What will I gain from this crazy experience?

This is a question I have been asking myself constantly throughout my study abroad time. I think what I have begun to realize (obviously pretty late in the game) is that there won’t be just one big vocab word that will be able to sum up my experience. Just like my summer at STP can’t be encapsulated in one short sentence, neither will my experience here in Europe. Right now, I’m beginning to understand that lessons, growth, and change of ideas are not always obvious, but still happening.

I haven’t updated what’s been happening in a while, so here is a little of what I have learned in the places I have been able to visit.

Florence:

Masses of tourists make things expensive and good authentic food harder to find. Also, Pisa is the most hyped of building ever. It’s just a leaning building people!

Italian Alps:

During the trip in the Italian Alps (Domodossola), we stayed with a couple who have started up an organization, Canova Association. The association works to rebuild ancient homes that people can live in but, at the same time, makes sure to preserve the stone architecture of the time and create sustainable homes. Kent, the husband, used the term “historical continuation” in describing how they help to rebuild houses. He stated that he feels more like a custodian of his home because of all the different stories and lives that had happened in the home before him. For the people that we met, their definition of home is definitely different than a way I think of home. I realized that I approach my home as a place of convenience, while many of these homes, which are part of the Canova Association, aren’t convenient. I was out of breath walking up all the steep stone steps to Kent’s home; I can’t imagine the walk in the winter. Their respect for the old structures, people, and environment around them is commendable.

Poland:

During the trip to Poland we traveled to Krakow, Torun, and Warsaw. Sadly, we spent a lot of time traveling so we didn’t have that much time trying to enjoy and understand each city but I really enjoyed the atmosphere of each city. The most impactful part of the trip was visiting Auschwitz. While I am still trying to sort through things, this is what initially struck me during the trip.

Driving toward Auschwitz, I was oddly reminded of driving toward both Pulse night club in Orlando and the DMZ separating North and South Korea. Driving toward North Korea to visit the DMZ will be an experience I will never forget. As you get closer to the border, you can see and sense, a change in your surroundings and the atmosphere. Rice patties surround the road and bridges are built as obstructions to prevent tanks from being able to drive deeper into South Korea from the north. Once at the DMZ, I saw how the officers acted and saw the mountains of North Korea barren from the overharvesting of trees. All of these things gave me a sense that things were not how they should be.

When driving to Pulse, however, I was struck by the fact that it didn’t feel eerie or abnormal. It felt like a typical place, with typical people, living (you guessed it) typical lives. Driving toward Auschwitz, and being there, the experience was kind of in the middle. I expected some high intensity, but instead was surprised by all of the tourist activities.

What shocked me the most was the reminder of how recent this horrific event occurred. Living in Italy for nearly two months now, I have seen buildings that are thousands of years old. Heck, the buildings the Canova Association are helping to rebuild had intact roofs that were more than a thousand years old!  In history class, I always had the impression that the Holocaust was in this world’s very distant past. I naively believed such a catastrophic event had caused the world to never repeat this sort of action ever again. Instead, I am disheartened to realize that similar sorts of devaluing of humanity are happening on a daily basis, whether at a large or small scale.

Rome:

Umm, well, it’s definitely the most crowded place I have ever visited! While I definitely haven’t gotten used to living in Bologna (and as someone only living here for a short time and not knowing the language, I understand it will never become normal for me), I have enjoyed how authentic the city of Bologna is with very few tourists. So Rome was a place I wasn’t accustomed to but, I have to say, it was easy getting around because of the masses of English speakers! I made a day trip to Rome (it’s about a two-hour train ride from Bologna) to see a very tiny Pope Francis from his apartment window during his Angelus Praying & Papal Blessing, so the trip was worth it just for that experience alone.

Orientation Travels

I’ve never been in a place that makes my skin crawl and my heart happy all at the same time.

Sicily is a beautiful place and one of my favorite things was just walking around the tight streets looking at all of the windows with flower and plants growing around them. However, of the main reasons our program traveled to Sicily, was to learn about the migrants in the area.

Coming into this program, I didn’t know much at all about all the migrants traveling to Europe. I just thought that this rise of immigrants and refugees to the area was causing a burden to the EU. While I honestly still don’t know much, I sadly came to realize that Europe doesn’t have it all together any more than the U.S. Instead, political power, the influence of money, and oppression operates to control every part of the world (fun stuff, right?!). The migrants that I met this past week were mainly boys (one girl and I believe 13 boys). These young boys (14 years of age to early 20s) came alone to a country they don’t know the language of because they were told they would receive 20 euro a day just for coming to Europe.

