Austria officially won my heart, and no, it wasn’t the endless opportunities to serenade Husband with my best version of The hiiiiiilllllls are aliiiive with the Sound of Music, ah ah ah ah. I may not be 16 going on 17, but I still tried to have confidence in confidence alone and took every opportunity for serenading; singing is one of my favourite things after all.

We spent a week in the Salzkammergut region of Austria, which is an hour out of Salzburg, a city that is known in Europe for its quaint charm and outstanding classical music and a city that is known to the English-speaking world as home of The Sound of Music. We stayed in St. Wolfgang on the Wolfgansee (a lake).

Here are a few of my favourite things from our trip:

1. Austria is stunning in every way. The lake is perfect colour, surrounded on all sides by beautiful mountains. St. Wolfgang is a peaceful place and not overrun by tourists.

2. Austria and Austrians keep the German and Swiss cleanliness and efficiency but pair it with Southern European warmth and friendliness. It’s a great combination.

3. Almdudler. Partly because of the name because, really, it’s called Almdudler, and you pronounce it “Alm” plus “doodler.” But mostly I loved it because of the taste. I’m not a soft drinks person, and I can’t stand fizzy water, but this drink was fabulous. Wikipedia compares it to ginger ale, but I don’t think that is remotely correct. I have never tasted anything like it, but I had one nearly every day. Refreshing, tasty, unique. Long live the Austrians.

4. Boats. I love them. Any kind of boat, any kind of water. It is freedom, beauty, peacefulness and calm.

5. Watching Small One climb up a big-kid slide like a little mountain climber. The look of determination on his face is priceless.

6. Visiting Salzburg – I don’t know when I first started dreaming about seeing this city, but it was a long, long time ago. I was only there for a day, but it did not disappoint. Even though I live in Europe, I haven’t seen many of the most famous sites, but I have seen enough to know that my “type” of city isn’t the big, glittering kind (except for Paris, my favourite). I love the smaller, mid-sized cities that have well-preserved old towns, colourful buildings and quaint alleyways. Salzburg has all of those things and more.

7. The Sound of Music connection. Husband had to remind me that his participation in the tour was a significant act of love and sacrifice on his behalf. It’s a good thing he told me because I would not have recognised it as such because who wouldn’t want to go on a Sound of Music tour, am I right, am I right? I say connection here because I don’t want to recommend the tour company we used. Our guide was hilarious and full of disappointing interesting information (did you know that the von Trapp family did not actually cross the Swiss Alps on foot and escape to Switzerland? They took a train to Italy then got a boat to England. It took me a while to get over that). But we hardly went to any of the big sites, only to the lake across the outside of the house and the gazebo used for I am 16 Going on 17. 

Here I am “running” around the fountain featured in the Do-Re-Mi song. I think this is in the Mirabell gardens

8. We had dinner at this place in St. Wolfgang, and sadly I cannot remember its name. The food was good, but the ambience was probably one of most favourite. Its terrace was on the lake, and our table was a meter away from the water. The decor was simple but co-ordinated and colourful. We watched the swans and ducks paddle away and fish out of the water for insects hovering above them. The sunset was lovely.

9. Settlers of Catan marathons with Husband and his brothers even though I sadly only won one game. Next time.

10. This fountain in Salzburg – I think it is the Pegasus fountain. It might be my favourite fountain in the world.

I’m on holiday for the next little while and will be taking a holiday from the computer as well (except for posting these), but I’ve asked a few of my friends to keep this blog going. All of these ladies write blogs – or have written blogs – that I read regularly, but most importantly they are people I know in real life. 

Anna and I met during my first visit to Geneva, and she was one of the delightful fixtures of my almost-first-two-years here. She’s brilliant, funny and makes brownies that disappear within minutes at a party. I love what she’s written here, in part because it helps me to understand the place where I currently live a bit better, but also for the insights that it provides on places and how the places where we live affect us. Here’s Anna:

Switzerland just might be the world capital of privacy and discretion. This is the culture that practically invented banking secrecy and, while subcontracting for some banks and corporations in Geneva, I signed away my rights on a regular basis to everything short of my firstborn in the event that I breached any aspect of the multi-page confidentiality agreements. Public transport is eerily quiet, a sort of self-enforcing privacy policy – because if you’re the one talking, you’re the only one talking, and in home-of-the-U.N. Geneva it doesn’t matter how obscure a language is: someone within earshot understands it.

And then there are the noise ordinances, which are in effect from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. on weeknights and something like 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekends. Traditionally those don’t just mean “Turn down your music”; they mean “Don’t flush the toilet.” In expat circles, it seems everyone has heard of the naïve foreigner who decides to throw a dinner party for all his friends and, in a bid to avoid crossing his lone set of Swiss neighbors, invites these neighbors to attend. As the story goes, the neighbors show up, socialize, have a lovely time, and then excuse themselves at 10 p.m. and go home to phone in a noise complaint to the police at 10:01. I’ve come to consider this an urban legend, since everyone I’ve heard it from swears it happened to someone they know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did once happen to someone somewhere.

