Five Years Already?

30 Jun

I can’t believe it. Next month will mark the anniversary of the start to the five year journey I am currently on –  living in Europe, specifically the Czech Republic – teaching and doing ministry in many ways. When I began my training in July 2011, I had in mind two years abroad…at least. I knew that I could and should commit at least this much time to any situation I was placed in. I was without a spouse, children, debt, or any  obligations or restrictions that might bring me back to the states sooner. So far it’s been one year in Kralupy nad Vltavou, four years in Prague, and none of those details have changed, though many other things have.

  1. What I eat. Most of the Czech cuisine that I eat these days is in the form of cafeteria food. So it’s not exactly gourmet, but not as bad as it sounds. I’d take it over American school cafeteria food any day. One of the main staples of Czech cooking that sticks out to me is dumplings – bread, potato, fruit – you name it, I’ve eaten it. I could write a whole blog about the different varieties and my thoughts on them, but I’ll spare you for now. Next is sauerkraut, something that I absolutely hated as a child. Wisconsin cuisine is heavily influenced by German, so I grew up being offered this nasty vinegary atrocity frequently. I thought it looked and smelled vulgar. Well, I had to give a it a try while living in central Europe and it has grown on me. I can eat most varieties of it without making a face and in fact several are quite nice. I just can’t handle the quantity that some people consume. I mean some of these people eat their weight in the stuff, I swear. I also used to reject ham in favor of turkey, chicken, or even roast beef for a sandwich, but conquering the specific Czech phrases I needed for the deli counter and the discovery of Prague ham changed all that. Pork is the most common meat here and they know what they’re doing with the delicious smoked meat named for the capital city.

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    Fruit dumplings served as lunch on our English course in the mountains

  2. What I drink. Two words: coffee and beer. So basically, I’ve become more mainstream. I mean, don’t most adults drink these two staples? No, not me. I guess the desire to fit in and drink what most people drink while socializing finally won me over. That and a few pushy friends. Besides, this place has ALWAYS been the home of fantastic beer, as any true lover of the brew will tell you. Bohemia is host to world-renowned names like Pilsner and Budweiser (the real one), as well as dozens of microbreweries with hundreds of ale and lager varieties to satisfy any taste. CZ has been the center of beer culture for centuries, but the coffee culture is fairly new. It seems that cafes are constantly popping up all over the city. And not just Starbucks and Costa, thank goodness, but genuine barista-approved beauties with atmosphere and class. And thanks to the Czech habit of not meeting in your home, but out and about, I have tried dozens of them. Come for a visit and I’ll show you my favorites!

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    My favorite ice coffee at my favorite Cross Cafe

  3. What I wear.  I think I’ve adapted to Czech standards when it comes to my footwear the most. In school, students remove their outdoor shoes and switch to sandals and crocs in the entryway. Many teachers do the same. I resisted at first, but now I am pretty much in line with it. And since I live in the building, there’s no change necessary. I just put on my sandals (yes, with socks in the winter), crocs, or clogs and up the stairs I go. And I’m not even ashamed. I blend right in. Also, I’ve started a nice collection of little black dresses, the standard uniform for a teacher attending a graduation ball, as I do every winter. I guess some do wear color, but I’m still me, after all.

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    Documenting my first time wearing socks with sandals to school four years ago

  4. What I say. Though I am far from fluent in the extremely complicated, yet beautiful Czech language that has the same Slavic origins as Polish, Russian, Serbian, and others, I am known to use a few phrases without realizing it. Don’t be surprised i you hear me mumble “Dobrou chut” under my breath before I take my first bite of a meal, as this seems to be the law here in CZ. Apparently you are the rudest person possible if you forget. Trust me, I’ve gotten some looks. Same goes for the hearty exchange of “Nazdravi” (using eye contact) with everyone at the table before your first chug of beer. It just doesn’t taste the same without it. And don’t be surprised if you’re about to step out into traffic and I shout “Pozor!” The students just love it when I let that one slip in class or in the hallway. Finally, something that makes me sound like a rapper to most non-Czechs, though I am simply expressing agreement or understanding: “Jo jo” pronounced like “Yo yo” and meaning “Yeah yeah.”

    Along with the above, most of my Czech vocabulary consists of food words

Most of these things will go dormant this summer as I flip sides on my double life back to the American me. No socks with sandals, at least. Big fat nope.

