An Honest Conversation with God

A part of my past that I have come to terms with and am open about is that I was secretly Agnostic for most of my college years.  I became good at putting on a show for people who knew me.  I posted Bible verses on Facebook and asked for people to pray for me in difficult situations.  I didn’t buy into any of the God stuff, but I feared that if I defied the status quo of the Bible Belt, I would lose the love of family and friends.  I would officially achieve “outcast” status… so I pretended.

One of the reasons I became Agnostic is that I witnessed many people around me also putting on a show.  They would post Bible verses online in between their hate-mongering comments, and they used their faith to justify isolating groups of people who opposed their views.  I made the very human mistake of lumping God in with the very Christians I despised, and that misconception drove a wedge in any sort of relationship with God I salvaged from my childhood (which was rocky and legalistic at the very best).

Over time, I subconsciously started creating my own sort of god, one I could mold into whatever I needed.  This god would understand my needs and whims with no accountability necessary.  For a while I thought it was working, and then I finally came to terms that my life was in shambles.  At that point, I was exhausted.

I can remember one day being tired of it all having the rawest conversation with God.  It went something like this: “I’m sorry God, but I just can’t believe in You.  You’ll make me choose.  I can’t love You and not love people, and I don’t know why I should have to in the first place.”

This conversation occurred not long before my first [diagnosed] bout with major depression.  While the height of my mental illness remains one of the darkest points in my life, I will be forever grateful for it, because it led me to Jesus.  Later, as someone who had been a believer and who had distance from her realest but scariest talk with God, I began thinking about the origin of my crazy delusion that I could not love certain people if I chose God.  Earlier this week, the answer finally came to me.

Christians.  Christians are what made me think I could not love God and love people.

If I chose God, I could not love my gay friends.

If I chose God, I could not love my non-Christian friends.

If I chose God, I could not love my Christian friends when they slipped up and made big mistakes.

Christians made me think I needed to “Bible-Thump” or morality police the world, and I refused to do it.  I knew I was a lot of things in life, but “hypocrite” would never be one of them.

Because of Christians, I willingly gave up on God, and only His grace and provisions rerouted my heart.

Now, not all Christians are like the ones I just described. I’ve met some of the kindest, most humble, loving Christians in the world, and they are God’s provisions that ultimately guided me back to faith.  But, I would argue that we do not see nearly enough of those Christians in the modern church.

Scrolling through social media and various Christian websites, the number of Kim Davis photographs overwhelms me.  For those unfamiliar with the situation, Kim Davis is the Kentucky county clerk [with multiple divorces] who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to anyone based on the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling (two things you need to know about Kim Davis before you hit the “religious persecution” panic button: 1. She refused licenses for everyone, not just same-sex couples and 2. She prohibited any deputy clerks underneath her from signing the licenses).  Kim Davis has become a modern martyr to many people, and they lift her on a pedestal for blatantly disobeying the law (which God speaks out against in Romans 13, Mark 12, and Matthew 22).  I’ve reached the point that I grow nauseous seeing people slam our government for rightly imprisoning her in contempt of court. The number of times I’ve read some version of “our Christian rights are being taken away” seems infinite.

Here’s the thing: as believers, our rights are far less important to God than our responsibilities.  And, our number one responsibility is love.  It is not accountability; it is not evangelism; it is love.  If you do not believe me, skim over Matthew 22:36-40:

“‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’  Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.’ And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Many days, I wish I could go back to the day I had my talk with God, abandoning Him for what I thought was forever.  I wish I could hug a younger version of myself, wipe away all of her hurt and tears, and explain that we cannot love God without loving others, and that the best love we have for others will come through loving God first.  I would tell her that, while her thought process was inaccurate, her beliefs did not manifest from thin air. Christians skewed her perceptions, and that she should not equate God with them.

I may not be able to go back and converse with my younger self, but here’s the deal: I have this incredible opportunity to have this same conversation with other people who may suffer and question similar realities.  As scary as it feels, I intend to start those conversations with some guidance from Jesus.  It’s time to take the plunge.

But, one person cannot make a big enough impact on the world.  To see positive change both inside and outside of the church, we need to be intentional about who we are and what we represent.

If we care more about our “rights,” than loving others, we need to check ourselves.

If we continually paint ourselves as victims when we have never encountered true persecution like Christ’s early followers, we need to check ourselves.

If we try to convict people through judgment rather than pointing them to the One who actually changes hearts, we need to check ourselves.

If we talk about the Kim Davis debacle more than we do about the Syrian refugee crisis (perhaps the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time), we really need to check ourselves.

