Saturday, October 31, 2009

We Were in Eastern. Europe. ...

I should probably preface that last entry by saying that the camps aren’t the only thing that is in Poland. We weren’t purely “horror-tourists”.

We stayed in Krakow for 3 nights. That is really a fantastic town. Basically, all of the unique and interesting things from Bruges are in Krakow, but they’re 10 times better. It’s also significantly cheaper. That’s the one advantage of traveling outside the EuroZone for sure. We had a map of the town with recommendations from Gabe on cool places. I tried to hit as many of his spots as I could. Started with an excellent Italian meal. I got the best mussels of my life in Poland. We moved onto a hookah bar from there serving some primo shisha. Not a bad night, eh?

We toured the city the next day and got to experience a rather tourist version of the Polish town. I found the pieces of information on Oskar Schindler, and the movie, really fascinating. I watched that movie for the first time just before heading to Europe with my family, so it was still fresh in my mind. Needless-to-say, standing in the filming spots was humbling. I spent that night on the internet talking with people from home and loving it. It was a perfect mental break, especially with the camps waiting the next morning.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was a sobering, awful, teaching, and otherwise overwhelming experience. The poem that I previously posted is really the only way I can describe the experience. I felt myself just hoping to get out of the place on multiple occasions, and only kept myself from breaking down by mentally repeating verses, or songs, or even God’s name.

Yeah… that was a pretty rough day.

Coming back after the camps was a totally different experience, though. For a bit, I had felt as though I was in some sort of a social funk. I think I just had the idea that the camps were coming up looming over my head and it was affecting me more than I knew. But after that day, I’ve felt much more as myself (besides being sick), and am enjoying my fellow travelers significantly more.

Now, I’m just reveling in my last three days in Berlin. Coming back here felt somehow like coming home. How’s that for eerie? There’s just so very much to enjoy about this city. Especially the people. Last night, Gabriel had us over to his flat to eat a massive Greek dinner and basically have something of a party. No, not a college-kid (emphasis on the “kid”) party, more like a yuppie party. Lots of talking, laughing, and sipping wine. That kind of a thing. Anyway, during the night, I got to talking to Gabe’s good mate, whose name I can’t spell due to its Germanity, who also happened to be the very talented guitar player from our Karaoke experience. He is just a stand-up guy. He must have asked me everything about our trip, and then always followed it up with a question about how it would affect me, or what I could take away from it. Pretty cool huh? After a decent amount of the group had gone back, Gabe gets everybody’s attention and says ‘hey, my mate who owns this really cool bar came over and asked if we wanted to come over. It’s a bar that’s in a flat building next door. It’s basically a speak-easy, there’s no advertising for it, and it’s just the size of a small flat. It’s also a haven for graffiti artists. Berlin’s been known for its graffiti, but you haven’t seen any have you? Well, this is the place where the art actually is. So, what’d ya say, you guys wanna come?’

So, I spent a significant amount of last night in an underground speak-easy graffiti bar in East Berlin.

There will not be a whole lot of times in my life where I will be able to say a sentence as cool as that one.


This was all written a bit ago, updates from Prague and Four-Day are on their way...

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Monument to All Our Sins...

There is no flowing water
Save that which falls
From heavy hung heads
For no man there
Looks another in the eye.
Nuts and leaves carpet
Moss and mud
For there is no life that lives there
Even the flowers are weeds.
Nature knows where evil lain
All that remains
Is mist and shadow
And a monument to all our sins.

Written after a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ich Bin Ein...

I have to admit, I had high expectations for Berlin. I thought it was going to be really cool. I thought it would become close to my heart, like London or Paris or Boston or Denver. I thought I would see some history, thought it would be interesting.

I had no idea.

Berlin is [insert hyperbolic adjective that I actually mean here].

