Driving in the U.K.

I just got back from my four week Ireland and England trip, and I know you are all wondering: what were the roads like?!

I spent nearly two weeks exploring the British countryside with four friends in a massive rental car. I maneuvered a boat-size Toyota Avensis up tiny mountain roads, through narrow stone passageways, across busy highways (or, “carriageways”), and in and out of city parking lots (“car parks”). It’s probably a miracle I covered over 900 miles in relative safety.

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Many roads in the U.K. are lined with stone walls, like this one in Wales.

So what is it like driving in England? Here are some of my observations:

It’s really easy to get the correct documents because… there aren’t any. Did you know you do not need an international drivers license to drive in the U.K.? Because Ireland, England, and Wales are English-speaking countries, you do not need an international drivers license. All you need is your up-to-date American license.

Driving on the other side of the road is like getting your permit all over again. Driving on the “wrong side of the road” (the left side) is harder than it looks. It’s not simply driving on the other side of the road. You have to get used to the fact that you have an additional four feet of car on the left of you. You, the driver, are on the “wrong” side of the car. My friend in the front seat: “Wall. WALL! We’re getting close to the WALL!” It’s like I was 15 all over again.
It takes a bit to orient yourself to the left side of the road. Because I was sitting on the right side of the car, I found it hard to line up my car between the middle line and the left shoulder. The other disorienting thing was making right-hand turns. In the U.S. we get used to only looking one way (to the left) when turning right. But in the U.K., a right-hand turn is equivalent to a left-hand turn, where you have to look both ways because you are crossing a lane of traffic. Once, I pulled out to turn right, and mid-way through the intersection, I realized I forgot to look both ways! Thankfully, no one was coming!
They say that Americans driving in the U.K. find the third day to be the worst day. At first everything is new and exciting, and your concentration is at its peak. But by the third day, you’re starting to relax, yet you’re not totally accustomed to the roadway system, and this is when mistakes are made. For me, the left side didn’t seem normal until the second week.

The traffic signals aren’t hard to figure out, but navigation is impossible without a GPS. One note I will make about road signs is that in Ireland and Wales they are all bilingual. Besides English, there is Gaelic in Ireland and Welsh in Wales. It’s all very culturally interesting to read the languages, but it can be very distracting if you are the driver because you have to wade through a lot of text.
Another observation is that the roads are poorly marked in the rural areas and even in some cities. Also, carriageway signs do not feature a direction (North, South, East, West) but simply the nearest big city in that direction. Which is great if you are familiar with the location of all British cities. (I’m not.) We bought an atlas, but we ended up not using it because our car had a built-in GPS. However, the GPS had no input for a street address, so we were left to simply punching in the town name and following tourism signs once we arrived (or asking the local friendly pub owner for directions). Once we arrived at our destination, parking was always an issue. You can park on the street, but there are very specific laws and special markings (double lines, single lines, yellow lines) that mean the parking is/not/sometimes allowed. (?) We found it easier to just find a nearby “car park” and pay the parking fee so as not to incur a ticket. My favorite parking memory: ordering pork steak at the Roman Baths Kitchen, then huffing a half mile back to the car park to put five more pounds in the parking meter so we wouldn’t get a ticket. Bonus: by the time I got back from my hurried walk, my pork steak was ready.
One last note: WE DID NOT DRIVE IN LONDON. No one drives in London. Just to be clear. Park north of the city and take the Tube in.

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In cities, the street signs are attached to buildings rather than poles in the ground. Baker Street, London.

The roads are in good repair, but why are they so narrow?! I know, I know. Everything is just “bigger” in America. Let me tell you, the streets in the U.K. are narrow! Which is why they drive smaller cars. But this here American was traveling with four other people with weeks worth of luggage, so she rented a mid-size car. My knuckles whitened, gripping the wheel, as I slowly climbed up mountain roads in Wales, ancient stone walls inches from my mirrors on either side. (If you ever meet another car on these roads, you either squeeze off to the side, or one of you backs up to the nearest passing spot, a place in the road where a car can pull off to let the other car pass.) It was my luck that I met a bus on this steep road. I tried backing up, but there was a car behind me. Some of my friends hopped out and tried to help me back into this little open area by a nearby building. We were all yelling and motioning, and then I hear a $$$$$ scraping on the car. (Later, we learned it was only scraping on the muffler, not the bumper. What a relief!) I recommend renting a European size car if you can manage.

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Steep, narrow cobblestone streets in the little town of Haworth, Charlotte Brontë’s hometown.

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Small cars for narrow roads. Jane Austen House Museum, Chawton, Hampshire, England.

On speeding: no one drives the speed limit, and there are never any police cars in sight. None. I never saw one. That said, there are traffic cameras everywhere in the city, so you should obey/disobey speeding laws at your own risk. (Our rental car had a built-in traffic camera sensor, hee hee hee.) I finally resorted to keeping up with traffic only for safety’s sake, but I’m still watching my mailbox for a send-out ticket.

Watch out for reintegration. Coming back to the States, I thought driving on the right side again would be no problem. I was pulling out for church one morning, and I automatically turned left without looking right. Suddenly, I remembered half-way through my turn that a left-hand turn is once again crossing a lane of traffic, and I need to look both ways! Thank the Lord no one was coming! Right after the turn, I had this terrifying moment where I had no idea which side of the road to drive on! It was a very funny disorienting feeling! When reentering the U.S., make sure that you take the time to look both ways.

Happy driving!

Stonehenge, Stourhead, and Stratford: England, Week 4

Driving west out of London, we found the countryside to be a breath of fresh air. Motel-ed in Liphook. Wednesday morning we drove to Jane Austen’s house in Alton, Chawton. A lovely day! This was an even better experience than the Bronte Parsonage. I especially enjoyed how the exhibits and museum related much of the artifacts back to Austen’s writing. Austen was insanely productive, never married, and died in her 40s. For several years she lived in Bath, but she hated it there. (Which is so funny because in Bath there’s this whole museum dedicated to her. When she lived there, her writing came to a halt because she was so unhappy!) It was only when she returned to Alton in her late 20s that she began reworking her manuscripts and started publishing them. She was very close to her sister. The intimacy shared by Jane and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is most likely autobiographical. Also, Jane Austen’s character is to be commended. At her death, Jane was praised by her brothers for her good Christian character and kindness. Jane Austen’s quiet family life in the country was conducive to productive writing. Jane Austen’s story is not without hardship, but the Jane Austen House Museum explains how Austen became successful despite these setbacks and never let her work and her craft get in the way of family and friendship.

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Jane Austen’s back yard.

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The street view.

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The bedroom she shared with her sister.

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I loved the light of the place.

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An English country garden.

In the afternoon, we drove to Stonehenge! A most amusing experience here. In line to get tickets, an Austrian man, in limited English says to us, “We are six. You are five. Eleven makes a group. We save 1.50 pounds if group. I checked. Okay? We are group.” We smile politely at the men, which we find out are six Catholic priests. So we became a “group.” We were asked if we were part of a “community,” and when we mentioned the Reformation, things got a little awkward. But they were very friendly priests, and we even got our picture taken with them at Stonehenge! Not to mention saving £1.50 a person!

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Rising out of the grasslands.

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Obligatory selfie.

After eating dinner in the only pub in the tiny village of Cholderton (population 210), we checked into our hostel, which was next to an exotic animal farm.

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Candlelight, flowers, and dinner at the pub.

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Thursday was one of my favorite days. My friends gave me a hard time because this was me almost every day: “OH MY GOODNESS GUYS THIS IS MY FAVORITE DAY SO FAR.”
But seriously. Stourhead Gardens was exquisite! If you want to vacation like a Brit, head to Stourhead Gardens. You’ll see the British grandpas and the grandmas in their bucket hats… the ladies in their dresses… walking their dogs… the children playing by the river… the families with picnics… It’s a lovely experience.

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Lake, picnics, swans…

I put Stourhead on our itinerary because it is home to superb architectural features including a Palladian mansion, a Palladian Bridge, a Pantheon, and a Temple of Apollo (which, in years past, I have renamed “The Round Thingy” and have received unending ribbing because of it.) The gardens, the features, and the house are rare. One rarely gets to see these sorts of places in movies. (The bridge and the temple were featured in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. Also, the interior of the mansion reminded me of other period movies.) Lovely to see in real life. Do yourself a favor and read up on the Stourhead Gardens. The lake is actually man-made and the surrounding gardens and walking paths are carefully designed for artistic cohesiveness.

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The Palladian Bridge and Pantheon. It was a little more moody when Keira Knightley ran across it.

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Stunning hydrangeas. Notice the variation in shade.

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Poetry by Alexander Pope, who helped design the garden.

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The Temple of Apollo. (Also featured in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice.)

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Artistry in nature.

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The Pantheon, undergoing extensive restoration.

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Inside the cool grotto.

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1720s Palladian Mansion.

 

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Entryway. Portrait of Alda Hoare, lady of the house.

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Ever heard of Chippendale? He was commissioned to design most of the furniture for the house.

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Pretties

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I asked the tour guide for information on the pottery on the mantle. It appeared to be identical to ancient Greek pottery I had just seen in London in the British Museum. Apparently, it’s imitation. At the time, all things Greek were in vogue for designers.

