Today is Good Friday, and my husband and I are taking this day to reflect on the life changing impact of what happened so many years ago at Calvary.  We’ve been humbled as we have both pondered the immensity of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, namely that, because of that sacrifice, we can be reconciled to God.  What an undeserved, and certainly unearned, gift.  We will celebrate Resurrection Sunday–or Easter Sunday–in a couple of days and rejoice that Christ rose from the dead and completed the task of opening the path of salvation to anyone who would accept it.

This Easter season has also been a time in which Leon and I have experienced firsthand how the Lord sometimes moves in one’s life.  It has been a rollercoaster ride, to be sure.  After all, we humans tend to get comfortable in our little situations and have a hard time seeing anything other than what is in front of us.  In our case, we were pretty comfortable–until a few weeks ago.

Several weeks ago, things were moving along according to the routine that we had settled into for so long and to which we were adapted.  We woke up early, commuted into the city together, worked a long day at our respective offices, commuted home together, and usually threw something together for dinner by about 9 pm.  Then it was time to crash and get ready to do the same thing all over again the next day.  It was tiring, to be sure, and Leon and I both felt like the professional culture of the workplace in D.C. left much to be desired.  It also left us both emotionally and physically exhausted.  However, we were determined to serve where we were at the time and wanted to work hard.

I’ve often heard that sometimes the Lord has to do a complete life makeover, i.e. shake everything up in your life, in order to get you into the position He wants you in.  Leon and I can now say that we had that happen in our first year of marriage.

The first tremors happened when I started waking up in the mornings feeling nauseated and had to run to the bathroom.  Getting through the work day was more difficult than usual–I did not want to eat, the smells of my coworker’s Chinese food made my stomach turn, and by about 3 pm I just wanted to curl up in some comfortable pajamas and sleep.  A little test called First Response soon confirmed our suspicions; much to our delight two pink lines popped up on the stick, and I yelled out, “Honey!  We’re having a baby!”  We were ecstatic and felt truly blessed to begin the journey towards parenthood (Baby Gil is due in October 2013).

Then the figurative rug was pulled out from under us.  Shortly after we learned that we were expecting, Leon and I both lost our jobs.  It all happened quickly and we did not have much time to process what was happening.  Anyone who has gone through job loss knows the feeling–you feel shock, sadness, anger, disbelief, and a whole other range of emotions that hits either in waves or all at once throughout the day.  We knew that this was all a part of God’s plan, and that He was shaking things up for a purpose, but it stings like nothing else to lose your job.  Even if the company was restructuring, or it was a result of the economy being weak, nothing hurts like having to pack your things up and get into the office elevator knowing you won’t be back.

We didn’t have much time to feel sorry for ourselves, thankfully.  Leon and I quickly set up a meeting with our pastor to talk through everything that was happening, which was incredibly helpful.  We then had to get the house ready–Leon’s sister Julie was coming to spend her spring break with him in D.C., and I was scheduled to travel to France and Spain for a trip with my mother and other sister in law.  We knew that we needed to take a deep breath, enjoy our family commitments, and give ourselves some time to mentally absorb the shock of what had just transpired.

Looking back, it was by the grace of God that we had family commitments lined up right after receiving both joyful and hurtful news.  Leon had a wonderful week with his sister, and I was blessed to have the chance to do some traveling and exploring in Europe.  Traveling in your first trimester is not exactly the optimum time to travel, but besides some morning sickness it was wonderful to delve back into French and Spanish and enjoy the sights of Provence, Madrid, and Toledo.  Travel is incredibly therapeutic, and I was thankful to have that time to clear my head and enjoy some new scenery for awhile.

Back in D.C., thankful to be reunited with my husband, we tried to take some time to pray and really ask for wisdom in what the next step needed to be.  It was painful to be so unceremoniously dismissed from my job, like I was nothing more than a faceless laborer (which in D.C. is pretty much how it goes), but it was also a blessing to be able to be home while dealing with morning sickness.  I also saw more of my husband’s strong character as he worked so hard to find another job but was never too busy to fix me some soup or bring me crackers or take care of me when I wasn’t feeling well.  Amidst the sting of job loss, we knew that our marriage would only get stronger as we faced the situation together.

