I know that wandern is ein Wort Deutsch, but I think it's my favorite in the language. It means "to hike," but loosely, it obviously also means "to wander." And that's pretty much how I've spent my last few days. There's been a lot of alone time, and a lot of Zeit mit Freunde (time with friends), and a LOT of wandern. Ich wandere oft. Samstag (Saturday), 19. Juli was a rare free day for AIMS -- in fact, the only one on the calendar. Many of my friends and colleagues went away for the weekend: some to Budapest, some to Vienna. Emily and I and some others elected to stay in Graz -- at least this weekend. I had a lot of grand plans for the free day, but here's the thing about weekends in Graz: everything shuts down. The Austrians believe in a quiet weekend, which I personally love. Samstag everything closes early in the afternoon, und Sonntag? Sonntag, everything is closed, period. All day. The silence is both eerie and refreshing at the same time. The town is deserted. I rode die Strassenbahn all over Graz on Saturday, and there was hardly anyone else on it -- a true rarity.

Saturday began beautifully. It was a very sunny weekend, and my Saturday morning was a little warmer than usual. After my run I changed my clothes and walked to the Grazer Dom, the main Kirche (church) in town. It's right next to a mausoleum. The church is beautiful, but I didn't go there just to gawk (although that was at least 30% of why I went). I sat down in a pew in the middle of the church to do my daily devotional. I have never been in the midst of such silence. It was so poignant. Small groups of two to five people were in and out of the cathedral for most of the time I was there, and they were as silent as they could be. It's funny to me that people enter these sanctuaries and are instantly hushed. There's an atmosphere about it that commands reverence and respect. I myself was virtually mute. My pencil scratching in my prayer journal was the loudest thing in the sanctuary.

The view from my pew.

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The roofs are always my favorite.

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The organ -- auf Deutsch, Orgel!

After about two hours in the Dom, I walked back to the Heim, where I spent a short time before Emily and I went to lunch. We went to our favorite Italian place, Il Centro, before splitting up: she went back to nap, I wanted to walk around the town. One of the Linien of die Strassenbahn terminates at a pilgrimage church called Mariatrost, so I decided to ride all the way to the end and make a little pilgrimage of my own. Unfortunately, I forgot that Linie Eins (Line One) is under construction, and it turns around short of Mariatrost. You have to take a bus the rest of the way, and I wasn't sure which bus, so I rode die Strassenbahn back to the Heim. I looked into several shops, and went by a couple of places I wanted to visit, but because of the weekend, they closed after lunch.

Sonntag (Sunday) was much more eventful. Our friend Laura came and knocked on our door to ask if we wanted to go with her and Jen to Castle Gösting. Gösting was built in 1042 (Danke sehr, Wikipedia), on the edge of the valley where Graz is located. In the 1700s the castle caught fire, but the remains are still there, and in excellent shape; I imagine that they were somehow restored to near-original condition. We rode the city bus to the base of the mountain, and we hiked the rest of the way up to the castle.

Hiking up Ruineweg.

I love the mountain view.

Let me just say that I had debated going running that morning and did not, and when we were five minutes into this hike, I was glad. In some places the incline felt like it was 45 degrees (fünfundvierzig Grad) -- it may not have been, but it felt like that. Praise God for my running shoes, which helped me up that mountain. I call it a mountain -- it wasn't THAT tall, but it sure as heck was not a hill. The view was beautiful. It was a warm, sunny day, and the trees were bright green. On the bottom portion of the hike we passed some houses (with driveways situated at impossible angles), but soon these vanished behind us, leaving just us and the trees and the clearly-marked path.

Ruine Gösting!

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Gorgeous trees.

It was a hike of approximately half an hour to Ruine Gösting at the top, and it was well worth it. This castle is so beautifully, delightfully old. From it you have a fantastic view of the Mur River valley. The little nooks and crannies in the ruins are enchanting, and I can only imagine the history of the place, what it was like during the Middle Ages (le Moyen Âge, en français).

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We spent around an hour or so in the ruins, and then we decided to hike back down. We didn't get very far when we saw a sign labeled Cholerakappele -- literally, Cholera Chapel. We thought this was funny and we decided to go hunting for it. It wasn't very far off, though the path was covered in leaves and narrow in places. The chapel wasn't very big, but it was sweet, and I loved that people came there often enough to seek God's presence that a chapel was erected there.

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I love forests.

Cholerakappelle.

On the way down we took a shortcut on the steepest path ever, which ran next to a vineyard on the hillside. It looked like a meadow: perfectly free of trees, grasses the color of peridot (my birthstone, y'all, so obviously it was awesome). The grapes were pretty young, but it was such a beautiful sight. Laura referred to it as an "Alpine meadow."

