Favorite Memories – Edinburgh

I thought I’d do a series of short posts outlining some of the best and most funny memories I had in some of the places I got to explore while abroad. Of course I had to start with my home base, Edinburgh.

 

  • Misadventures and midnight scares in Old Town, Edinburgh

 

On one of the final nights before my departure from Scotland back to America, my friend Katherine and I went on a walk at night. It was a weeknight, around midnight. We walked by some of our favorite places in the old part of the city together, the chilly wind whipping the backs of our necks. We came upon Edinburgh Castle, and snaked around the corner of a street called The Mound, which curves beside and away from the famed castle. We paused on the shadowy street. We had heard a sudden, loud rustling just beside us in a particularly dark corner. Ironically, I had been joking with Katherine only moments before about the ghost of Mary Queen of Scots rising from the dead to murder us right there on the damp alleyway bricks. The rustling became shrill, like a scream from beyond the grave. I took off running down The Mound, laughing and screaming at the same time. Katherine tried to leave me in the dust, reminding me of this phrase: I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you!

We made it down to the better-lit city street without any encounters with a long-since-dead Scottish Queen. Katherine and I laughed and laughed as we caught our breath and continued our walk through our beloved adoptive city. We passed by Greyfriars Kirkyard linking arms. I jokingly leaned towards the (surprisingly) open gate, intending to walk through the graveyard famed for its hauntings of curious and foolish mortals. Walking through a graveyard or the Meadows at night was one of the few pointed and precise pieces of advice Edinburgh students gave me when I first arrived in Scotland. Katherine laughed and steered us away from the black mouth of the graveyard, heading towards the bright lights of Edinburgh campus.

 

  • A Dance With A Kilt

 

You know those nights or events where you hit the softness of your pillow and you are so happy you went along or bothered to show up at all? This night was one of those. I think this specific feeling come with basking in your youthfulness. Maybe you had a good conversation, or met someone you were really glad you made a connection with. Maybe you just walked away feeling charged up, ready to take on the world the next morning, when the sun came up. That feeling, in particular, is rare for me, being a nearly diagnosed introvert.

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I was invited by Katherine, one chilly night in early March, to a Ceilidh (pronounced “Kay-Lee”) which in Scottish Gallic means “a gathering,” which came, with time, to mean a gathering of dancers. Traditional folk music was also added to the mixture, to form what is known today as a Ceilidh. Along with pub quizzes, this was an event people had told me to attend and participate in while I was studying in Scotland, not only for its cultural value, but also its fun value. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was excited to go and experience.

For each dance, the band (who were all Edinburgh students, one of which I had met before that night) would explain the steps of the dance, giving us a general outline and having the group practice once or twice before doing it for real. I had grown up in private school, where we’d have an annual swing dance, so I felt pretty comfortable with the style of dancing I was about to learn. However, I hadn’t danced since New Years Eve, and I had forgotten how much I loved it.

I think I had made a mistake in wearing jeans. I rolled them up halfway through the night, and was thankful I had worn a sports bra under my shirt. I noticed four tall, beautiful men walk into the small room we were having our dance in on campus. They caught my attention because they were decked out like proper Scottish lads. Their kilts were bright and crisp, like they had been professionally pressed the day before. They wore stockings, button-downs and those fancy leather pouches with fur linings around their waists. You really have to see a man in a kilt to understand the gob-smacked wonder I felt when I saw men no older than I was in these intriguing, funny articles of clothing.

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For the final dance to close out the night, one of the four men, the one with the red kilt and strawberry blonde locks, made a funny face at me, pulled me to him, and we commenced a fast-paced waltz. The music filled the hot air in the small room and he spun me this way and that, gripping my back and hand tightly. This dance, and that night, by far, made this whole study abroad experience for me. Knowing that I can say I danced at a Ceilidh in Scotland, and with a Scotsman, make those the best bragging rights I currently possess.

Morgan snapped this photo of me while in mid swing!
Morgan snapped this photo of me while in mid swing!

Morgan (another friend that joined us at the dance) discussed Ceilidh-ing later, as we walked back to our flats in the dark. She brought up a really good point about the fact that these men were really talented at Ceilidh dancing: “They grew up learning the classic dances,” Morgan told me as we skipped happily down Chambers Street, towards Southbridge. “In school, all the kids have to learn the dances starting in the first grade, that is why those guys especially are so good and comfortable with them.”

This realization brought me back to the awkwardness of having to learn to square dance at Rivendell, my private school. I thought the awkwardness and tension when dancing in America was due to the lack or practice and exposure to dance at a young age, unlike the way in which they do things in Scotland.

Morgan and I parted ways and I walked down the rest of the street alone, a spring in the center of both heels. I passed under the pale street lamps, their light beating down on my sticky skin and tattered shoes.

Post-Experience Reflection – The Dreaded Conversation

I had two full days left in Scotland after I dropped Carrie off on that dark, early morning. I spent a good bit of it with my friend Katherine, who would be in Edinburgh for a few days after my date of departure. Katherine was a great friend to have in the city because she knew it like the back of her hand. She had invested a lot more time in getting to know every corner and cranny of Edinburgh than I had, so she directed our walks with the ease of a local, and we talked about everything all day long, walking through every inch of the space.

 

We got dinner together and spent the evenings at the park in the Meadows, where I had taken Carrie. I noticed when we went to certain parts of the city, the memories Carrie and I had made were attached to the places. Memories of Cat, Hannah, Morgan and I were also there. Each place or point of interest was tagged with a feeling, and usually a person. That is when I knew this city had become mine, and that I’d always know my way around, and remember it forever. If I am ever to return to Edinburgh, I will walk the streets with confidence, like a woman who has lived in this city.

 

The flight from Edinburgh to London (Heathrow) was very early in the morning. That was one part of my travel home that was pretty depressing for me: I was not able to say goodbye to my city during the day. However, the sun had been on its way up because of the northerness of Scotland. Despite the early start, I watched the sun show its head as I waited in the tiny Edinburgh airport, knowing I’d not return, possibly for many years.

 

It was a quick flight to London. I noticed a lot of young, professionally dressed people sitting around me in the flight. I wondered what it would be like to have to take an airplane commute to a conference, meeting or to work every day. That makes my two minute commute to work at home seem like an absolute blessing now that I think about it.

 

Heathrow was not all that confusing for me. I had to take a train or two to get to my terminal, but I had some time to spare before boarding my second flight. I sat in front of the countless huge screens with all the listed cities planes were taking other people to. Watching flights depart made me really sad; I can’t help but feel like I am completely insignificant when so many people are circulating around me, going away to so many beautiful, astounding places in the world. I had my carry on propped in between my knees, and I nodded off a few times while I waited for my terminal number to pan across the screen. My brain hurt and my heart was violently on the move behind my ribcage.

 

The flight home was effortless. I got a window seat, and I sat beside a really sweet African American woman who told me, “Honey, if there is anything you need, you let me know!” I finally watched the newest Star Wars film, and my mom had recommended Brooklyn, which I fell in love with. I drank a lot of tea and felt like it would make me feel better if I drank the red wine they offered me with my lunch. It came in a little bottle, along with the freeze-dried and densely packaged food. I wanted to feel full, so I ate it all without thinking too much about it.

 

The pilot told us we were passing over New York, and I looked down on the land that I had resided on all my life, up until about five months ago. I strangely felt detached, like I didn’t belong there. But where did I belong? I came to the conclusion after a lot of thought and writing about it, that maybe it was okay that I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. I had left pieces, big and small, of my heart everywhere. In every country, or with every person I had grown to love while on walkabout. Maybe it is okay to want to exist without being tied down to a particular nationality, language, or homeland. For now, I don’t want to be just one thing; stereotyped by where I happened to be born or what language I was raised to speak.

 

We touched down in Dulles, and I got through security without any issue. The man at the desk who checked my passport asked me how my time away was. I didn’t know it then, but this was the first of many times in the coming weeks, months, and perhaps years that people throughout my life would ask me this. The difficult part about this question is this: How do you begin to describe and tell someone about this awesome experience, in two or three sentences? Describe the last few months in two or three minutes, without sounding like a run-of-the-mill, self-absorbed study-abroad student. You don’t want to dominate the conversation, but people also don’t seem to care or pay attention past a certain point in the narrative. I cannot successfully sum up five months in three minutes, much less if I want to fully describe the golden-tipped spires of Praha, the beauty of the view of Bilbao from a mountaintop, or the staggering tortoise of the Grecian oceans.

 

I found my red and black checked bag without too much difficulty, pulling it from the moving belt without knocking anyone else’s over. My last moments alone were experienced with the utmost clarity: I walked heavily down the gray hallway, feeling the weight of the time away from home crashing in on my lungs, my eyes dropping from being up all night. I knew those were the last moments of my time being abroad, these were the final seconds before I wouldn’t be on walkabout any longer – and then I saw a yellow sign with my name on it, and there my mom and dad were, waiting in the line with other strangers, waiting for me to come through the doorway.

 

Post Script:

 

The last month being home has been almost literally a whirlwind. Carrie and I jumped right back into our serving jobs at the local café down the street from our house. I have seen and revisited the friends and friendships I had to sort of put on hold while I was away. I started driving again, on the “right” side of the road, and a new but also familiar schedule and routine has made itself present in my life. That is honestly the hardest part, though. I think Paulo Coelho said it well (and better than I could, at present):

 

“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine; it is lethal.

