Latvia – Country #40!

Last weekend, I traveled to Riga, Latvia for a conference. Of course, I was happy to reunite with many friends who were also in attendance and meet new people, but I was also a bit ecstatic to visit my 40th country.

It was cold (-15 C or 5 F) and for most of the time, I was comfortably indoors for meetings (ok and I found an indoor gym, there was no way I was going to brave running in that weather). When I did go out, it was usually late in the evening and not an ideal time to see the sights.

The best moments can’t really be shared on this blog, so instead I simply give you a few pictures of the snowy and cold city of Riga:

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Some friends and I had a great evening here one night. A fun place to dine if you find yourself in Riga!

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We lasted only a few minutes in this park as we were so cold, but it was beautiful!

 

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We Celebrate the Light

Twenty hours after arriving in Iceland, I was starting to feel enclosed by the darkness and anxious for dawn to finally arrive. I had seen the sunset from the airplane mid-afternoon, but by 10:30am the next day, the night felt far too long. Even when the sun came up, it was a dim light, hushed by the cloudy sky.

That night my friend Johanna and I joined a French couple that we had just met and together we drove out to a lighthouse, sat in the car and looked into the dark, hoping to spot some Northern Lights. We were again surrounded by darkness and not even sure for what we were looking. Would they appear like a shooting star, there and then gone again in the blink of an eye? Would they come in slowly or as a flash of lightning? All we knew was that we were looking for some impressive light display, in whatever form it might appear. We were not successful, so eventually we gave up and drove home.

The next morning, Dec. 26, I again found myself staring into the darkness, even though I had been up for hours. I was on a bus to the Southshore of Iceland and was listening to many interesting stories and anecdotes from our tour guide. Then we passed a small church and cemetery. Each tombstone was lit up with Christmas lights, usually outlining a cross. The tour guide explained that in December, the darkest month of the year, it is a tradition to light up the cemeteries like this. She went on, “Perhaps it appears that we go a bit crazy with the Christmas lights here, but in the midst of so much darkness, at Christmastime, we celebrate the light.”

We celebrate the light. Those words stuck with me for the rest of the journey. My thoughts immediately went back to Paris, which has been stained by dark acts of violence and death in 2015. I will never forget in the days following the attacks, the scenes of hundreds of candles scattered throughout the city of lights helping to illuminate those dark places.

And then I thought again of Christmas, which Icelanders celebrate for two full weeks until Epiphany on January 6. And how Jesus, the person traditionally at the center of this celebration, claimed to be “the light of the world.” Celebrating Christmas is to celebrate this light, even though the destiny for baby Jesus would include a night of such profound darkness that even his closest disciples would flee the scene. The light that followed at his resurrection is a light eternal, a light that Christians celebrate every day of the year.

Yet it is interesting that it takes darkness to recognize the light. Or rather that darkness is the absence of light and that light casts out all darkness. So it makes sense that the darker the darkness, the brighter the light shines, the more it is appreciated, and the more we are even at times desperate for it. In so many ways, 2015 was for me a year of darkness and light, so spending the last few days in Iceland during their celebration of light was ever so fitting.

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

A Privilege I cannot escape

When I arrived in Madagascar this summer, I knew I had much to learn. Months earlier, some of my African-French church friends asked if I had ever been to black Africa before and I realized I had not. Although I have been in countries where my whiteness stands out, this would be a first for me. They smiled as if to say, “We know what’s coming your way.”

On the long road trip from Madagascar’s capital to Anstirabe, our taxi-bus was frequently stopped by the police. At first we didn’t pay too much attention to this, but after awhile our Madagascan friends explained to us what was happening. Apparently dozens of policemen line this route every day and illegally tax the drivers of the taxi-buses. “The money goes in their pockets,” our friends explained. If the drivers refuse to pay, the police will take away their driver’s license and thus leave them without a job. In order to bring home any money at all, the drivers are forced to pack passengers into their vehicles like sardines. It’s a terrible corruption, they explained.

However, they aren’t taxing us today. They wouldn’t dare.

“Really? Why not?” I ask.

“It’s thanks to you!” they exclaim. “They see that you’re white, think you might know important people in the government, and wouldn’t take the risk that you might tell on them!”

Wow.

At first I was thankful that we were spared this injustice. We were there to serve alongside our Madagascan friends, and it had already cost a lot of money just to get there. And, so many times I’ve been treated as a “rich Westerner” abroad simply because I’m white. People have tried all sorts of tactics to overcharge my traveling companions and me. So for once the tables were turned. Not bad, right?

