My Overpriced Coffee Date with a Dead Renaissance Scholar (AKA: Just Another Day in Basel, Switzerland)

I was one of those weird children who was obsessed things no one else bothers to know ever even existed. 

By the time I was in high school, I knew more about dead medieval scholars than most adults twice my age. And I had a bit of a literary crush who was, shall we say, twice rendered unavailable:  

First, he had been dead almost five hundred years by the time I was born.  

And second, even had he managed to beat Ponce de Leon to the Fountian of Youth, he was a dedicated monk of the Catholic Church.  

Yeah, talk about love from a distance. 

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Desiderius Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, Holland, in 1469. But he managed to expire all the way over in Switzerland in 1536. Which means he lay at rest just a few hours’ bus ride south from me when I was staying in Karlsruhe, Germany, on the French and Swiss borders at New Year 2018.  

You might not be familiar with the name Erasmus. He was a great humanist and scholar of the Northern Renaissance, which doesn’t get quite as much press as its Southern counterpart in Italy. I guess the Italian were just flashier. Or better at 16th century marketing? Either way, when we think “Renaissance” we think Da Vinci and friends, not Erasmus.  

To be a “humanist” in Erasmus’ day was not necessarily to believe man is the center of the world, as is often claimed today. Back then, being a humanist meant being interested in the humanities—comprising subjects like languages, literatures, and philosophies.  He was also outspoken in his beliefs that the Catholic Church definitely needed reform. And although he did not feel kindly toward the Protestant Reformation or the Anabaptists—the spiritual lineage in which I was brought up almost five hundred years later—his work did indeed inform it. 

Especially a little book called In Praise of Folly, which criticized the abuses of the Catholic Church through sharp and witty satire. 

That’s where I got on the Erasmus train. Somehow, at age 16, I got ahold of Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly and read it. And loved it. It was amazing to laugh behind my hands at the sardonic humor of someone who had lived so many centuries before me. That book made an impact on me.  

You might say Erasmus and I, well, had a moment.  

We bonded.  

And so it happened that on a damp, cold winter’s day in early January 2018, I decided to renew that bond, though it had been many years now since Erasmus and I had our moment.

Somehow I found out that though Dutch by birth, Erasmus had chanced to expire in Basel, Switzerland, which was south of my current location in Karlsruhe, Germany. So right after the new year I boarded FlixBus—that beloved cheap transportation of college students all over Europe—and took the three-hour ride south in search of his grave. 

I fell in love with Basel at first sight. Sure, early January wasn’t the most flattering time to visit this city, through which the Rhine river continues to wind after exiting Catholic southern Germany. But still there was something charming about brightly-colored houses all shuttered up against the cold. And the warmth of the light streaming from the open shops made all the difference. 

Every shop window felt like a welcoming pair of arms ready to enfold me in a warm embrace.

The price of goods was less welcoming, I have to admit. When I arrived at the train station (where the bus debarked), I desperately needed a cup of coffee and a doughnut. But the privilege of such a small treat, which would have cost just a couple euros back in Germany, cost more than the equivalent of USD $10 in Swiss Francs.  

Well, for a girl traveling on a budget that was like my biggest expenditure in at least a week other than groceries. But I bit the bullet and enjoyed every minute of it.  

At least I can say I had a snack in one of the world’s most expensive cities.  

On my way to the Basel cathedral to pay my respects to Erasmus, I got sidetracked by the Basel Town Hall. This marvel of Swiss architecture boasted a riot of color and design more intense than anything I had seen outside of my travels in Nepal.

It almost didn’t look European, it was so … undignified. And yet the sight of it delighted me. A feast for the eyes. And proof once again that you never know what sort of surprises you’ll encounter. 

I took time to wander all around the enclosed inner courtyard, where scenes of justice from Swiss history played out in colorful murals and frescoes. The Christmas tree was a nice touch, too. 

Well, all this took some time—and then I remembered why I had actually come: to pay respects to my childhood literary crush, who was (supposedly) lying at rest beneath the floor of Basel Cathedral.

Leaving the city center, I wound my way out toward the bluffs above the Rhine River. At some points the path was so steep I wasn’t quite sure I could climb the rain-slackened cobblestones in my low-tread boots. But I managed to make it up.  

Finally, around 1 o’clock in the afternoon, I sighted my destination: the amazing Basel Cathedral. (Also known as Basel Minster.) It turns out this remarkable building is also the resting place of quite a few other notable medieval people—mostly patrons who gave for the cathedral’s construction.

Fun fact: The structure itself took almost 500 years to build, with a *minor setback* in the 1300s when the structure was almost completely leveled by an earthquake. Can you imagine building something which you never get to see completed in your lifetime?

Coming from such an instant-gratification age, I am not sure how anyone back then had the patience for these multi-century construction projects.  

The inside of Basel Minster was just as awe-inspiring as the outside. It was as if I could  feel those generations of laborers, toiling in summer heat and winter’s chill, their murmurs punctuated by the chink chink of chisels and the moan of the pulleys as each stone block was pulled up and set into place. Everywhere in Europe the old church walls resonate with all the lives lived inside them. Even, of course, as modern church attendance continues to dwindle in all these countries. 

The sanctuary of Basel Minster was so huge, it took me almost an hour (or more than an hour?) to wind my way through it, squinting at the gravestones. The diffuse dimness of afternoon clouds, pregnant with rain, was the only real light in the place.   

And there were so many gravestones. So, so many.  

Yet none of them seemed to be Erasmus. 

For more than an hour I searched for my literary beloved, but to no avail. I wondered if I had misread about his burial in Basel Cathedral—or if perhaps the author of the article had been misinformed as well. Plus the clock was ticking. My FlixBus home to Karlsruhe would be leaving in about two hours. And I still had to walk back through the old town all the way to the train station. 

Finally, I chanced to find a map of all the graves. Turns out dear Erasmus was hiding behind a pillar—in a not-so-fancy grave as many of the others, like the one in the photo above! 

I back-tracked to a modest side-sanctuary set off a bit from the grandeur of the main nave. And sure enough, that’s where I found him.  