 

Of course I like predictability and stability as much as any other human. And I think it is definitely healthy to have a daily or weekly routine that helps keep the person productive in their work and drive. This is my dilemma: I just came back from this amazing experience that only I can really understand, because I am the one that it happened to. I am forever changed because of what I dared to do. Sure, I can share as much of the details as I can, and maybe that is enough for some. But I find myself resisting going back to the old routine, the old way that I used to get things done, because I have experienced more, and have been changed to a great extent. I am not the same person I was before, even if I appear to be. That is what confuses people, too, when I describe myself as a changed person. I don’t look much different to them – I may be paler from the lack of vitamin D in Scotland, I may wear the same clothes and speak the same language and work the same job. It is inside that is changed, and that is not so easily “seen” or explained.

 

Carrie has been my rock. She and I have been processing a lot of the post-experience experience together. So many details, moments and memories come back to both of us at random times, many of which I haven’t put down in this blog. Carrie and I can ease right into talking about travel seamlessly, which I love. Though we had vastly different experiences and went to different places in the world, we have an understanding that is rare and genuine. We are both sad and happy to be home, excited about what lies ahead while also constantly reminiscing about what remains in the past. Many walks-and-talks and wine nights on our porch swing have eased some of the heartbreak we have been feeling over being away from our adoptive cities and friends we had to leave behind in Europe.

 

My reflection is this: just like the way in which I possess a deep and passionate faith, I have experienced a small piece of the world, which is inside of me. I appear normal and ordinary on the outside, but I am not what I seem on the inside. Neither is anyone who has traveled, or honestly just experienced life in any simple form. Pain changes people, loss or joy or love changes the way in which people think and licW[ZP Q=tme to everyone, too. You don’t have to travel to be changed, but I will not walk away from this experience and say that I was not changed by it. I was, and it has been so good.

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“Family Dinner,” as I like to call it, is where on Sundays after a long brunch shift, us employees sit down and eat together!
Driving into D.C. with the sisters
Driving into D.C. with the sisters

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Twins Take Edinburgh

I was so excited that Carrie had to opportunity to come to Edinburgh and stay with me in my adoptive city for several days. I still feel guilty that I couldn’t make it down to Siena and see the beautiful place Carrie could call her stomping grounds; however, that simply means that she and I made a vow to return one summer, sometime soon, in order to witness the Palio!

Carrie arrived in Scotland the same day I came back from Sweden. I found her sprawled on my tiny bed, her shoes and coat still on. She woke with a start, and we headed out of my hot little room and into the cold air of the Edinburgh streets. I took her to Nandos, a chain chicken joint a block from my flat. There, we sat for hours telling each other everything we needed catching up on. I told her about the beauty of Sweden, and how sad I was to leave it. I told her about the week in Ireland, and everything in between. She told me about how emotionally difficult it was for her to leave her host family in Italy, and how the official countdown was on for us with regard to returning to America. This conversation would continue for the next several days, each detail and memory coming back to us slowly, as I showed Carrie my Scottish city. We processed our travels together, holding each other accountable for all that we had experienced and the changes, big and small, that were happening inside of us.

 

At the base of Arthur's Seat!
At the base of Arthur’s Seat!

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That next morning, after a night of tossing and turning, I took my sister to Arthur’s Seat for the hike up the extinct volcano. She was curious about the origins of the name, and I told her the folklore, from the dragon to Camelot. We came down from the mountain and had Oink for lunch. As we walked about the city, Carrie kept telling me that everything looked like “fairyland.” I got such a kick of joy out of that. I loved seeing Carrie’s perspective of Edinburgh, through her fresh pair of eyes.

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I took her through Greyfriars Kirkyard, filling her in on the Harry Potter history that sweeps the graves, and the school that lies beyond the metal gate parallel to the graveyard. I showed her the university campus, and we walked through the Meadows. I also took her to Lovecrumbs, the coffee/tea/cake shop I had frequented throughout the semester. I had first heard about it when Darling Magazine did a blog post about Edinburgh as a city. They had written down all the best places to stay, eat, and shop. It is now Carrie’s favorite place in Edinburgh. We drank a lot of Violet pedal tea and ate a lot of rose-frosted coffee cake. It was a divine afternoon.

Photo by Carrie!
Photo by Carrie!

I was really happy that Carrie got to meet my friends while she was visiting. Later that first day, I took her to dinner at the dining hall in the apartment complex called Pollock Halls. Hannah and Cat lived there, and an all-you-can-eat meal for a non-resident is only £6. I had eaten with Cat and Hannah a lot at the dining hall throughout the semester, and I was happy to bring Carrie with me to meet them. The walk from my flat to Pollock is also a beautiful walk – it runs through a residential part of the city that is quiet at dusk, with Holyrood Park and the Crags nearby.

Me, Cat and Hannah
Me, Cat and Hannah

I took Carrie to a pub quiz after dinner. She had been to one when she and Mandy had gone to Oslo together. We got a pint and sat in a dark corner of the pub right down the road from my flat. We failed miserably because we know next to nothing about Marvel comics or movies, which happened to be the theme of the quiz. We had a lot of fun failing it together, anyways.

 

The next morning we hopped on a red Lothian bus that carried us to Portobello beach. We walked beside the beach on the promenade, watching the beach goers. It was chilly, and I was surprised to see young Scottish children running about in their neon swimsuits as if it was perfect beach weather. I had been in conversation a few weeks before with a tour guide that lead tours for international students at the university, and we had been discussing this exact subject. He told me that yes, the water never really warms up, and that no, the Scottish people don’t really care either way. Weeks later, when I was back in the U.S., I was introduced to a few friends of a friend, and one of them told me he went to school at Saint Andrew’s. He said the same thing: students at Saint Andrew’s swim in the ocean despite it being more or less unbearably cold.

Portobello promenade
Portobello promenade

Later that day, after exploring a bookshop or two, I took Carrie to Dean Village, a little ways beyond New Town. We walked across the bridge over the water and admired the beautiful neighborhoods and houses. We got Mexican food in honor of Cinco de Mayo (despite it being the 6th of May!) and finished the chilly night off with some jumbo chocolate chip cookies from Lidl. And the next morning, we rolled out of bed to catch our flight to Crete.

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I returned from Athens a few days before Carrie did because I had two finals to complete. The plan was that Carrie would fly back to Edinburgh for a night and a day before flying to Pisa, where in turn she’d fly back to Washington. I studied hard the night before my exam, and completed it early on that Monday morning. I walked out of the test still feeling stressed, and practically limped back to my flat. Strangely, I wasn’t even happy my test was complete. I still felt jittery, but also so tired that all I wanted to do was lay down. I bought cookies and bread and a Diet Coke and went back to my room, curled on my bed for a little while, realizing that I only had days left in the city and continent I loved, as if this love had occurred slowly, then all at once. It seemed to have dropped out of the sky and knocked me on the head, rendering me unconscious.

 

I stumbled through studying for my last exam. It was for my Bible in Literature class, and I had a hard time caring about the books and themes we had studied throughout the semester. All that seemed to matter was the days and hours remaining before I had to jump back on a plane and go back to this foreign, undefined place I used to think about so longingly – this place that I could hardly remember, but I could recall a random street name on command.

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Bakehouse Close ivy wall heart

Carrie came back to Scotland for one full day, and that made me feel better. She got it. The growing cold and sickening feeling was in her too. We walked all over the city, saying goodbye and enjoying each other. We spent a good chunk of the day in Lovecrumbs again, and I took her to Morningside, a wealthy, beautiful neighborhood in Edinburgh just beyond the Meadows. I told Carrie about Muriel Spark, a Scottish author we had studied in my Fiction class who had grown up in Morningside in the 1920s.

Carrie loves Lovecrumbs!
Carrie loves Lovecrumbs!
On the way to Morningside!
On the way to Morningside!

My friend Katherine had shown me around the neighborhood a few days before, so I took Carrie to the same places. We went by an old street that was fashioned like a street from the Old Wild West America. We sat in the park for a while, discussing the world and life. After a greasy dinner of fish and chips, we bought a bottle of red wine and sat in the meadows near the playground.

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I vacantly watched a group of five or six young men messing with a big metal tube near where we sat in the grass under a tree. I only slowly began to notice what they were up to. They were all wearing black and red, and they had shoved a bunch of cardboard and an old plastic mattress into this rusted metal tube, and proceeded to light it on fire. The flames consumed the materials, and the youths ran off in a panic as the flames began to eat away at the bushes beside the tube. They reached as far as the dangling branch of the tree overhanging the place of the fire. Carrie and I were on our feet at this point, grabbing our bags and wine and getting out of the way of the flames. This was by far the most bizarre experience I have ever had while living in Edinburgh.

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A fire truck came a few moments later, and we told them what had happened, just in case they had to make a report of some kind. They put the fire out, and Carrie and I decided to play on some of the playground equipment. It was about dusk, and I was growing cold in my thin clothes. We went down slides and rode the carousel, laughing as we rode on the zip line, the melting sun dispersing into the horizon.

 

At 4:15AM, I dropped Carrie off at the Airlink bus station so she could catch her flight to Pisa. The sun was on its way back up into the sky, since Scotland is so far up north, sunrise was set to begin at about 4:45 in the morning. I walked home in the darkness, avoiding the homeless people who were standing idly about on the street corners, yelling and spitting at the wind and each other. For some reason, something that gave me both despair and hope in that moment of lonely was this: Nothing here, or anywhere, will survive. Rest on that, think about it, because that it what keeps me fighting for people, and for connection. Faith is what will last.

