31 July 2011

Remembering my life in Ukraine

Just after we moved in, a former student of mine came and visited with her husband. I had seen her a number of years ago when I'd first moved to the Netherlands, but hadn't connected with her until she'd asked if she could stay with me during a trip to Amsterdam. Delighting in the chance to extend hospitality to another, I gladly said yes.

The best part of the visit was remembering. Both my former student and I have had many different experiences in the ten years since we'd lived together in the dormitory in Nagybereg, Ukraine; yet, those years at the gymnasium have certainly remained a unique experience.

I remember crying at the end of that first week in Ukraine - simply from the shock of realizing how much my time there would shape and change me. I had been told I'd share teaching responsibilities with the wife of someone I'd met and respected. Instead, I was sharing the responsibilities with a Ukrainian woman and an older dutch woman, who I quickly realized was not really interested in listening to me. And after a week of living in a foreign country surrounded by a language I did not know, teaching at a level and in a way that I'd had limited experience doing, it did not take much for me to realize that my time there had the possibility for stretching and challenging me enormously.

My former student and I had to laugh about the food and the crazy schedule there. There were almost no vegetables; so the one time a week we got this great tomato, onion, and pepper concoction, I'd try to catch up on all the vegetables I'd missed. Seeing as we'd have it for breakfast, it meant that I'd spend the rest of the day with a stomach that sometimes needed to adjust to this 'foreign' food. And there were, of course, strange foods like pasta and crushed walnuts and tomato sauce with potatoes. And then one time someone found maggots in the food (a result of canned beans that hadn't been sealed properly); that casserole option was quickly banned for the rest of that year.

And as for the schedule? I'd wake up at 5:50, so I could get a hot shower. Breakfast was at 7. Teaching began at 7:30 (although I usually had the first class free - except if the schedule got spontaneously changed the night before - which happened about once a week!). Lunch was at 1:30, chores thereafter, study hall from 4-7, dinner at 7, and quiet time around 9:30. At the end of the second year, I was teaching all of the English classes (and typing classes - a total of about forty 45-minute class sessions per week, of which slightly more than half were minimal to no extra prep-time) - and the only thing that made that crazy schedule bearable was the knowledge that the students were working just as hard.

Amidst the crazy food and the crazy schedule, what made it all bearable was the fact that you knew that we had each other: others would help you out and cared for you. Outside of the school, I had my church and family back home and the students had their families who supported them and wanted very much for them to have this chance to make a different life for themselves. After all, life for Hungarians in that part of Ukraine was hard: financially, physically and emotionally. I don't remember any house in a village that didn't have an outhouse (and with Ukrainian winters, they were freezing!!). And everyone had a story of someone they knew dying tragically on account of poor health care or corruption. When there was flooding in the region during my second year, the students worried that their house (or that of their relatives) might be affected, which would be the end of everything as there was no insurance to protect them or cover their losses. And because of that, one would worry if others from another village might come and sabotage the defenses of another village - in the hopes of causing the damage to go elsewhere and their own property might be saved.

When you're 22 (the age I was when moved there), you have the idea that you can change the world. But at 22, no matter how well-traveled you are or how perceptive you might be, that world is a lot more complicated than you first expect. Living in a village in rural Ukraine, in the middle of the Hungarian-Ukrainian students, I did my best to become part of that world without losing who I was. I came to Ukraine with the hope of  making a difference and change at least a part of the world - and in the end, it was I who was changed (with the hopes that my time there also changed other's lives).

30 July 2011

the summer of pizza

I've decided that this is the summer of pizza. In practice that means having homemade pizza at least once a week.

And why? Simply because we can :)

That and I love pizza. And this is just a concrete way of making real my desire to enjoy our life in Amsterdam. Sitting together on the couch and reading is another possibility, as is going to museums here or biking around. We'll probably do all things, too. Yet, for whatever reason, the enjoyment of life here is symbolized well in getting to eat pizza together (and lots of it).