At the end of our stay, we returned via the same route. This time we were aware of what was going on with the police and since I was sitting directly behind the driver, the police would often ask me a few questions once they noticed me, “How are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? How do you find Madagascar?” Sometimes I would even poke my head out to make sure they saw me and didn’t demand any money. And then they would send us on our way. The van, this time filled with an equal number of Madagascans and Europeans, always erupted in laughter each time we “escaped.”

Our Madagascan friends kept saying, “Lucky for us that you’re here!” Yet I left this experience feeling uneasy. The message I walked away with was, yay, I’m white so I don’t have to pay. In this case my white privilege was crystal clear. So clear that our friends of color were also more or less saying, yay, you’re white so we don’t have to pay!

It’s really not funny, even though we laughed that day. All throughout our time in Madagascar, there were feelings of privilege that I couldn’t shake, related both to my color and to my citizenship. I arrived in Madagascar and suddenly I was rich. “Wow, that only costs one euro!” And yet for many locals one euro is a full day’s wage. I go there and spend my pennies and feel like I’m saving a lot because it’s so much cheaper than in my country, while the people around me are struggling to find enough to eat.

There was a feeling of compassion, wishing their lives were better but not really knowing how much I could do. And also a feeling of difference, knowing that even though I have lived through unstable or “poor” times by the standards of my own country, I have always been rich by their standards. And because of my privilege, I feel like I can never understand, truly, these people whom I go to serve and love. It is a privilege that I cannot escape.

And so this experience shined brightly upon my white privilege. Yet for most white people, especially when we are the majority race, it must be rare for it to be so obvious. How many times could my white friends, family members and I have unknowingly walked away from a situation and said:

Yay I’m white so I got taken seriously.
Yay I’m white so I only got a warning.
Yay I’m white so I got the job.
Yay I’m white so I was trusted.
Yay I’m white so in this way I meet media’s definition of what is beautiful.
Yay I’m white so when I succeeded it wasn’t credited to my race.
Yay I’m white so they believed me.
Yay I’m white so I was able to rent the place I wanted.
Yay I’m white so I don’t know what it’s like to be mistreated because of my skin color.
Yay I’m white so the authorities weren’t suspicious of me.
Yay I’m white so I wasn’t harassed.
Yay I’m white so I don’t have to constantly think about how my actions affect the reputation of my entire race.
Yay I’m white so I was recognized as a human being.
Yay I’m white so the police didn’t even look twice.
Yay I’m white so I am still alive.

I know that the recent events in the States have stirred up a lot of emotions among my black and white friends alike. I have seen the posts and comments on facebook and I don’t ignore them. I have seen some very strong and even judgmental opinions from white people about the black community in the wake of recent events. Sure, we can come up with all kinds of arguments to prove whatever point we wish to make.

Yet until we recognize our white privilege, whether we can measure it or not, we cannot begin to understand what it means not to have it.

It’s easy to miss the injustices, especially when we aren’t looking for them. It’s easy to not think about racism when we’re not personally confronting it every day. It’s easy to even think that minorities are becoming more privileged in America when diversity is celebrated. But as my friends of color share their experiences, I recognize that things are still not right in my country.

If we white Americans were to lose our privilege and experience what that would mean for us, our families, our ancestors and our offspring, I think we would become angry about the injustices, too. I am not a proponent of violence nor do I think it should be justified. But neither should we mistreat our fellow human beings through our actions, our words, our attitudes, our lack of understanding, our ignorance or our pride. Especially if we claim to be living the Gospel, we will desire to move towards freedom and justice, for all people. The stain of slavery upon our recent American history should grieve us and racial reconciliation should be close to our hearts.

I confess that I have harbored subtle racist attitudes and opinions in the past that I now regret. I know that my upbringing in mostly white communities has left me with baggage that includes false stereotypes, fear, assumptions, misunderstandings and ignorance concerning racial issues and those who are different from me. Yet now I recognize my white privilege and the injustices placed upon those who don’t have it. I don’t know how much I can understand what this really means for people of color, especially in America, but I do know that I still have a lot to learn. And I want to learn. As I listen to the stories of my brothers and sisters, I pray that God will continue to change my heart so that I will learn to love others more humbly, authentically and empathetically.

If I cannot escape the privilege, then at least I will own it.

Born to privilege

I have been born to privilege. In my many adventures around the world, I recognize that being a white American has its value.

I have also been born to a place of secondary value. In the subculture that I grew up in, women were considered to be second-class citizens. They existed to serve men and to remain under male dominion.

In a recent post I wrote about the women I encountered in India. I wanted so badly to communicate to them their beauty and value. I don’t know if I succeeded at all, but this experience also reflected upon my own personal journey.