“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.” –Beryl Markham

How could I forget Spinolonga?

In my previous post, I altogether forgot to write about one of the most interesting experiences I had while in Crete; so this post will focus on a little piece of rock that mom, Carrie and I visited, right off the coast of Plaka. That little rock is called Spinolonga. Here is the name of the island in Greek: Σπιναλόγκα.

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“Spinalonga. She played with the word, rolling it around her tongue like an olive stone. The island lay directly ahead and as the boat approached the great Venetian fortification which fronted the sea […]. This, she speculated, might be a place where history was still warm, not stone cold, where the inhabitants were really not mythical”~Victoria Hislop

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We explored an island, situated in Crete, that still has structures and formations of what once was a leper colony. Salt had been harvested on the island, but what it is most famous for is the leper colony that had resided on it until the 1950s. I felt familiar with the condition of leprosy from three sources: the Bible, the 1973 movie Papillon, and the 1959 film Ben-Hur. Many know the story of Jesus healing people with leprosy, and if one has seen either of the films, leprosy makes a memorable appearance in both stories. Carrie and I discussed how the colony had been living on the island not that long ago; my mother told us she knew for sure that there was no chance we could catch leprosy if we explored the island. When we looked out at the island from our hotel, we could feel the isolation the island created for its inhabitants, despite being less than a mile from the mainland. And once we were standing on it, we felt a sense of detachment from the rest of Crete.

Spinolonga church ruin
Spinolonga church ruin

Plaka had boats that would take groups of people out every hour or so. It was on this day that I burned my skin particularly badly. I think it was a mix of no sunscreen and exposure to the sun coming off of the clear, deep blue water.

Village ruins
Village ruins

Like the Acropolis, because of my student card, I was able to enter the island for free, which I was ecstatic about. It is a historical site, and any student in Europe, with a proper card, is able to enter with no charge.

A very large cactus intruding on my personal space
A very large cactus intruding on my personal space

It was a hot day, and our shadows cast themselves in front of us on the dusty footpaths that snaked around the stones and various spots where the buildings used to be. On the further side of the island, there were a lot of well-preserved ruins from the leper colony. There were houses and community buildings; the part that most fascinated me was the game boards that the lepers had carved out of stone. Those indicated to me the humanity of these people, despite them being severely sick. Even the lepers, despite being quarantined on a giant rock in the middle of the sea, got bored and needed some entertainment to pass the time.

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It was hot, and the scorched land was dusty and cactus-infested. I sweat through my cheap cotton dress and my skin turned pink, slowly. I imagined myself stranded on this rock, looking at the picturesque scenery all around me, still feeling alone and unwanted. If I had been a leper on this island, I would look on this bright side: I had the best view on the entire earth.

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Greece: A dream come true

When I began to look ahead at study abroad, back in the short days of November and December, there was one place I could name specifically that I had a seething desire to explore and experience. That was Greece.

I believe I mentioned before that Carrie and I had been to Rome when we were thirteen, and I had stayed there for two nights during spring break this past semester. So I had seen what remains of the Roman civilization, two times over. But never had I laid eyes on what the ancient Greeks had left behind. In my education, especially in my years at private school, the focus with regard to antiquity was always on ancient Rome. I feel more familiar with the Roman side of history rather than the Greek, so it is safe to say that I was excited to get on the plane bound for our first destination: Crete.

Carrie, Mom and I decided on this island because it was the easiest for Carrie and I to reach. Carrie had finished her program in Siena and had come up to see me in Edinburgh for a few days before we embarked on this last adventure. She had actually come the same day I returned from Sweden. I’ll write about our time together in my adoptive city in another post.

Anyways, easyJet had a direct flight from Edinburgh to Heraklion, Crete. I had spent a good hour on the phone with mom weeks earlier trying to figure out which island would be the best to go to, which was easiest and cheapest to get to, and so on. We decided on Crete for a few days, and then onward to Athens. I had to go back a few days earlier than everyone else because I unfortunately had two final tests to complete. However, in the short time I had in Greece, I felt like I got a good sense of the culture, and learned a bit more about myself in the process.

We arrived in Crete after dark, and found our mother without too much difficulty in the tiny Cretan airport. Mom had planned to rent a car, and we sped down the dark motorways, passing canyons and dips in the land that had thousands of yellow and pale blue lights nestled inside of them. The land was so black; it scared me because I felt like I was completely alone on a desolate, rocky island that was unfamiliar to me. We were heading for Plaka (Πλακα), a tiny fishing town northeast of Heraklion, about an hour or two of driving. On the way, Mom told Carrie and I a story about a Greek man she cared for in the 90s and how he told them once, “Pretty girls like you should be married! Get married, and I dance at your wedding!” I thought that was very Greek.

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Our first hours were spent in a taverna in the big town of Elounda, which comes right before Plaka. I had been told that taverna culture was a big thing in Greek culture, and that we wouldn’t regret it if we spent a dinner or two in a good Greek taverna. We ordered fish and Greek salad, as well as a wine that was made in Crete.

I watched our waiter remove the bones from the sea bass mom and Carrie had ordered. He flipped the insides out, looking for the white spindles that made up the tiny fish spine. Then he took off the outer layer of the skin to take out the little individual bones. I think it was an art form I could never duplicate. I was impressed by this intricate skill, which I think wouldn’t be as appreciated in America as it is in Greece (or Europe, for that matter).

Mom was really tired, so we hit the sack early that first night. When morning came, Carrie and I were eager to see the land that the darkness had hidden the night before, as well as the little town down below our hotel. We walked down together, taking in the sun and cobalt water that encircled us. Plaka could be my second or third home. It has one supermarket, a few little shops and restaurants, and a big coffee shop. On my last night in Crete, mom Carrie and I wandered into one of the nicer shops, just casually to look around. The owner came in and when she opened her mouth I realized she was Scottish. I asked her where she was from. “Dundee!” She said proudly. She was pleasantly surprised I had been studying in Edinburgh, and told me it was a lovely city.

“Why did you move here? Married a guy?” My mom asked.

“No,” she said. “I got bloody fed up with the U.K.”

Strangely, I think I have heard this before, from other people I have come across this semester. I guess I didn’t notice it too much until this moment, when I heard it for the third or fourth time. And in a way, I can see why people would tire of the U.K. While I have adored my time here, and would love to come back and visit some day, I wouldn’t say this is the best place in the entire world for me to live for the rest of my life. Often times students who study abroad feel pressure to say that the place they invested so much time into is the perfect place for them to settle down in when their studies end. I’m not one of those students, though. I’m okay with saying that I loved my time here, but I’m not convinced by the end of it that Scotland, or specifically Edinburgh, is the perfect place for me to settle down. I don’t think I have seen enough of the world yet to make that kind of judgment. I can say with clarity, too, that I’m not sure what I want out of life just yet either. So how could I choose one place to reside right this second?

After Carrie and I checked out Plaka, we piled into our rental car and headed inland in search of a little town called Kritsa. We listened to the Greek radio as we spilled onto the sunlit roads. The landscape reminded me of the Middle East; the olive trees danced in the sunshine and threw their veils of black shadows onto the dusty, dry dirt.

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My mom, being the researcher type of traveler that she is had wanted to go to Kritsa in order to see a church she had read up about. It is a Byzantine church, dating to the 14th and 15th century, famed for its frescos. We had some trouble figuring out where the church was, so we decided to have lunch in the town before continuing our search. We ate at a beautiful little place on a hill; the town was deserted of all tourists, and it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. The place felt authentic in the fact that the Greeks that were sunbathing on the porches of their shops or serving us food were going about their daily lives as if we were not watching them. I love when this happens while traveling; in this case, Mom, Carrie and I had to venture out to a remote town on a remote island in order to achieve this feeling.

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When wandering the streets after lunch, I came across a statue of a young, beautiful girl. I examined her for a while, not knowing her significance to Kritsa at all. There was a look on her face, though, or maybe it was the furrow of her youthful brow that made me remember to look her up later. Turns out, this girl was a local heroine in the 19th century. Here is her story:

At 17, Rodanthe (the girl the statue depicts) drew the eye of the local Aga (general) in Kritsa, one day while she was singing while working at her loom. Infatuated, the Aga kidnapped her in the night and killed her mother in the process, vowing to marry the young girl. She was taken to his house, and just before they were to consecrate their marriage, Rodanthe tricked the Aga and stabbed him to death. She took his clothes, cut off her hair, and pulled a Mulan when she joined the Cretan rebels, pretending to be a man.

She fought in a two-day battle on the outskirts of Kritsa, defending the town from the large Turkish army. When she was wounded, she met her father again when they both were taken care of by the same doctor. They both suffered great injuries from the battle. Rodanthe managed to say goodbye to her father, and told him she had remained pure from the Aga who had killed her mother and attempted to marry her. They both died of their wounds and were honored by the people of Kritsa for their spirit and bravery.

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When we descended from Kritsa, we stopped in Elounda for dinner, sitting outside in the hot, windy night. A man named Rika was our waiter. We talked to him for some time, and he had us take two liquor shots with him as a sign of hospitality. He said the clear liquid was homemade. I joked with mom that it was like moonshine, made in his bathtub. I can’t do liquor like I can do beer or wine, so I can’t say the stuff went down easy. It was still a memorable experience to say the least.

