One of my first thoughts before coming to Italy was “will I fit in”. Not just with my new classmates or with roommates, but with the culture. I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled a large amount of this world before I’ve reached the age of 20, and one curse of traveling is perpetually being outside the norm. Out of the loop, per say. Venturing into a new and unfamiliar territory is an exciting and informative experience, but leaving my home country for extended periods of time would always remind me how American or Italian (depending on the country) I truly was. Here in Italy, I realize how much of an enigma I am.
I grew up in a stereotypical Italian-American family. Pasta with meatballs, sausage and gravy was a common meal, at least 6-8 times a month, if not more frequent (and yes I stand on that side of the ever-growing debate between gravy and sauce). Large family gatherings were full of wine and discussion, accompanied by the occasional shout and loud exchange. We went to church every Sunday, and I was allowed to drink wine before I was 15. My family was the spitting image of what American’s would consider Italians.
Coming to Italy, however, I discover just how un-Italian we are. In lieu of diving into the debate as to whether or not Southern Italy is it’s own distinct national identity, I will regard Italy as the parts I have explored thus far since being here, namely Rome and points north. Italian’s here aren’t as loud or boisterous as my family…not even close. Every meal except for dinner feels very Americanized, quick or with very limited time. I see Italians on their lunch breaks walking around eating a sandwich. When I heard stories about Italy growing up, I was told that no one would think of eating on the go, that meals were a sacred thing to be shared with others, and people would often close their shops for a few hours just to have lunch. While this may be true in the South or in towns that are less tourist-dependent than ones I’ve visited, in Florence, that isn’t the case at all. Everyone just goes about their business as if New York City had been condensed down into a small, renaissance city. It’s quick, and at many points, impersonal.
I’ve been told that I should probably travel further South, and there I’ll find “my people”, but I’m hesitant. I’m scared that, if I do journey to Naples or Palermo, that I’ll just find what I’ve already discovered here, that I don’t fit in with that culture either. I’m not expecting there to be some perfect match, some “AHA” moment where I see the roots of everything I was raised with, but to discover that the “Italy” my family has been keeping alive all these years is truly dead…that wouldn’t be a story I would like to return to America with.
So, for now, I’ll keep that dream and hope alive. I’ll sit here telling myself trains to Naples and flights to Palermo are too expensive, that I should keep waiting. Maybe one day they’ll dip low enough to make sense, and I’ll take that final journey to see how things really are. Or maybe, I’ll just run out of time, and I’ll be left wondering for another few years whether or not the Italy that I grew up with is alive somewhere outside my backyard and Philadelphia apartments. Until then, the idea of living in between doesn’t daunt me as much as much as it once did.
Dried paint sat under my fingertips, milky and clumped. The acrylic I hoped would smooth and settle had decided to conglomerate into hard little shapes, like curdled milk. Despite my disappointment I knew it was permanent so I drank it in, accepting the mistakes and adopting them as a part of my work.
I sat in the little park, on a very cold bench and stretched my sore legs out in front of me. The blue opacity of the sky had made me believe it was going to be warm outside. However, the icy wood slats under my thighs held a very different temperature than I had anticipated. I embraced the cold, breathing it in and hoped it would wake me up.
I wanted to wear thick tights. I pulled them over my ankle, my shin, my calf, my knee, and my thigh on my left leg. Then I pulled the soft and compressing fabric over my ankle, my shin, my calf, my knee and my thigh on my right leg. The whole ordeal took over five minutes. I pulled the suffocating band up over my hips. Then, stared down only to find a lone toe that had made its way through the fibers and out into the open air. At least I could still appreciate the colorful lacquer I had brushed onto my toes the night before.
I bought ten avocados at the fresh market. They were black and bumpy and everything that I had hoped for. Five were just about ripe and five were still ripening. I put the five in a brown paper bag so that they would ripen more quickly. Except I put the wrong five in the bag. All five got so ripe so quickly I couldn’t eat them all at once. But it was okay, because I got to share them with friends. We made poached eggs and toast with avocado mash.
He reached up with one hand and waved. He waved again more urgently this time. He was looking straight at me and was smiling. Confused, I did not recognize him, and thus I did not return the friendly gesture. He must be looking at someone else? He waved and laughed pointing at me. I timidly raised my hand and waived slightly in return. He began to walk in my direction, face plastered with a smile, and then after five strides he reddened and chuckled embarrassedly. He stopped in his tracks and said “Oh ich dachte du wärst jemand anderes— enshuldigung” to which I responded, “What? Sorry?” He laughed again. “I thought you were another person I am sorry!” I laughed and waved goodbye. It does not only happen to me!
I accidentally stepped into a puddle and cringed expecting water to seep into my shoe. Except the puddle turned out to be a clear sheet of ice and so I slipped and caught myself. Thankfully, in the end my sock stayed dry.
Here lie six true anecdotes for expectations not being met, for making mistakes, for hoping for one thing and being met with another. And also, here are six anecdotes that face these moments with optimism. Here lie six anecdotes that can be thought of as metaphors for my time in Berlin. There are a lot of things I thought about Berlin before arriving. There are even more things I have been faced with that I did not think about or expect. There are a lot of ways I saw myself before coming to Berlin. There are many new ways I am learning to see myself. I think I am facing all of these moments with optimism, but sometimes that can be tough.
Arriving in Shanghai soon, or looking to increase the effectiveness of your travel around the city? Here are the top ten tips to effective transport, from arrival at the airport, to everyday commuting.
Pudong Airport – Mag-lev high speed train
Travelers often commandeer a taxi or take the metro when arriving in Shanghai for the first time. A taxi to Puxi will run you 200 RMB and takes about an hour, where the metro costs only 7 RMB, but takes an hour and a half. Taking the Mag-lev is the best route: it takes only eight minutes to traverse two thirds of the distance, and you get to look out the window while you cruise at 200 kilometers per hour. The ride costs 40 RMB.
Google Maps – fixes
The first thing you’ll notice opening Google Maps in China is that it doesn’t work at all, unless you download a VPN. For several reasons (including use of the Google suite), it’s great to have this downloaded before arriving. Next beware your location, it’s often a half-mile off, northwest (don’t ask me why). Finally, don’t trust the search capacity, only use the street address of the location you’re looking for.
Baidu Maps – Google Maps replacement
If you’re tired of fixes for Google Maps, and you’re willing to wade into the waters of Chinese app navigation, give Baidu a try. The interface is fairly straightforward, and – most importantly – the locations are accurate, including yours.
Didi – China’s Uber
One of the most useful apps you can have in Shanghai is Didi, which completed a merger with Uber (after a terrific price war) a couple years ago. Download the English version of the app to call a cab any time. Especially at rush hour, weekend nights, and during rain or snow, it’s impossible to flag a cab any other way.
Taxi payment – use your Metro Card
At some point during your time in Shanghai you will probably realize that you don’t have enough cash to pay for the ride. As an alternative payment, use your metro card, which the driver can tap on the top of the meter. Metro cards also work on buses.
Taxi instructions – Google Translate
The most common way to get instructions across these days is showing the driver a map, and letting them search around until they understand where the pin is. Instead, find your location and get the English address, then place that in google translate and tilt the screen horizontally. Drivers in Shanghai are familiar with addresses, not maps, and will immediately know where you would like to go.
Ofo or Mobike – Free bicycles!
Both Ofo and Mobike are currently in a promotional period where you can use their bikes for free. Simply download the app, scan the QR code on a bicycle, and the bike will unlock. Then you can use it for as long as you want, and leave it on the sidewalk in a legal place. Very handy and very fun.
Metro at rush hour – avoidance and mitigation
The first tip for riding the metro in Shanghai at rush hour is: avoid it. At busy stops it is common to be pushed and shoved and miss a train because there are too many people trying to get in before the doors close automatically. If you do wind up on the metro at rush hour, be patient and seek the shortest lines in the least accessible parts of the station, away from stairs and escalators. Most stations are the same format, so this will also be the least full part of the train once you’re inside.
For any travel in Shanghai, remain calm and go with the flow – it won’t always happen as you expect. When the inevitable transit mistake occurs, you’ll be prepared and able to exclaim méi guān xi! It’s nothing.
In my lost blog post I wrote about how in Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia many of his experiences had to do with the people he encountered. Although I felt like more could have been written about the Patagonian landscapes, I subconsciously was doing the same thing he was – relating my experience and memories of a place to the people that I encountered.
I truly realized this concept this semester, as its my second semester here and while there are another 12 others who are spending their second semester here like me, of my closest friends from last semester, only 2 are still here. What a disorienting experience it is to be walking the same streets, going to the same restaurants and even clubs, knowing that the people whom you share the experience are not here anymore.
The nostalgia has become something mildly irritating to my new friends from this semester.
Every time my new friends and I go to a place that I had already been with my friends from last semester, I inevitably end up saying “last semester when I was here with my friends from last semester…” And when one of my other 2 good friends are there, we’ll go “remember when we came here and…” While my new friends don’t always call us out on it, in the back of my mind I always feel a little guilty, especially because most of the stories emphasize how fun the past experience was, and I certainly don’t want to give anyone any pressure to try to match up to these past experiences. Neither should be necessarily “better” or “worse”. Different people, different experiences.
Of course, the advantage of familiarity is that you know some of the best spots and hidden gems like a local does and to be fair, if someone asked me if I had ever been somewhere I have a firsthand opinion of the place. Then again, just because my friends from last semester was a group that I absolutely loved being around, everywhere that I’ve been tends to have a positive memory associated with it. It’s true when they say it’s not where you are, but who you’re with that determines how much fun you have.
It’s interesting how our experience of a city is tied to who is with us in that moment. From then on, the memory and impression of a place becomes forever linked with who we’re with. A curious thought is how no one outside of a group will ever have the same memory and perceptions of a place. In a way, each place becomes personal to an individual or a collective. What’s more, every place can accumulate experiences to the point where a place can remind us of so many different past experiences at the same time.
Two strangers will probably never experience the same place in the same way. Yet even when two people in the same social group talk about the same place and how they once “had so much fun” at that place, what they feel is fundamentally different because they are perceiving something outside of themselves and while inscribing these stories into their memories, there is always a difference in the characters in the story. Specifically, the role of the self and its relations to others.
How profound to think that when we say that we had “fun” in a place, someone else may wholeheartedly agree but inside, the feeling is different.
Geologically familiar, yet different feelings simply because the people whom you one explored these streets with are not here anymore.
Places change, people leave, what’s left are memories. Maybe this is how it feels when a loved one passes away. How morbid eh?
Though you may not make it explicit to yourself, every movement in your life is done with the intention of discovering a part of yourself that you feel is necessary for your own well-being. People move away from home to find themselves outside of their relationship with their parents. They move abroad to see themselves as a citizen in a different way, to understand themselves in relation to others by being an international figure themselves.
I haven’t quite figure out what I was looking for when I moved to Shanghai. Maybe it was something small, like wanting to learn the language. Maybe it was for bragging rights. Maybe because every time I move somewhere more foreign (yes, I would consider New York to be foreign in it’s own sense) I lose a part of myself that I’ve been waiting to lose all of those years back in Georgia.
There’s a program in Shanghai that allows me to stay on campus for another 9 weeks that I just applied for. It’s a Chinese immersion program in which you are only allowed to speak Chinese for the entire 9 weeks. Anywhere. Two semesters of Chinese study in 9 weeks. In a way, it’s the fastest way to learn as much Chinese as possible within the shortest amount of time.
While I was considering the course before I arrived in Shanghai, after I had lived here a while I had decided against it. I thought it would be ready to return to my life in New York, that I would miss it so much that the idea of staying would be torture. But, just this last week, something changed. I felt as if the program provided an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up—as if it was something that I couldn’t leave without.
I came to China—at least partly—to learn Chinese. Currently, my Chinese is not nearly where I want it to be. In a way, I came here to study, to work. And sure, I’m studying, sure, I’m working but I’m reading English books on European history, only taking 5 hours of Chinese a week. So, isn’t increasing that four-fold achieving what I came here for? Maybe what attracted me was the game element of it all. The restriction of the means of communication in order to improve another—theres something oddly poetic about it. Like blindfolding someone to improve their hearing.
Regardless, theres something keeping me here. There hasn’t been a milestone—nor a sight, an event, a feeling—that has made me satisfied with this city just yet. I feel like if I leave, I’ll be leaving behind something unknown yet something important. Like abandoning an adventure, turning down an opportunity.
Have you ever left a place before you were ready? Do you remember that feeling? It’s heavy at first, like you’ve lost something but you’ve not sure what. Did you leave the lights on? The garage open? You ignore the feeling at first, try to forget it. You try not to reminisce and think about what never was. It’s not good, you tell yourself. It’s over and your gone.
There’s one thing you can learn from this feeling—don’t let it happen again. If you can, stay until you’re ready. And only when you’re ready, leave.
Mont Saint Michel rises out of the sea like a dream. It’s almost wrong how it stands out against the horizon, like running into a sequoia tree in the desert. It makes my heart stutter. We walk across the mudflats at low tide, battered by the winds and covered in sand. Fish bones and lost mittens and footprints are scattered across the landscape like bobby pins left on the sink by an ex-girlfriend, only here the bobby pins are memories of a force of nature that might kill us if we don’t get to the island soon. Definitely an ex-girlfriend.
