Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Another Top 10

(by Greg)

While we were in Burundi two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the top 10 things I missed about life in the U.S.  As we have now been living in France for 7 months, I wanted to write a similar post, given a different perspective.  However, it occurred to me that life in France is not really comparable to life in Burundi.  It is true that language learning has been extremely challenging (and sometimes humiliating).  However, overall France is a pretty comfortable place to live for a year.  In fact, aside from our family and friends back home, the only thing I could think of that I really miss is nachos.  Yes, nachos.  As rich as France is in history, culture and cuisine, when it comes to Mexican food, it remains deeply impoverished.  So, instead I decided to compile a list of the top 10 things I have found most surprising about France.

  1. This is a beautiful country.  Granted, the US is a beautiful country as well, and we have similar landscapes back home.  The difference is, you cannot drive across the U.S. in a single day, as you can in France.  In France, within 4 hours you can go from skiing in the Alps, to sitting on a beach on the French Riviera.  But what also makes France so beautiful is the buildings.  Rather than demolishing old buildings, the French preserve them.  And it seems that in every city or village you pass through, there is a church or cathedral, often hundreds of years old which hovers overhead.  The doors of these churches are almost always open.  It often feels like being transported back in time.
  2. It is really hard to find a full "American" sized cup of coffee in France.  When you order a “coffee” you get a tiny cup, filled with a tiny amount of coffee.  In fact, the only place in Albertville where I have found I can get a “normal” sized cup of coffee is McDonalds.  Sadly, there is no Starbucks in Albertville.  In fact, I think the closest Starbucks is in Lyon or Geneva, both 2 hours away.  
  3. The French do NOT drink liquids on the go.  If you see someone walking down the street carrying a coffee mug, it is a pretty safe bet that they are not French.  
  4. Despite having been the host of the 1992 Olympics, Albertville is not a tourist destination.  Many people pass THROUGH Albertville on their way to nearby ski resorts, but it is rare to run into another American in town who is not a student at our language school.  
  5. Before our arrival, many people warned us about the exorbitant cost of living in France.  We have not found this to be true.  Granted, there are some things that are more expensive here (such as gas), but overall, food and rent are pretty comparable to what we paid in Bellingham.  
  6. The French word for foosball is “le baby-foot”.  How cute is that?  Because they have little tiny baby feet!
  7. Highway rest stops in France are amazing!  Given our frequent weekend road trips, I like to think I have become a connaisseur of rest stops (classy, I know).  They are always immaculate, with clean bathrooms and often a general store where you can find just about anything you can imagine.  And the food is outstanding.
  8. While many Americans have trouble adjusting to “La bise”, the custom of kissing on each cheek when greeting someone, the French find hugging to be WAY to intimate.  They can’t seem to understand why Americans always want to be so close to someone so quickly.  
  9. The French are not, in general, an easily excitable people.  But if you want to shock a French person who is curious about life in America, tell them how much you pay for health insurance.  
  10. French culture is more influenced by American culture than I thought it would be.  American music is played everywhere here, American films are shown in the theaters (usually overdubbed in French).  While I think most Americans would be hard pressed to name even 1 French actor or musician, the French are very familiar with many of ours.  Yes, they even dig Justin Bieber.  

I drive down this street 4 times each day, as our girls school is right behind the church at the end.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Bisous Anxiety

I would like to share with you a new condition which I have diagnosed myself with.  I believe this may be a unique case, so for those of you interested in the field of psychiatry and mental health, this could in fact be a publishable case report.  My name is Greg, and I have bisous anxiety.

We are almost halfway through our 10 months of language school in Albertville France.  For those of you who are unaware, the French have a greeting which involves a kiss on each cheek.  This is not something you do in formal or professional settings, but rather takes place on a regular basis among friends and family.  It is a beautiful custom, and the French do it with complete ease.  Sadly, I have been here for 5 months, and I am still struggling with knowing exactly how and when to use this greeting.

I am not a germaphobe, so please don’t confuse my malady with that (you can’t really be a germaphobe and function in a place like Kibuye).  My anxiety revolves more around my fear of kissing someone I am not supposed to kiss, or not kissing someone I should kiss. Or doing it all wrong.  I am awkward.  I am an American.  

The problem starts with who to kiss.  “La bise” is not just between men and women.  After two men become friends, it is common for them to kiss as well.  But how well do you have to get to know a dude before you go in for a smooch?  And even with women, I just don’t know how well I am supposed to be acquainted with someone before we “faire la bise”.  Often I just stand there like a deer in headlights, like a frightened turtle … just waiting, trying to anticipate their next move.  

I also can’t seem to remember which cheek I am supposed to kiss first.  This has led to a few especially awkward moments with certain men at our church who I ALMOST ended up kissing right on the lips.  I am awkward.  I am an American.