Let’s break down my expectations:

1. I thought it would be cool – So my idea of cool is probably rather similar to most college aged students idea of cool. It’s definitely pretty typical of Westmont’s idea of cool. Here’s the thing with Berlin: It’s as old as I am. Or, at least the Berlin that I am experiencing is my age. The wall fell 10 months after I was born. This city has been aging at the same pace as me. It’s going through the same growing pains and trends as me. So, Berlin feels like a twenty year old in city form. It has a fantastic nightlife, but it’s a renaissance-city (a la a renaissance-man, not as in Florence). Here’s an illustration of what I mean. My weekend was made up of going to an elegant Hookah bar that’s literally a block from my apartment, and then taking over a Karaoke bar with our entire group and our tour guide (yes, that’s Gabriel Fawcett for those of you who know and love him. He really is fantastic. And he can rock out.). A live band played, and you could sing in front of them. Such a cool concept. I didn’t end up on stage, but the guitar player and I became buds and we were feeding off each other’s energy. I came home with my ears ringing and my voice lost. At 3 AM. Sunday, we went to a ballet. (I love that juxtaposition) It was my first ever. I can’t say that I loved it, but I can’t say that I dislike it either. Basically, those people are all super athletic, and I was entertained. I was also falling asleep. So, there’s that… Honestly, that’s an ideal weekend for me. It just screams culture. College culture anyway.

2. I thought it would become close to my heart – I actually dug Berlin the moment I got off the coach. It was cold. Like really cold. Like two pairs of pants, a longsleeve, a sweater, a jacket, two pairs of socks, a beanie, and a scarf cold. If you know me, you know me and the Cold. Basically, we hang out. Upon getting here, I learned that the apartment I was to be staying in (I know! An apartment! Living in it has been a nice little glimpse into the future. Guess I’m destined to be a yuppie soon) is placed in the heart of East Berlin. As in, twenty years ago, it would have been state-housing. As in, there would have been 0 business in this part of the city. As in, I’m living behind the Iron Curtain. How’s that for a paradigm-shifter? ‘Course, that just made me love it more. This neighborhood, which, I might add, is smack-dab in the middle of the city, has become a bustling, hip center for young designers and artists; giving it an indescribably chic feel. Especially when you visualize the concrete, open-air prison it was just two decades ago. The most beautiful part of the location is that its also extremely close to the historic district/arts square/museum island. I didn’t realize that literally all of this was in the Soviet sector of the city. I walked all around the area today. I took back Berlin for myself tonight. And I enjoyed every step of it. I went out on my own, which was exactly what I needed, and ended up getting asked 4 different times to take out my earphones because random people thought I was German. As I stated in an earlier post, that’s a huge compliment. The walkabout helped clear my head, and it brought some revelations: About three-quarters of the way through my walk, I realized two things. First, Berlin reminds me of Denver. The market square that’s a block from my apartment could be modeled after Larimer Square. It’s not; but it could be. Secondly, as I was walking on my own under a covered museum walkway that is still riddled with World War II bullet holes from the Red Army, this thought entered my head:

This is why I’m here

3. I thought I would see some interesting history – In every part of Europe we’ve been so far, history has been real. I’m seeing what I’ve read about in texts books. But here, in Berlin, this is something different. I’m living in history. I feel like I’m swimming in it. I only have to walk ten feet outside of the apartment complex, and see the little Communist on the street lights to live history (on the street lights, the “man-crossing-the-street” symbol is a caricature of a hard working proletariat member telling you to stop or go. He’s called the Amplemann.). Of course, the city itself is just pure history. Usually, we’ve had to go to a museum or a site to be within history’s grasp. I literally walk five minutes and see the national church that was bombed out during the war and completely rebuilt. I can walk two more and be on Babelplatz. Where over 20,000 books met Fahrenheit 451. The Berlin Wall (or what’s left) is only two S-Bahn stops away. Hitler’s bunker is one more down the line. This city actually emits history. It’s eeking out of every pore. The people here fully embrace it, too. After the Wall fell, the youth lost their main canvas. Now, the city has become one. There is gorgeous graffiti everywhere. I feel like I actually can’t help but soak it all in.