For awhile we have pretty much felt like we’ve been living on a rollercoaster.  I was reminded of one of the rides at Six Flags Over Texas, the main theme park where I grew up, that I rode as a kid.  The little coaster cars would chug their way up vertically on the tracks until you could feel your ears popping.  Then you could feel yourself tense up as the car slowly pushed up to the precipice from which it would dramatically fall and whirl you through the twists and turns of the coaster.  Leon and I have been through the anticipation of reaching the top point and then plunging downwards.  Now we’re being whisked through the twists and turns of job applications and praying for the right door to open.  This has been a test of our faith, but we know that God is in control.  In our case, the road to parenthood has so far been a bit rocky, but we are also excited to see what is in store.

Travelers often say that after a trip the good things are remembered, and the not so good things tend to fade into the mental background.  I like to call these travel bloopers.  In other words, no matter how well a trip is planned, or how prepared you are, things are bound to go wrong.

In my previous blog post about the incredible Christmas trip to Switzerland and Italy with my family, it was fun to reflect on the beauty of the Matterhorn, reminisce about the carb heaven that is Italian cuisine, and appreciate the bonding time with parents and siblings.  Overall the trip went smoothly, but like any travel experience, there were definitely bloopers.  

To start, when Leon and I met my family at Geneva Airport, we were very jetlagged and had already had a misunderstanding with our shuttle driver who was supposed to drive us to Zermatt. Monsieur Shuttle Driver did not speak any English, so I tried with my best French to explain that my family’s flight into Geneva had been badly delayed and unfortunately they would not arrive for another couple of hours.  I told him that we did not have the new flight number because they had been bumped to a different plane during the layover.  He understood that the new flight was reflected in the old flight number–which it was not–and proceeded to leave in a huff.  Thankfully he came back (after I called repeatedly), and my family arrived safely.

Then came the actual drive from Geneva to Zermatt.  There were a couple of evening trains from Geneva to Zermatt, which usually I would have preferred to take, but with the volatility of flight cancellations and delays I did not want to risk everyone missing the last train out of Geneva–thus the reason for hiring a shuttle service.  Our shuttle driver was an older gentleman, about four foot eleven, and liked to grunt in between bouts of French.  I sat in the front seat of the big shuttle to try to translate as we made our way from Geneva to the Swiss Alps.

Then the blizzard hit.  The drive went pretty well for the first couple of hours, until everything went completely white.  Monsieur grunted more frequently and actually sped up the more it snowed.  Everyone started to get really quiet in the backseat–I think they were all praying.  Monsieur also turned the heat up in the shuttle to the point where everyone was sweating.

We made it closer to Zermatt when the snow was so bad that we had to stop to put snow chains on the tires.  Then began the steady drive up the incline to reach the Swiss villages preceding Zermatt.  Snow trucks were out, diligently trying to clear the roads of the furiously falling snow, but Monsieur seemed annoyed that they were in his way and proceeded to zip past all of them.  This proved a problem when the slope of snow and ice proved too much for the shuttle and we fishtailed.

After my heart returned from my throat to my chest cavity, Monsieur explained to me in fast French that he had special permission to drive us up to Zermatt instead of us having to take the train from the village of Tasch.  It was still snowing heavily, he said, but it would be faster to drive up to Zermatt.

What Monsieur did not account for was avalanches.  When we were one kilometer outside of Zermatt, we came to a dead stop and Monsieur grunted words in French that I cannot repeat here.  An avalanche had filled the road with packed snow and ice and we were blocked from going any further.  This meant that we had to back up, turn around, and head back to the train station in the village of Tasch.  One problem–we had to back up and turn around while the shuttle was on a narrow path overlooking a cliff.  There was also the issue of, say, another avalanche hitting while we were trying to turn around.  Monsieur proceeded to make a phone call while backing the shuttle up, so he was on the phone while the shuttle tires were about six inches away from the edge of the cliff.  When we finally made it to the train station to take the train to Zermatt, my family wanted to both kiss the ground and, I’m sure, kill me.