Unlike me, they were born with what they understand to be a less desirable skin color. Like me, they were born as what many consider to be the less desirable sex.

Who told me that women are lesser in value than men? I can recall a few of the male voices that spoke this message in clear words, although it was more often communicated in subtle ways. The message was powerful… and hurtful.

Those voices told me that my relationship with God must be channeled through the authority of a man. That I belong to one man until he gives me to another. That if men use and abuse me, it is my fault. That women are less qualified to serve God simply because of their sex. That women cannot be trusted. That women are easily deceived and that chaos erupts when women are in leadership.

These voices were powerful, and they defined me from a very young age.

Thankfully, they were not the only voices I heard. I have a clearer recollection of the men who spoke differently into my life, and those voices were also powerful.

The voices that told me that I am a daughter of the King and that no man has the right to mistreat me. That the Lord alone is my Master and that I bow only to him. That God has created woman in his image. That women can also make an intelligent contribution to the world. That women can also be trusted and respected.

While I was in India, I distinctly recalled those first voices, coming from men born into privilege, who were all too ready to highlight their privilege while emphasizing my lack of privilege. I don’t understand. It would be like me going to these girls and saying or behaving as to say, “Well, we can’t change how we are made. I am superior, yes, but that’s just the way it is, and the best thing you can do is to serve me well so that I can thrive.” Was this not the attitude that reigned throughout the horrific history of slavery in my own country?

And yet I know that I, too, have acted and spoken in ways that have hurt others, even though I didn’t see it at the time. I see it now. And for this I am so deeply sorry.

So I understand and yet I don’t. I get what it’s like to be devalued in some ways due to the body I was born into. And yet there are others who deal with this on a daily basis in a way that I can never fully understand, simply because I have never lived even a day in their shoes. I just hope and pray that I will always be willing to listen and to grow, and that I will be an agent of change as I am also changed.

Is Beauty Color-coded?

In March I went on an “Artist Trek to India,” with a team of musicians, writers, visual artists, photographers and a dancer. We visited a high school one day and each of us was immediately surrounded by dozens of students. They asked us questions, wanted to feel our skin and hair, and requested that we take pictures of them.

One of these girls grabbed my hand and said, “beautiful” as she stroked it. I took her hand and said, “YOU are beautiful!” She responded, “No. Black!” And she frowned. My heart sank but I looked at her again in the eyes and said, “You are so beautiful. It’s true!”

Another day, in the city of Vijayawada, a couple of girls came running up to me and another team member. “Photo please!” They asked while giggling and posing next to us as their friends stole some photos with their phones.

Um, hello?

But they didn’t care to get our names, they only wanted our pictures. And then they were off as quickly as they had come, not giving us a chance to ask for their names, either.

My team and I attended a relief meeting for Indian people suffering from AIDS. We packed bags of food for them and then introduced ourselves during a short service of singing, a message and prayer. The majority of those in attendance were women, who had most likely contracted this disease from their husbands. The men don’t come because they are too embarrassed. The women come because they are in desperate need of help for themselves and their families.

I finished my introduction by saying, “You are beautiful.” My words fell upon blank faces, but as soon as the translation was pronounced, their reaction was anything but neutral. Some snickered, others shook their heads.

The younger girls received my words with less disdain and rejection. When I grabbed their hand or touched their face or pulled them in for a hug and said, “YOU are beautiful,” it came from the very depths of my being, a message shared in complete sincerity. I wished I could gather all of the women, teenagers and young girls into a big group hug and describe to them more of what I see.

Because truly, these women are stunning!

I returned to Paris and saw the color of humanity like I had never seen it before. Caucasian people seemed especially pale. Oh, right. I’m Caucasian, too. Suddenly for me, human colors were more defined but not in a categorical “white” and “black” way. I find the variety of human color to be beautiful and something that ought to be celebrated.

I wish we could do away with the stereotypes that our world places upon people. Of course, I have also been personally influenced by the way media dictates what makes a woman beautiful. When an ideal is out of my reach, it can be hurtful. And I hate that feeling of not measuring up. But to recognize that I was born to privilege simply because of my skin color makes me uncomfortable. I see it more clearly now than before, and it bothers me deeply. I don’t really know what to do about it. I just know that it is there.

Top Ten Things to do in Paris from a Local!

People often ask me what they should see when they come to Paris. Truth is, I feel incompetent to respond as my daily life here is far from the world of tourism, except for being annoyed with tourists ignoring the bike lanes! (Please, watch where you are walking!) 🙂 So I tend to think that people are better off doing a quick Google search for the top ten attractions to make the best use of their vacation time here. Although I have seen many of the touristic sights (mostly before I lived here), “what to see” really depends on your personal interests. There is so much to discover!