Eighteen years after I first “met” Erasmus in the pages of Moriae Ecomium, we finally met face-to-face, 5000 miles away. Talk about a long-distance romance! 

That winter I spent in Europe was one of the roughest of my life: full of uncertainty, lack of direction and a lot of grief. But there were up moments. Like that day in Basel, Switzerland, where I found my dear Erasmus at last.

Books matter. Even when centuries pass from the time they were written. Standing there in Basel Minster, I felt like not a single year had passed at all, and that Erasmus and I were just old friends who had catching up to do.

I caught up with him, for once. And I’m glad I did. Though another five hundred years may pass before we see each other again …

That Time Spring Hit the Colorado Rockies (And My Life)

I didn’t plan on spending five or six weeks of my spring 2018 in the mountains of Colorado. Not that I’m complaining, mind you: spring in Colorado is gorgeous. Witnessings the transformation into spring is even more of a marvel. But it wasn’t on my plan. (Hello, that’s why I call myself a “recovering control freak.” Because sometimes the control thing still peeks out. 

Anyway, when I arrived in Colorado it didn’t look much like spring at all. In fact as late as April 20th, winter was still in full effect. Consider this photo from my first weekend in Colorado Springs, where I stayed with longtime friends on the Air Force Academy base: 

Yeah, not much spring to be seen there. I despaired that God had brought me out of monochromatically gray Milwaukee, only to drop me into another monochromatic winter landscape. Everyone had been telling me how beautiful the sun would be. How plentiful the wild flowers. Yet I still couldn’t see it, even though May 1st was just around the corner. 

This lingering winter seemed to be a metaphor for my own life. I had believed God for breakthrough: a serious shift in my circumstances that would allow me to quit traveling from place to place and go back home to Milwaukee to settle. I loved traveling, yes. The Holy Spirit had told me to ‘take no money, take no luggage, and go into whatever house will receive you.’ And I had obeyed. 

But I was tired now. Sick of endless weeks on the road with no real purpose or activities to shape my day. Sick of always looking to the horizon for something—anything—to happen. Sick (if we’re being honest) of praying and seeing … absolutely nothing.  

I started taking my friends’ dog, Buddy, for twice daily walks. Every day I kept my eyes peeled for the famous Colorado wildflowers, even while I prayed to Heaven for a glimpse of a single petal pushing above ground in my own life. 

For awhile, it continued to look like this: sunny, but barren. The weather warmed. And yet nothing pushed above the soil.

By the time I left for Milwaukee to lay hold of the place God had given me there, the slopes of the Rockies were carpeted with God’s most beautiful flowers.  

It took a lot longer than I would have wished, yes. But the season of flowering did come in God’s time. 

Be patient through the late springs snows, and continue to watch daily for the first signs of color amid the grass. Your time of breakthrough will come if you do not grow weary. 

I believe the real test of our faith is not what happens in seasons of victory and activity, but what we do in seasons of silence and barrenness.

Those six weeks of silence, during which I saw almost no flowers pop up on those daily walks, was one of the longest and hardest I have endured. My patience and stamina were nearly at an end. I napped a lot—because there was little else to do.

Still no flowers. Anywhere.

And yet, somehow in the absence of the physical evidence I craved, Spring came. During that time I really re-committed my life to do exactly what God wanted. I heard the call to begin speaking His Name and His Word more intentionally in my relationships. Things that had been “out of order” in my life got placed back into order—none of which would have been possible had I been distracted by other things. 

God even sent me a few rainbows and beautiful sunsets to encourage me that His promises were true, and in the acceptable time, He would shift my circumstances.

There’s a funny thing about praying for God’s “acceptable time,” just as it says in Psalm 69. God’s acceptable time is very rarely ours. His time for flowering often does not match ours. We are impatient. He has infinite patience. We want to run ahead though we can only see in the moment. He sees what’s coming, and acts accordingly.

In God’s acceptable time, breakthrough did come. I got a huge tax refund—several months late—that enabled me to return to Milwaukee and pay the avalanche of bills that were coming due in June. I let go of the last of my old life and got on board with God’s program.  

And yes, the wildflowers did come out. By the time Buddy and I finished our daily routine of walks, the hills were abloom with Colorado’s finest. 

By the time I left for Milwaukee to lay hold of the place God had given me there, the slopes of the Rockies were carpeted with God’s most beautiful flowers.  

It took a lot longer than I would have wished, yes. But the season of flowering did come in God’s time. 

Be patient through the late springs snows, and continue to watch daily for the first signs of color amid the grass. Your time of breakthrough will come if you do not grow weary. 

A Short Tour of Reykjavik Street Art

There were a lot of things no one told me about visiting Reykjavik in December, which I did in 2017. Although in fairness to the everyone implied in “no one,” I never really asked them. I just went

Take the city’s muted tones, for example. The whole urbanscape deserves to be picked up and dropped inside some sort of Art Museum to European Modernity—or at least, that’s how I felt of the washed-out greys, blues and browns that seem to make up the winter Icelandic palette. When you can see it, of course. Many days you’re lucky to get an hour of daylight out of the four or so that are possible at that time of the year.  

Sunwashed Tuscany in September, it most definitely was not. However, the city did offer some charms I had not foreseen. Like its amazing plethora of street art. Worthy of a museum on its own, to be sure. Though wouldn’t putting street art in a museum sort of undercut the definition of “street art?”

But I digress

One might be tempted to assume that Reykjavik street art follows the typical patterns as its counterparts in the U.S.—words hastily scrawled on the sides of buildings. Stencils scattered across concrete pavement, and the like. But nothing could be further from the truth. 

Take this gorgeous Van Gogh-esque home facade, for example. Who could possibly mind coming home every day to this cheerful exterior? Even if it means living in a city where the average December temperature is 3 degrees Celsius, and 10 AM is liable to be as pitch-black this time of year as 10 PM?  

Every where I looked, there was something whimsical to see.  

Dragons, for example. There be dragons in Reykjavik. Lots of ‘em. Of course serpents and dragons figure prominently into Norse mythology, so I’m sure there’s some connection. But I’m not sure what these dragons represent, specifically. 