The next morning we went to Voulisma beach. This was my favorite day in Crete. The beach was stunningly gorgeous, and it was nice to relax on the sand for the first time in several months. Carrie and I walked up to the taverna above the cliffs and ordered a few of the local Greek beers in shiny green bottles. We carried them back down and lay out by the water, feeling awake, and excited. I joked that I was defrosting as I lay under the sun, melting away the Scotland that had manifested itself in me for so many months.

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The water was no colder that what we were used to – chilly New Jersey temperature. For once, I was grateful that we as a family never vacationed to Florida or South Carolina, where the water is more or less always bearable temperature. The Jersey water had prepared us for the chill of the Greek waters. The waves broke over Carrie and I, and we fell into them like the black, smothered rocks below.

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The next morning came, and I headed to Athens alone. My driver was very nice, and we talked the full two hours back to the airport. He showed me photos on his phone of the cave that Zeus was said to be born in. I hadn’t had time to research the role Crete as an island had played in antiquity, and it was actually better that I learned the information from a local of Crete.

I was happy to travel to Athens alone. It was one of the only times I actually went somewhere completely by myself. I had reflected on my time in Europe and realized I hadn’t gone somewhere on my own. So when I got off the tiny plane in Athens, I felt calm but also feathery, despite my pack strapped to my sunburned shoulders. I found the metro without too much difficulty and paid for my train ticket, walking easily down into the subway. I had to ask a coffee shop girl about where the street my hostel was on because I kept going in circles, unsure of the direction I had to be going in. I finally found the place – it looked like an actual hotel, which surprised me quite a bit. I briefly met the two girls I’d be rooming with, then got back out into the city, eager to walk about the Acropolis.

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I more or less heckled with the lady at the ticket office for the Acropolis. She asked me several questions about my student card, and in the end, I got into the sight for free. I walked in with wings on my heels, because who doesn’t love a good student discount? There weren’t too many tourists the day I went up to the Acropolis, and it felt like I had the place to myself. I was silent, and roamed. A light wind blew over the hillside, and for that moment, I was at peace. I took a lot of photos, but stopped to stare for a while at the structures that had outlasted time, war, death, and erosion. I began to recognize little pieces of the Acropolis that I had learned about in school. I felt the same pride and amazement at seeing them with my own eyes that I had felt when in and around the Roman forum. It really is not real for me until I finally stood there, on that little mountain, overlooking the city, standing beside Athena’s temple, the white dust from the thousand-year old rocks getting in my hair, on my eyelashes, and in the crevasses of my ears and eyes. The wind carried it all the way through the air, floating above the little white houses that buried the green ground underneath.

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I was coming down from the Acropolis when I encountered a turtle. He was the cutest thing I had seen in a while. Nobody was around, so I crouched down and took a photo or two. He was just casually eating the leaves off a few low-growing weeds, but when my shutter snapped, he turned and looked at me, then began to sulk away. A French couple saw me crouching and came to see what I was staring at. They laughed and came alongside me to look at the little creature. I hadn’t counted on meeting a turtle on the Acropolis, but it was the cherry on top of a good experience.

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I bought a cheap gyro off the street market on the way back to my hostel, which was so delicious, I considered buying a second or third. Later, I talked to the two girls I shared a room with for two hours in the hostel bar on the ground floor. We ordered Greek Athos beer and talked travel, currency exchange, and the differences between Europe, America, and Guatemala, where they hailed from. It was nice to share experiences, and to not feel so alone. I knew that I’d miss these types of exchanges once I left Europe. Hostel culture is something so rare and pure, and it simply is not present in America like it is in Europe. Though talking with strangers wears me down after a while (a classic trademark of an introvert) I walked away feeling better (although, I was still pretty tuckered out by the long day of walking). The beer also went to my head and made me yawn, and my contact lenses were slowly drying up.

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In the morning, after a shockingly high quality free breakfast in the hostel’s kitchen downstairs, Sylvia and Lucy presented me with worry dolls and a friendship bracelet that had been woven in Guatemala. They came in a little painted box with a piece of paper explaining the legend of the tiny string dolls. Every night, a child told each of the dolls a worry of theirs, and stuck them under their pillow. And in the morning, those worries were taken away by the dolls in the night. It was the sweetest thing I had been given in a long time. I thanked them, and told them they were welcome to stay at my house anytime they wanted to come to Washington.

An old classmate told me about a place in downtown Athens called The Sandal Poet. You tell them your size and what styles you like. They bring them to you and when you find one you like, they measure your foot and cut off the excess leather straps and punch in a few more holes. I watched as a young Greek man hammered tiny nails into my pair. The bang and crunch of his hammer was strangely soothing. I think something that is so charming about Europe in general is this kind of intricate skill. I’m so curious as to how that young man learned to pound nails into sandals. How long did it take him to perfect his craft? Would that kind of skill be considered an asset in the United States? It makes me want to move somewhere in Europe where I can learn a small, particular skill like that and thrive on it. I sense (though I have not entered the world of jobs and applications quite yet) that in the US, having multiple skill sets, being considered all-around good at things is what is valuable. That philosophy doesn’t seem to translate in certain parts of Europe; that is at least my observation.

My sandals on the Athenian streets
My sandals on the Athenian streets

 

The metro was efficient. I took it to and from the airport while in Athens. It took a good 45 minutes to get out to the airport (just because it was outside the city) but the trains were clean and fast moving. I saw beggars and street performers both times during me rides. Each time, there was an accordion playing that eerie, breathy music in the moving train. It made me shiver.

I was really grateful to experience Athens completely on my own. I had so much fun choosing where I wanted to go, where to grab a gyro, when to head back to the hostel, whether I wanted to go down one graffitied alleyway or another. Though I didn’t travel too much on my own this semester, I think Athens was a good place to be alone.

There were two major things I ran across in Athens: graffiti and wild cats. Graffiti, I learned later, is not criminalized in Greece (or maybe just Athens specifically) so I tried to look at the alleyways and cut through streets without deeming them sketchy simply because there was neon and black paint up and down the walls. The art seemed prettier to me when compared to the street art in Washington, and perhaps it is because it is decriminalized in Greece that the street art there is less ugly or menacing than in D.C.

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Greece is so worth it. I know I’ll come back some day and visit more of the islands. Athens was a great city to roam alone in, and I am so thankful I reached out and took the opportunity.

I traveled all day that Thursday, on my way back to Scotland to take my classics final. In the plane between London and Edinburgh, I was really starting to feel a crushing sadness. About leaving Europe in 6 days, about the amazing people I got to meet and reconnect with that semester, the fact that my heart had been broken into so many pieces, spread out on the world like shattered sea glass on the pavement, each piece taking up a place, or a person. I didn’t think I could see anything out the window because it was already night when I was finally almost to Edinburgh. But then I looked, and strangely, there was still light in the sky, a ways off by the horizon line. The band glowed yellow and red, and I was deeply comforted by that light. I hadn’t expected it to be there at all, but was so happy when it was that I tried to push aside the feeling of crushing sorrow. I have hope and faith that even though this is ending, it is not the end of those friendships I made, those communities I formed with other people. Faith carried me across the Atlantic to where I resided these last few amazing months, and faith will also carry me back home.

Nothing Sweeter Than Sweden

The first time I met Oskar was November, 2014. Thanksgiving Day night, actually. It was a very cold night, and I was home from school for the holiday. He had come to the U.S. for a few months, all the way from some place called Gothenburg, in Sweden. I met him through some of my friends, and we all spent that night talking and getting acquainted. He told us about his home only a little bit, and I would have never guessed I’d be on the plane to see this foreign land a year and a half later. I had told Oskar I’d be abroad while we were both still in the States, and in what felt like no time at all, I was on my way to spend one of my last weekends abroad in Sweden.

I sort of snuck up on Oskar as I came through the pearly gray airport terminal. I spotted him looking down at his phone, and tiptoed up to him slowly. My first view of Sweden was the gorgeous evergreen trees that guard the highway from the airport on the way toward Gothenburg city. It was drizzling when I arrived, and the scene reminded me of coastal Oregon. The darkness, dampness and weathered rocks nodded to me as we sped by, on our way in search of kebab pizza, a Swedish specialty. It was the best pizza I have had in some time.

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While it was still light out, Oskar gave me a bike that was too big for me and we biked out to the ocean, which surrounds his neighborhood. This was one of my favorite places. Though it was a weekend, there didn’t seem to be anyone around for miles, and the misty, thick air surrounded us as we glided on the rain soaked blacktop. There are extensive bike trails along the water that I really liked to tread on; I honestly liked them more than the bike paths we have back home. They are flat, easy, and have way better views than the underside of an ugly overpass in and around Washington. It was also so quiet – something that I need every now and then when things get too loud. At one moment, we both stood in silence on a rock that overlooked the water that appeared so still it looked like a sheet of glass covering over the rugged earth, cut sharply by the jagged islands and wet, wooden docks that littered the waters.

Oskar invited two of his friends over that first night and we played board games into the early morning. They’d go back and forth between Swedish and English, and Oskar kept apologizing to me for it. I didn’t mind in the least, and I honestly wanted to hear more of the strange, pointy language that sloshed around in their mouths. It was not like I could pick out a word or phrase that sounded familiar, or like I could decipher anything that was going on between these three Swedish men. That didn’t bother me though; Swedish, to me, is too interesting and rare that I would complain about them only speaking English to me.