29 July 2011

Getting to know the neighbours

For a few weeks this summer, I get to take care of the post for Oudezijds 100. On Wednesday, the mail carrier tried to deliver a package but no one was home. So I wrote a note asking them to ring the bell at 102 or 104, where I was pretty sure someone would be home to answer it.

When I came to check the mail today, I saw a note indicating that the package had been delivered - but not to 102/104. Instead, it had been delivered to 112. As it was a business, that made picking up the delivered package a bit simpler. But seeing as this is the Red Light District, most of the businesses are not exactly the respectable sort. Nonetheless, seeing as I felt responsible for the delivery of the package (and there was a clear indication that it had been delivered to the neighbours), I decided to be brave.

And so that's how I ended up this afternoon in a sex shop trying to find a package. As much as I'm all for getting to know one's neighbours, this was the sort of awkward situation I could avoid doing again. However, as there was seen from the balcony last night some suspiciously intimate activity at the neighbours, I'm not so sure I'll be able to do that. I'm really hoping that this isn't a sign that this time living in Amsterdam I might get to know the neighbours a bit better than I really would like to.

26 July 2011

Not quite home

Much to the delight of Matthijs and I, our apartment has quickly taken on a feeling of home. After a few days of work and some help from Matthijs's parents, all the boxes were emptied and things were put away. There could still be a bit more organising done (finding things can sometimes take awhile), and the delay with the internet was a bit frustrating, but these have not detracted from a general feeling of being content in our new place. The interactions with our neighbours (and the community in general) plus the sunflowers given to us by the Oude Kerk as a welcome have contributed to a sense of well-being here.

Yet, there's still a tiny feeling of not being quite home, which has nothing to do with the pictures not being hung on the walls. Both Matthijs and I are still trying to figure out what the new normal here is, especially in terms of our daily schedule. For Matthijs, he's now figuring out how often he'll commute to Den Haag (and how hard that is on him) and how well working from home goes. For me, I'm trying to create my own rhythm of doing research (how much at home and how much at the university?) and participating in the community (daily prayer and random conversations being an important part of that). Seeing as I've lived here before and participated in the community while doing research, I kind of assumed that the rhythm of that would come back to me.

The only problem is that even though Amsterdam (and being part of the community) was home for me, I haven't returned as the same person to that same home. The community has changed somewhat, as have I. My desires of research and community life are still present, but they've now been joined by the desire for a good marriage with Matthijs. And in Matthijs, I receive a gentle push to work harder on research and wonder about healthy boundaries with regards to the community. And eating at home with Matthijs and talking about our day now fills up time I might have earlier spent with the community. And as for daily prayer, it's a habit I've gotten out of - and it will take time and effort for that to become once again part of my day rhythm. Finding a rhythm will have take in all these changes.

And so Matthijs and I have come home to my Amsterdam and my community, only for me to discover that it's not quite home if it's only mine. Just as our apartment has quickly become home through our shared stuff and shared dreams, it is my hope that Amsterdam and the community will soon also become our home as we explore them further together and share our hope of serving God faithfully here.

25 July 2011

Socializing Jerry

Jerry hasn't been the most socialized cat. He tends to run away when visitors come and generally dislikes men. And his exposure to other cats has been rather limited. Things improved somewhat when I moved to Den Haag: Jerry  met the neighbour cats (he appeared to like the upstairs one and fought with the downstairs one), and his tolerance for men did increase (at least, it appears that he sometimes appreciated Matthijs).

And then we moved back to Amsterdam, and the socializing has increased significantly: more visitors and more cats. During Easter, he'd made friends with a neighbour cat - but the cat (and owners) ended up moving right before we moved in. But now the downstairs neighbour is watching over a cat - and Jerry has discovered the wonder of having a playmate. And the visiting cat has discovered Jerry's food. (The grass is always greener on the other side, right?)

