One thing I have come to learn while living abroad and traveling often is that the people you travel with and the people you meet while traveling are what make a trip worth it.
For the past two weeks, I have gotten to explore Europe and play tour-guide to my parents. Here are some fun stories about our adventures and the people who made the trips worth it.
He is Risen!
I picked my parents up from the Vienna airport on Saturday, March 31st and brought them back to my home in Bratislava. The next morning was Easter, so we went to my little church to celebrate. We then had an Easter potluck at my apartment with my teammates who were in town and a few of our expat friends. Everyone brought delicious food and we had a blast talking and laughing together. Michael brought his guitar and we worshipped our awesome God in my living room with the windows open to let in the beautiful, spring breeze and sunlight.
A few hours into our gathering, we realized that all of our friends in attendance we had met while standing in line at the foreign police (or through other people at the foreign police). I didn’t write much about it, but we had a lot of issues at the foreign police while trying to apply for our residence permits. The system in Slovakia is very corrupt and disorganized, so all foreigners have a long, sometimes fruitless struggle to apply for temporary (or long-term) residence in this little country. It often involved camping overnight outside the police building just to get a number to be seen the next day. It was a very hard season for our team, but we are now able to look back and see how God brought so much fruit from it! It was so cool to see such a clear example of how God used that struggle for good.
Our German-Slovak Friend
After some travel to learn about our heritage in Czechia, my parents returned to Slovakia and we took a road trip to the Tatras (mountain range in Northern Slovakia). We arrived in the small village of Zuberec in the late-afternoon and found the penzion (hotel/lodge) we had booked for the night. We tried the front door, but no one seemed to be there. Walking around the property, we ran into an older lady in the barn across from the parking lot. She waved and hurried toward us speaking quickly in Slovak. I communicated to her that I only spoke a little bit of Slovak and that we needed to check-in. She was very confused and kept asking what we wanted to do in Zuberec. Eventually we resorted to google translate, but even that failed us when what she typed a sentence that translated to something to the effect of, “the bride will be here in an hour and she will know what to do.” Confused, I typed, “We need to check-in to our room,” and she finally understood, giving us the key to our room. We unpacked and went outside to walk around the little town.
As we walked back to the hotel before dinner, we took a shortcut through the barn and ran into the lady we had talked to before. She was with a man (her husband). He pointed to his chest and said, “Stefan.” We shook his hand and he spoke to us quickly in Slovak. (neither Stefan nor his wife spoke a word of English). I managed to understand a little and introduced myself and my parents to him. He asked why we had come to Zuberec and seemed shocked that an American family would end up there. I explained that I lived in Bratislava and my parents were visiting. I chose to take them here because I had visited my first week and loved its simplicity and beauty; although I don’t think I communicated all of that in my beginner, broken Slovak… Stefan grabbed my face and kissed both of my cheeks. At that point, his daughter and son-in-law who spoke English showed up. He explained through translation that he was a teacher and had to go to a teachers’ celebration that evening, but would love to invite us to come have a traditional, homemade Slovak drink with him and his family the next day. We kindly declined because we were leaving at 9:00 the next morning. He gave me one more kiss on the cheek and walked away, waving and yelling, “Ahoj, ahoj!” (An informal hello/goodbye in Slovak)
The next morning, we were packing up and trying to figure out how to pay/check-out when there was a knock on our door. It was Stefan! He was carrying a bottle of purpleish liquid and some kind of pastry. Stefan explained to me in Slovak that he had brought us his homemade čučoriedka (blueberry) drink and the best strudel in Zuberec. He quickly found three shot glasses and poured a large shot for my mom and I and a small sip for my dad (I told Stefan that he was driving in a few minutes). The drink was VERY strong, but delicious! My mom and I sipped it, feeling it warm our insides and faces. All the while, Stefan wanted to know about us and told us about himself. I tried my best with my broken Slovak to understand and communicate with him. It became harder the more of the blueberry drink I sipped…We learned that Stefan was German but had been living in Slovakia for most of his life. From what I could gather from his Slovak and the occasional German word, he worked in helicopter mountain rescue for a while in Germany and Slovakia and then as a sports announcer in Zuberec for dog sledding. He now works at the local school as a German teacher.
