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Thirty. A few years ago, I made a resolution to visit thirty foreign countries before I turned thirty. Today I turn thirty, and earlier this year, I reached my thirtieth country. In the last thirty days before my birthday, I shared a story from each country. These are the stories!

If you only have time for a few stories, here are my top five favorites (though it’s hard to pick just five!):

And here are all the stories in the order they appeared. They’re not necessarily in any particular order, but if you’d like to read all thirty stories, I recommend you start at the beginning.

Bon voyage!


Denmark, 2016

I joked that when I reached the thirtieth country, I was going to fall to the ground and kiss it and then do a victory dance. We were with Beloved’s family in northern Germany, and we were so close to Denmark you could almost smell it. So we drove there one afternoon together to a lovely seaside town.

Later that day we would rejoice when we found Baby’s favorite book in Danish. And then, when we drove back into Germany to visit a castle on the coast, I would send the rest of the family ahead into the castle while Baby and I relaxed on a blanket, playing and having tummy time with the lovely view of the castle behind us.

And now, we had pulled into a parking lot in the lovely seaside town in Denmark and the first thing I did was change Baby’s diaper.

A few minutes later, as we were walking away from the car and towards the marina, I suddenly realized that I had reached my thirtieth country before I turned 30. And I hadn’t kissed the ground or done a victory dance. I had changed a diaper.

Goodness, things have changed, I thought to myself, and I looked down at the sweet Baby staring up at me from his carrier. And yet, somehow, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You and Daddy and I are going to have some wonderful adventures together,” I told him. “What do you say, kid?” Toothlessly, he smiled up at me in agreement.

So we ran ahead to catch up to Beloved.

Finland, 2012

In the morning, all she had left behind were two tiny pieces of plastic, hardened by the hours they had spent on the cold floor of the hotel.

Sister and I had been on an amazing adventure in four countries, but now the adventure had ended. She had left for the airport very early that morning in a taxi, back to the United States, and my flight back to Jerusalem wasn’t leaving until late that night. So I had a day to myself in Finland.

I began the day by prying those two pieces of plastic — Sister’s daily wear contact lenses — off the floor. At the time, she was in the habit of peeling them from her eyes right after lying down in bed, and that habit, which had grossed me out in hotel rooms and ship bunks all across the Baltic Sea, this time, suddenly gave me a pang of loneliness. I missed her already.

Once her contacts were safely in the wastebasket where they belonged, I turned my attention to something that been chewing on the back of my mind for at least a week now.

I was afraid I might be pregnant. As a faithful married Catholic, it was always a possibility. But my life at the time was very strange and very unstable, and my home was very far away from home. I tried, but I couldn’t really contemplate what exactly that meant. So I decided to live in denial a little longer.

I went out to enjoy the city. The center of town was alive with people out enjoying the beautiful summer day.

I visited a few famous churches and a history museum. But the whole time, there was a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. I visited a chocolate shop famous for putting real liquid liquor inside their delicious chocolates. But still I had that strange feeling. I bought a reindeer meatball sandwich for lunch — because, honestly, where else was I ever going to find a reindeer meatball sandwich again? And then I was attacked by a violently aggressive seagull that stole my sandwich. So I went and bought another sandwich and ate it inside this time. The sandwich was delicious, but I still had a strange feeling.

I left the sandwich shop and perused the handicrafts being sold on blankets along the boardwalk by the marina. And then, on a blanket of beautifully hand-crocheted pieces, I saw a tiny little hat, red, with the seeds and woven green stem of a strawberry. It was a baby’s hat. I picked it up, and I suddenly realized what that strange feeling was.

It was fear.

I, who jumped off bridges and out of planes, who had lived through hurricanes and earthquakes and scorpions and air raid sirens, who had survived running out of air underwater in the Cayman Islands and being hopelessly lost in France and almost cutting off my finger in Mexico, was here, in Finland, afraid of something small enough to fit in a tiny strawberry hat. I bought the hat, and walked a few paces down the boardwalk to a bench, where I sat with it between my hands and stared out at the shining, shifting water. And I gave away my heart and my thoughts of how the future should be. I gave away my fear.

