Plunder

I spent two weeks at home with my family over the holidays, eating great food, seeing close friends, and speaking an amazing amount of English. It was so relaxing that I had no idea how the transition back to Switzerland would be. But I was in for some surprises.

The first surprise was the words. For the first week, French words on signs began to pop out at me. The words weren’t even anything special except for the fact that I knew what they meant. There was a secret power in the knowing, as if I could place the word in my pocket to use later when I needed it. It was almost startling how vivid they became, little pieces of life strewn around the city that were ripe for the taking. I plundered the words, locked them away safe in my mind so that I could know. Not figure out, but know instinctively what they wanted to say.

It’s this instinct that allows me to know what words mean without translating them. I am surprised at how the words to the songs we sing in church touch my heart differently than they did even one month ago. They seem closer, more real. The words mean more now and are permeating every aspect of my life, even my dreams.

Of course, it helps that the words are really all around me. When I am in an English speaking country, it is easy to choose not to speak French. But here, I have no choice. There are people with whom I could not otherwise communicate unless I wrap my tongue around these strange syllables and take out the words I have locked away. And I am already learning again, every day.

Sometimes I still feel like I am speaking in code. It seems cryptic and difficult, yet this code is the primary means with which a people think, discuss and dream. And slowly, I am cracking it, using this code to become a little more like them, discerning more with every conversation. There are times when it is a struggle, and then other times where I am walking down the street and I catch myself thinking in French. Cryptic or comforting, foreign or familiar, it’s becoming a part of me in a way that makes me think that no matter what happens, I will never be the same.

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Progress (finally)

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about progress in language learning and how it is hard to be objective or to even “measure” progress at all.

Sometimes progress is not quantifiable. In immersion situations, the brain is constantly working to process the input heard and seen every day. There may be knowledge we don’t even realize we have, like knowing words without having remembered learning them. Or perhaps we understand different words, even without being able to spell them or repeat them on our own. Context is a great interpreter.

Today marks three months since I arrived in Switzerland to study French. While I don’t have any official tests or benchmarks to boast of, I can say that I’ve improved.

The first way I know is through comparison. When I think about what I can accomplish now versus my abilities in September, the change is drastic. When I first arrived, I was barely able to hold a conversation, and any discourse that took place was laden with awkward pauses, searching for words, and asking for repetition. Now I can understand almost everything spoken directly to me and can make myself understood without having to search for too many words. I still make mistakes, but they don’t usually cause communication to break down.

The second indicator is my own expectations. I used to be pleasantly surprised when I was able to hold a conversation without stumbling over my words. Now I expect it. The same for comprehension. Talking one-on-one has become easier, so I’ve turned my attention to understanding group conversations between native speakers (much faster and harder to follow). My expectations may be high, but this will help in the long run for learning well.

Still, it’s important to celebrate the little victories along the way. I may not always realize it, but I am learning more every day.

Lessons Along the Way

Recently I was talking with a friend about life lessons she had learned while traveling through South America. Hearing how her journeys shaped her into who she is today was a beautiful story. I know I could tell similar ones, and I love the idea of looking at place as a sort of classroom to learn the lessons we need.

Spain taught me a lot about courage. It was my first time abroad by myself, and bravery was a necessity to survive in another country. Canada taught me about living in the present. I learned that while future plans were helpful, life was happening right under my nose and wasn’t waiting for anything. There were many other lessons, of course, some too personal to post here. But what intrigues me is how I don’t always understand the lessons as I am learning them. Hindsight tends to bring clarity. So while I can’t say definitively what Switzerland is teaching me right now, I know that in spite of all the highs and lows–or maybe because of them–living abroad is still a great classroom.

I could go on about the advantages and drawbacks. However, what seems to be true regardless is how living abroad brings me to the end of myself much more quickly than if I were in a place where everything is familiar. It forces me to depend on God in a way that might not happen if I felt like everything was under my control. And living in a another country shows us how quickly we are not in control: of our own cultural assumptions, of finding our way; even our tongues betray us as we struggle with the local language. It is in this lack of control where we can finally begin to learn.

I measure my life in countries and years. But these are just specific ways to look at seasons of life, where we learn something about who we are and who God is. The key is to look back every once in a while, to realize we have not come here overnight, and to see what each season has taught us.

Reflections on the November Project

When I decided at the end of October that I would be writing in my blog every day for November, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I knew it was going to be challenging, but I wasn’t sure exactly what the content would be and how it would take shape.

I think the hardest part was there were some days when I just did not feel like writing at all. It was tough to come up with something on those days and to overcome the temptation to quit.

The best part was seeing the writing process become easier. After about three weeks, I felt like I got into a groove, and posting every day didn’t seem too hard. I loved watching my writing evolve too.

The most regrettable part was that in writing every day, I let some other things fall through the cracks…like keeping in touch with far away friends. That may be December’s Project.

