Friday, December 18, 2009

Barcelona and Prague

I spent American Thanksgiving with my friend Charlotte having the closest thing we could find to turkey (a chicken burger) at a local pub. Charlotte recently spent a month in Ghana and is fully aware of the safety concerns I have about my upcoming move to Sub-Saharan Africa. Spontaneously, Charlotte suggested we go to Morocco. "Sure," I thought. We paid our tabs and went to the library to purchase tickets. Morocco wound up being a bit pricey so instead we booked tickets to Barcelona for about 6 USD round trip.

Barcelona was such a quirky and eccentric city. We flew into Girona and spent a few hours exploring the city. We walked along the river and enjoyed the architecture. In the evening, we took the train to Barcelona. Around eleven we started looking for dinner and were limited to a greasy Chinese restaurant where for 7.75 each we got an awful three course dinner. We went to a Spanish dance club that evening. The next morning we woke up quite early and rented bicycles to ride around the city. It has been a few months since I rode a bicycle and at first I was stumbling everywhere. I also have never ridden a bicycle on the road with cars and found it a bit scary to allow cars to pass me. We rode all the way down the main street stopping to pose in pictures with some of the craziest of the human statues. We rode our bikes along the pier and decided to go swimming in the freezing cold water. The beach in Barcelona is primarily designed as a surf beach and several surfers were out (in wet suits) and were definitely shocked to see Anglo girls in bikinis thinking it appropriate to swim in the water. After declaring that I would get only my legs wet I was sucked under by a wave and fully immersed in the icy water. After our swim we rode our bikes in our swimming costumes along the pier and then visited a few noteworthy places in Barcelona. In the afternoon we found ourselves in the middle of a Brazilian rally. We had lunch at a paella and tapas bar along the main street. That night we hung out with the people staying in our hostel.

It was nice to get to spend my last weekend in England with such a great friend just relaxing and having a good time in Spain. After returning from Barcelona I had two days of intense finals preparations, packing, moving out, a final kayaking session, and one last night with Cat, Laura, and Amy. Time moved so fast that I could barely realize how depressing it was to leave. I think that my finals went well and I believe I will receive a "first class" which means perfect grades. I can't believe how much stuff I have collected over the term: loads of other people's costumes that I nicked, random things I wore for fancy dress themed nights, and massive amounts of things to include in my scrapbook. When I get back to the United States I'll proudly display my Uncle Sam bow-tie, Amsterdam tulip, and other mementos as tangible elements of my European memories. I can't believe how much I already miss England.

On Wednesday I left to begin a month long journey through Eastern Europe and the Middle East with one of my best friends from the United States. I flew from Birmingham to Prague and am currently in Bratislava, Slovakia. Tomorrow night I will go to Vienna to meet my friend Sahara and then we will go to Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, and Switzerland together. Prague was very very cold but lovely. The first night in the hostel I met a girl from New York studying "Race, Class, and Revolutions" at Hampshire College. We realized we had a lot in common and spent most of our trip together. The buildings of Prague were a combination of many different structural styles and most of them were yellow. It was interesting to see the remains of Nazi control over Prague and the ruins of communism together in one geographic location. It was so shocking to me that Prague became democratized only twenty years ago, the same year that I was born. Most of the residents of Prague remember communist control and, I don't think I've ever met a more "anti-communist" group of people! Prague has made a remarkable turn around into capitalism. Just like any other city, Prague is lined with McDonalds, casinos, and designer clothing. Relative to the rest of Europe, Prague was a very inexpensive city. I think that I really like the "chill" and "eccentric" vibes of Eastern Europe. Prague has been open to tourism for only twenty years which has preserved much of its original culture.

I don't know a single word of Czech but quickly discovered that the younger generation of Prague speaks English and the older generations speak Polish. I was shocked that the Polish I know was enough to get me by in Prague! The Slavic languages are all so similar that even those who speak different languages are able to understand each other. I think if I became really fluent in Spanish and Polish and learned Chinese I would be able to talk to almost anyone in the world. This week so far has really showed me how valuable my study of Polish language can become if I continue.

Bratislava is just as cold as was Prague. I have yet to fully explore the city but am enjoying a chance to check in with friends and warm up for a bit before I traverse the six inches of collected snow. Just this year Slovakia adopted the euro which means that shop keepers and bankers are just as uncomfortable with the currency as are tourists. Near every till a sign is posted explaining the exchange rate with the euro and some shops still accept traditional Slovakian currency. For lunch I had an interesting sandwich of grilled onions and cabbage on bread. I tried to ask for tomatoes but apparently the Polish word for tomato "pomidory" does not translate into the tongue of Slovakia. I do need to learn how to say tomato; I have eaten three tomatoes everyday since September and don't feel quite as right without such a tomato-rich diet.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Italy, Greece, and Saying Goodbye

“Closing time. Time for you to go out to the places you will be from. Closing time.
This room won't be open till your brothers or your sisters come. So gather up your jackets, move it to the exits. I hope you have found a friend. Closing time. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end” –Closing Time, Semisonic

Since my last post I have ventured east to explore Italy and Greece. Both countries were magical. I went to Italy by myself and toured Rome, The Holy See, Florence, and Venice. I studied Latin at Central High School and it was very moving to see the things that I had studied. I began my trip at the Vatican museum. There were many rooms with different collections of religious art that led to the Sistine Chapel. As I walked into the Chapel I was overwhelmed by it’s beauty. Michelangelo’s work is magnificent and the textbooks just can’t seem to capture the feeling of being face to face with historic depictions of Jesus. Embarrassingly, I was so overwhelmed by the Chapel that I collapsed onto the floor and cried a bit. The Chapel guards came over to offer help and I had to explain that I was just a bit overwhelmed. I wouldn’t call myself emotional, but there was something about standing in the midst of Roman ruins that made me seem like a babbling idiot. “I am in Rome!” I thought to myself, but more importantly, this was an adventure that I created and paid for by myself. My traveling has made me more independent and accountable.

