Fall came, and with it, our God-designed trip to Europe. We boarded the plane in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and as it taxied down the runway and then surged upward, tears began to roll down my cheeks. I felt something in that moment. I felt a little bit of anxiety- flying is not my favorite thing since I get motion sickness quite easily- but mostly I had an overwhelming sense that God was about to do something in our lives. Completely unaware of it, we were heading into our future. Something we hadn't planned on, or even dreamed of, was about to unfold. I felt humbled and in awe at the same time.
We were flying to Ljubljana, Slovenia. Slovenia used to be the
northernmost province of the former Yugoslavia, becoming an independent country
in 1991. Nestled between Italy on the west, Austria to the north, Hungary on
the east, and Croatia to the south, Slovenia is a beautiful country about the
size of New Jersey. If you travel one hour north of the capital city, you
are in the midst of the Julian Alps; if you travel an hour south, you are on
the Adriatic coast, complete with a Mediterranean climate. The best of
both worlds wrapped into a gorgeous package of quaint villages with copper
color tiled rooftops, cobbled streets, lush green meadows, and buildings and
homes 500 years older than our country. It really is a magical place.
We stayed for nearly two weeks with the family who had given us the airline
vouchers. They lived in a modest house in the middle of a village outside
of Ljubljana. Neither of us had much money, so we didn't live like big-time
tourists during those two weeks. We lived among the inhabitants of this beautiful land; walking
nearly everywhere we went, or taking the bus when we had to go into the
city. We walked among the people on their way to work or other
places; brushing shoulders with young and old alike. We sat in outdoor
cafes drinking vroca cokolada, or hot chocolate as we know it, but there is no
hot chocolate here which can compare to the thick, wondrous stuff you get
served with a tiny spoon in Ljubljana. It calls you back time and time
again to partake of its rich, smooth deliciousness. We shopped in tiny
village grocery stores for our daily food. We went to house groups; small
gatherings of Christians who met throughout the week to have fellowship
with one another, and to pray and minister to each others needs. And we
went to church there. It was very interesting going to church and hearing
people sing and pray and sermonize in a language we could not understand.
We recognized familiar songs, but found it difficult to put words to them; even
songs we had sung back home for years were now lacking words in our brains.
I found I didn’t get a whole lot out of the service. What a great example
of the message needing to be understood in order for it to be taken in and
embraced. My lack of comprehension didn't stop me from enjoying the
people though. They were loving and warm, very welcoming and happy to
have us there.
Amidst all the memories I had formed over those two weeks, there was one
image which had been seared into my brain. To this day I can still see it
in my minds eye; the hollow, hopeless, forlorn look in the eyes of so
many of the people there. As their heads slowly turned and their eyes met
mine, the vacancy I saw cut to my very heart of hearts. The look of years
of oppression, poverty, and the expectation of no hope, radiated from their
gaze to mine. It was haunting.
The days passed quickly, and it seemed in no time at all we were boarding
the plane back for the United States. It was good to be going home again,
but we had some great memories and experiences to take with us. It seemed like
a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, minus all the bells and whistles. It was
one of those life changing vacations; one you never forget.
As the plane taxied down the runway, poised to take us away from this
beautiful place, again tears started to run down my cheeks. Rob looked at
me questioningly, and as I said to him, "I feel like we're leaving
home, instead of going home", he nodded his affirmation. We both knew this would not be
the last time we walked these ancient streets.