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A pine cabinet with 127 compartments and overlaid in precious stones.

After walking, reading, and touring the house, I had another lovely setting of cream tea.

We drove to Bath, which Jane Austen hates, and inched the Avensis up a very narrow drive to the YHA hostel, whose service and food left a bit to be desired.

Friday morning we made our way to a free car park outside the village of Castle Combe. Castle Combe is an iconic English village, full of stone and hanging baskets. Again, period movies are shot there because it is so quaint.

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Rooftop cream tea.

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Heather is a very common plant in England.

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The quaintness of Castle Combe.

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Common village house.

Back in Bath in the afternoon, I realized I was museum-ed out. I’m not sure how to admit this, but I didn’t go to the Roman baths. It was expensive, and I felt like I would have just gone inside, taken a picture, and then left. I needed a break from our crazy schedule. So I just walked the town, listening to street musicians, visiting little shops, and people-watching. It was refreshing.

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Architecture in Bath.

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Joel Grainger, a talented musician playing on the street in Bath. Check him out on Youtube!

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I met up with my friends for an al fresco dinner.

Saturday morning I was pretty peaked. We didn’t really have plans made yet for Stratford-upon-Avon. We were all kind of losing steam, but I was wanting to make sure that I made the most of every moment of this trip. On the drive to Shakespeare’s hometown, we stopped at McDonald’s for potties and food, but I refused to eat there. I was determined to find something authentic in Stratford. I really wanted to go to a Shakespeare play (I was saving money for this), but my friends didn’t want to go, and I was really starting to worry about coordinating all this because the GPS was showing that our hotel was not very close to the city center.

I shouldn’t have worried. Our beautiful hotel, the Grosvenor Best Western, was located a 5 minute’s walk from the center AND the Royal Shakespeare Company. I headed out by myself and inquired about last-minute tickets. The agent asked how old I was, and since I was 16-25, she was able to sell me a £5 ticket for the same-day showing of the RSC’s King Henry the IV, Part II! I was ecstatic!

Until the play, I explored Stratford. It was here that I first treated myself to a full traditional afternoon tea. You know those little cupcake towers? They brought one out, except it was filled with food, not cupcakes, and it was all for me! Nine tiny little sandwiches, a scone and clotted cream (of course), and a piece of cake a lemon tart.

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My “high” tea.

Strolling by the Avon, waiting for the play to start, I decided that traveling by yourself is not very fun. Avoid it if you can.

The Shakespeare play was quite the experience. These actors spend much of their acting career performing Shakespeare. It is quite possibly some of the most informed Shakespeare you will ever see. I had read Henry the IV, Part I in college, so I was at least familiar with the characters. Falstaff was amazing.

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The Royal Shakespeare Company!

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Boats and swans on the river Avon.

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The Royal Shakespeare Company!

Sunday we visited Stratford-upon-Avon Baptist Church. Very friendly British Baptists!

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Another tea adventure.

In Stratford, I also made sure to visit Shakespeare’s houses. I was a little disappointed. After paying a large fee, you entered, and the guides were like, “So here’s his house.” There wasn’t a lot of information to make it meaningful or even to relate it back to Shakespeare and his works. I walked down to the house where he lived as an adult (which I had paid to see), and inside they were like, “This is his neighbor’s house. Shakespeare’s adult residence was torn down in 1759.” Apparently, I had missed the key words like “site” and “foundation” rather than “house” at the information center. It was still cool, though, to see examples of Tudor architecture and furniture. All hand-carved.

I also visited Holy Trinity Church, location of Shakespeare’s grave (which again, was inside the cathedral, beneath the floor). I was interested in the church’s displays and explanation of Christian belief.
I also got to learn fun facts about Shakespeare, like… (shocker) his wife had a bun in the oven before they got married.

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Shakespeare’s boyhood home.

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Tudor living.

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Handcarved wooden furniture.

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Interior of a Tudor home.

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Shakespeare’s grave at Holy Trinity Church.

Monday morning we had a four hour drive back to the ferry port in Wales. Entering Wales, we experienced that disorientation when the signs switch back to both Welsh and English. I found it distracting to wade through so much text. Off the carriageway, we were again winding through mountain roads and villages. Soon, we entered Snowdonia, and we oohed and ahhed at the gorgeous views before us. Our crossing on the ferry was very smooth.

Back in Dublin, waiting for a taxi, we met a Christian named Jenny. A charming Dubliner. She is a musician at her church in the Dublin city center. We found out she had just come from the London Hillsong Conference. She was fairly glowing, and wished us well on our trip home.

And fly home we did.
Safely back in the States, I thank God for this trip of a lifetime. For the lessons, the experiences, the beauty, and the culture. For singing lessons, and music memories, for happy times and for disappointments, and lush Irish greens, for black pudding and cream tea, and for Welsh mountain crags. For a small glimpse of little movements of the kingdom gospel in two island nations.

And I also thank God for home, a place to come back to. Both my real home in Ohio, and my new home in Indiana. It’s hard sometimes, but I’m slowly finding a place.
And so here the journey continues. And my work begins.
Soli Deo Gloria!

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“…we have dreams and songs to sing…”

Music and Brick: Bits of London, Week 4

Entering London
The next leg of our trip included London. We had heard that driving in the city limits is an absolute impossibility, so we checked our options for long-term parking at a “car park” north of the city. Stanmore Station, with access to the Underground, included a large car park, so we tried our luck to find a space. We got in on the weekend, Saturday afternoon, and there were only a few spaces available. We were able to buy several days worth of parking.

Melting in the heat, we got help from the Underground ticket agent to buy single trip tickets to Putney Bridge, our Tube stop southwest of the city center. We had booked a flat a five minute’s walk from the Tube. The smoldering subway ride brought back memories of my trip to NYC last year. However, I was not familiar with orienteering on a metro system. I was very grateful that I had brought my own little Underground route map, which I had ripped out of a travel book I bought at a thrift store before I came. I used it numerous times.

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Exiting the subway, we had trouble finding our apartment and even gaining access. It took three people to get the key to work in the lock. The rest of us, dripping with sweat, gravely surveyed the open windows in the flats all along the street. We entered the cramped apartment and smiled icily at each other. (Our emotions were all running a liiiittle high. We were POOPED to say the least… we were tired, hot, hungry, there was no air conditioning, and the apartment was in no way what I would call swanky.) But. Considering it was London, we didn’t do too bad.

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Considering it was London, we didn’t do too bad.

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Yes, that is a washing machine in the kitchen.

We displayed fortitude and went grocery shopping and out for pizza. I splurged on my own pizza at Pizza Express, the hippest pizza joint in the U.K.! Okay, so it was only the second pizza joint I had been to, but it was amazing. The design of the restaurant is sleek, modern, and fun. And the food is exceptional! I ordered the “Emilia” pizza, which is chestnut & closed cup mushrooms on a goat’s cheese, garlic oil, and mozzarella base, finished with rocket (what Brits call Arugula), Gran Moravia cheese, fresh lemon juice and black truffle oil. I have no idea what black truffle oil is, but why else do you think I ordered it?

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St. Paul’s Cathedral
Sunday morning at the Tube station, we got our Oyster cards (the universal, reloadable metro card for London, which is £5, refundable) and made our way to St. Paul’s Cathedral for the Sung Eucharist at 11 a.m. (Attending a service is one way to get into the cathedral for free. We also, of course, wanted to attend a worship service since it was Sunday.) We ended up meeting with some of our friends from Oasis! A group of five guys had stayed an extra week in England, too, and London was their last stop.

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Photography is not allowed inside the cathedral, but I can say that its interior is one of the most stunning cathedrals that I have been in. As we waited for the cathedral choir to enter, I was numb. I felt as if I couldn’t even grasp or understand the beauty of its interior. It was so otherworldly, I had no reference point for it. Yet I was determined to utilize all of my senses and to try to really “see”… …the gold, the paintings, the pillars, the intricate carvings, even the space… all multiplied in architectural harmony and symmetry. Here lay the evidence of the wealth of a nation.

The most memorable sense I have is: light, gold, space, and splendor.

Had I not attended a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, I think I would not have understood the architecture. Its grandeur (and for once I get to use the word “grandeur” in its fullest sense) probed me to ask “Why?” “For what?”
(Yes, I have been accused of being too functional when it comes to art. I guess I feel the need for integrity. Many times I find myself asking “What’s the point?” in relation to art.)
In any case, asking “Why?” at St. Paul’s Cathedral was seemingly answered in the Sung Eucharist. Joining in the liturgy, hymns, and prayers, I was able to relate this (what seemed like) inaccessible beauty back to God.

In that splendor, I could have felt insecure. But there was an element of community by attending the service… by joining the cathedral choir, organ, and congregation in singing in unison the hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing My Great Redeemer’s Praise” and by partaking of the Lord’s supper with believers from around the world.

