Posted by: Mark Nielsen | July 19, 2009

Unpacking Suitcases, Unpacking European Experiences

Woke up Sunday morning with a craving for Bach organ toccatas and fugues. I have no idea what that’s about, but still was obedient to The Voice, and thus went to my wife’s classical collection for some Karl Richter on the Deutsche Grammophon label. Scary good.

Hearing this haunting and/or airy music now takes me back to seeing the huge, gorgeous pipe organ in Zwingli’s Grossmunster Church in Zurich, which I saw just a week and a half ago. Beautiful church, …within which some very ugly and violent decisions were sometimes made by reformers with too much zeal and not enough mercy — especially for Mennonites (Taufers) and Moravians — in the years just after Martin Luther broke it all open. By contrast, John Calvin and his followers (in Bern, Switzerland) had an equal amount of passion (and theological rigidity?), but at least learned to use their brains more in their reading of the gospel.

Meanwhile, Sue and I got back to Chicago from Europe on Tuesday, and have spent the past few days alternately unpacking, relaxing, working, catching up on our lives, and (in Graham’s and my case) visiting that most American of institutions, Six Flags’ Great America amusement park.

“Great America”. Now there’s a tricky little name to wrap my brain around, especially so soon after looking over the Coliseum and Palatine ruins in Rome. Talk about a contrast from Italy and Switzerland. A contrast sponsored in part by GEICO, and CNN/Time Warner, let’s not forget.

My sisters plan a family trip to the park every year. I was unsure if I would go given the date they picked, but then I manned-up, and took Graham for his first time ever (Sue bowed out, not a big rollercoaster fan). Overall, I lacked stamina, and it was a rainy day on and off, and only one of my sisters was able to make it (Laura, the closet coaster-fiend!) but it was great fun anyway. A head trip as well as a minor beating for the body. I can still fit my barrel chest and big paunch into the seats for the original Batman coaster, but just barely.

Meanwhile, yesterday I did the tally of what our 17-day European trip cost us (in a general way… the specific number being too scary to contemplate), and realized anew that I’d better find some interesting and decent-paying work pretty quick here. I’m still thinking it won’t work to keep teaching at the small career college I worked at this past winter, but next steps are unclear. So what else is new?

I am still hoping to follow up with a few of the people we met on vacation, both American (hello, Facebook!) and international (hello, email… feh). And I expect the last of our postcards to family is just now arriving from Italy back here in Chicago. Italy is lovely and complicated, but that also means its postal service and other public institutions are not very efficient.

To illustrate the differences, I found myself telling someone on vacation that old joke about the difference between heaven and hell: in heaven, the Germans make the trains run on time, the Italians do the cooking, and the unarmed British bobbies run security. In hell, the Germans run security, the British do the cooking, and the Italians run the train and traffic services.

It’s not as bad as that anymore, but this old cliche still holds true somewhat. There’s a certain busy intersection right outside the Vatican where millions of pedestrian tourists are left to fend for themselves each year, dodging crazy scooter riders and even crazier autos just to go see the beautiful craftsmanship of the drivers’ ancient Roman and Christian ancestors. Whether intentional or accidental (pun intended), dealing with traffic in Rome (even though we didn’t drive) is a test of one’s faith in God’s protection.

And lest I neglect the Vatican, and the Vatican museums, I hope to come back to this subject later this week with a few pix to help out (which we are also unpacking now, from no less than four cameras). From the classical Greek sculptures and the majesty of St. Peter’s, to the recent Earth-Mother-inspired 1-ton brass sculpture commissioned by John Paul II, to Van Gogh’s comparatively tiny but devoted Pieta, the museums are stunning –no, kick that up a notch: truly overwhelming.

Speaking of Emeril Legasse and kicking things up a notch, my one regret, slight though it is, is that we did not manage to discover a truly tremendous meal in Italy. Maybe because we needed the money for that meal to buy a car (the weak U.S. dollar kept rearing its wimpy head in both countries). Some good meals, but nothing spectacular. On the plus side, though, it makes me appreciate the fact that it is actually possible to get excellent Italian food right here in Chicago, without dropping a couple grand to eat it on its home turf.

I will reserve more reviews, reflections and ravings about Europe for later in the week. On the Seventh Day, though I am not resting my typing fingers, my body and brain are still off-kilter enough that I need to take a sabbath, see some friends at church, and maybe just serve up some ramen noodles and Wonder bread tonight.

God forbid!!!


  1. I think you might discover ripple effects of the trip affecting you for several months. At least, that’s what happened to me when we went to Paris.

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