Home is nice too….

I have spent two of the past 3+ years living on different continents from my own. I have lived under a thatch roof in a former game reserve in South Africa. I have lived in a communist-era style flat in the Czech Republic. I have learned about different cultures and (however clumsily) embraced them. I wouldn’t trade the experiences I have had or the people I have met in those places for anything in the world.

One downside to my travels is I have missed out on the fall season the last two years here in New England. Fall in New England is my favorite season and place in the world. It gets colder but not too cold. The leaves are beautiful. Cross Country, my sport, is in full swing. Returning to America this summer I knew I had a job lined up coaching cross country. I was excited for all the expected reasons. The past couple months I have been able to live, breath, and experience the sport that I have missed for 3 years.

It all culminated this past weekend on an absolutely stunning mid-60s, mid-November day. My team had its last race, a regional championship against private schools from all over New England. My school had the privilege of hosting. Three large races were part of the race program. I could only take a small piece of the credit because I wasn’t the meet director but things went off without a hitch. People were giving me rave reviews about how well everything went.

After the day had ended I was exhausted from running around and yelling all day. It took me a good two days to recover. But it was a fantastic day and a fantastic way to end the season. South Africa was beautiful and incredible. The Czech Republic was fascinating and awesome. But there can be no doubt, sometimes Home is nice too.

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Sandy Cove Awesomeness

I returned home from just over a year abroad on July 18th. I was supremely blessed to find myself (again) at a place as awesome as Sandy Cove Ministries a mere week after my return.

Sandy Cove is a Christian Conference center in Maryland that at least one member of my family has been going to every summer since 1989. Over twenty years, crazy right? But it is just that super. Amongst many, many things it offers it specializes in week long family vacation packages during the summer. Adults and parents come for good speakers, worship and childcare. The kids (including me over 10 years ago) enjoy the massive amount of activities available including: swimming, boating, mini golf, softball, zip line, soccer, basketball, tennis and many more. We also get to hang out with other kids our age and learn a bit about the Bible as well. All around Sandy Cove offers an excellecent package deal for a fun and impactful break from life.

This year was a bit different. I haven’t been here as a “vacationer” in over 5 years. But amazingly the dates worked out so I could be here all week with my Mom, sister, brother-in-law and my beautiful 5-month old niece who I just got to meet this past Sunday. I wasn’t young enough for the kids programs and don’t have my own family just yet but it was still great. I played mini-golf and Disc-golf. I did some stand-up at the talent show. I parasailed. I got some great insights from the speaker I can use this fall as I begin coaching. It was a huge blessing to be back here.

I highly recommend looking up Sandy Cove if you get a chance. They are a great ministry offering rest and reflection for all.

In Africa

The World Cup, friends in Johannesburg, and the ministry I was with in 2008 has offered the perfect trifecta of excuses to make a very big detour on my way home from the Czech Republic. I’m here for 17 days and will fly home on the 17th but I have been loving every minute so far. And just so we are all clear: no I haven’t gotten to a game but it has been awesome nonetheless.

Simply put, I love Africa generally and South Africa specifically. People who know me well will know I don’t use the following language lightly but I really feel that Africa as a whole is something that God has literally put on my heart. I have spent most of my life wanting to come here. Studying, reading, thinking and writing about the place is simply what I do. Spending a year here in 2008 was fantastic and now having the opportunity to return has been better than I could have imagined.

I wasn’t sure how coming back would feel. A lot can (and has) change(d) in a year and a half. However even amidst the culture shock I am reaffirming how much I love this place. I have reconnected with people and friends I haven’t seen for more than a year. I’m meeting new people who are here for the first time. It is chilly but beautiful. I am surprised about just how ecstatic I am to be here.

Many people have understandably raised the idea that if I love it so much why don’t I just return permanently? Good question. Many variables are in my life right now. Beyond this fall I have no clue what will happen. But I’m so thankful that God has allowed me to come back even for only a few weeks and simply sear South Africa into my heart, this time for good. I may not return permanently, I may not return for a year or more. But I will come back, that much is assured. And it will be fantastic in a way I am unfit to describe.

Time to go…again.

I went on a walk tonight for the last time in Sokolov. I get on a plane tomorrow to go to South Africa, and in a few weeks, home. I’m filled with emotion and feelings and it’s just weird. When I left South Africa I was pretty happy. Not because I wanted to leave but because it just felt right. The year was up, it was great, I was excited for the future. Here, in this moment, it just feels a bit strange and anticlimactic. I have been here 10 months and it is simply weird to think I won’t be here tomorrow.

I have much to rejoice over. I got to teach in two schools this year. I met awesome students and got valuable classroom experience. I made great friends, Czech and American, who I will stay in touch with long after this year is over. I learned about a new culture, food and language. I traveled to multiple countries in Europe. I grew a lot.

