26 June 2009

Re-entry to the States

We finally got back to Portland, Oregon last night at about 22.40 - almost 12 hours later than we had originally expected. It was an experience that we do not wish to repeat anytime soon. Our flight from Basel to Frankfurt was cancelled due to mechanical issues - an issue that was not discovered until we had pushed back after loading. I don't know, something about the steering not working right. Well, whatever this issue, it required that we deplane, get our bags from baggage claim and go upstairs to re-book a new route back to Portland.

Unfortunately, there was no additional flight to Frankfurt in time to catch our direct Frankfurt - Portland flight. Let me mention that this is a primo flight: 10.5 hours to get from Frankfurt all the way to PDX. Bags are checked all the way through; once through security from Basel to PDX. It is probably the fastest way back to the west coast. The best the airline could do once we missed the first leg was to route us Basel-Dusseldorf-Chicago-Portland. The new routing would get us to Portland a little after 20.00 (8pm) and the flight to Dusseldorf left in an hour. We tried booking the Thursday flight but then found out there was no Thursday flight the next Basel-Frankfurt-Portland flight would not be until Friday, so we said okay.

Off we went to get back in line to check our bags - the line was long and not moving very quickly so Delynn jumped over to the Business class line and explained our plight to the service person who nicely let us move over (saving us 30 minutes at least!) to the Business class checkin. We dumped our bags (oh yeah, one came in at 22.9kg. 100 grams - just one candy bar - from being overweight!) went through security a 2nd time and got to the gate for boarding.

The Basel-Dusseldorf-Chicago legs went fairly well. The only concern was that we didn't have any seats assigned for the Chicago-Portland leg and the Lufthansa folks couldn't access the computer system to grant us boarding passes since all stateside travel is handled for Lufthansa by United Airlines. We got into Chicago about the time we should have been landing in Portland had our connections worked previously and then we had a 4 hour layover. We went to the ticket counter and were given a voucher to get us through security but they said that the boarding pass would have to be issued by the gate agents. Not a good sign. We went through security (3rd time if you are counting) and since we are now in America, we have to remove our shoes - they don't make you remove your shoes in Switzerland, they must have better scanners.

The security line was longer than any security line I have been in at any airport. Well, there was that security screening in Israel, but that's another story... Anyway, we got through the screening and headed off to wander the terminal for a bit. We had a bite to eat (nothing worth describing here...) and walked up and down the terminal (they had Starbucks at both ends - we must be in America!). We decided to wait at our gate when we found out that the inbound flight as delayed - first an hour, then an hour and a half, then two hours... Oy! In the mean time the departure gate changed twice so the whole plane's worth of passengers shuffled from one hopeful point of departure to another.

Did I mention that we didn't have assigned seats? Let me look back - Yes I did. So, here we are with a voucher promising us seats but not actually assigning them. When the London-Heathrow flight (the one leaving our gate prior) finally got off the ground, our boarding agent crew took over and immediately announced that the flight was overbooked and they needed volunteers to take a later flight or fly tomorrow morning - you know the drill. They offer some nice goodies (flights, hotel vouchers, etc.) which is great if you haven't been up for over 24 hours and really want to get to PDX because someone will be waiting for you and the roaming charges on your German cell phone from the states are SKY HIGH! Anyway, we came to realize that those volunteers were going to be making space for the 20 folks that had been confirmed but did not have assigned seats - which ment us! Gulp. The boarding agent was being swamped with everyone wanting to know about seats, so she made a rule: If I haven't called your name, I will not talk to you - we are trying to issue boarding cards as quickly as possible.

The last zone for boarding had been called (along with 12 or so of the names on the confirmed list) but our name had not been mentioned. The last call for boarding was being made when we heard her call "Smith". No answer. "Walz ,party of two". "Yo, right here!" as I sprang forward waving our coupon in the air. Whew! we were among the last people to board just as the door was about to close and prepare to push back from the jetway.

We were seated for our final leg - yes, we were going to make it. As we waited for the normal sort of departure activities, we noted that the air conditioning turned off and wasn't coming back on... The weather in Chicago was about 28 or so (82 degrees F) and let me just say that a small aluminium tube containing a 150 or so people warms up really quickly. I soon had beads of sweat running down the small of my back - it was less than comfortable. And I must also say that after being in the same clothes for over 24 hours, humping 85kg (200lbs) worth of suitcases around, and being in some stressful situations, I was starting to be a little stinky - and this was NOT helping.