The most surprising part was that I didn’t always write what I had intended to write. I would sometimes make plans about something I wanted to write about, but then events from the day would take over and put themselves down on the page. (For example, I know that I need to take time to reflect on the past month’s writing process, but I actually want to tell a story about a young boy I met at a family’s house at lunch. They made baskets of tiny crêpes and all sorts of toppings could be found on the two tables joined together to accommodate the guests. At the end of the meal, the young boy announced that he had eaten 12 crêpes. When I remarked on how that was impressive, he proudly told me that his record was 18. The End. You see? Voilà! An embedded story.)

To revisit the goals from November 1, I wanted to

1) Overcome the trepidation I felt when posting in my blog. I think publishing something every day took care of that.

2) Unleash my creativity. The fact that I wanted to write about topics that came to mind that day instead of pre-determined prompts showed me that I was thinking creatively. I think that in addition to putting words on a page, writing is also a kind of mindset, a way of looking at the world for inspiration, and filtering life’s events to form a story.

3) Find my voice. This one is tricky, since a writer’s voice doesn’t just develop in thirty days. But seeing a progression in the style and form of my posts made me feel like something was beginning to take shape.

4) Find a clearer picture of my blog’s identity. I’ve determined that there may not be a clear genre for the types of things I want to write, but I am ok sitting in that uncertainty for now. I have ideas about overarching categories and themes, and we’ll see where that goes in the coming weeks.

Thank you to those who have been tuning in faithfully to this month’s musings. Now that November is over, don’t fret! You can go back to read what you missed, or check out the new pictures in the Gallery. I will be back in December, not every day, but more regularly than I have been in the past.

And finally, the question remains: would I do this again? Ask me in October…

The Cross and the Crown

When I first started playing guitar, there was pain. My fingertips were soft and unaccustomed to the metal strings digging into my flesh. I couldn’t play for more than ten minutes at a time before needing to take a break. Eventually, the callouses developed and I could play beautiful music.

When I leave for a new place, I have to say goodbye to friends and family. Something tears inside of me and I find that I can’t even process what it means to leave until I am somewhere else and they are not at my side. But in leaving the familiar, I build my home in a new place and gain something beautiful that could never have been attained had I not left.

I do not yet understand why pain must be woven into the fabric of our lives before we can attain glory. But it seems that anything worth having does not come cheap. There is effort involved, struggle and sorrow. I don’t understand, not yet. But I am fascinated by the story of Jesus.

In the book of Colossians, Paul describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God.” Jesus came to make known what we could not see and be Immanuel, God with us. If He had not come into the world, I think I would always view God as a God who is distant. Wise and powerful, perhaps even loving, but always distant and removed.

Jesus showed us that is not the case. He came down into our messiness, into our grief and sorrow. He experienced our pain. I can’t even begin to say how significant that is for me. The above examples of pain are trivial. Often times there is no clear answer or means of redemption. Sometimes we are still left waiting.

It is in this waiting period that I believe we can come to know God in a different way than before. It is excruciatingly difficult to reconcile God’s love for us with the pain in the world. We wonder why He doesn’t demonstrate His love for us by taking our pain away. But in a twist that is made possible only in an upside-down Kingdom, He shows His love for us in a different way: instead of taking away our pain, He shares it, taking it upon Himself.

Many today might reject God on the grounds of pain and suffering in the world. I cannot pretend to have an answer to justify the existence of torment and trouble, of sickness and sorrow. It doesn’t make sense to me either. But I take comfort in two things. One is that our indignation at pain suggests that life was not always this way, and that perhaps it isn’t meant to be like it is now. Two is that no matter what happens in the world, I cannot reject God on the grounds of the existence of pain and suffering. It might be easy to do so, except for the fact that He knows loneliness. He knows grief. He knows betrayal, physical anguish, and even death.

He shares in our humanity and offers us immortality.

Thanksgiving

We celebrated Thanksgiving today, complete with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, a fall salad, cranberry cookies, and a delicious sweet potato pie. For all the hours it took to prepare, I was surprised how quickly everyone ate, but during the meal we talked about different holiday traditions, and our Swiss guests commented on the foods they had never tasted before.

I normally don’t like taking pictures of food (it’s meant to be eaten, not made into a still-life), but I made an exception today:

Table

A view of the table.

A fall salad of my own devising: kale, sweet potato, pecans, dried cranberries, pomegranate seeds, and an olive oil lemon dressing.

A fall salad of my own devising: kale, sweet potato, pecans, dried cranberries, pomegranate seeds, and an olive oil lemon dressing.

At a time when family is far away, it was important to be able to gather together to celebrate. Traditions are hard to keep up away from home, but some of them are worth fighting to maintain, to keep traces of our culture and pieces of ourselves that shouldn’t be lost.

A Spirit of Gratitude

Maybe a holiday isn’t so much a day, but the spirit behind the day.

Holidays should be inherently portable. I don’t have room in my suitcase for boxes of stuffing, cans of pumpkin filling, nativity scenes, ornaments, lights, or an artificial tree. But these are just symbols, representing something real. Our problem is that the symbols have become more important than what they signify.

Thankfulness. Joy. Hope. Peace. These are the signified, the spirit behind the holidays that give them meaning. Take away the symbols, and they are all you have left.

