Fernweh

Our Welcome Home sign at our home for the year, courtesy of two adorable neighbor boys.

Our Welcome Home sign at our home for the year, courtesy of two adorable neighbor boys.

Fernweh: (n.) an ache for distant places, the craving for travel

A few years ago, a small niche of young American women on Pinterest with some experience in German taught me a new word: Fernweh. While its antoymn Heimweh has a direct English translation–homesickness–Fernweh (pronounced FAIRN-vay) claims no English equivalent. The closest approximation, in fact, is another German word: Wanderlust, the proverbial “itchy feet” of habitual travelers. Yet because of its literal translation–“distance pain”–and the Pinterest comments from a few friends who experience this literally everywhere they are, I’ve always ascribed it a somewhat different meaning: “The ache for faraway places.” Geographical nostalgia.

Exactly one month after leaving Germany, it’s this word that I’m thinking of this morning, even as I look out of my parents’ upstairs window at slender, swaying hemlocks and hear little more than birds. I ache for faraway places. But this has been one of them for a long time, and today it’s not. I’m here.

The concept of a Home Ministry Assignment–called furlough by previous generations of missionaries–is somewhat new to me. Indeed, since the transformation from adventurous teacher to long-term missionary was a gradual one for me, the fact that I’m embarking on such an assignment at all sometimes strikes me as surprising, and amazing. A unexpected gift, both this calling and this year away, our time so far unfolds daily with surprises and opportunities.

Fun in Virginia with the Poe family!

Fun in Virginia with the Poe family!

Surprises like the necessity of driving everywhere, which I’d forgotten, or the deliciousness of Chick-fil-A, which I’d never experienced. Opportunities like being blessed with a new baby during this time away, or Timmy’s chaplaincy internship with the Seattle Veterans Hospital. I don’t know what this year will hold, exactly, except that it will be here, not there.

And I’ll miss there. I’ll miss walks through the green hills and cobbled streets, the mental gymnastics of a language not my own. More than those, I’ll miss the clever and curious young people that we’ve been fortunate to teach and serve these last five years. These longings remind me that our work there isn’t finished, that by God’s provision and with the support of many family, friends and partners we’ll be back again.

Still, the danger of the Fernweh that draws me to another home is much like the danger of nostalgia. The temptation to get lost in longing takes me away from the real goodness surrounding me both here and now. I don’t want to miss an afternoon on the lake with our dear friends in Virginia, or the sign that our neighbor boys made to welcome us to our new home in Snoqualmie Pass. I will be grateful every day, whether it is for the friendly strangers at the North Bend DMV or the long-loved faces of my siblings, gathered around a table for the first time since our wedding. There is much to love everywhere, eye-stinging beauty that takes my breath away with the reminder that I’m deeply loved by a good God.

A welcome dinner with my brother, sister-in-law, sister and her boyfriend.

A welcome dinner with my brother, sister-in-law, sister and her boyfriend.

Pray for us this year, friends. Some days I know that gratefulness will be a harder choice, when finding a used car is fraught with difficulty or we’re trying to sort out the expensive process by which German medical records become English ones. In the end, though, I’m thankful, for this home and that one, for the one we’ve just left in Virginia and the countless people who welcome us wherever we go. God has filled our life with a wealth of love and beauty, and I’m excited to see the wonders and meet the challenges that this new year will hold.

After The Wedding

Lovely bridesmaids after the wedding!

Lovely bridesmaids after the wedding!

Still I always look up to the sky

Pray before the dawn

Cause they fly away

One minute they arrive

Next you know they’re gone

“O”, Coldplay

After the wedding, we wake up slowly. Even Emily and I, who slept on the cool tile of the of the solarium, don’t immediately get up when the June sunshine splashes our faces. We were the first back, just after midnight, and the rest arrived after we’d gone to sleep.

We’ve come to Switzerland this weekend to celebrate the wedding of Rochelle, a former Black Forest Academy student, a Swiss-British-American girl who grew up on the steep, vineyard-striped shores of Lac Léman. The wedding was surreal and marvelous, complete with an ancient church in a steep Swiss village, an afternoon at a castle, a boat ride, and the traditional dinner and dancing familiar to all. It was a star-studded evening, magnificent and festive.

