Sunday, 15 December 2013

A Traveller's Return

Having been prepared for my return to UK culture after an amazing year abroad between France, Germany and Spain, I was fully expecting a few minor re-adjustment issues as I entered back into the country I had been an all-but-stranger from for the last 14 months. What I was not prepared for, however, was the sheer overwhelmingness of everything when I came hurtling back into student life, final year looming and the practicalities of living in a student house, work deadlines and trying to catch up with all those people I'd not seen for over a year all threatening to take over my ever more precious time.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

My Year Abroad in 100 Photos

So here I am, back in Blighty for the foreseeable future. Instead of doing the clichéd lengthy report on the immensity of this past year and all it has meant for me, I decided to portray my experiences via the medium of photographs. Here are 100 pictures that represent specific points along my journey, people who have made an impact on me and memories I will never forget.

Here Comes the Sun! leaving party and flag to sign

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

That Darned Language Barrier...

So, it turns out I still have many things to learn when it comes to the foreign languages. This week's lessons:

No. 1 - Speaking English sometimes doesn't help. In French, 'footing'  = jogging. Yes, the quite standard English concept of jogging has been dragged through the language barrier and somehow came out as the French noun 'footing'. This is almost up to the standard of the Germans and their 'Wellness Weekend' (Spa Trip), or 'Talkmaster' (TV show host). The creativity of non-native English speakers never ceases to amaze.

Cocktails in Chaponnay - without onions, this time (see 5).
No. 2 - Sounding like a native is difficult. I still can't get my mouth round the difference in pronunciation between 'rue' (road), and 'roue' (wheel). There's not much in it. You give it a try!

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Little Highlights

I was about to start this post by saying that nothing much had happened this week, then I looked back over my diary for the past seven days and discovered that there had been some things going on, after all. Life still continues on much the same vein - (very) quiet weekdays, more to do at the weekends - but these little highlights definitely made things a little bit sunnier.

Firstly (in order of importance, anyway), my sister got accepted into Uni! And to her first choice, nonetheless - Manchester, the London of the North (or so they say). This made me very happy, and I'm very much looking forward to visiting her next year. Congrats, Amy! You deserved it.

Secondly, I managed to go and visit my flatmate from last summer, when I was working at Cap Esterel. As far as unexpected international meet-ups go, this one was quite random - not least for her, seeing me suddenly pop up in her home town and demand a tour! It was good, though. It also gave me a great chance to see some different parts of the city, having more or less only been witness to the train station (five times!!) and the airport, on my way to other locations further afield. Vieux Lyon is beautiful.

On that note, so is Fourvière - the location of this rather stunning photo (if I do say so myself). We went there on Friday, as Isabelle - the mother of the family - had a day off, and decided to aid me in my quest to see more than just the transport hubs of Lyon. We walked up a massive hill to the old church, through the 'Parc des Hauteurs' (Park of the Heights, how apt), and then drove down to the Roman Amphitheatre to test out the acoustics - not as good as they were when it was constructed, I fear.

So, yes. A rather pleasant little collection of sunbeams, I feel. Add to that the fact that I just booked flights to go to a wedding in Madrid in September (woopee!), and things are looking fairly radiant. Fabuleux.

Moving Forwards (Playlist)

View from the front passenger seat on my way to work at Betel, Madrid
This playlist is a collection of songs that I have recently come across, have long loved or simply encapsulate a moment for me. For a link to this playlist on Spotify, see: Moving Forwards

Tom Odell - Grow Old With Me
Ellie Goulding – JOY
Noah And The Whale – There Will Come A Time
Steven Curtis Chapman – All Things New
Alan Pownall – Life Worth Living
Gary Go – Wonderful - Radio Edit
Gaby Moreno – Ave Que Emigra
Oi Va Voi – Wonder
Noah And The Whale – Now Is Exactly The Time
Amaral – No Sabe Donde Va
Simon & Garfunkel – El Condor Pasa/ If I Could
Jack Penate – Everything Is New
Mumm-Ra – She's Got You High
Maroon 5 – She Will Be Loved
Lee Fields & The Expressions – Love Comes And Goes
Mia Diekow – Herz KT Tunstall – Someday Soon
Bombay Bicycle Club – Ivy & Gold
Electric Light Orchestra – Across The Border
Taylor Swift – Everything Has Changed (feat. Ed Sheeran)
Sting – Brand New Day
The Calling – Wherever You Will Go
Jamie Cullum – Gran Torino
Carla Morrison – Me Encanta
Bob Dylan – Things Have Changed
Mumford & Sons – I Will Wait
Steven Curtis Chapman – God Follower
C2C – Down the Road
Muse – Invincible
KT Tunstall – Suddenly I See
The Feeling – Set My World On Fire
Steven Curtis Chapman – Only Getting Started
Ellie Goulding – Anything Could Happen
U2 – Beautiful Day
The Beach Boys – Wouldn't It Be Nice
Muse – Starlight David
Bowie – Let's Dance

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Touch Down to Earth

So, finally, a week without crazy international mishaps, cultural cross-border day-trips and random Italian suitors proposing marriage... And what happened? I got bored. Of course I did!