In addition, I still don’t know exactly what I am supposed to do with my hands.  Do I wrap them around the other person, do I keep them at my sides?  For the love of God … what do I do with my hands!  

To make matters more complicated, I was recently informed that the number of kisses changes depending on which region of France you are in.  Which means, I can never leave Albertville again.  

Unfortunately, although greetings in Burundi are different, they are no less complicated.  After several months in Burundi, someone explained to me that when two men greet each other, it is common for them to grab their arm.  The level at which you grab their arm (eg. wrist, forearm, elbow) conveys to the other person your understanding of their social status and your respect for them.  Pretty sure I was doing this backwards for several months after our arrival, thus offending those I met in the highest positions of authority. It would probably be best if the team keeps me away from visiting dignitaries.  

It became clear to me a few years ago that one of the keys to thriving as a cross-cultural missionary is being willing to embrace those awkward moments, and even to laugh at yourself afterwards.  If not, you are apt to become paralyzed with fear and insecurity.

And so, I will leave our house today, and I may even kiss someone I am not supposed to kiss.  And if the next time you see me awkwardly looking at your cheeks or drawing near to you and then pulling back or if I seem paralyzed with confusion and indecision, please give me some grace. My name is Greg Sund.  I am awkward.  I am American, and I am a recovering bisous anxiety victim.  

Friday, November 25, 2016

On Fluency and The Art of Discouragement

(by Greg)

“Aren’t you fluent in French yet?”.  This is a question that has been posed to me by friends back home.  The short answer is, no … no I am not.  But when will I be fluent?  This is a question I have started to ask myself, which has caused me to think more recently about what it truly means to be “fluent” in a language.

Fluency in language is an interesting thing.  To be honest, some days I am not sure I am fluent in English.  Yes, I can hold a conversation.  However, there are still MANY words in English for which I still do not know the meaning.  And although I like to think I understand English grammar, I have a suspicion there may be an English teacher or two out there reading my blog who are twitching at each subtle mistake.  And regarding spelling … well, thankfully my computer now fixes most of my speling mistaikes.  

Before we came to France, BIniyam tried to convince me that he didn’t need to come because he was already fluent in French.  He knew how to say “bonjour” and “├ža va?”.  He also claims to be fluent in Kirundi, Spanish and Japanese.  I think am going to be a little slower to apply this word to myself.  In fact, I am not sure I will ever reach the point where I feel confident enough to label myself “fluent”.  For me, that is a weighty word.  

The U.S. State Department has given me some guidance on this topic, as they have created a Proficiency Code, with a scale of 0 to 5.  In fact, anyone can take this exam, which will inform you of which level you fall under for a given language.  Level 5 means that you are able to use a language in reading and speaking, “fluently and accurately” on all levels pertinent to professional needs.  Well, I did “fluently and accurately” order a baguette this morning … does that count?

After studying French full-time for the past 3 months, I stand in awe of people who speak two or more languages “fluently”.  In fact, the place where I have met the most number of people who I would say fall into this group, are Africans, especially the medical students I work with.  Many of them switch back and forth between French, Kirundi, and sometimes English, with complete ease.  The students who come to us from Congo (where there are many more languages spoken) sometimes speak 7 or 8 languages with fluency.  

Learning a new language at the age of 42 offers daily opportunities for discouragement.  Although I tested into an intermediate level in our school, I continue to have opportunities listening or speaking, in which I end up completely lost.  We are so grateful for the language partners who meet with us each week.  There are dozens of men and women here in Albertville who donate their time each week to meet one on one with the students at our school to give us practice in conversational French.  These opportunities are massively important for us, but sometimes leave me feeling deflated and wondering what just happened (“wait … I agreed to do WHAT to your cat?”).

This morning I needed to respond to an e-mail I received from a nurse anesthetist in Burundi.  The e-mail was in French.  An e-mail that would have taken me 2 or 3 minutes to compose in English, took me 30 minutes to compose in French.  

I know I should be used to discouragement, having gone through medical school and residency, where one is often humiliated (sometimes in front of large groups of people), but somehow this feels different, and I am not sure why.  Perhaps it is because I have a family now, and the amount of time I have each evening to study is more limited.  Or maybe it is because trying to talk to people in a language that is new to you leaves you feeling vulnerable.  Or perhaps it is because the line between success and failure, or fluency and non-fluency, is a bit more hazy when it comes to language learning, compared to the study of medicine.  

So, I go back to the bible to encourage me, and once again I find comfort in the words of 2 Corinthians 12:9-10: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’.  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me”.

