Monthly Archives: March 2016

Poland + Hard Decisions

The flight was smooth, unlike the one from Venice back in February, where people applauded our safe landing after a rigorous 10 minutes of turbulence.

I sat beside a middle aged English couple. They were very cordial and courteous. I shivered and turned my air vent off at one point and the man was so nice he turned his off as well. They ordered a few rounds of drinks, and they told me they were taking a holiday for five days in Kraków. The man had an intriguing set of tattoos on both arms. Though I feel like if you ask people with tats / phrase your curiosities the wrong way you may risk alienating them, I am always curious about tattoos; whether they hurt or how long ago they got them are my usual inquiries.

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The main square by night
The main square by night

I took the twenty-minute train ride from the airport to the Kraków Główny station, where Mandy and Carrie met me. We walked ten minutes to our hostel, which was in one of the best locations. We were put up right across from a park that runs in a skinny line parallel to the main streets, which are etched with trams and cables. Once I unloaded my rucksack, Carrie and I went for a walk about the streets. It was dark, but I instinctively felt safe; it is hard to describe, but a feeling comes and you just know whether the place you are in is safe or not. We passed a few clothing stores, all closed. I saw a family or two out and about with young kids, chatting quietly. I talked to my dad and one of my classmates about these lovely Eastern European cities once I returned to Edinburgh, and they had similar things to say. When trying to describe Krakow to my dad, I said something like this: “It looks like a World War II movie, like The Pianist.” Here is what my dad said: “You have to realize that many of those countries were under communism until about twenty, twenty five years ago.” My classmate, who had been to Budapest a few weeks ago, said that the city seemed to be stuck in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. She also described a phenomenon I also noticed in Krakow: People are quiet and reserved in the streets. They are not rowdy or obnoxious. They are calm and serious in demeanor.

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The next morning we woke a bit late and went looking for food. There was a little shop that looked like a Polish 7-11 that I wanted to get water bottles from, but it was closed. I stared at the hand-written sign for a while and made out (what I thought) was the word for “Sunday.” Quite a few places were closed up for Easter Sunday, which is totally understandable. We walked to the main town square, and stopped in the Katedra Wawelska, an old church immediately inside the gate. I read later that when the bells toll, they make lover’s wishes come true. We listened to the Easter service for a little while, all in Polish, then continued our hunt for food.

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We discovered a large market, selling everything we could possibly want. Mandy and I split a giant hot dog (called a Kielbasa), and all three of us got chocolate covered waffles. It was astonishing how delightful the Polish make their food! We shopped a bunch after. I bought gifts and trinkets. Everything is so cheap in the polish currency (Zloty), so I felt okay with cutting loose a bit and buying quite a few souvenirs. I loved the intricate, fixated points of interest in the Polish culture. Like the wood. I saw wooden combs, spoons, baskets and Easter eggs.

Beads!
Beads!

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In the park after shopping in the lovely market, we saw a man in a lobster costume walking in front of us. Carrie, being the brave one she is, goes “Hey, lobsters don’t have hands!” And he turned around and gave us a funny, squinty look. I thought he must have lost a bet.

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I noticed the language was not as beautiful as Italian, but filled with fascinating twists and turns that fill the corners of the people’s mouths, spilling over their lips into the air.

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Dinner was excellent – Mandy asked the girl at reception at the hostel what her favorite place was to go that had authentic Polish food. At the restaurant, there was an elderly man playing on a dusty old grand piano for the whole restaurant. I thought they only did that in black and white movies that predate the 1960s. I adore Casablanca and From Here to Eternity, and this experience reminded me of some of those iconic bar and restaurant scenes with live piano music floating in the background. I wondered what that man got paid per night for his service, or whether he just did it for its own sake. If I had any musical ability, that is what I’d be doing fifty years from now.

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I had chicken, broccoli, potatoes and red wine. All came together like a quartet of instruments that fit like puzzle pieces in my mouth. The wine warmed my cheeks and soul while the food fed my body. Mandy, Carrie and I talked about life, the future, and travel. The place surrounded us, and I thoroughly enjoyed our time together. We walked home through the park; lit by pale, antique street lamps. Overall impression? Krakow is the most underrated city in Eastern Europe (that I have come across thus far, anyway).

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I only slept a few hours my second night in Kraków. I woke up around 2:30 AM from a dream and couldn’t fall back asleep. In spite of that, I was very relaxed; my bed was warm and soft. I slowly began to hear morning birds outside our window that was cracked open. I heard the trams coming and going down below in the street. I felt the chilly air draft through to where I lay. In the dark I saw a slice of the white, clean moon saunter in and roll itself out on the wood floor.

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A recent development in my personal life may have been effecting my sleep, and I feel a need to share it because it does have much to do with this experience: I got accepted to an internship that I applied for in October. I suppose a lesson I learned in the past few days is the realization that feelings and thoughts and situations are always changing. I underestimated how studying abroad would effect me. When I applied for the internship, I was excited for the possibility of it, thinking it would fit me perfectly and that it was an open-shut case. But then I came to Scotland, and things began to shift. I reexamined what I want to do, and still have little to no idea what I’d like to be doing five or ten years from now. I thought of this internship simply and selfishly as a resume-builder, though the major point behind it is far more profound. I knew I’d regret it if I took it on for shallow reasons, and the timing seemed off.