While I am still very confused with all the details on how these boys arrived in Sicily without their consent, what strikes me the most is how much a person can be under-appreciated, forgotten, or devalued. And while I struggle with being in a new area, trying to make new friends, being away from my family, living on a budget, and trying to communicate with people who don’t speak my language, these boys are struggling with all these things in ways I can’t even imagine or comprehend. I came to realize that while my problems are still problems, I can get out of them, and I am in control. These boys are not in control of their situation, and they can’t just facetime their parents when they get homesick.

While the US has acknowledged the problem of racism in its country, I was surprised to learn that Italy has not done so, and has a large outsider vs. insider mentality that prevents people of other races or ethnicities to be given equal opportunities of jobs or entrance into the community. It’s a problem the U.S faces too, but this was hard to process as we met intelligent and eager boys who were being disadvantaged by the city.

While I left Sicily more than I week ago, I have had a difficult time summing up my experience and, more importantly, my response to the experience. While my hope and prayer is that the world will begin to correct these wrongdoings, I know that requires true commitment to change.

In addition to visiting Sicily, we actually started out our trip in Malta. It was a good introduction because many people on the island speak English. Also, for many of us, it helped to contrast between getting a typical tourist experience, and then traveling to Sicily and understanding the value of an insider’s perspective.

Some random observations about Malta:

-In Malta it was quite easy to communicate because the people speak both English and Maltese.

-Something I thought was interesting was although it is a tiny little island, it has over 365 churches and both abortion and divorce are illegal. At the same time though, with heavy tourism to the island, Malta is known as a party destination so it was interesting to observe the dynamic and impact heavy tourism has on the island

-Malta also has Megalithic temples which are the “oldest free-standing stone structures” in the world (older than Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt!).

-Probably one the strangest things was that they drive on the left side of the road. So as a roundabout fan, it wigged me out going the opposite way through them.

Arrival in Italy

Well I did it. I made it to Italy. Walking away from Mom, Dad and Xavier at the airport was horrible but the thought of missing my flight helped me to leave them.

I didn’t really have much trouble going through the Indianapolis airport. Ironically, the hardest part was checking in my bags and I had my parents to help me. Then I messed up going through security, but the lady kindly told me what to fix so it was all good. I arrived in Charlotte and speedily walked toward my gate (which just happened to be on the opposite side of the airport that I had arrived at). I get to my gate and wait about 20 minutes until we can start lining up. I realize that everyone around me seems to be speaking another language, and it freaked me out a bit. Waiting to board the plane, though, I was reminded of “college home” as two guys in front of me talked about being from Cincinnati.

The ride from Charlotte to Madrid was about 8 hours. I wasn’t worried because in my mind this was nothing compared to the flight to South Korea four years ago (because apparently I consider myself a world traveler?). Well, turns out the possibility of me growing taller in the past four years is pretty likely because I could not sleep in the same position I did on the flight to South Korea. I could not fit, and I couldn’t just lean on the random guy next to me, sadly. Somehow, I fell asleep but I don’t know how or for how long. My flight consisted of eating my airplane dinner and breakfast, watching a movie, sleeping somehow, and then the eight hours is up. (Side note: I felt like crap after I woke up and thought I might be sick, but just kept reminding myself to just breathe – good advice from my Dad when we said goodbye).

Anyway, we (I met up with three other kids from the program to travel from Charlotte to Bologna together) get off the plane and the Madrid airport is HUGE. The weird part, but nice for confused State travelers like me (I can’t call myself an American anymore) is that because it was 6 a.m Madrid time, the airport wasn’t busy. We followed the arrows to get to our next gate. According to the signs, this would take us 26 minutes and required us get on a subway and ride a crap ton of escalators. Again, I got a little reminder of home as a group of what looked to be college students passed by, with one of them wearing an IU hat.

We went through customs — a little intimidating but not a problem — and then had to go through security for the final time. What was different about going through security was it wasn’t as “intense” as security in the States, and you put your boarding pass and passport through with your bags instead of holding onto them the whole time. At home, we are told to hold onto those items, so I was surprised when I had to put them through the conveyor. Well, just my luck, I get to the other side to grab all my items and my boarding pass and passport have already disappeared! Yeah, I started freaking out, asking people around me and trying to think what in the world I was supposed to do about a lost passport (and Italian student visa). I think my boarding pass and passport must have gotten stuck in the conveyor or something (still not really sure what happened) but after I went to ask someone (who you know, didn’t really speak English), an officer found it and called out my name. Luckily that was my only big scare during the trip, well at least so far. I still have more than 90 days to go.

