Sunday, July 24, 2011

Living Life with No Headphones

I've seen a lot of people (in Europe and the US) walking around and riding public transport while listening to their iPods. While I really enjoy listening to music, my portable mp3 player has mostly been collecting dust while I've been in college. Part of it was that I felt safer during my nightly commutes freshman year if I wasn't distracted by my music. I also enjoyed giving myself a chance to clear my head and think after listening to music most of the time I was in my room. And, perhaps most importantly, I wanted to keep myself open as I walked around campus - open to the little things happening around me and open to the people who made up the crowd. That, I think, has made a huge difference in my life.

To give some quick background, I think I've mentioned before how in high school, I was more shy and withdrawn. I had my best girl friends at school, and my friends at church, and I never went out of my way to interact with people outside of those groups. I had my comfort zone, and I didn't like leaving it. Unfortunately, I assumed that anyone who went out of their way to interact with me was either a benevolent saint (befriending me out of pity) or had ulterior motives (usually making fun of me). I just unknowingly put up walls around my inner self where I felt relatively safe. I wanted to be social and likable, but I didn't have the bravery or confidence to try at the time.

So, it was a little different when I started "living with no headphones" my freshman year. I knew several other students before I arrived for school, and I think I had hoped to run into them on campus, so I was always scanning the crowds looking for them and paying attention. But instead of running into the people I already knew, I just started recognizing people from my dorm, my classes, the cafeteria... New people who I was just starting to meet and slowly befriend. I'm pretty sure that the unique atmosphere at my university was also responsible for facilitating my growth. People are actually nice, and say hello, even if they don't know you very well. I also did a first-semester program that put me in consistent contact with the same students every day of the week, and that was a fantastic launching pad for making friends. Slowly I started taking advantage of these opportunities and started developing my social skills further than I ever thought I could. Nowadays, I do have lapses once in a while when I'm really too tired to put the effort into being social, but generally, I think I've become a fairly socially competent person (thank you Child Development class for the terminology). And the rewards of that are amazing.

I think the key was really opening myself up. Emotionally opening myself up, but also giving myself opportunities, like with walking around without headphones in. Technology is great; I love it (mostly when it cooperates). But I really think that it's important to unplug ourselves from the iPod, laptop, or cell phone - to just take a break - and allow ourselves to see things as they are, where (and when) we are.

I think that this issue is directly related to the "narrow-minded tourist" stigma. Sometimes it's done passively, when people just stick to what they're familiar with. This explanation can account for why in a mixed group of Austrians and Americans, for example, they will separate into their nation-based subgroups - it's not because they dislike each other, it's probably just because it's easier and more comfortable to associate with what you already know. And generally, I think that any actively antagonistic feelings come from an incomplete perspective. If you blind yourself to the basic humanity we all share, it's easy to fill that blank with your own imagination or stereotypes. I think that people will often see what they look for.
That's honestly what surprised me with the comments from my Austrian friends. When I walked into the LDS Institute for the first time or two, I was intimidated - I had no idea if anyone knew English, or if they did, if they would want to talk to me. But instead of looking for a friendly Austrian, I started looking for a friend. And as I approached my interactions with these strangers, having that perspective, I've gotten to know some real people who are amazing! That quality of "realness" is what I mean by that "basic humanity we all share": we all love to feel good about ourselves, we all love a good laugh, we all feel hurt and defensive if someone is unkind or dismissive, we all want to feel like we make a contribution to the world. Even if they're expressed differently between different cultures (I still have a hard time distinguishing between some forms of sincerity and European sarcasm), we all have these human desires and experiences. And that is something common enough to unite us all. We are all thinking, feeling individuals and children of God. 
So, moral of the story (I have to run to dinner now) is to open yourself up and give yourself and other people a chance. Don't live your life plugged in to your own little world - be willing to get out a little bit and see the sunshine outside :) And you just might make a new friend in doing so.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fun in Europe!

Entrance within the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Beautiful.
Since I have several hundred pictures I've taken so far, I thought I could post a few on here. No people pics here of myself or people I know, sorry.

Some random street dancers on Kärtner Straße.
Mozart Monument in the Burggarten.

Schloß Schönbrunn, the Habsburgs' summer palace.

Taken from the bell tower at Stefansdom.

Friday, July 15, 2011

My North Star

It's wonderful to have something to look to, to get you back on track.

Macro-scale, God is ultimately that North Star which every other leading light points to. This is a story about a micro-scale leading light that helped me this week in guiding me back to God when I was feeling lost.

If it wasn't clear from reading my previous posts, it's been a hard week. While I was writing in my journal and praying, I felt like it would be a good idea to go back and re-read the notes I took after receiving priesthood blessings from my home teachers (this link tells more about what home teaching is - just scroll down the page) and grandpa (the one who's still alive) before I left for Vienna. I got a little sidetracked and read my patriarchal blessing first, which was awesome, and read the other two blessings the next day.