By the time we reach the front gates at the base of the island, the mist has my hair curling at the nape of my neck. We hike up a narrow street bordered by medieval houses and through an honest-to-god portcullis. Elementary school groups and selfie-stick wielding tourists join us on the trek up stone stairs to- you guessed it- more stairs. It was already a mile and a half across the flats and my feet are starting to ache, but we have to get to the top. We pause on the battlements to stick our heads over and peer down hundreds of feet to the rising tide, and the wind rushes up the walls to blow our eyes shut.
The abbey is the highest and oldest point of the island. The main cathedral feels like an extension of the landscape, walls pale green with weathered copper, green stained glass washing out the entire rectory with a cold light. I sit down on one of the hard pews and listen to the wind blasting through the belfry above.
I’m not religious in the slightest, even after twelve years in children’s choirs. Most classical Western choral music is Christian, so I know the words without knowing the tune, so to speak. It’s a bit like the monks who live here, actually- they walk in circles around the grassy cloister, talking to God, round and round, wearing grooves in the stones. The act of walking becomes secondary to the act of prayer, the inverse of all those hymns becoming technicality in the act of singing. Religion was the path I memorized and wore down into polished stones underfoot, any divine meaning smoothed away. It mattered more to stand next to my friends and hear us breathing as one, sure of our place in the dissonance and resolution. We didn’t sing to God, we sang to each other.
It takes time to wind through Mont Saint Michel’s silent rooms: a chapel of nothing but pillars, a wide ambulatory, a mess hall with soaring ceilings, all in the eerie gray-green stone of the cathedral. In each I wonder what it would be like if it were filled with sound. I still get the urge to sing in Latin in churches, or anywhere that’s more abandoned than not, in parks and parking garages. Religion and song are both just trying to fill the empty spaces.
I pass a door propped open; steps spiral down, blocked off by a rope and a sign that says (a bit ominously): “Crypt.” Wafting up the stairs is a faint baritone, climbing above a small mixed choir. I can’t get down the steps, and the Latin is too soft to be understood, but the words don’t matter, I think, as long as you sing often, and sing for someone you love.
Food is an essential part of living in Italy. I have consumed enough pasta, pizza, and gelato to last me a lifetime. In fact, I’ve said to myself that I don’t think I will ever want to eat these foods again once back in America. I’ve found my restaurants and gelaterias in the area that I love and return to week after week here. My favorite gelato flavor is without a doubt, stracciatella. I think one of the reasons it is my favorite flavor gelato is because it isn’t similar to anything we have back in New York City. Chocolate chip in a creamy vanilla gelato is far richer than any vanilla and chocolate ice cream I have tasted back home. Last night after a delicious meal of bolognese pasta with some friends, we discovered a new gelato place, La Carraia. What was unique about La Carraia was that it is cheaper than most gelato places, with 2 flavors for 2 euros. I had been warned that gelato places with the “puffy” gelato in the window are no good and taste extremely superficial. La Carraia was the only exception to this rule. A crowd of teenagers gathered outside tasting flavors and I quickly discovered why it had attracted such a swarm. The strawberry cheesecake and stracciatella melted in my mouth with every bite. It was eaten too fast, to say the least!
I’ve often wondered how on earth Italians manage to stay thin compared to foreigners visiting here eating the same exact food. It seems crazy that you could eat food so rich in carbs and so glutinous, yet maintain a decent figure. I myself manage to make it to the gym twice a week yet still feel so weighed down by the food. The Italians eat differently than we do in America since they have an aperitivo prior to dinner. Most restaurants I want to try are not open from 3:00-7:00pm. Aperitivo usually consists of small appetizers and a glass of wine to hold you over until dinner. In America we are taught to eat our dinner on the earlier side because once it gets later, it can be harder to digest and easier to gain the weight since your metabolism slows down as it gets later. However, this is not necessarily true. It might actually be a smarter way to digest your food since it means the food is broken up into smaller amounts at a time making it easier to digest.
I also find the relationship between wine and food so interesting. Certain wines pair well with certain types of pasta, pizza or even fish. I usually opt for the house red wine, and it generally goes well with most plates. Several nights ago I was craving steak. I rarely eat red meat, but my stomach had taken over my brain. I had the most amazing wine and steak at a restaurant around the corner from my apartment in central Florence. The steak was cooked to perfection and I finished the whole steak in one sitting. Never have I ever felt the need to finish a full steak in one sitting. I truly believe that the quality of meat, grains, and dairy in America is nowhere near that of Italy. I’ll really miss the flavors of Florence.
Inspired by Shoes
My brown flats are ¼ size too big, and they get sweaty. The tops are suede, with peekaboo latticework. They’re fall shoes, but I am fashion blind. While my thighs shiver from the cold of Prague February, the bottoms of my feet slide around on the bottom of these flats. I can’t tell if the bottoms of the soles are secure, since I can only focus on maintaining my balance on the inside of my shoes. Like an ice skater I manipulate the sliding, artfully (I hope) dashing across the streets and planning steps wisely, my whole body moving from the cold and the dance. Steps are especially interesting, and are carefully planned to fit the form of pirouettes and leaps that minimize the number of footfalls required to get to them. The rough stones of the sidewalks are welcomed, because every few steps there is one that is randomly raised and like a staple, forces the bottom of my foot to stick to the bottom of my shoe, stationary. And then I take another step.
My black ones are sleek. They get a little sweaty, too, but not so badly. They’re long, so long I can hardly believe my feet fit into them and my other shoes. The slap of the balls of my feet smacking the stones is more satisfying than I would think possible: it rivals even the clack of my heels as I dismount my bike on Chambers St, one of my favorite sounds. My friend Ruth was here last week, and she made me arrange my shoes on a tile full of snakes. They didn’t slap the tile, but I walked with an extra heel-toe emphasis that echoed through the street as we walked away.
My boots are scuffed in a new way; soft, round marks line the insides of the toes, carrying the pigment of stones. They distract from the rough scuffs on the tips of the toes, scars from the flat, rough streets of New York. When it snowed in Vienna, I took a trip. The tops of my boots now carry a watermark, flirting with the laces to no avail. The laces run for cover, retaining their perfectly black, unsalted pigment, switchbacking to the middle of my shins.
My trainers are thinner than I thought. Their light fabric design rests comfortably on my bike pedals, the breeze runs from the top of the ripples of the Hudson, down the trail and slips through the breathable fabric. Here there is no breeze between my feet, because there are no pedals. My trainers slip on the small, wet stones of the sidewalk, and wrap themselves like a scarf around the cobblestone streets.
The suede heels give no ankle support whatsoever. I knew this, it was evident even around construction in the Village. Here every step is into lava, my soles and heels melt away to leave me perched uncomfortably atop my lowest remaining joints. Soccer injuries never healed, and my ankles grind mercilessly even on the round cobblestones.
The black ones are pointy and get stuck between the cobblestones. Like small, pointed shovels, the tips of my toes burrow between each stone and attempt to lift it up, bringing my whole body swinging forward and almost down to the ground before I can unhook myself from the cracks in the sidewalks and swing my legs forward, heel clacking before becoming stuck again by the fault of my toes.
My white platform leather sneakers would have been perfect for these streets: flat, sturdy, secure, fashionable and seasonless (maybe?). But I threw them out before I left New York, after wearing them until the soles were cracked and let water in.
I read Open Letters, a compilation of letters and essays written by Czechoslovakia’s first post-Communist president, Vaclav Havel. This man is a genius, and I don’t say that lightly. Our professors here, whether they knew him personally or admired him from the vantage of another front of the revolution, speak very highly of him. Havel seems to be one of those mythical leaders in Czech collective identity, and after reading his work I can understand why.
His prose is at once commanding and beautiful. Havel clearly articulates the chaos of the Communist regime and its ideology, while simultaneously developing his own political commentary and pruning his own aspirations for the future of Czechoslovak society.
Havel speaks clearly to the spirit of the Czech Republic, but to Prague in particular. His ideas are represented here in architecture and city planning, in the behavior of the society and most poignantly in its collective memory and identity.
Says Havel in his famous essay “Power to the Powerless:”
“But the moment someone breaks through in one place, when one person cries out, ‘The emperor is naked!’- when a single person breaks the rules of the game, thus exposing it as a game- everything suddenly appears in another light and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably.”
Havel is that single person, or one of them in the case of Czech history. And indeed the society has, again and again, had these single people who have thrown out the order of things and brought about a complete change. One example is Jan Huss, an early reformer of Christianity who was burned at the stake for heresy. A full century later, Protestantism gained popularity in Central Europe and Huss was made a hero in Czech culture. The country never regained its religiosity after the Catholic Reformation, as Huss and others had forever exposed the dangers of religion and sectarianism to Czech society, thus “tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably” the religious fabric of the nation forever. Today, a memorial to Huss stands in the square directly adjacent to NYU’s campus in Prague.
This same physical memorialization of Czech dissenters lays in the architecture, or rather the locals’ impressions of the architecture. I mentioned this in a previous post, but many Czechs find the impressively preserved Baroque, Renaissance, Classical, even Gothic architecture here… lame. They’re garish and represent times gone by, regimes built on oppression. As an American, I know about regimes built on oppression. What is unfamiliar to me is the articulation of dissent reaching the point of architectural critique; this steadfastness and boldness in Czech dissent, represented by Havel’s “single person,” is iconic of their culture.
In his letter to Dr. Husák, then-General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Havel describes the current state of society as a result of government oppression. He asserts that culture is the society’s self-awareness, that through culture a society can determine if it is free, and that this is why the regime attacked culture first, so that “society might not know the extent to its subjugation.” The regime hijacked social memory with the celebration of faux anniversaries, co-opting May Day and International Women’s Day, among others, for the sake of propaganda that would erode true social consciousness. Czech society is still grappling with this cultural loss, and is still working to develop community and a collective identity in the wake of terror and tragedy and most important, little immediate historical support.
But it is happening, and one can feel it in the spirit of Prague. The city is bustling with cultural activity, reconciling its national fears and mistakes in such mediums as film and theater, while reclaiming its architectural landscape with the renaming of squares and streets. The new Constitution promises not only protection from the government, but positive rights that should help the country to rebuild. The confusion of Czech students to my laments of student loans is evidence enough of this. Prague is a city on the rise, an important cultural center once again. And in it lies Náměstí Václava Havla, Vaclav Havel Square, a memorial to the dissident, playwright, president, and single person.
I would be remiss if I failed to thank the editor of these works, Paul Wilson, who also translated them into English. Havel’s words are important for travelers to Prague, or any revolutionary-minded individual, to experience (and it is indeed an experience), and Wilson makes this possible for English readers.
In New York, I pride myself on being highly productive and efficient. Two months ago if you asked me my “best feeling in the world,” without a doubt I would tell you this: “That feeling after an early morning workout where you’re one of the only ones in the street. There’s a break in the hustle and bustle of the city. You’re happy, you feel good, you’ve already had a great start to your day, and you know you have the next 16+ hours to get stuff done.” If you were to ask me the same question today, I’m not sure I would have this answer.
While I still would consider this one of the best feelings in the world and can’t wait to get back to the city to experience it again (there really is nothing like an early morning spin class), Florence has completely changed my idea of what my life can be. Really, it has opened my eyes to other experiences that can give me the same feeling – something I never thought possible before. It’s so easy to get caught up in the fast-paced life of New York or college in general – I know I do every semester, even every summer. While I consider myself a genuinely happy and positive person, the stress of moving at 100 miles an hour can get to anyone. Yes, working out gives me the chance to slow down, and that’s why I like this feeling so much, but I’m beginning to learn that I can do more things for myself and that’s okay.
In Florence, as I’ve mentioned in almost every one of my posts, I really don’t think anyone has any preconceived notions of what their life should be. In America, we plan our entire lives, and we work, work, work, until we get there, but oftentimes are disappointed in our final destination. Here, people just enjoy life. No worries, no stress – just good company and good food. Obviously no one’s life is that simple, but that is the general mood here in Italy. It’s what I’ve enjoyed most about my time abroad so far. This view of life has made me wonder – why can’t we have this “best feeling” all day long? Yes, that seems ridiculous and will probably never be possible, but who’s to say we can’t fill our days doing things that make us truly happy.
If you asked me today what the best feeling in the world is I would tell you this: “Sitting on a train next to someone whose company you actually enjoy. You talk, you laugh, you adventure. You travel to new places and enjoy new cultures, and you know you have the rest of your life to get stuff done.” While I don’t have much confidence I’ll have this same answer in another four months, I hope I can continue this mindset in small amounts when I return to New York.
There are places in Berlin in Berlin that are politically charged. There are certain places in Berlin that have political movements more often than other areas of the city. I found that one of these places is Kreuzburg. One time when I went there, I saw big signs laid on the middle of the street. They were laid at a huge crosswalk, and there were many words written in German about the sale of tanks. On that day, that was very recent politiks. Walking around, I continued to see more drawings on big signs placed around the street. I asked a man passing by to read my the sign, and he read the sign to me. The area of Kreuzberg is known for its “counterculture”. Counterculture is culture speaks out openly and potentially against recent political happenings. They are known for their freedom of speech, to express what it is that they feel openly. Because of the different political context, interesting places like this are manifested. In America, where freedom of speech is a right given by our constitutions, we manifest different spaces.