Now we’re sitting on the lawn outside of the bride’s childhood home, looking over the silky blue waters of the lake, eating breakfast. On the table is a generous loaf of crusty Swiss bread, along with butter, honey and Nutella. Our hostess, the mother of the bride, brings out tea and orange juice, encouraging us to dig into the bread and begin.

Many of Emily’s and my small group girls had been among the crimson-draped bridesmaids, and now they yawn their sleepy way to the breakfast table, laughing and collapsing into chairs. They tell stories from last night, last week, the years that they’ve known the young bride. They laugh about the breakfast–essentially good bread with things to put on it–and declare how much they’ll miss meals like this when they leave Europe.

“When I leave” is a common suffix today. Most of them are leaving Europe, and most of them soon. By the end of the month, this tightly-knit group of friends will be in Ontario, California, Oregon, Wisconsin, Croatia, and Korea. Only two of us will still be in Europe by the end of the summer.

I remember Lexi, a friend with whom I’ve worked, played and shared life for the last three years, once writing about Saturday breakfasts at Storchenblick dorm, where we spent a few weekends volunteering last year. We’d get up early and make waffle batter, then sit with cups of coffee at the counter, talking with the waves of sleepy girls that trickled through the kitchen. Those mornings were sweet, unpressured time to spend with these students we’ve come to love.

Today is like that. Ignoring all the work we have to do as soon as we leave the table, we linger. We sit in the morning sunshine, drinking in the hazy mountains and crisp air, the triple languages and good breakfasts of Switzerland. We memorize faces and voices, laughter and mannerisms, or at least record them with smartphone cameras, hoping to capture the moment. They go home to packed bags and empty houses, home to load their lives onto planes and on to the next adventure. This moment together, an idyllic breakfast above a Swiss lake, will be the last for a while. We cut slice after slice of bread, the dwindling loaf reminding us that our time here is limited.

It’s almost lunchtime when the first departure breaks the spell, taking the first of us off to Geneva, then to Korea. We stay a while longer, before finding our bags with a sigh, piling into the rickety van that will take us back. We wind our way down the hill to the lake, to the train station from which Emily and I go on to a few days of camping in Montreux. Untangling ourselves from the dusty seatbelts, we give hugs, shed tears, say a prayer as it begins to rain. Eventually the van goes west, and we continue east, further into the heart of these mountains.

We don’t always see them coming, these goodbyes, but this year has taught me that even when we know for a long time–for four years even–that eventual parting is inevitable, it’s still sad. We’ll still miss each other as we walk ahead, still long for home as we explore new lands. As we walk away, I find myself still praying for each of them, both that they continue to love one another well from a distance, and for the friends that they’ll meet in the new homes waiting for them. God will provide for them, as He does for me, that much I trust. Uncurling my fingers from the gift of these years–and this morning–I give them back to Him in thanks as we start a new chapter, beginning summer with a camping trip in rainy Switzerland.

A photo from a hijacked phone.

A photo from a hijacked phone.

Fly on  Fly on, ride through

Maybe one day I’ll fly next to you

Fly on, ride through

Maybe one day I can fly with you

Fly on

“O”, Coldplay

From Sausenburg

 

Sunset from Ruine Sausenburg.

Sunset from Ruine Sausenburg.

 

The pavement bends up behind the Catholic church, and we leave the smallest city in Germany down in the valley, turning a corner to find ourselves in the bottle-green halls of the summer Black Forest. It’s been a long time since my trail map was a constant companion, since Emily and I traced these little diamond-marked lines with hopeful fingers before beginning our explorations. We know them by heart now, these hills and forests as memorized as the faces of a friends.

Though it’s after eight, it’s still hot in the forest. It’s Friday night, the end of a long and busy day. We have only one more week of school, an odd one full of exams, farewells, honors and diplomas. I’m proud and weary, happy for our graduates and genuinely sorry to see them go. Still, it’s not the seniors I’m thinking of tonight, but the two friends walking beside me on the trail.

