). Later I wandered over to the university for a meeting scheduled with a professor regarding some translating work. I didn’t expect to be greeted by a German academic with a warm hug, but it welcome, nonetheless. In the evening, I decided to show up at a church small group dinner, where I reconnected with my roommate and several other friends — and also realized I was overdosing on social input on top of jet-lag and had better call it a day.

The following week or so was strange. I unpacked and began making appointments to see friends. People asked me if I was glad to be back? What should I say? Yes, glad to see friends — but so lost, so visionless. So glad to be alone, quiet. It felt like a diabolical cloud was hanging just over my head, demanding that I decide “what I’m doing with my life” — but couldn’t I have just a little peace, a little living-in-the-present-moment?

I wouldn’t say that the intervening weeks have exactly provided all the answers, inspired crystal-clear vision, or brought a settled peace, but the atmosphere has lightened overall.

Delights of a Cold Winter

           

Strange to say, but the most obvious way the ominous cloud lifted was a Sunday afternoon lark to the Danube River with my roommate. A long series of cold days led to the Neue Donau (the part of the river that parallels the Danube shipping lanes and cuts a straighter course than the original, meandering Alte Donau) freezing sufficiently to entice dozens of gleeful risk-takers out onto the ice — people skating, flying kites, walking dogs, bicycling, ambling with strollers. My roommate and I were as captivated as the rest — and with an afternoon’s sunshine, comradery, a dose of risk, and healthy sport, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.

Settling In

It’s tricky not being perennially busy. Tricky to know when to say “no,” when you don’t know beforehand how tiring such-and-such is actually going to be. But, being away for six months certainly invites re-evaluation! One of my big goals has been trying to take more time for rest and quiet, and time alone. I’m not sure how much I’m succeeding with that goal, but it’s at least a work in progress! (My roommate and I have decided that balance is a hopeless ideal, whereas the word tension does a better job of describing the tight-rope act of setting priorities, establishing routine, and being flexible!)

The first couple of weeks, the main priority was finishing up the university semester, which had about 2 1/2 weeks yet to go. I attended all of three lectures for a course entitled “Grundkurs Patrologie” (Introduction to the Church Fathers) and passed the oral exam, even if not with flying colors. The only other course I’d decided on for the semester, “Religion at Ground Zero: Theological Responses to Times of Crisis,” only demanded a paper, which I rather enjoyed writing, despite the heavy topic. (Note: If I hadn’t take any courses in the fall semester, I’d not only have wasted university dues already paid, but also necessitated a fuller load in the spring, assuming I want to renew my student visa this coming summer.)

With the university term ending at the end of January, it was time for diving back more fully into work — but, first, a few days skiing and enjoying Austrian hospitality!

Vorarlberg

I spent a week with my friend Rebecca in her hometown in western Austria. Two mornings we joined some of her school students for ski outings. The first morning that meant showing up to school with ski gear in hand, and then walking clumsily in our ski boots to the nearby bus stop, and getting off at the nearest ski slope! Rebecca and I were in charge of just four students — all delightfully well-behaved 9-1o year-olds.

The next day Rebecca and I took the train to a big ski resort — so big that we hardly repeated any slopes all day long, and I lost track of how many lifts we rode. Austrians do love their skiing and certainly have dedicated a good bit of technical innovation to the sport. The funniest thing was the lift with heated seats.

Besides parts of four days skiing, we had time for good conversation, sitting by the cozy tile stove to read, a bit of cooking, visiting with church friends, etc. I also was extremely glad to reconnect with another friend, Inge, for a special evening at her home for Austrian Käsespätzle (think macaroni and cheese with gnocchi-like “pasta,” incredibly strong cheese, and a hearty helping of sautéed onions) and a good talk….

A New Routine

Back from Vorarlberg, it was time to take up a new routine — my three part-time jobs, studies, and other activities. A brief summary for the curious:

Job number one consists of 10 hours of assistant teaching at a private Catholic school. The school offers a special English-focused track, and participating classes have some of their core subjects taught in English once per week. The regular teacher offers the subject-area expertise, and I offer the native English expertise. This semester I’m team-teaching 5th, 6th, 8th, and 10th graders — biology, geography, history, religion, and music.