After several weeks of being in transit-mode, I've finally touched down, in this small French village to the south of Lyon, population: 3,000, twenty-somethings: 0 (figures approximated). My job: to spend the day keeping two au pair children adequately amused and spend a couple of hours trying to teach them English as well. Not rocket science. It's no wonder that spending 24/7 in one house and no visible way out started to take its toll by the 3rd day.
However, after a chat with a good friend and discussions of the possibility to go and visit someone in Lyon, things started looking up. In fact, after I decided to have a more sunny disposition towards how things were (and adjusted my sleep pattern), things were indeed a lot better. We've managed to get in a daily walk to the boulangerie in town: a small task, but no mean feat, and a time out of the house that does us all good. We also took several trips out in the car this weekend, with me driving, which ended in a solo journey into Lyon and back on Sunday evening! I'm not going to lie, I was a little terrified of going by myself, with the prospect of getting lost and truly having no idea how to get home again. But I had a trusty little SatNav (although in French, bien sûr), and the family phone for use in case of emergencies, and, thankfully, it didn't come to that. I even managed to get in a bit of parallel parking (heck of a lot easier in a Peugeot 206 than a van, I can tell you!), and made it with plenty of time to make it to the church service I had been aiming for, despite a minor deviation en route (turns out SatNavs sometimes aren't as easy to follow as I thought).

So, on the whole, not a terribly exciting week, but one that I can appreciate all the same. With fourth year quickly approaching it's actually rather good to have a bit of preparation time - I've been getting out the Spanish Grammar books, oh the excitement! And with more and more people returning to British shores ('end of year abroad' statuses galore), things are starting to calm down a bit. Perhaps it is time to touch down to earth. Well, until the next trip...

Monday, 5 August 2013

(Really Far) Out of the Comfort Zone / An InterRailing Adventure

Our route (inc. very artfully-drawn aeroplanes for flights home)

This week has been incredible. I've spent the last 9 days interrailing through Europe with one of my language assistant friends from Germany, and we've had some amazing experiences - some mishaps as well, as to be expected - and met some very interesting people (in both senses of the word). It's been an adventure!

I'm currently on the train on the way to Budapest from Prague, having also made it through Vienna and Florence from our starting point in Lyon, France. We also had an impromptu overnight stop in Dijon, which was rather amusing, if nothing else, as we ended up not being able to take the train we wanted to get on overnight to Florence, and so spent the night at a (very bad) karaoke bar with an Australian traveller who was on her way from Barcelona and hadn't slept for for several days... Like I said, rather amusing!

Other incidents include almost missing our train in Florence due to laid-back Italian bus drivers and a lack of tickets on board the vehicle (we had to get off when the ticket inspectors came because we hadn't been able to buy any tickets); and a night-time excursion through Vienna due to missing the last metro by minutes (see a theme here?), and having to take the night bus back to our hostel - much more complicated than you would think (although the bus driver was very helpful this time).

A gorgeous strawberry & elderflower and grapefruit ice-cream I enjoyed in Budapest
Revising this at a later date, I feel I have to add our hostel stay in Budapest, which was easily the weirdest hostel experience I've ever had (and I've been to quite a few hostels this year). Having to wait for our beds to be constructed wasn't the best start, but then we discovered that our only exit was through the bathroom, which was always flooded, often occupied, and also had no locks.... Awkward situation probability = high.

Other experiences, however, were more positive, although some equally strange - being proposed to by a random Italian guy definitely lived up to the national stereotype, although sharing a train carriage with random Austrian and Czech strangers actually turned out to be not as scary as it sounds. We've also journeyed through some incredible scenery, for example the train ride through Austria, full of glimpses of mountain villages and sky-blue lakes - absolutely beautiful.

Thankfully, despite all previous incidences, we've made it safe and sound thus far, and haven't had to sleep in the woods as one of our fellow travellers resorted to doing when she couldn't find her hostel (please, no!!). It's been a great week-and-a-bit, and given me again an appreciation for those things we often take for granted (a bed to sleep in, for example AHEM Dijon). If anything, this trip has shown me that travelling is a great exercise in risk and trust. Out of the comfort zone!

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Piecing Things Together

This has been a lovely week. I've been at the seaside, enjoying the benefits of a lovely au pair family with good food, good wine, relaxed moods and the occasional day trip to Spain to go and visit the Dalí Museum - amazing! I even managed to spend a couple of days with my good friend Laura, as she worked for the same family last summer, which was lovely - particularly as she's currently working at a vineyard, and happened to bring us a present (drinkable, of course).

This week has given me the chance to chill out and bit and start piecing things together from what I've learnt during this crazy year abroad: yes, it has been a whole year! I won't do the full report, as it's not over yet - far from it - but having now come almost full-circle, back in France again, things are starting to piece together and take shape for what's to come next year, and perhaps beyond. Ideas about jobs, lifestyle and location are abounding, none quite certain as of yet, but certainly there in bud, ready to blossom and/or fade away. I'm thinking about interpretation, journalism, doing a lot more travelling, and possibly ending up in France... We shall see.

I think perhaps one thing that's lent itself to this momental creative thinking is that through this year I've seen that even the wildest things are possible and the highest of heights touchable when your heart is willing and God gets behind it all. I'm feeling pretty excited, not least because I know that whatever happens, be it amazing or catastrophic, if I'm with God I am certain it will be the best thing.

