On Wednesday night I returned home to Spain after a glorious 5 nights/5 days in Krakow, Poland. I attended the Azmera Haven Women’s Retreat/Conference, something I discovered through an online community for women serving overseas, Velvet Ashes. I cannot express how grateful I am to have found these resources, and more. These days, it seems I need more connectedness than ever to a wider faith community. These communities allow me to interact with women doing similar work around the world. The beauty is, even though our cultures and contexts may look very different, often times our joys, pains, victories, grief, struggles, and issues are the same.
At Azmera, I found solidarity. There is perhaps nothing more powerful than saying to another human being, ME TOO. I found affirmation and support. Care and affection. Empathy and understanding. Though I had never met these women before, I found more comfort in being with them for 5 days than I have found in many other circles. They attended my soul, and poured into my spirit. Sometimes through conversation, other times through a hug. They prayed for me, and massaged my feet. Some sat patiently and quietly with me, letting me process my feelings, my doubts. Some shared advice and encouragement. Some sang over me and others spoke words of truth and blessing. Some shared laughs with me, and on a few occasions, tears.
When you’re in the thick life outside your passport country, far from all that’s familiar and comforting, it’s easy to forget that so many others share your experience. While we each have our own unique experience abroad, for many of us, the feelings we have about our lives tend to be more similar than contrary.
It was refreshing to leave Spain and visit a new country. The timing was perfect as life in our small town has been wearing on me and all the frustrations of administrative stuff (visas, licenses, blah blah blah) was getting to me. Poland reminds me of Germany, and I would imagine they have more in common than simply geography. I loved listening to the language, walking by street carts filled with freshly baked pretzels and buns, feeling the chilly autumn wind, needing that extra layer in my scarf, and seeing all the hues of green and shades of fall. In Spain, everything around us is brown and dry. Traveling to a place like Poland, green and lush, I realize how much I miss my Tennessee mountains and the beauty of seeing green forests everywhere.
Speaking of “missing,” this place also brought me to memories of my sweet grandma, whom I treasured. Even though she (and my mom) are from Germany, the close proximity and shared cultural similarities, made Poland seem familiar and comforting. I smiled to myself every time I smelled or ate sauerkraut, remembering how my grandma cooked it with roast pork for Sunday dinners or on special occasions. I saw elderly women who shared similar facial features and bone structures, and I wondered what my grandmother would look like now, 17 years since I’ve seen and hugged her. She loved pretzels and breads, and even though I was never hungry for one, I just wanted to buy one on the street in her memory. I’m thankful Poland brought me back to my memories of her. I resonate with the strong women of faith in my own story, my grandma and my mom, being my primary examples.
(Above: Flying over Germany. One day I will come back to our homeland)
During my time at the conference, I am not ashamed to say I enjoyed relaxing in a hotel, glad I didn’t have to cook, and I drank as much fresh coffee that was available! I also ventured into the city to enjoy some “normal” things for a change, like wandering thru a big shopping mall, perusing H&M, and eating at Burger King- luxuries when you live in the rural countryside with no car. Another afternoon, I ventured into the city center. My husband was with me and we decided on a long walk which took us through a nice park, and then onto Wawel Castle. We did a little tour through the Jewish Quarter, then stopped by a swanky cafe which served up the best bagel I’ve ever eaten in my life!! Homemade toasted cheese bagel with Thyme cream cheese! Normally I’m a sweets kind of girl, but I would eat this bagel for breakfast lunch and dinner over and over again! I’m hungry thinking about it now. Afterwards, onto Market Square to marvel at tasteful architecture and buildings, and a little souvenir shopping in market hall. On the way back to the hotel, I found one of the most beautiful cathedral doors I have ever seen, attached to an unpopular neighborhood church which I’m guessing sits empty most of the time.
We decided it was necessary to visit Auschwitz, since we were going to be so close (the camp is 1.5 hours from Krakow). It would be wrong to say we enjoyed our visit there, but I’m glad we went. It was heart-breaking and chilling. We walked and walked, took some photos, and didn’t talk much about it. How do you process something so vast, so evil, so tragic? History has a way of making us think about the future. I’m still processing this visit honestly. It’s an important piece of history, not to be forgotten.