Job number two is working as the administrative assistant at my church about 7 hours a week — sending out newsletters, posting sermons to the website, helping plan services, running errands, etc.

Job three is doing some translating (German to English) for a professor at university — a new adventure. In the next few weeks, I’ll get the required official work license for Sprachdienstleistungen — ah, those long German words and that love of official, specialized documents!

Since I’m here on a student visa, March means starting back to university for the new semester. Actually, I’m still sorting classes out, but so far so good.

Other regular activities, besides church and a church small group, include Monday evening “English Cafe,” a low-key conversation group for anyone wanting to practice their English. It’s always an interesting mix of personalities and nationalities — last week, our non-native English speakers were from Austria, Israel, and Egypt.

My other weekly commitment is the choir I’ve joined! …The Sunday afternoon I went ice skating on the Danube, I very “randomly” started chatting with a German women, who in the course of the conversation mentioned the choir she is part of. Amazingly, the group is exactly what I was looking for (style of music, frequency of practice, number of singers, etc.) It really feels like a gift just dropped in my lap. Right now we’re working toward a concert in April, the biggest piece being a Bach motet based on Romans 8 — beautiful and uplifting….

I’ll end for now on that note.

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Christmas and a New Year

Musings

22 December: Christmastime. The calendar tells me it is three days till Christmas, and the roads surrounding my aunt’s house in St. Louis are packed with last-minute shoppers. We join their ranks, popping into a book store and Target, stopping at the iconic Ted Drewes that sells milkshakes and fragrant Christmas trees. Eggnog and Christmas cookies seduce us from the kitchen counter. A Christmas record plays, and a tree might still get decorated tonight or tomorrow. In Vienna, Christmas markets buzz with activity – subdued, I dare say, but not stifled, by the Christmas market tragedy in Berlin….

I don’t feel quite like Christmas. Mind you, not un-Christmassy, exactly – more just that feelings seem stifled, or at least confused. Everyone I know can’t help but assume it’s a difficult season…. They see a mountain of change, of loss, in the months past, and rightly assume that the path is steep; just far enough removed, they can see the jagged peak and guess the trail. But, I’m the hiker, just starting out; the mountain is too close, too in-my-face to see it, to guess its height, to absorb its colossal weight. Slightly dazed, I gratefully accept the trail supplies offered – listening ears and helping hands – but wish for space to access the mountain that has moved across my path.

The sadness I feel is largely the blank ache of not feeling like there has been room to be sad. The out-pouring of help and company (joyful, wearying, life-giving), travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations in different states (anticipated and enjoyed), booking flights to return overseas (stressful and a relief), and packing up a house that was Home for 33 years (enlightening and burdensome) – none of these lend themselves to quiet and self-reflection. I feel a desperation for quiet, but have simultaneously cultivated an impressive ability to avoid stillness. Maybe if I were incapacitated by tearful grief, things would make more sense.

 So here I am. Here we are. Here He is. To be honest, the Babe in the manger seems about as incongruous with the drift of my thoughts as the superficial cheer of secular holiday charm. Any theological ponderings coming from my mouth are going to be about as dry as the hay He lay in. But maybe, just maybe, He will show up again. I don’t really expect it. But, I guess the shepherds weren’t exactly expecting Him either. The world is cold and shocking still, like it must have been to Him that first Christmas. And, if He is unchanging, long-suffering of the changing world, perhaps He will come again this Christmas, as Prince of Peace….

Christmas Eve: Candles burning, Christmas music playing, cookies – shortbread, peppernuts, date pinwheels, and fruitcake, which we Holder women bake every Christmas (this year, I’m three-fourths indebted to Hannah). It’s well past midnight, and Aunt Susan and I lounge on the living room couch, savoring the moment and reluctant to head to bed. We’re home from the Christmas Eve service – one of the most beautiful I’ve been to. In the morning, I’ll put on the breakfast spread of what has so many years been the best meal of the year – home-made cheese Danish and bacon and oranges and coffee, enjoyed with unhurried delight in the company of family, any excitement over presents only heightened by the decidedly slow approach to the meal and breakfast dishes and turkey roasting preparations. Despite the incongruity of the present abundance and obvious absence, I feel warm and happy for the moment, even if not quite at peace – quieted in my aunt’s home, a place already accustomed to the tensions of grief and trust and even gladness.

