Berlin. At last!
Long layovers and twenty-four hours of travel left me grungy, hungry, and weary. Raising my eyes to Heaven, I relaxed, knowing no airports were in my near future.
Smiling to myself, celebrating we made it this far, I glanced around the noisy, heavy bus it took us ages to find. Because we couldn’t read German, we didn’t understand the bus routes and schedules that were posted outside the airport. Unable to find anyone to help us, we had to do our best to interpret them. Once on the bus, I longed for a comfortable place to rest. Little did I know, rest wasn’t coming anytime soon.
I questioned my sanity for undertaking this new adventure at fifty-three. I allowed the doubts to circle round and round in my head, permeating my tired brain.
Had I prepared enough?
Was I up for it?
Leaving two of our grown daughters, our 10-month-old granddaughter, and our nineteen-year-old son taking care of our home, animals, and acreage consumed me with fear. Fires were raging all over Texas, threatening everything. Fighting to compose myself as shame and guilt threatened to engulf me, I marched ahead, got through Customs, and on our first flight. So glad we had learned to trust the voice of the Holy Spirit. It’s what kept me going.
I glanced around the bus, making sure my companions had made it safely on. We looked like a disheveled band of ragamuffin travelers. Wincing, I averted my eyes, avoiding eye contact with those around me as I gathered my courage.
* * * * *
When curiosity rose and shame melted away, I studied the passengers sitting along the walls while trying to corral my suitcases and personal items as we swung around street corners. Hanging on, I people watched, one of my favorite things to do. I absorbed the different languages and cultures around me. My heart hummed with excitement.
“Where you from?” a heavy Eastern European accent interrupted my musing. A thin, scholarly-looking man with a lined skeletal face stared at me.
“Austin, TX,” I said, shifting my weight and speaking loud enough for him to hear. He sat on a bench along the opposite wall.
Leaning forward, he raised his eyebrows. “That’s interesting. I am a documentary film director and started filling out an application for South by Southwest this morning. Thinking of applying for next year’s festival. But, I don’t know, I’ve heard it’s rough there.”
Rubbing my forehead, my foggy brain puzzled at what he meant. “Yes, summer’s not the time you want to travel to Texas unless you like heat. But, it’s gorgeous in Spring when you’d be there.”
“I heard there are cowboys carrying guns in the streets, and I don’t enjoy deserts,” he said with narrowed eyes. His arrogant manner pierced my pride for my beloved home.
“Austin is in a beautiful part of Texas with hills and lakes. People from around the world travel for its live music scene and metropolitan lifestyle,” I countered, lifting my chin and meeting his stare. Flabbergasted, I couldn’t believe this man who qualified to apply for SXSW and lives in Berlin was worried about cowboys in Austin!
After all, anyone who knew anything about South by Southwest knew it was an up-and-coming international festival. Creatives come to seek stardom in the music, technology, and film industries. John Mayor, for one, got his big break performing there. Every year, Austin swells as hundreds of thousands pour in.
Shaking his head, he wadded his face in disdain, crossed his legs, and took up conversation with the man next to him. Dumbfounded, I stumbled backwards, visualizing my four-year-old self with clenched fists, permed hair, and banged up elbows, standing before him mouthing What do you mean?
Agitated at his dismissal, my inner critic reminded me how silly I must appear. The dumb blond jokes and bias I grew up with reared up as layers of inadequacy surfaced. I desperately wanted to escape his hostile presence.
Glancing towards the back of the bus, I checked to see if my companions witnessed the embarrassing exchange. Slouched over their luggage with glazed expressions, they didn’t appear to hear a thing. A long exhale escaped as I stiffened for the next jarring stop.
* * * * *
We were a party of five. My husband, Jon, daughter, Calli, and new friends, Cathy and Sherry, bonded together in a prayer room on the campus of the University of Texas. We all heard the call to travel to Germany for training at a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) base. Calli, the youngest of our team, twenty-five and full of passion, cheered the rest of us over-forty somethings to buck up and carry on.
We left loved ones, possessions, and occupations, looking to the future. Our final destination was the small town of Herrnhut in the far eastern corner of Germany. It lived in the state of Saxony, sharing borders with Poland and the Czech Republic.