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We rode the bus back to the city and ate a really late lunch. I don't know what it is about Austrians, but they do not understand me when I ask for my salad without dressing. They dress it anyway. I have an issue with this, but it's nothing that some clarity and emphasis can't fix. Laura had schnitzel, which came with a teeny tiny jar of jam, which smelled like strawberries. Emily was pretty tired at this point, and began to speak in strange voices of the "LITTLE BABY JAM." It is impossible to convey how funny this was and still is.

LITTLE BABY JAM.

I went back to the Heim to do laundry and practice. Practice is good these days: I'm working on two Lieder for my coach, Andreas, and three arias for Dr. Colòn. The two Lieder couldn't be more different. One is "Begegnung" by Hugo Wolf, a very stormy piece full of what I don't musically expect. It's fast, but pretty straightforward; I think the hardest thing about it is going to be fitting my lips around all the words. Germans like to set wordy poems. I think it's because the expression is in the consonants, as I learn more and more each day. The second Lied is more Strauss -- and in case you haven't caught this yet, I'm obsessed with Richard Strauss. This song is from his Mädchenblumen cycle, the last song: "Wasserrose," which is a waterlily. It's floaty and comprised of ever-shifting key centers. The piano does not help me at all. It's delightfully gorgeous; I can never get enough Strauss. His music challenges me in new ways every time. The more I sing his music, the better an artist I become.

While I'm on my music tangent: the other day Dr. Colòn said she thought I had a special connection with Mozart and his music. Excuse me while I go repeat that to everyone I ever meet. I adore Mozart, and the three arias I'm singing are all Mozart. I've mentioned two already: both of Cherubino's arias from Le nozze di Figaro. They're both in the middle of my voice, with some descent into what I consider the middle-low portion of it. It's really interesting to hear all the different colors that my voice can produce. The other aria is Zerlina's "Vedrai, carino" from Don Giovanni. This is a song that every young soprano learns; how I've never sung it, I'm sure I couldn't tell you. It's not difficult as far as the notes go (I'm pretty sure it's all in one octave or so), or the text, but in typical Mozart fashion, it's a way of aligning your technique. Mozart gives you a voice lesson every time you open your mouth.

Laundry in Europe is difficult. Our washers here at the Heim do a great job; my clothes are always clean. But the dryers are a different story. I think I had my clothes in the dryer for two hours last night but when they were taken out, they were still damp. Nothing ever really fully dries, but close is good enough in this case.

For dinner, I went out to eat with some friends -- Emily and Laura, in addition to some others: Katie and her husband Daniel (a pianist), as well as Anne (also from Texas!), Kim, and Aldo. I had never been to Vapiano, which is a chain Italian restaurant, but y'all. It is what is UP. They make the food in front of you while you wait in line, and it's DELICIOUS. Plus they brought everyone at my table free panna cotta (which I turned down, but it's the thought that counts).

Montag was mostly business as usual. I went running morning by the river, my legs burning a little from the previous day's hike (Wir wandern!). I left the Heim early because I wanted to cash some traveler's checks. In fact, that's how most of that day was spent: looking for a bank that will cash my traveler's checks. Here's a spoiler for you: I didn't have any luck. I asked at about five or six banks, a couple of them large, "chain" banks (Can you have a chain bank, like a chain restaurant?), and nobody would exchange them. Finally I went to Tourismus Graz, the tourist info building, and asked them if they could look up a place. Within ten miles, there is not a place that will change my checks. So now we know. It's only Jesus that kept me from being frustrated -- thanks to Him, I was actually quite calm.

Other than the thing with the checks, it was a fabulous day. I had a diction coaching on both of my aforementioned Lieder, and Isolde (one of three German diction coaches) taught me something new about German Rs. I love watching my colleagues perform in ATS, and I learned a new way to analyze my songs. My coaching with Andreas also went very well. He can tell when I like a piece and when I don't; he knows already how much I love Strauss.

In between wandering (there's that word again) around to find banks, I had some great finds in the city. I found the best present ever for my dad (but on the off chance he reads this, I'm not going to say what it is)! A friend of mind (shoutout to Katie Kelly, if by any chance she's reading this) told me about a bookstore down the street from the MENSA where they sell books by the kilogram. It's zwei (two) Euros for a kilogram of books. I don't think I said that emphatically enough. It is TWO EUROS FOR A KILOGRAM OF BOOKS. I don't know how long I was there, but it was a while. I came away with what I consider treasure: an old volume of three Shakespeare plays auf Deutsch (and in really cool font), the ENTIRE libretto of Così fan tutte in Italian AND German, an CD of famous pieces from Der Rosenkavalier (because why wouldn't you buy that?), and an old record. Said record is a recording of freaking Carmen, with AIMS masterclass teacher and incredibly wonderful mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig as Carmen.