The captain came on and acknowledged our pain and noted that the on-board engine that normally a) supplies air conditioning and b) helps start the engine was non-operational. Oy! Yes, they were bringing in an external tug to do the job if we would be patient for a couple of minutes. The tug came and we started getting some air flow (note that I didn't say air conditioning...) as the captain attempted to get the starboard engine started (note that I said attempted...). Apparently, this little tug couldn't get enough air flow through the engine to get the turbines to compress the fuel to actually get the engine started. Oh and by the way, finding another machine like this in all of O'Hare may be a bit problematic. Oy!

They finally found another tug (perhaps a nice rival airline loaned it to them - we never did find out) that had the puffing power to get the engine started so that we could finally push off for the flight to PDX an additional 3.3 hours late. By this time, Delynn and I were absolutely exhausted. Luckily, the 4.5 hour flight didn't offer meal service (well, you could pay for a box lunch) because we dropped right off into "airline sleep" (you know: that half-sleep, half-awake, nod-off-and-jerk-your-head-up kind of sleep) for most of the journey.

We arrived safely at 22.40. We got all of our luggage and arrived at Delynn's sister's home about 23.30. Yeah! We are thankful to have arrived.

24 May 2009

Quick trip to Baden-Baden

Delynn and I had a long weekend - not to celebrate Memorial Day, but rather to celebrate Ascension Day, which this year fell on Thursday, 21st May. Ascension was rather late this year as it is based off of the date we celebrate Easter and it is always on a Thursday. Interestingly enough, it was also Father's Day in Germany. Father's day on a Thursday you may ask, but yes, in Germany, Ascension and Father's day always fall on the same day. Unlike Mother's day, which we celebrate on the same day as in the States, Father's day changes every year.

Anyway, we had a long weekend available, but we had real trouble deciding what to do. There is so much to accomplish in the next month (yes, we fly out in one month!) that we couldn't really make a decision. I needed to be back for Sunday service as I led music worship this morning, so we didn't want to go too far. Also, next weekend, we will be travelling to Celle to visit our friends Liz and Karl, so days available to prepare, pack, sort, etc. are getting fewer and fewer.

However, we also realized that if we stayed at home in Weil am Rhein, the weekend would slip through our fingers. So, on Thursday morning, I cracked open the trusty Rick Steves book and called a few hotels to see if they had room. We finally got something on the 4th hotel - it is starting to get busy in Baden-Baden. The hotel was about 10 minutes out of town by bus, but the busses run every 10 minutes, so it was quite convenient.

We really enjoyed Baden-Baden when we went last August for our anniversary. It is a very swanky place but you can be comfortable in jeans (unless you are going to the casino where coat and tie are required). The spa there is very relaxing, the trails are soothing and the ice cream is, well creamy.

Delynn didn't know I was taking this picture, but do you see the pure joy in her smile!

On Saturday, we traveled up to the Merkur - a hill outside of town overlooking Baden-Baden and the beautiful valleys of the Schwarzwald. Baden-Baden is considered the northernmost part of the Black Forest. The rhodies were in full bloom - quite spectacular don't you think? That is Baden-Baden in the background of both pictures.

This one was taken from a tower on the top of Merkur (notice that I am holding on for dear life!)

We thank you for your prayers as we enter this final month before re-entry into the U.S. It will be another sprint and we frankly do not look forward to the leaving, especially with the additional responsibilities of closing down the school. We ask for your continued prayer support - the time goes so quickly!

Love to all.

13 May 2009

Notes from abroad

Just want to update everyone with a couple of quick notes. I apologize that we have been away from the blog a bit, but the reality is that these next six or so weeks will be really crazy as we move toward re-entry into the States. Don't be surprised if entries come a little more sporatically.

We experienced a small earthquake last week here in Weil am Rhein. The epicenter was about 20 km northish from here in the village of Kandern and measured 4.5 - not a bad quake. It occurred at 3:39 am and by the time I woke up, realized that it wasn't a dream and registered as an earthquake, it was over (say 4-5 seconds). Unfortunately, I never quite got back to sleep again so it was a long day for us.