After the “close encounter of the Swiss cliff kind,” the rest of the Zermatt visit went smoothly, minus it being difficult to sleep at night (thank you loud and drunken German tourists who tried to outsing each other in the middle of the night, in the middle of the street).  The trip to Venice went smoothly as well, and it wasn’t until we had been in Venice for a few days that the next blooper hit.

The next travel blooper involved a lovely thing called food poisoning.  To give some background, Romans make fun of Venetians for having what they consider to be inferior cuisine to theirs.  They say that you can’t get a bad meal in Rome, after all–they don’t say that you can’t get a bad meal in Italy.  Unfortunately Leon and I experienced this firsthand, after eating some insalata caprese at a Venetian restaurant (recommended by locals by the way) that we suspect had been handled with a contaminated knife or something.  We suspected this because the two of us had shared the offender, one caprese, and we both woke up in the middle of the night running to the bathroom.  I’ll spare the details, but let’s just say that having one spouse throw up in the toilet and the other in the trash can will bring any married couple closer together.  

Luckily for me, my husband is a trooper, and after he threw up for the last time we managed to grab our luggage and head to the train station.  Nothing was going to stop us from getting to Rome–even if we showed up green and dehydrated.  Which we did.

The rest of the trip, thankfully, was void of further avalanches or food poisoning.  There were minor bloopers, but those were mainly the result of what I call “the Italian way.”  The hotel helped us make reservations for Alfredo’s, where fettucini alfredo was invented, only to have us show up for our reservation and the restaurant was closed.  As well, Leon and I had to go back to St. Peter’s a second time to see the basilica because the church had been shut down the previous day for a European youth conference (unbeknownst to us).  In Italy you can plan, but you have to then be prepared to change the plan–or forget the plan–at the last minute.

The beauty of travel is that the good times definitely prevail in the mind over the rough times.  Traveling teaches you to be flexible, and one learns quickly that bloopers are just a part of exploring the world.  You also have to learn as you go, though–next time I’ll try to avoid avalanches.  And take more Pepto Bismol in my carry-on.

Confession:  I might be back in the U.S. right now, but my heart is still in Switzerland and Italy.

After months of planning, it was time to leave for a family trip to Switzerland and Italy for the Christmas holiday.  The itinerary was all planned out, reservations were confirmed, and everything was organized.  To be sure, everyone knew that things would go wrong, as travel often throws curveballs, but we were all ready.  I printed off Google maps for everyone to show our progression from Geneva to Zermatt, Zermatt to Venice, and Venice to Rome.

Leon and I flew to Geneva from D.C. and explored the city while my family headed over from Texas.  It was a brisk day in Geneva, so we walked quickly.  Lake Geneva was lovely, as were the swans that looked up to see if we had any bread or treats with us (we didn’t, so they did not grant us much of their attention).  We walked by the World Trade Organization, a must-see for any international studies major, and shared a big pot of cheese fondue while struggling to stay awake on account of jetlag.

Then it was time to meet the family at Geneva Airport and liaise with the shuttle to drive the three hours to Zermatt, a village in the Swiss Alps at the base of the majestic Matterhorn.  After an arduous drive in a blizzard and a train ride from the town of Tasch (Zermatt does not allow anything but electric cars within its vicinity), we made it to Hotel Schweizerhof and crashed.

Zermatt is a charming village, with a main street known as the Bahnofstrasse lined with little shops and vendors selling fresh bratwurst with hot mustard.  Parents pull their children along on sleds instead of in strollers, dogs wear puffy coats like their human owners, and skis are the footwear of choice.  My family isn’t big on skiing (I tried to ski in Colorado as a teenager and wiped out everyone unfortunate enough to be in my path), but we took the Glacier Paradise lift up one morning to see the Matterhorn up close and personal.

The Matterhorn is magnificent in person, and intimidating as well.  It has claimed the lives of many who dared to climb it–an entire section of the cemetery in Zermatt is dedicated to those who “chose to climb,” and in St. Peter’s Church, where we attended a Christmas Eve service, there are plaques spanning the years naming those who perished on its sharp incline.  When you’re close to the top, the air is thin and the sight is mesmerizing.  I still get a chill looking at the pictures that we took up there.