Oskar’s friend Ben told me his favorite English word that really embodied it’s meaning was none other than the word greed. Throughout our night of board games, dares and cider, he kept yelling “GRREEED!” just to make me laugh. Though I had felt a bit out of my element when I landed in this Scandinavian land, over the next few days, I slowly began to feel more and more at home. And it was little things like that that made the difference for me. I think that uncomfyness comes from being put up in a friends house, and feeling like a nuisance no matter how many times they tell you to make yourself at home. You still always feel obligated to be on your absolute best behavior. As I have said before, travel causes you to be off balance sometimes, and this was one of those times for me.

Dawn came and I woke pretty early, slowly taking in the morning through my window. For breakfast, I ate a very particular Swedish delicacy: Reindeer heart. It was quite an experience, and if an opportunity to eat the heart of a reindeer every comes your way, I’d reach out and take it!

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Oskar, Andreas and I walked through the Slottsskogen, which was a huge park/nature center, right across from the botanical gardens, right outside of Gothenburg city. We saw elk, penguins and, to our humor, doves. Andreas left us to take the tram into the city, and Oskar and I jumped off at the stop not far from Haga, (pronounced HOGA) a beautiful neighborhood/section of the city that I had briefly researched before coming to Sweden. We took a beer at a little shop beside Järntorget, a square that was filled with people. The bar tender was from Greece, and he was delighted to hear that I’d be going there the next week. Oskar and I sat outside in the sun for a while and talked about life, travel, and our mutual friends. I had so many questions about Swedish people, culture, and the city, and throughout that day, I began to see and know the world Oskar resides in.

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We went through Haga first. It was so lovely, with its cute stores and coffee shops on every corner, and the golden sun baking the cobblestones under my feet. They were not black and uneven like the ones in Edinburgh; they were sleek and supportive as my shoes beat and kneaded the ground. We got ice cream cones and walked up the long, harrowing staircase that led to the Skansen Kronan, a watchtower that oversees the city. The view of the city was lovely. There were red roofs everywhere, and the sun blazed in the clearest blue sky I had seen in a while. The cold raspberry ice cream made the experience that much more lovely. Oskar pointed out his church from the hill, and we walked through it briefly when we came down from the tower. We walked beside the canal that threads through the city like an indigo piece of fishing line, passing the Feskekörka (fish market). It was closed, so we went on towards the harbor.

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We walked along Kungsportsavenyen, or what Oskar called “the Avenue,” which is a huge street that is lined with shops and restaurants, beginning down by the harbor and ending further up with a huge fountain (the Götaplatsen) and the figure of Poseidon. I recognized him as the god of the sea right away, which made me happy in a nerdy, academic sort of way. He was magnificent; Oskar told me that after students graduated, they’d jump into the fountain and swim about in the water, and hoped they wouldn’t get caught. To prevent this from happening, the city would drain the water from the fountain just before graduation.

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While we had been walking down this major street, we encountered a large mass of people marching down the street, chanting things I couldn’t understand and carrying banners. One major banner I photographed read “Kommunism.” Oskar had mentioned the traditions of the first of May for Sweden before we had gone into the city, and it was really interesting to see the protesting people up close. More or less, May Day is a day for demonstrations and called the International Worker’s Day in Sweden. Oskar explained the extensive political parties of Sweden, but I will not go into that because I honestly don’t remember even the most basic aspects of Swedish political structure, and I’d rather not get it all wrong.

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It was pretty comical, honestly, comparing Swedish May Day with American May Day. The way I grew up, my mother would (and still does!) make little bouquets of flowers straight out of our garden to deliver to our neighbors. I remember the roses weren’t in bloom until June, so my mother had us take sunflowers and lavender, tied with vibrant bows. When I was very young, I fancied myself a flower fairy, like the ones I read about and believed in, as Carrie and I would skip gleefully from house to house. That was May Day for us in America.

Oskar took me to his favorite coffee shop after, and it was nice to sit for a while. I didn’t notice how much walking we had been doing until I had sat still for a while. I barely felt tired, though. There was so much to see, and I was having a blast with Oskar, a true local Swede, showing me everything. We talked more about life and Gothenburg, catching up on where we were both at.

I met several of Oskar’s friends as we roamed the city. When he took me inside Göteborg Centralstation, the major train station in the city, I met Christine, who was working at the coffee shop inside the station. I’d see her later that night when Oskar and I came back into the city for a few drinks and a walk in the dark city. After, we walked across Götaälvbron, a major bridge that hangs over the harbor with a clear view of the Läppstiftet, or the Lipstick Tower the city is famed for. It was windy and refreshing. I saw the opera house (Göteborgsoperan) from where we stood across the water, and I felt pretty small, seeing another sun soaked, gorgeous angle of the city from so high off the ground.

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Oskar suddenly remembered a huge candy store he used to go to, and we combed through all the rows and rows of candy. After, Oskar suggested we go on the Paddan Sightseeing tour. He had gone on it with his family when he was really young, and was embarrassed to be going on one of the most “touristy” things you could do in Gothenburg. Though he didn’t like it much, he stuck it out, just so that I could see the city by means of the waterways and harbor.

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Prometheus statue!

We took the bus back to Oskar’s neighborhood, and his mother and sister made us dinner. I loved the food; I realized how long it had been since I had a home-cooked meal (since I have never considered myself skilled at cooking at all). I asked Emilia, Oskar’s sister, all about her life and what it was like to go to school and live on her own. She reminded me a bit of my older sister, Mandy. Oskar’s mother was so gracious, making me coffee after dinner and asking me about what Americans do on May Day. Later, Oskar’s father came home and I was able to see a very authentic Swedish family, all under one roof.

After dinner, Oskar and I took the bus back into the city to meet Christine. We went to a really cool bar/coffee shop and I had the local beer, which agreed with me very well. I asked Christine so many questions, and we talked travel, politics, traditions, and I felt like I got to hear a wider scope of outlooks and opinions as we sat in the dimly lit, open-air bar. She was originally from Stockholm, and we compared the two cities. Christine was so great to talk to, and I felt like we connected on a lot. I had only wished we had had more time together to discuss life and everything else. Later, we stomped the empty dark streets of Haga, heading towards the bus stop that would take us back out of the city. Oskar pointed to a large university building and quizzed me on it. I was triumphant when I correctly guessed the Business Building of Gothenburg University.

Something I loved about our long walk about the city of Gothenburg that day was the passion Oskar had for the city. What really makes an experience in travel, I have noticed, sometimes is not always the place you go, but the people you go to go see. I kept telling Oskar that I was so happy to be there, and so glad that I came, and I meant it. It was amazing to keep up the relationship we had begun more than a year before in America, and it sometimes felt surreal that we were both in Sweden together.

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The next morning came and Oskar took me to another part of the surrounding area near his house, called Stora Amundön. It was gorgeous out there. Like the day before, the weather was perfect for walking beside the water and exploring the rocky land. The sand and water was gray and dotted with smooth, earthy rocks. Oskar showed me where the popular places for swimming were in the height of the summer.

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Photo by Oskar!
Photo by Oskar!

The rest of that day was spent on a few of the little islands that make up the Achipelago, which runs parallel to the mainland of Sweden and Gothenburg city. A mutual friend Oskar and I had, Axel, lives on Hönö, one of the little islands. It was a lovely ride over there; the easiest way onto the little pieces of land is the ferry, which carries cars across every day. While on the way over, I got out and admired the seaside and the water all around the ferry. It was chilly out there, where the wind whipped about sharply. I was excited as we neared the land, and jumped back into the car.

We picked up Axel at his house and he showed Oskar and I his island. He pointed out places he used to go in his childhood, and we went into the Fiskemuseet Hönö Klova (a local museum). Despite not understanding any of the plaques in the whole building, I was able to study the old photos in one of the rooms that visually depicted the maritime history of the little island. Axel had some experience with boats and whatnot (after all, he does live on an island!), and whenever I saw a strange looking contraption hanging from the ceiling or behind glass, he’d usually know what it was and explain.

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We met up with another friend, also named Oskar. I’m not sure if his name is spelled with a “k” or “c,” so just to not confuse, I’ll write this second Oscar with a “c.” The two islander Swedes took Oskar and I to see a church and graveyard on the island, which I can’t remember the name of. The church doors were locked, so we walked among the graves and read the names. All three Swedes told me about how people are buried, which was actually fascinating. Because the winters are so cold, the ground is too hard to break up and dig a grave if someone were to die in the dead of winter. So, the Swedish people have to preserve the body until the ground warms up enough. Interesting.

We piled back into Oskar’s car and drove a bit more through the little island streets, the sun slowly beginning to sink and turn orange in the clean, sleek sky. Oscar suggested we take his family’s boat out on the water for a ride. This ride became the one of the best memories I had while in Sweden. Oscar’s dad gave me a big coat to wrap up in, as well as a warm hat to keep my head and ears from freezing from the wind. I had been on little boats like the one Oscar’s family owned, yet I still probably looked like a clumsy fool while getting on and off, and Oskar had to help me.

