No Capes!

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Washington DC kind of begs you to dream big. The streets are often quite literally lined with monuments to individuals, team, and entire armies of people who did something temple worthy.

“Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime,” – LongfellowIMG_0150

And, whether you like the events and/or players or not, world changing things still happen here every day. International Justice Mission is doing a lot of those things. That was my main takeaway from IJM’s Orientation week. They are actually superheroes, and they’re letting me be their sidekick.

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Slavery has become a trendy charity topic, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. But the reality of violence against the poor is such a massive and still largely unaddressed problem. According to IJM’s numbers, in South Asia, the part of the world where nearly half of the world’s 30 million slaves are held, slave holders are more likely to be struck by lightning than brought to justice. And “slavery” here doesn’t mean just a really bad job with a mean boss. This is slavery on the brutality level of the worst of 19th century American slavery. People are reduced to commodities every day, trapped in endless debt, sold between masters, and forced to bear atrocities I actually don’t want to write about.

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These delightful statistics were part of our first training session last Monday morning at 9am. Conversations like these will wake you up. Generally, that was the effect of the entire week. People that worked for IJM led sessions from 9-5ish every day that hit the room of 80+ assembled new employees, headquarters interns, and field office interns like overdoses of good coffee (honestly coffee all tastes the same to me but whatever). We learned so much about all of the different types of cases IJM handles: forced labor, sexual violence, human trafficking, illegal land seizure, and even some citizenship rights abuses.

IJM is fighting a modern day abolitionist movement on so many fronts. The goal is  sustainable, systemic change in some of the most unequal societies on the planet. This is superhero level work, though it looks far less glamorous than one might hope. It looks like long nights with reams of paperwork. It looks like 48 hour sit ins at police stations and government offices, begging people to take action. I’m ok with that.

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Anyways, I don’t have a ton of updating to do. I was just so very fired up about the week that I wanted to get this blog back up out of the dark recesses of the internet. (Oh also I did get to have some fun! I met a ton of lovely, passionate, inspired people, and we explored the whole DC thing.)IMG_0167

Also here’s this, just because: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4R2aW03pwL0

So Much Class.

I have officially been in Paris for 20 days at this point, and I have actually been in school for like 10 of them (I think?).

My tourist days have passed in a whirl of museums, monuments (WHICH ARE ALL FREE TO EU CITIZENS BETWEEN 18 AND 26, AND I COUNT WITH A LONG STAY VISA GOOD JOB FRANCE YOU ROCK), and long walks to cafes, coffeshops, or nowhere in particular.

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Everyone else had to pay to visit this gargoyle. NOT ME THANKS FRANCE.

Don’t get me wrong, the touristic things were about 87% of the appeal of studying abroad for me. And they have definitely lived up to their hype more often than not.

YEP. Just as sparkly as everyone says.
YEP. Just as sparkly as everyone says. (Well really it is sparklier, but that’s what I get for iphone pictures…)

But I have actually loved school almost as much. Classes are hard because the only language is French- spoken quite rapidly- which can be extremely intimidating. But it’s a safe environment where we mess up and laugh at ourselves/each other. I am learning SO MUCH French. I have 2 hours of grammar classes every day for the entire semester and an hour of phonetics every day every other week. We shall see how long it takes me to mix up the weeks and get here 2 hours early (or more likely late…). This week I also start additional culture courses called conferences. These are once a week for 2 hours. So that’s about as simple as it gets right?

It’s also roughly 21 hours of literal sitting in class per week, so I may be dropping things. On one hand there isn’t too much homework so the rest of my time is free. On the other, I just have issues sitting still for very long at all. So… We shall see.

I spend a lot of time at school, but I absolutely love the environment around our one building campus. This morning, as I was attempting to write this post, I was interrupted by no less than 4 friendly Europeans who just wanted to chat before classes started. It’s like freshman year all over again! Everyone is so excited to be here and also so out of their familiar environments that we all just naturally start chatting whenever we get the chance.