While we have a cat door, the house of the visiting cat does not. That makes it easy for him to come visit (once he can convince the little girls downstairs to let him out), but not so easy for Jerry to visit him. So I told Jerry he just had to knock and ask if 'Baruch' could come out and play. Surprisingly enough, Jerry did listen to me!! However, perhaps in my socializing of Jerry, I'll have to work on him learning that meowing outside somebody's door at 11 at night, even if it is effective, is not exactly socially acceptable. (Fortunately, my downstairs neighbour has a sense of humour - and doesn't go to bed that early).

17 July 2011

"If I knew I had to pack tomorrow, I think I'd cry"

"If I knew I had to pack tomorrow, I think I'd cry" - was what I said when I was going to bed last week Saturday (saturday the 9th of July).

It had been a long week, full of seminars and networking and giving my own presentation and being in a new place (and trying to kind of take a vacation in the middle of it!). Thursday evening we were home late, Friday was a meeting with my supervisor and a community barbecue, and Saturday was painting and cleaning.
The week before that hadn't been all that relaxing either: it had started off with a weekend working in the community and then was packed full with preparations for moving and London and putting last minute changes into a re-write of my research proposal.
And the week to come wasn't looking any easier: packing, moving, unpacking, organising and having out-of-town guests during the weekend.

In the midst of all the busy-ness, it seemed hardly sensible to choose not to get more of a head start on packing things. Yet, knowing how much energy the past week(s) had cost me (and Matthijs), and expecting the coming week to be just as challenging, I desperately wanted (and needed) a day to stop and rest. Whether it was sensible seemed irrelevant - I couldn't imagine finding the courage or energy to face the coming week without that break. And if there was a bit more extra packing to do (because I hadn't done it on Sunday), well, I expected that God would help me find the courage and energy for that, too. (And He did - He also thankfully provided a lot of help and encouragement from friends and family!)

The decision not to pack last Sunday was hardly a difficult one for me - in fact, it was the choice most obvious to me. I grew up with the idea that Sunday is a day of rest (and you do your best to keep it that way, irrelevant of how much needs to get done). As I've grown older, I've kept that - and have discovered the blessing of this day of rest: it is a day not only to rejuvenate, but also a day to remember to trust in God. It is a day to stop trying to act as if all my hard work is what will make me succeed - God's grace and his blessing are very much part of things going well.

Psalm 127:1-2
"Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labour in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.
In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat - for he grants sleep to those he loves."

14 July 2011

An alternative type of networking

At the Society of Biblical Literature conference last week, I discovered an alternative form of networking. As this was the kind that gets you home-made chocolate chip cookies at break time, you can imagine that I was immediately interested.

Julie, who'd attended most of the sessions on prophets with me, was the one who introduced me to the networking. (She was also, incidentally, the one who'd baked the cookies). She, after all, lived in London - and thus had the resources available to do this. She also had the resources available to bring lunch for those she knew really couldn't afford to be buying it every day.

And so if I hadn't already been intrigued by Julie's brief mentioning of the fact that she frequently taught classes in the majority world - this hospitality for others certainly caught my attention. It illustrated to me an alternative to the 'publish or perish' way of thinking that seems to overwhelm academics. What I saw in Julie and her networking was instead a strong desire to use her gifts and resources to help others - whether it be local hospitality to visiting theologians in London - or whether it be her sharing her Ph.D. in Old Testament with those in other parts of the world. And that kind of desire is something that I'd like to develop more and more in myself.

I do want to do my best with my biblical research - and that means being very much a part of the academic world. Yet, at the same time, I don't want to get completely lost in academics - I don't want to forget that the gifts that God has given me are not only to be a blessing for me but also a blessing that I am to share with others. It was thus delightful, in the midst of an academic conference, to be reminded of both academic excellence and generous hospitality.

12 July 2011

Wat een stom kleur!

Last Saturday as we were painting the house, I asked my soon-to-be neighbours what they thought of the then current colour of our study. The mother kind of hemmed and hawed and didn't really give an answer. Her five year-old daughter, however, felt free enough to say 'wat een stom kleur' (what a dumb colour)! As the colour of the room was a combination of pink and peach (neither being colours I appreciate), I couldn't help but agree with her. This was a woman after my own heart. I think we'll get along marvelously.