I met some interesting people in Italy and even ran into Ivan, a bloke on my swim team. Florence was equally impressive. The David is so much bigger than I imagined and has a towering presence within The Academy. I wasn’t as impressed with Venice, it seemed to be a bit of a tourist trap that hides the fact that there is nothing to do under an illusion of being “romantic.” I discovered that I love gelato and had gelato 12 times over the course of the weekend.

I spent the past weekend in Greece. Carlie, my Canadian friend whom I met on an airport shuttle, met me in Preston and we joined Sabrina (Kentucky) and her three friends from Connecticut to fly to Athens. The ruins of Athens were impressive. From the Acropolis we could see the whole of the city. In the evening of our second night we hiked up a mountain to watch the sun set over Athens. The sunsets of Europe are remarkable. It was a cloudy day but I was still amazed by the gradient of the light and the colours. One day we went to the city of Delphi to explore ancient ruins and to see the mythical center of the Universe. On the way back from the trip we stopped at a quaint Greek village. I think I ate my weight in feta cheese over the course of the weekend.

In England and in Western Europe people are very quick to recognize my American accent but I discovered that the Greeks could not differentiate my accent from a British accent. I literally said “We’re from England, where are y’all from” and people were convinced! I’ve recently dyed my hair blonde and apparently the change led many people to believe that I am Dutch. I tend to see Europe as such a small continent; a journey to Germany or France can happen over the course of a weekend. I wasn’t expecting that my flight to Athens would take five hours. There are so many differences between Eastern and Western Europe. It is strange to think that Europe is about the size of the United States.

I’ve been really busy lately getting things done and preparing to leave England. I have finals, papers due, packing to organize, goodbyes to say, trips, an epic winter journey that commences on Wednesday, and final details to organize before I move to Ghana. This semester has gone by so quickly and I look forward to long plane rides that will allow me to process everything that has happened in the past few months. England feels like home to me. I will never forget all of the experiences that I had here. I’ll never forget my first Full English breakfast, my first night out, the first language barriers I experienced, or my first time in a kayak. This week at kayaking practice I rolled the kayak and was infinitely proud afterward. I’m going to buy a kayak in America and I’m going to paddle as often as is possible, I love being in a kayak. After I rolled that kayak and took my Polish final I realized that I had accomplished all of my goals for the semester.

I could write pages about my favourite memories of England: the Megabus ride home from Scotland, “Monday Tuuuuesday”, Halloween at 53 degrees, the swim team graffiti party during Fresher’s Week, all of Katie and Amy’s quotes that I recorded, meeting Lawrence and Roni camping in Wales, Alex the Rat, learning about gypsy culture, learning the English language, the word “cheeky”……. The list is endless.

When I chose to study abroad I hugely overestimated by ability to say goodbye to the people that I would come to love. I never imagined that such intense friendships could be formed in such a short amount of time. I never imagined that I was capable of embracing so many people knowing that the relationships will be finite. I hate finitude. I wish that life could be described by a graph of a quadratic function, a process that exists for all of eternity. Saying goodbye to my friends in England is so different than saying goodbye to friends in the United States; the final hugs that I share with people who are dear to me are followed with the rain cloud of recognition that I will never see these people again. To borrow from Shakespeare, most of the people I have met in England will become merely players in the stage that is my life- characters who play a dynamic role and then exit the stage never to be seen again. I wish I had more time. I wish that goodbyes didn’t have to be forever.

How does one say goodbye forever? I haven’t found a way to express my gratitude in words. It all just seems like verbiage: “have a wonderful life, make good choices, smile love laugh and learn everyday….” It’s not enough. I’m searching for a human expression that encapsulates all of my emotions in a way that can be understood by another. I know that as I set foot in Ghana the memories will fade and England will be merely a distant memory- that is the most tragic part. I wish I could live in this moment forever and experience the past few months like a C.D. on repeat.

I have become a different person since I have been in England. For the first time in my life I feel completely free. I am happy. I believe England to be a land where dreams come true and spirits run free. Being abroad is the best therapy. I want to preserve the sense of self that I have found situated on this island in the Atlantic Ocean forever. Embarking on a month-long journey of a lifetime through the Middle East and Eastern Europe feels like a tragedy. Moving to Ghana, an adventure for which I was once very excited, feels like cold hands prying me from a place that I love.

Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. Somehow I managed to get the best piece of chocolate I can imagine this time. I’ll cry myself to sleep and be an emotional wreck for a few weeks and then I will reach my hand back into that box of chocolates and take another piece. It will be good.