We are all international students, so there are a crazy number of languages spoken in the halls and library. My grammar class is a good example of the diversity at the school. There are 20ish students in my class and we are American (of course), Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Brazilian, Mexican, Bulgarian, and Turkish. French is the only language some of us have in common, and an interest in French culture virtually the only thing that we have in common. But it’s enough. I’ve already made some great friends in my class. Strangely, I became friends with the South American students before I really got to know the other North American ones. From the very first day, we started bonding by commiserating France’s lack of sun, open spaces, and (ironically enough) casual conversations with friendly strangers. All the other US kids are from New York, so they couldn’t really join in on any of those…

I’m learning so much French, but I’m also learning about the international community in general, and that is even more valuable. Yesterday we spent a huge chunk of class discussing issues in our home countries in French. I learned about the packs of feral dogs ravaging Bulgaria, political unrest in Turkey, the dangerous levels of pollution in China, crippling social pressure in Korea, urban sprawl in Mexico, corruption in Brazil, all from people who have experienced these things and are invested in the issues.

What did I talk about you may ask? Cost of education and a lack of value for the Liberal Arts EXCEPT OH WAIT THEY DON’T HAVE THAT PROBLEM HERE. One of my new British friends and I spent the morning discussing the way the French appreciate things. They may not make enough money to enjoy all the things they want to do… but boy do they enjoy what they can.

So class is great. People are great. And I love studying here. And I will just finish this distraction from everyone’s studies by repeating the most French piece of advice I’ve ever gotten (from my new French restaurant owner friend Sophie): “School is important, but don’t worry about it too much. You don’t need a lot of money. You only need good people… And good wine.”

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PS. This is the view from my school…

Made It.

Well! I’m here!

Paris is beautiful and old and most things that everyone has said about it. It’s also, rather unromantically, a large and dense city, which means lots of noise and people everywhere. I don’t really mind that at the moment though. Right now, I’m having far too much fun.

It’s true that my apartment is small, which is not very surprising. It can also be stressful due to our sweet house mom Madame Boquet. She is so very accommodating, but she speaks seulement en rapid fire French, that I have to translate as best I can for my roommate. But we honestly aren’t here much other than breakfast and dinner. And I’m already getting better at understanding! So for now we’ll just focus on the fact that my relatively-average-for-Paris-sized room has a chandelier.

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Like What?

Since my plane was delayed, I showed up with no sleep just in time for the last half of an 8 hour orientation session (don’t worry they tacked the first part on at the end of the second just for those of us who were late…). Naturally, my roommate and I did nothing but sleep for the rest of the day. But we showed up for the second day of orientation on time, where we got to visit our school and take a language placement test that will seal our fates as to the level of French classes we take for the rest of the semester.

Afterwards, I joined a random group of girls who were going to visit the Champs Elysees. We shopped and galavanted our way down to L’Arc de Triomphe, which was obviously large and impressive.

 

 

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Thursday, we were supposed to meet the same group at the Eiffel Tower, but we ended up being about half an hour late, so my roommate Darian and I looked at it and decided it was far too cold to actually go up. We started wandering around the 7th arrondissement and somehow ran into our group at L’Hotel des Invalides, a military museum which was closed for the day. So we went to an open museum that was full of art and artifacts from Africa, Oceania, and other places that were not France because it was free. The beautiful thing about having a visa and being between the ages of 18-26 in the EU is that all the monuments and all the museums are completely free. Good idea France.

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Friday was Versailles!

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Makes me feel bad for my one little chandelier.

We all decided to shoot for something like this in the future.

I ended up touring the chateau with nearly the same group of people from the past few days, and we toured every single building and 7 miles of the gardens with appropriate amounts of both cultural appreciation and modern immaturity. I like these people.

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This is Gaelyn. She starred in many of my photos this day.

 

To finish the quick activities list: Saturday was the Musee D’Orsay. Sunday was church at the American Church of Paris and exploring Marais. And today we climbed 396 steps into the towers of Notre Dame to see our new city.

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There are five or six of us hanging out pretty regularly already, and I expect to be friends with many of these people for a long time.

So far I still feel like a tourist, honestly we all do.  We keep looking at each other and repeating variations of “Hey, we live in Paris now, so like what?” Classes start on Wednesday, and so real life will hit soon, but for now all is fun. Give me a month or two and I’ll be laughing at my naive little tourist self, but for the moment I am perfectly content surveying the city from the fresh perspective of a first time visitor.

instead of watching the year’s best commercials I get to sit at an airport!