I think in every priesthood blessing I've received, I've been reminded that Heavenly Father loves me, and sometimes I take that for granted and don't think about what it means. To me, it means that when I feel worthless and stupid, that I'm wrong, that even when I mess up, God still finds reason to love me, and that makes me worth a lot.

More than those specific words alone, the entirety of each blessing testifies to the love Heavenly Father has for me. The fact that I have it - that God has provided means through personal revelation and through His priesthood for His children to have His words to them - is a beautiful testament that He loves me and wants to talk to me. And what does Heavenly Father, my God, want to say to me?

- Reassurance of His love for me,
- a blessing of comfort and peace,
- admonition to continue in "the little things" that are important, like prayer and daily scripture study, because they help me to
- stay close to the Holy Spirit,
- and a few other specific, personal things.

Because priesthood blessings are catered to the individual and circumstance, I'm not going to go into detail here. But because I had written down the things I heard, I was able to go back, read them and gain comfort again. Additionally, because I have some perspective now that I didn't have before I left the USA, some things make more sense in my current context, and I can see how some of the blessings which I had doubted are being fulfilled. That gives me much more confidence that 1) I'm in the right place doing the right things and 2) Heavenly Father is intimately acquainted with and involved in the details of my life. Even when I'm feeling down and like no one cares, I can say with the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi, in the midst of my trials, "Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted." (the whole of chapter 4 is quite fantastic, so I recommend reading more than just the one verse).

In brief, I'm grateful for the love of my Heavenly Father and of my Savior, Jesus Christ. I'm glad for all the little reminders that they give of their love; these reminders lift me out of the dumps by showing me what is real, what is important, and what is true. The good news is that the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the Plan of Salvation exist, and that through them we are brought back into the presence of God (permanently, if we do all that we can and rely on the grace of Jesus Christ). That is my North Star. When I follow this path - keeping the commandments and developing my relationships with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ - I am following the path that leads to real happiness and fulfillment in this life - today - and in the part that comes after death. I know that these things are true. This I testify in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Culture Shock, and the Importance of Sleep

It's been a rough week for me (I had to think about how long it's actually been going for). I talked to my director's wife this afternoon and tried to figure it out with her. This is what we identified:

For me, the biggest thing I've noticed is the sleep factor. I like staying out and having fun, but I need to remember that I have a 45-minute commute home at the end of each day; I enjoy chatting with my host mom when I get home, but when I'm fighting off the urge to sleep on the bus, I need to discipline myself to call it a night and head downstairs. When I don't get enough sleep, not only am I tired the next day, but it carries a heavy sway over my emotions. I'm glad I can tell the difference between when I'm grumpy from lack of sleep and when I'm grumpy just because of whatever's going on because that better equips me to deal with the feelings. When I'm that tired, I'm much, much more sensitive to unkind remarks, whether they were intended to be so or not, and I feel more vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. So when those unkind remarks come... It really feels quite awful.

What my professor/director's wife suggested was that I might be going through one of the stages of culture shock. More than the initial "wow, this is different" reaction, culture shock also involves the alternating between excitement and slumps/withdrawals. I didn't feel like I'd been affected by culture shock initially in the traditionally recognizable sense because I didn't feel like the cultures were overwhelmingly different, and I accepted the new changes as simply being different, not as being a "right way" or a "wrong way" of doing things. But my teacher shared that even on her 6th or 7th trip to Europe, she had started feeling the drag of "Oh, now I have to remember how to conjugate this verb correctly in German when I go to the grocery store. Sigh." So maybe I'm also more settled into the culture now and am feeling the "now what?" stagnation, and I just need to create a plan to get the excitement back. She also added that the timing with this part of culture shock was especially unfortunate with the timing of my grandpa dying.

Conclusion: it's probably a combination of all of the above, as well as other things that I'm unaware of. My game plan for now is to work on scheduling my time better - making time for sleep, time to relax, and making sure that I know what I have to look forward to. Life is meant to be a learning experience and is meant to be enjoyed, so I need to continue doing the things that will facilitate that. My scripture study has been slacking off lately, so as I correct myself, I will regain the healthy perspective that they give me.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Pathos (consider yourself forewarned)

I've had an ideal family for so much of my life. I was so blessed and didn't even realize it until much older. I had 4 living grandparents and 2 living great-grandmas that I was old enough to personally remember. I have lots of cousins that are a variety of ages, and family reunions were filled with laughter. My parents have a great marriage that I look to as a model of what I want, and I have many siblings that I'm pretty close to and that have generally made good decisions.