Tourists, church members, and our little group sat in chairs in the “crossing” under the dome. We greatly enjoyed the cathedral choir (including the boys choir) and the Haydn mass. We were also delighted to find that the 3 o’clock Evensong included John Tavener’s “Song for Athene.” We definitely decided to stay. (Orientation for non-music nerds: Tavener is a popular contemporary British composer whose piece “Song for Athene” was performed at the funeral for Princess Diana. His music is religious, sparse, and meditative. Tavener passed away last year.) Once again, I enjoyed the Evensong, especially the Tavener piece. For the first time I understood the piece as death and Heaven. Hearing it in this space, I finally connected the last line to the splendor of Heaven after death. Here is the text:

Alleluia.
May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Alleluia.
Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom.
Alleluia.
Give rest, O Lord, to your handmaid, who has fallen asleep.
Alleluia.
The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life and door of Paradise.
Alleluia.
Life: a shadow and a dream.
Alleluia.
Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia.
Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.
Alleluia.

We were inspired, in the truest sense of the word, when we left the cathedral.

The Mennonite Game
We ran into random Mennonites from Pennsylvania at Evensong at St. Paul’s. Some of them were our mutual friends, whom we vaguely knew were traveling in England this summer. It’s a small world.

Being Tourists
Next stop, Camden Market! Honestly, we were a little freaked out by it. Pickpocket warning signs everywhere, and its garishness reminded me of Chinatown in NYC. It was pretty trashy. But fun for souvenirs, nonetheless.

We spent the evening planning our city route for the next day. Kim bought this awesome little foldy London map that was a lifesaver for us many times. It included a map of famous landmarks AND the closest tube stops.

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Stephanie, reading the paper and looking important.

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Monday morning was 221 Baker Street! We literally just went into the gift shop because the line to get into the “museum” was already 100 feet long.

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Deliberating over which museum to go to, we carelessly chose the British Museum because it was free. Let me tell you, there’s a reason it’s free. It’s one of the worst museums I have been to. The lighting was terrible, the presentation in places was embarrassingly dated, and it was hot and crowded. For some reason I was thinking there would be more British-y things, but instead, it was like Great Britain was saying, “Yeah, we conquered the world and ruled it for a while. Here’s all our crap.” And that’s what the museum was. Little bits of culture from empires and other countries. I really wished I would have gone to an art museum instead. But. I did see a hunk of the Rosetta Stone. I had to force my way through ten Europeans taking selfies with the thing til I could actually catch a glimpse of it through the smudged glass.

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London Landmarks
Only Steph and I wanted to go the Tower of London (to see the crown jewels!), so we established a meeting place with the other girls and trucked off toward the Tower and the London Bridge. This was the only time during our whole trip that A Great Problem happened. For the most part, we had had exceptional travel safety and orienteering. Considering none of us had working cell phones, and the only way we were communicating to family was through Apple technology and spotty wifi, it’s actually a miracle that we made it back in one piece. (I might brag here that I went this entire four weeks with no electronic devices, internet, or social media. I didn’t have a smartphone or an ipad to take along, and I relied on friends’ devices only for very occasional facebook blips. It was… cleansing, lol.)

We thought the Tower closed at 5. It was currently 4. That was a lot of “seeing” to do in an hour. We found out once inside that it closed at 5:30. And it was dazzling! THIS! THIS was the iconic Britain I had come to see! Armor and jewels and towers! Yes!

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Waterloo Block which holds the crown jewels. A bit of a queue.

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Tower Bridge from inside the Tower of London.

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The Tower, nestled within a modern city.

We decided our friends outside could wait a bit. Later, we went back to the meeting place at 5:45, and they were nowhere to be found. We waited, and waited, and waited. We walked around. We got food. We waited. We searched. We looked. We walked the Tower Bridge. We came back. We got worried. We got upset. We searched again.
To make a long story short, we found out after two and a half hours of searching that, at 5:30, they had returned to our flat (an hour’s Tube ride out of the city center) hoping we figure it out and come home too.
And they had made pizza.
And we had eaten dry sandwiches from a grocery store.
And it was our last night in London.

We tried to calm down.
It was late.
It was our last night in London.
We were starving.
So Steph and I lived it up at the Minories Pub (and by that I mean we ordered water.)

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We ran into a problem Tuesday morning. We had to check out of our flat at 10, and it was really out of our way to take our luggage all the way back to the car, but we still had sightseeing to do. We could have dropped our luggage off at a bus or tube station (certain stations will hold your bags for a fee), but Kendra and Sarah were done with the city, so they took our bags and went back to Stanmore for the morning.

Kim and Steph left for the London Eye. (Which I chose not to go on because I deemed it a $50 ferris wheel tourist trap.) I headed out alone for Westminster Abbey.

I wasn’t sure which exit to take out of the tube station, but I picked one, and as I climbed the steps, soaring above me was Big Ben!

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I converged with the throngs, and headed toward the Abbey, location of the 2011 Royal Wedding. I was debating between going in or not (by this time, I was running out of money, and the $30 price tag was a bit steep), but I decided to go since I had come this far. I waited in a very long line for half an hour. Again, no photography allowed. It was also very crowded. I got to see the graves of Chaucer, Darwin, Dickens, kings & queens, Mary Queen of Scots, Rudyard Kipling, and Isaac Newton. It’s all very intimate. You would think they would be in this large outdoor graveyard, but they are actually buried underneath the cathedral. The carved slabs functioning as grave markers are actually the flooring of the cathedral.

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Westminster Abbey.

I personally prefer the light interior of St. Paul’s over the Gothic interior of Westminster. But. Part of that has to do with the times in which they were built. St. Paul’s was rebuilt in 1669 after the Great Fire. Westminster, on the other hand, was finished in the early 1500s.

We made our way to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament before walking by St. James’s Park on our way to Buckingham Palace.

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Strangely, Big Ben is really… big.

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When we arrived at Buckingham Palace, there were crowds of people, a marching band, and little red men. The British are coming!

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We spent some time in Green Park before heading out of the city.

Traveling Mennonite
I will take a break of all this royalty to say that we, as Mennonites, were a bit of an anomaly in England.
Scratch that.
We were a traveling Amish freak show. Especially the choir. People were very puzzled, perplexed, amused, or curious. Honestly, the pointing and the stares came off as a little rude. England was especially bad, compared to Ireland. We got really good at answering questions of “What’s that thing on your head? What ARE you?” There were two tracks, really, depending on which sort of person asked. “Have you heard of the Reformation?” In which case, we’d do the crash course in church history. Or the classic, “Have you heard of the Amish?” (if the person seemed non-churched) and then we’d carelessly align ourselves with bad characters from poor, misinformed reality T.V. shows. Most of the time it felt like a lose/lose situation. Sometimes I get asked this question and I’d really like to turn it around. “Well, who are YOU?” How can anyone answer that question in 30 seconds flat?

Leaving London, we met a parking attendant at the car park who asked us first if we’re Romanian. (?) We talked about the Mennonite church, and he soon opened up about his own life. His partner died tragically in a car accident 18 months ago, and he’s struggling very much and asking God some very real questions about why his partner had to die but yet evil people are kept alive. He was very pleasant, yet very honest. We spent a long time talking to him, sharing some of our own experiences and ending up praying with him. This was one of the more positive interactions of meeting people on the street. If you think about it, pray for Mickey.

Wales and Whitby: England, Week 3

Monday morning, July 14th, my travel group met, ready for our two weeks of England adventure! Our group of five was made up of two of my friends from choir, Kendra and Sarah (sisters), and their friend Kim and cousin Steph (who had just flown from the States). We had been planning this trip for months.

Okay, let’s be honest, Kendra and I had done most of the planning. I, of course, had a lot of opinions about where we should go. Kendra also loves literature and history, so she agreed mostly, and the other girls were pretty much like “Yay, England!” so it was a win-win. (Spoiler: I was dragged to 221 Baker Street even though I’m not a Sherlock Holmes fan. And, believe it or not, I balked at going along to Stonehenge. I KNOW IT’S A BIG DEAL. But, I paid a lot of money just to stare at some rocks that historians are still scratching their heads about. But I got the selfie, and that’s all that matters, right?)

Those of us from Oasis were pretty excited about heading to the coast for some rest and relaxation!

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Our first matter of business was getting from the hotel to the ferry port, which proved to be a 40 euro taxi ride. Yes, it’s quite expensive traveling in Europe! Our ferry was quite late getting in, due to rough seas, which led to a late departure. We had a very specific time to pick up our rental car at the Holyhead port, and I was worried we wouldn’t make it on time. Our crossing was quite rough. We had booked the fast ferry which meant we were on a smaller boat, which only increased the roughness. We arrived one hour late, but thankfully before the rental car agency closed. We picked up our keys for our brand spankin’ new Toyota Avensis which had plenty of room for us 5 and our luggage. I cautiously invaded the driver’s seat.

“WHAT IS THAT CAR THINKING!” I yelled.

“Um, you’re in their lane,” Kendra says.

We were delighted to find a built-in GPS in our car.  Navigation would have been impossible without one. The “carriageways” are well-marked in round-a-bouts (using place names for direction, rather than “east” or “west”), but roadways were otherwise poorly marked. Many times we simply punched in the town name for lack of a street name and house number. Many of our destinations were fairly famous landmarks, so we relied on other signage once we reached the general town location.

Driving on the left side of the road was very disconcerting at first! Quite disorienting. It’s like having a driver’s permit all over again! The most dangerous thing for me was forgetting to look right when turning right.