If I’ve learned anything about God, it is this… everything works out in His timing.  Almost two years ago, I asked God, “How could I ever choose between loving You and loving other people?”

Well, He just responded to me this week.  His answer?

“You can’t… and you don’t have to.”

Several Things I have seen/read lately inspired this blog.  Here are some of them.

Tim Tebow, Kim Davis, and The Victim Mentality

For the sake of the Gospel, drop the persecution complex.

Everyone’s a Biblical Literalist Until You Bring Up Gluttony

kim davis

This photo should say, “some Christians,” but it is food for thought nonetheless. Photo from World of Wonder Facebook Page.

Advertisements

What you do to the least of them.

Lately, God has been revealing a lot to be about one particular issue. Through my personal study of the New Testament, the devotions I read, and articles that have somehow crossed my path, I keep being pointed in the same direction. God seems to work this way in my life. He is never subtle.

I “cleaned up” my Facebook recently. I unfriended and unfollowed a lot of people. What does that have to do with God, you ask? See, years ago, I would have done something like this for personal, selfish reasons. I’ve made comments like “Purging my Facebook, Bye Felicia!” Now, my heart is in a different place. As I notice all that is wrong with the church, which can often be discerned by a quick skim of social media, I have begun to pray for heartbreak for Christians who seem to be carrying the banner of Christ unjustly (often myself included). Seeing posts that anger me does not help me acquire the heartbreak I have asked God for repetitively. I am hoping that distance from some people can replace my anger with heartbreak. That’s why I cleaned up my Facebook.

While the church’s presence in media outlets if far from the biggest issue on our plates, it is worth visiting. How should we present ourselves and respond to the world online? What better place for discernment than the gospel?

I just finished the book of Matthew, and the image of Christ’s self-sacrificing love remains etched in my brain. Not only does He act in love, but He charges us to do the same. Matthew 25:40 sticks out to me more than any other bit of wisdom Christ offers us: The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

Wow. Whatever we do to the “least” we do to Christ. In Jesus’s time, the “least’ were lepers, tax collectors, and other outcasts, although I would argue that the definition of least has evolved as the world has. Least is no longer a blanket term. Each of us have a different least, an individual or group with whom we do not identify and whom we probably resent for some reason. I would wager that most of us are not treating our “leasts” like we would treat Christ of He were in the same room as us.

Think about all we see on Facebook on a daily basis. What if those comments were directed to or at Christ?

You lazy, illegal immigrant.

You disgusting homosexual.

You despicable Muslim.

You ungodly liberal.

You ignorant conservative.

When would the malice stop? Would we try to crucify Christ again? Because that’s what we seem to be doing of a lot of unbelievers or even believers who disagree with us on social and political issues.

This has to stop, because there is too much at stake. Most of the unrest on social media directly relates to political differences, and as Christians, our politics and personal rendition of the “American Dream” have to come second to the gospel. I’m fairly sure that, in Heaven, God will not care if someone lived undocumented (I hate and refuse to use the word “illegal”) a country for a period of time, nor would He care how we voted, nor would He care about most of the issues we seem to devote so much time and energy toward.

What if we put this effort toward helping widows, orphans, and other suffering populations like the Bible instructs us to do?

What if we logged off our Facebook kingdoms and spent that time feeding the hungry?

What if we worshiped God with abandon and really, really meant, “For thine is the kingdom?” God’s kingdom, not ours?

We would live in a different world for sure.

Franklin Graham is a huge face in the modern church, and he reaches thousands of people online. People in droves follow him and this kind of logic. Leaders like this have incredible power to promote love, but terrifyingly, their impact can often alienate the onlooking world.

I am not unrealistic. I know there probably won’t be a massive overhaul or church reform that happens overnight. But maybe, just maybe, our personal efforts would be enough to start a ripple effect that eventually sparks a colossal movement toward love. Maybe our efforts will lead to a day when the church is truly known for love and not for hate like Franklin Graham’s words above.

So next time we start to call someone ugly names, why don’t we try “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), “loved” (1 John 4:19), or “enough” (2 Corinthians 12:9)?

Next time we start to say something nasty about someone online, why don’t we check our spirits? Would we say those things to Christ if we met Him face to face? Because posting it online is practically the same thing according to Matthew 25:40.

Next time we try to browbeat people and be their morality police (which we ARE NOT called to do), why not just say, “I love you and I’m for you. I choose you. God does too!”

Instead of arguing that people should “Go back to their own country,” how about we learn enough about their language and culture to effectively tell them just how much God loves them? What if they’ve never heard it before?

At some point, we have to realize that carrying the name of Jesus comes with great responsibility. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14), but what do our cities look like at the moment? Are they bright, warm, and inviting, or are they cold, distant, and exclusive?