It might be hard to leave here.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nestling in the Netherlands...


Shall I tell you a story?

How about from a far away place?


Good. Here we go.

Bruges was very very nice again. It was a bit of a rest. Kind of. I knew things, and felt a bit more at home, but we still lived far from the city center, and the walk was always just as obnoxious. So I took advantage of the things that I knew, and some things that were new. There was a shopping festival in the city, and Bruges actually came alive. When we were first there, the city was quiet… and old. And I’m not talking about the buildings. We seemed to be the only people under 45 in the whole city. But this weekend was different. There were tons of people, the city actually felt crowded, and we were the perfect age. The festival brought a whole new element to Bruges, it made it so enjoyable. It also brought roadside stands. These stands brought Christmas gifts for my family, and the best bratwursts you’ve ever had. Mmmm… my mouth is watering right now, in a totally different country…

We left Bruges after four days. Our bus headed North-East. Destination: Amersfoort, the Netherlands. Now, you’re thinking Ok, thanks to that movie, I have at least heard of Bruges (Maybe). But Amersfoort? Why Amersfoort? For a wonderful, wonderful reason.

The bus was buzzing, even after a full travel day. Everyone was excited, and quite nervous. We were about to hear who had drafted us. Amersfoort is our homestay town. We were being adopted for four days, and we were just about to hear who had selected us. It really felt like the draft too. Kristin (former Westmonster, and trip money/lodging coordinator) was on the microphone at the front of the bus. She would read two names, then those two people would head on down the bus aisle. I swear she would say And with the Number One pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, the New York Islanders pick… and then the names. She went through about 14 people, all in pairs. Those of us who were left got more and more antsy. Then out come these words:

And our first single! This person is going to be on their own!

Welp…guess who that was? J Soon as I heard those words, I knew it was me. First impression: nerves. Then: excitement. I thought Well this will be a nice way to get some alone time. Now, I just have to meet my adoptees…

I trekked the Aisle Walk (now I know how Matt Duchene feels – yeah, I’m a hockey fan. You should be too. It’s more fun to watch then [insert the sport you like to watch here].)

I walked down the bus stairs into the cold Dutch rain and saw a taller man with a big smile on his face. From that moment, I knew I’d be good. We split a car back to the flat, and I was introduced to his wife, and her bright, spunky smile.

This is them: Arjen and Jacobien Karssenberg. They are incredibly nice. Call them up for your trip to Amersfoort, they’ll take good care of you.

We spent a lovely evening sipping coffee (the Dutch love coffee as much as me! Hooray! No more small French espresso shot-glasses. These people drink coffee like it’s water. Perfect.) and introducing ourselves. The Karssenbergs are very into gardening, reading, and board games. After talking, they showed me one of their board games, called Regenwormen (translation: Ringworms). It’s more pleasant than it sounds. A short little dice game, it was a perfect nightcap. Then I got to hop into an actual bed in an actual house.

The next day was spent almost entirely in Amsterdam. I had to depart from the Karssenbergs, and met up with the rest of the group. We took a coach into the city and hit the pavement at the speed of Usian Bolt. Two quick museums and two quick meals in 4 hours. Yikes. Then, back on the coach back towards Amersfoort. It is here that I will place a significant shoutout: Eric the coach-driver, you’re the man. He would grab the mic during drives and tell good stories about things we were seeing or even better, he’d drop jokes (my favorite: he gets on the mic and says: The red light district is exactly behind us now. I was there a few weeks ago, and I was looking around, when I saw a woman in a window. I went up to hear and asked ‘how much?’ She said ’50 Euro’ I looked at her and said ‘Hey, that’s pretty good for a double-paned window!’ Cue Rimshot). Then, as we came into the Parking Lot that would be our pickup/drop off point, Eric slams on the gas and starts pulling doughnuts. That’s right, full, 360 degree turns. In a tourist coach. I was in the back, and I swear I was at a 45 degree angle. Three times around, and then he cranked the wheel the other way, and we spun opposite. Sheesh… Eric rules.