“Thy will be done,” I whispered.

And I tucked the hat into my backpack and went off in search of a drugstore to buy a pregnancy test.

Of course, the pregnancy test would come up negative that day. Of course, it would still be years before You would be given to us, sweet Baby. It would be years — long, full, beautiful years — before Your tiny, beautiful head would fill that tiny, beautiful strawberry hat. But that lonely, beautiful summer day in Finland was the day I first started becoming a Mother.

Germany, 2016

We were, at the same time inexplicably and inevitably, running late. It was the afternoon of Beloved’s Cousin’s wedding, and according to the GPS, we would be arriving two minutes late. “Estimated arrival time: 3:32 p.m.” The GPS delivered the prognosis disapprovingly.

“No!” Beloved groaned, and stepped hard on the gas pedal. The engine of the tiny rental car groaned back.

We had come halfway across the world with Baby, just for this event. We had moved Heaven and Earth to be here. There was no way we were going to miss even a moment of it.

The Bride was from a small town, surrounded by farm fields and forests that blurred past us like an Impressionistic painting. Beloved sped up and passed a tractor on the road.

“Estimated arrival time: 3:31 p.m.”

“Can you shave off one more minute?” I asked Beloved from my seat in the back as I clipped Baby’s tiny tie to his tiny Oxford shirt.

Beloved answered with another groan of the car’s engine as the town appeared ahead of us. Some of the buildings even had traditional thatched roofs.

“Estimated arrival time: 3:30 p.m.”

“Yes!” I exclaimed. Baby squealed with approval. Beloved slalomed through a cloverleaf at the entrance of town.

“Estimated arrival time: 3:29 p.m.”

“Wait, isn’t that your other Aunt and Uncle?” I asked. Beloved honked and waved as he pulled past them onto the town’s main road.

“You have reached your destination.” It was 3:28 p.m.

There was a parking spot directly in front of the church. It was too small for a typically sized car, but it was just right for our tiny rental car. Beloved slid into it with surgical precision. I unbuckled Baby and began to congratulate Beloved on his driving and parallel parking job, when he cut me off — “No time!” He tucked Baby under one arm and began running toward the church. The bells were already pealing.

A small crowd of townspeople had gathered in front of the church. In this tiny town, there was nothing else to be done on a Saturday afternoon. They watched us, amused, as we sprinted toward the church to the pealing of the bells.

“Shoe!” Beloved yelled. I had already seen it fall. I scooped Baby’s shiny black shoe off of the gravel path leading to the church, gathered my long skirt in one hand, and continued running after them in my heels, my swinging earrings hitting my cheeks with each stride.

The bells were still pealing as we came upon the entrance of the church. Beloved’s Cousin’s beautiful Bride was absently combing through the flowers of her bouquet. Not a petal was out of place.

“Herzlichen Glückwunsch!” Beloved congratulated her in German. “You are beautiful,” I told her in Spanish as we sprinted past.

We slipped into the antique wooden church and took our seats with the family near the front just as the bells finished pealing.

“Safe!” I whispered to Beloved as I tucked Baby’s tiny foot back into his tiny shoe.

Beloved exhaled. “Let’s never do that again.”

South Korea, 2014

When we woke up in South Korea, it was colder than I imagined it would be. Beloved and I only had a long layover, but surprisingly enough, the Ministry of Tourism sponsored free layover tours from the airport into town (along with parades of traditional garb and a do-it-yourself craft workshop in the airport).

So we took a bus into town and enjoyed a temple built with interlocking dougong brackets like we had seen on temples in China, painted with the most brilliant greens and pinks and indigos. There was not a single nail or a drop of glue in the entire structure. The whole thing was held together by the sheer precision of the creator of these pieces.

Afterwards, we wandered around a shopping district downtown, an impressive garden, and an art shop where they were making their own paper. And, of course, we went to have delicious Korean food. (I wanted bulgogi, Beloved wanted bibimbap, and we both got our wish.) But as we walked around, enjoying the sights and the sounds and the smells of a culture so different from our own, we couldn’t help but be a little sad.