We will be noticed; that’s reality. What kind of legacy we leave is completely up to us.

There are several messages, articles, etc. that influenced me to write this blog. Here are two of them that I would highly recommend checking out. 

When Reality TV Does Something for Feminism.

Back during Valentines Weekend, I did a blog series about all things love, including one post called “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop…but Maybe I Should?” This post explored my guilty pleasure, ABC’s The Bachelor and all of its spin-off shows.  In the blog, I opened up about some of my vexations with the show, namely that it has some very anti-Feminist tendencies.  I confessed that I might stop watching this franchise’s shows if it didn’t start portraying women in a different light.  Tonight, on this season’s “Men Tell All” episode, I got everything I was asking for.
I have always been a fan of this season’s Bachelorette, Kaitlyn Bristowe.  She was by far my favorite contestant on the previous season of The Bachelor, because I loved her tattoos, witty antics, sense of adventure, and soft heart underneath it all (let’s be honest, I want to be best friends with the girl!).

KB Being Awesome

Love her

I was ecstatic to hear the news of her becoming the new Bachelorette, and I have thoroughly enjoyed watching her journey to find love this season.  What I have not enjoyed, however, is reading through all of the backlash she has received on social media because of some personal decisions she made that would ultimately affect her future infinitely more than any of the people writing about her.
Allow me to explain: Kaitlyn has been more intimate with the show’s contestants than previous Bachelorettes have, at least that we know of.  As a result, social media has been plagued with degrading and down-right disgraceful comments about her, calling her every derogatory name in the book.  The worst part of all is that most of the people doing the shaming are WOMEN!  Despite the fact that I might not have personally made the same decisions as Kaitlyn if I were in her shoes, I expect more from my gender.  In a world that constantly seeks to belittle us, I expect us to band together and handle our differences with a little more dignity, class, and compassion.  I also expect people to steer clear from judgment, because we all make mistakes (one of my friends from church said it best—if you “call out” someone, you are not coming from a place of concern for them; you are coming from a place of judgment).
Tonight, I got to watch ABC do something incredible and fight back.  The show’s host, Chris Harrison, publicly showed some of the tweets and messages that Kaitlyn has received so that all of America could see just how far some people have taken their criticism.  They read the tweets/comments/etc. word for word.  I hope the authors of said words were cringing in their seats at home, because people need to realize the effect that words can have, even if those words are composed in cowardice behind a computer screen.  Chris Harrison’s gesture completely blew me away, and I applaud him and ABC for doing it.  It did not seem like a ploy for higher ratings, but rather a genuine act of concern for Kaitlyn.  Chris Harrison also kept up with Twitter and came to her defense if anyone continued to harass her or question why ABC’s gesture was even important.

Harrison

Chris Harrison
Here’s the thing: the gesture WAS important.  Gender bias is unacceptable… cyber-bullying is unacceptable… being downright cruel is unacceptable.  Yet, so many of these issues are swept under the rug.  I’m glad ABC took a stand! And, while it was probably done with only Kaitlyn in mind (as it should have been), it was a crucial move for American pop culture and for Feminism.  Maybe it sounds like I’m being dramatic, but bear with me.  Isn’t it nice to see a progressive move on Reality TV for a change?  Isn’t it nice to hear someone stick up for a woman and derail the vicious double standards that rage rampantly throughout our country?  I could not stop smiling for the rest of the episode.
I am hoping that this is a move in the right direction for ABC.  I think picking Kaitlyn Bristowe as The Bachelorette (or at least one of the possible contenders) was a positive choice as well.  She has shown time and time again that she does not care to say off-the-cuff things, act differently than people might expect, and stay true to herself even if her actions were sometimes not the most popular.  She owns everything about herself, including her mistakes.  And while some people may argue otherwise, I think she is a beacon of class (coupled with some modern sass).  She has also taught us some valuable lessons along the way, like the importance of a free spirit, the essentiality of self-worth, and the healing power of forgiveness. Andi Dorfman, another Bachelorette whom I adored, said it best.

Andi Dorfman
I have nothing but respect and admiration for this season’s Bachelorette.  While I do not envy her having to put up with a lot of prejudiced morons, I am so thankful that she is willing to stand up for what she believes in.  Tonight, she proved that one person can make a big impact.  Her staying true to herself along this entire journey motivated what I previously considered a regressive television franchise to take a bold stand.  I hope she realizes the gravity of what just happened, but more than that, I hope she realizes what an awesome person she is.