As we all know by now, those planned two years turned into five pretty quickly. And I am returning to CZ in the fall, with no plans yet for ending my time in Prague. Every year I am gaining more knowledge of the culture, the language (well, a little bit), and how I can walk more closely with God’s will, seeking to expand my life’s impact among His creation in central Europe. And many things about me are the same. I am still a leader, a control freak, a passionate baker/cook, a worried big sister, a cynic, and most importantly a devoted follower of Christ. Whether the next five years bring big changes, small changes, a new direction, a new destination, all, or none of the above, I praise you God, because Your grace is sufficient for me.

 

 

Busyness and Loneliness: Not Mutually Exclusive

29 Feb
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A rare picture I allowed to be taken of me…just me…nothing to distract the eye from me…alone. But at least the backdrop is nice.

As an ESTJ-A on the Meyers-Briggs scale, my personality is known as “The Executive.” This means that I tend towards leadership roles and like to be involved in planning and making decisions. I am generally seen as reliable and someone to turn to when something needs to get organized and moving forward. I am fairly assertive (that’s the -A part) and I don’t mind speaking to/in front of groups, a common phobia among adults. All of these traits combined, once I am well-established in a community, I quickly become very involved in a variety of activities. Though it took me a little longer to get established in that role while living in a foreign culture, it has become clear recently that even this environment hasn’t stopped my natural tendencies from rising to the surface.

At school, this means that I have found myself in the position of head of the native speaker office of the English department. It sounds more impressive than it is, in my opinion. There are only five of us, so I am in charge of myself and four other people. We are a fairly small sub-group within the English department and within the faculty as a whole. However, the role does come with a specific list of responsibilities and tasks, as well as new ones that seem to pop up every few weeks. I am ultimately responsible for the administration of our office and the curriculum, lessons, events, and activities that fall under our jurisdiction. This requires weekly, monthly, and annual oversight and management of a variety of activities. And honestly, most of the time I thrive within this type of administrative structure and the deadlines that go with it, so I can’t (well, I shouldn’t) complain.

At church, my involvement and leadership has also evolved at a slightly slower pace than it would (or has in the past) at a church in the states. Though my church in Prague is an international English-speaking congregation, I was still hesitant to step forward due to the mix of cultural norms and seeming unknowns. However, in the end, my gifts were brought to the attention of certain people and I have slowly started to step forward in taking on different responsibilities and leadership roles. Increasing over the last six months especially, this has included directing the Christmas program, helping to organize church lunches, hosting and/or leading Bible studies, and joining the homeless ministry during its recent transitional period.

Despite all of this, as a single woman living alone in a foreign country, there is no amount of social, professional, or organizational involvement that can protect me from the threat of loneliness. Yes, I am an extrovert. Yes, I am a joiner. Yes, I am even a leader. However, I am also a person who lives alone, and without a planned evening activity, I can easily spend 6-8 waking hours completely alone on a typical weekday. This tends to happen about once a week or at least once every two weeks. If it occurs on a Saturday, the time in solitude could get dangerously close to 16 hours. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that I am simply sitting on the couch eating popcorn and binge-watching a series (what is commonly known as Netflix and chill — but can I use this term when the “chill” part is solo? Anyway, I digress…). It more likely means that I am spending three hours marking papers and preparing lessons, two hours planning a meeting or event, and one hour cooking and eating.

Now, some of you busy moms or hard-working professionals and students might be thinking, “Woa, eight hours alone? Yes, please.” You probably live in a house or apartment with one to four or even more people. They are likely to be noisy, demand large amounts of your time, and allow you little privacy. But, they also provide you with companionship. They are a near constant reminder that you are needed and loved. These fellow humans, whether they be family members, friends, or simply roommates, provide physical contact, an emotional atmosphere (though of course maybe not always a great one), and a listening ear. This is something that I often find myself without for large chunks of time and wonder if it is the best thing for me long term.

During these recent times of extended solitude, I have often found myself stopping and talking to my Lord and Savior when perhaps I would otherwise chat with a family member or other living companion. I feel that I need to express something – good or bad, happy or sad, constructive or flippant, selfish or giving, dark or light. But instead of turning to another human being, I am left with my own thoughts, and often that leads to prayer. Not the kind of sit down, fold your hands, formulaic proper prayer that we do in groups, but more like a dialogue. And that is the moment that I realize that my loneliness…or perhaps more accurately the threat of it…has led me to a place of dependence on Christ that I’m not sure I have experienced before. In fact, I am rarely as lonely as I fear that I will be. As every year passes, I see more and more examples of how God is equipping me uniquely, specifically, and fully to follow His path. So during this chapter of my life – at this time, in this place, within these circumstances – this ability to be “alone” but also wholly within His presence, is just another example. Besides, all along God has graciously provided me with activities in each season of my life that bring me in contact with amazing groups of people that I can reach out to, walk beside, and serve with. This current mix of quiet busy days with only the Holy Spirit as my counsel and noisy busy days surrounded by co-workers and students or friends and family, makes up a a beautiful patchwork of days that in the end I am happy to call my life.