We began traveling toward our house in Wales which we had booked via airbnb and found ourselves traversing quite narrow roads! We checked the GPS to find where we were: “Unnamed Road.” Steep inclines, narrow passageways between old stone walls, and no turnarounds in sight! The GPS leading us ever upward, I gripped the steering wheel, terrified of meeting another car. What would I do with this Avensis boat? WHAT IF I WRECK THIS SILVER WHALE IN WALES?! We continued climbing higher and higher. The girls were ooing and ahhing as we wound higher in the Snowdonia mountains, past sheep farms, and misty mountain landscapes. Inevitably, I MET A BUS. Now, there’s barely room for my car on this road, much less passing another car. I had no idea what to do. I tried backing up, but there was a car behind me. Some of the girls hopped out and tried to help me back into this little open area by a nearby building. We were all yelling and motioning, and then I hear a $$$$$ scraping on the car. There goes my bank account. Landing roadside on a little mountain in Wales. (Later, we learned it was only scraping on the muffler, not the bumper. Praise the Lord!)

We finally reached the town of Bryn Pistyll, and we hadn’t found the house. There were cars everywhere in the narrow town, but no people. Weird. We finally stopped at the only open place of business: a bar. The barkeeper: “Ooo, Sally’s.” We found our little abode nestled in the tiny town of Tinydom. It was a great space and Sally pointed us to food two towns over in Llanchid. Not very near to Llanfairpwllgwyngyll. ?? Welsh, did you swallow some dry feathers? Sally did her best to explain the Welsh double consonant.

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Cozy beds in Wales

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We even had the option of building a fire!

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The walkway up to our house.

We picked up some fast food and raided a gas station for breakfast goodies. (We picked up some nice yogurt and fruit, actually.) Back in our bright little house, we brewed coffee, giggling with terrified excitement about our hair-raising drive, and cranked up the supplied tunes (we had never heard of Bananarama), and wrapped up in blankets to beat the damp, cool weather. The mountains looked very Lord of the Rings-ish.

The next morning I had the most beautiful drive of my entire life. Leaving Snowdonia National Park, driving along the Welsh shore, sun beaming on sparking sand, water and wet green mountains, blue skies and white clouds. One Republic on Welsh radio.

Our first stop was the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth. Excellent museum because photography is not allowed. This causes one to pause and experience through the sense the life Charlotte and her family would have known. The historians maintaining the house leave no leaf unturned. Special paints, dyes, and wallpapers are specifically manufactured so that the house appears exactly as it would have in the 1840s. I was left to memorize the perfectly recreated blues and grays… the specially-ordered wallpaper… the facts (that Charlotte had 9 months of happy marriage… that she and her siblings were writers since their preteen years, creating tiny books and newspapers). It was an excellent museum with wonderful accompanying walks in an outdoor natural space. You can even visit the Bronte church and walk further down into the adorable town of Haworth. Wonderful place to visit! I wished we could have stayed longer.

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The Bronte Parsonage! Home of the brooding Brontes.

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The moors. I don’t have pictures of the more melancholy moors, but they are breathtaking!

After overnighting in the Great Horse Lodge, we moved on to Thirsk, of James Herriot fame. I decided to skip this museum to save money. I was content to sit in the town market and journal. British locals came and went all morning, walking their dogs, parking their bikes, chatting with villagers, sitting down casually. It was here that a young mother handed Kim a tract and said, “God bless you. Jesus loves you.” First person who tried to witness to me in England! Interestingly, the tract gave several options: Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, and Evangelical Christianity, before finally landing on Christianity as the only way to God (through Jesus Christ). Once again, another layer.

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Thirsk, home of James Herriot.

Since we were heading north to the coast for several days, we picked up groceries, fresh produce, and baked goods from the farmer’s market and nearby bakeries. We could keep these in the refrigerator at our hostel.

After boarding the Avensis, soon there were squeals of delight driving up over the hills into Whitby, with the Abbey looming in the distance. We would be staying at YHA Whitby, in a rambling old estate very near to ancient cathedral ruins, right on the cliffs. We lugged our suitcases up countless flights of stairs to find several people already in our dorm-style rooms. Well, let’s make friends, I guess.

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Our home for the next three days.

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Whitby by the sea!

We walked 199 steps down into town. The tiny, narrow cobblestone streets were for walking only. The gulls honked endlessly, and the smell of fish and sea air puffed our noses. We ate our first helping of fish and chips. That evening we walked the pier and watched fishermen in the rain, before finally returning to the hostel and drinking bottomless pots of tea and raiding our personal snack bag in the smelly, self-catering kitchen. The day ended with a dark, spooky walk to the car park to move our car because we forgot that our parking meter expired early in the morning. The Abbey loomed spookily in the darkness.

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Clouds rolling over the pier.

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The North Sea. Do you see any Vikings?

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Grave of Caedmon, earliest English poet. Seventh century.

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Whitby after the rain.

Thursday dawned bright and clear. I woke up around 9 in my bed, staring out the window to a clear sky and the birds calling. Our YHA accommodations got us into the stone-walled Abbey ruins for free. Very interesting. Beautiful, but also sad. So this is what the church has come to? Closed down in the 1500s because of a greedy king who wanted an heir and needed a divorce to get one?

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The Abbey ruins at Whitby.

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Soaring arches.

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Open to the sky.

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I spent time reading by the wall with the colossal ruins in the background. Later, I spent time reading in the gardens.

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For dinner, we went to the famous Magpie Café, which serves the best fish and chips in England! I whole-heartedly agree! Delicious HOT fish with amazing house-made tartar.

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Sometime during our Whitby days I was determined to be on the beach at sunrise. On Friday morning I work up at 4:45 and noticed it was light already! I booked it down the flights of steps for walking and exploring. The light on the Abbey was incredible. I walked further and further, nearer and nearer the cliffs. The sun was pouring over the watery horizon, beaming its warmth onto the chilly shore. I hopped the safety fence and found a spot in the wet grass on the cliff’s edge. I pulled out my Bible and read John’s gospel, chapters 14-17, where Jesus speaks to the disciples. In this passage, I was so struck by the words of Jesus, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” The simplicity of this message moved me.

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As I stood by the cliffs, by the sparkling water, the smooth sea, the beaming sun, thick wheat, and with the ruins at my back, the words of the song “Build Us Back” ran through my mind.

“Though the mountains be shaken
The hills be removed
Your unfailing love remains…
After all that’s been taken
Your promise still, still sacred
You build us back with precious stones.”

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After this unforgettable morning and more rest, I joined my friends at Sherlock’s in Whitby for our very first cream tea experience. “Cream tea” in England refers to a certain setting of tea and scones. It includes a serving a tea and a fresh scone with a side of clotted cream and strawberry jam. Clotted cream is a whitish-yellow buttery substance, which you spread lavishly on your scone, along with jam. We enjoyed it immensely and looked to order it increasingly everywhere in England afterwards.

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Our last day in Whitby included souvenir shopping and reading in the parlor at the hostel. Confession: we were craving American food that night, and we scoured the town, before finally scoring two large American-style pizzas.

Saturday morning we left Whitby for sizzling London! Cities and Stonehenge to come!

 

Song and Sun: Ireland, Week 2

Oasis Chorale Tour Continued
After staying up all night on the ferry and visiting Powerscourt Gardens, we gave a concert at a YMCA in West Dublin. This concert experience was quite informal, and we deviated a bit from our normal repertoire. First, our choir had been advertised (via a huge sign outside) as an “American Gospel Choir.” I hope no one in the audience was disappointed with our predominantly sacred choral selections! Yet due to the nature of the space and the amount of children in the audience, we made it a little more fun by doing crazy Oasis warmups with the audience beforehand and even singing Irish and American folksongs as warmups. We sang “Home on the Range,” lol. After intermission, we collaborated with Maureen, an audience member who sings with a gospel choir in Dublin and who sang for us “There is a Balm in Gilead.” We also pulled out our improv skills when a young boy in the front row (from the Irish Travelers cultural group) asked us to sing “O Happy Day.” It was after this concert that I enjoyed talking with the Irish audience members over “tea and buns.” I met two Irish women who were friends, and we had a lovely chat. (I was interested, however, that they described themselves as being from two different religions, Christianity and Roman Catholicism. ? I was uncovering even more layers to the religious culture of Ireland.)

Tuesday we had a much-needed mid-tour rehearsal. I haven’t written much yet about the choir experience, but I will say this. We are blessed with an amazing director who recognizes the diversity within our choir, especially regarding musical experience, education, and talent. Patient and encouraging, yet prodding and stimulating, Wendell Nisly empowers choir members by creating a safe space for musical giving and taking. Responsibility and a humble heart are the core values this year. And these come through discipline. Our director’s humility, creativity, and resourcefulness, specifically this year, continue to push Oasis to further artistic integrity, and it’s so exciting to be a part of it. We as a choir are learning from each other what it means to be disciplined musicians who humbly give their gift, both abroad, and at home in our own communities.

A sappy quote from my journal from this day: “By this point in the trip, I’m realizing that I’m having so much fun. I’m making friends, having interesting conversations, making beautiful music, and touring beautiful Ireland and meeting wonderful people. It’s touching.”