The ride was so amazing! I saw the island from the water, and we sped by in an exhilarating whirl of cold chill and seawater splashing all around us. The water was calm and flat; we only bobbed and dipped slightly while circling the rocky island. Oscar pointed out a tiny island that was isolated from the rest and told me that an infamous prison, “Like Guantanamo Bay,” he said, used to sit on that little piece of rock in the middle of the ocean. He stopped the boat at a little dock not far from his own and told us there was an icehouse, and that if I had never seen one before, I had to go in and look. Axel, Oskar and I trudged up to the little shed that was attached to the dock, turned the knob, and peered in sheepishly. On the other side of the little white washed room was a little hole in the wall with a trap door of sorts. The trap door was open, and I saw a wall of shaved white ice and a metal shovel. All three of us laughed a bit when we saw this, thinking it pretty funny that fishermen could just come in, take what they needed, and leave. That icehouse was by far the most bizarre thing I saw in Sweden.

 

 

 

Sillies
Sillies

 

My favorite Swedes
My favorite Swedes

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After more board games and a quick trip to the ICA (a chain Swedish grocery store), Oskar and I jumped back on the ferry to go home. It was dark by the time we were crossing, so I stayed in the car on the way over the water. We exchanged music during the ride, and as we neared Oskar’s neighborhood, a fox ran across the road. I hadn’t been looking, and was mad I had missed seeing it. Ten seconds later, we rounded a corner and I saw a huge brown hare chilling in the grass by the side of the road. Though I missed the fox, I did see a good bit of Sweden’s wildlife.

Something I did throughout this trip that was very entertaining, exhausting, and intriguing was the guessing game. Every time Oskar, his family, Axel, or Oscar forgot a word in English, usually while attempting to describe something, I’d always try hard to find the word for them. Sometimes it took a few guesses, and sometimes I’d get it on the first try. I always liked when I got it right away because it made me feel smart, like I was some kind of mind reader. A few times I’d also jokingly correct someone’s grammar if the tense or usage was wrong, and Oskar found that pretty funny. “Keep doing that!” he told me. I realized as the days passed that even if two or three people can speak a second language pretty well, sadly sometimes meaning or tone of voice or sarcasm is lost between the two. Though a conversation or two got awkward at moments when this happened, it was a good lesson to learn how to be okay and comfortable despite being lost in translation on occasion.

 

Here, I have compiled a list of the words I picked up while in Gothenburg:

 

Fika – a coffee or hangout time: “Let’s go fika over in the city!”

 

Fisk – fish

 

Tack- Thanks

 

Sadly, that is it. Other than Polish, Swedish is the most eccentric language I have come across. I loved my time in Sweden, and I am sure of this because as I was boarding my flight back to Edinburgh, I felt a heavy, crushing sorrow that remained. If ever the opportunity presented itself to return, I’d take it.

 

I’ll be writing about Carrie, mom and I’s adventures in Greece, next time!

To Scotland: A poem

I love the way you entice me

to walk with you

up, up, up the winding streets

your skin rough and weathered

as you grasp to hold my hand.

 

And you can be more long winded

in your storytelling than I am,

which I thought couldn’t be done.

 

And like me, you can be

dark and brooding, old

and calloused by experience

and history. And like me,

you’ll wake up some days and

radiate the joy that the sun brings.

 

You have so many compartments,

the windows glowing in the

pearly overcast –

each holds a little universe,

only a pinpoint, like a freckle or bump,

on a map of the night sky that covers

all of you.

 

You can weigh down on me

with scolding frigidness, and

threaten to blow me off my feet.

But I know you, and I don’t shiver

when you look at me with icy orbs.

 

I love the way I first discovered you,

in between the lines somewhere when

love was not yet awake in me.

I had only just begun.

 

I love the way I heard you,

before I knew you. I heard

the shrillness in your voice, your

best known feature, and saw

only a glimpse – the wood

and bag were blowing full blast.

 

Somehow you were always there,

a note of music in the distance, a nip

on the ears in the chill.

I love the way I knew I loved you,

even before I had known you.

By the Luck of the Irish: The Wonderfully-Weathered Week in Ireland

I walked out into the sun feeling like I hadn’t even left Scotland. The flight from Edinburgh to Belfast, Northern Ireland, is disgustingly short. We took off and ascended for 10 minutes, leveled off for 10 minutes, descended in 15, and were out the door and onto the bus that would bear us into the city without any difficulty. I knew then that this would probably be the smoothest trip I’d ever experience.

Hannah and I had agreed on a hostel due to its name and free breakfast. Vagabond Hostel was one of the best ones I have ever stayed in. Comfy bed, really friendly people, and amazing location. A nugget of advice from a now experienced traveler: always, always ask the hostel or hotel staff/office person where the best place(s) are to get a meal. They are usually locals that know where the good/cheap/authentic places are, and it has been my experience that when you ask when you first arrive in a new place, you have a much better time than trying to find something on your own.

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Our first hours in Belfast were greeted by a nice walk after dinner beside the canal that runs the length of the city. We had an early start the next morning exploring Northern Ireland, so we turned in pretty early after a cup of tea on the back deck in the dark.

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Our driver pointed out the ruins of a castle that was controlled by the MacDonald clan a few hundred years ago, and we passed through a few tiny villages along our way up to the Giant’s Causeway. In one of the villages we past, a church and graveyard was highlighted. Our guide told us the man who invented the crossword puzzle was buried there.

“Two down and three across!” he told us.

We passed by quite a few Game of Thrones filming locations, as well as a Sons of Anarchy filming site. My favorite views were the baby spring lambs and their mothers that were nestled in the fields in every valley we passed through. They were so little, and as white as porcelain.

When we came upon the more coastal region of Northern Ireland, I remember seeing a lot of salmon and lobster boats out in the water. The day was clear, the water brisk and dazzling. One of the major stops for our tour was the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which was only a few miles up the road from the Giant’s Causeway. It was a wonderful experience! Heights are not my favorite, but I read one of the plaques and according to it, they check the bridge every season to make sure it is completely safe for all the visitors. That put my mind at ease. The water beneath the bridge was turquoise, and I could see the sand at the bottom because the water was shallow and clear, the sun dancing on the surface, cutting through the greens and blues.

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Of course the Giant’s Causeway was magical. I loved hearing the mythology and geological history behind the site. Hannah and I discussed the humor of the place, and we wondered how a place known for octagonal-shaped rock formations (like the honey comb in a beehive) and myths of giants equaled a tourist attraction. Hannah and I both took turns sitting on the wishing chair, a special part of the causeway. Our guide told us these simple rules for making a wish at the causeway:

  • Keep what you wish for a secret
  • Don’t be greedy

I think I did my best to abide by them.

It was much colder up in that part of the country, but wind tossed hair and chilled skin was nothing compared to the views and experience.

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That night, Hannah and I stayed up late talking with an Aussie (someone from Australia) and a Canadian, both of whom were traveling the world alone. Something I love about hostel culture: most people you meet have incredible stories to tell, and are in turn usually the most fascinating people. I loved hearing their stories; most were funny, some were cringe worthy, and all of them made me more inspired to write some of my own down.

The next morning came quickly, and Hannah and I had a calming breakfast in a sun soaked common room in Vagabond before we stepped outside to catch our 10AM Black Cab tour. This was probably my favorite part of my time in Northern Ireland.

Hannah and called the office the day before and asked for a particular driver that had been recommended to her by another friend who had done the tour. His name was Tom, and he was a proper Northern Irishman. He arrived in a cab with a dinosaur painted across the side, and I knew early on he was a people person, kind and warm.

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He first took us through the main street in Belfast, and past a building that became famous from a photograph someone took in the 60s or 70s of the building as a car bomb was in mid-explosion. That was powerful to see, considering that the building looks exactly the same to this day, and we sailed right past it in the most casual manner.

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“One mans terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” Tom told us when we had arrived in the Protestant neighborhood of Shankill in Belfast. I got out of the cab feeling a bit sheepish. I am not sure why. Tom told us about the murals that are all over the city, and about a few of the ones that were in sight of where we stood. The one that I thought was most intriguing was the one of Stephen McKeag, a Northern Irish loyalist and Commander of the Ulster Defense Association’s “C” Company in the 1990s. In the eyes of the Protestants, he was a hero, worthy of praise and a huge mural with his face plastered across it. But in the eyes of the Catholics (who lived less than a mile away from this apparent shrine) he has been a murderer.

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“Prevention,” Tom said about the troubles between the two sides, “is apparently better than a cure.” He proceeded to tell us the story of Philomena Hanna, a victim of McKeag. He told us that in the early 90s she had been a young Catholic woman who delivered medicine to patients on both the Catholic and Protestant sides of the wall separating the two communities in Belfast. In April of 1992, McKeag followed her back to the shop she worked at after she had made a delivery on the Protestant side of the wall. He shot her five times in the face and another time in the chest. Tom told us that he had done this with this thought in mind: Catholics usually have an open casket at funerals. There was no way they could have an open casket with five bullet wounds in the face for this young woman. That story really hit me over the head – I kept it in my heart as Tom gave us some time to walk about the Protestant side of the neighborhood, looking over all the murals. We drove past the huge gate between the two communities and Hannah and I both got to sign it.

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I had noticed in the Protestant side of the wall that most of the houses had the English flag hanging from their houses. On the catholic side, the orange, green and white flag flaps in the wind on each residence. Tom explained that this was due to the fact that the Protestants believe they belong to England and are loyal to that flag, while the Catholics believe that they are/ought to be free from England. I thought that was also intriguing, and I got a good photo of the Irish flags on most of the stoops on the Catholic side of the wall.