However, because some have insisted, here is my own list. If you shadow me for a few days, these are the activities you might find me doing, although some only on a rare occasion. But here’s a disclaimer: these activities are very specific to my life and interests! So they may or may not appeal to you. Also, since I have to live modestly in an expensive city, all of these activities are either free or quite affordable (10€ or less). I hope you will find something useful here.

  1. Go for a run (or walk or bike ride) in the Bois de Vincennes (or Bois de Boulogne)

2014-01-03 16.44.40It’s incredible that you can step just outside of the city and get lost in a 2500-acre park. Year round, I love running in the Bois de Vincennes. There are lakes, paths that stretch on for miles, plenty of trees, a castle, a floral garden, and a hippodrome. It’s a great place to go for a walk, run, bike ride, picnic, etc. In the summer, you can also catch free concerts in the Parc Floral (5€ to get in, then the concert is free). You can access the Bois de Vincennes from Metro line 1 (Chateau de Vincennes) or line 8 (Porte Dorée, Liberté).

However, I would recommend staying out of the park when it’s dark. The streets of both Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne are lined with prostitute caravans at night and this of course significantly changes the atmosphere from of a place of light, families and athletic energy in the daytime to a place of darkness and illegal activity at night.

  1. Stroll through the Belleville open market on a Tuesday or Friday morning

This is the market where I used to buy fresh produce almost weekly. It’s a bit of a jog from where I live but I took the time to go there because it seems to be the cheapest market in Paris. I could fill my caddy with fresh fruits and veggies for a mere 20€ – a real steal! It is also interesting culturally. Step inside and you will find yourself surrounded by Asians at one end and Arabs at the other, complete with multiple languages and clothing styles. Hold onto your wallet and be prepared to be shoved around a bit as you make your way through the crowd. While the prices are fixed, you would be wise to pick your own fruit, as sometimes the quality is less than desirable, especially when the merchants try to convince you of what to buy. If you exit the metro at Belleville (line 2 or 11) or Couronnes (line 2) on a Tuesday or Friday morning, you will find yourself in the market.

In my continued effort to “go green,” I now prefer the market at Bastille because there is an organic vendor where I can even find kale! More expensive yes, but for my health it’s worth it! Located near Metro Bastille, this market is open on Thursday and Sunday mornings.

  1. Rent a bike for a day

The Paris city bikes (Velib) are my primary means of transportation. For a resident, it’s super easy. You pay 39€ for the year and have 45 minutes free every time you check out a bike. The concept is brilliant: take a bike from one station, ride to your destination and return it to another station. So you never have to worry about your bike getting stolen and if a pedal falls off or a tire goes flat or if it starts down-pouring (I speak from experience!), you can simply park it at the nearest station and move on with another means of transportation. The downside to this system is that there is not always a bike or a free spot available when you need it. However, since there are stations all over the city, you can often find another one within a five-minute walk. A new option allows visitors to purchase short-term passes online in advance.

I should caution visitors to be careful while biking in Paris because traffic can be crazy, especially in the roundabouts. There are a lot of bike lanes, but pedestrians are often in the way and much of the time, you have to share a lane with the city busses, which aren’t very considerate at times. 😦 Because of this, there are certain streets that I try to avoid when on a bike, and I always expect that I’m invisible to most of the traffic out there. I now know Paris quite well and can get around easily on a bike. However, I got lost a lot in the beginning. It’s hard to navigate the streets with a map and still be cautious of the traffic. Getting around on the metro is much easier and straightforward for visitors.

However, biking is a great way to see the city if you’re up for the challenge. Guided bike tours are another good option. Check out Bike About Tours and Fat Tire Bike Tours. I have never used these services, but when I see people on the tours, they seem to be enjoying themselves!

  1. Visit a French church

If you’re in Paris on a Sunday and would like to experience a thriving French church, consider attending one of the services at the Eglise Protestante Unie du Marais at 17, rue Saint-Antoine in the 4th arrondissement (in-between Metro stops Bastille and Saint-Paul). The Sunday services are at 10:30am, 5:30pm and 7:30pm. You can try out your French here, but you will be sure to find some English speakers as well.

  1. Have a picnic in one of the beautiful parks in Paris

You can easily stop in a grocery store and pick up cheese, wine, fruits and veggies and some bread from a bakery (boulangerie) for a simple picnic in a park. Some of my favorite picnic spots are: Luxembourg, Buttes Chaumont, and Champs de Mars. On July 14 (the France national holiday) and on New Year’s Eve you can also see fireworks at the Eiffel Tower.

