In January we started the international part of our year, and I have ever loved being able to say that I toured Europe in a rock band. It really did feel like we were rock stars. After each concert we signed our autographs on our CDs, paper, books, t-shirts, arms, cellphones, backpacks — whatever the kids had available. Melissa and I were recognized from our poster by a journalist when we went to a Gregorian concert, and she interviewed us for the local newspaper. Our pictures were in several newspapers across Germany. We were interviewed for radio programs. The teenage girls got crushes on our three men. A youth in an all-male prison asked if he could kiss me, then ran away before I could register what he had said.
Most of our European tour was spent in Germany, and the schedule was a bit different than what we had in the States. Instead of moving completely to a new city every day, we would stay in one place for a week and visit all of the schools in the surrounding villages, inviting them all to a concert on the weekend. It was meant to be a chance for the kids to improve their English skills. Like any classroom, we had some great kids and some schtinker kids. The most alarming was when 165 kindergartners were gathered into one room for us to entertain for an hour. One of our favorite classes was with a group of high-schoolers with creative minds who spoke wonderful English. We dubbed one student the ‘Wasch-machine Kid’ after he sang us a song he’d written about moving a washing machine. Thanks to Facebook, he still keeps in touch.
That year in Germany proved to be a record winter for snow. The heater in our Mercedes Sprinter didn’t reach the back of the van, so the girls would stick their feet up in the air to try to thaw out our toes. Melissa melted the back of her coat when she was standing too close to a heat lamp.
It was nice to stay longer in one place, but we were so much more exhausted than we had been at home. (The word ‘home’ changed to wherever we were sleeping that night.) We’d get up early after a late night and spend at least six hours a day leading music and English discussions, plus all the time spent getting from school to school, and then an evening program. We were never on our own. Each meal was another ministry opportunity, but those meals would last for hours, and all the time we were so sleepy, and when we got sick there was little opportunity to recover. We occasionally sent written updates back to Youth Encounter for our family and sponsors to read, and I wrote about how team was like being in a fish bowl, with a class of fourth graders staring at the seven of us goldfish in our little bowl. You couldn’t ever jump out of the bowl or hide yourself from view. When we got to Europe, the size of our bowl got smaller while the number of children tapping the glass got bigger. As our native German teammate, Katja had the added stress of translating for the group and working through logistics. When our van was broken into in Cologne and our backpacks, computer, traveler’s checks and passport copies were stolen, Katja wasn’t with us, so I was the one who had to get us through the police interview. That’s how I learned the word ‘insurance.’ Our puppet shows and skits were translated into German, and the sharing section was either given in German by those of us who could speak it or translated. Katja was the only one of us without a microphone on stage, so any impromptu speeches during the concert were made by me. When she was sick for one concert, I told the audience that our Spielzeugerin (toy player) mas missing instead of our Schlagzeugerin (drum player). Whoops. Luckily, someone in the audience was a drum player and jumped right in with very little notice.
Our main host in Germany was a Martin Luther fanatic. (“Er ist mein bester Freund.”) We did some sight-seeing to Wittenberg and Wartburg castle. The pastor and his wife also took us to a sauna. We knew that there would be nude bathing, so we asked if the men and women were in different rooms. We were a Christian ministry group, after all. After reassurance that they were separated, we joined them to find that not only was everyone naked, the pastor and his wife were also naked. Melissa, Cristina and I in our swimsuits stared straight at the floor and giggled to ourselves, before finally joining the guys in the waterslide area with all of the kids. (Clothing necessary)
By contrast, our time in Romania was so relaxing. We had our own apartment in Cristina’s hometown of Cluj Napoca. We went to a couple of schools, but it wasn’t nearly as intense as Germany. For the first time, we heard Cristina switching effortlessly back and forth between Romanian and Hungarian, and she took over from Katja as the main translator for the team. In our next city we visited a couple of orphanages. As soon as we walked in the door, the kids mobbed us, all of them fighting for our attention and not afraid to grab a complete stranger and foreigner by the hand and lead us off to look at whatever they wanted to show us. A homeless woman lived there with her baby, and I doubt she ever saw her much, as the little girl was cheerfully passed from child to child around the orphanage.