Another Political thing that is happening in Berlin where I am studying is the construction of the Humboldt forum. The Humboldt forum is a place and a building that has a symbolic role in the History of Germany. The humboldt forum is something that has been a topic of controversy. It is representative of a Prussian history. I found out that where the place that the Humboldt Forum is getting built is historically significant. The spot where this is was once the place of a Prussian Royal Palace, but the East Germans had bulldozed the palace in 1952 to symbolically put an end to Prussian Militarism and Nazism. In place of the Palace, they built a glass and bronze parliament building above where the Prussian Palace used to be. Then in 2006, the German government has decided to start a project to build a new museum over that spot.
This new Humboldt forum is that the displays will be the first museum in Germany to address the events that had happened in Germany’s Colonial times. There are many critics who feel as if museums now just airbrush the past Colonial times of Germany and only acknowledge the holocaust times. However, research tells me that German scholars say that in the Colonial times of Germany was the first genocide of the 20th century, and that there are threads to the Holocaust that was 30 years later. There apparently had been atrocities in Africa and Asia.
I found it very interesting to learn about the personality of Kreuzberg. Because of their different political environment, there manifested different types of political spaces that one may be unable to find in other political contexts.As I learn about the History and the Politics in Berlin, I find see the layering of layers of history upon each other. The actions from one time happens after and over happenings of a previous time. It is very interesting to learn about big or important events that happened pretty recently in Berlin. It seems not too long ago in the scope of history. It makes me appreciate and like Berlin even more.
The portrayal of George Emerson and Cecil Vyse in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View demonstrates the interesting dichotomy of old and new Florence, with George and his family representing the new, more freeing way of life compared to Cecil’s limiting, old-fashioned values that look down on others. Throughout the story, Lucy is often faced with following her heart with George, a man of the people who looks to live a genuine life of happiness, or her mind with Cecil, whose traditional values of social class and masculinity would give Lucy the life she thinks she wants. While she spends time caught up in the social expectations, falling for Cecil’s traditional thinking and agreeing to marry him, she eventually realizes this dated view of life is not for her. Throughout Lucy’s realization, I believe we, the readers, get an extremely accurate view of the Italian values and way of life through George’s character – one that questions and values the inherent reasons for living and refuses to waste time caring about unimportant ideals.
The old-fashioned values of Cecil Vyse – while not the central focus of my connection between Room with a View and the Florence life I’ve seen so far – are worth noting to understand the differences in George Emerson that give such an accurate view of Italian/Florentine life. Cecil’s entire world revolves around social class – surrounding himself only with those worthy and acting sophisticated and superior throughout the story. He even references Lucy’s family, a generally well-off, bourgeois family, as “of another clay,” suggesting that he should introduce Lucy to more a more noble circle closer to his own class. He is so controlled by social convention that he cannot see his faults in life – a typical downfall of the “old” Italy, plagued by social norms and expectations while remaining blind to the brevity of life.
George Emerson, on the other hand, represents the life in Italy I am so fascinated with today. In many of my past posts I’ve spoken about the love of life and carefree nature I’ve witnessed over the past six weeks in Florence. George’s initial struggle to find the meaning of life and journey to discover happiness is exemplary of finding the “new” Italian way of thinking – and even reminds me of the experience I’ve been having while abroad. He is a character opposite of Cecil, always honest and true to himself, completely unaware – or unfazed by – social constraints. His love for Lucy completely opens his eyes, showing him how love, passion, and happiness can guide his life, rather than social classes or business achievements, like many around him believe.
Today as I walk through the streets of Italy, I am met with love, passion, and a general disregard of traditional western values. Whether it’s 11:30 am, 5 pm, or 11pm, the streets will be full of locals, drinking wine, enjoying each others company, and actually living life for themselves – not by the rules of society. The passion for family, friends, or significant others can be seen on every corner, where couples kiss or friends laugh at any hour of any day. My friends and I always wonder how the Italians stay healthy when every meal is wine, pasta, and bread. We recently decided on the idea that the reason is their inherent happiness and ease of life. They enjoy every day – no stress or worries – simply surrounding themselves with people they love, doing what they love, no matter what. This is the meaning of life George finds with Lucy throughout the story, and it’s the meaning I hope to take home with me at the end of this experience.
I believe that in order for anyone traveling to Australia to gain a full understanding of this country’s history and the experiences of its Indigenous people, they should become familiar with a story like ‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence.’
The story takes place in the 1930s and follows three mixed Aboriginal girls that face the very common fate of being forcibly removed from their homes as a result of government policy. The book is based on a true story, and because of this, the trauma that the characters go through becomes much harder to accept as a reader. I had learned about the Stolen Generation prior, however the account in “Rabbit-Proof Fence’ was far more personal and heartbreaking than anything I had read before
As an outsider visiting Australia, from my perspective, it seems that European settlers and the culture they brought in 1788 succeeded in overtaking any aboriginal cultural influences from the country’s general identity. Over the years the erasure of Aboriginal presence and influence has not been natural occurrence as the policies implemented by European Australians when they first settled on this land were put in place to make sure any inhabitant who wasn’t completely assimilated was oppressed.
The ‘Stolen Generation’ were the victims of forced removal from their families under a state-sanctioned policy. This policy, intact from around 1910-1970, was a widespread example of how white Australians have worked to erase and replace the identities of the country’s Indigenous people. In addition to removing children from their homes, many other procedure were put in place in order to whiten Australia and transform the country’s identity into the westernized one it holds today (i.e. the White Australia policy and 20th century protectionism) However while forcibly assimilating mixed children was one of many government sanctioned tactics that helped Australia build its current image, it was definitely the policy that carried the most trauma. The transgenerational effects of these removals are still apparent in the country’s culture today.
Disparities in wealth, education, and the criminal justice system between non-Aboriginals and Aboriginal people can all be tied back to the effects of the Stolen Generation. When an entire population is removed it takes a large toll on their communities, and in order for someone to gain a full understanding of Australia’s roots, the history of the Stolen Generation is something they must understand. I wish that Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence was a more common required reading in the US and other countries, simply because the idea of who makes up Australia is so warped there. Indigenous people and the members of the Aboriginal community deserve to have the history of their injustices spread as widely as any other marginalized group, and I feel that hasn’t been done. Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is a good example of a text that would help a reader gain a raw understanding of what the Stolen Generation was, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to learn an honest version of Australia’s history.
For John Banville, who wrote the novel, Prague Pictures: A Portrait of the City, his numerous visits to the Czech Republic left him with an array of different memories- many of which are quite similar to my own. In chapter 3 of the novel, Banville writes about a time he went over to the house of a woman named Katerina with his two friends: Philip and Jan. After his strange night, which consisted of drinking slivovitz out of tumblers and sitting on a couch that often sunk in like quicksand, Banville writes “why have I remembered that night, and with such clarity, such vividness? Nothing, like something can happen anywhere… Yet those particular nothings that happened…are somehow the quintessence for me of Prague… ” and I think that this statement really exemplifies how Banville’s novel is written (Banville 127). Throughout his novel, Banville describes, with vivid detail, seemingly mundane and normal experiences. He writes about the “particular nothings that happened” and turns them into beautiful memories that are vivid and full of life.
In the beginning of the novel, Banville talks about his first trip to the Czech Republic. Within the first few pages of the novel, he begins by describing his train ride to Prague, which consisted of passing by many “unpronounceable station(s) along the way” and then where he notices “that someone had blown his nose on the tied-back oatmeal-coloured curtain” (Banville 2). While reading these first few pages of the novel, I found myself thinking back to when I was riding the train from Budapest to Prague after a weekend in Hungary. During the train ride, I, too, found myself confused by the names of the stations, and, as Banville puts it, “was plunged in shame for my lack of languages” (Banville 199). For Banville, who has visited Prague a few times, he often found himself in situations where language played a large barrier. Throughout his novel, he writes about situations where the people around him are speaking in Czech, and he finds himself fumbling around with his hands or with anything to keep busy during the conversations- which is something I also find myself doing when confronted with language barriers.
Another instance where Banville’s vivid description of very “normal” memories can be seen is when he writes about his friend, Jan. Banville describes Jan as “a tall, think, bearded, nervous young man with a tremor in his hands and a permanently worried expression” (Banville 100). In the chapter where he describes and writes about Jan, he includes small details that helps paint a picture of Jan and what kind of person he is. In one particular instance, Banville describes a moment in a taxi cab, where Jan is speaking to the cab driver, and Banville notices how Jan and the taxi driver seem to know each other. He then goes to write about how he envies “those travelers who can drop in on friends in all corners of the world at a moment’s notice and be at ease in their company,” which I think goes to show how Jan can create lasting and meaningful relationships with those he meets while traveling (Banville 103). So, through this very small moment, Banville was able to show characteristics of Jan that weren’t physical and would be hidden to the eye at first glance.
By describing small details of Prague and vivid descriptions of very humdrum moments, Banville paints a picture of Prague that, I think, really helps the reader feel as if he/she was actually there/was actually present during the moment. Banville writes that, “When I was young I thought that to know a place authentically, to take it to one’s heart, one must fall in love there,” and I think that, by noticing the “little things” of Prague and his experiences here, he helps the reader fall in love with Prague from the perspective of another person.
Oftentimes, one feels guilty for framing their experiences of their world travels in the contexts of themselves and their own small world that they know best. It seems this is especially the case for Americans: observing a panel on contemporary German politics, I noticed that most of the questions that students asked were framed in some comparative context. Of course, this is a natural strategy for learning about new things, but still there is a reluctance on my part to vocally engage with this thinking. I try my best in new places to blend in as much as possible and stay silent to learn as much as I can.
But upon reading A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain, I have come to appreciate this comparative perceptional mindset which I had been trying to avoid for weeks now. Twain writes with such fluidity and so naturally that we truly do get a glimpse inside his mindset, down to minor things he notices and the tangents that emerge in his head. This book, more than any travel literature I’ve read before, puts the reader inside the head of the traveler. Of course, pushing this goal to the limits means that the writings will not be the most “objective” record of Twain’s experiences. Twain is a writer, and his mind interprets the world through a fictionalizing lens, so it seems even more appropriate that Twain’s experience of his travels.
One highlight of Twain’s observations is when he starts talking about all the dogs he sees in Heidelberg, and how at some times they seem to outnumber the humans and how they all seem to possess a “prodigious” quality. The reason this stuck out to me was because I have shared almost identical thoughts with my friends both here and at home. So yet again, we see this comparative aspect of learning and absorbing at play. Maybe this example shouts out to me because this simple detail entails two ideas: first, that we have both experienced the same sensation in Germany, hundreds of years apart, and second, that this detail has stayed in Germany for so long. This bipartite realization led to me to see that it’s okay to think in this way, provided that one is always criticizing and questioning this connection.
The other highlight of the book was Twain’s experience getting lost in the woods and encountering the birds. Besides the fantastical atmosphere of this tale, I love how Twain lets this story lead to a tangent about Jim Baker, the only man Twain knew who could talk to animals. I love how naturally this whole section unfolds, and how it seems like Twain is recording his thought-processes live.
Thus, there was a lot to learn from Mark Twain grappling with the problem of recounting his travels, and will definitely impact my future blog posts.
Every once in a while, you’ll come across a piece of work—a book, a painting, maybe even a map or a piece of music—that will suddenly make sense of a cacophony around you that you didn’t even know was there. It brings into focus an unknown static, files away and categorizes thoughts of an environment undecipherable.
Jack Livings’ short story collection, The Dog, brought me a lens though which to view modern China and not only gave me access to its recent history, but also its present. The collection takes a look at characters who are always at odds with each other, and Livings does an amazing job describing the tension and dialogue between two people at ideological opposites. It holds a diversity of cultures and representations of China since the cultural revolution and brings to the imagination all of the underlying politics and existences that feel covered by language barriers and genre differences. The stories, written with the same feel and gusto of most American short stories, allowed me to access a China, though a medium that I’m comfortable and well versed in, that I just haven’t been able to see riding busses throughout Shanghai or taking day trips to mountains and lakes.
Winter’s research is thorough and honest. While at first I was a little off-put by an American author writing a collection of short stories on China, the whole thing seemed masterfully done, and didn’t have the negative, critical tone that so many American publications place on China. His stories are littered with translated Chinese sayings—I often found myself thinking that the dialogue may had been written originally in Chinese and translated, as much of it had the feeling of a Chinese conversation.
After reading the book, I find myself wanting to know more about China and it’s strong underlying politics. While the laws on censorship restrict the free discussion of political ideas of inequality and overdevelopment, it makes searching and writing about it even more interesting, like your eyes are the only resources available to you, and you scan your surroundings not only trying to understand what is said, but also what isn’t said.
Parts of the book made me excited, parts made me sad but the most consistent theme in the novel was the deviation from the norms. Whether it be with the politics within a family, or the creation of a magnificent crystal sarcophagus for Mao’s body in record time (one of my favorites), respect for and fear of the order of things took center stage.
After reading this, I felt the same way. I began to evaluate difference, to see what stood out, and what blended in. I began to wander why things happened, and where there were things that I didn’t know were happening—that I would never know where happening, and never will know. The second story in the book, “The Heir” was also one that stood out to me about Uyghur community near Beijing. I feel that this story was where Livings had the strongest political statement to make about how the ethnic minorities in China are targeted by the government and surrounding communities. It shows not only the struggle against the Han Chinese but also the struggles within the community itself, and the dreams of one day returning to Kashgar. It showed tension between an older generation who left their homeland and a younger generation who wants to go back.