Things to do when waiting at an airport:

1. Read a book. Because educate yourself.

2. Selfie.

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So you can show everyone how glamorous world travel really is. In case they forget or anything.

Bonus points if you use an iPad camera, since it produces the worst quality pictures of the three photo taking devices currently in your carry-on.
It’s only appropriate.

3. Eat your last American food. (or just drink lots and lots of Diet Dr. Pepper, because it apparently hasn’t caught on in many uncivilized countries.)

4. Take pictures of other people.

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Make sure you use that iPad again so everyone around you will chuckle with you and/or judge. Proceed with full knowledge that the latter is more likely.

5. Make friends with a Canadian or an Australian because they’re just the friendliest.

And then, after waiting for 4 hours- after 2 delays- pray they don’t cancel the flight.

And then when they do, laugh. Because really it’s all you can do.

WAIT WHAT, YOU’RE GOING TO PARIS?

I’ve made everyone a cheat sheet.

“Shelbi, why are you still here? Leave for Paris already.”

Well Europe doesn’t do everything like America. Shocking I know. They do their collegiate level education largely on a trimester system, so I don’t start until February 2. But since I am from Merica, I have to take an American length semester. So classes will end May 31, at which time my family is coming to play in Europe for 2 weeks! Yay!

“What are you doing over there?”

I’ll be taking 12 whole hours of language and culture classes at the University of Paris. And it’s all in French…

We’ll see how that goes. I think I’ll be very grateful for a pass/fail semester.

“Do you know anyone?”

NOT YET!

“Did you know that French people are super rude?”

I am convinced this stereotype does not hold true for an entire nation.

Largely because I’ve lived in Texas long enough to know that we do not, in fact, all ride horses.

“Will you have a blog?”

Apparently?

Honestly, I wasn’t really planning on it, but then I decided to see if I could still log into my old Africa one. And well obviously the answer was yes. But well I won’t promise consistent updates after departure…

“I really need to let you know that it’s not fun here without you/get your oatmeal butterscotch cookie recipe, how do I contact you?”

Facebook, Viber, iMessage, Skype, however! But it is 8 hours ahead for me so there’s that.

“Why would you assault us with all this useless information?”

Sorry guys, Dallas is just quite boring when it’s this empty…

Composing a Goodbye…

is never really a good idea. I mean good luck with that, but it just doesn’t work. Come up with the most fail safe way to leave with maximum meaning and minimal stress, and things will not go as planned. Inevitably, someone will intrude, you’re all simply too tired/hungry/distracted by food to get properly emotional, or, you know, YOUR CAR REFUSES TO START.

I realized this as I sat at a gas station, with an unresponsive expedition xl, an hour into my drive back to Dallas. I was ready to leave College Station, and I’d said goodbye to everyone for what I’d thought was the last time. I’d begun thinking about a sappy blog and planning all of the”goodbye to this place/people that I love so much” statements, but nope. There had even been a grieving process involved in leaving College Station- consisting entirely of belting semi meaningful songs in the privacy of the black monster truck I was driving.

And now I had no choice but to go back.

Because my mom’s car hated me. According to my new oil pipeline engineer friends, there was definitely probably almost certainly a problem with my fuel pump/vapor something. Don’t get me wrong, they were incredibly helpful, but there was nothing any of us could do.

And so I had to be rescued from the truckers’ lounge of the Shell station by some wonderful friends (shoutout to Courtney Welch and Zac Wiltz for being the greatest). And in the meantime I got to live out my long time dream of being a gypsy by playing guitar at the nearly empty gas station. This also gave me time to reflect on/laugh at that one quote about the best laid plans of mice and men.

“The best laid plans of mice and men/ often go awry” *

Funny when I consider my last semester. Since planning consumed most of it. If I’ve seen you at all over this past semester, I imagine I might have mentioned the fact that I’m studying in Paris this semester. Don’t get me wrong, I tried my best to balance enjoying the semester and planning for the next one, but there was still a ton of time devoted to getting ready to leave the country. Planning has taken over even more of my time over the break. I’ve spent my exhaustingly long limbo period either working or preparing, making sure every little detail of my time abroad is taken care of. And this was the moment I was to put the beginning of my plans into motion. I was finally leaving the familiar for the unknown, and well… it wasn’t happening.