You Can’t Go Home Again

“You can’t go home again.”

image

Ok. Thomas Wolfe may have been a bit off when he said that, at least in my case. I have been away from home quite a lot in the past few years, and I always find myself nestled cozily back in the Applachias. What I will say is that ever since my study abroad trip to Spain in 2013, my world view has been turned completely upside down in the best way. I have become restless, unable to stay home for more than a few months at a time. I am actually wiring this blog on my iPhone in the middle of South Dakota. I’m on an 18-day cross-country road trip, and I’m loving every minute.

Travel has become a monumental part of my life since 2013. For that reason, I believe all college students should take advantage of the life-changing opportunity of study abroad, because it changes one’s life indefinitely.

It’s a huge commitment that may be difficult for most people to make.

Coming home is infinitely more difficult than leaving home in the first place.

I remember sitting in orientation for my program. The whole time the presenter spoke about what to expect after our programs, I sat thinking, “this is so overboard and dramatic.” I was inexplicably wrong because every single thing I was told about coming home was and remains true.

After just shy of month, I was not ready to leave Valencia. While pre-program Jill thought she would be ecstatic to return home after her program. Part of me was. I missed my family and sweet fiancé. But, I cried during our goodbye dinner and on the way to the airport. A big part of me was devastated to leave the Spanish culture to which I had become accustomed (if you read my last blog, you know just how incredible and passionate the culture is). Which brings me to my next point…

Reverse culture shock is real. Upon returning home, I could not handle some elements of American culture.

What do you mean we don’t get 2 hours for lunch and siesta?!

No one really goes out dancing on Tuesday nights? Since when?!

J-Walking is a thing? My friend actually got a $270 ticket for it?!

How can alcohol be such a prominent part of the Spanish culture, yet alcoholism is much more prevalent in the U.S.?

I would have never asked these questions before, because I would not have known to question the American way of life.

Before Valencia, I questioned a lot. Now, I question everything.

Before study abroad, I valued diversity. Now, I find it absolutely essential to life. I have become more intentional about seeking out new people and learning about their life experiences. I try to live as a summation of the positive elements in all the people I meet.

Since 2013, I have also become more intentional about looking for beauty in the world. Sometimes it takes throwing yourself into a completely new environment to notice how awe-inspiring the world really is. Traveling has taught me to seek out all that is beautiful in the world. I continually add more places to my “bucket list,” but I am learning to settle my continual case on Wanderlust in my own hometown.

Study abroad is a Catch-22, really. You have the best experiences ever, because you interact with places like a local.

You are also forced to examine all of your perceptions on the world. Most of them change… mostly for the better.

A whole world is opened up for you. But, you pine for adventure, and leaving new, beautiful places is tangibly painful.

You will be forever reminiscent, fulfilled by the memories you have. You will also have the biggest case of nostalgia imaginable, and you can’t shake it; it never goes away.

For many, home means contentment and comfort. After study abroad, those two things feel like complacency.

In that way, I suppose Thomas Wolfe was rightful in saying, “You can’t go home again.”

How cleaning out my closet taught me what’s wrong with the United States

Saturday, I spent the afternoon on the lake with my husband and brother-in-law.  Falling for the old trick of “it’s cloudy, so I don’t need sunscreen,” I got a killer sunburn, especially on my legs.  How does this relate to my closet-cleaning and what I believe to be the biggest flaw of mainstream American culture?  I couldn’t tell you now, or it would spoil this entire post.

As a teacher, I bask in summers off.  I’m all about them!  One of my favorite things about summer is time to do home improvement projects I don’t normally have time for.  Sunday, I tackled my closet, which had become an overflowing disaster zone.  There were clothes falling out as soon as I opened the door, things not in their rightful places, and extra hangers nowhere to be found.  I could feel my anxiety mounting.  I knew the task would require most of the afternoon, so I got to work, taking deep breaths all the while (I’m not being dramatic; my anxiety really did increase just by looking at the hurricane zone that was my closet).

I took my time on the project, individually inspecting each piece of clothing while deciding its fate.  Many of them evoked memories. Some things were really hard to put in the bag, and one shirt was difficult in particular.  A gold, semi-casual/semi-professional tank top with black lining along the v-neckline… an oldie but goodie.  My mom bought it for me as one of my fifteenth birthday presents; shopping was my annual ritual of choice. I remember being so confident wearing the shirt in high school, donning it with a coordinating pair of either black or khaki capris.  I wore it for years, even into my first couple of years at college, but not much since.  It is not that I do not love the shirt; it is figure flattering even after I have gained weight, and for that reason alone, I still adore it.  I haven’t worn it because I have acquired a lot more clothes over the years, collecting the latest trends like they are precious relics of saints.