Tour Life
To give you a little glimpse into choir touring culture, I’ll explain what our typical day looked like. Many times we stayed in hostels and had breakfast together at the hostel. Then in the mornings we traveled or spent time touring local areas. For lunch, we were dropped off in city centers or at travel stops and we were on our own. These were always fun times to try local food. We would get back on the bus with all kinds of stories about the little pub we found or the new food we tried. This particular day in Drogheda, I ate at the Copper Kettle with Joy, and I tried brie and bacon on brown bread with tomato relish. We also ordered “tea for two”. My dish came with a salad, red beets, and coleslaw.

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Debbie Downers
I should also at some point post pictures of the REAL travel life in Ireland. You guys get to see gigantic roses and pictures of gorgeous architecture, but you don’t have the privilege of seeing midgies (Irish fleas). Or daily lugging your suitcase up four flights of stairs at a hostel with no “lift.” Or banging your shower knob every 10 seconds so the water stays on because if you don’t it automatically shuts off so that you, the wasteful American, don’t use up all the groundwater in Ireland. Yes, these are the real Oasis Ireland tour memories. But. I think tourists can focus on certain inconveniences, or they can simply deal with them, as an adventure, make memories, and LIVE UP the trip of a life time!

So that even when we ran out of time to visit Newgrange in Ireland (an earthwork structure in Ireland that PREDATES Stonehenge) you simply sigh wistfully, and move on. But also try to get a picture of it while the bus is zooming past.

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It’s there! It’s there! I can see it! There on the left? The round dome?

On Tuesday night, our choir was once again warmly received by the hosting congregation, Drogheda Presbyterian. We were delighted to sing to both church members and visiting community people. A big shout out to John Woodside for his promotion of the event! By this point, we were becoming increasingly attached to our audiences in Ireland… their endless thanks and appreciative encores. The times of fellowship following our concerts were highlights enjoyed by all of us.

Thoughts on Choir
One reason I continue to sing with Oasis is because of comments like this that I heard: “Your music brings us back to what it’s all about. It’s very special in that way.” A capella singing, sung beautifully, with a message of truth, has the power to do that, I believe. At Drogheda, I had an interesting conversation with someone about the crafting of our repertoire, and its mix of sacred, emotional, and even evangelistic pieces. I think that the type of music Oasis sings has an awakening power. I have been to choral concerts that have awakened in me a sense of longing, one that I can almost not articulate. It is a longing for beauty and peace, which we get a temporal taste of through good music. It is my desire that those who experience this longing will turn to Jesus Christ, God’s Son, through whom we find eternal life and that beauty and peace which all humanity longs for.

Another part of choir tours is the indispensable bus time. A note: jamming over 40 emotional, spontaneous, artistic musical divas onto a bus for two weeks can certainly make for some interesting times, not to mention ridiculous games and memories, like “Bus Hide and Seek,” group surveys, and endless verses of “The Fields of Athenry”. We also get into really great discussions about things like music, architecture, poetry, bear hunts, and avocado. I was in this great conversation about the problems and issues of poetry and theology in new hymns, and we were reading a new hymn in which the theme was about how our eyes will be opened and the veil will be drawn away once we get to Heaven, and we will know God fully. I was commenting that I agreed with this sentiment… Here on earth, we do not fully understanding God’s ways… in our humanness, we cannot fully understand God now, but we will know Him fully once we get to Heaven. (This made sense to me because sometimes I feel very distant from God.) Then someone, almost irritated, said, “He will only be fully known then? WHY?”

That comment convicted me. I realized the indication. If God is not fully known, whose fault is it? Is it not true that God will be found by those who seek Him? “Ask, seek, knock,” Jesus says.

But many people react to this truth. Many people respond: “I HAVE sought. I HAVE tried.” Perhaps we sometimes forget the amount of time it takes to “seek” something. Remember that a little bit every day goes a lot farther than one cram session at the end. The Lord will be known, and it will be by those who actively, regularly seek Him. Discipline, then, is indispensable to the Christian life. Discipline is my goal. Seeking God, His righteousness, and His purity. If God’s love and comfort are the deepest longings of my broken, sinful heart, I must seek Him with all diligence. This idea of discipline is something that has been rolling around in my mind for a while. It’s true that diligence and discipline bring results in many different areas of our lives. I have seen this work personally through things like long-distance running, music preparation, and even in developing a prayer life. But this is a lesson I’VE learned, in very personal ways, recently. So simply “telling” you this may not be very inspiring.

On the Road Again
Wednesday we drove to Limerick, Ireland, so obviously we had a limerick writing contest! The Listowel congregation graciously hosted us in their homes, and we were treated to some good ole Irish hospitality! Our hostess treated us to tea and a walk to the nearby beach. She also served us British goodness called Eaton Mess (strawberries, cream, and meringues). The best dessert I ever had in Ireland! Our concert was held at a community center, an old church that has been renovated into a concert space. In the morning, our hosts drove us the scenic route on our way to meet the bus… past the mouth of the River Shannon, to Ballybunyan beach (where John Bunyan was from), past the Bill Clinton statue (?), and the Jesse James pub. On the way, I had an interesting conversation with our hostess’s son about the use of story in music. He’s an Irish country music singer/songwriter who dreams of making it to Nashville. All the best, Stefan!

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Apparently palm trees grow in Ireland.

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Touring Ireland
Tourist day! Thursday we went to Killarney! Or, as the locals call it, “KillARRRney.” It’s one of the most famous tourist towns in Ireland. Here I ate my first “fish and chips” at an Irish pub. Later I also tried the European goodness of “affogato,” a coffee drink made of espresso and ICE CREAM. In the evening, we checked into our hostel in Cork. Joy and I darted off to the city center. We were content to bum around Ireland’s second largest city! We met other choir members on our walk back, and we ended up goofing around, gadding about the city. It stays light so long here. It doesn’t get dark til after 10:30 because it’s so far north.

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St. Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney

 

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Plaich and chips.

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Cork at night.

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Fanta at night. :)

Nearing the end of choir tour, it’s easy to get “peopled out.” Crammed on a bus all day, it’s very hard to create necessary “alone time.” However, Friday’s Dunmore East cliff walk was healing for the soul! The tide was in, so some of us had to dash through the water, and others over steep rocks to reach the cliff-side trail. The sun was out in full abundance. The gulls, the waves, the grass… all things bright and beautiful!

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The ground and grass were so soft, it was like jumping on a mattress!

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In the evening, Oasis Chorale hosted a dessert social at Dunmore East Christian fellowship in order to meet the church people. Lots of fellowship, tea, and music-making. Saturday we held workshops with the children and church people. Those choir members not involved in the workshops were free to go down to the cliffs or explore the city of Waterford (of Waterford Crystal fame).

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Shiny Waterford Crystal blingy bling.

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Saturday evening’s concert was at Christchurch Cathedral in Waterford. A lovely location with an engaging audience. The church sits on the site of the most famous marriage in Irish history, the marriage of Aiofe to Strongbow (a Norman from England) in 1170. This marriage effectively gave him rights to the Kingdom of Leinster. Luckyyyy. Now Ireland belonged to him.

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In an interesting note, this church was built in the 1700s. Before that, a much larger cathedral sat on the spot. Men from the city tried to convince the church leader that they needed a new cathedral. The church leader was very confused because he was quite content with his Gothic cathedral. The men wishing for a new cathedral, however, were local businessman and builders whose pockets would quite benefit from a new building. When the church leader walked into the cathedral, these businessmen would have someone hide and drop mortar down on him to convince him that the old cathedral was falling apart. He finally consented to build a new cathedral. But tearing down the solid piece of work proved to be a failure! They tried and tried to break through the eight-foot thick walls, but they could not! They finally resorted to blowing up the church with dynamite.

The new architect was interested in creating a space with a lot of light. You’ll notice the yellow walls and the lack of stained glass. Interestingly, there exists a sun star with Hebrew lettering at the front of the church. The letters spell the word “Lord” but this symbol is Masonic, and it’s conjectured that the architect was a freemason. The chandeliers have been donated by Waterford Crystal.

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We certainly enjoyed the acoustics in this space!

Sunday morning we worshipped with the Dunmore East congregation, and our last concert was at Kilkenny Presbyterian Church. I might comment here that, interestingly, this is the first time we heard the Gospel message explicitly preached in Ireland. I appreciated this introduction by Pastor Martin.

This was an emotional concert for us as it was our last concert. The bus ride to our hotel was full of laughter and giddiness. We checked into our rooms and then congregated on the hotel lawn for one last loud hurrah. My choir friends and I laughed and giggled til early in the morning. Then we all farewelled. I was really glad this was only the half-way point in my crazy trip! I was sad to leave my new friends, but so excited for two more weeks of English countryside!

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Next up: Weeks 3 & 4 – The British Invasion!

Crosses, Tea, and Buns: Ireland, Week 1

Greetings from the United Kingdom! I’ve returned from across the pond! I can’t wait to share memories and pictures with you all.

Perhaps I will start at the beginning.

Recording Stateside
Five weeks ago I traveled to Lebanon, Pennsylvania for rehearsal and recording with the Oasis Chorale. We rehearsed at St. Luke’s, an Episcopal church built in the 1880s. Gorgeous architecture.