Once you adjust, there’s a lot to appreciate about a culture that places a premium on privacy and calm. Apartment life is uncharacteristically peaceful; unruly teenagers on the street are summarily shushed; and in many neighborhoods you can sleep with the windows thrown wide open and have no idea you’re in the middle of a city. When God and life brought me, a transplant from the rural Midwestern U.S., to a university neighborhood in suburban Boston four months ago after several years in Geneva, I came prepared to pine for peace and quiet.

After years in poured-concrete apartment buildings that could double as bomb shelters (except that they don’t have to, because the basements actually ARE bomb shelters, but that’s another blog post altogether), “home” is now an early-20th-century dual-family house with slamming doors and echoing stairs and upstairs neighbors with hardwood floors whom I suspect of keeping Irish-step-dancing elephants as housepets. The house next door is home to a group of jazz musicians who like their late-night jam sessions. I live two blocks over from a fire station. A dump truck is inexplicably backing the wrong way up my one-way street at 9 p.m., beeping as it goes, at this very moment. Peace and quiet, it ain’t. But, to my surprise, the change has been a welcome one.

For my first week here, lying awake in bed while people stomped around upstairs and held band practice next door with sirens wailing intermittently in the distance, I was so frustrated I cried. Then, gradually, I realized that this life is real. Real people forget things and go racing up the stairs to retrieve them. Real people get drawn into their music and lose track of time. Real people call the fire department and trip car alarms and hit Snooze too many times every morning. When I’m living six people to a house and a dozen or two houses to a block, or stacked in the human filing cabinets we call apartment buildings, I should be aware of everyone around me going about their lives.

In Switzerland, I had the privilege of coming home at the end of every day and forgetting that anyone else existed. Now, I have the privilege of coming home at the end of every day and remembering that I’m not alone.

I’m on holiday for the next little while and will be taking a holiday from the computer as well (except for posting these), but I’ve asked a few of my friends to keep this blog going. All of these ladies write blogs – or have written blogs – that I read regularly, but most importantly they are people I know in real life. 

I am thrilled to introduce you to Amy, one of my dearest friends in the whole world. She and her husband, Kyle, write at a brand new marriage blog, I Do and I Do. Amy and I met during our first week at university, and even though our early lives could not have been more different, we shared common interests and dreams. She will always be a kindred spirit, a friend of the heart. The years have seen us grow up, move out, get jobs, husbands and children, and I am thankful that even though our life circumstances have drastically changed from that first week as carefree freshmen, we still call each other friends. Amy has worked as a copy editor and in communications for an international community-development organization, and now she stays at home with her children, Owen and Audrey. Make sure you check out I Do and I Do. Kyle and Amy are hilarious and fabulous writers, but more than that, I know that they are the real deal, non pretentious who are open and honest about their lives and opinions, and they have plenty of wise and insightful things to say about marriage. Here’s Amy:

Dr. Seuss is my hero. Seriously, I’m convinced that anyone who can communicate effectively with children is in tune with the world in a magical way.

“A person’s a person, no matter how small,” Horton the elephant said.It convicts me every time.

Just as I was feeling all weepy and inspired by the ways in which elephants continually speak to me (emphasis on the elephant at the zoo who locked eyes with me and … wait for it … lifted his trunk high in the sky and waved at me with the tip of his trunk in a way so intentional that we unquestionably shared a “moment”), Wikipedia tells me that Dr. Seuss wrote Horton Hears a Who as an allegory about America’s post-World War II occupation in Japan. But I dismissed Wikipedia since I decided that the story had to have been inspired by marriage.

See, when my pastor discussed on Sunday how people are people, my first thought was that I should probably try harder to like people. My next thoughts were of the people I encounter regularly out of necessity: the cashier at the grocery store, the postal carrier, the teenager at Smoothie King. They all have stories. They probably have loved ones, heartaches, secrets and their favorite flavor of ice cream. Then I began thinking about my family, specifically my husband, sitting to my right.

How often do I see him as a person? He was once a 3-year-old, like my son, mostly innocent and holding hostage the heart of his mother. He was once a confused adolescent, probably a little awkward, playing imaginary football games all by himself in the backyard. Then he became a man, navigating life, figuring out this woman to whom he’s pledged his commitment, all the while teaching that little boy how to dribble a soccer ball and telling a baby girl that she’s beautiful.

Sometimes I forget that he’s more than the man who goes to work every day. I forget that he’s more than a partner who helps juggle the logistics of children. I forget that he’s more than the guy who tends the lawn, takes out the trash and changes dirty diapers. In my selfishness, I dismiss his selflessness. In my laziness, I don’t accept his lovingness. In my self-centeredness, I neglect his self.