But what I think Livings does the best in the stories is his ability to convey a massive amount of cultural knowledge just through the details, without having long passages of explanation. Minimal understanding of Chinese culture is required to really get into this book and truly understand the plot lines.
Truth to be told, this study abroad opportunity allowed me to travel for the first time to Europe. To its effect, I’ve expected every European city to be like Prague, as Prague was the first European city that I have ventured through. Reinforced by my travels to Vienna, Krakow, and Berlin, I was under the impression that all major Europeans are relatively alike in their composition with masterfully built castles, large parliament buildings, and a town center. The only difference that I was able to catch was the difference in language and currency. However, it was not until I had read Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City by John Banville that I began to notice the city’s unique characteristics.
My favorite quote throughout novel is, “in Prague, it always seems to me that someone has forgotten to do the wild track, and that behind even the loudest scenes of festival or protest or just everyday business, there is a depthless emptiness” (Banville 232). This “depthless emptiness” is the most eerily accurate term to describe Prague. Even on walks down the most busiest streets, there is an emptiness that is almost visible. This paradox is one that is not easily understood until one walks the streets of Prague on first-hand account. Banville quotes, “Prague’s silence is more a presence than an absence . The sounds of the traffic , the voices in the streets , the tolling of bells and the chiming of innumerable public clocks , all resonate against the background hush as if against a high, clear pane of glass” (Banville 1).
Banville stresses the importance of historical context in understand a culture (Banville 232). He brings to recollection the “successive defeats and invasions the city has suffered” to bring into context some of the actions and characteristics of the city.
One that I found rather interesting was his description of the people. “Praguers are the most circumspect of city dwellers . Travelers on trams and in the metro carefully remove the dust jackets of books, no matter how innocuous , that they have brought to read on the journey ; some will even make brown – paper covers to hide the titles of paperbacks” (Banville 113) While most “Praguers” do not still hide their books with paper covers, they remain extremely private and continue to keep to themselves. I agree with Banville that it is important to understand Prague, in particular, in context of its “defeat and invasions”. Throughout history, Prague has been conquered and oppressed by several regimes, making it strange not to wary of outsiders.
Near the beginning of his novel and throughout, Banville questions the entity of Prague and attempts to provide his own understanding of the city. He quotes, “One will not know a city merely by promenading before its sites and sights, Blue Guide in hand. Yet how can one know an entity as amorphously elusive as Prague, or any other capital, for that matter? What is Prague?” (11-12). I completely agree with this notion that a city cannot be fully understood through travel guides and must be interpreted firsthand according to one’s own experience. A beautiful quote that his appropriate in this context is, “There are as many Pragues as there are eyes to look upon it – more: an infinity of Pragues” (Banville 12).
You know that you’re hooked on Europe when a weekend spent “at home” instead of travelling feels like wasted time. In search of more adventure and some time away, I boarded an overnight train from Florence to Vienna on Thursday night, spending 11 hours squished between strangers and clutching my backpack, trying to sleep intermittently, and waking up – in awe – traversing the Austrian mountains. I believe that this itch to move around is what the Germans (coincidently) call wanderlust.
Although I am doing my entire sophomore year abroad and had previously done a short trip to Copenhagen on my own last semester (I met up with friends after one day), this was my first real solo travel experience, and by my standards, it was pretty spontaneous. I admittedly knew very little about Vienna before booking the trip a week beforehand – but the city’s name had entered my mind seemingly at random, and once I had read a few blogs and scrolled through the ‘Vienna’ tag on Pinterest, I was sold. Packed with cafés and cozy brunch spots, vintage and thrift stores, and dozens of world-renowned art galleries, it turns out that Vienna was everything I was missing from back home, although still very much defined by its own unique history and culture.
My chance happening upon this travel destination was a lucky one. On the first morning that I spent in the grandiose Austrian capital, I met a man who owned one of the world’s best vintage stores, known for catering to clients like Karl Lagerfeld and Marc Jacobs and inheriting the clothes of former-Princesses, who spent fourty-five minutes teaching me about the history of Austrian and German designers after I told him that I was a fashion student. Next, I spent two hours at the Leopold Gallery where I was greeted by a collection that featured all (not hyperbolic – all) of my favourite artists of the 20th century, from Gustav Klimt and Rene Magritte, to Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat, all on one floor, in harmony with one another. The powerful show on display left me gasping with joy on more than one occasion and I am not sure if I have ever felt so moved by a gallery before. Barely halfway through my first day in Vienna, I felt as though fate had met me somewhere between Nachsmarkt and the Museumsquartier and decided that this was to be a particularly special weekend for me.
Putting myself out there and making my own European adventure was a deeply rewarding experience and I have come back feeling recharged, reinspired, and proud of myself for making it happen. As in my previous post about Lucy from A Room with a View, what my progressive travel experiences have taught me thus far is that when you reach out to the universe, it will respond to you. Nothing happens on its own. Patience, openness, and effort pay off.
As the end of my European year looms in the horizon, I am feeling bittersweet about going back to North America. While the promise of being settled in one place sounds like the relief that I crave, I am also going to seriously miss my days spent looking at original works by Botticelli at the Uffizi, watching sunsets over Waterloo Bridge in London while listening to The Kinks, climbing the Eiffel Tower, and experiencing the first warm breaths of spring in Burggarten. But while these experiences have been specific to their locations, they have something universal in common – the same unbridled curiosity captured by the German word, wanderlust.
Some people believe that ‘everything happens for a reason,’ but I also believe that you have to take the necessary steps that will put things into place. Happy memories are out there but you have to find them… and in the immortal words of Billy Joel, “Vienna waits for you” – whatever your personal ‘Vienna’ may be.
Sometimes I watched reruns of the Julia Child show when I was a kid, escaping the Midwestern humidity to lounge in the basement and flip through whatever was on TV at three in the afternoon. I still can’t cook to save my life, but I remember her voice, and how she never seemed to stand still behind the kitchen island where she sautéed vegetables and did fantastic experiments on nearly every cut of meat known to man.
Her autobiography My Life in France captures this movement, the way she was always shifting from foot to foot and fluttering her hands across the countertops. She and her husband, Paul Cushing Child, fluttered across Europe in similar fashion, from Paris to Marseilles to Germany to Norway. Eventually the pair landed back in the States, and, shortly after, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) made Mrs. Child a household name and worthy of portrayal by Meryl Streep in the movie Julie and Julia (2009).
But before the fame and the TV show and the Cordon Bleu came the sole meunière. It’s a fish filet, usually pan fried and served with some brown butter sauce, a little lemon, and parsley. Nothing too fancy. But Julia ate a plate of sole meunière, and it propelled her to become one of America’s favorite French exports.
She wasn’t exactly French, mind you, but she’s probably the first American you think of when “France” comes up in a word association test. My Life in France is not only Julia’s memories of life in the culinary world, but her recollections of life in la Ville Lumière. More importantly, it’s her memories of Paul: his vivacity, his photography, his family. He sent detailed letters home to his twin brother nearly every week, and the memories and anecdotes contained within are what inspired Julia to begin writing. The book follows their love story from start to finish, as it details their initial encounter all the way up to his passing in 1994, and even the cover pays tribute.
The book is often sold as a memoir of French life or a chronology of Julia’s progress as a chef and star. But she’s writing not so much about food or country as she writes about love, and how it brings out the flavors of life. Paris was wonderful, and France was wonderful, but it was only wonderful because Paul was there, as were all of the people that helped her reach culinary success. And when they left France, life remained wonderful, not because she loved German cooking or Norwegian pickling, but because Paul was there, and with him she found the conviction to live a life just as daring as the task of mastering the art of French cooking.
Julia Child, on making potato pancakes: “When you flip anything, you really you just have to have the courage of your convictions, particularly if it’s sort of a loose mass, like this… Now, that didn’t go very well. See, when I flipped it, I didn’t have the courage to do it the way I should’ve. But you can always pick it up, and if you’re alone in the kitchen, who is going to see? But the only way you learn how to flip things is just to flip them.”
The way Bruce Chatwin talked about Patagonia in his book In Patagonia had some similarities to the way I remembered it, but his perspective largely differed from mine.
In his book, Chatwin used his own story of finding another piece of the skin of the great sloth and other stories that he had heard from the people in Patagonia to describe the history, culture and lifestyle of Patagonia. As a result, I found that he focused more on the life of the people than the nature, which in my own personal experience in Patagonia, was Patagonia’s greatest mystique, attraction and defining characteristic.
I was in Patagonia for my fall break last semester and it is definitely one of my favorite places on Earth. Before I read Chatwin’s book, I had the expectation that his experience and his writing would allow me to imagine that I was once again in the beautiful landscapes that I will always remember, and that I miss once in awhile while living in the city of Buenos Aires. The flashbacks were few and far between his stories, though very much welcomed.
To be fair, I should not have placed such an expectation on a book that was first published 40 years before I embarked on my own adventure to Patagonia. After all, everyone perceives, time, geography and people differently, and that was no more evident while reading this book with my own experiences in the back of my mind.
Things change with the bids, just as they do with us.
But first, the things that I enjoyed about the book, which largely related to the similarities to my own experiences. I was very happy to see the photos of the Perito Moreno Glacier in the book, a sight that I had also had the privilege to see firsthand for myself, and that the Glacier had largely been unchanged between then and now, a pleasant surprise given the exacerbation of Global Warming between over time. It was also interesting to read about the abundance of sheep, condors and Guanaco (a cousin of the llama), which has also persisted through these past 40 years. It was also somewhat comforting to know that the mood and climate of Patagonia has largely been unchanged: uncertain, wild and challenging, yet it is all these characteristics that leave a profound and lasting impression on any individual that has ever been there.
Patagonia! She is a hard mistress. She casts her spell. An enchantress! She folds you in her arms and never lets go.
However, I was disappointed about his emphasis on the people instead of the wilderness. Perhaps to Chatwin, what left a greater impression on him were the interactions he had with the people while to me Patagonia’s landscapes and wilderness has forever carved a place in my heart. While it is true that Patagonia consists of many different types of people of different nationalities and personalities, perhaps it is because of the difference in time, I found the people in Patagonia more homogeneous than described in his book. Then again, I also only visited a minor part of Patagonia compared to Chatwin, and people may be more willing to converse with a middle-aged man from Britain than an Asian who barely looks like he’s out of high school. That describes the other perspective that I gained from the book: people perceive the same place differently depending on what they have had the privilege of seeing, touching, feeling and who they have had the privilege to talk to.
Alas, above all, one thing undoubtedly holds true: being exposed to such magnificent displays of nature makes introspective and reflective on the state of their lives. I will always hold Patagonia fondly in my heart, while Chatwin is more ambivalent about it. But both him and I have both been profoundly impact by it. Chatwin reflects on language:
But the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’, so essential to western thought, are meaningless unless they are rooted to things. The first speakers of language took the raw material of the surroundings and pressed it into metaphor to suggest abstract ideas. Language as a system of navigation. Named things are fixed points, aligned or compared, which allow the speaker to plot the next move.
While to me, I am simply left speechless and breathless by the beauty of Patagonia, it at the same time made me realized how insignificant I am, and how much more of the world there is left for me to explore and consequentially, marvel, and be at a loss of words for.
In the past when I have returned home after a months-long trip, friends and family have always asked: “What’s the craziest thing that happened?” I’m always caught off guard by this. It forced me to consider whether nothing interesting had really happened, or perhaps I was just a bad storyteller. As I read Riding the Iron Rooster, by Paul Theroux, it became obvious that it was a little bit of both. Theroux terrifically balances the mundane with catastrophe, such that it all feels like it’s just life. Indeed, that is his final reflection on long trips: “This Chinese trip was so long and it had claimed so much of me that it stopped being a trip. It was another part of my life; and ending the travel was not a return but a kind of departure” (480).
As compared with my less structured trips, entering Shanghai with an army of hand-holding NYU orientation leaders was as mundane as the first hundred pages of Theroux’s book. He makes the mistake – at least he views it that way then – of joining a group tour with some very annoying personalities: trinket hungry Americans, Aussie’s that compare all distances to a locality in Australia, French that bicker separately, and so on. It’s only after thousands of miles of railroad that the book really enters China, and Theroux escapes this group to create his own adventures. That’s when it really begins. And I can’t help but compare that to my experience here, tied to the enclave of NYU. Of course, for me it’s an open-ended question. More of a prompt that might get me to move on to the middle of my own trip (story).
Once Theroux is off on his own, he takes special care to interview pretty much everyone he finds about the changes in China, and where the country was headed. It was enlightening to read about people’s experiences in the cultural revolution. Since the book was written in 1988, it was a far closer memory. Theroux reports countless stories of high schoolers, Red Guards, berating and beating teachers at ‘school’. Everyone had a hole dug at their home as a bomb shelter. Monuments, even the Great Wall, were taken apart, their bricks repurposed. In some cases dynamite was used, but more often red paint. And the consensus among the free-speaking Chinese he encountered (especially the intellectuals), was “[Mao] set us back thirty years” (89). Now (in 1988), things were much better.