South Korea was the end of the line. We had left behind our home in a foreign land. We had been traveling for two months on three continents, and we had seen and experienced things that we would never be able to explain. Things we would never get over. Things we would never forget. But it was time to go home.

“I promised I would follow you to the ends of the Earth, and I have,” I told Beloved, placing my head on his shoulder. “I just never imagined the Earth would end in Indiana.”

“It isn’t the end; you’ll see,” Beloved said. “There is always an adventure to be had.”

In the end, life is like a temple built with dougong brackets. The whole thing is made of millions of tiny, brightly colored pieces that are held together, not by nails or glue, but simply because they were created to be together.

Italy, 2007

Grinning, I dropped my trekker’s backpack on the wooden floor of the hostel waiting room with an unceremonious thud. It was early and the city was still just waking. And I couldn’t contain my excitement because it was the first day of my first time in Europe. I felt like a child on Christmas morning.

Best Friend was thoughtfully regarding the map. We weren’t wasting any time. “Where is the first place you want to go?”

The answer was obvious. She smiled at me mischievously. I continued grinning back at her.

We found our way to the Metro, fumbled our way through buying tickets and carefully boarded a train in the chaos of the morning commute.

“This Metro stop is named after the monument,” I told her as we exited the train. “How far could it be?”

“Yeah, but it’s not that easy. How are we going to find it from the Metro station?” she was asking as we rode upward on an escalator. She turned the map upside down. She turned it back upright again.

We rounded a corner and were momentarily blinded by the morning sun. Best Friend was still squinting at the map.

“I think we have to go down this street here,” she was saying, finger tracing along the map.

Meanwhile, my mouth was hanging open at the sight in front of me.

“Or maybe that way would be quicker,” she continued. Still looking at the map, she absently raised her finger, pointing off to one side. I grabbed her hand, speechless.

“Look! There!” I finally said aloud. I turned her finger straight ahead.

Finger frozen in the air, she finally looked up from the map. Directly across the street was the Colosseum. Her face cracked wide in an uncontainable smile.

“Come on!” I exclaimed, and I took off running.

Rome. It was love at first sight.

Cambodia, 2014

“It could be hours, maybe even tomorrow, before the speedboat is fixed. But there is one more option. You could take the boat that the locals take to get out to the island. It is slower, with more people, but it will leave soon and will arrive tonight.”

We didn’t hesitate for even a moment.

We had heard that the islands off the coast of Cambodia were very underdeveloped, with no power grid and no paved roads. A paradise where there was nothing to do but lie in a hammock, swim, and kayak. All we had to do was get out there.

So we jumped the two feet from the edge of the dock onto a slow, low wooden boat full of Locals and their myriad belongings. We threw our trekkers’ backpacks onto the pile of cargo in the center of the boat, a junkyard-like conglomeration of the most unusual implements.

We settled into a bare spot in the bow and nodded hello to the Locals, who regarded us with barefaced curiosity.

I suddenly realized that the woven basket next to me was quietly quacking. I peeked at the basket out of the corner of my eye, and the Local to whom it belonged smiled at me and gestured for me to look. I pulled one handle of the basket to the side and saw a number of live ducks tied with string and stacked like salted fish in the basket.

“Sup-per,” the Local said slowly as he beamed at me. He was missing quite a few teeth.

Rodolfo carefully regarded a similar basket sitting right next to him. He reached out for the handle when the Local clicked between his teeth at him.

“Be caaaaaaaareful,” the Local warned. “Laaaaaaarge fighting cock. Veeeeeeery aggressive. Win maaaaaaany fight.” He beamed even brighter. We smiled back at him.

When the boat was underway, a number of the Locals climbed up onto the boat’s shade structure over the pile of cargo. Their calloused bare feet dangled off the edge like children in a too-big chair. I clambered up after them and dangled my own bare feet off the edge. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was low in the sky, casting a warm golden hue on the world as a cool breeze blew. Even the trip to paradise was paradise.