But my situation has been changing over the years. I get worried about some decisions I see my siblings making and I've cried for them in daytime and nighttime because I miss them and fear that I'm not doing a good enough job of being a loving older sister. Last year one of my great-grandmas died; I didn't know her all that well, but she's the first direct-line progenitor that I have memories of who has died (my great-grandpas died after I was born, but I don't remember them myself). When she died, I felt bad because she's my family, and now I can only know about her through stories my mom collected into a biography that was finished just after my great-grandma's death. That's family history and a family relationship that has to be put on hold now until I die and see her again on the other side. And as of this weekend, I'm now down to 3 grandparents, since my grandpa just died.

This grandpa was tall, had leathery brown skin from working in the sun his whole life, and had piercing, bright blue eyes that have been passed down through the generations since. I only saw him and my grandma for a couple weeks every summer because of the physical distance between our families, and he was always intimidating to me, especially when I was a small child. His health - physical and mental - has been deteriorating for years, so it wasn't really a surprise when my sister told me that he took a turn for the worse and we realized he probably wouldn't last more than a week. After talking to her, I grieved a little because I knew that he would likely die while I was in Austria, and I likely couldn't go to the funeral. I mourned because I could have possibly seen him in the month before I came to Austria, but made a different choice; I could wish as hard and regret as much as I want, but it can't change the past. I mourned because I can't go to the funeral to pay tribute to my grandpa or to see my family. And again, I mourned because I shouldn't have let myself be afraid, and I should have gotten to know him better, and tried harder to visit or write my grandparents. And now I've lost the chance with him for the rest of my mortal life.

So there's not much to do. As soon as I finished talking with my sister last Thursday I wrote a postcard to my grandma and prayed for it to arrive well (apparently the mail takes about a week to travel, and my grandpa died the day after it was sent). I'm still here in Vienna and still taking classes and still unable to be with my family, so I'm making the most of it. If you've been following my blog for a while, you know that my family's been on my mind more and more heavily over the past six months or more. School is great; friends are great; work is great (well, usually); but family is the most important, treasured, ennobling responsibility and relationship we have. My dearest hope to God is that I can do right by them. Nothing else matters as much as they do. And no other failure scares me more than the possibility of failing my family.

Life Lessons in Prague

- Never trust street vendors who tell you that their work is original.

- Don't buy the first magnet you see in a tourist shop, even if the price looks good. You may discover that things are cheaper in this country than you expected, and that you can find a cheaper one in the next store over.

- If you do your research, you can do a lot for just a little. I didn't do much research myself, but other people in our group did. We found some fantastic deals, like free walking tours through the city and an hour-long riverboat tour for about 9 euros.

- I liked being in a 12-person group in a foreign city for the weekend without cell phones. No cell phones meant that we had no way of communicating with each other not-in-person, so we had to all stick together all the time, or make very specific plans about when and where to meet. I like having the option to be free to wander on your own, but you really grow together as a group when you're stuck together when you're happy, when you're tired, etc.

- 4.5 hour-long train rides in Hogwarts Express-esque cars are a lot of fun. Especially when you put all the seats together (they could slide out to make the entire compartment into one big bed), share bread, nutella, and other goodies, and have girl talk for hours. Makes for great bonding time.

- Enjoy the simple, beautiful things in life. Like delicious food, pretty clouds, interesting architecture, wonderful people, breezes on a hot day. And savor moments: walking into another cathedral and catching your breath again at the spacious, beautiful interior as your eyes adjust to the darkness, or relaxing on a boat at dusk after a long day as you wander up and down the river which divides the city. It's feeling and being that make life so tangible and sweet.

*Oh, and always bring your camera battery charger. Even if you're just leaving for the weekend, bring it!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

To be efficient

I've been trying to keep a separate blog for my travel experiences... But I've had a hard time keeping up with it. I'm pretty certain I don't have any readers there that aren't on this blog, so I'm just putting everything into this one now.

Here is the link to the travel blog, American Annie Goes To Austria. Now that I'm giving up that blog, maybe I'll post some pictures from Vienna on this one... Fun stuff!

Post titles include:
Days Full Of...
Getting Lost
Week 1.1 (and 1.2) - Pictures
Alle in die Details
Observations on My First Trans-Atlantic Flight
Halfway There...
12 Days
Biding My Time...
Making Plans
Beginning the Prep Class

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Pleasant Surprises

In my first couple weeks in a foreign country, the biggest problem actually hasn't been the different toilets, or getting by not knowing German, or a terrible host family. I've barely even gotten lost (I blogged about the one time). The hardest struggle I've had was adapting to a new group of people and trying to feel like I fit in.

Pre-Vienna, I figured there would be some adjusting but that it would end up fine: I would probably make a couple good friends and a bunch of "friendlies", and there would likely be some people I didn't really talk to. The actual story... is a mix of that and some surprises.

