Saturday, May 24, 2014

Seven Months of Learning

       Seven months. I have now lived in Croatia seven months. And what a seven months they have been. Recently, I have been reflecting a lot on my time here. I have thought about all I have learned and my purpose here in this country. I feel so blessed to have the experience and even through the hard times, I don't regret coming here at all. I would like to use this post to share some of things that I have learned about myself.

1) I am made for community and building relationships with people. One of the hardest things about being here has been a lack of community. I am no longer surrounded by like-minded Mennonites who know me and love me completely. I have had to go way out of my comfort zone and be able to trust people who I don't have a common history/culture with. And in doing so, I have built some significant relationships. By trusting myself with people different than myself, I have become more open to different ideas and I am better able to empathize with people and see different view points without judging. I always thought I was open-minded before, but really I was only open to ideas similar to mine. And now, I feel like I can talk and become friends with people with whom I disagree with. I know how to find similarities and see the goodness in all people. My friend group here is so diverse from Evangelical Pentecostals to atheists, from Croatian teenagers to retired Texans. And I can honestly say I love them all! But even as I have made some significant relationships and I love the diversity of friends, I have not built a community here. I have had to rely on my community back in the United States, which has been so hard to do. I realize I need a physical community and I am unsure of how to find this here in Croatia.

2) I have learned a lot about libraries. I used to believe I knew libraries pretty well; I spent many an hour studying in EMU’s library and could always find the books I needed. But now, I understand the dewey decimal system. I understand the computer systems and how to put a new book into a system and then be able to easily find that book later when you are looking for it. I know how to run circulation, as well as shelf. And I am good at it. I have somehow become the expert in the library here and my coworkers will often come ask me how to best catalogue a book. This past two weeks, there was a group from Cedarville University in Ohio. It was my job to train them on how to process books. It was weird to have them come ask me advice when I know that they actually want to become librarians, while it is just an accident that I found this position and learned these skills.

(Also, I just want to give a quick shout-out to my Cedarville friends. You guys are really great and I feel so blessed by your friendship!)

3) I have learned how to be on my own. This has been a big one for me and one that I haven't really liked. Figuring out a new place by yourself can be really hard. Coming here, I had to do much on my own. Yes, people helped me out, but I had to take the initiative to ask for help. I had to find a way to meet people (such as couch surfing), then be willing to initiate facebook posts to actually hang out. Purchasing my bicycle was a big day for me as I had to figure out how to get to the market, then talk in both Croatian and English to find a bike I was satisfied with. It felt so great to do all of that by myself and feel like I can survive on my own. I have figured out that running and biking are two good things to do by myself. I found an art store to buy supplies and spend time painting. I have my own room and it is up to me to clean up if I don't want to live in a mess. I am in charge of my breakfasts and dinners and if I don't go to the grocery store, I won't eat. Although these skills of independence have been really good, they have also made me realize my deep need for community.

Take my bike for example. I was so proud of myself of finding a good deal and independently purchasing a bicycle. However, since the purchase of the bicycle, my front light has fallen off my bike, my bell has fallen off my bike, some of my gears stopped working, my seat will not stay in place, and it will make some clanking noises. It would have been helpful to have someone who knows about bikes come with me. And in the times when I feel really low, it would be nice to have someone to hold me when I cry. I am able to tell some of my woes to my tutor and other friends, but even then, I don't feel like I can truly let go like I can with my community back home. So I find myself holding it in or calling home.

4) Speaking positively about my bike, I have learned that bikes for commuting are amazing! I feel so much more freedom with my bike! I can now get anywhere in town in less than twenty minutes! I love being able to go to my tutor's house for lessons, as well grocery shop at bigger stores. Having a basket is a must and it is so great to see the bike lanes around town (Osijek has the most bike lanes in the country) full of people going about their lives. It has also been a way for me to escape town. The other Sunday, I rode over fifty kilometers! First, I went by myself along the Drava in the morning, then I ventured to a nearby national park with some friends! It was so great to get out and be in nature again. Whenever I return to the United States, I want to start biking more and using my bike as a means of transportation instead of just exercise. I have always dreamed about living in a city and now my dreams include a nice bike I take to work everyday. My dream of someday biking across the United States has also been awakened.

5) Traveling! I now consider myself an expert at planning and going on trips. I can find good finds for hostels as well as apartments to rent. I know how to pack my backpack most effectively and how to make the most out of my time. My parents are now saying their trip here was one of the best they have ever been on! And I have such great memories of the places I have been and all the people I have met. It has been such a job being able to see new places and meet new people. I have discovered that every place has something to offer, even little towns such as Osijek. I want to take this with me, wherever I go. Even little towns in Ohio have things to offer if you are looking. If anyone needs help planning a trip, let me know! I am more than happy to help!

6) I now know a lot more about the Croatian language and culture. I still struggle learning Croatian. It is such a hard language and with so many people able and wanting to speak in English, I have found it hard to be motivated to learn. But I am learning. I loved having my parents here and being able to order in Croatian and talk to our hosts in Croatian. I have made progress and that feels good. I also know a lot of Croatians and am learning so much about how the culture is really different than the United States. A lot of these differences are hard to name out loud. But as I have recently spent time around other Americans, I can really tell the difference and in many ways I feel like an honorary Croatian because I understand a lot better now of how they think and the culture they come from. And even though it is still easier for me to work with Americans and be myself around Americans (because it is my culture and being in your own culture is almost always easier) I find myself comfortable around Croatians. More so than other countries I visit, where I haven't lived and I don't know the people. Some aspects of Croatian life can frustrate me, but on the whole, I have come to respect and even love the culture here. And that includes the language.

This post is becoming very long, so I will stop here for now. As you can probably tell, life here has not been easy for me lately. But when is life ever easy and always going your way? People from home will ask me how it is to live in Croatia and I always answer that it has its ups and downs just like life in America. You just have to cope and do what's best for you. That's life and I am learning how to navigate it to the best of my ability. 

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