This last weekend was our annual church retreat - aptly named the "Weekend Away". The church invited speakers from England, one of which was at last year's Weekend Away, to speak, encourage and challenge us. This was one of the best/hardest retreats that I have been to in my life. God showed up in some amazing ways - bringing significant spiritual, emotional, physical healing to many. I had the privilege of assisting in the worship music which kept me pretty busy - we did a lot of up front planning, but as the Holy Spirit moved and guided over the weekend, we flexibly moved also so that God could be praised and worshiped with a minimal of distractions. Delynn and I were stretched in some very meaningful ways and are grateful for having had the opportunity.

This coming weekend, Delynn will be a surrogate godmother for the christening. One of our staff from last year had a beautiful baby girl. She is Canadian and her husband is a wonderful, quiet German. They make a really great family, but the child's godmother-to-be is in Canada, so they asked Delynn to stand in. Another wonderful privilege of living in the expat community. Plus we get to have a BBQ after church - yum!

We know that many of you pray for us regularly. As we work through these final five weeks of school, here are our prayer needs:
  • That we will finish the school year well, including those tough "good-byes" that are a natural part of transition.
  • That we will have enough volunteers to help us close down the school. We have about 4 days (not including Sunday) after our last school day to sell/move/recycle/discard everything in the entire school.
  • That the library might be sold as a complete unit.
  • That the staff exhibit God's grace and the fruit of His Spirit during this increasingly busy time.
As someone once said: "Lots to think about (and do), nothing to worry about." God is in control and for that we are eternally joyful.

03 May 2009

Château de Chillon and Montreux

We took advantage of a sunny April Saturday to trip down to Montreux Switzerland (you can tell by the name that this is in the French-Swiss section of Switzerland as opposed to the German-Swiss or Italian-Swiss areas of Switzerland). We are increasingly aware of 1) the number of days we have left in country 2) the number of things that will need to get done and 3) the number of beautiful and intriguing places left to explore... Just south of Montreux on the bank of Lake Geneva is Château de Chillon - an incredibly well preserved 12th century fortress.
Yeah, they don't build them like they used to. I guess if you are the Count of Savoy, you can choose the best views for your place. Like most fortresses, it was used for defense and collecting taxes - lots of stuff going up and down the lake. I'm told it was a very lucrative business.

The original Château didn't have the nicely paved visitors entrance right into the front door. They usually tried to make it a little harder to gain entry. We walked around the castle for hours - they had a large number of rooms open for view. One of the most impressive however was the prison. This room is situated right at about lake level and one can see that the room is built right on the rocks of Chillon.

Lord Byron wrote an epic poem The Prisoner of Chillon after visiting the Château. As world travelers of the early 19th century were wont to do, he carved his name in the pillar to the left. At the time, they probably thought it vandelism. Today, it is covered with a plexiglass shield to preserve it.

We had a wonderful day with friends exploring the castle. Of course, we had to get a couple of snaps of ourselves to prove we were there...

By the time we were finished, we were famished. It was time to travel on to the city of Montreux but not until we took a last few pictures of the beautiful Lake Geneva (Lac Leman in French). I can see why they built the Château right here...

In Montreux, the gardeners had been very busy. There is a wide promenade up hard against the lake with exquisite restaurants, lush lawns and surprising arrangements of flowers. Montreux is, in a word, swanky. It is really upscale - I doubt we could afford a room for the night, but sunshine is free and we can take all of the digital pictures we want. We did enjoy a nice meal on the terrace of a lakeside restaurant, soaking in the atmosphere and warm friendship.

Yet another blessing in the many we receive. We are so grateful to have this opportunity to live here. We do look forward to returning to the States but we know that any transition will be stressful. However, we also know that as we continue to seek and walk in God's will, we will be the better for it.

26 April 2009

This is one of those blog entries that I am not really looking forward to writing. As part of our last big trip during the Easter break, we knew that when we went to Kraków, we would be within just a few kilometers of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camps. The distinction was one made numerous times by our guide - the purpose of the camp was for people to die. Whether the death was "natural" - i.e. overwork on starvation rations, or through the selection process which sent 75% or more of people arriving in the camp directly to the gas chambers, the sole aim was non-survival.

