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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Mind the Gap & God Save the Queen

I’m just going to throw this out there: I loved London. Loved it. I could have spent weeks there, and of all the cities we’ve been to it’s one I could see myself living in somewhere in the future. It took a few days and a few double takes to remember that I could actually read the signs in England without playing some odd game of charades. The common language helped us feel more at home, sure, but the city is just really classy and alive. We were schooled in culture for eight nights, unknowingly enrolling ourselves in a crash course in the arts. Let me break it down for you:

The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe Theater: seeing a Shakespeare show at The Globe is something that everyone should do at some point in his or her life. It’s authentic and fun, and slightly scandalous since the British are more comfortable with humor most Americans would deem inappropriate (i.e. a man whipped off his pants onstage and proceeded to finish the scene in a thong and nothing else).

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: I’ve been to plenty of concerts in my day, but this one tops anything my ears have ever heard. I felt like I was listening to a movie soundtrack or something. If the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra could narrate my life I would be the happiest girl on the planet.

Swan Lake: I was inaugurated with my first ballet here in London and I absolutely LOVED it! I was nervous that it would be boring (remember the four hour opera in Paris? That’s what I was afraid of), but it was amazing! The sheer number of swans, with their perfectly coordinated jumps and graceful choreography, were mesmerizing.

The Lion King: Elizabeth and I saw this show together and let me tell you, it delivered. I’d seen it before and I’d see it again in a heartbeat. We were five rows from the front in the center section next to the aisle, so we were in on all of the action when the cast came down the aisle in their crazy-amazing costumes. It took me back to Africa for a few hours, and if you know me, you know how much I love that continent. The whole London play experience is one of my favorites: heading over to Leicester Square to search for discounted tickets, going out to dinner, taking the tube and navigating to one of the many theaters huddled under umbrellas, I felt cool and cultured going out more than half of our nights in the city. I went through the same process again with two other friends to enjoy my fifth and final performance of the week: the Phantom of the Opera.

Two midterms and five museums rounded out our visit, along with a trip to Cambridge and constant use of the tube to explore the city. London taught me to love tea and hot soup. I learned proper umbrella etiquette and caught myself reverting to a slight British accent every once in a while. We ate fish and chips throughout the week and thanks to the ‘look right’ and ‘look left’ signs spray painted into the sidewalk, no one got run over by a double decker bus. More London greatness for your enjoyment:

The Bed and Breakfast we stayed at was on Gower Street, just two streets over from the University of London. We’d walk to campus to have class every morning, blending in with other students speaking English and carrying backpacks. School felt more normal doing it with the masses. Good thing, too, since we had to buckle down and study for two big midterms. Oh, the joys of balancing travel and school.

27 = the number of museums we’ve visited so far. (Yes, twenty seven museums, I know, it’s crazy). I still love them, though, and we’ve been lucky enough to see lots of really well put together museums. The cool thing about museums is that the stuff we talked about in elementary school or studied in high school textbooks, we get to see it with our own two eyes. The Magna Carta, the Rosetta Stone, mummies from ancient Egypt, Grecian vases from 600 BC, it’s all here, about 3 inches from my face behind a pane of glass.

Tate Modern: I got a taste of modern art this week, and I tried to get as much out of the experience as possible. What I realized, walking through room after room of sculptures and odd installations is that these pieces mean so much to the artists. They put their heart and soul into these works. I needed to consciously verbalize that fact before I could move forward and appreciate them, even my very limited level of appreciation. Where we non-artsy folks see scribbles, they see art. They transform, bringing redemption to old junk and blank canvases. It’s true that yes, I could paint a few dots and call it modern art, but I didn’t, and they did. There’s more to modern art than meets the eye, themes and symbols and emotions that far exceed the obvious medium being used. And once you get over the fact that you’re looking at a few splotches of color or a chair or whatever it is, once you get past that and really look, you breathe life into the art. You allow it to be what it needs to be for you. I’m really stretching myself with this whole art thing, trying to be vulnerable and appreciate the art that I get to see on this trip.

Cambridge: We enjoyed a crisp, sunny Saturday in Cambridge, wandering the art fair and farmers market and coffee shops filled with students. We got to tour all of the different colleges and hear little boys in white and red robes in King's College Choir perform, their perfect voices filling the chapel with sweet falsetto melodies. I love that Cambridge is a college town, and I would definitely go back there again. (Grad school abroad, anyone?) Also, did you know that if you go to Cambridge you can get your bachelor’s degree upgraded to a master’s degree after two years by writing the college a nice 50 pound check? Yup. No extra school required. Crazy, I know.

The perfect afternoon in London combined shopping and exploring. One afternoon we wandered Notting Hill and Portobello Road, stopping in vintage stores and Cath Kitson and Hummingbird Cupcakes. We bartered for sweaters at the largest antique market in the city and convinced each other that yes, that was a great purchase, even though you don’t have any more room in your suitcase. London had some amazing shopping, and at least 25 of our 40 indulged in new clothes at the savior of all stores: Primark. The boys of our group found it first (mad props to them), and we all agreed that we’d shop exclusively at Primark if it came to the States. Seriously, this store was amazing…and relatively cheap…and so cute. Just another reason leaving London was bittersweet.