However, there is a dark side to progress. It’s something I’ve witnessed here, and Theroux expertly put words to it. It is a kind of hollowness, literal and figurative. All around Shanghai you can observe brand new and half-empty sky rises, as well as clumsily reconstructed monuments. In the subway, some people won’t hesitate to elbow you out of the way to make it on the train. Store clerks and taxi drivers often could care less whether they retrieve the right item, drop you off at the right destination. Theroux writes:
“It was very easy to say what China wasn’t. […] It wasn’t very orderly, it wasn’t quiet, and it wasn’t democratic. It wasn’t what it had been – particularly here in Canton. That was obvious. But it was hard to say what China was. Perhaps there was an intimation of hope in its complexity, but it was maddening for me to sit there watching the Cantonese rain come down and not to know what this all meant.” (161)
Similarly, last week when we had to write about spirit of place, I found myself staring at the street wondering what the spirit really was. I had the sensation, more than anything, of being on a continuum, yet not being sure where. The ancientness and durability of the Chinese insures they will live on. Things will continue – and perhaps that is enough of an answer for some – but where will they go?
Theroux never quite puts his finger on what China is, but his experience transiting Tibet by car in the last chapter of the book gets close. Theroux rides in a Mitsubishi Galant with a novice and reckless driver, Mr. Fu, into the snowy mountains of Tibet. After the treacherous snow and ice, when the road is clear and Mr. Fu has resumed driving excessive speeds, there is an accident. Mr. Fu loses control of the car, which then careens off the side of the road, spinning fifty meters into thick gravel and winding up on its side, buried three feet deep. With Mr. Fu’s insistence, and the help of Tibetan truck drivers, the mangled car is dug out, dragged to the road, and miraculously repaired. Theroux rides on, now at the wheel, savoring life and the beauty of the landscape. While his own final conclusion seems to be, essentially, a critique of the opaque and almost mystic interpretation by westerners of Chinese decision making, mine is that China feels like that Galant – brushing the dust off, and riding on.
As a child, I was captivated by Antarctica.
No one lives in Antarctica—It is treacherous, it tries to kill you. Still, I longed for the otherworldly stillness, the lack of anything human, the extreme isolation. I promised myself I would ski the 1360 km between McMurdo Station and the South Pole someday.
Instead, I’ve ended up in Australia, a country that is “staggeringly empty and yet packed with stuff” as Bill Bryson describes in his book, “In a Sunburned Country.” Australia is trying tries to kill you too. Eighty-five percent of Australia’s population lives in cities along coast, while the interior remains desolate. Cape York Peninsula, for example, is one of the largest remaining ‘untouched’ places on Earth. Australia is also home to more species than any other developed country: there are over 2,400 species of spiders, and 898 bird species, and ten of the world’s most poisonous snakes, and even four different types of kangaroos. I live in Sydney, a city of four million, and I’m terrified of bugs. I have not yet felt the weight of Australia’s wildness and abundance.
Perhaps this is because it takes time and effort to see the Australia that most people don’t, or can’t, or aren’t interested in. As Bryson writes, Australia “teems with interesting stuff, but at the same time it’s so vast and empty and forbidding that it generally takes a remarkable stroke of luck to find it.” When you do find it, “you are totally at the mercy of nature in this country, mate.”
I’ve experienced Australia’s wrath in other ways. An introduced species with an American credit card, I spent three hours this morning looking for an ATM machine affiliated with my bank. I’ve sat in restaurants for thirty minutes before realizing that table service is not ubiquitous here. My skin has peeled from the sun and swelled with mosquito bites. I’ve walked up and down grocery store aisles look for dryer sheets, which don’t exist in Australia. I’ve held my breath in the passenger seat while driving up a winding road, honking the whole way. There has been a lot to learn about this landscape.
But of course, the road lead to a beach which opens up to the South Pacific and is more beautiful than I can articulate. The night before, I sang in the ran with strangers who played guitars and a hand-carved didgeridoo because I was lost and had asked for directions. The peeling meant blissful days the bites meant falling asleep with the window open to the soft hum of traffic and the not-so-soft caw of the common Coel. The food is always delicious. The walk to the ATM that ended up being energizing and scenic.
This is to say that there is a lot to see and feel, and that it’s a pain in the ass to get there. It is still worth it, though. As Bryson writes, “an awfully large part of travel these days is to see things while you still can.” I think this rings true in several respects. The first is obvious—human life is temporary, and so travel is an attempt to contain as much of the earth as one body can hold. The second is more subtle—these landscapes are shifting, changing, and falling apart because of our irresponsibility.
I’m still captivated by Antarctica, this time not for its calmness, but for its power. If it were to melt, The Totten Glacier alone could raise global sea levels by 3.5 meters. We are the primary agents of climate change; Mother Nature fights back slowly but unforgivingly. I think Bryson means that we are living in a strange and special moment in Earth’s history, and that we should take it in before it’s too late. Australia is a good place to start.
I’m convinced the air in Florence hasn’t changed in the past 500 years. Everywhere you go, there’s a sense of preservation, a sense of adapting what is already present to fit the modern world, not adapting the city to be more modern. The train station, built in the fascist era (though not of fascist architecture) still has the original signs up, labeling every different area the same as it was labeled in the 30’s. Now, much of this has to do with Italian preservation laws, but I think it speaks volumes about the city that there are laws like that and they’re upheld to such a standard, even when it can be slightly detrimental to the functionality of the building.
When thinking about the “air” or “spirit” of a place, I think one need look no further than the people and their embrace of their space to see. Florentines, with their motorinos and impeccable sense of fashion seem, for all intents and purposes, to be one with the city, working within its ancient frame and adapting themselves for it, rather than demanding that it change for them. Of course, again, like the train station this is partly because of public policy, but I don’t see Florentines beating back heavily against it, as I can imagine American’s would if they were no longer able to drive their V8 pickup trucks through the downtown of a city without a permit. No, here there seems to be a sense of acceptance and appreciation for the history and gravity that you are surrounded by. When passing through the city center, piazze, where cars are no longer allowed, it’s easy to get swallowed up by the same feelings of awe and majesty that have been felt in for hundreds of years, without the constant honking of horns and smell of gas that one finds in American metropolises.
If there’s a singular place that can encapsulate the spirit of Florence, its Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Duomo. Here, though crowded by hoards upon hoards of tourists, the cathedral still towers over any other building in the city. The bell tower serves as the only “skyscraper” that can be seen, ringing out many times a day to remind Florentines of its presence. The doors to the cathedral welcome visitors, almost challenging them to tilt back their heads and admire the domes depiction of Dante’s Divine Comedy. This structure has towered here since the 1400’s, with all its color and majesty on display just as it was then. And inhabitants of the city, native Florentines, they still find themselves here from time to time, as one fellow student told me in broken English over a drink. “There’s nothing like the Duomo”, he said, “living here my whole life it is still beautiful”.
That, I think, is the sentiment of Florentines, and of the cities spirit. That despite living here for 21 or 91 years, there is still a beauty to the city that others don’t have. It all flows together as if was always meant to be, and hasn’t even tried to change…because honestly, it hasn’t. It knows that it is the Renaissance city, and to remove that would be to remove “Florence” itself. Florence is nothing without is Renaissance art, its dome, its frescos. The fact that people know that and still continue to live here is what makes this unlike most other cities I’ve lived in or visited. It revels in the fact that, though a city with modern luxuries, Florence can’t change for another 400 years, and to me, there seems to be little reason to try.
A Tramp Abroad is certainly not the longest of Mark Twain’s titles. At 50 chapters followed by 6 appendixes, it can seem intimidating, but it moves quickly, thanks in no small part to Twain’s wit. Though he doesn’t arrive in Italy until chapter 47, I think this strengthens the impact of the short chapters spent there and gives an interesting insight into how much Italy has changed in the last hundred years. The book’s publication in 1880 would have put Twain in a newly unified Italy, where a sense of national identity was yet to harden, but where the outside world had already imposed its perceptions. When describing universally agreed-upon tourist notes, Twain says that “one must expect to be cheated at every turn by the Italians”, something which I’ve noticed still can persist today (Twain 161). Before coming to Italy, I couldn’t begin to count the number of times that I had been warned about “the gypsy and beggars” on the street. Much like Twain later in his chapter on Turin, I also found myself embarrassed and this stereotype to be disproven. For his part, Twain offered a Swiss coin to a street performer of some ½ decent value (10 cents in his time) and the performer attempted to return it to him, not because it was Swiss as Twain thought, but because he believed it was too much and given by mistake. For my part, I just realized that many of the stereotypes that I had been fed or lead to believe are no longer common or at all true.
When Twain arrives in Florence, in the final chapter of the book, he spends much time fixating on the fact that fig leaves have been attached to the nude art. Quipping that “no one noticed their nakedness before”, Twain echo’s a sentiment that has been expressed by more than a few art history-based professors since I’ve gotten here: if there was one dumb moment in recent art history, the introduction of “modesty” to marble statues is in competition for the top (Twain 190). Like many tourists that come through this city now, Twain only journeys through Florence to see artwork of the Renaissance, specifically the paintings of Titus. The fact that so many people, 120 years later, make the same journey to see the same art has been one of the most fascinating parts of reading this novel/travelogue. Florence has cemented itself as the city of the Renaissance, and living in that perception, it’s continued to attract curious eyes to its many galleries and museums. Twain himself speaks of being “at the door of the Uffizi”, a gallery which today still attracts millions of visitors a year, displaying still much of the same art that Twain saw (Twain 190). Many have told me that Florence has kept itself relatively unchanged in the past 500 years, but reading the work of a noted author and confirming that in the way that he did was incredibly eye-opening.
Something that Twain notes and I’m happy to see changed is the statues being “black, accumulated with grime” (Twain 190). In recent years, Italy has been undertaking many massive restoration projects of art, with the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel in the 1980’s and the work ongoing even now at the Duomo of Florence, the cleaning of artifacts and restoration of original beauty is something that many welcome, and I’m sure the masses that pour through this city year after year for the next 300 will be sure to appreciate.
Keeping a Diary was one of those clichè preteen hobbies that I, shamelessly admit to taking part. I remember it quite well. The cover was filled with an illustration of a fluffy white cat against a bright yellow background and had a “lock” on the side that did not do its job. My diary was filled with the ramblings of how each day went, and usually ended with the sentence “I had a good day”, or “I had a bad day.” Lack of travels and interesting events meant that my diary consisted of typical social scenarios and events of an elementary and middle school girl. We don’t realize it but these hobbies we pick up from a young age tend to tell us a lot about ourselves and in the future, we can learn from them.
When reading Diana Athill’s A Florence Diary, I could relate to her memories of a city in which she spent several weeks with her cousin, Pim. Journeying from postwar London to Florence must have seemed like a safe haven for Diana. She ventured abroad when she was around my age, and took note of Italian behaviors. She also made friends from her travels, whether it was the stranger sitting next to her on the train from Paris to Milan, or the photographer that Pim met on her day alone in Sienna. I appreciated reading about this type of traveling because I have taken my friends here for granted. I am looking forward to a trip I have planned next weekend to Rome by myself. I love traveling with others, but I also hold the belief that everyone should travel alone at some point in their lives. The experience takes us out of our comfort zones and introduces us to people we otherwise would not meet.
Athill’s assumptions and then experiences were influenced heavily by the culture here in Florence. Her visits to the churches, museums, bakeries, and gardens drew her deep into the mystery of what it means to be a traveler and what it means to be a tourist. Her appreciation and neverending exploration are what differentiates her from the typical tourist that both she and I have come into contact with. Tourists and personalities she comes across visit the sites and then leaves them. Pim actually tends to represent the typical tourist with her “American” needs and minimal appreciation for the local culture.
“Florence didn’t feel like home,” she writes. “Its great charm lay in its unlikeness to home- in its being so enchantingly ‘elsewhere’. None could be lovelier” (9). This opinion she held was most likely due to the fact that she struggled with what it means to be in a safe, “homely” place. The adjustment to living in a completely new environment with different languages and foods, for example, is one that is rather difficult. But Athill does not want to feel at home when she travels. She wants to feel uncomfortable at times because this is how she gains the appreciation and pleasure for her time spent away. World War II limited her ability as a teenaged girl to explore and discover the culture within her own city. At times, I can imagine, she spent many days locked inside to avoid airstrikes such as the Blitz and conflict outside her home.
Athill’s writings seem very critical of her writing style. She often writes that she is not writing enough on a certain subject, and the reader can clearly tell that she intends on showing this work to others. I find that when I write for others, I automatically critique myself. However, if I am writing for myself, I let the words flow onto the page without being tough on myself. My biggest takeaway from reading A Florence Diary is the significance of keeping a diary to reflect on my time abroad… which is exactly what I am doing now!
Book of Clouds by Chloe Aridjis is the fictional first person account of a young Mexican woman named Tatiana who lives, dissociates, works, submits and ultimately searches for some semblance of identity while living in Berlin. Along with discussing universal topics like age and profession, the text specifically deals with the Berlin cityscape as a complex space layered with history, modernity and bureaucracy. These topics however, are not simply discussed as pertaining to Berlin, they are additionally applied to the individual context. The text asks: How does Berlin’s complex identity as a city looking for a sense of self through history, through hierarchy, and through modern masks, mirror the individual pursuit of a defined sense of self? One of the most distinctive ways in which the text asks this question is through its depiction of Berlin spaces.