I don’t see the ways I need to give because I’m too busy taking.

He is a child of God, the father of my children and my best friend.

So, Kyle: Let’s get rich and build a house on a mountain. You can eat vanilla ice cream all day and I promise that I will fold all the laundry.

I’m on holiday for the next little while and will be taking a holiday from the computer as well (except for posting these), but I’ve asked a few of my friends to keep this blog going. All of these ladies write blogs – or have written blogs – that I read regularly, but most importantly they are people I know in real life. 

I know Katie from university, and she blogs at Footy Pajamas. I struggle to remember if we even had a conversation while we were at university together, but it is through her blog that I’ve learned more about her and grown to respect her as a woman and as a mom. Her blog is full of the honest reflections of every-day-mothering, and it’s one of my daily reads for practical tips for babies and toddlers, craft ideas and wisdom. Here’s Katie:

Photo by Katie Baskins

It was a typical Sunday morning.

I threw on some clothes, dabbed on some makeup, fed the baby, dressed the kids, and my hubby and I loaded everyone in the (awesome) minivan, grabbing some donuts on the way, then rushing into church and stashing our little crew in their various classes before heading to ours. I was in charge of our littlest, baby Lydia, and as I hoisted her car seat into the nursery, the sweet nursery workers (and my friends) kindly pointed out that my hair was a tad windblown. And that Lydia’s dress was unbuttoned.

And that the price tag from my shirt was dangling down my back.

I laughed as they patted down my hair, fixed my baby’s dress, snipped the price tag from its precarious position, and sent me on my way. With three kids three and under, I often get asked the question, “How do you do it??” to which my response on days like today would simply be, “I DON’T!” Disheveled hair, ducklings in a row, and wayward price tags are telling of the theme of my life: Organized chaos.

Organized is the end result and chaos is what it took to get there.

I never imagined that I would be the Mom of three kids, much less three LITTLE kids. If you had told the Katie five years ago that this would be her life today, she would have passed out and then awoken long enough to declare, “SERIOUSLY?” before passing out again. This is kind of funny to admit, but … I’m not exactly a kid person.

Say what?

Yeah, it’s true. I’m the youngest sibling (out of two), one of the youngest cousins (out of several) and I rarely babysat in high school. I didn’t change my first diaper until I was pregnant with my firstborn and the mother of the baby smiled politely as she undid my handiwork and correctly adjusted the (backwards) diaper. Based on my resume, it was hard to imagine that motherhood would be a good fit for me. It quite simply terrified me, to be honest, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had some doubts.

Photo by Katie Baskins

But then we had Caleb. Precious, sweet, calm little Caleb. I was a wreck, of course, blindly scurrying around the house in a frantic panic as I pumped, fed, diapered, and worried. But he survived. And so did we. Cub grew. And so did we. And twenty months later came Naomi. Crazy, high-maintenance, delightful, sunshine-y Naomi. I never believed in colic until I had Naomi. Phew, that girl put us through the ringer! But she brought the most pure delight. And she survived. And so did we. And she grew. And so did we. And eighteen months later, God gave us Lydia. Our little Lydia Ladybug Buns. Our giggly, jabbering, precious baby girl who soaks in the world around her.

I’ve only been a Mom for three years, really. Almost four. I’m not a professional by any means. Just a repetitive novice. But in these short almost-four-years, I have loved in the most intensely fierce way, three times. I’ve watched my patience form (along with my wrinkles) as I develop into this person called “Mom”. This crazy lady who often feels like she’s herding cats while attempting to cook dinner, finish laundry, and wipe spills and runny noses. Living in the chaos in hopes for a somewhat organized end.

What’s crazy is that I’m doing it. Every day, I’m doing it. I’m being a Mom. In spite of my doubts and lame pre-baby diapering skills, I’m doing it. God has taken this heart and multiplied it three times and I’m doing my best to tend to them. The blessing is a humbling one.

So, I might have tangled hair and price tags that I forget to clip. But this journey, this whirlwind of a life, is a blessed one, bringing renewal and new mercies every day. They’re growing, I’m growing, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Here’s to organized chaos and the life I’ve grown to love.

Have a lovely day.

Photo by Katie Baskins

I’m on holiday for the next little while and will be taking a holiday from the computer as well (except for posting these), but I’ve asked a few of my friends to keep this blog going. All of these ladies write blogs – or have written blogs – that I read regularly, but most importantly they are people I know in real life. 