The first few days felt pretty crucial in determining the "social structure" of our group, and because I was feeling the jet lag for a few days, I didn't have the energy to be as social as I can be. That worried me, and I became afraid that because I didn't put as much effort in, I wouldn't make very good friends. That got me down, which worsened the situation. (Big hint: being tired makes EVERYTHING feel worse).

The days kept passing over our first week, and we stayed SO busy! When I finally got to bed each night, I thought "Did I really wake up this morning, or yesterday? It feels like forever ago." And so, little happenings accumulated which brought about an expected change. I started to feel less isolated in our group and like I was developing friendships. Things like one-on-one conversations with roommates late at night when we had missed the bus and had to walk home for longer than normal.

I think one of the biggest "happenings" was when our whole group went out to dinner one night. Our large group was split across 3 or 4 tables, and the girls I felt comfortable with had a full table. I ended up sitting with the girls who I had erroneously assumed were the pretty, popular, fun, socially-graceful, boy-crazy, exclusive crowd. I was correct about the boy-crazy aspect, but I was very wrong about the exclusive part. At times I felt like I didn't have much to contribute to the conversation, but I never felt ousted. Another day (the one I got lost), I was rescued by the same group of girls and really appreciated the time that I had in getting to know them better.

Overall, things have gone different routes than I expected, but are (currently) coming to the same conclusion: my roommates are my best friends in the program right now because I spend the most time with them. And surprisingly, our group as a whole isn't subdividing into factions as much as I thought we would; everyone is friendly with each other, even if we aren't all bosom buddies quite yet. I'm grateful for the humbling lessons I learned - don't assume things about people and always be hopeful - and I'm excited for the good times today and that still to come!

And, this post wouldn't be complete without talking about my Viennese friends. Like I said in my next-most-recent post, I've loved meeting and befriending them, and learning more about Austrian culture from their experience. They are fun, wonderful, and so inclusive. My experience here wouldn't be the same without them, and I know I'll be incredibly sad to leave them when my time here is over. For now though, I'm loving every minute I spend with these amazing people that I'm so blessed to have met.


Just as a heads up, my posts on here are going to be slightly schizophrenic. I have a couple other drafts for posts that because of computer problems, I haven't yet finished or posted.

I've been spending a lot of time at the local YSA (young single adult) church Institute building, about 3 or more evenings a week. I really wanted to make friends among the local Austrian YSA while I'm here, instead of simply staying in my comfortable American bubble. That has been a great blessing, and I'm learning a lot as I come to know my fellow university students.

An interesting phenomenon has surfaced a few times though. My first Sunday, I was one of the only Americans to particpate in the activity after church, and because of that I was invited to attend a baptism afterwards and spend even more time with the kids my age. Towards the end of one conversation, the young man I was talking to commented that I'm very open-minded for an American, and especially for an American Mormon (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). I appreciated his words, but I was also puzzled: I didn't consider my actions unusual, because I just acted out of my love for and interest in other people. Some people are shyer than others - and I often find myself in that category - but why would socializing with an Austrian be any different from socializing with an American? (Most of the Austrian young adults speak excellent English). I told myself that maybe he's just had unfortunate experiences with Americans.

That happened two Sundays ago. Since then, I've continued hanging out with the Austrians whenever I can; it's been so much fun! I haven't seen that first guy since that Sunday, but I've met and befriended others in the meantime. And other small experiences have added to that first "You're really cool for an American" impression. Just last night I was talking to someone about the Fourth of July, and he said something about where to find hamburgers, and my teasing response was "I'm in Austria to learn about Austrians, not to have what I'm used to in America!". Then he kinda stopped and looked at me and said "Wow. That's really awesome."

I've also been noticing more surprising things in my student group. Some of them have said flat-out, "I am an American tourist; why should I act like something I'm not?" They have adapted more to some things like "Rechts stehen, links gehen" (stand on the right, walk on the left) on the subway escalators, and the differences in food and grocery shopping. But sometimes I wish they would be more considerate with things like speaking quietly and not looking like loud, obnoxious tourists that keep taking pictures of anything and everything (I take tons of pictures too, but not when I'm making silly faces on the subway. I try to blend in for security reasons). I'm starting to see how some of these stereotypes regarding Americans got started.

So, I feel a little torn. On one hand, I'm very flattered and appreciative of the Austrians' friendship and apparent approval. At the same time, I feel self-conscious and a little embarrassed that such praise comes in comparison to poor etiquette by my fellow countrymen. My course of action doesn't need to change - I'm going to continue making wonderful friends, learning about the culture, and taking in as much of this beautiful old city as I can - but it does make me more reflective on what kind of impression I'll leave in Vienna when I fly home in 6.5 weeks. More than what I leave, though, is what I will take with me. I'm still figuring out what exactly that will be.