Within the text Berlin spaces are discussed as holding salient histories simply masked by renovation and repurpose. In many ways the text presents Berlin as struggling with its traumatic historical past. Thus Berlin can be thought of as a city attempting to define itself after walking away from the division of the Berlin Wall, the destruction from War and the Holocaust, yet simultaneously as a place that attempts to take responsibility for the cruelty and confusion that scars its past. There are a few main spaces described within the book as being repurposed or renovated including the tunnels of the U-Bahn (Aridjis, 86), and the Wasserturm (Aridjis, 95). The mention of the last place, the Wasserturm, causes one character within the book named Doktor Weiss to rant about his opinion on the numerous other haunting pasts held in spaces that have been repurposed. The Wasserturm, as he rants, was used by SA troops for “holding and torturing anti-Fascist prisoners. And now is it used, as you say, for apartments ‘with a nice view of the square’ and for those pseudoartistic spaces that have spread through Berlin like a virus” (Aridjis, 95). Doktor Weiss’ piece of knowledge here can be interpreted as a definition of the way in which new Berliner fads that have attempted to take root in the spaces of old trauma. This repurposing of space, by renovating spaces of horror into spaces of trend, seems to imply that Berlin is attempting to erase the residue of the past and replace it with something flashier, and more attuned to a new sense of self.
In addition to the depiction of Berlin spaces as homes of masked history there is a transformation or renovation of identity that is also exhibited within the characters of the book. While there are several scenes in which personal identity is questioned, self-reinvention is symbolized in part through the use of makeup. In the opening of the book, the narrator Tatiana believes that she sees Hitler disguised with makeup as an old woman on the U-Bahn (Aridjis, 5). Doktor Weiss himself is spotted wearing makeup and women’s clothing, completely reinvented as a trans woman (Aridjis, 163), and in one of her most dissociative moments Tatiana herself attempts to reinvent by caking makeup onto her face (Aridjis, 167). In all three of these cases, there is an attempt to hide from the historical identity of self. As the harmless old woman sits on the train she is no longer a powerful and cruel ruler named Hitler. As Ms. Weiss rides the bus with her dark lipstick and red cape, she is no longer the isolated old historian and intellectual. As Tatiana leaves her apartment in her heavy mascara and rouged cheeks, she is no longer the stagnant and lonely tourist from Mexico. All of these new identities allow for freedom from a past self. Yet here, a question arises— can we ever truly escape the past?
With the reinvention of self and identity discussed in terms of space and of personhood, Aridjis persuades the reader to think about the implications of this pattern. In part, she asks, from where does identity derive? Does it grow forth from the depths of history that create the cultural foundations of a space and a person? Or instead do the historical roots of ones self hold no weight in the search for identity? Perhaps a sense of self, whether that be human or site specific, is instead created by active decisions in self portrayal and a decision to move forward towards redefinition rather than towards reflection on what once was. Can both simultaneously exist? In the end, Chloe Aridjis leaves the reader with a final image—Berlin and its population encased in a world of clouds, identities erased, any identifiable urban markings like the TV tower completely obscured by the clouds. In regard to both place and personhood, what is left of identity here?
Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, a novel by Doris Pilkington Garimara, is an extremely important story to read for anyone attempting to understand Australian history, culture, and identity. Based on true events, the book highlights the colonial oppression that permeated Australia in the 1900s, specifically detailing the case of a mixed-race girl named Molly––a child of the Stolen Generation.
Although Aboriginal and white settlers had always been at odds, life was especially different for children of mixed race. Molly, whose father was a white man who abandoned her Aboriginal mother, was left excluded and ridiculed by both demographics. What was already a miserable situation for Molly became worse when the government implemented segregationist policies that separated children who were mixed race from their families. These children (including Molly and her young cousins, Gracie and Daisy) were taken to settlements where they were taught European values, and were prepared for future service in white households. They were not allowed to see their families nor speak their native language; this was a systematic way for the government to obliterate Aboriginal customs and culture. Children who experienced this traumatic, government-led kidnapping and detention are members of what is now referred to as the Stolen Generation.
However, in this particular story Molly triumphs over her oppressors. She and her two younger cousins escape the Moore River Native Settlement and make the 1,600 kilometer journey home. The starving children must evade trackers, fight predators, and scavenge for food. So far away from any familiar location, most other children would have had no idea which direction to go. However, Molly remembers her father once describing the barbed “rabbit proof fence” that cuts through the entirety of Australia. Following the fence, the girls finally succeed in finding their way home to Jigalong.
This book covers many applicable themes about Australian travel and life. Although Molly’s escape is unlike any travel I have ever done, her journey is important in understanding the geographical and cultural divides that European settlers imposed upon their colonization of the nation. In fact, the “rabbit proof fence” that Molly and her cousins use to navigate their way home is a symbol of freedom––the very fence built by the white man to dominate and restrict Aboriginal people is exactly what Molly uses to escape her oppression.
Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence imagines Australia in a way that is usually not discussed in everyday life. Living in Sydney, there is minimal recognition of the oppression of indigenous people that defined life in Australia since 1788. Settlers so drastically reduced numbers of Australian Aboriginals by means of dispossession, legislation, and outright violence that nowadays, descendants of the indigenous are few and far between––and often in disadvantaged situations. With a Euro-centric culture permeating the majority of Sydney, often Australia’s tragic past feels “out of sight, out of mind”-esque. However, I’ve noticed that artistic representations of Australian history are the most successful at reminding the country of its native foundations. This book is an example of the powerful combination between literature and history; the fact that this story is based on true events made it particularly sorrowful to read, but still an important topic to bring to light in the Australian socio-political landscape.
When I was 2, my parents decided to get rid of our television, a decision that turned out to have a major impact on my life. Aside from the fact that I never understand my friend’s references to childhood TV shows, reading became the constant source of entertainment for my siblings and I. In the summers, when we were home from camp or complained of boredom, my mom would gather us into the car and take us on an adventure to the library, and we’d always come home with a whole trunk full of books.
Throughout the years, books have always been a comfort to me, but the main reason I love them is for their ability to transport me to another time and place. To me, there’s no feeling like having a lazy day to curl up and let myself get lost in a story for hours, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve had less time to read for fun and it’s something I really miss. Just before I left for Sydney, I was home from New York for the weekend hanging out with my mom in the kitchen, when she started telling me about a book she had read and loved by Bill Bryson called, “In a Sunburnt Country.” Amidst packing and saying my goodbyes, I forgot all about it, but recently I took advantage of some free time and sat down to read it.
The book focuses on Bryson’s journey as he travels around Australia and the outback, from the White Cliffs to Melbourne, to Ayers Rock to the Great Barrier Reef. In the beginning of the first chapter, he remarks, “This is a country that loses a prime minister and that is so vast and empty that a band of amateur enthusiasts could conceivably set off the world’s first non-governmental atomic bomb on its mainland and almost four years would pass before anyone noticed. Clearly this is a place worth getting to know.” From the second I read that line, I was hooked…
The pages of “In a Sunburned Country” are filled with fascinating and random facts about Australia, like that it was the first–and last–continent conquered by sea, and the only country to begin as a prison. Bryson has such a witty and relatable way of writing, and makes you feel as if you are right there alongside him on his adventures. Throughout the chapters, he gives the reader an inside look into the sheer vastness of the land, and into the deadly native wildlife here, like the poisonous snakes, kookaburras, sharks, and crocodiles. As he writes about the spiders he encountered, he remarks, “No one knows, incidentally, why Australia’s spiders are so extravagantly toxic; capturing small insects and injecting them with enough poison to drop a horse would appear to be the most literal case of overkill.” Bryson also reflects on his hilarious and bizarre encounters with other travelers and locals as he ventures from town to town, in a way that makes me want to get out and explore on my own. Even when describing the dangerous situations he finds himself in, like the time he ran out of fuel and water while traveling, and the time he almost got stung by a bluebottle jellyfish while boogie boarding at Manley (which I’ve experienced too!) he manages to maintain a sense of humor and spin the story positively.
Aside from regaling the reader with his adventures, Bryson focuses on important issues in Australia, such as the history of the Aborigines, their journey to Australia around 60,000 years ago, and the incredible ways they’ve managed to survive despite the terrible treatment they have endured. He also goes into depth describing the effects of introducing non- indigenous animals to the country, as he explains, “”The consequences for native species have been devastating. About 130 mammals are threatened. Sixteen have become extinct – more than in any other continent.” I also loved reading his stories of the dangers the underprepared Australian explorers faced in the past as they journeyed through the interior of the land in the 1800’s.
I connected to this book for so many reasons, and would highly recommend it to anyone. In the beginning of the book, Bryson makes the point that Australia is very rarely discussed in the media, and I realize now how right he is. Before coming here, I’m ashamed to say I barely knew anything about the country, aside from the few Australians celebrities or bands I knew of, and a couple of basic facts. If you’re curious about the country, Bryson is the perfect mix of informative and entertaining, and after reading it, I feel like I’ve gained a new appreciation for Australia; I’ve learned so much about the history, politics, wildlife, and people here, in a way that I never would have been able to on my own. Throughout it all, Bryson’s passion for exploring and his infectious love for Australia shines through, and makes me feel even more excited and grateful to be here.
Ever since I was little, if someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always would, and still do, say “a mom.” I’m not sure where this fascination with children came from but I’ve always been enchanted by them – they’re tiny humans, for crying out loud! How cool is that?
My parents raised me as a tiny human, not a baby. I was pretty autonomous even from a very young age. At no older than one, my mom would ask me to choose peas versus carrots by just pointing at them. When I was in preschool and too young to fully dress myself, she’d lay out three outfits on my bed each morning and let me choose one.
A lot of children in the United States, though, aren’t necessarily raised that way. They’re raised as children, as beings that are like small, malleable blobs. There are baby foods, baby manuals, baby… everything. There’s an inherent desire to protect children and their innocence that came out of increased news reporting on crimes in the 1980’s and 1990’s that created an impression that children were under a bigger threat than ever. Were they, actually? Probably not. But it scared a lot of people and it scared them badly. It scared parents.
Children aren’t necessarily blobs that require helicopter parenting, though. Pamela Druckerman, through her analysis of the general French parenting style in Bringing Up Bebe, comes to the conclusion that French children are pretty darn well-behaved because they’re allowed to just be (autonomous) kids. She’s an American woman that moves to Paris with her boyfriend and is quite baffled by their parenting style. From what I’ve observed both here in Paris and in the United States, I can understand why – albeit not being a parent.
Without going into too much detail about the book, the other conclusions Druckerman comes to about French parenting styles through observing her friend’s child-rearing habits in addition to her own, include:
- Babies are, in fact, listening to you and can learn a lot from speech patterns and manners even at a young age. The French don’t use a condescending voice towards their infants, Druckerman observes, in order to model positive mannerisms and self-control.
- The French allow babies to “do their nights,” meaning they’ll wake up and cry but you have to learn “the pause” (five minutes in which you take when a sleeping baby starts crying to get themselves back to sleep). No idea how this works in actuality because again, no baby.
- There is no such thing as a “kid food” in France. Kids generally eat the same things as their parents, which normally creates rather adventurous eaters. That is in stark contrast to my (American) cousin Joel who only ate Goldfish crackers and creamed corn for five years – true story.
- The French don’t really believe in breastfeeding. Odd.
- Teaching patience to small children is super important.
- French parents do in fact have lives outside of their children and do not feel guilty about doing so.
A lot of this seems like common sense to me. Maybe that’s because most of this was how I was raised and maybe all of this is easier to agree with on paper than in practice. In theory, it’s easy to let a child “cry it out” but what happens when it’s your own? It’s probably not as easy. Love and nurture are awfully important, too, or so I assume. There should be a balance, as is the case with just about everything else in the world. No parenting style is inherently “right” or “wrong,” but one should simply do what feels best and most natural in their own circumstance.
I bet you’re wondering, “alright. You, a 20-year-old, non-mother just read this book about babies… What the heck does this have to do with you?” Well, as an anxiety-riddled young woman possessing some of the same traits as new parents albeit in very different contexts, (a compulsivity to Google *everything*, constant worrying about *everything*, and putting practically *everyone* else’s needs above my own) I learned I need to relax and be a bit more relaxed sometimes, I suppose, in the style of a lot of French parents.
For one of my classes, my professor had taken us all to several locations around Prague so that we could observe architecture from the Baroque period. I had learned a little bit about Baroque style music and art when I was in high school, but never went very in depth with Baroque architecture. The term “baroque” was actually first used by jewelers in the 17th century to describe “oddly shaped pearls.” So, the art style of Baroque is often viewed as very unconventional and out of the ordinary when compared to art from the classical and romantic periods.
Whenever my friends and family ask me to describe Prague and what it is like studying abroad in the Czech Republic, I always find myself describing the architecture around the city and talking about the different buildings/structures that can be found around the city. I had mentioned this in a previous blog post, but, when standing in the Old Town Square of Prague, you ‘ll find yourself surrounded by architecture from different centuries. There are Baroque buildings, Renaissance buildings, Rococo buildings, and a few others as well- all found within this small section. By just standing in Old Town Square and slightly turning your head in any direction, you’ll end up finding a different building from another century. I always find it so interesting learning about the different buildings, learning when they were built, and learning what style of architecture they are.
During my class’s little field trip, we first walked across the Charles Bridge- which is adorned with statues from several different centuries. On both sides of the bridge, you can find different statues from several different centuries, including a few from the 17th century, which is the beginning of the Baroque period. Each statue holds a significant meaning/has a story to tell, with many of the statues referencing to Jesus and Christianity, and each statue was very beautiful to look at. With different statues from different centuries, there are slight differences in the art style that can help you differentiate a Baroque style statue from a statue created during the Renaissance period. Baroque statues are a lot more “dramatic,” are more ornate, and are very extravagant compared to statues from other periods, and you can also tell from the facial features of the statues.