“Leaving is a loud presence lately,” I wrote, almost exactly four years ago. “Leaving cheers from goodbye parties, smiles its way across from me in restaurants, reminds me that it’s the last time for a while.” I was leaving then, packing up fifteen years of life in Seattle, bound for a village in Germany I’d never visited. I was leaving alone, my departure the only irregularity to disturb the pleasant rhythms of our lives there.

Leaving is louder here, and expected. While I once left a place where people tend to stay, each spring promises change, irrevocable and swift. For better or worse, Black Forest Academy is new each fall. This means the promise of new friends and students, adventures yet unmapped and conversations still waiting to be had. It also means that this is a place of goodbyes. It’s the goodbyes that I’m considering as I walk up to the castle with my friends, both of whom will be gone within the month.

The sun is just beginning to set when we reach Ruine Sausenburg, a crumbly half of an 11th century castle holding state on a leafy ridge. Sausenburg is not a particularly well-maintained castle. There is one faded sign sketching out the history of the castle, below a much larger sign full of rules, which includes “No Campfires” despite the presence of fire pit, grill, benches and friendly supply of firewood in the courtyard. We leave our bags in the courtyard and drag ourselves up the dusty wooden staircase to the top of the tower.

Even the tower isn’t terribly pristine or ancient-looking. The crenellated battlements are filled in with concrete, into which a circular iron railing sticks like a Sunday-school halo. We sit down on the wall, holding the railing with our legs dangling down, toes pointing to France. Awash in golden light, with Switzerland down to our left, the Black Forest behind and the Rhine Valley ahead, we toast to our years in this green valley, this place between.

“You know,” Lexi says after a while. “There’s not a whole lot that’s better than this.”

Another friend recently wrote about leaving here, saying “I  don’t doubt or question or mistrust this. I just don’t like it.” And that’s how I feel, in the midst of the leavings and farewells. I am confident that God’s plan is unique and creative, fully trusting that my friends and students go in His love and power on to their next adventures. I’ll just miss them.

We stay atop the castle for over an hour, watching the sky melt from yellow to orange, red and blue, until the first stars wink down from directly over our heads. No sunset lasts forever, even the protracted ones you see flying west on airplanes. Eventually, even the grandest fade to black and white, another kind of glory.

And even knowing the busyness of the days ahead, the hectic farewells layered amidst packing, grading and events, knowing that time will stubbornly refuse to slow down, I’m more grateful than mournful, grateful for these friends, this place, these years we’ve shared. Seasons, like sunsets, don’t last forever. We celebrate them as they come, savor them, remember them. And most of all, every day, we’re thankful, praising the God who gives us such good gifts, like a castle, a sunset, and friends to share them with.

Friends

Moving In

We didn’t always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can’t remember. But what I remember most is moving a lot.

Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

We finish just before lunchtime, then prepare plates of rolls, meat and cheese and sit out in the sunny backyard. As we eat, we marvel that it only took two and a half hours to get it all done, to move a family of seven from one house to another in Kandern. Eight vans, one truck, and fifty people. But still–two and a half hours!

It was a lively, lighthearted morning, as we passed boxes and furniture down long lines of people, learning names and hometowns and new positions, just a little over a week before school resumes at Black Forest Academy. We passed all sorts of things–blankets, dressers, one very large stick that the patriarch found on vacation in Italy once–marveling at the magnitude of seven peoples’ belongings. This is a family, with family things–coats for the winter, treasured furniture, toyboxes–and the moving day brings back all sorts of memories of my own family, moving from island to country to city, now so long ago.

Emily and I moved also, three months ago, a comical process that involved carrying all of our belongings down three flights of stairs, across the main street in Kandern, through a square and then up another four flights of stairs. Like this sunny moving day, that one was quick and fun and exhausting, enlivened by the help of friends.

The English-speaking tenth of Kandern’s population moves often. In that respect, as in many others, we are different from our Kanderner neighbors. Different from my landlord, who inherited his business and building from his father, and so still lives in the apartment in which he was born, the building with his name on the side in neon letters. There are the long-distance moves that bring us here and take us away again, years or decades later. Many of the moves, though, are from house to house, flat to flat, or at most village to village in our little green valley. There are many reasons for this: yearlong sublets from families on furlough, changes in roommates, new places opening up closer to school. I recently spoke to a young mother who moved three times within her first six months in Kandern, and is now delighted to return to the same place after a summer away.