 

New Year’s Eve Mid-Life Crisis

31 Dec
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Not exactly my new haircut, but close…

I know what you’re thinking. Holy cow. Shara’s back. Her six month writing coma has ended. Yes, it’s been a long time. And there’s a very ridiculous reason for that, which I’ve just come to terms with. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to write. Every pore of my being wants to write almost every waking moment of the day. It’s been that way since I was seven or eight years old. That’s why I have a million journals and tiny scraps of paper with ideas on them all over both of my desks. I even love the feeling of my fingers flying across the keyboard for absolutely no reason. But it seems that every time I sit down at the end of the month to write a blog any “inspiration” that I have is slowly sucked from me as I sit and ponder. I think about previous blogs and things that I’ve been excited to share and they all seem so interesting compared to my life over the last six months. This is the lie I’ve been letting myself believe, anyway.

New Year’s Eve is a time to both look back and look forward. These days, every form of social media is full of lists, quizzes, memes, and more that are supposed to inspire you to appreciate what you’ve had in the past year and look forward to even greater things. Am I the only one who is having a hard time with that this year? I haven’t gotten married, had a baby, started a new job, moved to a new home, or made any other big changes. I’ve been doing what God invited me to do in the Czech Republic more than five years ago. I’m living in the same flat, teaching the same classes, and mostly enjoying the company of the same friends. And for some reason I’ve convinced myself that this is a bad thing and nothing to look back on fondly.

This year, for a variety of reasons, I decided to stay in Prague for the winter break instead of flying back to the states to see family. Perhaps all of the time I’ve spent at home alone without deadlines, specific goals, projects, events, or daily appointments has driven me a little crazy. This is not who I am. I am a goal-oriented, deadline-chasing, event-planning ESTJ who does not often take time to sit and reflect on myself. When I allow those elements of my personality to take over my daily life, I guess I get a bit overwhelmed when the structure falls away, I’m away from people, and I have way too much time to look in the mirror.

Yesterday it all came to a head when I jumped the fence into Crazytown and decided to get the most drastically short haircut of my life (not counting the time I was four and had to get a pixie cut due to a bubble gum tragedy). Today I was starting to hallucinate about other drastic changes – getting on a plane and leaving everything behind, going to grad school, or worse…signing up for a dating website. Gulp. After a failed attempt to plan a last minute get-together, I went to the store and bought all my favorite foods to eat at home alone. Then two friends (who know who they are) spontaneously drove across town to remind me who I am. They stood out in the cold and listened to my self-pitying nonsense longer than any mildly developed friendship would allow for. Then they invited me (actually insisted that I come) to their house for late night shenanigans.

They rescued me just in time (literally on the way home from the store) before I went home and gained 5 pounds in a self-loathing rampage of calories. Since then, I’ve been preparing some snacks to share tonight and thinking about some of the things that have gone well this year.

  1. Besides my annual Christmas cold (my most recent reason to feel sorry for myself), I’ve been healthy and able to take care of myself while living alone.
  2. I found a nice, professional, trustworthy, English-speaking, and helpful (not to mention good-looking albeit married) orthopedic specialist who has gotten me back on the right track with my knee pain.
  3. I was able to help pull together a relatively last-minute Christmas musical outreach program that people enjoyed, and more importantly, told the Good News of Jesus Christ in this spiritually desolate environment.
  4. My presence has been a comfort to students at my school who are struggling and seemingly have no one else to talk to. I have been equipped by the Holy Spirit beyond my own abilities with compassion to speak words of encouragement to them in dark times.
  5. I have friends who I can lean on and they can lean on me. I have been able to share my Christian faith with many of them and know that I am one of the links in a chain that can bring them to know the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
  6. I visited several new places, including two longtime dreams – Ireland and Spain – with people I really care about.
  7. In all things, God has been graciously using me in His plan.

I could go on, but you get the point. Yes, I will be turning 35 in a few months, and most of the things I thought would be true about my life at this point are not. But many amazing things I could have never predicted are true. To summarize, there are no flying cars and the Cubs didn’t win the World Series, but God is good – yesterday, today, and forever.

 

 

Praguer’s Delight

31 May
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The State Opera in Prague

This weekend I received a shot of pure Prague culture. Coincidentally, each day I had something scheduled that put me right in the heart of Prague and reminded me just how awesome it is to live in this city.