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DSC_0136The first day was a great day of music-making, but I lost my fervor as the day wore on because I noticed I was developing severe throat pain. But this could not dampen the joy of joining 40 singers and nailing Lyle Stutzman’s “Shout for Joy” at the first down beat. These singers energize me! Thursday I was brokenhearted. My throat pain had only worsened. I was convinced I had developed yet another case of strep throat, and I was sent straight to the doctor. While the choir spent hours recording beautiful hymns that I had practiced for months, I sat in the waiting room at an urgent care facility.  I spent the next two days sucking zinc lozenges and taking naps, trying to beat the virus I had contracted. (So, no strep throat. But seriously?! What is with the sickness?)

By using the zinc, downing EmergenC, and gargling warm salt-water, I was well enough to sing at our Saturday and Sunday concerts, which was very exciting for me because these were our only state-side concerts. And, my parents had surprised me and had driven out all the way from Ohio to attend both concerts!

Our last concert, at St. Luke’s, was packed out! It was standing room only, and we found out later there were nearly 100 people standing outside listening in through the windows. A rather warm evening, but so beautiful! I felt so much gratefulness in my heart to God for giving me this opportunity, especially after I had just gotten over the virus. I had had a lot of time for personal reflection, having sat out of several rehearsals, and I felt very settled at the concert. It seemed very worshipful. I felt privileged to sing about God’s goodness. And His grace and mercy. And purity.

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Afterwards, the warm lights of St. Luke’s lighted the joyous fellowship. And I’m not just using million dollar words right now. That’s really how great it was. An excellent introduction to good times ahead. Monday: we fly.

Traveling
Monday we rehearsed in the morning, then drove to NYC. We left for Dublin, Ireland at 9 p.m. and for once in my flight life, I had one of those really cool airplane seat mates who you can talk to for hours. We discussed education, religion, and Irish culture. She recommended a movie for me to watch, and we ended up both watching it and discussing it. It’s an Academy Award-winning movie about a very specific event in Irish history. Apparently, in the mid-twentieth century in Ireland, girls who had children out of wedlock were ostracized by their families, turned out on the street, and would end up living with nuns at convents. Many times, the children were seized from these young mothers without their consent and given up for adoptions (truly, “sold”) to American families by the Catholic Church, the money from which was used to fund missions endeavors in Africa. (??) The movie, based on a true story, follows a journalist helping one such Irish woman, now in her 50s, trying to locate her son in America. The story is complicated by religious undertones whereby the journalist is an atheist, and the melancholy mother is a staunch Roman Catholic, despite what the church has done to her. One of the great themes from the movie is forgiveness; in an emotional scene the mother returns, years later, and forgives the unremorseful nuns who took her son away and destroyed information that would lead her back to him. The atheist journalist is almost angry at the woman: “How can you forgive them after what they’ve done to you?!” The Catholic Irish woman replies with strength: “That’s the difference between you and me.” It is a moving scene, very thought-provoking.

Watching this movie before landing in Ireland was an interesting introduction to Irish culture. Here I was, singing with a Mennonite choir from an evangelical tradition. How did that connect to a very Catholic country? Would my own faith tradition have any relevance to the Irish tradition? To the non-churched, how would my association with church be received, especially considering the people are dealing with certain hypocrisies in the Catholic tradition, including the Irish baby adoption scandal, not to mention the child sexual abuse issue that is very real for some individuals? How did my trip, my faith, and more importantly, Jesus, play into all of this? Was their healing to be had?

I can tell you that my thoughts were whirling when we landed on the sunny runway. My Irish seat mate left me with this: “Dancing, drinking, storytelling, and religion. These are what make up Irish culture. I hope you get to experience all of these things.”

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Tuesday was that evil day of jet lag where they try to keep you awake all day even though you didn’t sleep at all on the airplane and it’s like 4 in the morning in your body, but sunny and 9 a.m. in Dublin city center. You feel like cursing, but you’re supposed to be a pleasant tourist all day, so you stand in line for like a half hour to see the Book of Kells and then go souvenir shopping. I caffeined up at a tiny coffee shop and tried not to whine too much. It had been a while since I had pulled an all-nighter.

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Cheesy tourist picture at the library at Trinity College. I wanted to bottle the old book smell and save it forever.

The Book of Kells was amazing! The Trinity College exhibit was excellent and very exciting to see! Call me a nerd if you want, but that sort of artistry AMAZES me. The idea of scribes spending years copying, preserving, and decorating the words of God is amazing! And then the artistry is exquisite! The tiny detail, the tiny images and imageries… the figures… and all this preserved through Viking raids and the Middle Ages! I caffeine up with a real macchiato, and then I decided I needed a healthy meal (because seriously, what meal am I even ready for right now), so I ate…  GET THIS: Nutella gelato. I decided I kind of liked Ireland. Next, we drove to the beautiful Glendalough Hotel, and with zombie smiles, enjoyed the grounds, the trees, the green clover, by the brook, near potted plants, before we were served the most delicious meal. Stuffed chicken wrapped in bacon, mashed Irish potatoes, and a “banquet” of vegetables. Then I had my first cup of Irish tea and an apple dessert, before we fell into our beds at the nearby (sparse) hostel. We are here!

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My first cup of Irish tea.


Week 1: Rehearsing, Sightseeing, and English Concerts
The next few days were spent rehearsing and resting. Wednesday we rehearsed at the hostel before exploring Glendalough Visitor’s Centre, which has a wonderful museum display, passionate tour guides, and an informative video, explaining the importance of Celtic Christianity and the early Irish monastic tradition. No other place we visited in Ireland gave such great information of this period of church history. We learned about the history of St. Kevin in the area, the churches from the 900s through 1100s, the Tower, and the Celtic crosses on gravestones.

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We choir members were then left to tour and hike at our leisure. I wanted to make the best use of my time and see All The Things. So I set out for the two hour hike, which we voluntarily turned into the three hour hike, because, hello, we’re only coming to Ireland once in our lives, and we should probably hike the rim, wouldn’t that be really cool? I mean, who cares that I’m just wearing off-brand Converse? Heh heh. Let me say: the views were amazing and so are my calves now.

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Planks laid over spongy bog ground.

 

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Hmm, yes, we DID come a long way on that windy trail.

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With Pheobe, the gentle hiker beast.

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Worth it.

Thursday we ferried to Wales! I’ve never been on a boat that big before, and I was nervous that I might get the sort of seasickness my dad gets. (His stomach turns by simply looking at a canoe.) However, I found that if I stayed in my seat, I felt just fine. Walking around made me a lil woozy though. It was pretty big ferry, with a gift shop, and several restaurants, would you fancy that. We spent the rest of the day busing to Bristol.

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Hello, let me pose with this nautical orange disk.

I didn’t know much about Bristol, England, but our two-hour, double-decker, open-top bus tour gave us a lot of historical information about the city. A pretty cool town! The perfect mix of old and new. Our bus tour ended at the Church of St. Thomas, the Martyr, a place with an organ so awesome that Handel liked to play it. We tiptoed in after visiting hours (we knew a guy) and enjoyed making music in the space. The church is no longer used as a place of worship, and it’s actually smack dab next to Bristol’s best night club, ironically. So while the side street was overflowing with tables and taps and rowdy conversation, we made music inside a beautiful church, which sits empty, with a lone organ, played by the likes of Handel, that sits silent. I’m sorry to say this to the Bristol British, but honestly, you are idiots. (Sorry.)

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Bristol British having their cake and eating it too: nightclubs, beer, and Handel history.

We stayed at a riverfront hostel, and once the sun finally went down, we saw a little taste of Bristol nightlife. Yeah, they don’t really go to bed early in that town. We enjoyed a hearty British breakfast the next morning at the hostel: eggs, fried tomatoes, baked beans, mushrooms, “rashers” of bacon (thick bacon, slightly fried), and of course, tea.

Next we boarded the bus for Oxford! A two tour walking tour whet our appetites for amazing architectural and literary history! It seemed surreal. I had to remind myself I was in England. I could have spent days there, exploring the streets C. S. Lewis and Tolkien walked, eating at the Eagle & Child pub, and visiting all the lovely sights.

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Ye olde Radcliffe Camera!

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A lamppost very near the Camera, pre-dating C. S. Lewis, and believed to be the inspiration for Lucy’s lamppost.

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The lion carving in the door predates Lewis and is believed to be the inspiration for Aslan. Notice the faun, in gold, beside the door?

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The favorite pub of the Inklings: where Tolkien and Lewis discussed what Bilbo Baggins should do next.

I joined a group of choir members intent on eating at the Eagle & Child, but we managed to miss meal time (they don’t serve food all day), so we had to go down the street to a St. Giles Café where I ordered eggs, bubble, and squeak. Bubble and squeak is like a potato cake with cabbage in it. It was all very delicious.

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Our accommodations for the evening were at Keble College, which rents out its rooms in the summer to tourists, buts functions as a college during the school year. Absolutely stately grounds, and the breakfast in the large dining hall was palatial.

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Friday evening was our first U.K. concert. We sang at Littlemore to an appreciative audience. Lovely hospitality, and it was great to interact with the audience afterwards.