I held onto the shirt for a little longer than I held onto other things, and I almost put it back on a hanger with the rest of my tank tops.  Then it hit me just how foolish I was being.  I looked up at the mirror on the headboard of my bed and saw myself hugging a shirt from high school.  I looked into my reflection and thought to myself, “Jill, you aren’t in tenth grade anymore.  You have other things that make you feel confident now.  Put the shirt in the bag!”

What a revelation!  I have always been the person to make fun of people who get “stuck” in one phase of life and refuse to move on, but then I caught myself doing the very same thing.  While I can look back on my high school career [mostly] fondly, I would be lying if I said it was the best part of my life.  I am incredibly proud of the woman I’ve become in the five years I’ve been out of school, and I have a completely different world view than I once did.  The girl who wore the gold and black tank top for the first time had a major problem with image and materialism, and that is something I have worked incredibly hard to overcome.  But…

I’m not there yet.

If cleaning out my closet taught me anything, it is that materialism is still a huge character flaw for me, as I’m sure it is for a lot of people in the United States (actually, materialism/acquisition of wealth is supposedly one of the thirteen things Americans value most, which deeply saddens me).  I would not call myself a hoarder regarding most things, but a look at my closet would make most people believe I was foraging for a clothing shortage in the near future.  That makes absolutely no sense.  I came from a stable, comfortably middle class background, and I had no reason to ever hold on to anything (except for maybe sentimentality), because I got an almost entirely new wardrobe each year for school, and I got at least a few things in between each season.  My insane attachment to clothes had to be for another reason.  What was it?

As I begin to go through the rest of my shirts and move on to dresses, skirts, and pants, I began reflecting on the items I decided to discard.  Some I had kept because, like the gold tank, I loved how I once looked in them.  Others I had kept in case I lost weight.  Finally, I had held on to some things that still had tags on them, guilt-tripping myself about getting rid of it, because that would mean I had made a mistake in buying it. And then, there was the reason that hit me like a ton of bricks.

I have and have always had this huge obsession of using my clothes to set myself apart… and not in a good way.  I always have.  In high school, it was to show people that my family could afford to buy name brands.  Thankfully, I moved on from the overly-priced Abercrombie and Hollister clothing that still haunts my high school yearbooks, but I had a similar issue in college.  I wanted to have enough clothes to not repeat outfits throughout the semester, with my faithful sweatpants being the only real exception to this rule.  I did not always succeed in this, but many times, I did, at least involving special events.

Hoping to not repeat outfits?  Ever?  Who does that?  Answer: Someone who cares far too much about what people think, and someone who portrays two contradicting images.  I have always wanted to be a genuine and authentic person, but caring so much about my clothes screams something different.  It screams “superficial” and “insecure,” neither of which I would consider myself.

As easy as it is to be completely critical of myself, I also know that my affection for clothes is not totally my fault, because it is the result of a much bigger problem than my personal flaws.  It is the consequence of a culture that tells us we have to have “the best,” because we have to be “the best.”  It is the same culture that continually publishes media that encourages us to buy outrageously overpriced things that we do not even want, just for the sake of having them.  It is the exact same culture that inadvertently discourages us from giving money or things to those less fortunate because we “might need it” someday.  If God is our ultimate provider, shouldn’t we trust Him to give us everything we need and settle for only some of the things that we want?  When is “enough” going to actually be enough?

The biggest part of me would like to think that I am a 100% different person than girl who once had to wear certain brands and could not repeat outfits too much.  However, somewhere deep in my heart, I know that a small piece of her will always exist, because she is a part of me, and materialism is, unfortunately, a part of my nature.

I realized this unfortunate reality when I was going through my dresses.  Dresses in particular are my favorite articles of clothing, because they are feminine, whimsical, and fun.  I mean, you can twirl in them!  I felt a lump in my stomach as I saw how many dresses were going into the bag.  I could have sworn I was getting rid of almost all of my dresses, and I wanted to stop.  Immediately.

I could have cried from self-deprecation when I counted how many dresses I still had left.  I counted the number in my closet, expecting there to be around fifteen.  And there were fifteen… plus twenty-five.  Forty dresses.  Forty!  I was completely embarrassed by how I reacted to sorting through them, my curiosity sparked about how many dresses I had before I started my little-bit-late spring cleaning.  I thought about counting how many were in the bag, but I decided that I did not want to totally hate myself for acting ridiculous.

The process of going through my clothes became much easier after that point, because I saw it as a way to intentionally continue the progress I have made on myself the past few years.  If I had not worn the something in months, it hit the bag.  I did not stop to look for tags, and even when tags kindly found me, I did not let them influence my decision about whether or not to keep something.  Occasionally, when the bag grew fuller, I began to panic a little, but I made myself remember the kind of woman I wish to be:

The kind who would give you anything she had if you needed it… even if it is the gorgeous Banana Republic pullover I love.