Firstly, Friday night was the annual “Night of Churches” in the Czech Republic, as well as in a few neighboring European countries. One night a year all of the participating churches are open to the public with free entrance and special programs. The purpose is to educate the population (it’s not geared towards tourists, but locals) about what the faith community has to offer. As CZ is one the most atheistic countries in the world, this is an important opportunity to give the citizens of the country a chance to reconsider their position on Christian faith.

Though I’ve lived here for four years, this is the first time I was able to attend the event. Even though I wasn’t as well organized as I usually like to be, I was still able to pull together a pretty decent evening (thanks in part to help from a friend in finding the locations) and see, hear, and even smell some of the wonders of the variety of churches in Prague. As you may know, Prague is known for its amazing architecture and well-preserved historical sites, including many wonderful cathedrals and basilicas.

Most of the church programs began with a mass/worship service around 5:00, followed by a historical lecture, musical performances such as choirs and orchestras, tours of the building, and so on. As the event was directed towards locals, most of the programming was in Czech, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the music immensely and letting my eyes feast on the beauty of the old buildings. Plus, there was some written material in English at a few locations.

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Inside St. James the Greater

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Entrance to St. James the Greater

Since we did a whirlwind tour through 6-8 different churches in just a few hours, I can’t recall the details of each, so I’ll just mention a few highlights. First of all, I was really excited to finally get to see inside Our Lady of Tyn, which is the large castle-looking church on Old Town Square. If you’ve ever been to Prague, you’ve taken a picture of it, trust me. It’s rarely open to see inside, though, so that was a priority. Unfortunately, it was pretty crowded, so we moved on quickly. I’d have to say my favorite church, St. James the Greater, was one that I hadn’t even planned to see, but since it was so close to Tyn, we stopped by, and I’m so glad we did! It is unique, both inside and out. I have always loved ceilings, and this one is breathtaking! Next, I noticed that, just like in the states, the Protestant churches are much plainer than the Catholic ones. The one that I visited along the way had the same structure as others, but was decorated in a completely different manner, with a simple wooden cross, white walls, and blue trim along the arches. The acoustics rivaled its Catholic neighbors, though, and just the sound of a choir warming up for a concert was impressive. Finally, some churches need to be reminded about the concept of “ too much of a good thing.” In several of the larger ones, the décor was simply distracting. You didn’t know where to look. The gold trim? The fancy spirally pillars? The jewel-encrusted statues? Hm, maybe just the ceiling for me.

Czech Brethren Evangelical Church (Protestant)

Czech Brethren Evangelical Church (Protestant)

Secondly, on Saturday evening I attended my very first opera with two friends who went in together on getting me tickets for my birthday. We saw Aida, the Egyptian-themed masterpiece from Verdi , showing in the State Opera in downtown Prague. It was also my first time in the building, so I was buzzing with anticipation to see…you guessed it…the ceiling. And I wasn’t disappointed. We were sitting in the balcony, so I got an intimate and up-close view. Amazing chandelier, angels playing trumpets, delicate golden details, you get the idea. The opera wasn’t bad either. I’m glad I had a chance to read the synopsis before I went because, despite the subtitles on a screen above the stage, I had a hard time following the story. It might have something to do with my drowsy state after eating a traditional heavy Czech meal, including a small beer. Oops.

State Opera

State Opera

Finally, on Sunday afternoon I took a visitor to Vyšehrad, a large complex including a basilica, gardens, statues, and a nice view of the city from the south – altogether one of my favorite sights in Prague. If you come to visit me, you’ll get to see it, guaranteed. I am especially a fan of the cemetery, with dozens of famous Czechs buried in the vaults, mausoleums, and traditional gravesites. The gravestones are absolutely fantastic works of art. It’s hard to explain, but I could spend hours wandering around looking at the individual designs commissioned by families throughout the centuries. The basilica was also open, as part of an event called “Days of Faith” that is going on now following the “Night of Churches.” I was pleasantly surprised by this, since I had intended to visit it on Friday, but didn’t make it to that part of town. The inside of St. Peter and Paul is painted with art nouveau designs inspired by Alfons Mucha. The use of dark green and brown floral and leaf patterns makes you feel like the ceiling is a forest canopy and adds to its unique atmosphere and beauty. It goes without saying that I appreciated that part.

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Alfons Muchas-inspired art nouveau design inside St. Peter and Paul Basilica

Number one lesson to take away from this weekend: Prague is an excellent place to live if you like fancy ceilings.