I don’t mind moving. Since leaving my parents’ home a decade ago, I’ve probably moved a dozen times, at least. I love settling in, hanging up pictures and curtains, small things that make home interesting and cozy. Still, there’s part of me that starts to worry, with each move, about the things that I have. Don’t buy anything too heavy, I tell myself, nothing that I couldn’t pick up and carry myself if I had to. Or I wonder if I should bring this or that from Seattle back here to Germany, wondering if I’d then cart it back across the Atlantic later. The impermanence of our lives here, glorious and simple in its own way, makes it tricky to accumulate possessions.

And I don’t worry about the possessions, really. It doesn’t matter if my sheets, books, or dishes go along with me, or stay in this magnetic village, well-loved heirlooms for those who remain. What I notice, though, is the temptation to “travel light” in more than just a material sense. To think of relationships and community in light of their transience, investing only partly as I think of the ever-growing weight of separation from those who’ve left. Intimate friendships are like pianos or pets; solid, beautiful things that “change the game.” I am so deeply grateful for this community, but on my less courageous days I’m hesitant, anticipating the leavings that are inevitable.

It’s usually at moments like these that God reminds me to watch my students, those experts in investing themselves no matter the timeframe. These young people have already seen more change, said more farewells, than I, and yet they start school fresh each year, ready to welcome and renew the relationships so deeply valuable to them. They “move in” quickly and well, and don’t worry much about the weight.

I long to trust God with these changes, like they seem to. To thank Him for the present community in which I find myself, trusting that it will change, from one good to another, and resting in His changelessness. As we start the year together, in a school full of new and old faces, pray that our community would reflect Christ, that we would be known by our love, “moving in” to community with intention and grace.

Reading Every Word

On the road in North Dakota

“There is much beauty here, because there is much beauty everywhere…”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

There’s a moment in the first installment of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, when Sam pauses at the edge of a field full of sunflowers, a few steps behind his hobbit companion, Frodo.

“If I take one more step,” Sam declares. “It’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” Frodo smiles, Sam takes the step, and they continue on their less-than-merry way.

I’ve been in the Midwest for the past ten days, and while it’s clearly not the farthest from home I’ve ever been, it is the greatest linear distance from the Pacific Northwest that I’ve ever driven overland.

Millenium Park, Chicago

Five days it took us to get to Chicago, albeit in a discursive path and allowing for stops to photograph iron horses, marvel at the World’s Largest Metal Holstein and Buffalo and feed real longhorn calves. Five days and a few thousand miles of freeway, hundreds of exits and mile markers, dozens of rest areas and gas stations. It was, in a word, slow. (“Slow? Five days?” the ghost of Laura Ingalls Wilder shrieks. “That trip took my whole life! Where even IS Seattle, anyway? Pretty sure we turned around before we got there.”)

In a few more words, driving halfway across America was like being finally forced to read every page of a book with which I always claim a rather generous familiarity. Have I read Anna Karenina? Sure. I mean, the abridged version. Or maybe just saw the movie. In Spanish, on an airplane. I remember it snowed a lot. Wait, was it Dr. Zhivago? That’s how well I know my country.

I’ve read the highlights, all these years. Fly to Washington, DC in the eighth grade, wearing American flag class t-shirts so we don’t get lost when we visit Gettysburg. Fly to New York for a conference, see a show and walk in Central Park, living my own solitary romantic comedy. Fly to Hawaii in February, stepping out into the bizarre, colonial warmth of this annexed tropic. I’ve read and reread my favorite parts, the ones recommended by summarizers like me.

On the Upper Peninsula, catching my first glimpse of a Great Lake!

Driving is reading every page, one word at a time. There’s no skipping ahead. The land changes slowly, unfolding like a developing character, mile by mile, as hills rise and fall, greens fade and saturate. The land itself is the protagonist, especially in this latter half of America’s coming-of-age novel. The tiny towns, each with their own quirks and sameness, they’re only secondary to the vastness that surrounds them, defining them as oases in the prairie sea.