  1. Have a tea or coffee at the top of the Montparnasse Tower

Most tourists go up the Eiffel tower for the view, but if you would like a more classy experience with a panoramic view of the city, I recommend the Ciel de Paris restaurant, at the top of the Montparnasse Tower. It’s free to access the restaurant, but the service is expensive. So on occasion I’ll go up at around 3pm (when it’s not too busy) and order a tea. It will be pricey, but if it’s clear out, you’ll have a great view! And it’s still less than a ticket to go up the Eiffel Tower. It reminds me of the Signature Room at the top of the John Hancock Center in Chicago, which I always suggested as an alternative to the Sears Tower (sorry, I still can’t refer to it by that other silly name).

  1. Visit the Pavé d’Orsay

A little art gallery on a side street in a chic quarter, the Pavé d’Orsay hosts art showings, concerts, acting workshops and other events to promote emerging artists. Check out what’s on and stop in for a visit, especially if you’re in the area visiting the Musée d’Orsay or the Louvre.

  1. Explore the Paris cemeteries

2013-01-02 13.16.40The cemeteries in Paris can redefine an American’s concept of a graveyard. You can almost get lost amidst the tombstones. Whenever I stroll through one of these cemeteries, I always discover so many interesting things, from the old sculptures to the recent pictures and inscriptions. You can also find the graves of many famous people in Paris.

  1. Attend a concert or opera

Catching a concert or opera will take some planning in advance (if you want to get a ticket for a decent price), but most tickets you can buy online and then print out, so it’s simple to do from a distance. There are two opera houses, the old famous one (Garnier) and the newer one (Bastille). The latter hosts most of the opera productions and the older one is where ballets generally take place. For shows at either location, check out the Paris opera website. Ticket sales open on a specific day for each production and if you reserve the same day, you can get tickets for as little as 5€ (although you may have an obstructed view at this price). For orchestral and other classical music, check out these two concert halls: Theatre des Champs-Elysees and Salle Pleyel. And for a vast array of concerts and other shows in Paris, look for tickets at this site.

  1. Get a falafel in the Marais

It’s a bit hidden away, but it’s definitely worth finding for an excellent falafel. You can sit in or pay less for take-away. It’s called “L’As du Fallafel” and is located at 34, rue des Rosiers, 75004, Paris. The closest metro stop is Saint Paul on line 1.

Now for the more touristic things to do in Paris, please ask google!

Human

This song has a redemptive message for me. It speaks to my tendency to be a workaholic, to the drive that doesn’t know when to stop and the obligation I feel to “be there” for everyone at all times.

But even more specifically, it proclaimed a specific rebuttal to a message that was spoken to me almost a decade ago.

I have never worked myself as hard as I did when I was in college. I regularly worked graveyard shifts at a residence hall desk during which time I completed my homework, and then when I got off, sometimes I would go running or to class. At one point I was taking both sleeping pills and caffeine pills to survive. And then I was starting to prepare for graduate school auditions. So I would lock myself away for hours and get lost in my repertoire.

On one of those days, a friend called and asked me to leave the practice room to go hang out with friends that evening. That was a lot to ask, but after a bit of persuasion I agreed, “just for an hour.” I started to get stressed out when an hour turned into two, and then three. Finally I insisted on resuming my practice. As we walked back to campus together, he asked me how I am able to keep going at the pace that I do. I was annoyed by the challenge, and tried to explain that I was just doing what I needed to do. Maybe he was annoyed with me as well, or just wanted to make a point when he said,

“You’re more like a machine that keeps producing and producing and producing than you are a human being.”

Ouch.

No one wants to be called a machine, no matter how much they act like one.

Those words have echoed through my head ever since.

A few weeks after this scene, I was rushed to the emergency room in the middle of the night, and then transferred by ambulance to another hospital. The machine had reached its limit.

I’m only human, and I bleed when I fall down.
I’m only human, and I crash and I break down.

I’m not a machine, and in her single hit, Christina Perri voices both sides of this struggle that many of us face. For me, the imagery of a machine in the music video was especially powerful.

Of course, “only human” isn’t the complete picture. I believe that being human is also something to be celebrated. It’s amazing what humans can do. I added this song to my running playlist and when it started playing during an 18-mile marathon training run the other day, I realized what a bad idea that was. I started seeing images of myself tripping over a pebble and crashing to the ground, knees scraped and bleeding. That’s not the way to get through a difficult workout. In some moments, we do well to celebrate the extraordinary capabilities of humanity.

But as humans, we also have limitations, and as someone who constantly struggles to respect my own limits, this is something I need to hear from time to time. Although I hate falling down, I’m thankful for the reminder that I am not a machine.