The kind who values experiences over material possessions.

The kind who does not conform to the mainstream, but remains countercultural if it means upholding her true values.

I am far from a minimalist and my wardrobe is not a capsule one, but when I look in my closet, I can see gaps. The gaps make me nervous, because they resemble frustrating mornings with nothing to wear.  But, they mostly look like breathing room and margin in life, which are two things America needs more of.

I’d wager that Americans need breathing room a lot more than we need more things.

Note: Still wondering about the sunburn?  It actually helped me go through stuff, because there were very few things I tried on as I was cleaning.  It was too uncomfortable to keep dressing and undressing.  So, if there was any doubt that something would fit… in the bag it went! At least a sunburn is good for one thing.

When in Spain… Valencia isn’t optional!

During part one of this three-part series, I wrote about my impulse to study abroad and how it remains one of the best decisions of my life.  That post merely described the high points of my trip, because I saved all the details for this post.  Spoiler alert: If you want an excuse to cure your current case of Wanderlust, read on and learn why Spain’s third largest city should make it on your bucket list! Sure, Madrid and Barcelona are both really nice, but Spain’s third largest city shouldn’t be overlooked on a trip to what remains my country of choice.

I only called Valencia, Spain home for a few weeks, but a short time frame did not deter me from falling completely in love with this Spanish city. It was extremely hard to narrow it down to my top ten experiences, but somehow I managed. Join me as I recount one of the best times of my life.  Just book a flight to Valencia now!

  1. Public Transportation

I get it.  Listing the public transportation as a “Top Ten” feature may seem a bit overboard, but Valencia’s metro system is probably the most simplistic and effective one I have ever used, a complete contrast to the nightmare that is Paris’s “La Metre.”  Plus, my study abroad program provided me an unlimited metro card that does not expire until 2018. This just gives me a reason to go back soon, ¿verdad?

public transportation

  1. Water Tribunal Court

When I was in Valencia, I got to witness an interesting phenomenon in La Plaza de la Virgen called the “La Tribunal de las aguas de Valencia” or the Water Tribunal Court.  Periodically, representatives from the nine irrigation districts in the province will meet to settle disputes over water.  The session I watched lasted about two minutes and was quite underwhelming, but when will I ever get to see it again?  Probably never.  Wait! I have a valid metro card, so I have to go back to Spain soon!  Maybe next time there will be some heated water disputes in the court.  If they need a referee, I am their girl!

water tribunal court

  1. The Beach

Valencia is a gorgeous coastal city, so the beach is a must.  Like I mentioned before, the city’s public transportation is on point, and the beach, like many other things, is accessible via train and street car. One thing I learned from my first trip to Spain is that the Mediterranean sun seems a lot hotter than that of the Atlantic Coast; I got a killer sunburn in Barcelona.  Even though I do not wear sunscreen as much as I should, I definitely packed it for the beach in Valencia. There are a couple things that Americans should be aware of regarding Valencia’s beaches and Spanish beaches in general.  Spanish culture does not sexualize breasts like American cultures do, and as a result, many of the beaches are topless.  Even if you err on the conservative side, do not let this cultural difference deter you.  There will still be many women donning fashionable swimsuits, and there isn’t any pressure to go topless if you do not prefer it.  Secondly, there will be many vendors selling goods and services on the beach.  If you do not want to hassle with them, do not make eye contact.  But, a cold beverage and five-minute massage can be nice if you choose to patronize the beach’s entrepreneurs.

la playa

la playa 2

la playa 3

  1. Playgrounds

Forever a child at heart, I will always be a fan of Spain’s playgrounds.  The equipment seems so much cooler than American playground equipment.  Some friends and I actually took the metro to a specific neighborhood one day just because the playground looked cool.  We stayed there over an hour!  Also, Spanish playgrounds have adult equipment for parents or babysitters.  If America would get on board with that trend, it might curb our obesity epidemic.  Just saying!

playground

  1. Colón

You cannot visit Valencia without stopping by Colón, one of the most posh neighborhoods in the entire city.  Shopping, including El Corte Inglés, food, the works… Colón has it all!  No matter how many random adventures my friends and I went on, we somehow always found ourselves here… and we always found a good time!

