Couchsurfing in Bern

I walked towards the main hub of Bern central station and saw my friend Caleb standing with a group of three strangers. One of the three flagged me down and introduced himself as Sam.

“So you’re the one we’re staying with?” I asked.

“Yep. Welcome to Bern,” he said with a warm smile. Sam introduced me to his friends Benji and Gardner and then tossed me an umbrella.

“Follow us.”

This was my first couchsurfing experience. The concept is a little strange, but basically you go online to couchsurfing.org, create a profile, and then find someone with a spare couch in a city you’re traveling to. Caleb and I had found Sam ‘s place on the website and sent him a surfing request. A week later, we were staying with Sam in Bern for the weekend.

As our newly composed posse of five trudged through the stormy night, I asked Sam where we were heading.

“A local place.” He responded casually. After a couple of minutes, we stopped in front of a massive old barn covered in colorful street art.

“Welcome to the Reitschule.” Sam explained. “This used to be an old abandoned horse-riding school until it was taken over by some anarchists in the 80’s.”

“What happened after the anarchists moved out?” I asked.

“Oh, you don’t understand.” Sam grinned. “They’re still here.”

We walked through wooden double doors into the massive old barn packed with people. Benji and Mark grabbed us some stools near the corner while Sam greeted everybody in sight. They were regulars here.

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The Reitschule

We sat down and started to talk. I asked about the Reitschule and learned more about the fascinating building. It was a community center of sorts claiming its own bar, restaurant, cinema, wood-working shop, conference room, and even a few apartments. Sam looked at me and asked how I liked the place. I told him I liked it a lot. He kept looking at me and his expression became more serious, like he was about to say something important.

“Everybody is welcome here.” He turned on his stool and gestured towards the crowds. “Everybody.”

“Yeah, even the people they don’t let into other bars. Crazy people, alcoholics, everybody.” His friend Benji quipped in.

“Yeah, everybody. Except for Nazis and cops.” Gardner added. Sam nodded in agreement.

“That’s cool. Very cool.” I said quietly while surveying the room.

And it was cool. Every type of person filled the massive space. There must’ve been 500 people in the recycled old barn. Young professionals in tight grey khakis with skinny black ties, rowdy teenagers with gaged earrings and black denim jeans, tired old men with grey beards and tattered clothes. Some people smoked in the corners. Others played ping pong on a makeshift table. Anti-FIFA shirts were for sale above the bar, protesting Brazil spending billions on soccer stadiums when millions of Brazilians live in extreme poverty.

We chatted with our Bernese hosts at the bar for an hour or so, getting the low-down on everything from Swiss chocolate, to the country’s unique direct democracy political system, to the Bernese bear pit (Yes, Bern has a bear pit. So both the best university and the best city in the world have bear pits. Sic ‘em.) Benji, Gardner, and Sam were awesome. They thought deeply about the world and cared deeply about the people in the world. They were that rare combination of intellectual and kind, pausing to think before they said things and yet not taking themselves too seriously.

Despite the fascinating conversation with our new friends, the ten hours of train travel that day started to wear on Caleb and myself. Sam noticed and asked if we wanted to head back to his place. We nodded.

“Here’s the key to the flat. Make yourselves at home.” Sam sketched us a crude map to his apartment on a napkin. “In the morning, there’s cereal in the cupboard and milk in the fridge. Oh, and feel free to use my computer.”

Here was Sam, somebody we met two hours ago, giving us the key to his house and telling us to make it our own, use his things, eat his cereal. So this is what it means to be welcomed in.

The next day was a dream. Sam’s place in Bern was a launching pad towards the beautiful Swiss Alps. Saturday morning, Caleb and I hiked from the Lauterbrunnen Valley to Mürren, a charming little mountain town perched in the shadow of the Jungfrau mountain. On the way down, we spotted a waterfall close to the trail and took turns standing underneath the icy mist. We came back to the flat that night and Sam took us to another local place.  This one was even more remote, funky, and, of course, welcoming.

On Sunday, the dream continued. Sam, Benji, Caleb, and I put real Swiss cheese(yes, there’s a difference) on our scrambled eggs, drank Italian dark-roast, and blared Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks from the stereo. Benji and Sam were convinced that Texas was a state filled completely with gun-bearing, boot-wearing cowboys, so we decided to feed that stereotype.

After brunch, they took us to the Aare river. Benji parked up on the street, and we walked down to the river’s banks. The water was deep turquoise and see-the-bottom clear, like the water in those Caribbean vacation advertisements. It was easily the most beautiful river I’ve ever seen.

“So what do we do now?” I asked.

“We swim it.” Benji replied with a playful smile. We placed our stuff on the bank and walked a mile up the path along the bank of the swift-moving river to a pedestrian bridge. After asking a million questions about how to not die while floating the Aare, I climbed up on the bridge’s railing, said a quick “YOLO” under my breath, and cannon-balled fifteen feet down into the river below.

photo cred to tntmagazine

photo cred to tntmagazine

I floated briskly down the cool, blue river, pinching myself a few times in between swim strokes just to make sure that floating this idyllic lazy river in Switzerland wasn’t a dream. All types of people, gym junkies with chiseled muscles and grandmas with arm wrinkles, drifted down the current alongside me. Just like the rest of Bern, everyone was welcome to float the Aare.

The Aare River from above

The Aare River from above

After we exited the Aare, the dream ended. It was time to go home. We exchanged hugs and headed towards the train station. During goodbyes, our host Sam got the last word of goodbyes.