They could be something like Níðhöggr, the serpent that nibbles at the base of the world-tree, apparently causing parts of it to rot. Or, they could refer to the dragon that Sigurd slayed in the popular Nordic epic. Or one of how many others. 

The artist wasn’t really around to ask.  

Sometimes, though, Reykjavik dragons like to catch you off guard. … Like, when you come around the corner, least expecting to see them ….

Oh wow, it’s a big one! 

Some places have a yellow brick road. And some of them … have a multicolored serpent brick road. 

It might feel like Oz here in Reykjavik, but it sure doesn’t look like it.  

Somehow, monochromatic winter wonderland of Reykjavik was a match for the “blah” I felt in my soul at that time. I was off on a “big” European adventure with no money to my name. I could barely afford to eat in the city, let alone take in any of the interiors of the museums or other places a tourist might normally visit.

Yet here I was, wandering the streets counting my krona for every cup of hot chocolate, and still I was treated to so much amazing art that it was like having a whole museum at my disposal.

There’s something poetic about that, to be sure.

All in all, I found the street art of Reykjavik a welcome and refreshing break from the winter landscape that offered little in the way of visual pleasure. For brave folks who have survived in this amazing country for so many thousands of winters, this artistic expression must offer a chance for laughter, joy, and beauty.

No matter where we live, do we not seek to make it beautiful? Reykjavik reminded me that no matter what the landscape of our lives, it is possible to create beautiful from what we have on hand. 

No excuses. No questions. No hesitation. Even in the “winter” seasons of our lives, even in our own Decembers, we can paint the walls with brilliant color. And all sorts of pictures, straight out of our imaginations. 

If the artists of Reykjavik can do it, I can too. So can you.  

Where the Map Ends, God Is There

Sometimes I wake up in the Arabian Desert, 7,000 miles from the home I once knew, and I don’t really know how I got here. 

Knowing is a tricky thing. On the one hand, it gives you a sense of certainty: to look at the map of your life and chart every point along the way. “This is how I got from here to there.”

On the other hand, knowing anything at all reminds you of how much you still don’t know. Especially when the points on your map seem to keep wandering off the edges, where there’s no landmark in sight. “Well, I got to here, but then the path disappeared, and somehow I wound up reappearing again over there.”

This blog is a chronicle of wandering off those edges.

There’s so much I still don’t know about how I landed in the United Arab Emirates in 2018. But a few things I do remember. I can see them, vaguely in the distance, back on the comforting white square of a life I used to inhabit, more commonly known as “the map.”

I know it all started when my husband of seven years walked in the door one April morning and said the four words I had feared all of my life: “I want a divorce.” It started when, a month later, I said “goodbye” to the home I loved and dragged my remaining possessions and two terrified cats six streets over to a one-room apartment. It started when the gavel slammed and the judge handed me divorce papers just six months after that. 

It started when I built—and destroyed—a business. It started when I sold everything I had left, dumped the rest in the trash and put just enough to survive in a suitcase and left to travel. It started when I showed up in Charlotte, North Carolina, for no particular reason. It started when I roamed over Europe last winter with barely enough money for food and train tickets.

It started when I went back to the U.S., sobbed my way over 2/3 of it while driving a postage stamp-sized Fiat, and almost died in a Nebraska blizzard. Which was not *quite* as bad as trying out a few post-divorce relationships and learning how much emotional healing I actually had left to do.

Yes, there were a lot of starts in the last two and a half years. A lot of starts, and not many finishes. 

Yet somehow, the Arabian Desert does feel like the end of a road. (For now.)

In less than two weeks, it will be two years from the day that judge in Milwaukee County slammed the gavel and signed those divorce papers. Honestly, I don’t even remember the woman I was back then. Mostly because I lost her in some bizarre cycle of operating system upgrades so rapid, most tech startups would be put to shame.

And then there was the whole “moving to the Middle East” idea … Yeah, that idea. I can blame it on God because it was His idea. I can also blame it on my bizarre idea to try out a Christian online dating site — which was intended to surface men in a 200 square mile radius of my house, and somehow landed me in a relationship with a guy from Dubai. 

And no, that relationship did not work out. Note to self: I’d never recommend online dating across continents or crash-landing in the Gulf without a plan.

Or maybe that was the plan. Just not mine.

Yeah, it’s just a thing that happens, I guess. Sometimes you just wake up in a new desert, with a new job and a new church and new friends and a new status as an “expat.” And you don’t know how you got there. Except that you do. And it’s a lot to process all at once. 

So maybe the point isn’t to “process”—to track the journey on the map, point by point—but rather simply to accept that you’ve gone off the edges. Because where the map ends is where most of life happens, anyway. 

God is much bigger than the map itself. Bigger even than its border or the empty space on all four sides.

He knew about the man who was going to hit the “eject button” on a fledgling marriage and the house that would be sold, the apartment that was too small for one woman and two rambunctious cats. He knew that the woman didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to expand to a twelve-person business as rapidly as she did. And that selling everything was a much better plan—even if it looked insane at the time. 

God knew that unexpected Christmas checks would buy groceries and train tickets in Europe. He knew most of Germany would be closed in December—so the woman would be forced to sit with her grief and really let it go, instead of drowning it in endless museum visits and Christmas markets. He knew her Fiat would make it through two mountain ranges, a blizzard and a hail storm without a scrap of damage, and be sold on a Thursday in August for no particular reason except that He said to sell it. That day. Without delay.

And when all was said and done, when that woman got on that last plane in Chicago, He knew what would be waiting for her in the United Arab Emirates: a whole new life. 

It’s a good thing He didn’t tell the hardworking housewife-entrepreneur-artist of 2.5 years ago (AKA… me!), that she was actually destined for a life abroad. Okay well, actually, He had told her that years ago. But she had bailed on the plan. Several times, in fact. She had re-charted the map to make it, well, safer.

And then … somehow … despite her best efforts, she ended up going where the map ends, anyway. Because where the map ends, is where she was always meant to be all along.