God did some great and beautiful things on this retreat, and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to go. It’s important for missionaries and overseas workers to make time and effort for events like these, and not just when you’re in crisis, but as an ongoing, preventative measure of self-care.
Now, if you think my life is all roses and you’re teetering on jealousy that I get to live in and travel around Europe, let me share some of the not so fun realities of travel!
First of all, traveling around Europe is not always easy, cheap, or quick- despite what Ryanair will tell you. We spent ALL day getting to Poland, and ALL day getting back. It took roughly 13 hours each way. This involves getting up early (who likes this?), getting a ride to the bus station, 2.5 hours on said bus, taking the metro 30-45 minutes with crowds (ugh) and juggling luggage (double ugh!), finally getting to the airport, and then having to wait. Waiting too long for one flight, while having to rush and run at your connecting flight just to make it. Arrive at destination, but still have 30 minutes to get to hotel. Soooooo tired and not wanting to get on another bus or metro or tram, we take a taxi. But it’s rush hour, so price surging. Awesome, that taxi fare was our budget for the day. Oh, and did I mention, because our connecting flight time was so short, our luggage didn’t have time to make it on our flight. So it’s delayed, and supposedly arriving to our hotel overnight. We go to bed in the clothes we’ve been traveling in all day, without brushing our teeth because EVERYTHING is in our checked bags- like we’ve never traveled internationally before. Who are we!? (Oh, and the hotel was out of toothbrushes and toothpaste).
Luggage did not arrive until the following afternoon, which meant I went grungy the entire day, feeling so gross, and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather go without undies than wear old ones, so that’s what I did! THANKFULLY, our luggage arrived about an hour before the conference started, so I could at least freshen up and change clothes and appear somewhat normal.
There was also the time we decided to go out into town on the day it was POURING. So remember all those fun things I described doing in the city center? well fun and miserable, as my feet and ankles were soaked and my umbrella kept catching the wind. We had hoped that day to not only see the Jewish Quarter but the south side of the city too, where the Oskar Schindler factory and museum are located. This is one of the main sites I wanted to see in Krakow (Schindler’s List was one of my grandma’s favorite movies, and I wanted to go there for her too). So we opted for a “guided city tour” with a local who said he would take us to both places, at what seemed like reasonable fare. When we did the math secretly after having time to think, we realized this tour was WAY overpriced, so we had to cut it short. We asked the guy to stop mid-tour so we didn’t have to pay anymore. I still regret that by this point, we didn’t have time to make it to the Schindler factory on our own.
Whenever we end up having unexpected expenses or go over budget on a trip, tensions always arise in the marriage. Justin is very budget conscious and I’m more carefree when it comes to spending. So, with all the unexpected costs, let’s just say we had our moment of non-marital bliss on a random street in Krakow. Then the next to last day, we had an adventure of sorts. We took a local bus to Auschwitz, but as it was a local bus (read: not a tourist bus), we weren’t quite sure where to get off and no one spoke English or was very helpful, so we got off one stop too early. Which wouldn’t normally be a big deal, but it ended up being a 40 minute or so walk to get to Auschwitz. We actually ended up at the camp site first, and we took our time there. Then we saw a shuttle taking you back to the museum and second site. When we got to the museum, it was 5:00, so it was closing. All that way and we ended up not being able to see half of what we came to see. Plus, now, we had an hour and a half to kill before the bus home. OK, Let’s Eat!! We saw 2 or 3 restaurants across the street, which were all conveniently closed or closing. We ended up finding a hotel restaurant which was open and gladly served us, although we were hoping for cheaper plates (more like the street food or pizza variety). After dinner, we found our bus home, and thankfully, THANKFULLY got on the bus in time to get a seat. The last 10 or so people on the bus were not lucky enough to have a seat and stood for the 1.5 hour ride back to Krakow!
And then, we’re on our way home. Nothing dramatic, only another long long travel day. Walk to train station, take train to airport, take first flight, rush to get to second flight, arrive in Madrid. Take metro to train station. Quickly grab something to eat (Burger King again) and run by the pharmacy. Take the 2+ hour train home. Get picked up at the station and finally arrive at home. Oh yeah, without our luggage again. Because we had the same connecting flight time issue. That was Wednesday.
It’s Friday night. Still waiting on luggage to arrive at home.