A couple hours later, when the islands became visible, the boat first stopped at the village where all the Locals lived. This boat was the only connection to the mainland, so pretty much everything had to come in on this boat. We watched from our perch up above as the boat belched its contents onto the wooden dock in a chaotic flurry of activity. The Locals’ families came with small fishing boats and rickshaws and motorbikes to cart everything away. Case after case of soft drinks and beer. Large blocks of ice wrapped in burlap sacks. A bicycle. Plastic bottles of gasoline. Bags of lettuce. A beach umbrella. Rolls of butcher paper. Bags of rice. Scuba equipment. Cooking oil. A huge trash bag of Cambodian candy bars. Cartons of cigarettes. Power tools. A car engine.

The basket of ducks.

In the chaos, a Local woman dropped her handbag off the dock and started yelling in Khmer. Her money and tissues and family photo and bus tickets and gum wrappers and lipstick case and a page torn from a magazine, all the fleeting artifacts of her daily life, were suspended in the ocean like multicolored jellyfish for a short moment until a fisherman with a net brought his little johnboat alongside and swooped everything out of the water for her. I watched as a handful of coins and a small makeup mirror quickly slipped below the surface before he arrived, letting out one last swan song of a silvery glint before sliding into the dark depths of the water forever. He unceremoniously deposited his catch on the dock alongside the pile of cargo, a wet tangled mess of memories and to-do lists, treasures and junk, for the woman to sort through herself. He then fished out her handbag and placed it on top of the pile. She dumped a good quantity of water out of the handbag and began to gather her daily life from its wet pile on the dock next to the bottles of gasoline and the basket of ducks.

As the last of the cargo was unloaded and the only things that remained were our hiking backpacks, I was suddenly struck by the height of our perch up above. The boat, no longer beleaguered by the many locals and their assorted belongings, was floating much higher in the water. It was almost scary now.

But as the boat departed for our stop on the far side of the island, a cool rain began to fall and the sun began to set. I looked up into the sky and took a deep breath. It was almost like flying.

Palestine, 2011

I will never forget our first Christmas in Bethlehem. While waiting for the doors to open for Midnight Mass, we stood outside the oldest church in the world for hours in the freezing rain, tickets in hand, as the cold air licked around our ears and our shoes filled with water. (You know all those medieval paintings where the Holy Land is all desert? It’s not true. Also, Jesus was born in a cave, not a stable. But that’s not important right now.)

Silent Night, Holy Night…

The Mass was standing room only. It lasted for hours. Our shoes were squishy. The organ was deafening. We had every right to be miserable. And yet we were so happy. In that time, in that place, we truly understood the meaning of the phrase, “Joy to the World; the Lord is come!”

Son of God, Love’s Pure Light…

We were in the place where it all began. The place where Christ took his first breath on Earth, and then nothing was ever the same again.

Radiant beams from thy holy face…

In the Mass, as is the custom, every part of the Bible story that says something like, “There in the City of David,” was changed to “HERE in the City of David.”

With the dawn of redeeming grace…

The song during Communion was “Silent Night.” Everyone had the words in Latin in front of them, and yet each of the visitors from the farthest reaches of the Earth sang it in their own language. Together we formed one unintelligible joyful human noise of praise to celebrate the birth of our Savior.

Jesus, Lord, at thy birth; Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

India, 2014

Sometimes, I think, in our comfortable, complacent existence, we get so caught up in the minutiae of everyday life that we tend to forget that we are actually alive. I like to say that India, on the other hand, is a place where you are acutely aware of the fact that you are alive. Life there, compared to our cushy, air-conditioned daily routine, is so uncomfortable that you can’t forget for a moment that you are alive.

After a few weeks of backpacking around northern India, Beloved and I decided to spend some time volunteering with the Sisters of Charity, the order founded by now-Saint Mother Teresa. Many backpackers like us had found that it was the perfect antidote to the backpacker’s life of consumption and ignorance, the only thing close to a solution to the way your heart went out in city after city, furious at the filth and the disease and the abject poverty but unable to do anything constructive about it.

We asked to be placed wherever we were needed most, and we were assigned to work in the mornings at a home for adults with a wide range of physical and mental difficulties. Although there were both men and women at the house, they were segregated, and so were the volunteers, so Beloved and I had very different experiences of that house.