The ceiling of St. Peter and Paul Basilica

The ceiling of St. Peter and Paul Basilica

A Shakespearean Shake-up

30 Apr
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Before the transformation into Shakespearean thespians

What do you get when you add a detail-oriented perfectionist control freak to teenage creative chaos? Why, sheer genius, of course!

Seven months ago when we first decided to undertake a Shakespeare re-mix, you never could have convinced me that the magic this group of 14 to 19 year-old students created and performed a few weeks ago would be the result. But when I stop and remember a specific scene we worked so hard on or watch a clip I’ve recorded on my phone, I know it’s true. Just like every year, while I was freaking out and thinking the whole thing would crumble, they were calmly pulling it together and in the end I couldn’t be more proud of them.

My first clue that things would be interesting this school year was when a group of five students from my Maturita (Senior) English class decided they wanted to take advantage of their last chance to show their stuff and joined Drama. Having never taught them before, I didn’t know what to expect, but quickly I came to see that they were certainly not lacking in energy and creative contributions. To my knowledge, they had little to no previous acting experience among them, but their enthusiasm made up for that. Joining two younger girls returning from the previous year, at that point we had a cast of seven.

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Haunted Hamlet doesn’t know that Ophelia didn’t actually drown in our version of the story

However, after choosing an idea that would help us to celebrate the 450th birthday of the Great One, it quickly became clear that we needed a few more aspiring thespians to join us. We had another younger student from last year, but after she decided to study abroad second semester, we knew we were in trouble. Her character served a central role and though I was happy to read her lines temporarily during rehearsals, I was starting to get a bad feeling about not finding a permanent replacement and pictured myself up there on stage playing the role. No, thank you. About two months before opening night was scheduled, the Maturants finally convinced one of their classmates to take the role. After offering one last small role to a third year student with acting experience, we were finally a complete cast of nine and ready to really put this thing together.

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Romeo is not sure about Hamlet’s  true motives

Unlike last year when I wrote the script, this year we used existing scripts to pull together what we called “A Shakespearean Experience.” At the beginning of our journey, we had gone together to see “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Abridged” at the Prague Shakespeare Company, where one of our fine actresses works as the Box Office Manager. Taking inspiration from this hilarious mash-up of all the tragedies, histories, and comedies together, the students had an idea for a modern farce of our own. The first three scenes would be the actors presenting “try-outs” to a director for the most famous snippets of three works: Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, and Taming of the Shrew. Specifically, we decided on the “get thee to a nunnery” scene, the famous “balcony” scene, and the “woo thee for my wife” scene respectively. With the exception of Petrucchio, these characters also appeared together in the script for Haunted Hamlet which was portrayed as a modern improvement written by a bitter distant relative, “Wilma Shakespeare.”

Swap Petrucchio for Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, add Juliet’s nurse, her mother Lady Capulet, and the family lawyer Felonius, throw them all together in fair Verona, and your scene is set. It’s absolutely impossible to describe the plot, but that is irrelevant to the success of the play and the enjoyment of the audience, as we would soon find out. Shakespeare is hard enough for native speakers to truly understand, so how would an audience mostly composed of intermediate-level speakers with little or no experience with iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets ever be able to get anything out of this? Well, that’s when creative costumes, strong chemistry among actors who have been friends for years, and loads of charisma come into play. Not to mention some pretty impressive physical comedy.

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Juliet faces her rival, Kate, while the confused Romeo looks on, soon to meet his demise alongside his friend, Hamlet

Picture this: Romeo in a track suit, a gold chain, and a Bulls cap tipped to the side. Hamlet in black skinny jeans, sleek European leather boots, and a tight black cotton blouse (originally owned by his mother) with the perfect neckline to frame a necklace with served as a key plot piece. Tybalt in black jeans and a leather jacket, his head topped with a mop of blonde ringlets many women would kill for. Juliet in a bright flower-print dress and pink jacket. Ophelia in a lightweight hippy-style white dress and wavy brown hair. Kate (Katherina) in a bright red dress with lipstick to match, fishnet stockings, and three-inch heels. Lady Capulet in an old-fashioned black dress perfect for mourning her lately dead husband, her stately long hair pulled back with immaculate side braids. Felonius (badly needing a haircut) in a bowtie and tweed jacket. And finally the dear nurse in modern white attire complete with a costume hat marked with a bright red medical cross. Not exactly what you’d expect, but that’s exactly the point. The audience loved it. Why did I ever waste my energy fighting some of these great ideas? Let the creativity flow.