Christmas

Christmas has a way of sneaking up on me. Funny, with all of Advent to be preparing. Whatever blankness I felt about the holiday, there were a number of specific joys or “Christmas-y” events that the season did hold.

One was an afternoon with my Aunt Pat baking Mom’s fruitcake recipe and cooking Austrian Eierlikör – a rare time to have my aunt to myself and the only time we’ve ever spent an afternoon in the kitchen together!

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I played the piano for a few Christmas events  — at my home church in Knoxville, for a couple of house parties, and for a Christmas Eve service in St. Louis.

For the Christmas holidays themselves I decided to visit my Aunt Susan in St. Louis. Really truly it was the first set of days since I got home in July that I could really rest, body and mind. As strange as it sounds, given the preceding months, it was one of the best Christmases I recall. We slept in, sat around in our pajamas drinking coffee and talking, played cards, walked the dog in the park, visited with friends from church there, visited with my aunt’s old German professor and his family, cooked, enjoyed special church services, and stayed up late talking or eating cookies or watching a movie. Thank you, Aunt Susan!  100_7218 100_7221 100_7223

Back home to Knoxville, I had just two whole days to finish everything. Wednesday I packed madly, and most of my boxes went to a friend’s place for storage (thanks, Matt, and Ivy and Patrick!). One important part of the day was doing one of two things I had on my to-do list before leaving – sit on the front porch in the sun, enjoying the view of the mountains. (Thanks, Sarah!)

After four hours’ sleep, I was ready Thursday morning for a truck from Knox Area Rescue Ministries to come pick up donations – multiple (!) boxes and a bit of furniture. Mid-day I posted packages to half a dozen family and friends – mostly letters family members wrote to Mom and were interested in reacquiring. Early afternoon I picked up the 16’ Penske truck I’d reserved (thanks, Vicki!), and by 3:00 I was less than fully ready for a cousin and two friends to load the truck with all the furniture and boxes. They were a patient crew – engineering the best fit while I kept packing boxes (and visited with a dear friend) inside. At last, it was all done! I even managed my other wish – climbing the tulip poplar tree that Dad and I planted when I was in 4th grade. (Thanks, Stephen!)

100_7238     100_7239The next morning I checked and rechecked for misplaced items, took photos of each room, and with a certain amount of nervousness, climbed in the big truck and headed north to Pennsylvania. Eleven hours later I arrived tired but intact at Hannah and Peter’s. They had pizza hot and waiting and both ran out to meet me when I pulled in about 8:30. Whew.100_7259

The New Year’s weekend was spent there – a long, relaxed, rather delicious (and sleepy!) New Year’s Eve. A fairly quiet New Year’s Day, and then Monday Hannah and I headed to Philly for brunch with cousins and on to New Jersey/NYC to see other cousins.

The following week I spent three days in upstate New York with friend Kathleen and her family. Besides meaningful conversation, the trip was made memorable by trying out Saratoga Springs’ famed mineral baths, playing endless cooking games with her two-year-old, and visiting the exquisite New York state capitol in Albany.100_7312 100_7319 100_7322

Then, there was the delight of several days with cousins Ben and Franci, and their three girls – a fitting bookend to the time with them at the beginning of the summer. Always a highlight: good late-evening conversations over tea. More picturesque, though, was a bit of snow and the fun for all ages:100_7324 100_7326100_7330 100_7328 100_7329

By the time this blog entry is posted, I’ll be in Vienna, back to some knowns, plenty of unknowns. Hopefully the new normal will mean I make time to blog before another eight months disappear – so much for that 2016 New Year’s resolution about posting monthly.

The blog’s about helping me record and remember, about hopefully entertaining or otherwise interesting my readers – and about keeping up. I don’t want it to be a one-way street. So, I do hope you’ll keep up via email or skype or snail mail. …One of the most surprising things of the last months is how friends in Knoxville, and afar, have loved the Holder family – in authentic and sacrificial ways, above what I could have imagined. I am more aware of this community of friends, this Home stretching between continents, than I was last spring, say. So, let’s stay in touch across the miles – and do stop by if you are in town:

Neustiftgasse 10/3/52, 1070 Wien, AUSTRIA

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