Landing in Bologna, we realized pretty soon the lack of English signage. Many Italians know some English, but it would just be more polite if I knew at least some Italian. For now, I’ve accepted that I’m going to stick out and make some cultural mistakes. Even today while walking, some biker rung his bell and as he passed us, he said “good job.” I don’t know how he could tell we were from the US from our backs, but maybe a couple more weeks walking around Bologna and I’ll figure it out.

It’s not even been a week, but I’m already pretty confused by Italians’ eating schedules. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are only served during select hours of the day at the mensa (dining hall). For instance, breakfast during the week is only served from 7:30-8:45 and dinner is from 7:00-9:00. We aren’t automatically provided lunch so I don’t know if that means Italians have light lunches or what, but I guess I will figure out my own system pretty soon. The first night here, we had dinner in the mensa and then a group of us girls went out to the store and bought some wine. Back home, we probably would have considered the place where we bought the wine as a cheap grocery store or gas station convenience store because of the way it looked, but here it is normal (I guess). It’s funny, because when walking around I realized I could buy either a bottle of wine for €2.50 ($2.80) or a spiral bound notebook for the same price. All I can say is that wine is big here!

Just some random observations:

  • Bologna specifically is known for graffiti, and while in most cities that would be considered trashy, it’s a way for the college students (Bologna has the oldest university in Europe) to express themselves. The graffiti is everywhere, and it’s pretty fun to see.
  • The nights are always active with young people and older people alike. Passing by, you can see a group of people sitting on the street curb sharing a bottle of wine.
  • It’s not unusual to walk into a restaurant and hear State music being played.
  • Italians don’t usually have air conditioning (luckily that isn’t the case for me).
  • Pasta and paninis are eaten all the time. All the time!
  • Bologna is a pretty decent size city, with about 376,00 (larger than Florence by about 15,000), but it isn’t a noisy place. People don’t normally drive but use a bike or moped.
  • You can be given a pitcher of water and a pitcher of wine for a meal.
  • You can’t hail a cab.
  • People really want exact change. You are automatically not liked if you don’t give exact change (and credit cards aren’t used that often, or accepted).
  • Shops close in the middle of the day (siesta time or riposo in Italy) and you can see many people, families, couples and friends just hanging out together during what would be considered a long lunch break (maybe that’s what causes the late dinners).

To the freshman

This is what my best friend from back home wrote to me the night before I was going off to college and she had already arrived at another college. I would say she is a pretty smart chica for all of it, and thought I would share.

 

Know that you will miss your friends and family so much.

Know that you will tear up at random little things and thoughts.

Know that having to socialize in your room is going to be weird.

But above all,

Know that you will have so much fun! You will meet so many wonderful people. And everyone is looking for a friend.

I can’t say I remember much from the first few weeks of school because I have had such amazing memories since that everything else has been erased from my memory. I hope the same is true for you.

 

The E word

The most dreaded part of STP for pretty much everyone – beach evangelism. Coming into STP I knew it was a part of the deal, but I definitely wasn’t looking forward to it. Saturdays were devoted to evangelism so we would start at 9 am with e-training, followed by an hour and a half to two hours of going onto the beach sharing what we call “the bridge.” The bridge focuses on Romans 6:23- For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Pretty much we would walk along the beach in pairs and approach people, introduce ourselves, and then ask them if they would like to discuss an illustration that sums up the main themes of the Bible. Once I learned what it all entailed, it was a lot less intimidating of a situation.

The first week I went out onto the beach with Kara (a group member just like me) and Bethany (who is employed by The Navigators). I know Kara and I were both thankful to have Bethany there to help us and push us to be proactive in approaching people. The first week we talked with three groups of people. Everyone we approached was really kind and happy to see us out on the beach. I didn’t encounter any difficult questions, but was able to just go through the bridge, which I had learned less than an hour before (yeah, we jumped into it fast). After beach evangelism, everyone would gather back on campus to discuss how beach evangelism went. While personally I had not received that many rejections by people who we approached on the beach, many of my friends had, which was obviously difficult.

In total we did beach evangelism six times throughout the summer. As we got further in the summer, I became more and more ok and willing to go out and talk with people about my faith. While it was hard encountering rude individuals or receiving rejection, it was good to know we were all going through the same things out on the beach. We were also reminded that this rejection wasn’t toward us, but rejection to God. Overall, most of the people who would let us talk to them on the beach were already Christians, so many times I had a hard time deciding if it made sense to continue conversations (and maybe challenge them a bit to see if they truly had a relationship with Christ) or just move on.