Where the map ends, God is there. 

I’m learning here in the Arabian desert that where God is, is always the best place to be. Even if you’re not entirely sure what happens next. Or why the signs are in Arabic and a plane ticket to your old country is really, really expensive.

If God is with you, the rest is just details anyway.

Knowing would spoil the adventure.

Guacamole With a Side of Masala: Adventures in Fusion Cuisine

When I arrived in the United Arab Emirates, people back in the U.S. were asking me quite frequently, “What are you eating?” For the most part, my answers were pretty routine. 

Rice. Curry. Fruit and Yogurt. Samosa. Rice. Curry. Fruit and Yogurt. Samosa. Rice. Curry … 

Okay, you get the idea.  

But there were some stand-out experiences. Or rather, stand-out explorations, because that’s exactly what they were: me trying things at home, with the help of my first airbnb host and first friend in Dubai, D, the world’s next Michelin-starred chef masquerading as an aviation engineer.

Our best experiment? Guacamole with masala, quinoa chips and some sort beverage that mixes milk, roof awzwah (a flower-and-honey sweetener popular in India and Pakistan), and basil seeds.   

Yeah, I know. It’s enough to make my head dizzy too.  

Because I have prior guacamole experience, Chef D allowed me to spearhead this part of the meal. But I have to admit, he was the one who had the idea to turn the two halves of the avocado into boats. Not to mention garnishing it with cilantro. 

Finally, at long last some Mexican food in the middle of the Arabian desert! 

I had promised I would buy an avocado and fix guacamole during my stay, so he could try it. But at every grocery store I went to, the avocados were green! “Why would I waste money on a green avocado that might never get ripe?” I said to myself. I kept hoping to find nicely blackened ones, but I never did.

Then today D brought a green avocado—and when I cut it open, I found it was perfectly ripe.

“They’re from Kenya,” he told me, laughing. “You want them to be really, really green. What other color would you want them to be?”

I shared how Haas avocados from the U.S. actually go dark brown or almost black when they’re really ripe. We had a good chuckle at my expense—and then (to my glee) he got his own come-uppance. 

I had told D that guacamole (at least, as I make it, anyway) requires a lime.

But when he handed me a bag, the small, round fruits inside were yellow.

”We need a lime,” I said. “Not a lemon. Limes are green.”

His eyes got wide. “Why would anyone want to buy a green lemon?”

Lemons. Avocados.

Apparently sometimes you really do want them both green. ..

And yes, I wanted my “green lemons” a lot. So I did what any red-blooded Michellin-starred chef’s assistant would do: I interrupted the regularly scheduled guacamole programming, threw on some UAE approved clothes over my yoga gear, and ran to the grocery store for a lime and tortilla chips. 

The lime, I found. The tortilla chips, well, I had to stretch my imagination and buy a bag of garlic-and-tomato flavored quinoa chips.  

When I returned, D mixed basil seeds—which give a boba-like “pop” to any beverage and are popular here for their refreshing flavor—with milk and the sticky red Roof Awzah for our drink. 

Finally, we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Quite literally. D seemed to appreciate the flavor, but something was missing.  

“I know what it needs,” he said, after careful consideration. 

D returned from the kitchen with a box of chat masala—a spice mix with cumin, coriander, mango powder, red pepper, and other refreshing spices, often added to fruit and salads in India. “Everything tastes better with chat masala, he explained. 

Indian guacamole? Well why not, I thought. 

We both dumped the chat masala all over our guacamole. And yes, reader, it did actually taste better. Not to mention more than a bit more Indian, too! D and I speculated what might happen if we added green chili, next time. And a bit of garlic …

Everything about this place is a mixed-up wonder, to be sure.  Ripe avocados are green. Lemons, too, can be found in green varieties. 😉 One requires chat masala to make a proper guacamole. And your new favorite breakfast beverage just might include basil seeds. 

Why should everything remain as it was, stuffed into narrow pre-defined categories that constrict creativity? When cultures mingle, creativity abounds.

Fusion is a beautiful adventure. And rather delicious, too.   

Where Souls Cry: Walking the Berlin Wall

My entire life, I’ve heard about the Berlin Wall.

I was just six years old when it fell. Before 1989, it was something the newscaster spoke about on my mom’s radio programs. After 1989, it was something everyone looked back on. I vaguely remember my parents reading voraciously about the circumstances around this historic event which led to the reunification of Germany. 

Twenty-eight years later, I got a chance to see and touch it for myself. 

On a blustery day in December I bundled up myself and leashed Sam the dog—the Aussie shepherd I was pet sitting, who already had a bundle of fur to keep him warm. It took us about twenty minutes to walk to the Wall Memorial from Sam’s owners’ flat.

Later, I found another Wall guard tower right in our neighborhood an learned the Wall ran almost literally under the flat itself. But I didn’t know that yet. So I took Sam for a walk in the park where parts of the Wall are now preserved for posterity, along with gravestones and various sculptural pieces. Nearby also stood the Wall Memorial Museum, a chapel dedicated to the memory of victims, and other sites of interest.  

I’m glad I took Sam with me. I cannot now imagine having done the Wall Memorial without his gentle, steady canine presence.  

Mostly because for the first time in my life, I could hear the spirits screaming.  

Let’s face it: the ground of Berlin is soaked in blood. 

It’s not just the blood of Jews. It’s also the blood of Germans trying to cross from East to West. The blood of the Roma people who were slaughtered en masse, and other nationalities too. I told someone later that Berlin, to me, seemed like a giant collection of “apology monuments”—places now dedicated to memorial, for atrocities committed against some internal group who had once found shelter on that ground.  

The Berlin Wall Memorial just happens to be the most famous.  

I found it particularly moving to walk past the names and photos of individuals killed while trying to cross the Wall. As I viewed each face, I wondered, “Whose son is that? Whose sister? Did their families ever know what happened to them, or did they simply leave—and never return?” 

The atmosphere in the park was appropriately subdued. People walked from place to place, murmuring to one another. Taking discrete photos that seemed less voyeuristic and more commemorative. Over it all, a weak European winter sun shone down, its diffuse light softening the harsh contraption of concrete-and-wire that was all now left of the wall. 

