Europe through the Back Door

Maastricht Musings is a series of posts written while I study abroad for 11 weeks this summer in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Some will dabble deep into theological truths; others will offer comic relief, but hopefully all will offer entertaining and informative glimpses into Europe.

The city of Florence is a tourist’s dream. Cafés spill out into the cobblestone streets, and the Arno River cuts through the heart of the city. Tuscan hills dotted with vineyards line the horizon. Florence means colors, culture, and those cream-colored Italian stucco buildings with the orange-tiled roofs. It’s picturesque, famous, and idyllic, and because of that, you get to enjoy the relatively small Italian city with 50,000 other tourists.

I’m quickly figuring out that the real gems of this continent are not where the crowds are. The best cities, restaurants, and activities are hidden. They’re off the beaten path. They’re through the back door. So when I had a free Saturday morning in Florence, I set off to find one of these gems.

The crowds were already thick, and my resolve to escape them increased as I dodged street vendors and tour groups in the big city square. I walked north away from the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio and everything else that the city was famous for. My destination was the Alinari Bike Rental shop. I ducked into a tiny Italian groceria and snagged a baguette and some salami, threw the groceries in my backpack, and headed on towards the bike shop.

The place was hard to find, nestled in the less popular Northern part of the city on Guelfa Avenue. I negotiated prices for a few minutes at the counter and then walked over to my machine. A shiny new white Vespa like they drive in the Italian movies, White Lightning was mine for the next three hours.


“Do you have experience on one of these?” The shop owner asked me. “Of course,” I replied, failing to mention that I had only driven a friend’s scooter down the block one time. I struggled to get White Lightning to start, and he gave me a skeptical look. I smiled back and twisted the throttle, zooming away in the type of dramatic exit that only an underpowered 50cc Vespa named White Lightning can make.

Driving through the city was a lot like Mario Kart with higher stakes. I dodged traffic and tried to do what the other Vespas were doing. White Lightning had more giddy-up than I was expecting, and I hit 40 km/h effortlessly. I glided past the city’s fountains and squares. Before long, I had left the hordes of tourists and crowded city streets behind and was cruising up the Tuscan hills, passing small villages every few kilometers.

White Lightning struggled a little bit on the hills, and during the steep inclines, we slowed to a steady crawl. After half an hour of climbing, I rode past a viewpoint overlooking the city. The massive Duomo Church was a tiny orange smudge on the landscape from up here. This was Italy. This was vacation. This was Europe through the back door.


I stopped in a town of Fiesole and ate my picnic lunch in their bustling town square. I checked my watch: one more hour to explore. I started my descent back down the hillside, and topped out at 60 km/h on the way down (that was the moment when White Lightning got his name). I hugged the Eastern outskirts of the city and headed in the general direction of Piazzale Michelangelo, a famous overlook on the South side of the city. Following the Italian signs, I made it up to the Piazzale. The tourists head up to the spot en masse for the sunset, but during early afternoon, it was quiet and serene.

I glanced down at my watch, twenty minutes to get back. I crossed the Arno, and set out back for the North side. At some point, I made a wrong turn and found myself on a highway with way too many lanes for White Lightning to handle. Ducking off at the nearest exit, I asked an amiable Italian for directions. He pointed to our destination on the map, and five minutes later, the storefront was on our right. I’m not sure if the shop worker or myself was more surprised that I showed up on time. I handed over the keys, and starting walking back to the hostel. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the long line slowly snaking towards the entrance to the Duomo. Don’t they know about the back door?


I don’t want to over-spiritualize these posts on my travels. Sometimes a vespa ride is just a vespa ride, and there’s no deeper, underlying spiritual truth. But when I think about Europe through the back door, about how the real treasures lie off the wide and crowded road, the words of Jesus are just too applicable to leave out.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. —Matthew 7:13



Pretenders in Masks

Why do we wear masks?

Because deep down, we know. We know we’re broken and we know that others know it. Our fear of this inevitability drives us to construct our entire lives around being liked, being respected, being known. We construct our entire lives around what people around us think of us. The people around us are the stock adjustors, raising or lowering our value based on the most trivial factors. Did you make the team? Stock goes up. Did you get cut from that fraternity? Stock goes down. And just like the market, we’re always susceptible to a crash. That’s what happens when we take our bruised and battered identity, put a facade over it, and see if others like what we’ve put up.

The real irony of the masquerade that we live in is that we’re taking our brokenness to other broken people and hoping they’ll fix us.

My buddies and I spent the entire weekend with fifteen poor and marginalized people from Waco. Here’s what I love about my new friends: At some point, they stopped putting up a facade. Whether it was addiction, abuse, divorce, incarceration, their stock crashed. Their mask no longer worked. The fronts and facades failed. They couldn’t look perfect or polished or complete anymore. So they threw it away. They threw their mask away.

And some of them stayed there. They aren’t pretty and they don’t wear someone else’s pretty face. They are unmasked. You know this type. This is the poor person you don’t like, who isn’t very friendly, who has no problem asking for change on the corner despite the fact that it robs them of any ability to look capable, dignified, or put together.

Some of the poor and marginalized didn’t stay there though. They crashed just like the first group and through away their masks. But in their hurt and pain and loneliness, Jesus happened. They turned to Him and He came in and made them new. He didn’t do a surface-level repair; He gave them new hearts. These people are the most beautiful people in the world, the ones who were the most broken. They threw away their masks and went to the only one who has any right to determine their stock, their Creator.

These people have scars from their past lives in the deep creases of their foreheads. The drugs, hunger, stress, and regrets have taken a toll on their exterior. But inside, they’ve been made new, and they won’t shut up about it. I’m glad they don’t. God is using every single one of those creases to tell all of us to throw down our masks.

Whether your stock is high or low, it doesn’t matter. Your cracks might not even be visible to the world. But I think you know. I think you know that you pretend. You wear a mask. Throw it down. Let Him make you new. If that’s already happened, live like it. Don’t put your stock anywhere but  His love and grace and goodness.

Community happens when people stop feeling the need to pretend. When a group of people stops feeling the need to put out fronts and facades to hold people distant, we’re able to love people with the type of love Jesus shows us. He doesn’t love our facades and disguises and costumes. He loves us.

Broken, blemished, imperfect, He loves us.