I went down the street to buy a granola bar, but when the clerk asked me if I wanted to pay, I didn't understand her. "Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut," I said, forgetting that I knew how to ask her to speak slower (Bitte langsam). She repeated it in English, and asked me where I was from. I must have stood there talking with her for ten minutes. She's such a fascinating person: she's from Croatia and speaks about five languages, she's trained as a nurse, and she has family in the States! It was so sweet to get to talk with her. When she was young, she told me, it was her dream to live in Germany or Austria -- and look at her now! What a blessing that was to me, to be able to have a conversation with one of the locals. I can't explain why, but it lifted my heart a little bit.

After a stop at the Spar (my favorite grocery store), I walked past an antique book store. Naturally it was calling my name, so I stopped in. Everything there was quite expensive, but it was so beautiful to see such lovely old books. Emily and I went to Vapiano for dinner again, and afterward we went to AIMS Artists in Recital to watch our colleagues sing.

Dienstag, Tuesday, was also pretty normal. It was a businesslike day, and I had a good lesson, and discovered a new technical habit to graft into my voice! That evening I sang in voice studio class, and here we have a classic example of Sara being ridiculously hard on herself. I sang a brand-new aria, and overcorrected, so the aria sounded quite dark. Dr. Colòn pointed out to me that the right space was there, but I was making the sound too dark. In my mind, I only hear any kind of critical feedback, so I was pretty bummed. My colleagues are so supportive, though, and encouraged me a lot. It's like having a bunch of AIMS moms, which I love. On the way home from studio it started to rain, and I had forgotten my umbrella. Rain in Graz is usually pretty light, but not this time. I was soaked. I wrung my hair before I walked into the Heim. It was delightful. Sometimes all you need is a good rain.

Mittwoch. There's something about Wednesday that gives people the slumps, I think. Today was actually a lovely day, though. I had a fun German class and a great coaching. It makes the perfectionist in me happy when anyone tells me that something is well-prepared. It also makes me rejoice when my coach has almost no diction notes for me. Doing something right!

After lunch, Emily and I went to die Schule to work with Andrea, our ATS instructor, on some songs. I worked with her on my Strauss, the "Wasserrose". This was all the encouragement my heart needed. She put images in my mind as I sang, which really helped me to feel the ethereal quality of the song. Not only that, she made me feel like the music was built for me. The music of Richard Strauss is ridiculously hard to sing, and full of leaps and bounds, but once I get it into my body, then I feel golden. Strauss's music is full of color and flight and light and sparkle, and I love to sing it. Andrea pointed out that the song was so good for me. When Emily and I left, she told us how talented she thought we were, and that we could do just about anything we wanted. With all the work we're doing, it's easy to get lost in everything you have to work on, to lose sight of what you can really do: what you're good at. I'm affirmed and encouraged and challenged at every moment here, but this was a pause of comfort that did my heart a lot of good.

I returned to the Heim to practice before turning around and going back to die Schule for coaching studio. There is a concert of spirituals coming up, and a few of my colleagues in my studio are singing in it, so once we had finished the Lieder for the day, Andreas played some of their spirituals. We tried to explain to him how the rhythm in these songs should be swung; one of my friends, Savannah, told him just to "Feel the Spirit." The juxtaposition of casual American spirituals with an Austrian pianist was hilarious. After studio, I went to eat with several dear friends, and visited a masterclass briefly before walking the city with the lovely Laura and Taylor. They are such mutually encouraging women. One of the many wonderful things about AIMS is that everyone is on the same path: different points, but similar journeys. I could drown in encouragement.

I have difficulty believing people when they tell me how much time I have to develop as a musician and a singer: I often feel like I have no time at all. But I realized tonight that this is really only my expectation. I'm trying to trust God and where He has me, and to enjoy the journey, but I get so impatient! I want to be good right now! To hear others tell me that I'm on the right path, though, is balm for my restless soul. Not only that, but I can feel myself improving, and I love that so much. What I really want is to hone in on my music. I want to get it into my bones; I want to live with it and know it as much as I can. Every day I feel like more of an artist, but every day I realize how little I really know, and how far I have to go. Laura told me that that's how you know you're really an artist, and I think she's right.

What I want is to tell a story, to communicate through this music, to share the joy it brings me. That is my task, my goal, my purpose. I can't wait to see what I learn at my lesson tomorrow.

Thank you to all who read this for sticking with me along this crazy journey. There's less than a month left! Stay tuned for more music, more school, more German, more Graz -- this sounds like a TV commercial -- as well as performances by yours truly!

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