So I had to laugh when God slipped me this little reminder of His power and my lack thereof. For all the work I’d done to ensure that my future worked the way I wanted it to, there was absolutely nothing I could do to make my car move again.

And even though I was greeted with many a loving “wait you left yesterday, get out of my house,” I was definitely glad to spend one more day in a town whose only magic comes from the people in it.

My conclusion from the adventure is simple. It definitely won’t hurt me to remember that “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9).

But I love surprises. So bring on the unexpected. I think I’m as ready as one can ever be.

And dear College Station friends, you no longer have to worry that I’ll show up at your house before you’ve even finished grieving my absence, because I am finally gone for good.

Au Revoir, mes amis!

*or originally “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”

It’s from Robert Burn’s 1785 poem To a Mouse– never fear, I’m an English major.

Story

I’ve been back for about a week now. Well, at the moment I’m in Florida, but that’s pretty irrelevant.

At first it was incredibly easy. I rejoiced over things like clean water, WASHING MACHINES, showers that came from the ceiling, air conditioning, DIET DR. PEPPER, one language, rest, and consistent power/internet. Obviously, I was glad to be back. And I still am. Life makes sense here- or at least I know what I’m doing a tiny little better.

But contentment never lasts for long. After a few days of rest and reconnecting with people I’d missed, I was ready to go to Togo (hah). The ease of living here is great, but the very challenges of life in Africa grew in appeal as I remembered the problems of life in America. And this was a difficult thing to share. Really all the stories of the time I’d spent in Africa were generally frustratingly hard to tell. The things I had learned so very painfully seemed to pale in comparison to what people expected to hear, or to not translate to fit their expectations at all. As the stories got harder to tell, they seemed less important, much as working for a literature major seemed pretty irrelevant in Togo. So I stopped telling them.

This was a bad idea.

You see, I returned to the same sin struggles that I left behind me. Which isn’t surprising, but, while I knew I had changed in an African context, it was hard to apply these changes in an American context. Keeping a missional mindset is easier when you’re actually on mission. This is a shocking revelation I know, but is harder to keep in mind when you’re actually trying to live it. And I guess it’s not surprising that having returned from the most purpose filled month of my life, I would find it hard to return to a summer where I don’t even have a job. And the more quickly I forgot, the more frustrated I became. I didn’t know why I wasn’t content here, because I wasn’t remembering the profound changes I experienced in Africa.

The only things keeping me from completely and totally assimilating- or returning unchanged to America and my life here- are the stories. All I have are memories of what happened that exist as altars of God’s faithfulness and testaments to His goodness. These are so much more important than any souvenir (THOUGH THE DJEMBE COMES PRETTY CLOSE), picture, or even relationship. Yes, that’s right. The stories of the mission trip are more important than the relationships formed. I cannot talk to 98% of the people I met and loved in Togo without a multi-thousand dollar trip. And as wonderful as my team certainly was/is, many of those relationships are already beginning to fade. So the relationships I formed and the love that I felt for the people there will live on only in the stories I tell about each of them. Isn’t it funny that the first step God gave us to a relationship with Him is a book of stories.

The only thing that will allow us to change is repeated internalization of our own- or others’- stories. Stories change us more profoundly than anything else. That is, if we let them. I fully believe that stories change us even more than experiences do. When we go through something traumatic, I don’t think it’s the event itself that impacts us most. It is the way we live with what happened- the way we make it part of our story. And the way we move on has everything to do with the way we tell the story to ourselves.

This is the power of stories, and the reason they will forever be important. Because there would be no difference between who we were and who we have become were it not for the stories that fall in between the two.

But our memories are short. So I will continue building altars to the one who gives us freedom to write and live out the most beautiful stories of failure and redemption. Preach to yourself from your own life and from the lives you see, hear, read. Continue to remind yourself of the good and the bad that has made you who you are. Keep making stories.

P.S. I have more to say on this- much more. I’m reading The Arabian Nights right now, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from that monster of a book, it’s the importance of stories. And stories are so integral a part of the Togolese culture that they don’t even recognize it, if that makes sense. They don’t see the purpose of a literature degree, but they share stories every chance they get- in evangelism, forming relationships, or just to fill time.