It’s in this careful reading that I glimpse the wild-hearted optimism that led people to these wildernesses, to take root and grow up in fierce places. It’s different than the inherited roots I find in Europe. It is younger, bigger, less reasoned and a little riskier. It is beautiful, this America, when seen like this, up close. The movies, they focus on the glitter and the violence, skip the characters speaking all those slow words, and jump straight to the action. As always, the book of America is better than the movies.

I’ve come to the Midwest this week mainly to attend the wedding of Becky Beeh, my close friend and former colleague at BFA. We sat, five friends in a row, witnessing this beginning in their words to one another, standing in a garden on a summer evening. As the music and laughter of a happening dance floor spilled out late into the night, and bride and groom floated around to tables full of family and friends, I thought about how this moment would make it into the abridged version of their lives, but is so much richer for all the slower pages that surround it. The transcontinental correspondence before, a move to Switzerland, the unknown new life waiting for them in New York City; these days are the ones that make this evening significant.

As I sit in Chicago O’Hare Airport, getting ready to skip back to the West Coast ending to this story of exploration, I think about the way we read each other in relationship. How it’s tempting to jump in and skim the highlights, skip to the good parts or reread the moments we liked the best.

Yet the highlights glow brighter when reached at their proper time, arrived at overland, one gradual mile after another. It is slow, perhaps, and not as dramatic as the summarized, fly-by life, but I’m learning to read slowly, drive carefully, paying attention to the journey and taking pleasure in sharing life with those I meet along the way.

Emily, Alyssa, Becky and Kristi, sharing in a highlight moment.

Summer At My First Home

Sunset over Shilshole Bay. Oh Seattle, how lovely.

Home.

In the last two years–my first away from the Pacific Northwest of my American childhood–the word  has stretched and grown, taking on new meaning in strange places, expanding to include cultures I’m just beginning to understand and people I’ve quickly grown to love.

But though this strange life now includes many homes, Washington State will always be my first, and I’m delighted to be returning there in less than three weeks. I anticipate a summer of connection and community, seeing many of you in person for the first time in too long. While much of this is still in process, here are the dates and schedule that I know so far for the summer.

  • June 7: Return to Seattle
  • June 9: SPU Graduation (Holly and Donna Dahlstrom graduate!)
  • June 24: Speaking at Concrete Community Bible Church
  • June 27: Bethany Missions Living Room Report with Emily Kelly (location TBA)
  • June 29-July 8: Attend BFA colleague’s wedding in Chicago
  • July 14: Noah Dahlstrom and Lindsey Maples’s Wedding!
  • July 28: Return to Kandern

I will also be holding a gathering at my parents’ house in Seattle in mid-June, the date of which I’ll publish as soon as possible. I am excited to share with you all the work God has been doing at Black Forest Academy over the last eighteen months. As I prepare to return to Seattle, I would like to ask for your prayer for the summer in the following areas:

  • Relationships: Pray for times of meaningful connection with friends, family and supporters. Through the magic of technology, I’ve been blessed to remain connected with many of you, even from a distance, but I am excited to spend the time catching up in person.
  • Communication: Pray that I will be able to communicate, clearly and effectively, the work that God has been doing at Black Forest Academy. It has truly been a privilege to serve here these last two years, and I am eager to share stories from the classroom, the track, and the many other places where I’ve been able to get involved here.
  • Financial Support: Due to rising costs of health insurance and German taxes, I am seeking to raise about $300 in additional monthly support this summer. Pray for provision and support, as I seek to continue the work that God has given me to do here at BFA. If you are interested in becoming a monthly supporter, or raising your current level of support, click here or contact me at kristi.dahlstrom@gmail.com.

As always, I am overwhelmed with the encouragement that so many of you have been to me during these last two years at BFA. Thank you for making Seattle a home that I love and look forward to seeing again!

Peace in Christ,

Kristi

There And Back Again

Noah and I with Grandma Nadine

Nobody tells you when you get born here
How much you’ll come to love it,
And how you’ll never belong here.
So I call you my country,
And I’ll be lonely for my home
And I wish that I could take you there with me.