Zermatt

After encountering the Matterhorn and enjoying the Swiss village life for a few days, as well as having one of the best meals of my life at Stockhorn Grill, it was time to take the train to Venice.  I think that other travelers can vouch for my opinion that traveling by train in Europe is the way to go.  From Switzerland to Italy the view of snow-topped mountains, villages, and rolling hills was a great way to spend Christmas Day.

I had never been to Venice at Christmastime before this trip, and I have to say that I now wholly recommend it.  The city is much less crowded than during peak tourism times in the summer months, and the canals have a sort of foggy haze over them that captures the sparkle of Christmas lights just perfectly.  The city had a completely different feel to it than the other times I had visited–it was quieter, almost sleepy even.  There was still the bustle around Piazza di San Marco with shoppers searching for Christmas gifts and such, but overall the city was calmer.

We spent a few days enjoying Venice, namely having coffee at Caffe Florian, dining at Harry’s Bar, strolling through the winding streets, and perusing the many shops filled with colorful Venetian glass.  The next thing I knew it was time to hop on the train to my favorite city in the world, Rome.

The train from Venice to Rome takes about four hours and was also a feast for the eyes.  There is something about Italy that has drawn me back ever since I first visited back in 2000.  I feel comfortable there.  To be sure, there are dozens of incredible places to visit in the world, but Italy feels more like home than any other.  Needless to say, it was good to be home–in Rome.

The time in Rome flew by, as it always does, and involved several days of what I like to call “Italian indulgence.”  The family diet there pretty much consisted of pizza, pasta, coffee, and gelato.  Although it was pretty chilly weatherwise, one cannot go to Rome without going to Giolitti for gelato.  I made my usual pilgrimage to see my old apartment near Piazza di Spagna, where I had spent the summer in 2004, and had fun reminiscing about running around Italy in my early 20’s.  My family did a tour of the Vatican, threw coins into the Trevi Fountain, took photos of the Pantheon, stopped by the Christmas Market at Piazza Navona, and went inside the Colosseum.  Leon had never been to Rome before, so we went back to the Vatican to tour St. Peter’s Basilica, and were waiting in line only to hear trumpets blast and look up to see the Pope emerge to give a homily.  Always full of surprises, my beloved Rome.

As most travelers can attest, months of planning yielded a vacation that went by way too quickly.  As always, though, it was completely worth it.


With the Thanksgiving holidays quickly approaching, our pastor recently preached a sermon about “eucharisteo,” or Greek for “thanksgiving,” and shared Scriptures about the biblical meaning of the term. It was fascinating to learn that “eucharisteo” has 3 tenses rolled into one. In other words, it encompasses thanksgiving in the past, present, and future.

Dr. Baucom also told the congregation about a book he had read recently called 1000 Gifts by Ann Voskamp. The author was apparently going through a tough time in life when a friend encouraged her to put pen to paper and write down everything she had to be thankful for. Skeptical that she could come up with much, Ann began to write things down, and before she knew it, her list had hit 1,000. Dr. Baucom reminded us that the Lord is at work in our lives, even when we struggle to see beyond the daily grind, and that we would indeed be shocked at how many blessings we have if we started to write them down. We were all challenged to write a list of 1,000 things to be thankful for by Thanksgiving. Needless to say, many in the congregation looked skeptical (including myself, I freely admit).

A couple of weeks later, all I can say is, “Eucharisteo.” I took some time, amidst my doubt, to write down blessings in the hopes of even getting close to 1,000 things on the list. The first things on the list, obviously, were things like Jesus, my husband, my parents, and my siblings. As I ran out of general things to be thankful for, however, like a warm place to live, a job, and food to eat, my mind started coming up with the most random things. I started writing down things like, “the dentist who takes care of my teeth,” “trees that provide fruit,” “adoptive families,” and “the sun rising this morning.” My once sluggish typing became faster and before I knew it my list had 700 items on it (and is still growing).

Doing the Eurcharisteo challenge really puts things into perspective and is a perfect way to enter into the Thanksgiving season. I’m so glad that Dr. Baucom challenged us to write down 1,000 things to be thankful for, and I would encourage you to try it as well.