Jon and I would stay two-and-a-half months for leadership training to start a training location in the Austin area. Meanwhile, Cathy, Sherry, and Calli would attend a six-month Discipleship Training School on justice issues, focusing on the world of human trafficking.
It was 2011, and our western world was just waking up to the fact that sex-trafficking and human trafficking of all kinds existed. It was going on unseen in our streets and neighborhoods. That it was going on in Austin fueled our hearts to bring awareness and training to eradicate the monster of modern-day slavery.
Feeling the weight of grief accompanied by hope, I straightened up and turned my attention to the sights and sounds of Berlin. Large, oblong windows let in the passing tree-lined streets and old multi-storied buildings.
As the streets soared by, I glimpsed the ancient city I had seen and read about for decades. With mixed feelings, it intrigued me. After all, it was the birthplace of one of the most horrific genocides in history. But because my maternal great-grandparents came from Germany, I wanted to learn more about my heritage.
My great-uncles fought on both sides of the conflict in WWII. I could imagine the heartache it was for family to fight against family. And the excruciating damage it set in motion.
Never-the-less, I became captivated the closer we got to downtown. I daydreamed of feasting on a hearty German lunch at a charming outdoor cafe and a long nap afterwards at our host’s home.
The bus slowed as we rounded a curve. I looked up in time to see we were approaching an ancient bridge. A lovely sight, with a wide river emerging beneath. My gut said we were leaving West Berlin, as I picked up a distinct shift in the way the city looked and felt. Heart somersaulting, stone railing passing, I was certain the infamous East Berlin was on the other side.
* * * * *
Reaching our downtown stop, we disembarked as quickly as possible with our baggage. It was a chaotic and crowded intersection. As we circled around our bright red, purple, and giraffe print luggage, we watched as people walked by us, smirking. Our little group of five had ten humongous suitcases, backpacks, and personal items piled on the sidewalk. Every dirty look gouged this gal’s Texas pride. I wished we’d been more thoughtful about how much to bring.
Finding our way to the metro station was a struggle. We made the mistake of not learning phrases in German before we left.
Pardon me. Where’s the bathroom? Can you help me? How much is this?
Would have saved us time and energy had we made the effort to learn.
Once we found the station, we made the journey down three flights of old cobblestone stairways, carrying our precious possessions. Sherry, Cathy, and I stood at the bottom of each level watching as Jon and Calli made three trips, bringing the ten fifty-pound suitcases down.
Battling to work out what tickets we needed and finding our route, we traversed through swinging gates and crowded sidewalks. Loading everything in the cars in the fifteen seconds we had was miraculous. If we had gotten separated, it may have taken hours to find each other.
At our second stop, bracing for impact, we scrambled to transfer our things to the walkway. Lifting them over the sizeable gap between train and sidewalk before the doors slammed shut about did us in. We stood looking around, frantically trying to find where our connection was. Meanwhile, a fit woman with silver, spikey hair and a kind smiling face walked up.
“You must be my guests from Austin,” she said in English, no doubt noticing our ragged and overloaded condition. “Follow me and I’ll guide you the rest of the way.”
We followed her up the three flights of stone stairways to street level. But this time, three young Germans picked up our suitcases and helped us to the top. With theirs and Kim’s help, it only took two trips. Gratefulness filled us as we thanked our helpers with handshakes and nods. Once outside, breathing in the fresh air helped revive us for the rest of the journey.
* * * * *
A coworker introduced me to Kim’s daughter via email just two months ago. Their family moved to Berlin half a decade earlier as missionaries. One of Kim’s many passions was to provide hospitality to travelling missionaries.
Along the mile hike, she pointed out places of interest. My eyes feasted on bright art studios, gift shops, and outdoor cafes lining the streets. My stomach begged for attention as wonderful aromas hovered over us. Alas, we didn’t slow down to have the leisurely lunch I had imagined.
We traipsed on step by step. The afternoon was warm, making the journey all the harder. A question bombarded my thoughts:
Can I do this?
Can I do this?
Can I do this?