“Land of My Sojourn,” Rich Mullins

It’s still dark at 5:45 AM when we land at Frankfurt International Airport. I’ve been traveling for almost 17 hours, and have about five more to go before Bus 55 drops me off in Kandern. With a yawn and last sip of bitter coffee, I peer out the window, back in Germany.

Several years ago, I was spending the summer in Austria when a friend from Seattle came to Germany for five days. He was attending a wedding (here in Kandern, oddly enough), and five days was the maximum of vacation days he could manage. At the time, I laughed. Who goes to Europe for five days?

The same people, I realize now, who live in Germany and spend a long weekend in California, for a wedding and a time with my brother, as I’ve just finished doing. Motivated by love rather than convenience, kept alive by caffeine, we traverse time zones with youthful impunity, vowing to sleep later.

Ashley and Kristi, bride and bridesmaid

I pull out my camera as we taxi to the gate, flipping back through pictures of the trip. My aunt and uncle welcome us in at 9:30 PM and bid us farewell twelve hours later, not before preparing two delicious meals and staying up past midnight with us, catching up around a patio campfire. My grandmother, Nadine, is shocked to see us on a surprise visit to her home in Fresno. I drive all over the tinder-dry, strip-mall rich Central Valley with my brother, Noah, filling miles of Highway 99 with conversations unhad for the sixteen months. And then, at the end of three busy days, I stand with flowers and a black dress at the front of a church, celebrating the marriage of my friend and college roommate, Ashley. Though weary, I am grateful to have gone, thankful for the years of relationship that led up to these intersecting moments with family and friends.

Looking out the window at pre-dawn Frankfurt, a foreign city in which I’ve spent no time at all, I’m thinking of what we mean by “home.” It’s nebulous for us, this community of global nomads, ever flowing in and out of this green valley in Southern Germany. Where is home, after all? Is is the country that prints your passport? The address where you receive mail? The place you retreat to on holidays?

I wrote to a former student, a few years ago, that growing up for me has meant finding that homes don’t cancel each other out, that many exist simultaneously, all over the city and world. It’s true. This weekend, even in California, had flavors of home. With my family, there is a history that goes deeper than the few precious days we’ve spent together lately. With Ashley, as she begins her marriage, there is a sense of future, looking ahead to what lies in store for her. Even so, apart from these relationships I felt somewhat alien there, in an unfamiliar part of the country, surrounded by strangers speaking English and busily buying nonsense from too-large drug stores.

We found a genuine California swimming hole in Chico!

No one is waiting for me in Frankfurt, so I collect my luggage and board a train heading south. It’s tempting to feel the sting of loneliness as I try to stay awake on the train, tempting to wish that there were other people here, telling me I’m welcome. Still, the sun begins to rise, and we slide over the misty sea of harvest fields, where rosy light is diffused through geometric orchards and mirrored against the glassy, meandering rivers that follow the tracks. And this, the incredible loveliness that God has lavishly poured over this place, feels like its own welcome to me.

Rainer Maria Rilke, visiting Rome and also exhausted by travel, once wrote of the soothing power of beauty like this, saying “There is much beauty here because there is much beauty everywhere. … One gradually learns to recognize the very few things in which eternity dwells, which one con love, and solitude, of which one can softly partake.”

I could make easy generalizations, could say that North America is relationships and Europe is beauty, but it wouldn’t be true. Because I’ve climbed mountains and watched sunrises in Washington, and because in Germany I spend long evenings in honest, rich community, another family. I’m thankful for both; both are home.

Because as there is beauty everywhere, home is everywhere. Christ is home, I wrote at the beginning of this adventure. It’s still true. In solitude or community, in beauty or barrenness, He is in every step, every moment. From one home to another, I travel in peace.

Sunset on our California Highway 99 road trip.

On Spring, Solitude and Serendipity

A spring holiday to lovely Vernazza!

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.””

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

It is almost nine and mostly dark by the time we get back down to village.

It’s our second night staying in a house on the cliff 450 steps above Vernazza, one of the famous Cinque Terre of Italy’s northwestern coast. At home in Seattle, Erika and I are avid hikers, scaling the ridges and dipping down to the lakes of the North Cascade mountains that form the backbone of our region. She has come to Europe to visit me during BFA’s spring break, and we’re spending three days backpacking in the foreign warmth and grandeur of Italy.