The last few days, to say the least, were pretty intense here in Washington, D.C.  Everyone was glued to their television sets all week watching as Hurricane Sandy prepared to slam the East Coast and then collide with a cold front to create a “superstorm.”  Much like during Hurricane Irene last year, grocery store shelves were pretty bare within a couple of days.

The storm was set to hit on Sunday evening, October 28, 2012.  As we gathered with our Sunday School class and attended worship on Sunday morning, our pastor spoke about praying for those affected by the storm (including ourselves and our neighbors) and how the Lord can give peace and calm even when hurricanes approach.  Those were comforting words to remember as the storm crept closer.

After church we were scheduled to visit our friends Ana and Henry, whose new baby had been baptized that morning, and to celebrate the special occasion with them.  The conversation centered on the baby, of course, and how excited everyone was to meet him, and how everyone was feeling about the hurricane.  Then everyone left for their respective homes to hunker down and do another inventory of storm-related supplies.

Leon and I could not leave the house on Monday or Tuesday, as the winds were dangerously uprooting entire trees and throwing things around, not to mention the blinding rain that we could see outside of our window.  The lights flickered on and off throughout the days, but thankfully we did not lose power completely.  We were able to cook and keep the news on to stay apprised of new developments.  It was surreal to see pictures of areas just a couple of miles from our condo that were flooded.  Not to mention that we had just been to New York City the previous weekend, and streets on which we had strolled along enjoying beautiful fall weather were now totally submerged.

I was thankful to be safe and dry, but I felt heavy hearted for those who lost their homes or even loved ones during the hurricane.  Leon and I were also surprised to see an unexpected blessing come out of the hurricane for us.  It turned out that our plumbing had some issues which we did not know about until we had to fill the bathtub with water to prepare for the storm.  Apparently, there had been a slow leak into the downstairs condo which had gone undetected until the bathtub was filled and enough water leaked downstairs to make the problem apparent.  We had plumbers at our house all Tuesday afternoon and the problem is now hopefully fixed.  The plumbers estimated that if we had not filled the tub for the hurricane, it might have taken months for the problem to reveal itself.  It sounds corny, but that situation reminded me that sometimes difficulties (in this case a hurricane) can forge unanticipated blessings.

This morning, Halloween, traffic was as congested in D.C. as always, and Leon and I slowly made our way into the city to get back to work.  There was an eeriness to the air, however, and the sky was still a weird gray color.  Trees that had been uprooted were reclining in the medians, and the Potomac River looked swollen and murky.  The mood was certainly appropriate for Halloween (although it’s uncertain right now how much trick-or-treating D.C. children will be able to do this evening), but we are definitely thankful that the storm has passed.

Today is World Tourism Day, and I can’t think of a better way to ring in the fall season than celebrating the art of tourism around the globe.  From travelers visiting the U.S. to Americans exploring other parts of the world, tourism is an economic sector defined by everything from leisure to education to crossing things off of one’s “bucket list.”

World Tourism Day was founded by the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization in 1980 and has been celebrated on September 27th every year since then.  According to the UNWTO, the purpose of World Tourism Day is to “foster awareness among the international community of the importance of tourism and its social, cultural, political and economic value.”  This year the official celebrations are being held in Maspalomas, Spain, a town located on the island of Gran Canaria (off the coast of Western Sahara, a desert territory that used to be a Spanish province but has been mainly under Moroccan control since 1979).

These days tourism is much more attainable by the masses, thanks in large part to the development of transportation technology.  It is no longer necessary to spend months aboard a cramped ship to get to a different continent (or risk suffering from ailments such as cholera or scurvy in the process).  It is now possible to hop on a plane, take a nap or watch a few movies, and wake up in a foreign land.

More and more Americans are taking advantage of the modern sensibilities of transportation these days too.  Contrary to prevailing stereotypes that Americans do not generally venture out beyond their own borders, the U.S. State Department reported at the beginning of 2012 that the number of passport holders has been steadily increasing over the years.  In 1989 only 7 million American passports were in circulation (less than 3% of the population), a figure which climbed to 48 million in 2000 and hit 110 million last year.  With around 313 million comprising the U.S. population nowadays, that means that more than one-third of Americans currently hold passports.