I spent the evening at the flat with more great Karssenberg-conversations-and-coffee. Then another great night in a real bed.

Another Amster-day. Quick toured a semi-closed Red Light district. I was a bit underwhelmed. I think that I had got myself ready for something that it is not. Spent the rest of the day just around the town. It’s actually rather pleasant. Don’t let stereotypes fool you, Amsterdam can be beautiful and classy.

Returned to the flat on my own. The Karssenbergs were in the north of the Netherlands at a good friends wedding. That’s right. I had a European flat to myself. So what did I do? Only the things that any 20 year old would do.

Called home and then went to sleep.

Wow… Maybe I need to be more adventurous…

The weekend was spent completely with host families. So I was treated to an awesome driving tour of the Netherlands. Arjen is a great tour guide, and he showed me medieval Netherlands and the new land that was created less than 100 years ago. Now that's weird. The Dutch actually create land. Weird...but awesome.

The tour ended with a typical Dutch meal back at the flat and then me getting my butt kicked at Ticket to Ride. Thought I was at least kinda good at that game. Not so much.

Sunday was a slow day. A ten minute bike ride to church. I didn't realize how much I missed bike riding until hopping on one here. The service was excellent too. The sermon was well thought out and smartly delievered. Course it was in Dutch, so....

We then rode home, had lunch, and I took a wonderful two hour nap. Then, dinner, and more losing at board games. Hey, they were a ton of fun though. And they taught me how to play Settlers of Catan... or Kolonistas (I think that's spelled right).

Now... a quick last night in the heavenly bed, and off to Germany in the morning...

Friday, October 2, 2009

La Vie...Peut Etre En Rose, Peut Etre Pas...

After a quick 4 Belgian days, we headed off towards France. No, let me change that. We headed for Paris. Yes, Paris. Oh yes, please.

I got really excited.

Paris is just great. But we only have 5 days! Will I be able to do everything I want to do in 5 days? That’s not long…

Well, see here’s the thing (see I told you we use it a lot!), Paris can be done in 5 days. If you do 13-15 hour days like we did. We actually didn’t have class for the entire time we were in France, so anything education was done via tour (see: Versailles, Louvre, Normandy tours). We had about 4 hours at both Versailles and the Louvre. Then we were free to leave when we wanted. The group I spent most of my time with in Paris ended up going to what seemed to be every single Arrondissement. We hit everything. And as a result, we didn’t sleep much. I haven’t been that tired since RAing. Yikes. But! On the plus side, my French is still functional! I can still conversate! I can understand really well, and I am understood…maybe half the time J It was awesome.

It’s funny. I didn’t recognize Paris too much when I first got there. We were pretty far to the South of the city, and nowhere near where I was the first time with my family. It was kind of unnerving. But then came time to catch a ride. We went down into the Metro station, and WHAM


I recognized Paris by the smell. No, it didn’t smell like urine, or something gross like that. It just smelled like France. I can describe it to you. Maybe I should have bottled up some Metro air to present to you when you inevitably question my sanity after I get back and talk to you. Then I would open the jar and say “Here. This is France.” They say that smell is the sense best tied to memory. I guess they’re right this time.

We made it up to Sacre Coure one of the evenings we were there. What an incredible place. It’s simply gorgeous. A white beacon of a church placed just atop a hill in the north of Paris, it seems to look down at the whole city. It reminds me of the Spire of Ecthalion in Minas Tirith (like LOTR shout out to Jay V., Ty F., and Lizzie Mc.). The inside just feels like a church should to me. You can try to continue your conversation once you are into the nave and chapel, but you won’t. It literally grasps the breath from your throat and yanks it from your lungs while your eyes are pulled upwards. (Saint Chapelle does the same thing. The stained glass there looks like gems glistening from their spots in the cave wall.) Simple stunning. I sat for a while and prayed; thanking Jesus for him and his sacrifice. I almost crossed myself afterwards, but decided against it. But really, if I had done it, would anyone have said anything? If I were to commit a small act because I felt like it sealed my conversation with the Lord well, would it have been wrong? I really don’t even know the answer. Any insight?

