Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Legendary Road Trip

It was 6:30am on Thursday the 18th and my friend Jo—the bride—and I had been up all night working away at getting all her wedding stationery done and everything packed to stylize the French villa they’d booked to hold their wedding in the South of France, near Nice. With a hard shove to get the utterly PACKED-as-can-be car trunk closed, we set off from Sweden. In a tired daze, I never could have anticipated the adventure I was setting off on with my two friends, the bride and groom, across this continent called Europe which God has so thoroughly captivated my heart with! Thousands of miles, another lost night of sleep, 2 additional road-trippers, and 7 countries later, I stood breath-struck at having seen just a bit more of His glory and grace than I had before this legendary road trip, and we finished it all off with a stunningly beautiful wedding to boot!

And I am more in love than ever with this beautiful God who calls us by name and takes us farther with Him than we could have ever dreamed from where we began.

Country #1: Sweden
I said goodbye to Sweden from a cozy backseat of a car where I promptly fell asleep. When Jo and Jonas stopped the car at a petrol station 10 minutes away from home, I woke and asked, “How far have we got?” Haha. We were totally lost in time on this sleep-deprived adventure.

I awoke again to whisper goodbyes to this country I have called somewhat of a home for the last 3 years-- a country which I will return to visit, but don’t plan to return to live in now—just as we were crossing the massive 3 mile bridge over the North Sea from Sweden to Denmark. My heart was ready for the goodbye. It has been a long time in coming. But the friends I have made in these 3 years of tremendous growth in my life will be with me forever, wherever I wander…

Country #2: Denmark
In Denmark, we drove onto a huge ferry—like a floating parking garage, really, with a shopping mall up above the cars. We wandered through the duty-free shopping while on international waters, and stood in an alcove looking out over the sea and chatting amongst ourselves. These dear friends and I have grown very close over the last few years and God still seems to be honing and shaping our relationship. We can laugh and laugh, and we can cry, and despite being so utterly separated by our values—I’m a bought and paid-for lover of Christ, and they are Atheist/Agnostic only hearing Him wooing them ever so subtly. But the friendship runs deep, and I wait with bated breath to see them come to know Him and His relentless love of them…

Country #3: Germany
Once the ferry landed in Germany, Jonas, exhausted from our crazy night before packing and creating stationery, collapsed in the back seat of the car which left me as the sole driver. Jo is a brilliant driver, but hasn’t taken her test yet to be able to drive by herself and outside of Sweden. I am a very experienced driver having been at it since I was 15, but I RARELY drive a stick-shift and trying to makes me so anxious!  Nor do I often drive while abroad, or in a car so packed to overflowing that the rearview mirror was completely out of commission. But with Jonas asleep in the backseat, Jo and I worked out a great system and named ourselves “Team Awesome”, as I drove and worked the clutch, and she did all the shifting gears :) As well as keeping me abreast with the varying driving rules from country to country.

We spent HOURS driving down the length of Germany.  Our first stop was Bremen, to pick up Jo’s little sister—my sweet friend Millie—and Jo’s friend Norman. Millie had taken a train from Holland, where she works as an artist and sculpture model, to meet us there. Already at this point, there was not a spare inch to take any more luggage in that car, but somehow we managed to not only add 2 more people, but 3 more bags! The people in the back sat cross-legged and on top of each other, all the leg space taken up by the bags, but we made it that way almost all the way to Frankfurt (where we met up with some friends and shared a bit of the luggage!)—even through 2 hours of traffic jam which had us literally at a standstill, pacing along the road in frustration on a dark German night.

It kinda seemed like the start of a joke: “So, a Swede, a German, an American, and 2 confused Europeans (they grew up all over Europe) were in a car…” :)

I drove the night shift through Germany—my first experience of the legendary Autobahn! With Jonas and I the only licensed drivers in the car, we traded off every few hours. Even with unrestricted speed limits, Germany seemed a very very expansive, never-ending country that night, and though I spent hours in it, I hardly feel like I saw any of it as it was mostly after dark. But the morning brought quite a sight to behold…

Country #4: Switzerland
In the wee hours of the morning, Jonas handed the wheel back over to me, and I climbed in behind the wheel as everyone in the car tried to sleep. As the sun came up, I found myself surrounded by the famed Swiss Alps, the tops glistening with snow and rounded by time. I would say the experience was unreal, but that’s what I feel about the whole entire trip. In the quiet car, as the sun gradually lit the day, I literally whispered my praises to the Maker of this inexplicable beauty and prayed for more of His grace to help me drive the unfamiliar roads safely. I drove through the 2nd longest tunnel in Europe, 11 miles under a mountain, and found myself actually having to remind myself to breathe through the feeling of claustrophobia. We passed stunning ancient Alpine churches on top of clefts in the mountains, and tiny alpine villages tucked up amongst the cliffs. And before I knew it, we were crossing into Italian Switzerland, and then….

Country #5: Italy
Suddenly, we were in Italy, and the border guards were dressed in their funny Italian uniforms and instantly the traffic changed and the other motorists were laying on their horns and motorbikes appeared everywhere and it was all rather chaotic and strange. I was euphoric, even if nervous to be behind the wheel (Jonas soon took over!). We stopped at a gas station for my first ever Italian coffee, which Jo ordered in her perfect Italian, having grown up part-time here and being half Sicilian.