Don’t get me wrong: symbols are extremely useful to remind us of why we celebrate. But my hope is that they don’t make us jaded, going through the motions of another “holiday routine.” Instead, let’s take time to reflect and be grateful for what God has given us. Without any sort of reminder about Thanksgiving today, thankfulness is all I have left. But that’s ok. It’s actually the point.

And we do what we can. I will be celebrating tomorrow with some friends. Because celebration is best done in community, and joy and gratitude are meant to be shared.

A Meditation on the Present

Today was a day to explore.

I spent the afternoon wandering Neuchâtel with some friends and it was the most relaxing afternoon I’ve had all week. I wasn’t thinking about my tests tomorrow, or the two that I took today. I could rest my mind and be present.

Our first stop was the public library. It’s strange that I’ve been here for almost three months and am just now stepping inside. Walking in the door, the first section we see is Geography and Travel–my favorite. I spent some time exploring different countries before wandering upstairs to the fiction. This library has an decent English language section as well as a smaller Spanish section and of course, many books in French. Upon finding that my student ID magically doubled as a library card, I promptly checked out Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days in French, hoping it would be more accessible than my current French philosopher for literature class.

Earlier that day we heard someone raving about an organic grocery store. We found the tiny shop and entered to examine its treasures. My friend found plantain chips imported from Cameroon, and I found a dark chocolate bar with mint filling. This may seem mundane, but the Swiss have yet to be enlightened about the perfect marriage between dark chocolate and creamy mint, so although we are in one of Europe’s chocolate capitals, mint chocolate bars are extremely hard to find, and still extremely delicious.

After that we wandered, taking an elevator to the base of the prison tower and then walking almost all the way around the castle. We went into the Collégiale Church next door, and I was touched by the advent wreath placed before the altar:

Advent

I love Advent season. When we think about getting ready for Christmas, we tend to think about the tree, buying gifts, making cookies, but Advent reminds us to prepare our hearts for the coming of the King.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and this Sunday marks the first Sunday of Advent. I realize that I haven’t been practicing gratitude lately, nor have I been taking time in the silence to reflect or prepare my own heart for this season. I am looking forward to making time, like I did today, to remember that there is life beyond tests and classes, and that God’s presence is with us always.

Go Build Your Spaceship!

***Warning! This post contains some spoilers from The Lego Movie. Read at your own discretion.***

I cannot believe I am writing a post about The Lego Movie. When it first came out, I didn’t want to see it because the trailers made it look dumb. And worse than dumb, they made it look like The Matrix done badly. I suppose going in with zero expectations helped somewhat, but I ended up really loving the movie.

My favorite scene is where Benny finally builds his spaceship. The entire film, he wants to build a masterpiece only to be told time after time that it wasn’t necessary. But when he realizes his dream and helps save the day, the joy is contagious; for he is finally doing what he was meant to do all along. I dare you to watch that scene without smiling.

I see myself in there. For me, despite the challenges of language learning, speaking a language well and doing linguistic analysis is like finally getting to build that spaceship. Last week when I presented about linguistics to my class, something came alive inside of me. I feel passionate about the work I will be doing and want others to be excited too.

I think everyone has that sort of potential, but it gets lost along the way. Too many people tell us not to build a spaceship and we become dejected, listless. What if that passion were awakened and given room for expression? What would you do? How would you live differently?

Light in Our Darkness

If you’re living in the States, Thanksgiving is coming soon, normally signaling the clear break for when we can pull out our Christmas decorations and start preparing for the season. But I have a confession to make: I’ve been playing Christmas carols since early November (maybe even very late October).

I know some people have strict rules about the order of holidays, but when you live abroad in a place where Halloween isn’t a big deal and Thanksgiving doesn’t exist, the separation between fall and winter gets blurred. The cold days are short, the nights are long, and you need some Christmas spirit to come a little early.

Thankfully, the city has obliged and has started putting up lights over the streets and garlands around the fountains. But the pretty decorations are not why I celebrate.

Christmas is gritty. We don’t like to think about that though; think about the tree! the tinsel! But the first Christmas was not like that. I celebrate Christmas for the birth of Jesus. For those who believe that Jesus is Lord, He is the light in our darkness, the Savior of the world who was born to die.

I love nativity scenes, and one year, I saw one with a cross placed just above where Jesus lay. When I saw it, it was shocking, but absolutely appropriate. There was a star above the manger, shepherds who came to worship, angels who sang, but surely there was still the shadow of the cross.

Jesus’ birth is more than just a nice story; He came into the darkness of our world to proclaim freedom for the captives and the year of our Lord’s favor. He started a movement that turned the world’s hierarchy on its head. And He came to die for us. Along with gold and frankincense came myrrh, a resin used for preparing bodies. It’s almost as if the bearer of this gift knew what would happen.

But Christmas is also full of hope; it means that we are no longer enslaved, that God has come to dwell with us, and that the One who said “Let there be light” has made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory. The fact that God came to pierce our darkness with His light is something worth celebrating.

The true light has come into the world, and we can rejoice over that any time of the year.