We had several encounters with gypsies. A gypsy woman came to our door and motioned to her body and stomach, asking for food and clothing. We were in the midst of packing up and moving to a new place, so we did give her food and clothing that we didn’t want to take with us. She didn’t leave after we gave her those things, but kept pointing to her body and stomach. Cristina wasn’t with us at the time, but she had told us that gypsy children were given a quota for how much money they had to bring home with them, and that they were beaten if they didn’t beg enough. We knew this woman wasn’t going to leave until we gave her money. Before we could act on that, the man across the hall came out and started shouting at her to leave.
We had a few drivers that drove us to all of our engagements, and all of them were named Istavan. (“Isht-van,” the equivalent of Steven). We had gone to some place in the mountains, and he was driving downhill at breakneck speed, dodging peasants with their horse-drawn carts, gypsies and potholes, in the dark, in the fog, and speeding up around corners. Oh, and the seat belts were broken, too. The seven us us were habitual back-seat drivers with shouts of indignation for any bad moves, but on this occasion we all shut up and held on. I have never been more certain that I was in fact going to die, and during that mad ride I arranged and played out my entire funeral in my head.
At our second apartment in Romania, there was an alarm clock in a locked room that would go off twice a day and beep for half an hour before shutting down. Melissa liked to crawl through the window and sit on the roof, and one night I heard her shouting, “Meghan! MEGHAN! HEDGEHOG!!!!” I ran out of the house in my pajamas, followed her shouted directions, and soon was gently cradling a petrified hedgehog in my mittened hands. I named him Istvan.
Our most stressful concert was in Cluj Napoca. Our venue was a movie theater, and we were promised that we’d be able to start setting up our equipment an hour before the concert. We showed up, but the theater had decided to show a movie during that time to make more money. Our entire set-up and sound check was done in front of our audience. To our surprise, everyone stuck around for the concert, which started hours after it was supposed to.
The journey to Poland was long and harrowing. We took a bus to Budapest in the wee hours of the morning, getting held up at the Romanian-Hungarian border for two hours while guards carefully scrutinized every single face on every single one of the long line of buses with our passport pictures. Our next bus was departing for Krakow from Budapest, and Cristina was up at the front begging our driver to drive as fast as he could. We caught the next bus with five minutes to spare. The long drive was rough on all of us, but roughest for Jim, who is 6’6″ and didn’t fit too well in the seats. Three of us finished The DaVinci Code on that trip, passing it from one to the other.
In Krakow we were the booked musical entertainment for the EURIM conference, a collection of about 100 pastors from all over Europe who gather together each year to discuss a relevant issue in the church. That year the topic was, “How can we as Christians show love to the thousands of Muslim immigrants pouring into our countries?” That topic is even more relevant now, a decade later. The discussions were interesting, and everyone wore headsets to have the speeches translated into Polish, English, Russian or German. The seven of us were split into two groups to go perform in churches on Sunday. We sang the one song we knew in Polish, and in the audience an older woman immediately lit up with joy. We met her later after church, speaking in German as she didn’t speak English: she had lost her entire family in World War 2 and didn’t find them again until 25 years later. She was such a joyful spirit, and her painful experiences made her embrace everyone she met as family. The thought of her joyful love and energy can still bring tears to my eyes. As part of the EURIM conference, we were also taken around the city of Krakow and to nearby Auschwitz.
Poland tugged on my heart in a special way, and I knew I’d come back someday. I came back almost 9 years later on my honeymoon.
We went to a few schools in Poland. One school in particular had a mob of teens who kept cutting classes to come back and hear us again. Another school produced a huge box of Gideon Bibles in Polish, which were gone in seconds as each of the kids clamored for their own copy.
We had a week off after our European tour, and I spent that time in Borgomanero (near Milan) with my Italian family. Jim went to Tuscany, Melissa and Cristina went to Budapest, Bryan went back to Sprockhövel, where we’d begun our German tour, Ben went to Cinque Terre with his brother and Katja stayed with her family in Oschatz. It was difficult to say good-bye, as we didn’t know if we’d be seeing Cristina again. Her US visa had expired and we didn’t know if they would reissue her a new one. They didn’t. We had to fly back to the States without her, and she wasn’t able to rejoin us until later in the summer.