We drove along the Italian Riviera toward France, and stopped for an hour in a coastal town called Arenzano so I could have my first visit to the Mediterranean Sea. Though I’d hardly slept and looked like death warmed over, I floated along on a happy cloud :) I have always always always wanted to visit Italy and though this was hardly a visit, I WAS in Italy. Millie and I waded in to the sea just to feel it on our skin. We wandered through a colourful street market and Norman bought me a pair of Italian sunglasses because I hadn’t any Euro of my own. I practiced my “Frankie&Benny’s” Italian (Amanda, you’ll know what I’m talking about :)) and then all too soon, we were piling back into the car…

Country #6: Monaco
Driving along the Riviera from Italy to France, you can’t help but run into Monaco. By this time, it was my turn behind the wheel again and Jo was awake to be Team Awesome with me :) We took in the sites of her beloved Italian Riviera together, the brightly-coloured terracotta villages built up in the mountains overlooking the Meditteranean, and the ridiculously fast cars showing off their fancy Italian builds. The sun was shining almost too brightly as we passed through Monaco and looked down at Monte Carlo stretched out on the coast below. But it’s a very small country and in no time at all, we were passing into…

Country #7: France
…The south of France! When I signed up for this driving in Europe business, I was under the impression that it would only be on the freeway, so no problem. I could never have expected the numerous roundabouts and snaking mountain village roads of Cote d’Azur! Jo is a brilliant instructor, but I still left that car shaking like a leaf when I was able to pull aside and let Jonas take over once again! The hills were dotted by those tall, coniferous trees that you expect to find in that area of the world, and lavender grew at will amongst the shrubbery of the hillsides. We could eat grapes right off the vines along the street…

We found our hotel in a quiet Provencal village just outside of Grasse, and I sang out Belle’s “Bonjour!” song from Beauty and the Beast as we unpacked the car. French blue shutters on every stucco building, and grapevines growing across the railings— the beauty was UNREAL!

And so was the exhaustion! But it wasn’t time to rest yet…

The Legendary Wedding
The next day we moved into the private villa my friends had rented for their perfect French country wedding. Charles arrived!! But I was so busy running around preparing for the wedding—not only was I the maid of honour, but I was working as the bride’s personal assistant! Ha. So there was a lot to do. But we pulled it all off. It was the most visually beautiful wedding I’ve ever been a part of (and this was my 8th time being bridesmaid :)). Jo and Jonas’ ceremony took place in the front yard of the villa, overlooking a valley in the pre-Alps. The world renown Three Nails Photography was flown in for the event, as well as 40 of Jo and Jonas’ closest friends. After the picture perfect ceremony, where the bride and I sang a duet, we all sat down together on the veranda for a traditional Provencal wedding feast, followed by a gorgeous Baileys-flavoured wedding cake that Millie made herself!

Taken by Three Nails Photography --

 Charles and I had 2 more glorious days in France. We all stayed together at the gorgeous villa dining and enjoying everyone’s company late into the night (though, that sounds more romantic than it was since Charles and I, being not quite married, were sleeping on cots in the corridor—therefore, couldn’t sleep ‘til all the drunk Swedes had finally made their way to their rooms!). Packing a villa with all Jo and Jonas’ friends was such a grand idea. We had a blast hanging out with these people from all over the world whom we didn’t know before, but became friends with by the end! Charles and I walked up into the nearby village one afternoon, taking in the sights and smells of the South of France, and another we spent laying by the villa’s private pool with all the other guests, amazed by the sun and the temps. Amazed by the whole experience, really. We kept pinching ourselves. It was absolutely a dream. 

Now I sit at another airport. Within the span of one week I will have been in 9 countries. One night in France, Jonas, a bit drunk, had sat and talked with me about his beliefs, telling me why he doesn’t believe in God and questioning why I do. Now as I look back at the magical experience of road-tripping across Europe and the few days in France, all I can do is praise this God He cannot see and Whom I can’t help but see. It is experiences like that one that He sends me on that make it all worthwhile—all the hard steps on this journey to Him. All the things that feel like sacrifice (though, what IS sacrifice in light of what He’s done for me?), all the efforts that feel wasted, the prayers that feel unheard, the pouring myself out for people which feels never to do anything, all the aches that never seem to get satisfied and which I cannot, try as I might, explain. It’s moments like those days that make it all make sense again. You don’t have to understand why, Leah. You just have to trust Me and come when I call. And sometimes splendour like a random fairytale in the South of France follows. Or an adventure amongst the red dust of Africa. Or a handsome Brit asking for my hand in marriage. Again and again and again He takes what little I have to give and He rolls it out into more than I could have ever imagined. And again and again and again, I fall in love with Him (and His Europe!)…

Please pray with me for Jo and Jonas. Pray that they will “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). 

And thank Him for His beautiful world, whatever part of it you’re experiencing. Even in the brokenness, He’s left bits of His glory for us to bask in. How good is our God?!

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