My mom and I both finished the drink Stefan had poured us. Showing our approval and thanks with smiles and thumbs up, I tried to communicate that we didn’t need any more, it was 9:00 in the morning for goodness’ sake…Stefan either didn’t understand or chose to ignore us as he poured a second shot. I gave my mom a look and she shrugged, “We can’t be rude.” Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t drink that much…in fact, before that morning I had never had more than one drink at a time. I don’t enjoy the effects of alcohol and want to always be myself, not effected by any substance. However, sweet old Stefan had broken me with his smile and constant kisses on the cheek.
After we finished the second shot, my mom and I were feeling a bit giggly, and I was having a hard time recalling the Slovak I had learned to continue a conversation with Stefan. We said goodbye and Stefan gave each of us a few kisses while yelling, “I love you, I love you, ahoj!” He asked for the word for “ahoj” in English and we told him. “Goodbye, goodbye,” he yelled and waved to us as he went down the stairs.
We drove to our next destination in the Vysoké Tatry (High Tatras) and when we arrived, my dad realized that he had accidentally left the key to the room back in Zuberec in his pocket. After a quick lunch at a local shopping mall, we got back in the car for a three-hour round-trip journey to give the key back to Stefan. None of us minded though, because we got to see Stefan again.
After a chill day in Bratislava, we took off to visit my mom’s friend, Kristi, and her husband, Jean-Marc in France. Our journey was very long after running through the Lyon airport to catch a flight on a tiny propellor plane that ended up being delayed a few hours when the tow bar broke on the tarmac. Eventually, we landed in Marseilles and drove our rental car to La Ciotat where we met the Kristi and Jean-Marc to let us into our air bnb.
The next morning, we slept in and awoke to sunlight. The weather forecast had called for 100% chance of rain the entirety of our visit, but we had been praying for some sun so we could enjoy the scenery and the beach! We met up with Kristi and Jean-Marc and toured their beautiful, work-in-progress (they are completely remodeling it) villa just a block from the beach. I got to pet and love-on their adorable golden retriever, Smokey, whose tongue permanently hangs from his mouth due to an unfortunate puppy-hood accident. After our tour, Jean-Marc drove us through part of the breathtaking Calanques National Park that reminded me of the Pacific Coast highway in California but even more beautiful. We took pictures atop the highest cliff in Europe and then drove down into the cute fishing village of Cassis. There we had a delicious seafood lunch with wine recommended by Jean-Marc (a professional wine-distributor). When we returned to La Ciotat, my mom and I laid on the beach to soak up some vitamin-D (in sweatshirts) and watched the kite surfers. Later that night, Kristi and Jean-Marc came to our air bnb on the beach and cooked us a delicious meal of duck with pear and blueberry sauce and roasted potatoes. I had never had duck except for at a Chinese restaurant, and it is now one of my favorites! Thanks Jean Marc!
The rest of our trip was cold and very rainy, but we enjoyed our company! On the last day, my mom found out that her old friend, Olivier, who she had spent a year on AFS (student exchange program) to Jamaica lived just a few minutes from where we were staying. She hadn’t seen him in 30 years, so she jumped at the chance to visit him. We ended up spending hours chatting and hanging out with his family (and adorable, snuggly cat). The rain came down in sheets outside, but we were content by the fireplace with good company, music, and conversation. We ordered pizza from a nearby food truck, and I thoroughly enjoyed my cheeseless, veggie pizza while petting Sushi the cat and helping Olivier’s youngest daughter with her English. It is so cool how old relationships can instantly be rekindled over food and conversation even halfway across the world!
As I flew home to Bratislava and sprinted again through the Lyon airport, I found myself thinking about how thankful I am for all the people God has put in my path this year and I can’t wait to see how we will show up in each others’ lives in the future.
Thanks to my expat friends, Stefan and family, Kristi and Jean-Marc, and Olivier and family for being such wonderful people and making my parents’ vacation memorable!