We woke this morning with only a nebulous plan to “hike around a bit.”  Twenty minutes away from Vernazza, our path ran together with other travelers.  Two we’d met the night before, Australian mothers traveling together after their sons went off to university, and we heard them long before we saw them, their laughter and accents heralding their presence around the corner.  Walking with them were a couple from Southern California, celebrating ten years of marriage with an Italian getaway.

The six of us fell in together, spent the rest of the day navigating steep, narrow paths through the countryside, between improbably soft seas and the bone-dry steps of terraced vineyards.  We stopped for picnic lunch in one village, treating each other to the tastes of the region and dipping our feet into the still-cold Mediterranean before continuing on to the end of the road, the Riomaggiore I loved five years ago.

We drank in salty air, breathed out conversation, telling gradually the stories that had brought us here.  Of children born, educated, learning, leaving.  Of marriages that last and those that don’t.  Of jobs and loves, found and lost. Of forest fires, Alpine backpacking and Australian politics, biking to Versailles and Vespa tours of Florence.

From California, Seattle and Australia, new friends on the trail to Manarola.

We’ve made separate dinner plans to suit the budgets and appetites of three different decades, so Erika and I take a table on the main street, savoring caprese, warm foccocia, and the proprietor’s favorite €10 wine.  It’s only a few minutes before our hiking companions join us, finished with their suppers, ready to pull up chairs, order pizzas, and keep talking.  Vernazza’s already quiet streets hush to a whisper as the conversation continues, long into the evening, leading us to family and future, God and the gifts of being alive and here, tonight.

As we linger in the warm Italian night, sharing life with people who were strangers a day ago, I’m remembering the inquiries of last spring, the concerned refrain that met me at every turn:

Are you moving to Europe… alone?

The shortest answer was always yes, but even then I knew there was more to it.  From starting high school to working at Starbucks to spending a summer on a farm in Ramsau, I’ve done a great deal alone.   Yet in all of those places, I’m only alone for a day or two.  I go to class, learn some names, put on an apron, bake a cake and speak in broken Austrian German.  Though many ways it is a time of solitude, being young and unattached by marriage or its precursors, the lonely spaces of airports and trains, passages between known and soon-to-know, are the only true islands.  There’s a promise that follows me, wherever I go, a promise of God’s provision and affection, gifts that have always included the people He’s created.  Though it’s not always the community I’d expected, I’ve never been disappointed.

In a few days, Erika and I will travel back to Germany, visiting friends acquired in the decades of a Torchbearer childhood.  I’ll think more about the connectedness of the body of Christ, of the spirals that bind us together, the intimacy I enjoy with friends and family, even here on the edge of where I’d imagined life would go.  I’ll stare out of train windows filled with spring green, thinking about seasons of the earth and seasons of life, of the dance of connection and loneliness common to all people.  For now, though, Erika returns from the restaurant with more glasses, and I take a bite of pizza and listen, as yesterday’s strangers become today’s friends, somewhere along the Mediterranean.

Sunset over the Mediterranean Sea

A Map, A Headlamp, A Castle, The Fog

The "view" from Schloß Bürgeln

I consider bringing the headlamp.

It’s in the same basket as the map, which I fished out carefully before leaving on this hiking venture.  My large topographical map is indispensable; I bought it a few days after moving to Kandern, and it has been a fixture on every excursion since. I love this map.  Emily has an entire series of photographs of me reading my map.  I always take the map.

The headlamp, though, seems less necessary.  I glance outside, where it is foggy but bright, shrugged, and leave it in the basket.  It’s 2:00 PM.

We walk up towards Schloß Bürgeln (pronounced “SHLOSS BOOR-geln”) in dense afternoon fog, marveling at the way the fields melted into dewy greens and greys.  Our path wound up and up, among the solemn crowds of barren trees that wade through the stillness of late autumn.

Josh, visiting for the weekend as part of a longer tour of Europe, asks us if we spend most of our weekends hiking.  I shrug and nod.  “If it’s nice out,” Emily adds.  “If not, we watch The Office.”