A Bible verse I was reading the other day sums this up for me:

Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end.
Ecclesiastes 3:11
New Living Translation (2007)

Sunday, 14 July 2013

On the Road Again

Soundtrack: Down the Road - C2C (again, I know, but it's terribly apt)

Here I am, back on my travels again - never stay in one place for long! Having spent ten days at home in good old England it was time to get on with the last chunk of my Year Abroad, a second summer in France to keep up the art of shoulder-shrugging, refresh my essential knowledge of cheese and wine, and to make sure I haven't forgotten how to pout...

In fact, these past few days I really have been on the road again - after arriving in Lyon to meet my au pair family on Thursday, I barely had time to settle in or even unpack my suitcase before I was told to get packing again as on Friday we were going on holiday to Narbonne, three hours away on the coast! Having made it here, I have to say I'm very glad we made the trip - firstly, we've come to see my friend who worked for the family last year, but also we're in a beautiful chalet, right on the seafront and the view is amazing. Just what the doctor ordered.

With regards to work, the kids (two, aged 10 and 13) are really cute and the parents are very nice and keen to learn English. It's a little bit odd being on a holiday with a family other than my own and I'm never quite sure how much I should help out (when you're living with your employers even going to bed can feel like skimping out sometimes), but they're incredibly chilled out and work is not too challenging at the moment. All in all, things are going pretty well. I foresee a fairly relaxed summer with various exciting interludes (I'm going InterRailing in two weeks!). It's been strange adjusting to life outside of Betel again - so much free time! - but God knows what He's doing.

In a way, it's just back on the wheel of change - new place, new faces, new lifestyle - but now that Fourth Year is getting so close I can feel things slowly gathering momentum. This should be a nice summer to gather my affairs and get myself slowly back into study mode. By the side of the swimming pool, of course...

With love,
Nat xxx

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Bienvenida a tu país (Home Again)

Hello again...

Back in the UK - it's been a long while since I last updated this blog, but I'm determined to keep it going until right at the end of this year abroad business, and there's still a little way to go! The end is drawing ever nearer, with many of my friends already having returned to home shores for the last time before heading off to Uni in September, but there's still one adventure left in my journey. I've managed to squeeze in a summer job working as an au pair in the lovely French city of Lyon for a couple of months, finishing promptly at the beginning of September ready to pack my bags for the return to Nottingham once more.

I haven't left quite yet, however. Before I talk about that (next post), I'd just like to talk a little about the remainder of my time in Betel, and the lasting impact it's had on my life. It was an amazing experience, if tough and a bit out of the ordinary (perhaps all the better for that), and there are certain things that will stick with me forever from that place.

Firstly, a simple appreciation of the smaller things in life. You quickly cotton on to the fact that the little luxuries from British culture aren't always present when you venture abroad, but something as basic as being able to talk to your family whenever you want and however long you want to becomes something special when it is limited (the Betelitos are only allowed to have 10-minute phone calls at weekends and, with no internet at the house, I often had to steal moments while I was at church to skype home and check in with the family).

Secondly, a whole lot of gratitude for what I've been given in life. I know this is a little cliché, but when you see firsthand how people's lives can be torn apart by family issues, domestic violence, abuse, unemployment, the crisis, or lack of stability in their lives, it gives you a strong impression of how important a loving, supportive family environment really is. A lot of the Betelitos that come into the centre simply have a massive need to be loved and shown how to live in a community that cares for them no matter what. They need a family. So yeah, I'm very grateful for mine. Thanks, God =]

Thirdly, the relationships I've developed over the three-and-a-half months I spent in the centre at Madrid. It really was wonderful to see the girls grow in confidence, in trust and in faith during the short time I spent with them. Each of them has a very special place in my heart - some were more challenging than others to get on with, especially being in their company 24 hours a day (living in the same house, remember?), but I can definitely say that it was worth the time I invested into every single one, despite frustrations, and the heartbreaking fact that some girls spent time in Betel but left suddenly without reason, presumably to pursue their former lives on the street, or taking drugs. However, I'll continue praying for them and, as for the girls that stayed, I look forward to hearing from them in the future (they promised to write)!

Fourthly, and slightly linked to the last point, the importance of sacrifice. It's not a very popular topic, and not one that I enjoy discussing very much either, let alone implementing, but it's there. It's necessary. It's God (and even if you don't believe in God, it's pretty much inevitable that you will have to sacrifice something at some point in your life). The things that I sacrificed to go into Betel - time, money, sleep, a certain amount of freedom (not being able to listen to my own music, not really being able to talk to the guys), and a large amount of personal space (you're never really alone in Betel), which cost me a lot of effort. However, the things I gained through those sacrifices - patience, acceptance, living/growing in faith, holding your tongue (a whole lot easier to do when you don't speak the language), appreciating the moment, and developing deeper relationships with the girls - were definitely worth the effort. I'm not saying I've completely mastered all these things (be pretty amazing if I had), but I'm certainly a whole lot closer on the way to getting to know them than I was before! And that makes the time seem that much more precious.

And with that, I draw to a close my comments on my life in Betel. As I mentioned on Facebook, Betel has changed my life, and I'm incredibly grateful for the support and love I found among the Betelitas and Betelitos. They are a truly miraculous people, and I'm so privileged to have been able to live alongside them and see the change happening in many of their lives. If you have the chance to do any sort of volunteering experience - a mission trip, a gap year, a summer placement - I'd encourage you to go for it! Especially if it's in another country. You won't come back the same.

