I recently returned from a church Men’s Retreat in the resort town of Lenk, Switzerland. This was MY kind of ‘retreat.’ The majority of our two days was spent on the ski slopes, not talking about God and theology and right and wrong.
I’ve been a Christian since I was 8, so the pastoral lectures and Bible verses never feel especially new to me.
I routinely enjoy the music, and in our case a great band led those times in the evenings, but I was happy to attend a retreat that was mostly just a cheap ski vacation. I met some cool guys, got a little better on a snowboard, and stood in absolute awe at some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever known.
I don’t worship God very well through study, or through listening to lectures from pastors. Lectures, ever, haven’t worked well with my brain. Ask any teacher of mine all the way back to 1st grade and you’ll probably get some version of the same mildly exasperated half-smile, and a reply along the lines of, “he really, really TRIED to give a crap.”
But when I’m in the shadow of the Swiss Alps, with 1,000 year old glaciers clinging to jagged sawtooth ridges in a 300-degree ring all around me, I pay attention. Somehow, breathing in crystal-pure air, with rolling forests and organic dairy farms dotting the countryside in every direction far below me, I have no problem thinking about God and wondering how I couldn’t possibly be closer to His almighty Spirit for that moment.
So, it was a spiritual time for me, but with very little preaching or Bible-studying. Perfect.
I was also struck by the unity and beauty of the towns we passed through on our way to Lenk. Switzerland has been highly resistant to change over the years, from what little I’ve read of the country. It is fairly hard to immigrate there, and once you ARE there, good luck building consensus around any particular idea or religious creed that departs from the time-honored ways of the Swiss. Du willst ein Minaret? Das wird nie passieren!
In Switzerland, you know you are in Switzerland. Especially in the countryside. The buildings are stirringly beautiful, most made of a light-colored wood sometimes set on dazzling white painted rock or concrete bases. The barns looks related to the houses. Everything is clean, ordered, pristine.
This unity isn’t by accident. But it takes enormous force of will to maintain a cultural identity in an increasingly pluralistic and mobile society. To do so inevitably becomes political, with increasingly volatile arguments on either side.
My homeland, America, has never really had a unity of culture and history to this degree. We’re a nation of very few subjugated natives, and very very many immigrants. To walk through my country – or any large American city – is to walk around the world.
Both have their merits (except for our treatment of the natives). But there’s something so deeply peaceful about meandering through a place that knows itself so well. A place that is OLD, and has not forgotten the value of of old things. King Solomon was rewarded by God with power and money because when God offered to give Solomon anything he wanted, the young man asked for wisdom. Any place that honors age, honors wisdom, and God seems to have blessed the Swiss accordingly.
I’m not saying Switzerland is paradise or utopia. There are problems. But they’re getting lots of things right. Here, walking is revered over driving. Food is valued for quality and purity rather than quick access or cost.The country has some of the best health care access in the world, with 3.6 doctors and 10.7 nurses per 1000 people. Life expectancy is around 73 years old. Obesity is less than 8% (it’s almost 50% in the U.S.), and it is estimated that 100% of the population has access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities.
As a Caucasian from the American suburbs, with no knowledge of my heritage further back than my grandparents, this place holds an impossible appeal for me. I don’t know my family history, whether a story of thieves or kings. My nation’s history doesn’t even span 300 years.
As our retreat drew to a close, I knew I could never truly be a part of a place like Lenk, Switzerland. I could only marvel and yearn, watching that priceless world slip past my car window, as we hurried home.
I’m elated to be now living in Europe – in idyllic, semi-rural Germany. The cars are smaller, the houses and buildings are almost universally beautiful. Paris is a two-hour bullet train ride from here. Numerous other countries of Europe are easily accessible. The kids are already naturally practicing German. I have yet to see the bland, plain grids of sidewalks and cheap row houses of suburban America. I wonder if cinder blocks and concrete are even legal in this part of the world. It’s like 1960’s architecture tried to gain a foothold here and was told, “Danka, but we’re all full of ugly…try Littleton.”
I do have some serious trepidation about the job, however. Everyone I’ve talked to says it’s really tough. The burn-out rate is very high. No one has survived it past 2 years…and I’m supposed to be here or at least 3. Some of what I was told about days off and CME funding is not true. And the system here is unendingly bureaucratic, which can really weigh me down after awhile.