The fact that the five-year-old and her younger sister are enamoured by my cat (which their mom graciously agreed to watch while we were on London - and again these few days that we're packing up) only strengthens my sense that this neighbour relationship will continue to be a joy :)

11 July 2011

All your ducks in a row

There's an English expression about getting all your ducks in a row - it means getting everything in order. It's a good expression both for presenting a paper at a Conference and for moving. It's a great ideal to strive for - and in both situations I've been doing my best.

But sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there's no guarantee that your ducks will stay in a row - as illustrated by this great picture opportunity Matthijs and I ran across in Kensington Park in London.

By the time I got my camera out, the birds had started to hop off the posts nearest to us. I'm hoping that with moving, 'my' ducks will stay a bit more in place (they did, at least, in the presentation of my paper in London).

10 July 2011


Matthijs has a Master's degree from Oxford, so I was delighted to have the chance to go with him to visit the place he lived for a year.

Matthijs wrote about it on his blog, so I'll direct you there to read the story of our visit last Sunday. And I'll just provide the pictures (most of them are the view from the tower of University Church):

A window in Queen's chapel depicting the Ascension - Jesus' feet are worth noticing.

The garden at New College (1)

The garden at New College (2)

08 July 2011

Surprises in London

One of the things that makes travelling more memorable is the unexpected: you start out with plans, but they don't quite work out as planned or somewhere you turn left instead of right. Sometimes that leads to frustration, but sometimes it leads to delightful surprises.

Our trip to London, especially the first day (last week Saturday), felt like that. We'd left on time (7 in the morning!) and started biking to the train station - except my suitcase didn't have a side handle so I couldn't carry it on my bike - so Matthijs eventually took it - and we were a bit later leaving.

We did make it to the train station on time - only to discover that our train to Brussels had been cancelled! So first to Rotterdam and then the next international train - which was crammed. After things emptied out in Belgium, a friendly blind guy sat across from us - and we had a delightful random conversation. And despite the train delays, we had lots of time to board in Brussels.

And finally London! Neither of us had thought to print out a map (the ink in the printer is almost out, so I'm not sure if it would have helped anyways), so we meandered around trying to figure out how to get to our address (it didn't help that our 'local' subway station was closed). We ended up walking past the Oval cricket stadium and through a tiny little community garden - and then we were by our bed and breakfast. We were met by our host, who turned out to be a bit more flamboyant than we expected (and quite effusive about his love for God, as we discovered in the days to follow); we happily settled in and got ready to explore London.

With a guide book and a transportation card (oyster card), London is fairly easy to navigate. And our first stop was the Victoria and Albert museum. After exploring the more usual museum things, we bumped into the glass display (on our way to architecture). Wow! A staircase with a glass banister and hundreds of strange shapes and colours of glass - not what we'd come to see but it captured our attention in a way we hadn't expected.

After the museum, we walked through Kensington Park to get to a lovely Indian restaurant - only to discover we'd needed reservations. And so, we chose instead a strange but delightful snackbar place with crazy spicy food and a mixture of customers (from young mediterranean guys to a black woman to a couple where the woman was clothed in a burka).

And after dinner, back to the bed and breakfast - delighted by our day but tired from all the new things. We also wanted to get some extra sleep so as to be ready for the next adventures: Sunday would be Oxford and Monday was the beginning of the conference!

Dutch Theologians go home at 5

In normal life, I don't think I know many dutch theologians who do go home at 5 - most go home later than that. But when you're at an International Biblical Scholarship conference, five in the afternoon is apparently the time to head back home.

After all, if you take the train home at five, you'll have had a couple of free hours between the end of the conference and departure time so that you can go sightseeing in London - and you'll still make it home that night.

At least, that's what Matthijs and I were planning to do. It was a delightful surprise to discover that we were not the only dutch folk at the conference who'd had exactly the same idea! And so travelling home, after a good conference, we could greet the other dutch folk - and even if we didn't say much, there was a sense of comraderie born of having done things together and heading towards home together.