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Saturday we toured Warwick Castle which was a very interesting experience. It was at this point when I realized my knowledge of British history is sorely lacking! Wait, William the Conqueror? Who was he again? The castle grounds were very commercialized and less historical. Very, very kid-friendly. I spent the day being sad that I wasn’t enjoying the experience, and irritated that I could never bring my Indiana junior high students here who have been dazzled beyond belief.

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Saturday night we sang at Aylesbury, a 13th century church. For some reason, we, or I, felt a special connection to the small audience. I think the progression of our repertoire moves in a specific way so that by the time we sing “God Be With You Til We Meet Again,” the little grandmas are teary-eyed and so are we.

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Our last English concert was Sunday afternoon at Sandiway Gospel Church. What lovely hospitality and reception! The pastor warmed us with his words: “You’ll notice we’ve left the front row empty. That’s for the angels. They’re there to take some lessons from you!” After some wonderful food and fellowship with our friendly hosts, we headed off to the Colwyn beach in Wales to kill time before taking the night ferry.

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I had heard NASTY things about night ferries and not sleeping, and ever since our first jet lag, I was determined to get my sleep. We boarded the ferry, and I dashed to find an empty bench. I donned my black eye patch and warm socks and I was out like a light until the captain announced we were back in Irish waters. The next morning, in County Wicklow, we toured Powerscourt Gardens, the third-ranked garden in the world (according to National Geographic). I spent the morning in quiet exploration, poking around the world-renowned living artwork with my Oasis friends whilst sipping an impeccable latte.

No, my readers, but the roses. The ROSES! They were huge! Ancient. Larger than life. Larger than your hand.

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If I ever go to Ireland again, I will go to Powerscourt and spend all day in the walled garden.

We left Powerscourt for our Wicklow Hostel, Knockree, way back in the mountains. Beautiful, beautiful landscape. Rain. Mist. Sleep.

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Coming soon: Week 2 and Saying Goodbye!

Tally ho!

Hey everyone!

Shasta’s Fog will be taking a little hiatus while I travel to Ireland and the U.K. for several weeks with the Oasis Chorale. Yes, that’s right, I’m going to England! You could say this English major’s just a liiiiiittle excited.

This is my third year singing with Oasis Chorale, and I’m really excited to reconnect with some of my favorite people. I’m also excited to meet new friends in Ireland, Wales, and England! This year’s program features some amazing music!

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Some things I’m looking forward to:
1. I look forward to the community of our choir.
Oasis Chorale functions out of a portable classroom. Our members live all over the United States and Canada. We receive music early in the year and rehearse on our own. Then we come together for one spring rehearsal weekend before going off on our annual summer tour. After months of personal rehearsal, we are sooo ready to sing IN COMMUNITY. And this is what choral singing is all about anyway.

2. I look forward to meeting Irish and English believers.

3. I look forward to singing in a cathedral.
And other churches with great acoustics. That is, better acoustics than most poorly-designed Mennonite churches. :)

3. I look forward to my first real cup of British tea.

4. I look forward to the After-Party: wherein I shall conquer ye British highways and byways in a rental car with some lovely ladies post-tour. I’ll spare you all the grimy details, but it includes R&R on England’s north shore, downtown insanity in London where we will do all the things, a plethora of authors’ hometowns and museums, fish & chips, and some very scary driving by Yours Truly, wherein I shall drive on the left-hand side of the road, with a gas petal on the left, and the driver on the right.

If that’s too much for you, revive yourself here:

See you in August!

 

Battle of the Brands: You’re about to get licked

So as a newcomer to Elkhart County, I simply had to try all the local ice cream places that everyone keeps raving about.

Admittedly though, when I moved here, I was a bit smug toward any ice cream other than Jeni’s. As a central Ohio native, I know that no ice cream can compare to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams of Columbus, Ohio. Jeni’s ice cream is organic, made with local ingredients wherever possible. With flavors like Goat Cheese with Red Cherries, or Sweet Corn and Black Raspberries, this ice cream is not for the faint of heart. (Do not judge the sweet corn. You have not tried it. It is AHmazing! Says the girl who hates anything healthy in her ice cream. Like fruit. Much less, vegetables.)

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My friends from Goshen being introduced to central Ohio goodness.

But my Elkhart county friends and acquaintances keep raving about Rocket Science and The Chief. Whenever The Chief is mentioned, there this sort of sober consensus and accompanying moment of silence. “Mmmm, The Chief.” They silently transport themselves to another place—warm summer nights, sticky fingers, and happy taste buds. Then there’s my town, whose only claim to fame is its ice cream shop. “You live in Nappanee? Oh, they have that ice cream place Rocket Science.”

Rocket Science is a little ice cream shop in the Coppes Commons building. This place is a novelty because the “cream” of your “ice cream” (and any ingredients you choose) are frozen in front of your eyes using liquid nitrogen. There’s a huge tank of nitrogen that newcomers warily regard and and ice cream workers cheerfully pump from as they prepare your ice cream.

I finally visited The Chief last week, so I’m going to rate these two ice cream establishments based on taste, texture, customer service, and environment.

First, let’s rate Rocket Science.

Taste: Yummy! I like how you can choose their flavored creations or you can make up your own combinations (similar to Cold Stone Creamery). I prefer very rich desserts, so Death By Chocolate is a definite favorite. (Hint: it is possible to get a shot of espresso in your ice cream! The nitrogen simply freezes it in as another flavor.)

Texture: Firm. The fast freezing of the liquid nitrogen makes it very, very frozen. Sometimes it is better to let your creation melt a bit before consuming, so you can enjoy the full flavor.

Customer Service: I’ve only ever been helped by smiling, cheerful workers. Last summer, one worker even started remembering my order. I stepped in the door. “Death by chocolate?” she grinned.
Also, while the lines are short, it takes a few minutes to create your individual flavor. The wait time is similar to getting a specialty drink at a coffee shop.

Environment: You can spend your time waiting choosing a seat indoors. There are small wrought iron tables and chairs in the front, or you can sit at larger tables, or even couches, in the large seating area beyond the shop.

Bonus: the indoor accommodations mean that you can enjoy this ice cream on a rainy day. Another perk? There’s a drive through, and the shop is open year round.

Let’s move on to The Chief. It is LEGENDARY. (Hee hee, legen-dairy.) Or so I have heard.

Taste: Very nice. I tried the Peanut Butter. I found it to be light at first, but as I ate my waffle cone, I found there to be a very nice after-taste.

Texture: A firm smoothness, somewhere between ice cream and frozen yogurt. The texture was a bit of an anomaly. My friend Camille suggested that to have the full effect, I needed to try the ice cream on a hot day. (It was low 70s.) This consoled me. I would like to try the ice cream on a very warm day and compare the consistency.

Customer Service: Long lines, yet fast service. We went on a Saturday evening, and there were probably about thirty people in line. I spent the time in line choosing the perfect flavor and listening to locals rave about the ice cream. Goshen—you are loyal! Once we got to the window, a pleasant high school student took my order and quickly served me my ice cream.

Environment: It’s a busy place. There are a few picnic tables out back. If those are full, you can either stand or sit in your car. Honestly, it’s just fun watching the locals flock to the place. Very diverse crowd. Elderly, middle-aged, kids with young parents, and teenagers on dates.

Bonus: The Chief employs local high school students, providing them with jobs and even scholarships. A business that gives back!

So now it’s time to vote: what is your best ice cream experience?

 

Chandeliers, Tolstoy, and Mennonites

Armed with a gift card and a ferocious excitement for my summer classic choice (Tostoy’s War and Peace) I trotted into Barnes and Noble to pick out the classiest-looking version I could find.

Yes, I’m a print girl. No Kindle yet for me.

We print people get to be choosy when buying classics. That is, on those occasions when we’re actually buying new books, rather than sniffing out old, bargain-priced copies at garage sales or Goodwill. Amongst booksellers, Barnes and Noble stocks the largest variety of versions, printings, and editions. Barnes & Noble, then, is a great stop for a picky book buyer. And we print people are especially picky concerning cover art.

I’ve been interested in cover art since I first noticed it in my parent’s little home library. (I get my book buying honestly.) While not exceedingly broad, my parents’ reading preferences (from Christian fiction to forty-year-old Bible college texts to my father’s current affinity for Jewish studies) exhibit the phenomenon that pop-culture inspires cover art. Digging through my parents’ books in the basement, I was never really quite sure what groovy font, bell bottoms, or afros had to do with the subject of prayer, but it certainly made sense to book cover illustrators in the 1970s. Cover art becomes so quickly dated but can, nevertheless, remind book buyers of the period or decade in which they buy a book.

Hoping to make a simple choice between a classic hardcover with gold edge gilding and a 2014 pop art cover, I wasn’t prepared for a heavier decision: choosing translations. I had not done my homework before buying War and Peace, and I wasn’t prepared to choose between various English translations of Tolstoy’s Russian text.