  1. Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias

Unveiled in 1998, La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias epitomizes both architecture and entertainment. Designed by architects Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela, the complex will hopefully gain as much momentum and recognition as the Eiffel Tour, Big Ben, and other iconic structures that draw people to some of Europe’s most famous cities.  My group and I spent an entire day here because there is so much to do: so much innovative architecture to see, an aquarium to visit, a planetarium to sleep—I mean watch films in (¡lo siento, Lori y Alberto!), and more.

artes y ciencias

allende en ciudades

ciudades 3

dolphin show

  1. Architecture

Speaking of architecture, La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias is far from the only architectural structure that will leave you breathless in Valencia.  From the beautiful churches like La Iglesia de San Juan de la Hospital to the beautiful University of Valencia (or “Universitat de Valencia” in Valenciano, the regional language), the architectural experience of Valencia could take days upon days to thoroughly enjoy.

architectura

architectura 2

  1. Food

With Valencia’s location, seafood is obviously a staple in Valencian cuisine, but the sensory and caloric overload does not stop there.  From leche merringada, a Spanish ice cream with lemon peelings and cinnamon, to horrchata, a sweet drink made from tiger nut, to fartons, delicious, freshly-baked pastries, there are so many Spanish foods to try.  But, the food comas do not stop there.  Since Valencia is an international hub, there are several foreign food options to savor.  In Spain, Turkish restaurants compare to Mexican restaurants in the United States regarding popularity.  I mentioned Sofras in my last post.  When I go back to Valencia, it will be one of my first stops!  My friends and I also had delicious Italian food, Irish pub food, and authentic Mexican food, and my taste buds have not forgotten any of them.  The simple fact that Spanish food lacks the preservatives of American foods leaves reason enough to envy the Spanish diet.  As if I needed more of a reason to love Spanish food than the two-hour lunch period and emphasis on local cuisine rather than corporate food giants!

horchata

sofras delicious

food 1

  1. Night Life

I will never forget the first night we were in Valencia. We went in search of the beach when we met the amazing sand castle artist from the picture above.  One of the first things he asked us was, “you are in Spain; why aren’t you out dancing?!” It was a darn good question!  We learned quickly that night life would be one of the most memorable facets of our trip.  It is hard not to fall in love with a country where going out on Monday nights is acceptable, sangria is free-flowing (and free during happy hour), and classes don’t start until 9:00, thank goodness!  I credit Spain’s culture of dancing with my losing weight during study abroad.  With all of the delectable pastries, delicious seafood, and seemingly bottomless cups of wine, there is no other explanation.

  1. Culture

All that is beautiful about Spain can be encompassed in one word… “culture.”  When my mind goes back to Valencia, I think of several things.  The Mediterranean salt on my sun-kissed skin. The luscious language I could listen to for days. The endless laughs on nights out. The feeling of sheer profundity of overlooking a village with roots all the way from the ancient Roman empire. The people, so bold and passionate about every aspect of life. The brilliant bursts of color everywhere.  All of these elements are essential to Spanish culture, none more important than the rest.  Being able to live and bask in these things (as well as infinite other things that would take years to record) has created an enormous space in my heart that I truly doubt will ever be filled by anything else.  When I remember my time in Valencia, sometimes I have to look back at old photographs to ensure I was really there.  Most days it feels like a dream… because it was a dream.

spanish culture

legoland

spain beautiful

spain beautiful 2

My last blog post in this series will be about how life changes once you return from study abroad and why I believe that all college students should take advantage of such a transformative opportunity.

#FlashbackFriday: Valencia, Part I

Two years ago, I took one of the biggest leaps of faith ever.  I boarded my first plane of three, and I jetted to Miami, then Madrid, and then Valencia, the Spanish city I would call home for almost a month.  I remember sitting on our first plane and looking around.  There were a few purple t-shirts scattered throughout the plane (Go Catamounts!), but no truly familiar faces were anywhere near me. Reality was setting in; I would be spending about half of summer, 2013 3,000 miles from home, with two professors whom I had never taken a class with, and ten complete strangers (sans the few classes I may have had with them in Cullowhee).  I was even going with two of them to Paris in a couple of weeks for our “fin de semana libre.” This was, without doubt, the craziest thing I had done at that point.  At the time, I was uncertain about a lot of things, but grounded in one idea. I knew not how, but study abroad would change me. I could feel it.

on top of the world

Overall, our flights were pleasant.  When we landed in Valencia, all of our luggage made it, and our professors greeted us gleefully as we walked out of the airport and into the Metro.  As cheesy as it sounds, I can still hear the subway coming toward us like it did the first time.  Of all of the public transportation systems I have used throughout my years of travel, Valencia’s remains distinct.  Maybe the pitch of its breaks squeaking to a halt was a bit higher than usual. Maybe I remember it because it was so efficient.  Or, maybe I just remember it because it was my ticket to several class excursions, shopping trips in the city center, and nightly adventures in which none of us had a plan.