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Dress rehearsal – on their way to becoming their characters

Sample lines:
“Romeo, what’s happening, my man?”
“I don’t care about money, I just want my honey.”
“I’m confused. My brain is fused.”
“It’s wild that you come here, you wanton thing.”
“What a shame. You’re just another unwed dame.”
“You’re a curse on this great country. I can’t stomach your effrontery. I challenge you to a duel…(Romeo slaps Hamlet with a leather glove)…uh, I seem to have forgotten my sword.”
“I’d have Romeo cut out your heart, but all he’d find inside your chest is a lingering fart.”

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Tybalt attempts to convince the nurse that he’s really a good guy who isn’t just out to get his dead uncle’s money

Sample plot points and scenes:
– Romeo and Hamlet compare their twisted love lives.
– Tybalt plots against his cousin and/or kisses up to his aunt.
– Hamlet repeatedly sees Ophelia, who he thinks is a ghost, and responds accordingly.
– A costume party complete with custom-mixed “To be or not to be” rave music.
– A girl fight.
– More slaps. (We did a workshop on how to give and receive a fake slap. They’re naturals.)
– Romeo shoots Hamlet. Juliet shoots Romeo. Juliet stabs herself.
– Ophelia clotheslines Tybalt as he attempts to escape, and then shoots him for good measure.
– Lady Capulet and Ophelia are poisoned. Bodies litter the stage and the end seems to be at hand.
– The actors revolt and re-do the ending to make it a more joyful occasion. Picture a double wedding.

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Only one dead body in our second “happy” ending

If you can wrap your brain around this chaos you’ll begin to picture what I had the privilege of sitting back and watching unfold over the course of three unique performances. I say unique because each one had its own flavor of early entrances, late or forgotten lines, and misplaced props. But none of that matters. After intermission during Friday night’s final performance, I realized it was my last chance to enjoy it, so I finally sat back and just watched. I didn’t follow lines in the book or worry about my light cues, and I found myself laughing out loud. I had seen these actions and heard these lines dozens of times, but it was like it was all new. Their pure energy, joy, and sense of fun were simply contagious and I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. As I enjoy the memories for many weeks to come, I’ll be creeping people out on the Metro as I smile to myself for seemingly no reason at all. Bonus.

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Having a celebration lunch and watching a recording of themselves in my flat

Maybe all the tourists got it right this time…

31 Mar
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Gaudi’s vision for the final appearance of Sagrada Familia

When I travel, I am often torn about seeing the “big stuff” in a country or city. You know, the first things listed in your guidebook, the ones with long lines of mindless tourists wandering around half-heartedly observing through their cameras lenses. Though I usually do end up at least seeing these sights from the outside, if not always paying to go in, sometimes I do it begrudgingly and often think later that is was over-hyped and over-rated. Sorry to my lovely home of Prague, but one example of this is the Astronomical Clock of Orloj Tower in Old Town Square. If you’ve been to Prague, you’ve seen it, trust me. You just might not remember it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s interesting and unique and yes, everyone should take a look while they’re in the area. But prepare yourself to join the others as they say in dozens of languages, “That was it?” after the 60 second experience. At least it’s free…that is unless you get pickpocketed while you’re waiting for the show to start.

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My first glimpse of Sagrada Familia up close on our first night in the city. At this point, I was still skeptical.

All this being said, I had an experience with a recent sight that did not disappoint and is, in my opinion, a must-see, as the guidebooks all say. I’m talking about Sagrada Familia, a basilica in Barcelona, Spain. If you’ve every heard of Antoni Gaudi, or Barcelona, or even Spain, you probably know what I’m talking about. It is a massive building in the east central part of Barcelona that can be seen from every rooftop for miles around. Its utterly unique design both inside and out are unparalleled in 20th century architecture and if you go within 100 miles of it without stopping to see it, you’re missing out. Though I spent a few hours exploring it earlier this month during my spring break stay in the capital of Catalonia, I plan to see this masterpiece again someday when the tremendous project started over 130 years ago is finally finished.

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The Nativity Facade depicting the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia)

I really can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed seeing the various works of Antoni Gaudi throughout Barcelona. We paid to go into the main three – La Pedrera, Casa Batllo, and Sagrada Familia – and also visited Park Guell, home of the famous tile-covered salamander. I was fascinated by the creativity, dedication, and faith of the unique man that dedicated most of his life to the visual beauty we now see in Barcelona today.

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The main doors of the Nativity Facade, designed by a Japanese artist

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Just one of dozens of breathtaking windows. The morning sun was shining on this one as I took the photo.

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I love ceilings and this one made the massive neck ache I had for the rest of the day totally worth it. Gaudi designed it to reflect a forest with tree trunks and branches reaching toward the sky.

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The Passion Facade, featuring some controversial modern depictions of the activities of Jesus leading up to His crucifixion.