I met Ann in university and have been reading her blogs for the last few years. She’s crafty, clever, a wonderful writer, thinker and feeler, and her blog How To Eat An Artichoke is a collection of all of those things and many more. This post gives a revealing, inside look at the work involved in rehabilitating women from prostitution and also at the parallel rehabilitation taking place in our own lives. Here’s Ann:

When people ask about my job, and I tell them I work with a nonprofit that helps sex trafficking victims in India, they typically imagine a version of India from Eat, Pray, Love or Bollywood films. This India exists, but it’s not the where I’ve dwelt. I have never been to the Taj Mahal or Goa or even seen the Ganges. I haven’t ridden an elephant. But I have been a guest in the one-room home of a woman named Shika, whose husband lay dying on the very bed where I sat. Despite her grief, she insisted on giving me some chai tea. Death hovered in the room as prominently as her husband’s gaunt, still body, eyes open but empty, fixed at the ceiling. We all knew that when Shika’s husband died, she would have little else to do than become a prostitute to keep her ten-year-old daughter in school.

I visited Shika the first time I went to India three years ago, when I stayed with a dear friend, an American named Kelsea. Kelsea lived in an apartment on the edge of Sonagachi in Kolkata, one of the largest red-light districts in India.  I stayed with her to observe her work at a T-shirt and jute bag manufacturer in the middle of Sonagachi that provides training and safe, dignified work for women formerly forced into prostitution either through trafficking or poverty.

Kelsea had been living in India for a few years and was helping establish some structure and policies to the organization I work for –- a sleepwear company that also employs women formerly trafficked or forced into the sex trade.  When I arrived in Kolkata on a late plane, I took a cab to Kelsea’s apartment, a stone building with two tall, rickety wooden doors. In the dark, men, women and children on mats lined the sidewalks side-by-side. I made quite a scene hauling my suitcase out of the back of the taxi, over the sleeping people, and up to the building’s door.

I expected Kels to just open it and walk in, but instead she knocked. When no one answered, she knocked louder. An Indian woman opened the door, and Kelsea said something to her in Bengali. The door opened wider, and I stepped inside, almost tripping over more sleeping people.  Kels said, “Be careful. They live in the courtyard. This is their home.”

It was hot, at least 100 degrees at midnight with 70% humidity. Kelsea had saved me a bucket of water for bathing. Because of water rationing in the area, the water had been shut off for the night. Just to see, I tried the faucet. Not even a drip flowed out. I found in later days of the visit that the only way to sleep was to get up every few hours and pour water over my whole body to cool down. Later Kels told me that silver jewelry would eventually corrode and turn to dust from the oppressive humidity.

The next day we walked through the red-light area, and I saw the faces of the women working the line. Even as a writer, I can’t adequately describe to you what I saw in their faces.  It is the kind of look I’ve only seen on a cowering animal, one who has been so trained that his only purpose in living is as an object of abuse, one who skulks back into a corner even when a gentle person lifts a hand in kindness.

The countenances on the rescued women are vastly different. They are lively and seem content after a few months of living in a safe place, when the healing starts.

When I tell people what I do, they say that it must be so fulfilling to do this work, and it is, but at times I also face the reality that for every woman who is somehow able to escape, another bed is opened for another girl forced into the same life. There are so many layers of pain and depravity in the problem, so much damage to the vulnerable. My immersion in this issue has made my sanity come a little unglued.

Some days I just have to focus on the women who have been successful in our programs, and when one of them dies from an STD, celebrate the few years she was able to live in freedom and the life she will live in heaven, free from pain, disease, abuse, and fear. Yes, my job is fulfilling, and perhaps the most important lesson that I have learned is similar to what the women have learned: My job and the things I do cannot determine my value.

Sometimes I have no choice but to face startling truths when I’ve seen the depth at which some people can hurt others. Those truths change everything, down to the seed of the bud or the tip of the point or the curve of the nail.  I keep Maya Angelou’s words beside my bed: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

When Shika’s husband died, Kelsea was able to help her find a job and get a scholarship so her daughter could stay in school. Still, the grief of losing her love and her own vulnerability living in Sonagchi have to have an effect that is difficult for those of us to understand who grew up in safe neighborhoods and cultures that places where most women live in less fear.

It is easy to interpret every piece of my life according to this reality of these women’s pain and to live as though it is the only truth – that my purpose is only to give aid to the broken, and forget that I am broken and needy too. When I begin to think that it is my job to save the world, reality inevitably crashes around me. Not one of us has the power to save the world, and the bits of things I can do to help are rarely glamorous. In Kelsea’s case, she lived in a rough area for a time and built enough trust with Shika to help meet her needs when the time was right. She endured water shortages, heat, mosquitos, death of friends, and a few bouts with malaria to do so. Even when we are able to help meet physical needs, the emotional needs are deep and strong and only in places God can interpret.

My thoughts often include desperate prayers for God to provide and to fill the women’s hearts with hope in the places I can’t touch, the same place where He and I meet in secret, where no one else can be, where he joins the unglued places and holds them together, tightly.