God bless you (Que Dios te bendiga),
Nat xxx

p.s. If anyone has any questions, or just wants to chat more about Betel (or even feels called to volunteer...), please comment below on my blog or pop me a message if you have my contact details. Thanks =]

Monday, 20 May 2013

Day in the Life (of a Betel volunteer)

Hola! It's been a while since I've had the chance to write this blog, things have been mega-busy and with so much going on I didn't even know where to start! As I couldn't possibly fit in my entire month of activities into this little update, I'll do a quick shortlist of the top few highlights, then I'll go on to describe my typical day in Betel. Hopefully, it'll be an interesting illustration of what I get up to over here, and may answer some of the questions you may have about Betel and how it all works. I'll just add that, having been through that tough time at the beginning, I now love it here, and am really beginning to enjoy the work God's given me. There are still challenges (which I'm sure I'll mention later), but in general, things are going well.

Firstly, a quick shortlist of my recent activities:

1. Weekend visit to Germany for a friend's birthday and to meet up with my old assistant friends from North rhine westphalia (NRW). Oh, how we laughed!

2. Wedding bells! One of the girls from the house got married to a Betelito in our church and all the girls went along. It was a lovely event, and really heart-warming to see how someone's life can be so fully reconstructed, even to the extent of getting married.

3. The arrival of new girls in the house, and building relationships with the girls that are already here - it's great to chat, hear their stories and share in their lives.

And so onto...

A Day in the Life (of a Betel volunteer):

07:00 Woken up by the sounds of a 'Buenos Dias' (or Good Morning for all you non Spanish-speakers out there), as someone pokes their head round the door to signal that it's time to start the day. Rise and shine!

07:10 After 10 minutes of failed attempts to get up (otherwise know as falling asleep again and thinking that the 'Buenos Dias' was all a dream), someone turns on the light in the dorm and we all groan and cover our eyes. People gradually start emerging from their beds, sleepy-eyed and yawning.

07:15 Up and out! Having managed to (very gracefully) manoeuvre myself down from my top bunk with no ladder, I am in the process of preparing myself for the day. Clothes: check. Backpack: check. Makeup: optional...

07:25 Sitting in the dining room, waiting for everyone to arrive for breakfast so that we can say grace and make a start. A standard Spanish breakfast: coffee with cakes/croissant to dip into it. They do sometimes have cereal, but this they also decide to put into their coffee. Bleurgh.

07:45 A quick brush of the teeth and straight to the living room, where we have our morning devotional. We usually start with a time of prayer and praise, with one of the girls and I playing the guitar and the others singing along. Then comes the Bible study/thought for the day - this morning, it was from Roseane, who told us about her life before she became a Christian, and how God has been changing her heart towards forgiveness.

08:30 End of the devotional, and everyone runs to their rooms to grab their bags and those who went for the more glamorous look give their makeup a final quick touch, heading quickly out to the vans before the leader of the house comes along and tells you off for being late...

09:20 Arrival in the city, and things start getting busy. The madrileños are are up and ready to let out their angry sides, with honking galore, non-indicating drivers, sudden road-side stops and impatient speed demons who get annoyed if you take more than half a second to move once the light has turned green. Oh, Spaniards. The girls are encouraging me to 'Saca lo español', or 'Let your Spanish side out', otherwise known as driving very quickly and honking at every opportunity. It's quite fun! Although not something I'm going to take back to the UK. Probably...

09:30 After having dropped off a couple of girls to work at our charity shop, Blueberry (Calle Marcelo Usera, if anyone's interested), we arrive at church, unload the van and set to work. Some girls to to the kitchen, to prepare the food for lunch, and we head off to get on with some cleaning - oh, the joys!

12:00 Time for a break. It's at least two hours until lunch, so we grab ourselves a snack (pincho) and sit down in the dining room for 10 minutes or so, resting our tired arms from all that sweeping/ mopping/ cleaning windows (my speciality). If someone's feeling generous, we might even get chips from the Betel chippy round the corner. Then we continue with the good deed until...

14:00 Lunchtime! Lunch is a big affair, with all the pastors of the church, all the office staff, all the chicos working in the charity shop next door and various sites in the area come to have their share. It usually amounts to about 70 people, so you can imagine the preparation involved, and the tidying up afterwards!

14:30 After we've eaten, the girls head over to the sofas in the corner of the dining room, where we can enjoy an hour or so of rest in our siesta time - much appreciated, after a long morning's work. Time for a call with the family, or just a long nap - lovely!

16:00 End of the siesta, and everyone rubs their eyes and rolls back into working mode. Today, my colleague has a driving lesson (Betel has a serious lack of drivers), so I go to help tidy up the kitchen and dining area. This is usually done fairly quickly, so by...

18:00 We have a bit of time to read/relax/study. There is also time to have a shower, and get changed for later on, as, being Wednesday, we have a church meeting in the evening and everyone likes to look their best. Some may have slightly more interest in this than others, having boyfriends or other significant males in the men's houses, who they are only allowed to see during church time. A pretty important moment for many of them - church services are the social highlights of the week, for sure!