So I was reduced to judging a book by its cover. (And the little reviews on the back.) For example, did I want the most-read English translation? Or did I want a brand-new twenty-first century English translation? (There were two: a 2005 Briggs translation and a 2007 Pevear and Volokhonsky translation with the French sections still intact) Would I rather be familiar with the versions most English speakers my age have read, or would I rather read the newer translations? Would I gain something from reading a classic version of a classic? Or should I cheerfully accept a highly-readable modern translation with modern grammar, vocabulary, and syntax? Or would that be jolting, since War and Peace is classic-y? Would the contemporary language take something away from the historicity of the text?

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I reminded myself, though, that Tolstoy’s original audiences would have read War and Peace in a Russian text that to them would not have sounded antiquated. The same for English audiences soon after the 1904, 1923, and 1957 translations. I fingered the 2005 and 2007 translations. (Which incidentally had two cover choices: a heavy colorful volume with eastern-inspired art, and a bulky, rough-edge gilding little beauty, sporting a bronze chandelier, which I’m sure has nothing to do with War and Peace but has everything to do with fashion design trends of the 2000s.)

The point is, War and Peace is in modern, global English for the first time in 80 years. (The ’57 version used exclusively British English.) English audiences today (and in the next decade or so) get to have an experience with the text that will not happen for another fifty years. We get to read it in our contemporary language. Picture this: it’s 2074 and a professor of English soon realizes that her students, or her grandchildren, struggle through War and Peace. The diction and vocabulary are complicated and outdated. A re-translation will occur. Language changes over time.

Since I did not have a smartphone with me at the bookstore to google which translation I should choose, I went with the Briggs. Later, I learned there is a quite a controversy between the 2005 Briggs translation and 2007 Pevear and Volokhonsky, some of it having to do with class (intellectual snobs arguing that Tolstoy’s book wouldn’t have been easily accessible to all social classes, since he wrote portions in French and not all 1860s Russians were bilingual, so modern English translations should also keep the French portions original to maintain the inaccessibility), some of it having to do with style (Tolstoy’s Russian was choppy, so English translations should be choppy), and some of it having to do with Britishisms (can we really handle Russian soldiers popping out in lower-class British dialects). But you can read all this scholarship for yourself. By googling it.

Or. You could simply sit down and read for yourself for the first time a very accessible classic. I went with the Briggs, which leaves out the original French. It proves to be highly accessible, and I am devouring it more voraciously than even this winter’s A Tale of Two Cities.

Reader, you have raised your hand, I see.

“Why do we read Tolstoy?”

We read Tolstoy because he became convinced of the relevance of the teachings of Jesus Christ for everyday living. Fifteen years after publishing War and Peace, Tolstoy announced himself a pacifist, inspired by Jesus’ Sermon the Mount. (This fact alone drove this twenty-first century Anabaptist to read his earlier work. What could I learn, I asked myself, from his early questioning?) In fact, Tolstoy’s rejection of government involvement due to his pacifist leanings got him kicked out of the Russian Orthodox church. Interestingly, Tolstoy’s writings on nonviolence went on to inspire the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. These reasons, dear reader, are why we read Tolstoy.

Nonetheless, to first-time readers of Tolstoy’s amazing work, choose for yourself between the twenty-first century Briggs and the Pevear and Volokhonsky. But do it sometime in the next decade. The freshness of the dialogue will not occur again for another fifty years.

Survival Tips for First-Year Teachers

Last week I talked about some of the hardest lifestyle adjustments first-year teachers make. This week I’m giving a few survival tips for first-year teachers in regards to relationships.

Make friends with the other teachers (for the students’ sake).
Engaging other teachers in constructive conversation reduces stress by challenging your one-dimensional views of students. I was sitting at a basketball game this year, cheering for my boys, and I leaned over to another teacher: “I kind of forget that they do things other than English.” And I don’t need to tell you that that’s a problem. Certainly, having chosen the field of language and literature, I obviously see the English classroom as a very important part of development on the part of a student and an individual, but I need to remember that their performance in my class does not represent their entire being. You might only see students in the context of your class, and your class might not be their best subject. What happens is that you begin to make a little box and put the student in it. Talking to other teachers can help round out a student.

“Jake is doing poorly in my English class. He’s very quiet, he hardly says anything, and he doesn’t perform on tests and quizzes the way I’d like him to. How is he doing in science?”
“Oh, he’s doing very well in science! He participates so well in class! I can always count on him to raise his hand to answer questions. He’s so interested by biology!”

(Near verbatim conversation that I had this year.) Having these conversations can help round out a student because you can begin to pinpoint the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. You can share the triumphs of students who excel, but you can also gain helpful information in understanding where your struggling students’ strengths and interests lie. These cross-discipline conversations are very important. For example, it can lead you to ask the question: what would happen for Jake in English class if we wrote English research papers on biology topics? What if we discussed a controversial bio ethics issue for the speech class debate? These constructive conversations can actually make you more hopeful about a struggling student’s future performance.

(A note: these conversations also lead to discussions about social dynamics among the students. For example, one student may be quieter in one class because of a certain peer group, but be much more engaged in another class. Noticing those peer group patterns and discussing them are insightful.)

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Make friends with other teachers (for the teachers’ sakes).
It is a good idea to try to serve your fellow teachers.
“ARE. YOU. KIDDING. ME. I’M DOING COSTUMES FOR THE SCHOOL PLAY, MAKING BROWNIES FOR PARENT’S NIGHT, AND CHANGING BULLETIN BOARDS THIS WEEKEND. YEAH AND REPORT CARDS ARE DUE.”
Cringe. Pat pat. It’s going to be oooookay.
Certainly, the little things pile up. But you might think of finding ways to be available to your fellow teachers. If you hear a teacher complaining about a task that comes very easily to you, you might offer to help. (Little. Little tasks here. Not school-play-costume-sized tasks.) Think instead of things like: “I can bring back those copies for you.” “I can make that announcement for you.” “I’d love to brainstorm with you about the hallway behavior problem you’re having.” Showing other teachers that you are human (that you are available and that you care) builds a positive atmosphere and might just work in your favor down the road. Like when, after your emotional wailing about the rented costumes getting ripped, a helpful co-teacher (who happens to sew) offers to mend the ripped costumes. And she acts like it’s no big deal at all.

Find a way to connect (to the students).
I’m not sure how to put this. If you have not seen the movie Frozen, you are NOTHING. I’m suggesting that it’s important to stay marginally informed of kid culture. No, perhaps you’d rather not watch The Hunger Games or another Duck Dynasty episode. You don’t like country music, and you think One Direction has terrible lyrics. Maybe you don’t even have a smart phone yet. However, my advice is: get in the know. Try every now and then to be relatable. Otherwise you might end up having an awkward conversation with a car load of eighth graders, where, when asked about a cool movie you recently watched, you do a comparative analysis of the French government’s round up of 8,000 Jews in Paris in 1942 to America’s modern-day abortion genocide. As for the eighth graders, they will probably stare at you like you are from Mars. A better response might be: Despicable Me.

Find a way to disconnect (from the students).
A fair warning to new teachers: you will get very wrapped up in your students’ lives. You will spend outrageous amounts of time thinking about your kids. (Even if you are a content teacher, or, one who teaches because they “love science!” rather than because they “love kids!” Content teachers still care a lot about their students and their success as individuals.)
However, this involvement can be a source of stress. Teachers can stress themselves out by thinking that they are the child savior. This year, I would periodically get overwhelmed because I would feel like a child needed so much, and I need to give them more, but I realized I couldn’t give them everything they needed. And that was true.

I’ve heard it explained like this: we as teachers have both responsibilities and opportunities. We have the responsibility to teach grammar and lit, to test for comprehension, and to lock the classroom at night. We also have opportunities. We have the opportunity to encourage a failing student. We have the opportunity to reach out to a child who is struggling at home. We have the opportunity to love a child unconditionally and to teach them to spread their wings and fly.

However, we cannot get our responsibilities and opportunities mixed up. For first-year teachers, I think that responsibilities must come first. The first year of teaching is about mastering the content, simplifying the busy work, and honestly, just surviving. From my own experience, I would encourage first-year teachers to prioritize immediate responsibilities rather than spending too much time trying to change the world. (But, we feel the pressure to, because there are so many haters of the mistakes of first-year teaching. Why must all seasoned teachers and popular teacher/authors continually disparage what goes on in your first year? It is really discouraging!)

The days will come where you look at you bulletin boards, and realize they needed to be changed two weeks ago, and your report cards are due, and also those thirty research papers, and you will burst into years. Because you will remember your sick neighbor (who probably deserves a casserole), your filthy kitchen at home, and those bills that need to be paid. But on top of all this, you will find that you cannot stop thinking about that undisciplined student who is failing, who said today, “I’m not smart enough to go to college.”

It is at this moment that you need to remember: do the responsibilities first. The opportunities will be there tomorrow. You have a lifetime of teaching. Changing the world tomorrow might mean taking the sticky-tack off the wall today. Opportunities are sweet. But they should not be contrived.

Strangely, the survival tip here is: get away. Take a weekend off. Go visit family. Play a game of soccer. Go out for coffee (with non-teachers). Get a hobby. Do absolutely no school work. You will be amazed at how clear your mind will be when you return. I especially encourage the weekend thing. In late winter. To a place with lots of sunshine. Give yourself a sanity break. You (and your students) deserve it.