 

I think a major aspect of life that I am just now grasping is this: Nobody can make your decisions for you. While that seems overly obvious, I think it is a comfort-zone thing. It would be easy if people who I trusted and who knew me well could just decide for me, and I wouldn’t have to constantly go back to square one about who I am, what I think my purpose on this earth is, and what I want to do with my future. But that isn’t how life is. I have had to go to that unfamiliar, terrifying place in my mind where I have to make hard decisions, and soul search. It feels like I just have spent the last few months expanding my comfort zone, growing, growing, growing, and then I would have had to go back home, have two weeks to decompress five months abroad, only to then be thrown back into an unfamiliar position. It seemed excessive, and bad timing.

 

I joked with a few friends that I was going through an “existential crisis,” like the ones they depict in comedies where the victim stares at the wall all day and life is illustrated as a hilarious set of failures and mishaps, arriving at the conclusion of the film with a good job and comfortable, predictable future. I genuinely laughed at myself because I have been having the time of my life studying in a whole new world, and I am about to embark on a n exciting journey for spring break, and yet I am wrestling with an internal crisis that seems to get more intense as summer draws near. It seems silly that I am this anxious while living it up abroad.

 

All that understood, I decided to decline the internship. There were a host of reasons, and I spent a night on the phone with two vital people: My mom and dad. I heard both their opinions, and basked in their wisdom and insight. I asked questions and was given honest answers. They asked me questions, forcing me to examine the paths I have, and encouraging me to make a decision, regardless of whether it is “right” or “wrong.” Something else I came to realize during this process of decision-making: I have a support system like no other. I had my parents, but also my friends and sisters on all sides, there to offer advice, clarity and second, third, fourth or fifth opinion. I couldn’t be more grateful.

 

Though the future is dauntingly uncertain, I have hope and faith that it will be good, and that I’ll find my corner of the world, where I belong, someday.

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I’m not sure when I’ll write next, I’ll be traveling around central Europe for about two weeks. I’ll write when I can!

Discussion on ‘travel’

The next month and a half will be filled to the brim with travels. Next week is the last week of classes, with two whole weeks of spring break to follow. Then a “revision” week, which, like “Innovative Learning Week,” is not an obligatory period of time to be in and around campus. Then the last week of April is the beginning of final exams; I don’t have mine until mid May…so theoretically I have four weeks of straight free time to move about this vast, lovely world. It feels like I have starved myself of travel; until now, that is. Here is what I’ll be up to:

This coming weekend I’ll be in Krakow, Poland. It was a dream of Carrie, Mandy and mine to experience Auschwitz, and participate in “dark tourism.” I learned that phrase my freshman year at Mary Washington when I was thrown (quite randomly, but wonderfully by fate) into a Travel Writing FSEM. Dark tourism is where a person or group travels to the place where an atrocity (like a war or genocide) occurred. In fourth grade my school and I visited Antietam battlefield, which would be considered dark tourism. In the same way, my sisters and I will be visiting this infamous death camp, because it is important for us as individuals to bear witness. I have heard from other people that it is a truly powerful experience.

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I’ll finish my last week of classes (with a slight whimper, because honestly I’m tired and in need of a break) and head to Amsterdam for two nights! I’ll be meeting Mandy there because she is touring Europe for two weeks. I’m grateful to be with her in this city, because she knows it well.

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After Amsterdam, I’ll fly to the Czech Republic and meet my friend Kara, who I will travel with for the next week and a half. We spend two days in Prague, four in Austria, and four in Italy. I’ll fly back to Edinburgh, take a day or two to rest, then spend six days in Ireland; two in Belfast, two in Dublin. I am so excited, but also nervous. I am taking what I need for twelve days and strapping it onto my back. I can only take what I can carry, while also leaving room for the possibility of souvenirs. I guess this’ll be what real pilgrims did when traveling the world hundreds of years ago. Living simply, as I have found, and will definitely learn in the coming weeks, is liberating as well as healthy for the soul.

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I was sitting in my Bible class when my dad texted me about the Brussels bombing. I snuck my phone under my desk and read a few articles as my professor droned on about the Prodigal Son parable. It is fascinating what wonders modern communication can do when disaster and chaos erupt. I become instantaneously aware of a catastrophe that occurred earlier this morning, 620 miles from me, in another country. I cannot remember which of my friends it was, but I recall a discussion I was having with them a few months before I came to Europe. Someone was expressing concern about terrorism, and worried about going to Europe/traveling as a whole. For a moment I thought about that too. Then someone else pointed out that no one knows what could or could not happen, and where terrorism could strike next. Of course there are countries and areas that are certifiably dangerous for people to travel to. I, being a young, white, American woman realize that more than ever now. But that doesn’t mean I should constantly fear or limit myself.