I think perhaps the most bearable part of the whole experience was the chapel.  

Somehow, in the middle of a space where the spirits of the dead still cry out for full justice, that place was a refuge. I could not take Sam inside, so we only stood at the threshold. But even as we stood there I drank in the serenity of that faith-designated ground.  

In the middle of despair and chaos, the church represented hope and peace.  

In the middle of loss, the church represented eternal rest. 

In the middle of pain, the church was a balm for the soul.  

Though what happened in Germany during those terrible years cannot be altered, the future still remains to be written. It would have been easy for me to avoid the Wall Memorial altogether during my time in Berlin. But I’m glad I went. The chance to pay my respects. To understand more of what happened and gain greater perspective. The opportunity to hear those souls crying out from the ground and know that spiritual warfare is real. 

Sometimes the most uncomfortable places are the most important ones for us to visit.  

Just … take a big, empathic Aussie Shepherd with you if you can.  

I promise, it makes all the difference. 

On Emigrating in the 21st Century

Me, my first week in Dubai — August 2018

At the turn of the 20th century, a young Polish woman got on a boat bound for America. She was a land-owner’s daughter, likely accustomed to some amount of privilege, and even possibly to an ancient title of minor nobility. Yet she left it all behind to join her sister—who was already settled in a far-off place called Ohio.

The reason? An intolerable home situation. Her mother had passed away, and when her father remarried, he chose a woman not much older than his younger daughter. The two women, it turns out, didn’t get along so well.

I think I’d get a boat for the same reason. Probably more so because I’m related to that young Polish woman—as her great-great granddaughter.

Fast-forward one hundred years, and I got on a plane in Chicago this past August with the same intention my ancestor had when she said goodbye to her native land. Except that instead of going to the “land of promise,” as America was then known, I flew east, past Great-Great Grandma’s native land to a place that, back when she lived, hadn’t even yet met Lawrence of Arabia.

I doubt Great-Great Grandma ever thought much about Arabia, except perhaps to see an old lithograph or two in a Polish geography book in school. But here I am, also an emigre, just for different reasons.

Perhaps some things really do “run in the family.”

I should probably clarify at this point that no one really immigrates to the United Arab Emirates. You come here to work. Or you come with someone who’s been hired to work. And when you don’t work anymore—or your sponsor doesn’t—you leave. Period. This country doesn’t give permanent residence visas, unless you’re a property investor or a retiree with more than $300,000 US in the bank that you strictly don’t touch.

Still, every day, this dusty jungle of sand and steel welcomes the world’s misfits, from West and East alike, with open arms. And we embrace this once-forgotten, now-flourishing desert as our own, for as long as the strength of our hands and the economy will allow. Or in my case, as long as God chooses to keep me here.

I’ve thought a lot about Great-Great Grandma since I arrived here. I honestly don’t know her name, other than that her last name was (oddly enough) “Organic.” Probably a butchering of some beautiful Polish name an Ellis Island officer couldn’t spell, yo. But I now understand with much more empathy how much courage she must have had, and the dreams she must have entertained coming to the U.S.

My mother has a few memories of her great-grandmother, caring for my mom when she (mom) was very very young, at her Ohio home. Great-great Grandma married and built a life for herself in the U.S., yes. But she never learned much English. To this day, occasionally my mom uses a Polish word (like “yaitsa” for “egg”) which she learned at Great-Great Grandma’s house.

I, by contrast, landed in a country that favors Arabic as a political policy, but where in practice English is the national language. I could talk to almost anyone upon arrival. (Of course, understanding their accents has been another exercise in itself.)

Like Great-Great Grandma, however, I rub shoulders every day with people who came from vastly different places than me. And we’re all here for one reason only:

Opportunity.

(Or for some of us oddballs, the call of God. But that’s another story for another day.)

It’s a strange day in the world when a girl with an American passport leaves home to seek opportunities elsewhere. I’m sure Great-Great Grandma never thought she’d see such a day come when America was not the only real center of opportunity. For many it still is, but for me, in God’s good plan for my life, it was a worn-out door swinging shut on rusty hinges.

I don’t regret coming to the United Arab Emirates at all. The pace of life in Dubai is insane—let’s just get that out there—but it’s also an amazing place. I’ve made incredible friends from all over the world, traveled easily to places that take forever to reach from America, and been blessed with a new measure of financial stability after several years of relying solely, like Elijah, on the ravens of God for food.

But I still can’t help feeling a pang of homesickness every now and then. The people, the places, the food. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid vision of some place in Milwaukee—the verdant slopes of South Shore Park, for example, on the beach of Lake Michigan—that I deeply love. The last summer I spent in Milwaukee was a glorious finale to ten years of loving that place very deeply and experiencing the very best of it.

Then, one day it was gone. I took off on a plane and, three planes later, got off in Ellis Island, which for me was the glittering marble and chrome of Dubai International Airport, where I was suddenly in line behind Indian women in colorful kurtas and Arab women, their whole bodies covered in black.

Life is strange, isn’t it?

Perhaps wanderlust is just in the family genes. Or perhaps God really does allow us to play out experiences of our ancestors, all over again, redeeming them for His purposes. I don’t know anything about my great-great grandmother’s spiritual life or beliefs. I don’t know if there were any other God-fearing prophetic women in my lineage.

But out of their experiences, God birthed me. And though I traveled here for Him—and not as an escape for an intolerable home situation—I still send love and respect to the memory of Great-Great Grandma.

Her courage was an example for me, long before I knew I’d even need that same courage myself.

Turn of the 20th century. Turn of the 21st …

The cycles of life continue.

4 Things Instagram Won’t Tell You About Traveling the World

I don’t know about you, but I really hate false advertising.

I mean, yes, I work in the marketing industry. But I still like to inject the truth in my marketing copy as much as possible. Well here’s a truth no Instagram travel feed will ever tell about wandering the planet:

It’s the dumbest, craziest, most exhausting, most stressful thing you’ll ever do.