Turning my attention to Kim’s neighborhood, I became fascinated with the five-story buildings lining the streets covered in graffiti. Artsy looking young and old stood talking in doorways and sidewalks, gawking at us as we trudging by. Not thinking I could go any further, my legs and arms aching from the strain, I slowed down just as Kim called over her shoulder. “We’re almost there.” I turned to Sherry and Cathy and whispered, “I bet she lives on the third floor.”
Kim turned with an uncomfortable look on her face a few steps later. “I haven’t told you Tanya, but I live on the fourth floor and your family is staying on the fifth. So, it’s a bit of a climb.” A bit of a climb! I wanted to sit on the sidewalk and bawl.
We arrived at our home for the next three days. It was on a quiet, tree-lined street. A ministry Kim partnered with rented the bottom floor. Their prayer room was not being used that week, so we were free to store the luggage we didn’t need for the next three days. My heart danced a jig of relief!
* * * * *
The climb up five floors of uneven wooden stairways, arms full and backs breaking, took nearly all the strength I had. Straining to catch my breath, I took in the sweetness of our welcoming room. Awareness wrapped around me like a sweet embrace. We were in a safe place. I’d been on outreaches before, where I forced myself to stay and not run. Here, I felt secure and at home. With deep breaths, my body unwound with deep gratitude.
A double bed sat along the far wall with a twin under an enormous window. The sight of their softness beckoned us. But it was still early, and we needed to settle our things and visit with our host. A cool breeze with buzzing sounds of the city cooled and refreshed my tired soul.
I could see into the apartments across the alley below. Gentle music playing, people cooking or sitting on their window seats, reading. This was the European sight I hungered for.
After I got settled, I descended the small staircase to the fourth floor where Cathy, Sherry, and Kim’s rooms were. The apartment was cozy and well-kept. A small, cute kitchen with a sweet window and a welcoming table sat inviting conversation. There was only one bathroom, but it was clean, large, and supplied a washer/dryer. Jackpot!
While the others were getting settled, Kim took me into her comfy, quirky bedroom. Very bohemian, which I loved. It was enchanting.
“You have such a wonderful place here. I’d love to live here,” I said, my eyes relishing the soft colors that calmed the room.
A large picture window with a built-in seat looked over the graffitied building across the narrow street. As we sat relaxing, she began a fascinating story.
“When I moved in five years ago, in 2006, this was one area where squatters were warring with the government over their rights to stay in their homes and businesses they created after the Berlin Wall fell. As people poured out of East Berlin in 1989 to freedom, others saw opportunities for survival. Squat culture began, which expanded as people from the east and west took over abandoned properties. It’s still being contested today.”
Kim pointed to a street which intersected hers. “I watched a tank pass by there. Quite frightening.”
I sat riveted to her account, imagining the sights and sounds of unrest right out her window. Captivated, I imagined the fear she must have felt, but the excitement of being part of history. Berlin became even more alluring to me. I couldn’t wait to explore more.
* * * * *
After a wonderful Indian food supper Kim prepared, we climbed upstairs for our first night’s sleep in the Father Land. As we set our watches to the seven-hour time change, it shocked us to see it was already ten-thirty pm. With the sun setting, we thought it must be around nine o’clock. That’s when the sun sets in summer at home. Too tired to care, we slipped into our snug beds.
Satisfaction filled my heart as I thought about all we had overcome in the last twenty-four hours. We survived flying over the ocean seven hours in a crowded plane. We acted as a team, supporting one another, and when we wanted to grumble and complain, kept it to ourselves. It could have been so much worse. My confidence grew that I could do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
I watched the pink clouds fade into darkness. Thankful we had three days before getting on the train to Herrnhut, I closed my eyes to the soft sounds of the city below.
A silent prayer rose from my heart. Father, I lift this time up to You and pray blessings over our sleep tonight. I know You were with us step-by-step today. Thank You. May we wake up refreshed, as we prepare to travel the byways of Berlin tomorrow. Give us eyes to see and ears to hear what Your sweet Spirit is saying about this city You brought us to. Help us show Your love well. And thank you for strengthening us with everything we need to accomplish all You’ve set before us. In Jesus’ precious name. Amen.