Then, on the outside of the church, there is a wonderful juxtaposition. Sacre Coure sits gleaming in its white splendor. In front of the church, upon its very steps, there is all sorts of humanity. Music played. Street performers juggling, dancing, and entertaining. Lovers cooing. Loners drinking. Venders hawking. You can’t help but smile as you turn to see the holy enthroned just above and out-of-reach from the people below. It really makes you think.

We made it to the top of the city about 4 times. Sacre Coure. L’Arc de Triomphe. Notre-Dame. La Tour Eiffel. It was after the second trip up stairs that I thought to myself: you can only take so many pictures of the Parisian skyline. On paper, and on screen, they really all do kind of look the same. So, I put down my lens, and just stopped.

Paris really is a beautiful city.

After the blistering pace of city life, we headed up and out to Normandy. A little bit more of the familiar, and some of the unknown. We stayed in an Abbey. It was just right. The rooms are converted from the original floor plan of the Abbey, so none of them really make that much sense. The building was pretty incredible though. I am finding that I am in awe of cities and country-sides here. Usually people are city people or country people. I thought that I was a city person, but I may not be. I can’t tell.

We spent a long Thursday touring World War II sites. Talk about a world trapped in a certain time. We went to the World War I sites in Belgium, and they felt the same way. Trapped in 1918 or 1944. Going back to the sites in Normandy was… different than I thought. They felt eerily similar. Yet not the same at all. I could tell that I was different more than the sites changing. My questioning of pride, patriotism, and citizenship has definitely shaped the way I perceive things. And I got a bit said about that. I certainly came away from the sites feeling proud of my country, and was unbelievably grateful for the sacrifices, but it took more time to get me there than I would have liked. That was disappointing.

Now…we’re back to Bruges. Time to wind down again. Time to settle. Back to the known. Back to things familiar.

When In Bruges...



Wait…we’re staying in Bruges, Belgium?

Alright. What the heck. Give it a whirl, eh?

See, here’s the thing (<- this has become the official Europe Semester phrase). Bruges is really cool. It’s a town. Not quite a city, but not that small either. I’m not sure that this town has recognized it’s size yet. There is a massive, and I mean massive town square in the center of town. However, it is never filled. In fact, there are always too few people there. It’s strange. It always feels a little haunted…A little empty.

The town itself is an interesting mix. I think that most of Belgian culture is this way. An odd combination of Flemish, French, and plain European vibes emanate from the people. Bruges is in the Flemish speaking section of Belgium, so my French did absolutely 0 good. But, most everyone speaks English, and recognizes me to be an American, so I get addressed in English almost always. Take, for instance, the competing fry stands under the Belfry. I got to the front of the line and the guy looks at me and says “What do ya want?”. Right after serving a German couple, and before serving some British tourists. Kind of incredible, isn’t it? So were the fries. There’s something strange about Belgium. The people seem to live on a combination of French fries, chocolate, waffles, and beer; and yet, they are surprisingly healthy. Those people know hot to live eh?

They’re pretty darn nice too. On our last day there (well, until we got back today that is. Kinda confusing, I know. We went Bruges > Paris > Normandy >Bruges), my friend Joy and I sat on a bench looking at the river because we had missed the tourist boat ride that the rest of our group got on. We were talking when the 50-something-year-old woman sitting on the bench behind us interrupted. “Excuse me? You are from America yes?” We both turned and Joy engaged her. They ended up talking for about 15 minutes before the woman asked If we would join her for a drink. She ended up buying a Belgian beer for Joy, myself, and Corey. Just because we agreed to talk to her for what turned out to be about an hour and a half. I think I like the Belgians J