Josh grew up in the same valley in Washington State, looking up at the same mountains that I did, and I wonder if he understands how I cannot even imagine being bored while there are hills, valleys and forests to explore, a magnificent living map just waiting to be walked across.  It’s true; there’s little else to do in Kandern on the weekends.  But this is more than enough.

At the top of a muddy, leaf-strewn logging road, an 18th century castle materializes through the mist.  In the midst of drab, forbidding wildness, we explore the precise labyrinth of a country garden, where roses bloom despite the cold.  A genial tour guide welcomes us into the warm, restored castle.  She has grown up in these hills, she tells us, spent her girlhood walking up to this castle for cake at the cafe on weekends.  Her love of this place shine through her telling of the remarkable history of the castle, and asks us to imagine ourselves guests in this castle.  We look through the windows at the grey etchings of leafless branches, as she tells us about the Alps and the Rhine, hiding majestically just behind the clouds.

I forget not only what time it is, but what century, as we three guests in Schloß Bürgeln lose ourselves in our guide’s stories.  When our many circles through the rooms of the castle bring us back again to the entrance, we open the door to find that it is nearly dark.

It’s only then that I remember the headlamp, our faithful companion the last time that we had to descend in the dark.  That time, the light saved us from many a wrong turn, pointing out the tricky signs on the web of Black Forest trails.  Today, there would be no such help.

As the one with the map and the route (and the headlamp I didn’t bring), I feel somewhat responsible for getting us back.  I remember most of the trail, but not all of it.  Several times I pause on the road, unsure of a turn from one forested road to another.  Every time, though, either Josh or Emily remembers.

“No, see we need to go down here.  I remember this sign on the way up.”

It’s the value of walking together, I think as my companions assure me that we’re on the right path.  Alone, I’d surely be lost, but together we can help one another.  We all remember different things, as each turn caught the eye of one of us, but it’s three memories that find the way home.  Such a lovely picture of the beauty of community, how we help one another find the way.

Sometimes I like to imagine that I’m walking alone, mapping my own route.  It’s never long before God reminds me that it is His way that matters, and that I’ll never find it unless I’m following Him.  In the fog, with my friends, I remember that we can serve as guides to one another, speaking truth in love, pointing the way back home in Christ.

Seasons

Untertal, late August

I’ve never been in Europe in autumn.

I’ve spent several summers here, two weeks of winter, and one spring.  But all of my autumns, my favorite season of all, have been in Washington.

I’ve come back to Austria for the weekend–truly just for Saturday–to attend the going-away party for Julie Johnson, a fellow instructor from the summer who is leaving Tauernhof after two years.  And though it’s raining this Saturday, I can’t imagine anything better to do with a Saturday afternoon in the Alps than go hiking.  So hiking we’ve gone.

It’s fifteen degrees cooler than the last time I was here, and today I’m carrying an umbrella and wearing jeans, the perfect tourist.  To complete the costume, I turn around and take another picture from the top of one of Riesachsee’s many ladders.

The view of Untertal, one of the shady, narrow valleys that run down to Schladming, is breathtaking as usual.  Yet what keeps me taking pictures of places I’ve seen dozens of times is the changes.  Though southwestern Germany is still green and often warm, here it is fully autumn.  It’s been only a month or so since I left Austria, but the valley is transformed.  Emerald pastures are golden, evergreen hills blurry through swirling mist.

Untertal, late September

Later, on a long train ride home, I drink in the colors of Alpine autumn and think about seasons.  How you never really know a place until you’ve seen it in all its colors, knowing the quiet of watching the snow fall just as intimately as the delight of the first day you walk outside without a coat in the spring.  How this means that knowing any place takes a while, no matter how long I spend looking at the maps that have come to fill our house.

And, because I’ve just left the Austria of analogies, I think about people and their seasons.  How knowing people takes even more time and patience, waiting and listening and learning through the unpredictable circumstances that cause us to grow.  It’s why I love teaching, with its the promise that I’ll know these students long enough to experience a few seasons with them.  It’s also an important reminder now, as Kandern and its community start to feel like a place that I’m familiar with, but not yet a place that I know.

I am thankful for seasons, for changes, for growth.  And never more so than in the autumn, a time of stoic and graceful quietness, drawing into rest so that life can be renewed.