High Tea: A trip to London wouldn’t be complete without high tea. We indulged ourselves at Fortnum and Mason (they supply the Queen with all of her tea), and enjoyed a classy afternoon in the tearoom. Did you know that milk and sugar make tea taste so much better? I didn’t know it was okay to supplement tea like that, but now I know better and am slowly but surely learning to love this hot beverage. Our long afternoon at Fortnum and Mason was perfect, a chance to drink tea and eat cakes and take a breath, debriefing about what we’d been learning about ourselves and the world. I love the women on this trip, and I love how we can be vulnerable and real with each other. 

My time here has been precise and piercing, exactly what I didn’t know I needed it to be. That always seems to be the case, in my life at least, that the best things in life are unexpected. So here we are, on this journey, one brave step at a time. Cheers to the miles it took to get here, and the many miles still to come.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Belgium and the Netherlands

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” –Cesare Pavese

I was born to travel.

I knew that before coming on this trip, but fifty-seven days on the road have solidified that fact. I thrive on a trip like this, constantly moving and seeing new spaces and experiencing new cultures. I understand that people get tired of living out of a suitcase and using hand motions when words don’t translate, but I love it, I love it even more than I thought I would. I step outside our hotels for early morning travel days with a smile on my face, glad to venture onto the bus and end the day in a new place. It never gets old. My inquisitive mind has a bad case of wanderlust, and right now Europe Semester is the perfect cure.

What’s interesting, though, is that I love a good routine just as much as I love to travel. My personality is an odd combination of yins and yangs. I was worried that Europe Semester would be hard because we’re always moving, always going, and always doing something different, but it’s not. My definition of routine has morphed into this variable change I’ve become accustomed to. Some days we spend the bulk of our time in class, or in museums, or on excursions. Some days are entirely free for us to spend as we please. You never know what’s around the river bend. It’s good, this unfamiliar way of life. It keeps us engaged and on our toes.

As I type, I’m in Rome, Italy. We’ve been here for six nights, and soon we’ll move onto Florence, where we’ll live for the next three weeks. It’s the longest stop on our semester itinerary, and I’m excited to plant roots, learn a bit more Italian, and really get to know a city. It’s been a few countries since I’ve blogged, so let me take you back a while…back to the land of brick houses and chocolate and cobblestone streets: Brugge, Belgium.

Just about every other store in Brugge was a chocolate shop and let me tell you, the Belgians know how to do chocolate. It’s a good thing we only stayed in Brugge three nights, or else we all would have been in trouble with the amount of chocolate and waffles we were consuming. And if it’s not a chocolate shop your walking by, it’s a lace store, or a waffle stand. Complete the picture with narrow cobblestone streets and brick houses squeezed close together and that’s Brugge. The city is cute and simple and touristy, so our quick stay there was perfect. The best way to see Brugge is on two wheels, so a few of us rented bikes for a leisurely ride one afternoon. After successfully navigating narrow streets and heavy traffic, we rode around the canals and out into the countryside, passing cow pastures and quaint neighborhoods and signs we couldn’t read.

In the blink of an eye our time in Brugge was up and it was off to Haarlem, the Netherlands. Oh Haarlem, cute, little Haarlem. Just thinking back to the tiny Dutch town makes me smile. It’s just a quick train ride away from Amsterdam and it was the perfect location for our stay. We could go into the city when we pleased or stay around Haarlem and enjoy it’s quite atmosphere and picturesque Dutch streets. A few of us ventured a bus ride away out to the North Sea one Sunday morning for a few hours of fun. It was cold and windy, but we ran into the sea like she was a long lost friend, prancing through the waves and rolling up our pants so they didn’t get too wet. We took panoramic pictures and watched locals surf in the churning, jagged waves. It was a perfect morning, the perfect escape from the stress of midterms and crunch of class work we were all feeling.

Holland is the land of bikes and French fries and sing-songy words, with windmills and brick houses defining the landscape. The language is light and pretty, with a nice beat to it that makes even the grumpiest man sound like he’s in a good mood. But their pronunciation is killer. You try to pronounce ingewikkelder or voorbeelden or moeilijk. Yeah, it’s crazy. My simplified guide to creating your own Dutch word (which I often did): add a double vowel and a J and call it Dutch. The J’s are normally silent, and as long as you sing the words with a smile on your face you should be just fine.

We actually didn’t spend much time in Amsterdam, but the time we did spent there was great. I’ve been to Amsterdam twice before, including just a few months ago with my parents, so it was really nice, and almost comforting, to be back in a city that I was already familiar with. We walked along canals lined with orange and red trees just starting to change colors for fall, and we got good use out of our umbrellas because it rained most of our visit. We looked in tiny shops overflowing with delftwares before visiting the Anne Frank House and enjoyed perfect dinner and dessert crepes at The Pancake House.

The Dutch definitely get an A in my book. They know how to make great French fries and stroopwafels and windmill cookies that taste like fall and winter married in sugar. The people were great, and despite a few close calls with the thousands of bikes in Amsterdam, no one got hit. Bikers in that city mean business, they have the right of way and they don’t mess around. It’s funny that Amsterdam is not my favorite city in the world, but it’s the one in Europe that I’ve been to the most. Adding Haarlem and the North Sea to a few of the other Dutch cities I’ve visited, and I can confidently say that I like the Dutch. How can you not like a people who eat toast with chocolate sprinkles on it for breakfast? Precisely.

Here’s to life on the road. To feeling alive and knowing that where you are right now is exactly where you’re supposed to be. The trip is more than half way over, and I’m savoring everyday that I get to spend in these places, with these people, learning and growing and getting lost in Europe. Stay tuned for a catch-up post on my crazy, wonderful week in London, and my time now in Roma. Ciao!