This year was far from easy. It started horribly. But as I sit here with this subtle feeling of melancholy I realize how important  it was to be here this year. It was important not just for me but all the people I met. I have a lot to look forward to in the coming months. I’m so excited to see friends and family at home. But my year in the Czech Republic was incredible and so I’ll close out this year by just saying that God is a good and faithful king and I’m thankful for it.

I wasn’t expecting this…

Hard to believe but this is my last week teaching. After Thursday my classes are done. This past Friday I said goodbye to a few classes who I have only once a week and won’t see this coming Friday. I wasn’t expecting too much excitement. Some might have a slightly romantic of teaching. An apple on the desk with bright, smiling students obediently asking and answering questions. It really isn’t.

Teaching is shockingly tiring. Standing in front of a group of kids for 45 minutes telling them things and encouraging them to participate wears you out. Writing on a chalk board isn’t super fun. Waking up at 6:30 nearly daily also loses its charm pretty quick. But mostly the realization that, much of the time, your students really aren’t interested in what you are teaching can wear on your mind. After all if they don’t care, why am I trying so hard? I really enjoy teaching but its not all bubbles and cupcakes, to steal a line from a friend.

When I walked into my 3A class on Friday I noticed stickers on my desk. Some students have World Cup sticker books. It has every team and player to collect. A student had gotten me the USA emblem and team stickers. It was nice. We then played Mafia which Czechs call “The Town of Palermo” and it was pretty fun. Near the end I offered some final words of farewell and took any questions they had for me. When the bell rang the kids got up and to my surprise one, than all, came up to shake my hand. They told me I was a good “lektor” (what they call up native speaker teachers over here) and wished me well. I’m not one to show my emotions publicly and I didn’t at that moment but as I shook my students hand I felt surprisingly bittersweet. Bitter because I was sad to leave these young people but sweet because it reaffirmed that this year was truly worth it. I want to be a teacher. I want to influence and mentor young people. And I have been privileged to start doing that this year.

The (Soccer) Moments of our Lives…

This past weekend was the final trip I had with my fellow ESI teachers for the year. We headed to the southern part of the Czech Republic, to the small town of Cesky Krumlov. It is a little touristy place on a beautiful curved river. The main activity of the weekend was a rafting trip on Saturday. The sun was out in force and while the river was far from white water the current took us along at a nice pace. It was really awesome to have this last week of fun and fellowship with my fellow teachers. A small story illustrates this.

After the rafting we had a dinner reservation at a nice local brewery restaurant. The dinner was nice but the main event in my mind was America’s opening game in the World Cup against soccer power England. I have always been a huge soccer fan and World Cups are the pinnacle of the game. I scream at every pass, shot and especially goal when I watch. I had brought the jersey of my favorite player to wear for the game but that was about it. However, a fellow ESI teacher had managed randomly to procure a number of USA flag cowboy hats, multiple red, white, and blue bandanas and even brought his grandfather’s American flag, which he wore as a cape.

Even as a soccer fan I can be pretty self-conscious but I figured this wasn’t the time to worry about such things. Soon I found myself walking through a small Czech town bedecked in hat and bandana. It was great, but better things were to come.

Right before the game starts the teams come out and the national anthems are played. To my shock and amazement, when the Star – Spangled Banner began all my ESI American friends shot up and started singing lustily. For a moment I was frozen. This was a Czech pub, other people were around and they were rooting for England. But then my amazement gave way to excitement and I shot up and joined in. It was probably one of the best moments of this year.

I love soccer and I love my friends and too often they are separate. But watching the game last night with everyone was as perfect an ending as I could make up for this year. This has been a great year and last night typified that for me.

Doing Things

A week ago I related the story of my student who passed her Maturita exam. It was awesome and being a teacher is a huge part of my life here but it is far from the only part. The single-handedly best thing about being in a place for a longer period of time is all the cool stuff you get to do, especially with the locals.

Do you know where Sokolov is? If you do, it is probably because of me being here. I know I didn’t have a clue where Sokolov was when I got the email last April. I literally google-mapped it that first day, remarking casually, “hmmm, it’s pretty close to Germany…” Did you know one of the prettiest little castles in the Czech Republic (a place full of castles by the way) is a 20 minute bus-ride from Sokolov? It’s called Loket and I got to explore it yesterday.

The teachers in nearby Cheb planned an awesome event to close out the year for their English club. They called it “The Thing” and kept it as an immense secret for over a month. What it ended up being was a day-long scavenger hunting, question-answering, silly-photo taking extravaganza. We were put into teams of 3-4 and were set loose on the quiet, cobble-stoned streets of Loket. We took photos jumping on a stage. We reenacted a castle siege. With spoons. Some students stripped to their skivvies and jumped in the river (double points!) We imitated statues we saw and posed with goats. It ended with a relaxing afternoon hanging out by a camp fire as a big group.

I only have a month left here in this country that has been my home since August. But as I sat by a beautiful, lazy river yesterday, eating a giant Czech sausage while chatting with Czech students I thought to myself, “Life is nothing if not interesting…”