Forget glossy photos of mountaintop conquests, bicycle rides through rainforests, and the obligatory compassionate shot with the locals. Those photos may have #nofilter, but there’s hiding a few things about what went into taking that shot. This is why I intentionally don’t improve my photography—or use a lot of filters to make it look better.

I want it to be 100% real.

So here’s the 100% bona ride truth about this sexy, everybody-wants-to-do-it thing called living out of a suitcase.

1) Prepare to be disoriented.

Sure, as a world traveler you develop the skills to drop into any culture and get your basic needs covered before you go out to explore. Local currency, check. Local SIM for your phone, check. A basic roof over your head and a working knowledge of whether or not you can drink the water? Preferably vetted by someone else other than your first bout of dysentery? Absolutely.

But that’s just the beginning. Your days and nights are probably turned around. Words even in English may not mean the same thing. And the number of possibilities for getting a ticket or fine for something that’s known by everyone else—but not posted on a sign for your benefit—are almost Code Red level.

For the better part of my year of traveling, disorientation was my status quo. I didn’t always get a lot done. Even when I had work, I struggled sometimes to be efficient.

No, being a “laptop entrepreneur” for me did not mean sitting at the beach, coding on my iPad, while I slurped my cocktail out of a coconut.

It meant fighting jet lag while I dodged from location to location, looking for reliable WiFi and trying not to get hit by a bus, taxi or tuk tuk in the process. All while calculating what time it was in my client’s country and whether or not I had missed a deadline.

I dare you to find a travel blogger who posts that photo. “Oh look, here’s what’s left of my shattered ankle after my jet-lagged self ran in front of a bus accidentally when I finally saw a Starbucks with a Free WiFi sign.”

2)  Most suitcases don’t come with space for your personal makeup artist and wardrobe assistant.

Oh sure, I love a great travel blogger’s Instagram feed as much as the next person. But clearly they’re not traveling Economy on a budget airline. ‘Cause I’m pretty sure I can’t fit a whole MAC makeup store in my one small suitcase. Or the entirety of H&M (for all those obligatory third-world photo shoot wardrobe changes). Or the staff it would take to look that good on site.

Maybe I missed out this course in World Traveler School: “How to Look Amazing in Every Single Photo 101.” Or maybe that was the class after I skipped out because I had a plane ticket somewhere.

Either way, that hasn’t been my experience.

There’s a reason why I choose to show “normal” photos on this blog, and always will. I mean, there’s no reason not to at least try to be presentable. But I live my normal life in the Goodwill wardrobe God provided for me before I left America. And in case anyone’s wondering, the Arabian desert is just waaaaaay too hot to be sporting much makeup. (I need to ask the amazingly-air brushed Arab women I meet exactly how they manage to do it… because they do look amazing!)

Bottom line: living abroad is just living a normal life with all kinds of extra complications. And less space for all the cool, extraneous stuff we forget we have access to at home.

 

3) Everything takes way more time, for possibly less results. (Other than your increase in patience and a plethora of good stories to tell.)

Somebody, please show me the travel blog where the blogger highlights what it’s like to spend 1.5 hours on a metro to go what would take 30 minutes by car. Or what happens when you stand in line at the visa office, only to be told the official you need is “out for tea.” And let’s not talk about all the sleep you miss, showing up at midnight to wait for the 1 AM bus to Berlin, so you’re absolutely sure you don’t miss it.

Yes, my specificity betrays me. I actually did do that once. In the middle of freaking January ….

Time is a hard thing to represent in photos when there’s no time lapse. It’s like a movie: all the hard work, plus months or years of failures and growth, get reduced down to a montage with upbeat music.

I sure wish my job search in Dubai could be collapsed into a montage. Preferably with a Tina Turner song behind it to keep my eyelids open while I fill out more applications.

But no such luck. Living in a place whose norms you don’t fully understand will always require a price in time.

Sure, the great stories and a lot of personal growth come from these experiences. But if you’re looking to do things the most efficient way possible, don’t travel abroad.

3) Sandy feet. Sandy legs. Sandy hair. Are you sensing a theme here?

Honestly, I never need a shower so badly every day than when I live somewhere I’m not accustomed to. Grime from bus exhaust. Crusted sweat from the heat and humidity. And here, in the UAE, so much sand everywhere all the time.

I love it all, because it means I’m fully living and showing up for my life.

But WOW is that a lot of weird grainy gunk going down my bathtub every day.

Somebody take a photo of THAT. I dare you. Just once, show the world the real uncensored truth. (Of what’s going down the bathtub drain, not you IN the bathtub, please.)

But I’m guessing no one will take me up on it.

I mean, there are some things even I won’t put in my Instagram travel feed. Mostly because, well, I have my travel blogger image to maintain.

 

A REAL TRAVEL BLOGGER ON A REAL DAY. I’M GUESSING THE HAIR WAS COURTESY BERLIN WINTER DAMPNESS, THE BLOODSHOT EYEBALLS CAME FROM JET LAG. AND THE LOOK ON MY FACE? WELL, ASK THE CAT. HE CAN PROBABLY GIVE YOU MORE DETAILS…

2)  Most suitcases don’t come with space for your personal makeup artist and wardrobe assistant.

Oh sure, I love a great travel blogger’s Instagram feed as much as the next person. But clearly they’re not traveling Economy on a budget airline. ‘Cause I’m pretty sure I can’t fit a whole MAC makeup store in my one small suitcase. Or the entirety of H&M (for all those obligatory third-world photo shoot wardrobe changes). Or the staff it would take to look that good on site.

Maybe I missed out this course in World Traveler School: “How to Look Amazing in Every Single Photo 101.” Or maybe that was the class after I skipped out because I had a plane ticket somewhere.

Either way, that hasn’t been my experience.

There’s a reason why I choose to show “normal” photos on this blog, and always will. I mean, there’s no reason not to at least try to be presentable. But I live my normal life in the Goodwill wardrobe God provided for me before I left America. And in case anyone’s wondering, the Arabian desert is just waaaaaay too hot to be sporting much makeup. (I need to ask the amazingly-air brushed Arab women I meet exactly how they manage to do it… because they do look amazing!)