valencia friends

Our residencia was small, but comfortable.  Estella and Acension, the ladies who ran the establishment, immediately made our group feel welcome and made me realize that I needed to do some crash-course remembering of my Spanish that had gotten rusty.  Even though nothing can replace the adventures and escapades we had across one of Spain’s largest cities, some of our best times were spent in Hostel Palacio getting ready for our nights out, goofing off during siesta hour, and discussing things like politics, our majors (most of us were in different university programs at Western and studying Spanish as a minor), and our plans after graduation.  Spending such an extended amount of time with people of all different walks of life was a cultural experience in itself.

getting ready

siesta

There were so many times during the 2012-2013 school year that I doubted my impulse to got to Spain, and I told my intuition to shut up.  Since I had to pay for study abroad myself, it was one of the biggest financial commitments I had ever made.  Could I really afford to spend a year’s worth of RA salary on one summer extravaganza? I had a lot of other doubts as well.  What would I miss at home?  Would I get too homesick? Would I learn enough Spanish for the trip to be “worth it?” Truth be told, there are a few people I can really attribute my going abroad to.  My friend Mary Hannah is as big of a gypsy soul as I am.  She was studying abroad in South Africa for part of the spring semester, and we spent countless nights at work in the RA office looking pictures of beautiful places and catching such big cases of Wanderlust for which passport stamps were the only successful antidote.  Several other friends of mine helped urge me along too.  My friend Monica was in the process of applying for an internship with NBC for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and she had travel on her mind as well.  My friends Tanner and Adam talked continually about how much they loved studying in Germany.  I was always jealous of how good their second language was!  Finally, my selfless, incredible new fiancé gave me so much encouragement.  Colby reassured me time and again that we could survive a summer apart (I moved back to Cullowhee shortly after returning home from Spain), that we would find a way to pay for our wedding and other adult expenses, and that I needed to go on this trip because study abroad was something I had always dreamed of. We had only been engaged for about a month when he dropped me off at the Charlotte Douglas Airport, but he never made me question my decision. In fact, he was my rock through it all. I knew from the beginning he would make a great husband, and I was correct! 🙂

It took me basically no time at all to know I had made the right decision.  Valencia quickly became a third home for me since my actual home was first and Cullowhee was second.  The first time I felt acclimated was on one of our group’s first nightly rendezvous in our neighborhood.  Turkish restaurants in Spain are comparable to Mexican restaurants in the United States regarding popularity; there was one on practically every street corner!  Our block had a Turkish restaurant called Sofras that was open late and inexpensive.  It was the perfect place for a bunch of college kids like us! No wonder we went there at least five or six times… it was “our restaurant” in our new place! And, if we had a restaurant, we had a home.

sofras

Our first night at Sofras was full of laughs, especially when we had a misunderstanding and thought that a Valencian man was calling us a bunch of dumb Americans.  Let’s just say that some phrases that are offensive in Latin American Spanish are not offensive in Spain and vice versa.  The look on the man’s face when he realized we interpreted him wrongly was hilarious.  It became the inside joke for our entire trip!  Our laughter rang throughout the restaurant, and I’m sure we looked like the stereotypical American Millennials: loud, boisterous, and absurd.  We could not have cared less.  We were living in the moment, and life in Spain was dazzling. Our reactions to its brilliance were only natural.

After eating way too much Turkish food, we returned to our residencia for a night of playing cards, conversing, and staying up way too late considering we had an early language class the following morning.  It is crazy how quickly ten strangers became some of my close friends.

goodbye cena

But, I suppose the fact that we became friends isn’t that crazy at all, really.  I’ve learned that travelers have many things in common… empathy, open-mindedness, impulsiveness, passion.  We were all on different courses for our lives, but we watched each moment with glittering eyes, looking for beautiful things that many people would likely glance over without second thought.  Our paths had crossed and we would be forever connected.  I do not believe in coincidences in life, including our enrolling in such an incredible program. There are many things I think of when I picture Valencia, Spain, but the people I shared it with are definitely among my most missed elements.

mirror

Jessica

roomies

professors

acquarium

Stay tuned for two more blog posts in my “Flashback to study abroad” series.  This was one of the most influential time periods of my life, and there is no way I could fully articulate how much this experience changed me in one solitary blog post. In Part II of this series, I will talk about some of the Valencia specifics aka why everyone should go there at least once, and in Part III, I will talk about the end of study abroad and what it is like to come home after such a grand experience.

P.S. Some of the photographs on this post came from my lovely friend Darien, who happened to be my roommate in Valencia. 🙂