Two years in blogs.

As my time in England is finishing up, I’ve been thinking back over some of the biggest milestones and things I’ve learned whilst here … and here are a few, with links included …

Looking for blood. One of the strangest days of my life. I ate chocolate and, after I’d watched the first time, tried to avert my eyes. I really just wanted to yell at them to run away.

When it comes down to seconds. I’ll never forget the day I sat beside a friend near the epicenter of a devastating earthquake as she rocked the infant son of a man killed in a tea shop when the shaking started. The day after we left the area, another earthquake brought down the hotel around the corner from ours. It opened up a lot of questions about God’s timing. It kept me up at night then, and I still think about it sometimes now.

Enduring catcalling for Christ. I’ve wrestled a lot with what it means to give everything up for Christ and the Gospel. Before this trip, I never imagined that might mean constant male attention, of the unwanted kind …

Vampire teeth. Try to go through airport security with a bag full of them. Just see what happens.

For the love, tell me what to do. This one’s pretty much baring my soul from a period in time when I wasn’t sure how to get back to God.

Little town of Bethlehem. Not just a song. I got to meet some people here, and it was nothing like I expected. For one thing, I didn’t realize it was walled off from the world, and not with an ancient Biblical times looking wall, either …

I slept through a bunch of earthquakes. Nobody else did. It made me question how much I must already be shaking from caffeine overload. But it also made me question other stuff.

I met John. He got kicked out of the funeral club, but it was so worth it.

The ostrich ride. 2012′s only new year’s resolution = done.

The ostrich ride.

She was a really big bird. And she had only been in the rodeo-style chute for about five seconds when the guy looked straight at me and said, “Who’s first? How about you, London?”

I’d been pretty excited about this whole ostrich-riding thing ever since my friend Elizabeth sent me this Yahoo article last year. It felt so very Swiss Family Robinson. I even made it my only new year’s resolution for 2012 (only half seriously).

Suz said we could do it while I was in South Africa. She planned it.

And then I heard some stuff:

1. “You know ostriches kill people, right?”

2. “Did you know that one kick with their razor-sharp toe can split you right down the middle? Just don’t walk in front of it and you’ll be OK.”

3. “Did you know an ostrich can turn its neck all the way around and peck you while you’re on its back?”

And more realistically:

“Did you know that the only way to get off is to fall off?”

Good grief.

Despite my protests, Suz was “committed” to making it happen. That’s what she kept saying every time I kept saying we could stay in Cape Town for the day instead of driving all the way out to the ostrich farm in Oudtshoorn.

So here’s how this thing works. They have her (the ostrich, not Suz) standing in the little triangular wooden chute with a bag over her head. I felt pretty bad about that, but apparently an ostrich’s brain is smaller than one of its eyeballs, so with the bag over its head, it’s pretty chilled out. It’s an “I can’t see you, you can’t see me” situation.

The guy got me to climb up on her back, with her wings over my legs. You kind of kick back like you’re in a recliner and wrap your legs around her chest, then you hold onto the front of the wings.

“How am I going to get off?”

“You fall.”

And then he yanked the bag off the ostrich’s head. It was like being shot from a cannon.

(If you want the virtual experience, watch this.)

After a while of running around the pen like a crazed lunatic, the guy running behind me yelled, “LET GO!”

Seriously? Is this a trust fall?

He and another guy caught me under the arms as I let go and set me down. Pretty sure every muscle in my body was shaking for a few minutes from hanging on for dear life, but painless enough. 100 percent success for this year’s resolution. And all this for under $10. Thanks, Suz.

The fam on foreign soil.

After eight fantastic days of trains, chocolate pastries and crazy rain, I put my parents and nephew back on the plane yesterday headed back to the States.

We had a great time. A few favorite moments …

1. Normandy.

Omaha Beach.

We took a tour of Normandy and ended up on Omaha Beach. It’s strikingly beautiful … and hauntingly quiet. Few people, or even sea gulls, go there.

I’d never heard my dad talk about it before, but apparently one of my favorite uncles was part of the D-Day landing but didn’t start telling stories about it until near his death a couple of years ago. I wish I’d gotten to chat with him about it as an adult … I would’ve loved to hear his stories.

We were best friends when I was a kid … he would walk with me to the bridge to throw rocks in the creek. This time, Mom picked up a few rocks for him at Omaha to take back to his sons.

Many of the rocks on Omaha are heart shaped.

Pretty cool.

2. London and all its goodness … and all its rain.

Cheeky, cheeky rain. It happened every time we were outside and went away every time we went indoors. Apparently, after a long drought, we got a month’s worth of rain the week they were here.

But Mom and Dad were prepared with matching ponchos, and I consoled myself with the most amazing tourist food find ever.

Chocolate covered strawberries!

And marshmallows! On a stick! By Big Ben!

3. Paris and a golden anniversary.

This year is my parents’ 50th anniversary, and what a blessing to be able to be with them in Europe … even just to get to see them at all! They’re wonderful. We had a blast.

My house is now sadly empty and quiet … but I feel so blessed. I love my family. And there’s still evidence of their visit that makes me smile … like the Kroger sack lining my rubbish bin, the giant chocolate bunny in my cabinet and the rock from the white cliffs that I found under Dad’s bed.

Love y’all. Thanks for coming. See you soon.

Paris Syndrome.

Sometimes people go to Paris, and then they breathe into paper bags.

Paris Syndrome. It’s a real thing. Hospitals in Paris apparently keep people on staff trained to deal with it. It happens sometimes when travelers (mainly from Japan) show up in Paris and realize that it wasn’t all they’d always dreamed it would be – the people aren’t all happy and in love, the weather isn’t always 70 and sunny, and maybe, just maybe, people might even sometimes … be rude.