Yes, I am making progress, and I am able to speak French better than I was 3 months ago, but I am weak, and I will likely continue to embarrass myself in front of native French speakers.  And some days I will feel like an utter failure.  But it will be okay, because His grace is sufficient.  

Our time here is important, and in fact is crucial to our success in Burundi.  We would not be here if this was optional.  We are grateful for this school, our teachers and our language partners.  And we are grateful for everyone back home who is supporting us prayerfully and financially to allow us to invest this year in our future work in Kibuye.  Ultimately though, we believe this is not our work, but is God’s.  And so, our “success” will rest not on our fluency, but on His grace.  

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Mamertine Prison

(by Greg)

“Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal.  But the word of God is not bound.” - 2 Timothy 2:8-9

The Bible is very important to me.  I start everyday by spending time in the Bible.  One part of the Bible that has been especially dear to me is 2 Timothy, the letter written by the apostle Paul to Timothy, his dear friend and brother in the faith.  I have had long conversations about this book with many in our church, especially our pastor Rob Berreth.  In the past 15 years I have gone back to this book time and again, for instruction, for encouragement and for hope.

We are on a fall break from school this week and since we are living only about an hour from the Italian border, we decided to visit Lake Como in Northern Italy, to rest and recover from the past 2 months.  Since we did not know if or when we would get the chance to be in Italy again, we convinced ourselves that we really should tack on a few days in Rome … for the sake of the children:) 

Yesterday we got to visit some incredible sites, including the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill (home of Rome’s emperors) the Senate hall (the birthplace of democracy).  But we also got to visit a place that many people probably overlook.  It is the site of what was called Mamertine prison. This is the prison in which the apostle’s Peter and Paul were held before their executions.  It is also believed to be the site where Paul wrote 2 Timothy.  Our family got to stand in the very cell where these words were penned, these words which have been read for the past (almost) 2,000 years by people from every country on the face of this earth.  It was such a tremendous gift to get to visit this prison (now converted into a museum).  It was a tremendous encouragement to my faith to stand in that cell and to remember that this book I read everyday is not a fairy tale, but is history and was played out by men and women who held the Gospel so tightly, that there were willing to die rather than deny it.  I thank God for this opportunity, and for the reminder that He can even use a man chained in prison to bring hope and peace and life to countless people.  

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” - 2 Timothy 4:6-8

 The outside of Mamertine Prison

 The cell where Peter and Paul were held.


Monday, September 5, 2016

Survival Mode

We have now been in France for 10 days, and I admit that I am guilty of not keeping our family and friends up to date on how things have gone so far.  For that, I am sorry.  To be honest, for the first week, we were very much in survival mode, just trying to figure out how to live and eat and to get around town.  This took a lot of energy and a lot of time, but I believe we are starting to get our feet under us and are just now beginning to get into a rhythm.  

We arrived at our new apartment on a Friday night and were warmly greeted by our teammates the Baskins, who are just finishing their year in Albertville, before moving to Burundi (Darrell is an ophthalmologist, and will be Burundi’s first ever retinal specialist).  They had dinner waiting for us, along with a supply of groceries to get us through the first few days.  Our apartment is on the third floor of a building which is off campus (about a 15 minute walk, or a 5 minute car ride). Many of the students live in a dormitory on campus, but we are grateful for have been assigned an off campus residence, as we hope it will compel us to better engage in the local community and utilize our French as much as possible.  Before we moved here, we arranged to purchase a used car from one of the outgoing students, a 2001 Opel Zaphira.  It is a well worn and well loved car, but so far, it has started every time.  

The first week was filled with meetings trying to get set up with a French bank account, phone and internet, car insurance and registration, and the kids schooling.  These meetings were exhausting, as they were all in French, which was a big stretch for me.  My French is probably on the level of a 7 year old …. so just imagine me sending Biniyam in by himself to set up a bank account, or to purchase car insurance.  I am not sure exactly what I signed up for, but put a great deal of faith in those who were helping me.

Thursday was orientation for Stephanie and I and was also the first day of school for our kids.  It became clear to us on Thursday that what we are asking our kids to do, is massively more difficult than what Steph and I are doing.  They have been thrown into schools with teachers and kids who speak no or very little English.  It was a hard day for them, but they all survived and girded up to return to school on Friday, which seemed to be a slightly better day.

This weekend we had a bit of time to exhale and to explore this gorgeous city, nestled in the French Alps.  We went to an artisan festival, and also hiked up to a medieval city on the mountainside (which we can see from our balcony).  We also spent time with our teammates who are here with us, the Baskins and Wendlers.  It seems I could keep writing for a very long time, describing our first 10 days, but I think instead I will close with some observations we have made about life in France.