We saw things that still haunt us to this day. Maladies and injuries we can’t mention in polite conversation. People so forgotten by society that they managed to forget themselves as well. People who had looked death in the eye, and now were now unafraid, but carried something in their faces that mere mortals couldn’t look at without being blinded, like Moses coming down from the Mountain.

All the Sisters, in their iconic white gauzy saris with the blue trim, were, of course, referred to as “Sister.” But there is a custom in India of showing respect by calling women whose name you don’t know (or don’t remember) “Auntie” and calling men “Brother,” resulting in everyone there forming a strange Möbius strip of a family that is all interrelated and yet makes no sense at all. It was hard work; exhausting both mentally and physically, both back-breaking and heartbreaking at the same time.

But every day in the afternoon, after a meal at the same restaurant in the backpackers’ ghetto and one of numerous cold showers for the day in an attempt to cool off, we would take a metro ride followed by a bus ride to the far side of town where there was a home for children. Here we were together, and here there was an inexplicable joy.

These children had a variety of severely debilitating physical and mental difficulties, all of which were considered by the local culture to be bad luck or punishment for past wrongs, and so they were conveniently forgotten. All the children were nonverbal, so the the language difference was irrelevant, and they loved it when you sang, when you talked to them, when you picked them up and danced with them. And every day, the heartbreak of the mornings was healed by the innocence and joy of the afternoons.

We were always there for their early dinner time, and we would each be handed a plate of rice gruel to feed the children who were unable to feed themselves. One afternoon, I was feeding one particularly sweet and jovial little boy who was paralyzed from the neck down and was not all there mentally. He wasn’t even really partially there mentally. But suddenly he looked over my shoulder and started laughing uncontrollably. I turned around, expecting to see Beloved or one of the other workers making silly faces at the sweet boy. But there was no one there at all.

Still, the child continued to laugh at something over my shoulder. And I had a funny feeling that, in his terrible physical and mental state, completely left behind by the world but still precious to his Creator, he was actually able to see something that I couldn’t see. Something miraculous and eternal; perhaps an angel smiling at him over my shoulder.

“What do you see, sweet boy?” I asked him, and he turned, still laughing, and locked eyes with me, including me in the joke.

And so, just in case, I turned around to look again.

Estonia, 2012

Now, years later, whenever I use the hand-sculpted teacup with the four little pointed feet, I am reminded of Estonia. Sister and I went there from Finland, just for the day, and I fell in love with the capital city, so beautiful and colorful and elegant. There were so few tourists that Sister and I felt like the city was all ours to explore.

The residents of Helsinki would come across on that boat to buy beer by the case and bring it back on the type of dolly usually reserved for moving furniture. But we came for something else. Estonia was an enigma to us; a place to where our church had sent missionaries when we were children. A proverbial hidden gem, a beautiful country twisting in the wind on the outskirts of the European Union, a place still disorderly and interesting enough to keep you on your toes.

We first wandered into a tea shop filled with hauntingly heavenly smells, and it was there I bought a rose and saffron tea that I would enjoy over and over, as well as that teacup with the pointed feet, so that someday when the tea itself was gone I could still think of the beautiful city. Still think of the attic room of the wooden town hall in a cobblestone square at the middle of town. Still think of the medieval brick city walls, dotted with cylindrical watchtowers and arched gateways. Still think of the giant church steeple stretching into the clear blue sky; think of climbing step by step until my calves hurt and, when I arrived at the top, breathless from the climb, think of how the view took away whatever breath I had left. Thinking of looking down and wondering at the winding streets of the city below the way a child wonders at an ant farm.

Sister and I wandered up and down the steep cobblestone streets and into an underground restaurant, built into an ancient cellar with earthen walls. I had one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had in my life; a wild boar stew, so thick and hearty and sweet, and fresh flaky bread to sop it up with.

I wondered if I’d ever be able to replicate it in my own kitchen and mentally noted to later Google a recipe. But then I wondered where I would ever get wild boar meat. And so I savored each bite as if it was the last time I would ever taste it. Because it may very well have been.

Nothing in that city could be replicated. But no matter which tea you pour into that cup with the four pointed feet, if you pay attention, there is the faintest fleeting hint of rose and saffron rising through the air.