20:00/20:30 The meeting begins - always a bit late; we are in Spain, after all. There's worship (singing), prayer, and then a short talk from one of the Betelitos (male or female). A lot of them talk about their testimony, which is always an inspiration to see how much God's been changing them - there are some very complicated back-stories here in Betel, as you can imagine!

22:00 End of the meeting, and we say our last goodbyes, go out to the vans again and head home. There, dinner will be being prepared by the girls who stayed at home today (there's always 3 or 4), which we can enjoy eating round about...

23:00! By this point, most of us are knackered, so we head off towards our welcome-looking beds, although not before doing our night-time jobs/having a shower. I often stay up a little longer to write my diary and chat to the girls I haven't seen during the day time. This means that by the time I actually get into my PJs and snuggling down under the duvet, it's often...

24:00 when I collapse into my blankets and hope that the girls' snoring doesn't disturb my night's sleep. A quick prayer to dedicate the next day and the girls to the Lord, then it's eyes closed and night night until the next day, where it starts all over again!

So there you have it - a typical day in the life of a Betelita in the Casa de chicas, Madrid. Some days are different - it can be quite exciting to check the rota and find that you're going off to collect donations in the mountains! I hope this has given you an insight into my life at the moment - if you have any questions, feel free to comment/contact me :)

Much love - until next time!
Nat xxx

Sunday, 14 April 2013

En Casa?

Currently sitting outside in the evening sunshine, scribbling a few notes for the blog and enjoying the last few rays. This is the life!

Having now been here a month (a whole month!! I can hardly believe it), this week has been what I see as the reward for those three weeks of slogging when I first came here. Each day has given me something new and exciting, and while it's still been exhausting and at times frustrating, I feel that I can now begin to call this place 'home'.

A brief summary of my activities:

• A couple of stints working at different second-hand shops run by Betel - this is good fun, as you can go through the donations before anyone else gets their hands on them and grab any items that catch your eye! I've picked up a couple of treats already.

• Lots of driving, including up to Aguas Vivas, one of the men's houses (or casas de chicos), which is up in the mountains and has buildings that are used as a holiday/retreat centre for groups that want to rent it out. It's beautiful up there, and a fun old drive, despite the ridiculously pot-holed and bumpy track you have to take to get up there! Look left to see a photo of the (rather cloudy) view from outside the house.

• A rather sudden introduction into the worship team (they don't really 'do' giving you much notice here). I was waiting for the evening meeting to start at the church on Wednesday, and the musicians were rehearsing their final songs for the beginning of the service. Suddenly, one of the leaders came up to me and said 'I heard you play guitar. Why don't you have a go?' (but in Spanish, obviously...), and handed me his guitar! Luckily, I didn't have to play for the worship there and then, but we had a quick jam and I helped to lead at our morning devotional the next day. Yay :D

• The arrival of a new American girl has meant that I have an English-speaking companion in the house, which is rather nice. Although I have to say, my friendships with the other girls are developing well - we had a mad evening the other day, where several of them were jumping on/tickling me, while others tried to mess up my hair, and yet more had already tried to hide my shoes. All in the name of love, of course. And my Spanish continues to improve, gradually reaching that level where I can have some quite serious conversations and actually understand what's being said/have a positive input, which is a big step foreward. I look forward to more of these chats :)

• Finally, my pace of life has adjusted to fit in with the Betel routine! I still get hungry at 12 and 7, when food isn't for another two hours, but I've got myself a reputation as 'the girl who likes to eat', and it is, in fact, quite common to have a 'pincho' (snack) at these times anyway. On another topic, the pure fact that I have nowhere else to be/nothing else to be getting on with means that I have had no choice but to slow down, chill out and relax a bit - for example, there's no point cleaning an entire church in a morning, if that then means you've got no work left for the afternoon. It's quite nice, this slowed-down pace -definitely a lot less stressful than rushing for Uni deadlines (oh, final year!).

So, that'll be it for this week - keep those letters/prayers coming!
Adios amigos xxx

Monday, 8 April 2013

In at the deep end!

Well, this week's certainly been different to the last one. I had a bit of a moment on Monday where I was, quite frankly, fed up and wanted to leave. But after that, things turned around and there were plenty of new things to keep me distracted! I went out driving for the first time on the other side of the road, which was an experience in itself. Add to that the fact that I've not driven for about half a year, I've never properly driven on a motorway, I was driving in a van and in a city where the citizens are renowned for being bad drivers, well, you can imagine! We survived, though. And I've been practising - I'll be a pro by the time I come back (just like volleyball...).

However, the main thing I wanted to talk about this week was my trip to Valdemingonez, otherwise known as La Cañada (narrow pass/ravine), or 'El Vertedero' (the rubbish dump). I went with a girl from my dorm (Patrizia) and a couple of guys from church, and headed out with a van full of supplies - sandwiches, drinks, etc. - ready to hand them out to the people we met there. Let me just add that this spot is a well-known area for drug taking and trafficking. I knew what I was coming up against, having read about it in books about Betel, but I still wasn't quite prepared for what met me.

We arrived at our destination and parked the van in a mud-covered patch of ground in the middle of nowhere, next to an abandoned church (the irony struck me, too). There were cars packed around the edges, and an open-sided square of vans set up by the Drug Awareness Agency, also giving out drinks and sandwiches as well as information. I saw a policy car drive in, turn round and drive out again at least twice. There were tents set up at the sides of the field and a shackle type of living abode that was obviously being used as temporary housing/a drug den by the more desolate people in the area.