For example, my wife has informed me that I am not allowed to constantly make note of every inefficiency I encounter in the world of The Army. I’ve already found it tough to avoid observations of bemusement, befuddlement and even real irritation at the level of bueraucratic overhead required to simply do a job in this system.
For example, even though I spent days (literally) getting a special military ID and system access card while on the Army base in Washington…I have to go through the same process here. I’ve signed up to get the card, but the database hasn’t been “consumated” (the word used by the German HR guy helping me through this process), so I can’t get the card. Without the card, I can’t open a bank account, can’t get my mail, can’t rent a house, can’t get a cell phone, can’t do lots of other housekeeping stuff.
So, I’m not sure who consumates with a database (or how it’s done, exactly), but I sure hope s/he gets their freak on soon. We’re cooped up in perfectly nice hotel, but it’s small and we can’t really go anywhere. The kids have been great, but I can’t blame them for getting bored. So…how ’bout a little champagne and strawberries for the database? Maybe someone can light a few scented candles and play Enigma tunes in the room that houses the server blade stacks.
Whatever it takes, people…we’re gettin’ stir crazy here.
So, for now, I live in a hotel. In Europe. In pastoral Germany. I spend my days admiring the sloping, tiled roofs and church steeples off in the distance of my little village. I ponder the meaning of database consumation, and wonder if my job will have me snorting Visteril within a year.
I get lots of questions about my med school. For those few not in The Know, I attended the Medical School for International Health. The school is located in Israel, in the ancient town of Beer Sheva (you can find it in the Bible, dude…can you say something like THAT about Maple Acres, Kansas?). The institution is Ben Gurion University.
The program focuses on providing medicine in an international context; particularly to the 3rd world. The school is a collaboration project between BGU and Columbia University, so blokes like me have a reasonable shot of doing residencies in the U.S. after graduation (got my 1st choice in residency program).
Anyway, emails come in from all over the world asking me about my experience there and soliciting my advice about going. This latest query was so expansive and had such good questions, I figured that if I was going to go to the trouble of replying to it, I might as well post it as a blog so everyone could check it out:
My name is Bryan and I am an accepted MSIH student from Provo, UT headed to Israel in July. Here are a few questions for you:
What did your spouse and kids do while in Israel for the 3 years?
They found all kinds of things to do. Getting settled in Israel is quite a job compared to the U.S. Everything is slower to accomplish, from records to mail to shopping, things just take lots of time.
That said, my wife and I had 2 children while in Israel, so that kept her busy in ways that older kids wouldn’t. She also took a Hebrew class that provided lots of social interaction, friends and experiences in the culture.
Additionally, you will have WAAAY more time that you might expect. The first year, you don’t even take an exam of any kind for 5 months. Not one. You just go to class. Or don’t. Depends on your learning style. Then, when exam time does roll around, you are home studying most of the day. I don’t know if that’s how it is at other med schools, but that’s the way we roll in the IS.
So, you won’t be gone as much as you probably envision. And, the family will have more to do that you might think.
Did your kids attend school at all?
Mine didn’t, but they easily could have. I started the program with just one 2 year old girl, but we had 2 more by the time we left (like I said…you do have, *ahem* free time). The oldest would have done fine in their preschools, called Gan (pronounced GONE, means garden).
I would recommend it, especially if your kids want to learn Hebrew. Like most European countries, education is a huge emphasis, so they’ll want your kid there EVERY day, all day. Even preschool. This was the hang-up for us. Something M/W/F might have worked, but my wife wasn’t ready to ship our 3 year old off for full-time school, so we skipped it.
Did your kids and your spouse learn the language?
See comments above about wife. Kids didn’t learn it (although for some reason, we ALL still regularly say ‘agvanot’, which means tomatoes). I wish they had been a bit older, becuase then I would have insisted on school for them.
Did you have any Hebrew before MSIH, or did you buy a program like Rosetta Stone to get you started?
I had none, and sucked at it all the way through. Figured out how to buy food pretty quick, though. I bought a tape-series that supposedly was used by State Department people, but never even opened the box.
The school provided a pretty good immersion class, but really you need to take the same Hebrew class that my wife took at night to actually learn the language. The Israeli people (unlike many lame ethnocentric Americans like me) know English almost universally in addition to their native Hebrew. So, they would rather work on their English with you than let you work on your Hebrew with them. All of your classes are in English. You actually don’t get as much exposure to the language as you might think.