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Tom dropped Hannah and I off at the beautiful city hall in the middle of the city, and we walked through it before making our way to the train station. On the way, Tom told us this story when I asked him briefly about the history of Belfast and the Titanic:

He had given a tour to a group of people from London, and one man in particular asked him very pointedly about why the people in Belfast praise and honor the Titanic, (putting up monuments and plaques) for a ship that sank so infamously. Tom told us that he responded to the Londoner, very politely, with these words:

“That ship was running perfectly fine when it left the harbor, right? The Irish built it, but the English sank it!”

I laughed with immense glee when he told us that response. I do love the Northern Irish people, and I’d go back to Belfast any day.

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The train to Dublin was easy, and of course I listened to this most of the way:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KtiPBgyh1Y

We met Morgan at the hostel and we walked the streets, looking for a good pub to get dinner at. We had an early tour the next morning, so we did not have too eventful of a night.

The next morning came quickly and I struggled to get out of bed under the weight of my heavy comforter. I thought it grimly ironic that this hostel bed was more comfortable than the one in my flat in Scotland. That has been the case for quite a few hostel beds, actually. It makes me feel like I was cheated out of something or other.

Our driver took us through Galway first, and of course the lyrics to Galway Girl kept coming back to me, leaping and twirling across my subconscious.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Lcnvd8BNFE

Our driver told us that Galway is known for their “hookers,” (which are not what you think they are).

“They are not in fact the ordinary hussies, but rather the black bottom boats with three red sails, a very distinctive type of boat.”

We came upon an 11th century monastery next. Inside there was a stone alter, and hidden inside the alter are the skulls of four or five stone masons who were beheaded after they made the church, the ruling clan at the time not wanting them to make churches as beautiful as that one anywhere else in Ireland. I thought that may or may not embody the Irish spirit.

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For lunch we stopped in a tiny town fifteen minutes away from the cliffs of Moher, our main and final destination. The town was called Doolin, and it consisted of two little restaurants and a tourist office. There were fields full of cows and a few B&Bs as well as a few lonely, quaint little farmhouses nearby. I love places like that; it may bore some, but for me I find peace in the smaller settlements. It is for the same reason that I love Sperryille, VA or Holmdel, NJ.

Morgan, Hannah and I went to the sandwich place and got the best chicken wraps I have tasted. They came with fresh salad and had been heated in the oven. We sat on a veranda with a covering over us, shielding us from the unusually nice weather. There must have been a wedding the night before because the tables and garden were decked out in beautiful decor. There were yellow, purple and green triangular flags and off-white tents, as well as little lanterns on each table.

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I get pretty unglued when bugs are present. This came to a head at the cliffs of Moher. We finally got there after about 3 hours of bus riding, and I was eager to see the cliffs and walk on my wobbly legs. I kept rolling my ankles the past couple of days and I have found that they have gotten quite weak while studying abroad. The cobblestoned streets of Edinburgh are not very forgiving for a set of muscles that tend to bend easily. We walked up the hill and realized quickly that there were bees, flies, nats and seagulls looming over the edges of the cliffs. They were quite literally everywhere. I was pretty confused as to why they were so evident, and frankly irritated that they were affecting my experience. Hannah and Morgan seemed to ignore them pretty well while I swatted and even put my hood up in the heat to avoid the noise of buzzing wings as they flew past my ears. I got goosebumps and one even found its way down my shirt and into my sports bra.

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I was pretty happy to get away from the outdoors for a little while when we went to the visitor center to use the toilets and to look for a clatter ring (it was the one thing I had wanted most while in Ireland). Morgan came out of her stall as I was drying my hands and she turns to me suddenly and says in a low voice “Alice, can you help me?” She presented her left arm to me, and there, perched neatly on her sweater sleeve was a giant yellow jacket. Its bottom half was striped yellow and black, it’s stinger long and it’s antennas menacingly scratching the surface of the woven material. “Oh my God, no way,” was the initial outburst that escaped me. “No, I’m allergic!” Morgan told me as she stood frozen. “Okay, okay hold on,” I said quietly as I unrolled a generous amount of toilet paper to shield my hand. After an intense silent moment, in one fell swoop, I swiped my hand across her shoulder, knocking the poor winged devil off her arm and onto the floor. I think I did a good job of facing my fear. As a reward, we all got €2 soft serve vanilla ice cream cones and sat outside in the warmth, waiting to board the bus that would bear us back to Dublin.

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On the way back from the cliffs, I saw two young girls standing on the highway round about, possibly younger than me, thumbs out, pointing towards the sky. We swing by them in the traffic circle, and they gave our little bus dirty looks as we passed them by. I guess they thought this was the perfect vehicle to pick up people. It reminded me of the one other time I had witnessed hitchhikers: along the coast, near Nye Beach, in Oregon, USA.

We stopped briefly in a tiny little outpost so that the driver could rest before entering the city. There was a large bar nearby called the Durty Nelly’s pub, and as we were about to get back onto the motorway, we saw a bunch of women leave the bar, one with a fake white veil and tiara, the rest in matching t-shirts. Our driver got on the subject of bachelor and bachelorette parties (which are called Hen and Stag parties in Ireland) and we sped headlong towards Dublin.

“Crack,” according to our driver is not in fact the illegal narcotic, but rather “fun” in Irish Gaelic. We saw it on many pubs: “Music and crack!” and all of a sudden it all made sense. That is more or less in a nutshell how one learns during a study abroad trip. You learn something, usually from a local, then see it somewhere, then understand and it falls into place.

The next morning, our Australian roommate in our hostel told us a “duvet” or “comforter” was called a “dunna” in his country. I loved the fact that there were several different words in every culture for one thing. I asked him about what Australia was like, and of course about the kangaroos. I now know exactly how tall they can grow to be, what they look like when they are about to attack you, and what their method is for killing you. Our roommate had actually killed a few of them in his lifetime, and I looked at him a new, more impressed way after he told us his stories in the outback.

Our flight wasn’t until the evening, so we spent the last few hours in Ireland together roaming the Guinness factory. My favorite part of it was the advertising floor of the museum. I find it fascinating how a major company or product is produced and then sold to people, and how they will psychologically appeal to you in order for you to buy the product. Later, when Hannah, Morgan and I ducted into a very Irish pub down the street for a quick lunch before the flight, I saw a very old advertisement for Guinness that was at least fifty years old, and I was delighted to know the history behind the beer that has been Ireland’s claim to fame.

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There will be another post up soon on my time in Gothenburg, Sweden. I am so excited to share that adventure, so keep up! I’ll write again soon.

Reflections, Alice, are not among your strengths

Hello all, it is me again! Now that I have taken you through the long ride of my travels for spring break, this post will be a lot more relaxed. I won’t be taking you to a beautiful city of spires or up into the wild, barren land of lochs and mountains. I want to take time to reflect, because that is what you do when you are about three weeks away from coming home. I’d like to write about the post-travel experience (sort of like the aftermath, honestly), but for right now I’ll focus on what I learned, and what I miss about home.

I think I was avoiding writing a reflection because that would mean that this whole thing is more or less over. I still have some traveling left to do, and three weeks can feel like a long time. I think I am also feeling pressure about final exams, since I have been studying quite a bit in the last few days.

Here is what I have gathered from my time abroad:

I learned how to rely completely on myself. When all I had was what I could strap to my shoulders, I learned to cut away excess and only take what I needed. I didn’t care if my hair looked good, and I couldn’t be bothered to make my eyelashes blacker or longer. I was too busy exploring little corners of the world, trying to remember what I learned in Latin and Mythology to decipher a carving on a 12th century church or on a black-figured vase.

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At the end of last semester, Carrie and I had our car packed to the ceiling when we were moving out of our apartment in Fredericksburg. We barely fit all of our clothes, furniture and other junk, shoving extra stuff into the crannies of empty cup holders or in between seats. I look on this memory with embarrassment and hilarity now, realizing that I probably didn’t need half the stuff I drove down I95 with last fall. I think a skill/lesson I will bring back with me from this experience is the ability to pack light and minimally. I lived out of what I could carry in one suitcase for four months; I don’t think I need a whole car to fit what is essential.

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I brushed up on how to start from scratch. I made three really great friends here – Hannah, Morgan and Cat. I somehow slid over to them when we were all waiting in the January cold to get on the bus to Saint Andrews. Last week, Hannah told me she had gone home that night and told her mom she was excited because she had made friends. I told her I did the exact same thing. Working from the ground up, I think, is both terrifying and character-building, tiring and healthy, emotionally and relationally difficult, but important. I realized that I lay a lot on the people in my life, and I have a very defined comfort zone when it comes to friends and family. People are always moving, though, and it is important to stretch those relationship muscles that may get soft after being in a constant system of only people you know (and who know you) well. It is vital to keep up that skill, especially now, since my life in the next five and ten years, I expect, will be constantly changing and in motion.

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When I think about home, I can picture it with the utmost vibrancy: the way my house looks with the June sun bringing out the dark windows, or the rich colors of my mother’s rose bushes in the back yard. I always remember the insignificant bits too – the way the sidewalk curves to the left or the faded glass table on the back porch that is fixed in my earliest memories. I can imagine myself driving down my street, on my way to work or to a friend’s house, and remember exactly how to get there, which streets to turn on, where the traffic lights are. Home is still so present in me, right in the forefront of my mind, right before my eyes.