Gasp.

Paris has a funny effect on people.

Let’s be real. It’s a cool place. The Eiffel Tower is way cool, and you can ice skate and eat chocolate waffles on top of it. You can get baguettes everywhere and feel normal walking down the street eating them. The language sounds pretty. The chocolate and banana crepes are unreal.

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But is it – more than every other cool place in the world – worthy of romantic comedy screenwriters forcing many a plot to end with a meeting in Paris? Should it be hyped to the point that it fills in the dotted line for everyone’s dream vacation on one of those “About Me” email forwards?

Sometimes when I talk with different folks about traveling, I get various responses.

Let’s compare.

“Hey, I’m going to [country in the Middle East] next week.”

“Be really careful. Will anyone be with you?”

“Hey, I’m going to [country in Eastern Europe] next week.”

“Oh, that’s nice. Have a good time.”

“Hey, I’m going to Paris for work next week.”

“OH MY GOSH!!!!! PARIS?!?!!??!!??!!?!? I’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO GO THERE!!!!!!!”

You can see the difference.

I really do like Paris. I do. I don’t mean to diss it. I just wouldn’t mind putting it in its proper place in the rest of the world.

Because you see … in those Middle Eastern countries, magic like this happens:

And in those eastern European countries, I mean … wow:

In African countries that might not top the “to visit” list, you see things like this:

And there’s always humor when you get outside the mainstream.

What’s better than an egg sandwich? Egg sandwich with me.

In every country, in every situation, there’s awesomeness to be had. In any place. That could be the old red barn auction in Birmingham, Alabama, or the Palace of Versailles in France. If you go there (respectfully) wanting to have a good time, spot something interesting, find humor in the differences and enjoy the culture … the world is your oyster.

In fact … I’d say it’s a much better oyster when it’s out of the mainstream of tourist queues and in the home or neighborhood or hole-in-the-wall restaurants of normal people. Hands down.

My parents and nephew are coming to visit next week, and I’m very excited. And we’re taking the train down to Paris. That’s exciting too. I think they’re going to love it – no paper bags needed. But I think they’ll love the people of the city and the lesser-known spots just as much as they’ll love the Eiffel Tower and the Arc d’Triomphe. The bits along the way are often the best part … no matter where you are.

Moscow.

I wonder what it looks like when two sets of vampire teeth go through the x-ray machine at the airport.

I should’ve asked. The guy saw them several times.

I was lulled into a peaceful state in the short security line. The first security guy told me, “Now ‘at’s a good girl!” when I already had my liquids in a separate baggie. He didn’t even make me take my shoes off. And I only had one backpack, with no laptop, because this was a weekend vacation and work wasn’t coming with me.

I was gonna crack on through that line in Heathrow.

Until they stopped my backpack. Backed it up. Forward. Back. Forward. Off the belt.

“This your bag?”

This wasn’t your normal “search the bag for the questionable item and remove it” operation. This was a full-on backpack dismantle. The lady at the end pulled it to the side, got three separate plastic bins and begin separating the entire contents of my bag into them.

I wish I knew what the categories were. Level of threat, spy-like qualities or genre?

Purple and green vampire teeth in bin one.

Underwear, hats and jeans in bin two.

Dr. Seuss book (that she flipped through and read some of) in bin one.

Two jars of crunchy peanut butter and a starfish baby mug in bin three.

Groucho Marx glasses and a tattoo sleeve. She held those up, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, you can tell it was just Halloween,” I said with an awkward laugh, rubbing the back of my neck.

Those items went in bin one with the teeth. I’d drawn a crowd by this point.

When she finally finished, she ran all three bins through the machine separately, plus the empty shell of a backpack, and assembled some officials to decide the fate of the peanut butter.

It didn’t make it. Tragedy. But the teeth and I, we made it to Moscow and to my friend Kels, and it was definitely worth the shakedown.

Beautiful birch trees, stark white against the redness of the city. Metro stations treated as museums of convenience, opportunities to remind the Russian people of their history, their literature and their artists during their daily commute…

Churches that make striking statements against the capital’s skyline.

We wandered around the city, making up stories about what monuments meant. Red Square, twice. A free cello concert at the Moscow Conservatory. A little grocery shopping for boxed milk like a local.

The last night we ended up at a beautiful fortress of a church, bold and imposing against the frigid, quiet Moscow sky…

No one was around, we thought, as we ambled around it in the cold. And then we went inside. (After walking through a security point. The teeth were briefly checked again.)

Half of Moscow was there in the orthodox church it seemed, standing in the enormous chasm of an open space under arched ceilings painted with elaborate, gold-leafed murals. We wound silently and slowly through the flickering candles and scattered worshipers crossing themselves and bowing low as a recorded chant echoed through the great hall. A clergy member carried to the front a huge gold, sparkling Bible and held it up to the waves of bowing people before retreating into a gazebo-like room, pulling a curtain across and shutting the golden doors behind him.

We stared.

Our hearts broke.

The holy of holies? Is that what that signifies? I’m going to need to do some research.

No matter what was happening here, no matter what that signified or whether or not there were true worshipers in the room, we were sure from their faces that many of them didn’t know that that curtain had been torn, the doors opened.

That Hope was personal.

It was a heavy feeling in that bright room.

After a while we made our way quietly out of the church and onto a bridge nearby. The wind was frigid, but the view made up for it – the church to one side, and the Kremlin to the other.

As we turned to face Red Square, my friend began to erupt in prayer, lifting up the souls of that beautiful, massive city. She prayed for boldness for the believers. Wisdom for the leaders. For Light to pierce the darkness. For Hope to come to the hopeless.

I joined her.

And may I never forget to keep doing just that. It’s overwhelming, the need.

But the Light is breaking through.