After walking the Charles Bridge, we then headed towards a beautiful church called the Church of Our Lady before Tyn. While walking to the church, I remembered how I felt during my first few weeks in Prague. Since I was born and raised in New York, I had grown up extremely used to the grid-like structure of New York City. So, upon coming to Prague, I found myself becoming lost a lot more frequently, even with the assistance of Google Maps. The streets of Prague are not grid-like at all, and consist of a lot of different turns, random ally ways, and odd streets. There are many times when my Google Maps will alert me to turn right into a building, instead of around them, and so I’m constantly walking through malls and different buildings to get to my destination. During the first few weeks in Prague, my friends and I found ourselves having to retrace our steps and go a different route to get to our destination because the streets have no uniform and are very random.
While Prague has many things to offer, such as their delicious and cheap food, stylish clothing stores, cute little parks, and a variety of other aspects that make it unique, their architecture is definitely what stands out to me the most. With their various buildings from different centuries and their confusing streets, Prague really is “oddly shaped.”
In “The Island Will Sink,” Briohny Doyle presents us with a dystopian future in which the environment is presented as an extremely degraded, doomed place. The most frightening part of the novel is that this degraded dystopian future is not too far away and it feels as if it is approaching within the next couple years or so. Several environmental issues and catastrophic events are presented; however, they are shared with the public and dealt with in unconventional ways. In this dystopian future, technology is what dictates the lives of the individuals and this is how they make sense of things. Technological advances are at the core for providing the public with knowledge about environmental issues.
Max Galleon is a main character in the novel and is a wealthy moviemaker who produces disaster movies regarding the environment. Max’s movies are said to be so realistic that they provide the viewers with an out of the body experience and allow them to be in touch with their senses. It is as if the viewers are on a stimulation ride through the horrific, calamitous damage that the environment is facing. Max’s movies are positive in the sense that by seeing the disasters that may potentially occur, the viewers are able to fully immerse themselves in the issues which will motivate them to live more sustainably and to take positive action. Max believes that individuals amongst society watch his films in order to face internal denial and fear that this doomed planet is invoking amongst them. By facing their fears, action will be taken and individuals will have an easier time coping with what is yet to come knowing that there is still something that can be done.
Pitcairn is the island that “will sink” and is referred to in the title of the novel. This island is extremely symbolic in connecting the two major themes of the novel. Pitcairn connect the themes of environmental fragility and technology. The main character Max plans on producing a movie about Pitcairn and plans to visit the island before it vanishes and sinks. His movie will act as a wake up call to the public because nothing has been done about the apocalypse that is going to occur. Ellie, Max’s daughter, says to Max “once you’re done with that island….people will have total access to it because of your films….the real location must, sadly, sink.But it’s representation will be here forever.” This is a quite devastating outlooks on mother nature because due to the rise in technology amongst this dystopian future it seems as if technology and media can act as a solution for everything. Ellie is making it seem as if it isn’t a big deal that this island is sinking because the media will take care of the issue by producing a movie about it so that it’s legacy lives on. This shouldn’t be the outlook on life and we must start dealing with issues head on, rather than saying the island “must sink.” There are ways to prevent the island from sinking and that is to start acting more sustainably by facing reality to help our fragile environment and planet.
I believe that this novel truly reflects my experiences thus far in Australia, due to all of the environmental crisis’ that I have witnessed. This country takes advantage of all the beautiful, natural wildlife and destroy’s it due to capitalism. For example, the coal mining projects are very controversial and are being advertised through false propaganda in order to try and trick the Australian locals into believing that “cole mining isn’t that harmful for the environment.” Overall, ever since I’ve been in Australia I have witnessed the fact that technology is being exploited in order to help promote projects and plans that would destroy the environment but benefit profits. I believe that the dystopian future that Doyle talks about in his novel, is in the near future and is realistic for Australia given the current path that they are on.
On the threshold of adulthood, it is easy – even mandatory, perhaps – to find oneself feeling adrift. In many ways, like travelling, coming of age is fraught with exploration, doubt, isolation, and fulfilment (or sometimes lack thereof). While travel may embody a physical journey and all of the various psychological implications that come along with that, growing up is its own kind of internal voyage in which the passage from childhood to adulthood is made.
In his classic homage to Italy, A Room with a View, E.M. Forster captures this congruous relationship between travel and the denouement of adolescence. When the novel’s protagonist Lucy Honeychurch, a proper upper class English girl, finds herself in Florence, Italy at the turn of the century, she does not know what she wants. Without the guidance of a cohort of adults and tastemakers to help her make decisions (or rather, it seems, make them for her), and stripped of the safety net of home comforts, Lucy struggles to establish her point of view and opinion:
There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was truly beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin. (Forster, II)
Forster uses art as a vessel with which to convey Lucy’s weak grasp on her sense of self and her childish reliance on others. In the Sante Croce church, she finds herself left to her own devices, a side effect both of her increasing independence as a young adult, as well as being a ‘tourist,’ so to speak.
Travel promises the opportunity for escapism in all of its forms; escape from the mundane and routine can either be refreshing or formidable, and usually ends up being a blend of both. This rings true for Lucy, whose holiday is not the picture of relaxation and freedom embodied by our idillic constructed view of travelling. Wandering Florence with the desire to escape from her overbearing chaperone – Miss Bartlett – and be independent, Lucy buys a picture of the Birth of Venus by Boticelli near Piazza della Signoria, but despite wandering and exploring as a traveller is supposed to do, she still does not feel close to how she thinks she ought to:
…the gates of liberty seemed still unopened. [Lucy] was conscious of her discontent; it was new to her to be conscious of it. “The world,” she thought, “is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them” (Forster, IV).
In this disillusionment with her surroundings, Lucy is, ironically, being honest about how she really feels for once, even if that feeling is one of overwhelming disorientation. The pressure to have a transcendent experience while travelling is one that may be universally familiar, but the rarely discussed inverse to it that Forster raises here is one where the mythic, life-changing epiphany does not materialise, and disappointment ensues. Once again, this presents one of A Room with a View‘s central themes and Lucy’s key problems, wherein she looks outward for her identity and self-actualization, rather than in herself. Caught between the demands of her background and culture to be ‘sensible’ and think a specific way despite her contradictory feelings, Lucy is disillusioned not only with Florence, but furthermore with who she is as a person and who she thinks that she should be.
A piece of critical advice on this matter comes from Mr. Emerson, a foil to Lucy and Charlotte’s upper class rigidity, and the embodiment of honesty and authenticity throughout much of the novel. Gleaning some of Lucy’s internal struggles, he tells her:
…let yourself go. You are inclined to get muddled, if I may judge from last night. Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them. By understanding George you may learn to understand yourself. (Forster, II)
Although his wisdom seems to pertain to getting his son a date at this point, it also speaks truths about Lucy’s struggles more broadly. Mr. Emerson reminds her, and the readers, of the value of being honest with oneself and following your heart, rather than convention or what is expected of you. This is the source of the liberty that Lucy cannot find elsewhere, and it has been in her – in all of us – the entire time.
Source: A Room with a View by E.M. Forster, published online by Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2641/2641-h/2641-h.htm
In previous posts, I have already discussed the German spirit that lurks in the hearts of the people of Berlin and collectively bursts out in action to better their city. Surely, this must be exhausting, to be this way continually. How can a society function like this, or a better question might be, how is Berlin able to wake up and start the next week with the industrious fire and passion that they do? You can’t make a shark stop swimming, because it needs movement to supply its gills with oxygen. So how does Berlin keep the cycle going?
One mechanism which fulfils this function is the club scene, at least in my observations. The club scene in Berlin is quite renowned worldwide for the births of new musical genres and the creation of very specific atmospheres. Often, clubbers on weekends will arrive very early in the morning, and leave after dawn. The scene is very different than that of America, where going to the club is more of a social event. In Berlin, everyone in clubs wears dark comfortable clothing, as the emphasis is less on drinking and socializing but rather dancing by yourself to the music, even if you go with other people. After watching other clubbers, you realize you are at a techno aerobics class almost, and everyone is spending the last of their week’s energy on the dance-floor. This pattern continues until the end of the weekend, when finally, the clubbers have exhausted themselves to oblivion and get restful sleep. Sunday here is very quiet, as many businesses, even grocery stores, close their doors, so the city can get prepare to get back into the routine of the workweek.
So one might be able to see the comparable intensity of work and play in Berlin, and how this unites the people in a mass release of manpower, whether it be funneled into production or thought, or dancing for ten hours straight. This effort cannot be achieved solely on latent human energy, as it requires supplements. For most people here, they are coffee and cigarettes, and both are found in excess in Berlin. Also, bread seems to keep them going as well; it might be the only thing more prevalent than the other two supplements. Soooo much bread.
I’m not putting a quote at the top of this one because I didn’t like the reading, and I wanted to say so instead of quoting the videos, which were great.
The spirit of Prague is complicated, especially coming from an NYU student. Our campus is in Old Town Square, a super touristy section of the city that looks like “an adult’s Disneyland.” These are not my words, as apt as they are, they are the words of almost every professor I have and every local I have met. They are said in a really condescending way, and I think serve well to describe the spirit of Prague and also to explain why I didn’t like the article.
The article this week seems to assert that it is the physical environment of a place which shapes its people. At one point, it even suggests that uprooting a people and putting a new one in their place would result in the new inhabitants’ adaptation to the old culture. Some of this would be true, I think; for example, removing the Czechs and inserting the Spanish into the Czech Republic would cause some Czech-like alterations to the Spanish diet, one reliant largely on seafood. In a landlocked country, the Spanish would adapt to their environment and change some aspects of their food. But having eaten paella and goulash, I can’t imagine comfortably or even uncomfortably going permanently from the former to the latter. Paella is delicious and spiced, and goulash is, well, not that great.
The spirit of Prague is shaped to the extreme by the people who participate in and form it. It is kind but not friendly, passionate but not boisterous. Its physical location has allowed Prague to be physically and sociologically shaped by its neighbors in ways that are wonderful. Franz Kafka, an ethnically German, Jewish Prague resident, is one of Prague’s greatest prides. Russian architecture has influenced the city greatly, as has Italian and French; all of these people once lived in and influenced Prague with the imports of their homelands, despite their new environment that according to Durrell, should have molded them into Czechs themselves.
Probably the most remarkable part of the spirit of this place is Prague’s attitude toward the people around it. When the imports were positive, coming as literature and architecture, Prague welcomed newcomers, and they supposedly blossomed in the Czech physicality. But when the newcomers were Nazi fascists and Soviet totalitarians, they were memorialized in the collective memory as atrocious, and the efforts to erase their influence has had a tremendous impact on Prague. From lustration laws, which prevent former sympathizers from holding important (and even nonessential) positions, to the sociological patterns of public life that mitigate risk of danger, Prague has forever been marked by these terrible newcomers. However, as I wrote in my politics post, Prague’s environment, both physical and social, allowed these influences and was even changed by them.
The spirit of Prague is one that proves it is up to people to determine their own culture, that culture is not dictated by physical environment or really in any way. Despite Prague’s recent history with foreign influence, the city for the most part condemns the new President’s anti-immigrant agenda, labeling it racist and islamophobic (and ridiculous- there were 6 immigrants to the Czech Republic last year). What is important to the citizens of Prague is not limiting diverse influence, but that they never have to live in fear again. The spirit of the place is marked with this courage and boldness, and ridicules the fairy-tale mysticism of Old Town. Prague is a real place that demands to be shaped on its own terms.
For this post, I sat down with one of my professors, Vanda Thorne, and asked her the following questions: How has trauma been memorialized in the Czech Republic? Do you think those responsible for atrocities in Czech/ Slovak history have been held accountable for them? How did this play out in the era following the fall of Communism?
Vanda teaches Collective Identity in a Totalitarian Regime, a class that combines sociology, history, and politics to describe the state of society in the era of Communism. I was hoping that with these questions, we would get (at least close) to the root of modern collective identity in the Czech Republic, and how the country has rectified such huge injustices.
In short, it hasn’t. From the mouth of an American, the Czech Republic needs to face its past. The irony in this isn’t lost on me, as the States are at a breaking point between those with historical power and those who are still victims their victims. A similar refusal to develop a national conscious seems to be a large issue in Central Europe at large. Poland recently passed a law making it illegal to refer to Polish concentration camps as… Polish. Even though the camps were on Polish lands and Polish people were involved in their operation, the Polish people seem to refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for the atrocities which occurred there and consider themselves solely victims of Nazi control.
The Czech Republic, in the words of Jan Urban, a former dissident and my Global Orientations professor, “is the largest country in the world that still claims to be a victim.” Vanda reiterated this sentiment, which is that the Czech and Slovak people still claim to be victims of the Nazis and Soviets, despite their participation in these groups’ atrocities. Vanda and I talked specifically about two instances of Czech participation in violence they now claim as foreign: the Lety Concentration Camp and a camp for political prisoners during the Communist regime.
Lety was a concentration camp for Roma people run by Czech officers. Mostly children were detained here before being moved along to Auschwitz. A few decades after the camp’s closure, it was transformed into a pig farm. Yes, a pig farm. After the fall of Communism, there was pressure on the new government to purchase the land and instate a proper memorial. However, this did not happen for years. In some of the more heated times of the debate, government officials claimed that it was not a concentration camp but a “work training” camp, for the “lazy” Roma. One government official even claimed there were no fences, and when photos surfaced to contradict his lies, he claimed there were holes in the fence for people to get through. Clearly, the atrocities toward the Roma were committed by Czechs, too, and have not yet ended.