We arrived through the now infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Liberates") gate. You may remember that the concentration camp in Dachau had the same motto on the gate. Something that I learned - if you look closely at the letter B in the work Arbeit, you will note that it is installed upside-down. The story is that it was a form of protest by an inmate of Auschwitz.

Auschwitz I (as differentiated from Auschwitz II - also known as the Birkenau camp) was originally a Polish military barracks before the nation collapsed in 1939 - crushed between the invasions of German and Soviet armies. The buildings here are not much different than barracks in which I have lived when I served in the military - brick construction, large rooms, insulated. Relative luxury compared to the barn-like buildings you will see at Birkenau.

Everywhere barbed wire - this is the killing zone standing before two walls of electrified wire.

This is a reconstruction of the execution wall for those prisoners that were shot outright for whatever violation of the rules was perceived. The windows on the barracks situated on either side of this courtyard were boarded over to keep the prisoners from witnessing the shootings.

Many of the barracks in Auschwitz I were used for museums - we couldn't take pictures inside of the barracks rooms, so I can only describe in words the feeling of seeing piles of suitcases - each one carefully marked with the name and address of souls lost in the hopes of being relocated. The flood of 40,000 pairs of shoes - childrens, mens, womens, wooden shoes. The shock of literally tons of human hair laid out behind glass walls. It was sometimes beyond words.

We rode the three kilometers from Auschwitz I to Birkenau (Auschwitz II) in silence. The guide emphasized the enormity of the extermination camp at Birkenau. These rail tracks were installed rather late in the life of the camp to help facilitate movement of inmates - before this, those condemned to the camps had to walk from the rail siding a kilometer or so from the front gates.

Of the nearly 300 barracks built by Auschwitz I inmates, somewhat less than 20 are still up. Most of these have been rebuilt for the memorial site but are strictly modeled after the originals. The brick stacks you see in the background are the remains of the rudementary heating systems of the original barracks and the only thing left standing.

The guides at Auschwitz-Birkenau all work for the memorial - they do not allow outside guides to take groups through the camps. The guides are well trained and must take tests periodically to prove their expertise. Here, our guide stands in front of the remains of cremetorium I which was blown up by the retreating SS guards before the arrival of Soviet forces.

This is the entrace where untold numbers walked to their death. The area immediately in front was the changing room before entering the "showers". As people disrobed, they were reminded to memorize the number above the cubbyhole into which they had hurridly stashed their clothes and belongings so that they could reclaim them after the shower. This helped keep down the panic.

All Polish children living in the vacinity of Auschwitz-Birkenau (including all from the Kraków area) are required at 14 years of age to visit the extermination camps. There were several groups there on the day we visited. This was the road from the selection platform to registration. For those selected to be fit for work, this road led to the area where they were registered, tattooed and assigned a barracks. Many lived for only a few months before being literally worked to death.

Our visit that day was a tough one, but it is one that we knew we needed to make. I wonder if we have learned the lessons of this place.

19 April 2009

Dresden and Kraków

Not a lot of words this post, mostly pictures. We just returned today from a wonderful, meaningful time in Dresden, Germany and Kraków, Poland. These are just some of the over 800 pictures Michael took (I almost filled up my 4GB SD card...)
Zwinger in Dresden

Opera in Dresden

Großer Garten in Dresden

Frauenkirche, Dresden


Wawel Cathedral - Kraków, Poland

Main square (with Maria Church) - Kraków

There are however no smiling pictures of us from our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau - we will blog on that experience later.

07 April 2009

We always keep learning

Just a quick story before we take off on holiday tomorrow. Actually, we are on holiday already, but we seem to be using most of our time thus far catching up on chores... As you are probably aware, we will be taking the train to Dresden tomorrow, staying over the Easter weekend and then traveling to Kraków, Poland. We will be returning home in the wee hours of Sunday morning (probably between 0100-0200 depending on connections). While we are away, and this is the hardest part for Michael..., we will not have a computer, so we will be off the net for a bit. We will probably look for a couple of internet cafés along the way, but essentially, we will be out of contact.