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Home is also people for me. I miss the bustle and routine of my house, and the loud family that occupies it. I miss watching Perry Mason with my dad while I bake cookies from scratch in a kitchen that is not occupied by freshman boys who trash it every time they cook. I miss the discussions we have around a dinner table heaped with home-cooked food, cutting each other off and going back and forth all at once. I also miss the friends I left, in order to have this experience. I miss the encompassing atmosphere good friends give me, where I feel like I can stutter and not be laughed at, or be as weird as I am and not feel like they think I am completely insane. I love that I can speak without fear and run about without worry of being judged. It is hard to find people and form a relationship as deep as that in such a short period of time, only to part ways once it is all complete.

I feel like, in some ways, I have been on my guard all these months because I don’t feel that safe atmosphere to be exactly who I am with the people I have met. This may also be because it is all in the back of everyone’s mind that this is not permanent and it will all end eventually. I feel this especially now, when it is the three-week mark. I’d describe how I feel, and how I think other people are feeling, as checked out. Knowing that you may never see someone again after this, or that you’d have to make an effort in order to keep in touch, causes this phenomenon. I don’t think it is something to hate or to try and get away from, I think it is being human. Effort, especially relational or emotional, can be hard to muster, and it is understandable why it is often brushed aside.

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Despite this jumbled (and pretty negative) outlook, I did make good friends here. I slowly began to feel safe with them after some time and patience. I experienced the gift of travel to an even fuller extent: when it is shared between other people. I traveled to Saint Andrews and Aberdeen with Cat, and we will always have that memory between us, keeping us connected. I saw Belfast with Hannah, and we took a Black Cab tour together and learned about the religious intolerance of Northern Ireland, side by side. Morgan, Hannah and I all explored Dublin together, and I will always have those memories of us together, the places encircling the background.

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I think I have often pointed out the difficulties of travel; the uglier, grittier parts that make me (and maybe you?) stop and question whether it is all worth it. And now, to answer the question that is always asked at the close of an era: Would you do anything differently?

No, I wouldn’t. To get here, where I am now, couldn’t have been reached by staying within the boundaries I set for myself. I had to move, be thrown off the edge in order to see myself, listen to myself, and know another part of the vast world we reside within. I’ll leave you with a quote, because beautiful words from far more talented people sound better than anything I could say:

“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

Eventually, I’ll get another post up about my week in Ireland, as well as my upcoming long weekend in Sweden. I have one more trip planned for this experience: Greece. I’ll write again soon!

A Turn About Italy: Firenze & Roma

The next morning I watched carefully out the train windows as we chugged down through Switzerland, heading south towards Firenze. I saw the gradual changes of Austrian-Switzerland houses and countryside turn to the timeless Italian ones. The sun showed more and more, and the land basked in it. I felt the most at home in Florence, because I had been there for a week a few years ago when Mandy had studied abroad there.

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I had a bit more of an agenda once we arrived, just because I was familiar with the space. The next morning we ventured to the Boboli gardens on the farther side of the city. I had been there a few years ago with my parents and sisters, and I wanted to show Kara. We paid 9 euro to get in, but it was so worth it. The Italians know how to make a good garden.

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Kara passed out on her hostel bed after we had had some pizza, so I wen out on my own for a while. It was warm and backlit by the midday sun, and the stone of the buildings towering above me were made grainy and vibrant. I bought a drink and sat for a while to read on the steps in a piazza. I was tired but wired. I was so happy and excited to be in a city I knew, and one that I had a heart for. But I was also happy to be alone, more or less for the first time in several days. My only regret for this trip? I wish I had had more confidence in myself to travel alone, at least to one city/country. It is a skill that I need to perfect; I need to rely more on myself alone, and be okay with being alone. Regardless, I cherished that hour or two alone, while Kara slept.

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Later, we went to all my favorite places in Firenze. We got gelato at the hog statue, observed the Duomo, and bought a scarf or two at the San Lorenzo market. While we sat and ate our gelato in the Duomo piazza, I noticed quite a few Carabinieri, the Italian soldiers/military. They had large black guns strapped in front and fancy, sophisticated hats. Kara and I had differing perceptions of their presence in a busy, public place. I felt safer with them watching and just being present; I had felt the same way when I encountered soldiers in Israel over the summer. The heightened security and presence of soldiers who are professionals in what they do made me feel more at ease. Kara, on the other hand, thought it more aggressive and intense, making the atmosphere of the place tenser.

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Our second (and sadly last) night in Florence we went to a restaurant Mandy reminded me of, one that we had been to the last time I had been in the city. We spilt a bottle of white wine, bruschetta and pasta. We were sitting outside in a covered tent type of set up. I was completely content, and my only concern was where we would get gelato after dinner.

If ever in Firenze, this is the place to go!
If ever in Firenze, this is the place to go!

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We roll into Rome about midday. By the time we had arrived, I was more or less spent. My fatigue was not crushing, I think it was just delayed or numbed, because my body was awake, but my mind was perpetually blank. It had been ten days since I had begun, and I think I was hitting the wall, coming to the end of my spring break rope. Roma was the last stop, and I’d be back in Scotland presently. I think Kara and I were starting to hate each other too, which I think is completely normal.

We took a long walk and got gelato. We were in a hostel right by the train station, in a more residential area. We were about a mile walk from all the major tourist sights, which was actually very nice. We weren’t bothered with noise or crowds, and the walking always felt good.

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Our hostel had a free pasta dinner to anyone who sighed up. Kara saw a sign for a club crawl event that night that the hostel would be holding, and more or less pressured me to sign up for it. It was 20 euro, and you’d get a free drink at each club, and free access. I didn’t want to go at all honestly – and I didn’t understand Kara’s sudden intense desire to go to a club. Nonetheless, I signed and we sat down to wait for the pasta.

I eavesdropped on a conversation two Australian girls and one American girl were having next to me. The American was telling the other two about her life at home, and it made me think of mine. She said that travel doesn’t necessarily change you immediately, like when you return home people may not see an astronomically big change in you (physically, and otherwise). She said that it sometimes would be ten years down the road that the person you are wouldn’t have been that person had you not traveled and experienced for an extended period of time. I chewed on that as I sat blankly in that hostel dining room. After making the major decision to not take an internship that seemed perfect but may not have been right for me, it related so well to what this girl was vocalizing. I felt better about myself, and my own voice in my head that had been criticizing my decision since I had made it finally shut up, for a while at least.

A guy and a girl came and sat down beside us in the dining room of the hostel, and after a moment, turned to us and we began to talk. They had not known weather we spoke English or not, and were relived when they discovered our language. After only a few minutes, I discovered Emily was from Falls Church, VA and Will was from Centerville, VA. We talked more quickly then, and with more excitement. They were studying in Spain, and would be in Roma until Friday. We ran through a list of people we both knew or had heard of at each of our schools back home, and discussed travel and exchanged stories.

As I sat there, I had a stronger and stronger desire to skip the club crawl and remain right where I was for the evening. All of a sudden the girl from the front desk came over to Kara and I and informed us the crawl wasn’t happening – not enough people had signed up. She gave us our 20 euro back, and “just for our trouble” we got a free beer to enjoy. All is well that ends well, I guess?

Kara and I went to the grocery store in the train station a little later that night, just to get a drink and something sweet. I made the mistake of buying a corkscrew (just because I had been meaning to get one and they had fancy ones at this supermarket) when I realized that it had a knife attached to it. I hadn’t paid extra to check a bag, I hadn’t needed to. So my next plan was to return it with the receipt I saved. But then morning came and the hostel staff cleaned our rooms, and they had taken out the trash, the little white paper nowhere to be found. I ended up leaving it on the desk in the room – perhaps for some other traveler to pop open a good bottle of wine with.

Fulfilling the promise I made 8 years ago!
Fulfilling the promise I made 8 years ago!

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Kara and I knocked out seeing Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Colosseum and the many ruins along the way. When I was thirteen, Carrie and I had thrown our coins into the fountain, sealing the promise that we would some day return to Roma. I fulfilled my promise to this marble city when I tossed my small, bronze, 2 cent coin into the turquoise water. We stopped for pizza and gelato on our way to the Pantheon. We sat in an empty restaurant and chowed down on some margarita.

Fields of tourists
Fields of tourists

The Colloseum is stunning; there is nothing more thrilling than seeing it from a long way off down the main street, and slowly making your way towards it. I tried hard to picture what this area looked like a few thousand years ago. I thrive on antiquity, and I am so happy I have had the chance to study it. Kara and I sat for a time near Trajan’s column, a structure I had studied all this semester in my Roman Propaganda class. I told Kara about it, amazed at how much I could remember about each panel and what the overall themes were. It was astounding at how clear and intact the column was – very different from seeing a photocopy of it on a screen or in a book.

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I didn’t sleep that night. My flight was at 7AM at the airport a 30 minute drive away. Our hostel suggested it, so I caved and paid for an expensive taxi to get me there. The man was very nice, and spoke good English. There was nobody on the roads, and the man sped like a maniac. I tried to act collected and relaxed, but I do admit I was slightly afraid of his speed as we departed from Roma and came into the dark outskirts. I got to the airport in maybe fifteen minutes. The flight home was rough, with me falling asleep every five minutes, only to jerk back awake as the plane shifted. I survived twelve days on the road, and I am proud of myself!