The camps for political prisoners during the Communist regime are another example of atrocities executed by Czechs under the direction of foreigners. Prisoners were brought to the camp in the 1950s during the Stalinist purges, where they were forced to mine uranium by hand. Although most of them were released by the 1960s, they were restricted from jobs and educational opportunities, and the results of this have left many of them in poverty until today. The guards at this camp were Czech, and many of them still live in the community surrounding the former camp. This has caused great difficulty in making the camp into a proper memorial and educational center, and has also presented challenges in aiding the former prisoners.
It seems strange to criticize another country for its refusal to acknowledge its historical injustices, but here I am. The “narrative of the victim,” as Vanda phrases it, is completely unacceptable at this point, especially as the last of the survivors live out their few remaining years in poverty.
“The Paris of South America” is a name that is often given to Buenos Aires, due to its position as one of the most developed cities in the continent, its reputation for being a cultural center, especially because it is the place some would consider the Mecca of Tango, and because in many places, Buenos Aires resembles Paris. This is because many of the buildings in the city were constructed when Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world and the aristocrats from the city were inspired by French Architecture when constructing the city.
But the European influences does not stop there. Walking around the city, one can experience the many European influences onto everyday life in the city, and this is, to me, is the spirit of Buenos Aires: Europe, but not really.
Buenos Aires’ history as a port city has resulted in it being a city built up by immigrants, particularly from Europe. It is common knowledge that no one in Buenos Aires is 100% indigenous, and that everyone is a mix of something. Have a conversation with anyone and they’ll tell you that they are a mix of some Italian/Spanish/German/Indigenous blood. The City too, is a mix of many European influences.
The language is of course, Spanish, but Argentine Spanish is very different from castellano, the name typically given to the language spoken in Spain. In Argentina the Spanish is rioplatenese. In simple terms, Argentines speak much faster, often fail to pronounce their consonants, and instead of using the “you/tu” form of Spanish, they say “vos” instead, completely eliminating the plural second person from the language. Here, one says “Y Vos?” instead of “Y tu?”. In Buenos Aires, the name for the slang spoken by the people of the city is lunfardo, which comprises words created by local people, often with Italian influences and incorporated into daily speech. As such, a native Spanish speaker not from Buenos Aires would not understand these words, or the meaning of certain words in a certain context.
The food here is mostly Italian, where the most common kinds of food are pastas, empanadas and pizzas. However the Argentines have added their own twist to these foods, an example being how the pizza here usually has a thicker crust and contains more cheese. The type of liquor that most Argentines drink, (although their national beverage is wine, also of European heritage, as it was brought over by the Spanish Missionaries when Argentina was a Spanish Colony) is Fernet, which in itself is Italian as well. Yet the Argentines also love their beer, evidenced by the many craft beer outlets all over the city and the existence of various brands of Argentine beer.
As mentioned earlier, one of the most European things about the city is in its appearance. Now I’m no expert on Architecture, but I have been to many cities in Europe before and one of the things that struck me the most about Buenos Aires when I first arrived here was how European the city looked, from its plazas and the European and Italian influences in the buildings all over the city, to the existence of cobblestone streets and even the prevalence of street side cafes. But Buenos Aires being Buenos Aires, will find a way to make it their own, and it is easy to find a beautiful European-inspired building beside a plain looking house, or diagonal streets that don’t follow European city planning or honestly just plain ugly buildings. Even the people resemble Europeans. In general, Argentines dress very stylishly, particularly the Argentine women’s propensity to wear platform shoes.
It’s no wonder some say that the portenos (the citizens of Buenos Aires) speak like the Spanish, dress like the French, and eat like the Italians. Europe. But not really.
I have been attempting to capture the spirit of Berlin for some time. When a thought comes to me about the overarching vibration or foundation of Berlin I type up the thought into my phone. While I have not been able to reduce Berlin and its spirit to one compact thought, or identify its “genius loci” in any capacity, I have come up with some disjointed thoughts that seem to paint the Berlin vibration I have been exposed to thus far. This list will probably lengthen and flesh out during my coming months in Berlin, however I have decided to share with you these excerpts from the notes folder on my phone:
“Berlin stays private in public space, yet public in private spaces. To expand upon this, Berliners appear reserved. Subways and busses are pristine. Younger people wear a lot of black, look closed off, and definitely do not appreciate singing or dancing in the streets.” (I learned this the hard way when I was working out a harmony by whisper-singing for a moment with a friend on the U-bahn and was asked by a young woman to “please stop singing. Please can you not sing?”—yikes!). “However, as soon as you enter private space, everything changes—they peel off their long black coats to reveal a much more exposed self.”
The club scene for example, is rich in expression.
“A mix of steady and disjointed “tekno” beats creates the framework for experimental dance, for sweat, and for breath. Some clubs cater towards even more public displays of the socially private through creating space for sex parties and more. Even in this club scene though, no matter how pure, stickers can be placed over your phone cameras in order to keep these public displays of self in private.”
This exterior conservatism continues in the architecture.
“Post-war Berlin architecture is mostly grey and bland. Box-like buildings made from concrete line the streets. Few building exteriors act as catalysts for intrigue, however interiors lend a hand to more experimental and artistic definition. For example, many restaurants in Berlin look like culinary black holes from the outside, however inside, these same restaurants sport unique design and succulent treats. Coffee shops have tended toward a similar pattern, the lack of inviting aesthetic outside acting as a misleading mask for the comforting and well-designed interior space.”
However this disparity in difference between the inside and outside of spaces also extends into the population.
“I have rarely spent time with old people. Where are they? I see them every once in a while on the S-bahn and U-bahn, or in the grocery store, however I have rarely sat next to an older Berliner at a coffee shop, or been served by an older person at a restaurant.”
“Just walked past a little dining room with big windows at around 10:00pm and to my surprise saw a large group of old people! I made the people I was walking with pause to look and they thought I was slightly crazy. But—it has been so weird to see so few elderly people living in the same spaces I have been spending time in. This feels like a hole other way in which Berlin is so segmented. Old and young not interacting as often as they might in New York, Ugly exterior of buildings with aesthetically pleasing interiors, and public quiet and conservative culture in contrast with contained and private exposure of self, and grit, and identity.”
The spirit of Berlin is constantly escaping me with all of these contrasting elements at hand. However, I feel as though these snippets of information are the best way of describing the environment and population I am swimming within. As I gather more information and observe more juxtaposing elements of this city, I will be sure to take note.
After reading the assignment, I quite frankly had no idea what to write about. The clothes that the people wear here are not particularly special nor are the food they eat drastically different from that of its neighboring countries. I could not recognize anything that set the Czechs apart from that of different European nations until I decided to go beyond the physical. One thing I noticed about the Czechs is that they are extremely proud of their identity and believe themselves to be a relatively superior race in terms of beauty, kindness, and intellect. Regardless of being such a small nation in terms of size, influence, GDP, and etc., the Czechs regard themselves highly, a fact which has continued to baffle me.
I began to wonder, “Where does this pride come from?”. After much thought, I realized that one cannot mention the Czech Republic without mentioning the Velvet Revolution. The Velvet Revolution was a series of nonviolent protests that ultimately overthrew the Communist Party after decades of oppressive rule. It was precisely this incident that Czechs remember and link with their nationalism.
We as Americans or I as a Korean know and understand the various revolutions and moments of hope throughout our history. We are prideful of our identity but ours pales in comparison to that of the Czechs. We must keep in mind that the Velvet Revolution occurred less than three decades ago. While we honor and learn about our history, the Czechs remember it clearly for what it was. It is that which brings them together as a society and bring them together as a nation. A revolution that was not only successful, but also through non-violent means, the epitome of modern revolution. In a lot of ways, the Czechs are warranted in their pride. The progress that they have made in the past three decades is truly a commendable testament to their capabilities.
One other thing that I have noticed is that the Czechs often do not smile, but that is not to say they are cold hearted people. Upon my personal experiences, they are simply a little awkward with showing affection but are still kind hearted people full of overt curiosity. They often stare at those who do not look like them but have learned to take it as a sign of curiosity rather than that of hostility. Also given their history and high record for theft on the streets, I have also come to understand it as a sign of vigilance.
The Czechs are an interesting race and I continue to learn more and more about them each day as I walk through the busy streets and bustling subway stations.
By the time we leave for karaoke, I regret everything. It’s half past eleven, fifteen degrees, and a ten minute walk to Le Fleurus, a cramped bar down the street that invites the 14th arrondissement to come sing their hearts out every Wednesday. It doesn’t get interesting until midnight, which is why the six of us are tramping through the dark and the snow with our faces shoved into upturned coat collars.
The front door of the bar is blocked by a handful smokers– Americans, surprisingly– and we squeeze past. It’s toasty inside, fogging over the front windows, but the tables near the door are surrounded by empty chairs covered in coats. Our coats join the piles and we snake in a six-person conga line toward the back, toward the white sheet hung on the wall where the lyrics of “Human” by The Killers are currently projected. Someone’s going ham on the Brandon Flowers impression but I can’t see them through the crowd. Nearly everyone in here is a student from the neighborhood universities- a lot of exchange kids, like us, and international students, but locals, too, and Brandon Flowers enthusiasts, apparently.
“Human” finally ends, thank god; it’s succeeded by “Toxic” by Britney Spears then what feels like eighteen Maroon 5 songs (this is routine, French millennials have a shocking affinity for Maroon 5). Finally a group of Spanish girls wrench the mic away and get started on a round of songs you’d probably hear at a discoteca in Barcelona circa 2008. I don’t know any Spanish but I know none of the lyrics are words you’d share with your grandmother. We all sing along anyways, tuneless and wordless, at the top of our lungs, smushed together with hips swinging and hair flying. Someone elbows me in the back and apologizes in a language I couldn’t identify; two songs later this stranger and I are side by side on the mic, hollering the chorus to “Empire State of Mind.”
Wednesday night karaoke isn’t exactly in line with the utopia envisioned during the early days of the French Republic. For all the work France has done to hype up the fantasy of Paris, they’ve also got fantasies of their own, of a country where skin color and religion and ethnicity don’t matter because you’re French first and everything else second. But when I look out into the sea of singers, flickering under the light of the projector and casting shadows against the wall, I don’t think I want that.
I’d rather sing lewd songs with Spanish girls, or wait in line for the bathroom with an Algerian grad student from Marseille, or mix up scarves and hats with a group of kids who took the train one stop from the banlieue to get here. Very few people in that bar would tick “French” as their only identity, given the choice, and that upsets a lot of right-wing secularists. For them, there is such a thing as too global, and when I look at the Starbucks across from campus, I understand why they’re worried. But inside that bar is the future of Paris. It’s diverse and loud and probably singing “Thriller,” not that anybody’s too concerned with the fate of the country at the moment. We don’t come here to talk about politics or women’s rights or immigration. We’re here because it’s a Wednesday, and on Wednesday everyone goes to Le Fleurus to sing their hearts out.
In America, fine dining is often disrupted by the hustle and bustle around us, especially in Manhattan. The servers can be impolite and pushy in order to get their tips. They most likely will rush you or make you feel slightly rushed so that they can seat more customers. In Firenze, fine dining is a completely different experience. The servers do not serve for tips. In fact, tips aren’t really existent in most parts of Europe. Servers give you plenty of time to enjoy your drinks and/or meal here. At first, my friends and I found it a little bizarre. It was quite an adjustment. Between an appetizer and entree, you could be waiting over an hour. And for the check? You have to personally ask. Even then, the server always seems surprised that you want the check so early!
I have never had a single server come out with a check before I asked after an hour wait. It simply is the norm here. My friends and I joke that we could leave restaurants after dinner and no one would notice that we never paid. The impatient New Yorker will often get ahold of me and be annoyed that I can’t quickly pay for dinner and go get my gelato. But dining has made up a new part of my European experience. It has taught me that I can relax and really value conversation. So much of my time is spent on the phone (whether texting, Instagram, Snapchat, FaceBook, etc.) Even snapping a picture means using my phone. But in Florence, people are patient and present. They sip wine, laugh and chat with friends over delicious meals. A visit to the local caffè for coffee might not be the standard hour or so, but longer if a neighbor comes in. The value of a conversation and companionship continually surprises me. In New York, we walk past each other through crowded streets with our heads down, continually getting from one place to the next.
Last night, while out with some friends at a small middle eastern restaurant, my friend sat on a table and the surface completely clattered down off of the table. Had this occurred in New York City, the restaurant owner most likely would have yelled at us and forced us to pay. In Florence, we got a much different reaction. He shrugged, laughed and came over to help us place it back together. It was as if it was no big deal. This subtle difference completely changed my perception of what it meant to be “Florentinian.” You don’t sweat the small stuff, that is for sure! The calm and slower pace of Florence is what makes it…Florence! It’s these little lessons that I will take back with me when I leave here. Remember to take your time, there is no rush. Treasure the long conversations in a world filled with cell phones and distractions. Don’t waste energy over the silly, little things. They won’t matter in the long run.
I’m sure that when I return in May, I may get pushed a few times on the Subway as I’m about to catch the 1 train. Perhaps someone will roll their eyes at me as I sit at a caffè too long to enjoy my coffee. But I’ll do things the relaxing and calm way, the Firenze way.