“You’re welcome back anytime.” He said with a big smile.

I’m convinced that there’s no better way to show love to the people around us than a party invitation or an open couch to sleep on. Sam and his friends did that for us in a big way this past weekend. Our new friends welcomed us in and shared their lives with us, and the result was an incredible weekend.

Our time in Bern made a big impression on Caleb and I. It made us want to share our things more. It made us wonder if we were doing it wrong, holding our possessions and our money too tightly with clenched fists.

Sam’s radical hospitality was awesome. He opened his apartment to us, shared his  local stomping grounds, and gave us free access to the cereal and milk. It was pretty awesome. But if a weekend’s free lodging is the only reason I’ve got to welcome others, well, that gift doesn’t keep on giving too far down the line.

But here’s the bigger reason to welcome others and hold our possessions loosely. The reality of Jesus is that, through faith, WE HAVE BEEN WELCOMED. He invites us into His Kingdom. He calls us Beloved. Every good and perfect gift comes from Him. The list of good news goes on and on and on. His hospitality puts the nicest bed and breakfast to shame, and his gift-giving makes Santa look like Ebenezer Scrooge.

That gift, the gift of the Gospel, keeps on giving. Because of Jesus and what He has done, we look at our things differently. We see that the value of our possessions, our money, and our homes lies in our ability to bless others with these gifts.  We have houses to host and welcome others. we have money to provide for the needs of others, and most importantly, we have the Good News of Jesus to share with others.

Join me in remembering the Good News, that He came and died and rose again so that we could be welcomed. This truth fuels us to radical hospitality, to sharing and giving and welcoming in a way that’s anything but ordinary.

Also, if you’re looking for a couch to surf, there’s a new listing up in Waco. Click here if you need a place to stay. In the words of Sam, “you’re welcome anytime.”

 

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The World’s Game: confessions from a former soccer hater

 

I had every reason to hate the game. In third grade, my gangly, scrawny legs could hardly run, let alone kick a soccer ball. It didn’t help that my coach was creepier than Christopher Walken and kind of looked like him, too.

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After a season of nightmares and athletic embarrassment, I hung up the soccer cleats and wholeheartedly devoted myself to the cool sports.My next ten years, I threw myself into the sports that Americans actually care about. I played the sports that they showed on TV more than once every four years, the ones that the pretty girl in your english class actually might show up to. For the rest of my childhood, if the ball wasn’t orange or brown, I wouldn’t touch it.

Soccer isn’t a real sport. You can’t even use your hands. The players just jog around. Real games don’t end in a tie. That’s not the REAL football. Nobody even gets tackled. Looking back, the rhetoric was questionable, but at the time, it was enough.

And who could blame me? It wasn’t like I was the only American hating on the world’s game. Sportscenter gives the world’s most popular game approximately 5 seconds of airtime in an average day. I can count on one hand the amount of MLS jerseys I’ve seen in my lifetime. On the first day of training camp, on high school football fields all across the the country, coaches deliver the universal line: “Well, boys, if you don’t want to work hard and earn your way onto this team, I’m sure the soccer team has some room for you.”

I’m not proud to say it, but I was a soccer hater.

Then Europe happened.

Soccer in the Netherlands is more than a game. A few blocks from our dorm, an entire neighborhood covers their houses with orange plastic and hangs soccer-ball streamers over the road. One year, they altered the street sign to say Oranjestraat and the police had to come remove it.  At the church I’ve been attending here, they somehow weave soccer metaphors or references into every single sermon. There seems to be an entire genre of music dedicated to the Dutch national soccer club, and they play this genre exclusively during the World Cup.

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On game day, fans pack the bars and restaurants like orange sardines. Sunday night, I threw on my old orange Ames high shirt and became one of those sardines. I was running a little late, so I had to fight and claw my way into the back of the bar to get a view of the HD projector screen brought in specifically for the World Cup. Orange streamers hung from every inch of the ceiling. Anxious fans murmured quietly. The dutch were tied with Mexico 0-0, and there was only one half left.

After Mexico’s forward lasered a shot into the upper 90 of the Dutch goal, you could’ve heard a pin drop in the crowded bar. No one ordered drinks. The 200 people in the bar went completely silent. I felt out of place, like I had stumbled into a funeral service for somebody that I didn’t know. I considered leaving, but I looked at the door and my exit route was blocked by tall, sad, angry, and slightly intoxicated Dutch people. Leaving wasn’t an option. I’d have to stick this one out.

Forty-five minutes later, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar sank a penalty shot to give the Dutch a 2-1 victory. Pandemonium broke out. Confetti poured out of the ceiling. A fog machine turned on. Disco lights filled the room. Mob mentality took over and the whole place started jumping. The floor started shaking when they turned on one of those weird Netherlands soccer songs. Everybody started hugging strangers and screaming along with the song in Dutch.

As with most major life decisions, the details are fuzzy on the exact moment when I switched over. Maybe it was the fog machine. Maybe it was the stranger-hugging. Perhaps it was more of a gradual process beginning with stepping foot on Netherlandish soil. I don’t know how it happened, but it did. I switched over from hating the sport of soccer to loving it.

I went from this:

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To this:

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So on the eve of the USA playing Belgium, I want to issue a challenge to my fellow Americans. Do some soul-searching. Are you a soccer hater? Did you have Christopher Walken-esque coach, too? Are you still letting the mainstream sports media and your former high school (American)football coach convince you that soccer isn’t cool?

If so, it’s time to let go. Do yourself a favor and watch some football this afternoon.