As someone who applied for her first passport as a teenager, it is still a treasured object among my possessions.  That passport was the key to my first trip overseas, my first study abroad program, holidays with friends, and many other travel adventures in which I pretty much took a breath and said, “here we go.”  It allowed me to see different parts of the world, meet different people, study different languages, and get into some situations that make for decent stories to tell friends over coffee.  Thanks to having a passport, I’ve been on a Egyptian train that derailed on the way back to Cairo from Aswan, got punched in the back by a crazed man on a train headed to Chennai, India (I guess I just don’t have great luck with trains), almost lost my guide in the jungles of Cambodia, had schoolgirls in a rural village in Korea chase me because they thought I was Britney Spears (all blondes look the same I suppose), and other adventures that would not have otherwise been possible.

Record numbers of Americans are enjoying the adventures made available to them through tourism as well.  According to the U.S. Office of Travel & Tourism Industries, 8.1 million Americans traveled abroad in the first two months of 2012, a 6% jump from the same time period in 2011.  Europe of course was a popular destination, but the largest increases in travel figures were actually to Central America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean.  Who says Americans aren’t adventurous?

Whether a seasoned or aspiring traveler, World Tourism Day is an opportunity to recognize the role which tourism plays in not just international relations between countries, but also in cultural and societal relations between individuals.  Tourism benefits countries economically, socially, and politically in that we can both invest in each other’s economies (anyone staying in a hotel or buying a souvenir in a foreign country is contributing, after all) and in each other.

Happy World Tourism Day!

As my husband and I have been on a bit of a travel sabbatical lately, I’ve found myself banging my head on the table as news reports have come in the last few weeks about some fellow travelers.  Now I have a better appreciation for sidelined athletes frustratedly yelling at their teammates from the bench.

When traveling, one is automatically an ambassador of his or her home country. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want that responsibility, or if you don’t take the role seriously. Much like the raunchy pop stars of our day who decry the fact that young girls tend to follow their behavior, travelers are a reflection of their homeland.  Like or not.

After the news of Representative Yoder going skinny dipping in Israel on an official trip hit the press, I became even more convinced that Washington lawmakers should be required to undergo “cultural etiquette” training to teach them how to behave when traveling.  And when photos of Prince Harry cavorting nude in Las Vegas were circulated (what is it with naked guys lately?), it came to mind that perhaps Buckingham Palace and the United Nations ought to consider having seminars as well.  Anything to prevent more unwarranted exposure for travelers (no pun intended).

Which brings us to travel etiquette.  It’s not rocket science to conduct yourself in a foreign country with a bit of propriety.  The general rule of thumb is as follows:  If you would not engage in a particular behavior at your grandmother’s house, don’t do it overseas.  Unfortunately, in the name of “vacation” or “letting loose,” travelers often commit stupid, drunken, or plain rude (or all of the above) actions.  More often than not, it leads to personal embarrassment (Facebook and Twitter are a 24-hour ticker tape blasting out many a person’s indiscretions for the world to see), irreversible damage, and a perpetuated negative stereotype of one’s nationality.

Etiquette is unfortunately a dying art, but it can certainly be revived.  If more travelers would take seriously the reality that their actions are watched closely by locals, it seems logical to suggest that less instances of drunken disorder, nudity (in any public place), or other diplomatic kerfuffles would take place.  It just takes some thought and discipline.

Some thoughts on avoiding conduct unbecoming of a traveler:

–If you would not want your behavior broadcast through social media, don’t do it.

–If you’re not sure whether or not you’d want your behavior broadcast through social media, ask yourself if you would be okay engaging in that behavior at your grandmother’s house.

–Don’t assume, when you’re being loud/drunk/obnoxious, that locals are laughing with you. Au contraire.

–Read up on the local customs of your destination before you go, so you at least have prior warning and can try to avoid committing faux pas (i.e. crossing your legs and showing the bottom of your foot to individuals in the Middle East).

–We have two ears and one mouth for a reason.  Traveling is an opportunity to listen and learn from the place you’re visiting, not to barge in and announce your presence.  Quiet, respectful graciousness never goes out of style.

–Lastly, in the name of diplomatic decency, keep your clothes on.  Please.