  1. The French people have been, for the most part, incredibly warm and kind to us.  I think the French have gotten a bad rap in recent years, and I can only assume this comes from some bad experiences that Americans might have had in Paris or another big city, but out here, far from the big city, people are warm and generous and kind, and most of them have been very patient with my 7 year old level of French.
  2. Everything here is much smaller than in the US, including roads, apartments, and toilets (some of us need to work on improving our aim:)
  3. France (or at least the part of France we are living in) is an incredibly diverse part of the world.  In our apartment complex, we live above a Kabob shop owned by a very kind Turkish man, also above a family from Poland, and below an Arab man and French man.  
  4. France has a culture that is in many ways different from American culture.  This will take time to understand and to learn how to adapt.  I am not sure that a year is enough time to wrap our minds around it, but we will try.
  5. In France, your kids are released from school every day to have lunch with their families.  I am grateful for this time as a family each day, and even more so as it gives us some time to check in with our kids in the middle of their day, and give them a respite from the onslaught of French coming toward them.

Again, I am sorry for all the emails and Facebook messages that I have not responded to, or responded to very slowly.  In addition to the busyness of these past several days, we just got internet set up in our apartment this weekend, so we have had few opportunities to access the internet prior to this.  Please continue to keep us in your prayers.  Although a year in France may sound like a year long vacation to many, we know this will be a year with many challenges both for us and for our children.  But we hope that in the end, we will have the depth of French that we need to re-enter into the work we have been called to in Burundi.  

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Connecting Two Worlds

There is much I will miss about our lives in the U.S., but one of things I am going to miss deeply is the people I work with at Skagit Valley Hospital.  The nurses, techs, surgeons, everyone there has been so supportive of what we are doing in Burundi.  It is truly an incredible group of people, and I have never felt so at home going to work each morning, as I have for the past 8 years.

It is such a joy to connect people to our work in Burundi, and the people I work with have supported us in so many ways, from financial support, to sending us care packages while we were in Kibuye last year, to simply reading our blog posts and staying engaged.  And so, you can imagine my excitement when two of the general surgeons I work with agreed to travel to Kibuye and cover for Jason for 2 weeks each, consecutively.  When people ask about specific needs in Kibuye, there is so much it is hard to know where to begin, but one thing we always need is surgeons to go and cover for or work alongside Jason, who is massively overworked.  These two surgeons sacrificed a great deal to go and work in a hard place (made harder by the fact that much of the long term team was out of the country at our mission agency's retreat, which happens once every 3 years).  They got to experience firsthand the need and the challenges of healthcare in Burundi, and they both returned deeply affected by their experience.  I am truly grateful to both of them as well as to all of my friends at Skagit Valley Hospital who have encouraged me in so many ways.  I will miss you all.

I hope in the years to come I can continue to connect friends back home to this work, and I hope more and more people will go and serve.  The work is hard, but it is good.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Journey Begins

Some of you who live in Bellingham, might be wondering where the heck we have disappeared to.  Our moving to Burundi to serve as missionaries, involves several preliminary steps.  And the first step involves a month long training in Colorado Springs at Mission Training International.  So, last Saturday, we packed up the minivan, loaded up the kids, put a “for sale” sign outside our house and started driving, and driving, and driving.  We drove through Bozeman, MT stopping to visit some old friends, then spent half a day driving through Yellowstone Park, where Ella’s hat was blown by the wind right into a boiling hot springs (despite the children’s pleadings, I decided not to wade in to fetch it).  Then we drove through the rest of Wyoming, then through Nebraska and ended up (for now) in Lincoln, where we stopped to visit Steph’s parents and her sister’s family.  Thursday night Steph and I then flew to San Francisco, where we had an appointment at the French consulate to apply for our visas for language school, then flew back to Lincoln Saturday morning.  We will stay here through the weekend, then Monday morning, we will load up the car again and drive 8 hours to Colorado Springs.  

So far, the kids have done a great job, and we all feel like we have gotten to see a lot of this beautiful country … maybe too much.  And for those of you who think that Lincoln has nothing going on, the night before we arrived, Justin Bieber performed at their local arena.  That’s right people ….. Justin Bieber.  

We have been told that being a missionary means your lives will be filled with transitions.  In fact that is one of the topics I believe will be addressed at this training in Colorado, dealing with these frequent transitions (both for us and our kids).  There will be many hellos and there will be many good-byes.  This will undoubtedly bring much joy but also much sadness.  But in the end, we believe it will be worth the price.  But more than that, we believe we have been called into this by a good God who cares about us, and who cares deeply about the people we have been called to serve, the people of Burundi.  

A snapshot of our lives over the past week

Leavenworth, WA

The famous carousel in Missoula, MT


 The French consulate appointment really took it out of me

The joy of cousins!