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This was hanging in one of the small chapels inside the nave. I’d love to have this hanging on my wall at home.

Middle Eastern Delights

26 Feb

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Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

My most recent traveling adventure is definitely a unique one. This month I was sent as a representative from my high school here in Prague to visit the New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi campus. The well-known private American liberal arts college has recently expanded to add degree-granting campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi. The latter is recruiting heavily to increases their class sizes and consequently inviting school counselors to visit the campus and learn more about the programs in order to inform their students. As my school doesn’t have an official guidance counselor whose job it is to help students apply to international universities, I was chosen to represent our school. It will be my responsibility to conduct meetings to educate potential student candidates, nominate students to NYU Abu Dhabi via the established procedure, and help them through the application process. Lucky for me, the entire trip was paid for by the university, which is funded by the U.A.E. government. All that oil money has to go somewhere, I guess.

Thursday morning I headed to the airport early, not really knowing what to expect once I arrived on the other end. Packing was interesting, to say the least, as the weather called for 95 F on Friday and yet I was told in the evening we would be in the desert, where it was likely to be “chilly.” However, I had managed to pack an adequate range of items and felt prepared for just about anything. Following a short delay in departure, a six-hour flight in an uncomfortable discount seat (no, I didn’t get to fly on Emirates), during which I was intrigued to watch the flight path on the screen avoid two war zones in Ukraine and Syria/Iraq, and a stressful search for my driver at a very warm and crowded airport, I was in the car and headed to the capital of Abu Dhabi from the larger and more well-known city of Dubai.

My observations of Dubai, frantically written on a small notepad as I sped through the city in the back of an air-conditioned van:

– There are huge brightly lit billboards everywhere, but they are parallel to the road and at street level instead of perpendicular and high up on posts.

– Everything is written in both Arabic and English.

– Despite all the cars, there appears to be an impressive modern railway system, similar to the elevated trains in Chicago, except the stations are beautiful modern architecture with huge indoor platforms equipped with escalators.

– The cars are more American-style than any country I’ve ever been in outside North America. There are large SUV’s, full-size sedans, and even pickup trucks.

– A six-lane highway goes right through the heart of the city. I could see all of the famous skyscrapers, including the tallest building in the world, while we whipped by at 70 mph.

– I had a strange feeling that we were in a very humid Chicago. As we drove west along the coast, with the gulf on our right, it almost felt like driving from Chicago to Milwaukee – from a big city to a smaller city.

– The highway eventually leaves the city and then becomes a well-lit road through the desert. Along the way I saw road signs that made me do a double-take, including a “Camel Race Track” exit. The next day I saw it in the daylight. It’s for real! Racing camels!

– The variety of “western” restaurants they have are mind-blowing – way more than in Prague. For example, I saw a Popeye’s Chicken and a Hardee’s. Really? I definitely wasn’t expecting that.

– After all the fascinating things I saw during that ride, the one thing that kept me smiling all weekend was a van that passed us with a big “Butt Tourism” logo painted on the side. *Giggle, snort.* Who thought that was a good idea?

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Burj Khalifa in Dubai – tallest building in the world

 After my 90 minute ride between cities, I arrived in Abu Dhabi and took my first of many trips across a bridge to get to the main island of the city. I stayed in the Sofitel, a fabulous hotel on the Corniche just a few hundred yards from the beach. As we drove through the city I observed the diversity of the city’s population, which I had read about in my brief research. Abu Dhabi residents are around 80% expats mostly from Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, as well as Europeans and Africans. Many of them are poor migrant workers hoping to send money from their jobs in construction back to their families and eventually return home. Others work in the tourism industry or in businesses connected to oil. The only place I saw Emirati people working was in customs at the airport. Those were all men wearing the traditional robes and headpieces. Otherwise, every single employee was an immigrant.

One thing I noticed immediately was that English was the language most frequently spoken. It makes sense, as the city is composed of people from dozens of different countries. I should be used to English being spoken as a second language by now, but it was still a little strange to hear such a wide a variety of accents and levels of English all being spoken simultaneously, both in person and on mobile phones. Culture shock was in full swing at this point.

To summarize, here’s a rundown of my main activities throughout the weekend.

– After arriving at the hotel quite late, I quickly went to catch the end of a reception organized for all the school representatives from Europe and Africa. I was famished, so felt very relieved to see plenty of appetizers and small desserts laid out for us. It was the last time all weekend I was hungry.

– Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to settle in for a relaxing night’s sleep in my luxurious bed because first I had to deal with an emergency back home. When I had left that morning, the water in the school (and my flat) wasn’t working. Well, apparently in my desperate attempt to get a couple of drips out of the faucet in order to brush my teeth and rush out the door, I had left the faucet on. My roommate came home that evening to find my bathroom and a significant part of my bedroom under water. She was an absolute saint and dealt with the mess for me basically all on her own, but I still felt it necessary to call my administrator and make sure everything was going to be taken care of. It turns out that everything dried out before I got home Sunday night, but it was quite stressful to know I had caused such a hassle and wasn’t there to do anything about – a control freak’s nightmare.

– After what seemed like a light nap, I was up early for a buffet breakfast and headed to the bus on our way to the NYU campus. We spent the morning and most of the afternoon observing sessions for the candidate students. After another fabulous meal of succulent Middle Eastern cuisine it was hard to sit through sessions without nodding off, so it was a welcome change to take a tour of the campus. It is brand new, officially opening for the start of classes in fall of 2014, and I’ll admit I was impressed by the modern designs and high-tech features.

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Dorms on the NYU Abu Dhabi campus

– Next we headed back to the bus for a 90 minute ride into the desert. Our cultural evening program consisted of tasting dates and other sweet snacks, climbing sand dunes, riding camels (I opted for just petting one), getting henna tattoos, and eating more traditional local foods while sitting on pillows around low tables. I believe it was intended to be a glimpse of the Bedouin lifestyle. I was a little too exhausted to take it all in, but the pictures I took look nice.

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Don’t worry, he didn’t spit on me.

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Luxury dining in the desert

 

 

 

 

 

 

– The following day started back on campus for a chance to meet the president of NYU, John Sexton, and ask questions at a current student panel. After yet another unbelievable lunch, we had one more session with the students, then headed out to the city to explore a bit, stopping at a date market, the heritage village, and an optional trip to the seaside mall, which I opted out of. Instead, I met up with my cousin back at the hotel. I didn’t realize until the night before leaving that he lived in Abu Dhabi, but was so glad that I did and was able to get in touch. He is actually my mom’s cousin and has been living overseas for almost 20 years, but it was great to meet up with him and experience the city through the eyes of a local.

– After our brief free time, it was time for the women to dress in appropriate attire for our visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. We had to wear a traditional “abaya” (a loose black dress covering from head to toe, wrist to ankle) and head scarf. In any other case I would have felt uncomfortable, but it felt almost like a uniform you’d wear for a specific activity, like a helmet to ride a bike, or a parachute to jump from a plane. The mosque was magnificent, especially all lit up in the evening, and we had a great tour guide.

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Swarovski crystal chandeliers imported from Austria

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The abaya was actually quite comfortable, but I didn’t really like the head scarf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

– Our last evening together ended with a trip to the most ridiculous buffet I’ve ever seen, which was held at the restaurant of the Shangri-la Hotel. I seriously felt like I had eaten a week’s worth of food in three days. Despite feeling ready to bust, I just had to indulge in a small scoop of cookies-n-cream ice cream with a side of chocolate fondue-covered red velvet cake bites. Seriously?! Yes.

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What’s better than a chocolate fondue fountain? THREE chocolate fondue fountains!

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There’s nothing like a room bigger than your whole house just for food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

– After a somewhat more sufficient night of sleep, I was up early Sunday to try to find my way to the beach before meeting Dave and Loren for a day out in the city. While most of the other educators had left early that morning, my flight wasn’t scheduled until 7:30 p.m., so I had almost a full day to explore. As luck would have it, though, I was apparently given a one-in-a-thousand chance to see rain in Abu Dhabi. The clouds had rolled in and sure enough, as soon as I stepped out of the lobby, the drops started falling. Bummer. Well, never mind. We still had a good time exploring different parts of the city in the car and the sun did come out off and on. It’s probably for the best. My pasty white European winter skin would have fried under direct sunlight so close to the equator.

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Meeting family on the other side of the world was the highlight of my trip

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My hotel

 

– Following a quick stop for souvenirs and a surprising treat for lunch (Papa Murphy’s pizza!!!) it was time to head back to the hotel and get ready for my ride to the airport in Dubai. I got to see everything again, just in reverse and in the daylight. Once again, my flight was delayed and I arrived back at my flat at 1:30 a.m. and fell into bed, regretting the fact that I had agreed to teach my normal full schedule on Monday starting at 8:00 a.m.

In some ways, the trip seems like a strange drug-induced hallucination, but my lingering henna tattoo, a half-eaten box of dates on my counter, and the pictures on my phone tell me it really happened. It was an experience that I am not likely to repeat any time soon.

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