My favorite moments for beach evangelism were when we would be on the beach, possibly discouraged, and encounter some of our other friends and just pray with them for a short time. Going out without any “adults” really made me feel in-charge of my faith and proud of what I and all my new friends were doing to glorify God.

Another time two of my STP friends came back a lot later than they were supposed to from beach evangelism and they were pretty shook up. Turns out they had tried to share with a man who was very, very angry with the Church. When they both came back to campus, we prayed for the man, George, and all the hurt he is dealing with from the Church and others. This is what the Church is supposed to do: show love to everyone.

By the end of the summer, our group led three people to Christ while out on the beach, making all the no’s and rejections from the summer worth it.

Experience of Fundraising

Oh how I saw God move. But to be honest, at first it didn’t feel like enough.

In early April I sent out my letters and I soon began to see my funds grow. It was so amazing to see people care enough about me to donate, and it was so exciting when people reached out to me to share their thoughts about my trip. It was inspiring when someone sacrificed their income to help me attend STP, and I felt honored and in awe of their commitment to what Christ had called them to do.

Late April hit though, and I became less thankful and more hopeful. Not that having hope is a bad thing, but I became a little too obsessed with my account. Instead of checking online to see how much God HAD provided through the people around me, I became disappointed when my account numbers hadn’t changed, or didn’t meet my “expectations.” In response, I realized that I needed to start checking my account less often, but I was still struggling.

Going into this experience, I knew this would be the first time I would have to trust God financially. Preparing for STP and fundraising, I was told it would all work out, and that “God would provide.” Actually being in the situation though, doubt definitely began to creep in, and I was worried about where all this money would come from.

In the Bible studies done to help with fundraising, I noticed looking back that I would read a passage and interpret it as “God will provide.” I might as well have just written “God will provide” across my whole Bible study instead of reading different scriptures, because looking back, that is all that I allowed myself to take away from all the different scriptures (or all I really wanted to take away from the scripture). In response, throughout fundraising, I struggled with “God will provide” because I wanted him to provide me with $2600, not just provide what He sees fit. It’s hard to put your trust in God and to surrender to him without seeing immediate gain. I guess that is what trust is all about though, trusting through the good and the bad.

Early May I still wasn’t fully funded, but God provided me with the peace to trust in Him. I’m not really sure what triggered it. Maybe it was seeing how God had fully funded one of the other Xavier students, but whatever it was, that day I was overcome with peace. It was one of those yay God can do anything moments, and He will help guide me and support me even if that doesn’t mean providing me with 100% of the funds. On the other hand, it also felt a little foolish. Miranda, you’re really trusting God will “provide” for you even though you still need hundreds of dollars more in funding?

Yeah, I trusted in God. And while it may not always work out in this way, God provided for me, and I became fully funded right before I left for STP. While I can’t say I enjoyed trusting God in this way, or asking people for money, it was amazing to see the people around me support me. This experience taught me about being vulnerable, how I want to use my money in the future, and most importantly about trust. Trusting in God even when I feel like he isn’t moving in my life.

Do not be anxious

Haha yeah, ok God, but I don’t think I can do that.

This past week has been Miranda internally freaking out. I like to be in control, know what is happening, and feel comfortable in a situation. I decided to work at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. this summer because I had never worked with food, and thought I might as well try it out for half the summer at a restaurant with a cool atmosphere. I never imagined it would be this difficult for me right from the start. I was informed of four days of training, a 30-minute drive after deciding to take a route without a toll, and told the best parking was a garage which cost employees $5 a day. All of these details caused me to be very ungrateful for a job. I constantly compared it to my job back at home, which is a small retail store where my boss is such a generous, personable lady, I can work with people near me in age and lifestyle, have freedom and control at the store, and of course, there are clothes.

The first week at Bubba was rough because I was unwilling to open up to what God was trying to tell me, and I was upset that God was challenging me so soon into my trip. Also, I was mad at my past self for thinking this was a good idea, instead of just finding a cute little retail store to work at in St. Pete. I wanted to be good at everything the trainer told me to do, but was also too afraid to take initiative at times. I didn’t want to fail or mess up and that mixed with the wrong attitude, kept me from performing my best and just trying to both learn and enjoy myself with what was coming my way.