Bottom line: living abroad is just living a normal life with all kinds of extra complications. And less space for all the cool, extraneous stuff we forget we have access to at home.

3) Everything takes way more time, for possibly less results. (Other than your increase in patience and a plethora of good stories to tell.)

Somebody, please show me the travel blog where the blogger highlights what it’s like to spend 1.5 hours on a metro to go what would take 30 minutes by car. Or what happens when you stand in line at the visa office, only to be told the official you need is “out for tea.” And let’s not talk about all the sleep you miss, showing up at midnight to wait for the 1 AM bus to Berlin, so you’re absolutely sure you don’t miss it.

Yes, my specificity betrays me. I actually did do that once. In the middle of freaking January ….

Time is a hard thing to represent in photos when there’s no time lapse. It’s like a movie: all the hard work, plus months or years of failures and growth, get reduced down to a montage with upbeat music.

I sure wish my job search in Dubai could be collapsed into a montage. Preferably with a Tina Turner song behind it to keep my eyelids open while I fill out more applications.

But no such luck. Living in a place whose norms you don’t fully understand will always require a price in time.

Sure, the great stories and a lot of personal growth come from these experiences. But if you’re looking to do things the most efficient way possible, don’t travel abroad.

3) Sandy feet. Sandy legs. Sandy hair. Are you sensing a theme here?

Honestly, I never need a shower so badly every day than when I live somewhere I’m not accustomed to. Grime from bus exhaust. Crusted sweat from the heat and humidity. And here, in the UAE, so much sand everywhere all the time.

I love it all, because it means I’m fully living and showing up for my life.

But WOW is that a lot of weird grainy gunk going down my bathtub every day.

Somebody take a photo of THAT. I dare you. Just once, show the world the real uncensored truth. (Of what’s going down the bathtub drain, not you IN the bathtub, please.)

But I’m guessing no one will take me up on it.

I mean, there are some things even I won’t put in my Instagram travel feed. Mostly because, well, I have my travel blogger image to maintain.

What It’s Really Like to Live under the Arabian Sun

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Nobody can really prepare you for life in the Arabian desert. Oh sure, they can tell you to bring your sunscreen and prepare to scuttle in and out of the air conditioning like a beetle between patches of shade.

But my God, that sun.

I’ve read that solar power will be the new oil fields in the Middle East—and if that’s even remotely true, I can believe it. From the moment I wake the sun is there, by turns bleaching the color from this muted landscape and touching its more brilliant elements with fire.

You want a rainy day? Forget it. Clouds? Maybe for an hour or two. Storms? Be prepared for a beach of sand on your balcony.

And let’s not talk about air conditioning …

Since the day I’ve arrived I’ve practically been a prisoner indoors: jumping from my air conditioned guesthouse, to the air conditioned bus, to the air conditioned metro, to the air conditioned shopping complexes, each accessible via air conditioned skywalks over the streets, so no one has to set foot outside.

Of course, not every part of town is so well endowed. The place where I sleep, the Dubai side of Al Nahda, on the border with the neighboring emirate, Sharjah, has no skywalks to be found. A trip to the grocery store or the nearby Sahara shopping center will cost you the sun’s standard fare: a dripping-wet body, an empty water bottle and a trip to the washroom to refresh your deodorant upon arrival.

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I try to understand how people lived here for thousands of years before air conditioning. All I can think is that they knew how to hydrate. And how to value the shade. And those lightweight, white and black garments that everyone wears? Well, there’s probably a ventilation secret to that, too.

In the U.S. I never spent much time in air conditioning. In fact, I used to carry a sweater with me everywhere even in the middle of summer, because I hated the air so much.

But here, I crave it like everyone else. I run. I dodge. I scuttle toward the next door, craving the first blast of A/C that gives me goosebumps as I cross the threshold.

Or if I am out, walking in Al Nahda for example, I find myself dodging across the street again and again to walk in the small patches of shade I can find.

It would seem that the beetle and I, we are more one than ever. I am less likely to squash him on the sidewalk—because we are both under the same sun. And we are both slaves to it.

Back at home, the concept of “the sun” really meant so little to me. Sure, it was beautiful and I loved it. But here the sun is so much more than an enhancement to my day. Here, it is the fiery ruler of the sky, the overbearing taskmaster whom no one could forget even if she tried.

I am reminded of the verse in Matthew 13:43:

Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father. 

Once I would have considered this a beautiful, poetic sentiment. Now I realize it is also a declaration of power, of force and strength that demand to be reckoned with.

Anything that shines like the sun—if it’s the UAE sun, at least—must be full of blinding glory.

I dream of that day. And in the meantime, I’ll keep chasing the A/C …

A Tale of Two Sunsets … and Two Seasons of Life

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Think things won’t change?

Give God a year and see what happens.

I love a lot of things about the new home God has sent me in Dubai. But perhaps the thing I love most, besides the people He has placed in my life, are the sunsets. Last night, I got to enjoy this amazing edition (above) with a friend as we strolled around a local market perched on the edge of the Arabian Gulf. There’s no filter on this photo, other than the little “enhancement” button my iPhone has.

But as awesome as this sunset was, as it happened, it wasn’t the only sunset I saw today. Facebook also reminded me of a memory and sent me another sunset photo—of the one I saw exactly one year ago to the day, in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Could those two sunsets be any more different? Ah, now there’s the story.

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Dream Trip? Um yeah, no ….

Going to Iceland may sound exotic, not to mention the extreme opposite from a sunset in the Middle East!! For me it was definitely a bucket-list dream—but I wouldn’t have picked to go in the nadir of the year: those cold, dark, seemingly-“dead” weeks before the winter solstice. I also wouldn’t have picked to do it with about $40 USD in the bank. This translates to about 5,000 Icelandic krona.

If you know anything about Iceland, you know it’s expensive to do anything there, from taking a taxi to eating lunch. Five thousand krona might get you one meal. Maybe two if you shop deals hard for, like, two hours in advance of each meal. (Who has time for that, yo?) I don’t know, it might even cost you 5,000 krona to eat at McDonald’s. Not that I did … but my point is: it’s freaky expensive to survive.