Furthermore, on the wards, I’d say Hebrew is only spoken by about 60% of the patients. Beer Sheva has to be one of the most nationally-diverse cities on the planet. Walk down a typical medical ward, and you may hear anything from the Big Three: Hebrew, Arabic and Russian, to many “lesser” languages of the area like English, Spanish, Bulgarian, Yiddish, Romanian, French and others. Although Jewish in heritage, the people who immigrate to Israel come from nearly every country in the world. Their primary language usually isn’t Hebrew.
If you truly want to learn the language – and the best reason to is so that you understand the ward doctors during your 3rd year – my recommendation is to go to Israel 2 months early and take a true immersion course. This is how they do it for the new immigrants. You live in a house with other immigrants and they DRILL the language into you. You’ll have it forever after that.
Did you buy a car?
We did. It was very expensive and a bad idea. Getting all the paperwork for it took 3 solid days of sitting in offices all over the town of Beer Sheva. Gas is spendy. Insurance and licensing is more than in the states.
We should have just used cabs instead. They crawl all over the city all the time. You never wait for them, and a trip anywhere in town is only 15 shekels, which is about 3 dollars. We calculated that we could take 60 one-way cab rides a month for the monthly cost of the car.
Right about that time, I got into a minor wreck; we parked the car after that because we didn’t want to spend the money to fix it. I watched with interest as teenagers slowly dismantled the thing on a semi-nightly basis over the ensuing months. I ended up with a twisted metal creature that can only loosely be described as a “machine”. They took everything.
“Oh well,” my friend Brian consoled me one day. “Just be happy that you probably made some high school kid’s senior year 10 times funnier as they systematically ripped your car apart every night.”
Do many students buy cars while there?
Nope. Just the dumber ones.
How else can you get to the more remote sites like Masada, Dead Sea, Elat and the like?
Rent cars. Fairly easy. Fairly cheap. Pool with friends if you aren’t going with the fam. We saw EVERYTHING in Israel in nice Skodas or Seats (see-aht) with power windows and A/C and no worries about breaking down.
You can also take the train, which is efficient and fun…except when its crowded and you’re crammed between 6 sweaty IDF soldiers with automatic rifles, some of which are pointed at you and your kids.
Where did you do your residency and what specialty did you choose?
Olympia, WA. Family medicine. I felt then, and still feel, that my specialty is absolutely the best preparation for medical mission work.
I have not once regretted my specialty choice or the residency program I chose.
Did you know of any MSIH grads applying to the handful of International Health Residency Programs?
None of my class applied, but this largely had to do with location, not competitiveness. We wouldn’t have had a problem getting into those programs, in general. U of Rochester had a good connection with our school and a few of our grads went there. Their Intl Health cirriculum is fantastic (or was a few years ago when I was looking at them).
Is there any personal advice you think would be beneficial to me; advice that might not be included in the admissions packet?
Be flexible, don’t whine like an American. Don’t expect anyone to care about you or your little worries. Be a traveler. Be observant and end your sentences with question marks rather that declarative periods at a ratio of at least 2:1.
Recognize that there is no answer to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Accept that you have no right to have any opinion on the issue until you can say honestly that you have deep friendships with BOTH an Israeli and a Palestinian. Until then, try as hard as you can to shut up learn.
Travel, travel, travel as much as you possibly can. Drive the country from end-to-end at least twice. Stay at a Kibbutz or Moshav. Swim in the waters of Gan Hashlosha and the Med. Absolutely see the Golan Heights in the spring when curtains of flowing green grass are punctured by brilliant red Israeli poppies. Try as many foods as you can and never turn down invitations to Shabbat, Passover, Rosh Hashanna or Succoth.
Spend lots of time in Jerusalem – especially the Arab Quarter of the Old City – and try to hang out in the Armenian Tavern for dinner at least once. See the Wall and the Dome on the same day.
Jump on chances to go to Europe, especially the eastern countries. See Turkey, Jordan and at least the Sinai of Egypt. Get certified in SCUBA in 3 days on the Gulf of Aquaba (look up a guy named Hamdi in Dahab if you are interested). Consider your experience there a colossal failure if you miss out on many of these opportunities.
Pick up a cause that will build the school. I started the literature and medicine class. I think it’s a required class now, so if you hate it, you can thank me. Pour part of your life into the school. Put MSIH on the map in your own small (or big) way.
Will every moment of your experience into the marrow of your soul; drink its precious nectar as if you never will again. Because you won’t.