…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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!