Frankly, when I arrived and saw what I was really dealing with price-wise, I wasn’t sure I was going to survive at all.

I had money set aside for this trip. Not a lot, but definitely more than $40 USD. And then … as always seemed to happen during this “Nothing” phase of my life … the money had to get reallocated for other purposes. Last-minute financial crises always seemed to hit when I was about to take a trip I had felt led to schedule in the first-place.

Iceland was no exception.

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Last Ray of Hope (or So It Seemed)

I remember that sunset well. December 2 2017. I was pounding the cobblestone pavement of old-town Reykjavik, peeking in windows and snapping photos of the adorable cats and dogs that seemed to grow three extra layers of fur against the biting Atlantic wind. I wasn’t going in many places, because what’s the point when you don’t have money to spend? Stepping inside a restaurant  to get warm and read the menu gets really awkward after awhile when you don’t ask for a table!

There’s only about three hours of sun in Reykjavik any given day at that time of year, and since the rest of my stay in Iceland was totally cloudy, it’s a good thing I snapped this photo before the sun went down that day. Right at the top of the hill in front of Reykjavik Cathedral, the national church known for its distinctive bell tower (among other architectural features).

I couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful than that last ray of light amid the grimness.

After I took the photo, I remember deciding to blow 2000 of my non-existent krona on a bowl of lamb stew—the absolute rock-bottom cheapest local food I could find—so I could at least say I had eaten a “traditional local meal” whilst on the island. I walked around for a few more hours before heading back to the silent, empty women’s dormitory of the hostel where I rented a bed. More a hostel for ghosts, it would seem. I never saw another human soul there the whole time I stayed.

The north wind whistled around that traditionally-built wooden house. And even though I knew it had been built generations ago to withstand exactly this kind of weather, I still shuddered every time I heard a board creak.

It was as if the wind intended to splinter not only the house, but what was left of my life.

End of One Life, Beginning of the Next

That sunset has stuck in my mind ever since. Mostly because it reminded me that there was still light, still hope. That even though my life seemed completely out of control, traveling to Europe alone simply because God said to, with no money and no plan, at the ugliest/darkest/most depressing time of year … well, even in the middle of that mental and emotional landscape (which happened to feel as barren as Iceland!), there was still a sun behind the clouds.

Fast-forward 365 days, I was sitting on the pier at a market in Dubai, eating a beautiful meal with a friend whom I didn’t even know last year. There was food in my belly, cash in my wallet, and even a bank card with more where that came from, if I should happen to need it. I was enjoying a holiday from an amazing job, wearing a new dress I’d picked out myself, and was carrying a card in my purse that entitled me to resident benefits and services from the UAE, a country I never even once thought of while I was penny-pinching my way through Europe.

And then there was that sunset, the one I posted at the top of this post. One of the most breathtaking sunsets I have ever seen in my life, right there over my head, God’s banner of love painted in watercolors across the sky.

I couldn’t help noticing that everything about it was extravagant: the scope, the size, the layers, the intensity of color. All of it was triple or quadruple (maybe more!) of those same features in the Icelandic sunset.

Between Dec 2 2017 and Dec 2 2018, it’s like someone took the saturation tool in Photoshop and jacked it up to maximum.

My life, too, feels like it’s been jacked up since that now long-ago day.

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Change is the Only Constant

There’s no greater lie than the one we all like to tell ourselves when we’re most in distress: “Things will never change. Because in the walk of faith, I’ve noticed, change is the only constant. Sometimes, as in the tale of two sunsets, you just gotta wait 365 days to really see the full effect.

If I could go back to that girl I was last year, floundering in life, questioning why she couldn’t seem to settle down, and why nothing was working out, and why she was traveling in Europe when she just wanted to be home with people she loved … except that the more she chased home, the more it seemed to evade her … I would hug her and tell her it’s going to be okay.

Yeah, even when you’ve landed in a country where it’s 20 degrees Fahrenheit in December and there’s 20 hours of darkness every single day.

Seasons come, yes. But they also go. There’s no guarantee that next year’s sunset on December 2nd will be anything like this year’s. If you’re smart (and you know how God works), you know better than to say, “Nothing’s ever gonna change” out loud. Or in your heart. Or even in your deepest, darkest thoughts.

Because words have power. Expectations are the fence we try to build around what God can or will do next. You have no idea what’s coming next in your life, even if it seems as bleak and dead as a frozen island in the middle of the North Atlantic.

So don’t build a box for God that you don’t want to live in.

For every dead twig, salt-soaked rock and gust of killing wind I felt in Iceland last year on this same day …. I’ve been repaid a hundred-fold in flowering trees, warm Gulf waves between my toes and endless sunshine. Not to mention amazing friends who feel like family, a steady income and the prospect of once more trading my suitcase for an address.

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Are you really ready for your big shift?

Honestly, I’m kind of glad no one told me about the Dec 2 2018 sunset back on Dec 2 2017. Because no matter how much they would have tried to encourage me with it, I wouldn’t have been ready to believe it was possible, or even receive it into my life.

Maybe you’re not ready, either, for what God wants to send you in the way of prosperity, love, community, ministry and purpose by this time next year.  Maybe He knows it’s gonna take a WHOLE year of wandering to prepare you for your blessing.

Don’t fight how He chooses to work—even if He sends you on what seems like a fool’s errand.

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One year later, at a market on the Arabian Gulf!

What if I had to be in Iceland last year at this time, and snap that one precious sunset photo, because He knew it was the only way I would fully appreciate and worship Him for the shifts in my life?

That’s probably not the only reason … but even if it were, the “fool’s errand” is starting to look quite a bit less foolish.

Waiting for your big shift? In the meantime, trust the process. Watch the sunsets. Guard your heart, your mind and your words against thinking change will never happen. Thank God in advance that you’ll be seeing next year’s edition from a whole different vantage point.

Oh yeah … and don’t forget to take a lot of photos. You never know when God might use Facebook memories to help you remember!

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