Each week of the summer we have a Bible verse to memorize for Monday nights. This is my first time truly taking the time to memorize scripture and, while at first I was very nervous, I have been surprised at how much I have actually enjoyed it and seen the benefit of memorizing scripture.

The second week the scripture assigned to memorize was Philippians 4:6-7

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds, in Christ Jesus.”

I was memorizing the scripture during the week and about the third or fourth time I repeated it to myself, I realized just how applicable it was to my situation. I needed to present my request to God and pray that God would provide me with the ability to do good work for Him, and to trust that He was, and is, in control of my job situation. So I began to pray that God would change my heart and how I felt toward my job.

Sunday I worked, but before then we went to church. I don’t think I have ever been in church and had a sermon that felt so applicable to me at the time. It was over Judges 7, where Gideon is told by God to reduce the size of his army to only 300 men, but is still able to defeat the Midianite army without any casualties. The pastor used Juges 7 to explain how:

  1. When God wants to use us he will often weaken us.
  2. God would send salvation not through human might, but the weakness of humble obedience.
  3. God patiently deals with faltering faith.
  4. At some point, you have to take a risk.
  5. God can turn weakness into strength.
  6. Join Jesus wherever He is.

Each one of these points really struck me and helped me to realize that it is okay to not feel secure in everything, but that I can lean into God during times of difficulty and weakness.

So after an encouraging morning, I got to work, ready, and open for the job that God had provided me. Instead though, I just sat. I sat for more than an hour and a half waiting for my trainer. She finally arrives, and just when I think I can begin my training for the evening, the rain comes and all heck breaks loose. The outdoor computers have to be unplugged and taken to shelter, and while I thankfully wasn’t let off work early, I was told I would have to redo my third day of training, for a third time. Leaving work I was upset, but I also just had to laugh at how funny God is sometimes. I felt like God was saying to me, “Chill Miranda. You freak out about things at times and instead you need to be open and stop resisting.”

So, while I am still not done with training, have not received the hours I was hoping for, and none of my other problems have magically disappeared, I can tell God is working to mold and shape my heart. I’m not even going to try and guess what God will hit me with next, and this job roller coaster definitely isn’t over, but I’m starting to become okay with that. For in the words of Forrest Gump, “My momma always said, “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

The beginning

So I came home, I started working again, met up with friends, and spent time with my family. I got into the routine of being home, and I loved it. Memorial Day was like the calm before the storm. I spent the day with family and had a blast playing games and meeting up with family friends. The rest of the week though was filled with lots of planning and meeting with people before I left. One of my XU friends came to my house on Saturday and while it was so nice to see a familiar college face, it was such a weird experience too. I watched as she said bye to her Dad and brother, and then the next day she watched me do the same with my family.

On Sunday all three of the XU kids and I met up in Cincy and we had dinner with friends who have gone on STP previously. The weather was beautiful on Sunday and we walked downtown enjoying the weather and each other’s company. Monday we drove to Atlanta and stayed in a church just outside the city. It was the first time we met all the STP members and, honestly, I didn’t feel ready for it. Tuesday morning we woke up around 6 to start our last leg of the trip. As we started driving closer and closer to St. Petersburg, the reality started to set in. I became nervous but was so thankful I had friends who had decided to go on this journey with me. We drove through the entrance of the college and realized that we had no idea where to go. We had known that Eckerd College was our destination, and what dorm we were in, but we didn’t know how to get there or anything. It hit me that we were clueless and unprepared for this journey in so many different ways!

While thinking about this experience I had been looking forward to being challenged, now that it was about to happen, I wasn’t too excited. Honestly, I wanted to get on campus, find a beach, and hang out with just my XU friends for a little bit. That obviously didn’t happen, and instead once we found our dorm, we were greeted by new people and quickly we were unpacking the car and I was separated from my XU friends. My nerves just kept on increasing as I met new people and I really began to process what I had signed myself up for this summer. And surprisingly, the thing I had been looking forward to, working at a new job this summer, soon became the thing I was looking forward to the least.

After different orientation stuff, we had some worship time. While at first worship was pretty awkward because we didn’t really know each other, I didn’t know all the songs, and we were singing on the floor of a classroom, I was soon calmed down by all of our praising voices. During this time, the verse of “The Greatness of Our God” really stuck out to me-

Give me grace to see

Beyond this moment here

To believe that there

Is nothing left to fear

So while, yes, I am still freaking out for my job interview coming up soon, and there are more than 100 things I wish I could change right now, I know that through all these things, I can put my trust in God. Seems pretty easy, right? Well I have my job interview soon, so I will let you know how it goes!