It was quite a sight to see those mud-encrusted figures, mostly men, stumble across the uneven ground and hold their hands out for what little we could give. Some of them weren't so far down the line - a few even looked fairly normal: trendy glasses, leather jacket - but they were mostly dirty, smelly and truly pitiful characters. A few conversations were sparked off - Manolo, one of the men from church, knows a lot of the guys that go there regularly, so they knew what we were about. Some of them wanted to chat, listening to Manolo's reasoning but always giving excuses for why they couldn't come with us - 'I'm feeling better, I only do 2g a day now', or 'I've got to sort things out with my family, I'll come with you another day'. Some didn't stick around, just grabbed the food and left. Others were more vocal in their aversion to our message, calling God a 'cabrón' (bastard) and berating Him as being nothing but a rule-maker who likes to punish us. What was most heart-breaking was to see the men and women who came into this place with their children, dragging them into this mess of a world with them. One man had his son of about 10 waiting in the car for him. One woman even came up to us wheeling a pram. My heart goes out to that little boy.

Towards the end, however, came along a man who had obviously come before, and he told us about a problem he had with his lungs. Manolo offered to pray for him, and the man started to cry, telling us of his family, his wish to be free of drugs and his wish to join Betel. Manolo and Carlos, the other man from church, were ready to go there and then, but he said he had some things to sort out, and he would come tomorrow, he promised. I pray to God that he does. And so with this, we left that dark and desolate place behind and headed back home - to church - for lunch.

It took me a while to process all of this, and I'm sure it'll still be sinking in during the next few days, but it did one thing straight away - it made me much more aware of where many of the girls in this house have come from, how much they need God's grace and how much He is living with us today. This is what allows the works we do to be done by faith, as the people I saw in Torrejon wouldn't have been capable of cooking a meal, let alone running an international organisation. Praise God.

I'll write again soon.
God bless,
Nat xxx

p.s. I'd just like to add a quick thank you for your letters, those who sent them - much appreciated!

Sunday, 31 March 2013

First Steps

Wow - this week has been intense! I can hardly think of a time when I've bad to go through so many changes, except for perhaps the first week of Uni. It's been a challenge to say the least, but I think I'm getting there (although there's still a long way to go). Keep praying, those who are, an if you're not, start! I think I'm going to need it...

This second week has been better and worse than the first in equal measure. Better, because I'm getting to know the girls, the routine, the system, and starting to see where I can fit into it as a whole, and where I can start to have an impact on those around me. Worse, because adjusting to this system is hard work! I never have time to myself, I'm constantly exhausted, I often find myself doing jobs that I don't enjoy, and there seems to be a new rule every day that I didn't know about - something I'm sure is designed to try me to the extreme!

But I can see a way out. I had to lead a time of devotion/Bible study on Tuesday, and although I was ridiculously nervous, tired and emotional, I managed it, and my message seemed to get across. It was about God working best in your weakness, and I don't think there's been a better time for demonstrating that than now. I'm learning the values of patience, humility and obedience in a big way, particularly as I often really can't argue back - I just don't know the words in Spanish! This is incredibly frustrating, but it's given me the chance to properly think things through, to decide whether something's worth the bother of arguing about, and to know that God is with you at all times, particularly when you're feeling weak and alone.

My Spanish is improving rapidly, even if it is mostly aural at the moment (I don't have the energy to do lots of speaking!). I'm starting to settle into this new lifestyle and great things are promised for the future. I'm sure I'll have plenty of stories to tell you about the amazing girls I'll be living with over the next few months, but for now let me leave you with a little message that Betsy, a Mexican volunteer who's about to leave after having spent three months here, gave me:

Nahum 1:7
The Lord is good, giving protection in times of trouble. He knows those who trust in Him.

She told me that spending time here is the best experience you can have, and that by the end you will not be the same person you were when you first arrived. This message makes me a little nervous, but also gives me an immense hope and excitement for what's to come. I'm looking forward to many new experiences and being able to learn from the women that surround me by their example in day-to-day life. Until next time!

Happy Easter :D

Nat xxx

P.s. I've found the time to do a lot of letter-writing recently. If you fancy penning me a message, I'd be happy to give you my address - just pop me an email, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can :)

Monday, 25 March 2013

¡Hola, España!

Well, things at present are certainly a little different than they were in my last post! For one thing, I am no longer in Germany, instead currently residing in Madrid, Spain. Secondly, I am no longer teaching English to German schoolchildren, but volunteering in a centre for drug addicts and alcoholics, living with them and generally spending all my time in or about the centre and its various other working locations.

To explain, I feel I should give a little bit of background information on the centre and what it does. It's run by Betel, a Christian charity set up by Elliott Tepper, an American missionary, in the mid 80s. The principle aim was to give a recovering drug addict a place to live, food, clothing and spiritual support as he went through court proceedings. To pay for his keep (and keep him occupied), this man worked at the flat where he was staying, painting walls, mending appliances and such like. As he was doing so well, his friends started asking if they could come and stay too. Soon there were too many of them to live and work in one small flat, and they had to move out to a bigger house, and they started finding work outside the home, but always working together for the benefit of the whole house. Thus Betel was born. Now there are hundreds of centres all around the world, all giving practical aid and support to thousands of recovering addicts and alcoholics, and run by missionaries and ex-addicts (named Betelitos, people who have been previously taken in by the centres), and helped out by a fair few volunteers along the way. Here's where I come in. I decided to spend my time on Spain helping out at a centre like this, living with the girls at their house in Madrid, and working with them at their charity shops, giving out leaflets, doing collections for donations and generally making myself useful.