Weather-wise, we couldn't be more pleased - it has been warm enough (in the high-teens to low-twenties) to go out for a "kugel" (ice cream) with friends, bask in the warmth of the sun and people-watch. We are really going to miss that slice of life here. We thank God for every day he gives us and the little pleasures that come our way.

One of our chores we had this week was refilling a prescription. Not a big deal you say - if you have a prescription, just go to the pharmacy, or better yet just call it in. Have them verify the prescription and voilá, Bob's your uncle. Well, welcome to Germany, as a soverign country, they have the right to do things a little differently here. Not wrong, just different - and in this case, it was rather amusing.

First, as far as we can tell, there is no such thing as a prescription refill, per se. Every prescription is a one-time fill and one has to return to the doctor to get the next one. When we first arrived with prescriptions from America, the Apotheke folks were very unsure whether or not to fill them. In the end, the owner, after finding out we were working for the school (he was a supporter of RIA) gave us permission to get the prescription filled - but he warned us sternly that future prescriptions must come from a German Physician (capitalized for emphasis). We thanked him profusely and went on our way.

So, we did find a German Physician (capitalized for emphasis). Actually, it is a physician's group that occupies the floor above our apartment, so it is most convenient. Dr. Lehmann speaks excellent english and has been a very kind doctor for both Delynn and I when we have had occasion to see him. Anyway, back to the prescription...

We went up to the office to see what steps we needed to get a new prescription. We didn't know if that would entail an office visit (in which case we would make an appointment) or what we would need to do. We walked in, talked to the nice assistant (you know, all of the office staff dress much more casually than they would in the states - for the most part, they wear jeans and blouses/shirts, but no white coats or anything even remotely resembling uniformity) and she looked us up on the computer. Since we are privately insured (i.e. we pay our own bills, thank you very much) and apparently okay people, she printed off the prescription right at the front desk, told us we needed a physician's signature, and asked us to step over to the waiting area.

OOOOkkkkaaaaaayyyy. Now what? We stepped over to the waiting area (all chairs taken, so we stood) and began a whispered converstation.

"Will they call us?"
"I don't know."

"What do you think we should do?"
"I don't know."

"Do you see a physician?"
"I don't know - wait, that one has a stethoscope..."

"What do you think we should do?"
"I don't know."

"Do you see Dr. Lehman?"
"No. Do you know any of the other doctors?"

"What do you think we should do?"
"I don't know."

"Should we go back and ask at the front desk?"
"Well, the line is kind of long..."

So, this went on for a few minutes until we saw someone leave an examination room, only to be swarmed by two or three people all holding out pieces of paper which the woman signed and gave back. We knew they weren't collecting autographs, so that must be it! By the time we made the connection, the woman (probably a doctor: she had a stethoscope) was back in another examining room and we were left still clutching our unsigned prescription. The line at the front desk had by this time dissipated, so I walked over to ask about correct procedure. The staffer said, no, we would not be called and confirmed our suspicion that we just simply need to mob the doctor whenever they come into the waiting area and get a signature. Never mind that they don't have the first clue of who we are!

I joined back up with Delynn and we found a couple of chairs together. We waited... Each time a door opened, we whispered: "Is that a doctor?" We had yet to see Dr. Lehmann, the only one we knew for sure was a physician - although we were pretty sure of stethoscope woman. Finally, after a few minutes, she reappeared out of a door in transit to another patient. An elderly lady raised up her hand holding a sheet of paper and we knew this was our chance. I jumped up out of my seat and thrust the paper in her general direction. She took it, signed it and handed it back without a word. We gave a quiet "Danke schön" and made our way back toward the entrance.

Afterwards, we had a good laugh together over our new learning experience. It really was quite amusing: our initial timidity, watching others to see the process and imitating what we saw all brought us to a successful conclusion. This is life in a different culture and we love it! Never stop learning.

We will post again sometime after we return from our Dresden-Kraków trip. Please be patient with us - we realize as our date of departure from Germany gets ever closer that we have LOTS of things to get accomplished (not just teaching and bookkeeping). Thank you for keeping up with our lives here in Germany - our friends here have asked us to keep blogging when we get back to the States so they too can keep up with our lives. We have made such good friends here, leaving them is the hardest part of returning.

Love all; serve all. Make good choices.