I've been here just over a week now, and the time's been interesting to say the least! I stared off on the first day helping out with cleaning at the church, and I haven't really stopped since then. It's been tough at times, particularly with the language, which I can mostly understand (thank God), but I find quite hard to speak. I've had to adjust to a lot of things in the Spanish Betel life, not least the eating times, which tend to be about 7 in the morning, 3 in the afternoon and 10 at night. I've also had to get to know the 20 other girls that I'm living with, no mean feat when half of them are Spanish, and the other half from various places around the world, including Russia, Poland, Brazil and Portugal, to name a few. Oh, and the pack of Internet access (only a couple of times a week, at the church), and my iPod, is killing me!

But I'm pleased to say that I'm feeling more and more secure every day, and I feel like I'm getting to know the girls and the organisation much better with each new experience I have. I definitely like the attitude towards coffee (always, and has priority over work), and the idea of a siesta is quite appealing too. I've heard some amazing stories already, and I'm sure that time will only reveal more. Life can be dealt with without constant Facebook access and music in your ears, however hard that might be. Only time will tell.

I would be grateful for any prayer people could send my way - that I can settle in well and start to make a difference, and also for the girls and their problems. Until next time - adios!

Much love, Nat xxx

P.s. If you want to read more about Betel and their amazing work, please check out their website:

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Liebes Deutschland

Dear Germany,

I came to you as a very tanned, slightly apprehensive, rather French-sounding English person, full of expectations. And you did not let me down. Thank you for proving and shattering stereotypes; showing me the fun of travelling; the joys (and grievances) of teaching; the beauty of friendship, and making me into 'one of yours'.

I will miss your wonderful array of herbal tea; your fabulous Brötchen (and bread as a whole), and your amazing knack of making a night out last several days, even if that is just the repercussions of having left the house at 10 in the evening and not coming back until 6 in the morning (the club, incidentally, not even having closed yet). I'll miss your people's keenness for sporty activity, thus rendering the question ' Do you play sport?' useless, and replacing it with 'What kind of sport do you do?' (ahem, volleyball). I'll also miss their penchant for travelling ridiculous distances for a holiday, even if it's just for the weekend and half the time will be spent on the road getting there and back (it's just good to get away, you know?). On a similar note, I'll miss their incorrigible interest for different cultures and languages, and just how much they love to demonstrate this, even if it does make practising German a little difficult at times!

Some things I won't miss, however, are getting up at six in the morning to go to work while it's still dark; your people's seeming obsession with sparkling water (Tap water is fine. No, honestly!); the permanent lateness of your trains, particularly when you want to get somewhere important/have a connection to catch (Note: after my journey back home was punctuated by having one train come late, one being cancelled at the last minute and one bus just not bother to turn up at all, I stand by this point. German public transport, you suck!). I'll not miss your people's inability to form a queue (letting the person that was there first go to the new till in the supermarket? Just not the done thing. And letting people off the train before you plough on with all your suitcases/prams/children in tow? Not a chance!), and their terrible Europop/Club music mix that is all there is to be heard on the radio all day long (actually, I might miss that a bit. Just the Europop part. And only sometimes).

All in all, I've learnt a ridiculous amount during these six months that I've been here, not least a rather hefty amount of German! I've also developed my sense of organisation, my directness, and my general knowledge of the world as we know it (so far, so German). Also my guitar-playing skills, a nice addition to the group, if not as predictable as the others!

Let me finish with one final thing that I will miss about your wonderful country. Your lovely people and their fabulous sense of occasion, which I have had the luck to experience often of late, in saying my goodbyes to the various friends and acquaintances I have managed to gather in my short time here. I will be forever grateful that they decided to take me in, welcome me and call me friend (or even family, in some cases). To leave that behind will be hard. But there is one things you can be sure of:

I will be back!

All my love,

Friday, 8 February 2013

What a week.

The birthday week has been and gone, and I am now 21... All right, Enough of the rhymes. But what a week it has been! I'll run you quickly through the itinerary:

Thursday: Arrival of my friend from home to stay for a long weekend. Flight due to arrive late in the evening, so we stay over at another friend's as the trains don't run late enough for us to make it all the way home...
Friday: Party time! A day of prep., then a rather lovely evening with various assistant friends, church friends and family, including a game or two of Jungle Speed, several attempts at doing clap press-ups and wall-bar chin-ups (not all entirely successful), along with a nice round of 5, 6, 7, 8 to finish off. Good work, guys!
Saturday: Day of recovery. Also made it to the Witch-Hunter Mayor's House (a local sight), and cooked pancakes for dinner with everyone round. Stayed up late enough to see my actual birthday in, with a rather hushed (but obviously wonderfully melodious) version of 'Happy Birhday'. Lovely!
Sunday: My 21st!!! A slow-moving start (due to the late night), but soon it was all go - I had a beautiful table of presents waiting for me in the main house (complete with 21 candles), then we went for a meal at a local Italian restaurant (yup, no changes there) and afterwards decided to explore the castle next-door. A good idea, although the walk afterwards perhaps wasn't - sleet on your birthday is never fun, but especially not when you're in the middle of the countryside with one umbrella between three people. Ah well, we were all back in the warm and dry soon enough (thanks to a very kind someone who agreed to pick us up!).
Monday: No school due to open day, woo! A bit of exploration further afield, namely the nearby town Detmold. We managed to meet up with one of my colleagues and I have now seen the local monument that everyone has been telling me about since I got here in September. Some things do take some time!
Tues: Bit of a more chilled-out day (still off school though, some people get all the luck =p). Slept in late then made muffins, sadly after that it was time to say goodbye to my dear British friend and send her off back to the land of pasties, fish and chips and other such delicacies. Came back home and had a lovely night in with my Lemgo buddy and a copy of 500 Days of Summer (what a film!).

All in all, this week(end) has made me very thankful for the life I've been able to build here, and the friends I've been blessed to make. I'm feeling good about life as a 21-year-old (we'll see how long that lasts!).
P.s. Did I mention that several people mistook me for a German person this weekend? That could have something to do with my massive feeling of happiness right now!

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Time is speeding up.

I know it has been almost a month since I last posted, but there is a reason for that. Basically, I've been very busy! Time seems to be speeding up and I have a feeling it's not going to stop until I fly off at the end of February. Things are going better than ever - coming back to a place always seems to make you appreciate it more. I've been doing all sorts of fun things with our amazing group of assistants, and also actually spending time with German people, who are no longer just some sort of language-practising device but actual people that I'm getting to know and becoming friends with. This is such a nice feeling, I want to appreciate it all the more while I can.

Some of the things that I've been experiencing lately in the lovely Lipperland:

Snowwwww!!! Plus the ridiculously freezing temperatures that come with it. Minus 10, anyone?

Frühstück am Sonntag - a very German breakfast with my church friends, consisting of many, many bread rolls, jam, spreads, OJ, coffee, and the ever present (but oh so unnecessary) ham and cheese (really? at breakfast?)

Making my host family the typically English meal of beans on toast the other day - they loved it! I tried to tell them it was a cheat's way out of cooking dinner, but they were massively impressed nonetheless. Well, what can you do? Obviously I'm just massively gifted in the beans-on-toast area. That is a gift not to be scoffed at.

And some not so much in Lippe:

I went on a choir trip, with the school (no jokes) - was pretty good, actually! Lots of snow and singing, and a bit of socialising in there too. Some interesting stories that came out of that one (I definitely know the students better now than I did before)...

Weekend trip to Dresden (in the East, on the border to the Czech Republic) - a really amazing place, and very cool to be able to compare what used to be East Germany with the Western side, where I'm living now. My conclusion: more friendly and more alternative. But that could just be Dresden. Anyway, I liked it! Except the part where we had to sleep on the night train and missed our stop by an hour because we overslept. Not good.

Finally, the pièce de résistance... a surprise birthday party for my Scottish friend! I don't know who looked more awkward, her standing there being rather befuddled by our sudden appearance or us trying to sing Happy Birthday in the street. Anyway, it was great fun and we eventually got to see this little town and Scottish pub she's always talking about! Schön.

Also, as you may be able to tell, I am getting rather Germanised in my speech and thinking (Denglisch is definitely the way forward). As fantastic as this is, it could cause minor problems when I go to Spain in a month's time (basically, no one will understand me). For this reason, I would really appreciate prayer in order to prepare me for the coming change and that God would provide me with the strength (and vocab!) to get by, particularly at the beginning.

Next time I write, I shall be one year older (21 on Sunday!!). I'll be sure to let you know how it feels. Until then - tschüss!

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Fellow Brits, friends and acquaintances.

Back on the green shores of the home land! I have spent a rather lovely two weeks in good old England, appreciating being able to eavesdrop on conversations and understand almost 100% of what's being said; talk to people in shops without being terrified I won't understand the response, and, of course, the wonderful art of British queueing! Had also almost forgotten the unavoidable reflex to apologise for everything that happens, even if the situation is completely and utterly not your fault (my friend Megan apologised for having a knife thrown at her in a restaurant. Yes, really).

With only a fortnight in the country, after spending Christmas with the family, I resolved to spend as much time catching up with people as humanly possible. This was made possible by the lack of revision (no Uni exams in January! Woo!), and the rather pleasant amount of money I have gained from actually working abroad, rather than volunteering or such like (we'll see how it is in a few month's time...). It's been rather strange seeing people again, as it's basically been about 6 months since I've been around to talk to, and quite a lot can happen in half a year. With some people, it was a bit weird - the gradual introduction of the  'So, what are you doing now?' question, as people my own age have actually started growing up and getting jobs and things (scary stuff). With others, it's been like I barely went away - we just slipped into the same comfortable conversation that we had before, and will hopefully enjoy for years to come. It's been lovely, and made me really appreciate the importance of being able to see friends and family, particularly as the next time I'll see many of them will be June at the earliest (not even considering what would happen if I decided to move abroad permanently at some point!!). I also feel a bit better about leaving Germany at the end of February (which I know is going to be hard), as I know that some people will always stay my friends, even if I don't see them for a very long time. See you, suckers!