 

My thought is this: Yes, there is always a fear and threat of danger, especially with terrorism looming over the world at present. But worry does nothing. There was always risk in traveling, even before ISIS was established. I have been thinking about travel recently, and I have come to a conclusion or two:

 

Travel is glamorous/glorious/fashionable in retrospect. I was on Skype with my friend and roommate Sarah the other night, and she presented me with this nugget of wisdom.

 

Travel is difficult, as I have mentioned before. It is not for the faint of heart. That is why mental and physical health is a priority.

 

One of the first motifs of the Bible that we discussed in my class in January was “wrestling with God.” In the same way, I have wrestled with the fact that travel is supposed to expand one’s perspective, and change one’s mind. For a while, I feel like I have been subconsciously clinging to old ways of thinking, old ways of doing things. No wonder I had a hard time adjusting!

 

Travel shakes you up, forces you to be uncomfortable, and to redefine the life you have lived before. I saw this somewhere and realized that at one time or another, I have moved about this miniscule speck of the earth for all of these reasons:

 

“We no longer travel because it is “the thing” to go abroad. Just at present, as a matter of fact, it is more fashionable to stay at home. But-means permitting-we must travel, and this for the following reasons:

For health.

For education.

To get away from things.

To realize the limitation of our own views.

To be able to improve the conditions at home.

To appreciate the various kinds of beauty in the world.

To find our level internationally.

To have something to talk about.

To have something to look back upon;

and last but not least, in order

To appreciate home.”

 

-A short excerpt  from the “Traveller’s Pocket References”, published in 1932.

Travel is uncertain, but so is life. This could not ring more true for me than it does right now. I fear life after college, what the meaning of my life is supposed to be, and whether I will be able to find it. I battle self-doubt and anxiety with the fact that faith and hope are essential to getting by. I have faith that the world, despite the evil and sin, is a good place, and that peace is the ultimate prize.

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I am not entirely sure when I will be posting next (a computer, while useful, is a valuable and heavy thing to bear in the singular bag I plan on taking with me around central Europe), however, I cannot wait to share my adventures when I return to Scotland! Until then, I’ll write again soon.

 

Invading Inverness, Observing Loch Ness, and Over The Sea to Skye

I have been slammed with essay writing, which is about 60% of our grades in most classes at the University of Edinburgh. Of course I had two due on the same day and another one due a few days after, meanwhile my parents planned to visit the week before. At any rate, I’m in a good place at the moment to write my post about this past weekend in the Scottish Highlands!

I would describe the Highlands as gorgeous and breathtaking, but also very wild and extremely desolate. The landscape is nothing like the city I hail from; the countryside is raw, less tamed, and more beautiful than I would have guessed. I suppose the only pre-conception I had before embarking was that the literal land and the Highlanders themselves would be like the way people still sometimes think of them: just as outlandish and wild as the land they occupy. I was wrong. The people contain the same kind demeanor that they do in the south, and the accents are far thicker.

We spent Friday night in Inverness, the “gateway to the Highlands.” It is the capital of the Highlands, and one of the biggest cities in Scotland. There were about 100 students on the trip, spread amongst three coach buses. We watched Braveheart on the way up to Inverness, which was a great distraction considering the fact that it was too dark to see any landscape.

The trip was sponsored through the International Student office at the University of Edinburgh. I went to Saint Andrew’s with them as well, and their trips have been really great. We had the hostel right off the high way all to ourselves.

My friend Katherine and I went into the city, which is quite metropolitan, considering we were in the Highlands. Even when I first got off the bus, I felt a difference in the air. It was colder in the way that I knew I was in the middle of nowhere. In a big city, the air feels compacted and compartmentalized. Out there, it is spread out and lighter. The chill got me excited, and anticipating for what was to come.

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We explored the river that runs through the city, and had fun walking over the light-up bridge in the city center. We saw Inverness Castle, which was what we had on the itinerary to see the next morning. I learned later that the castle was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Sometimes I feel like literature is following me around. And I love it! I slept on the bottom bunk in the hostel, wrapped in a thick duvet and saw the stars and huge orange moon rise up over the city as I fell asleep.

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Saturday morning came slowly and we marched up to Inverness Castle for a quick photo stop. Our guide, Ola, was the head of our bus and was by far the best leader. She was so knowledgeable and approachable; she taught us more Gallic words:

Ben – mountain

Loch – lake

Glen – valley

I’ll clear something up that I was confused about before this trip to the Highlands: Gaelic is what people from Ireland speak. Gallic is different. It is what Scottish people speak. While English is the predominate language in both countries, there is also a “native” language that is much more present in the Highlands than in Edinburgh. Yes, I have heard Gallic while walking the streets in Old Town or in the Grassmarket, but in the Highlands, Gallic is on the highway signs, on the tourist maps, and a bigger percentage of people speak it fluently.

Jet streams and legends!
Jet streams and legends!

Our next major stop was Loch Ness. My dad told me he used to joke about the Loch Ness monster when he was kid with his friends, which made me even more excited to see the huge loch. It is long and skinny on the map, and we stopped at several places to take photos. There is about a half a block of civilization around the lake with a hostel, candy shop and tourist buildings, and the res of the space is farmland. Katherine and I walked around for a little while before getting back on to go to lunch at Saint Augustus, which is the main viewing point for spotting Nessie!

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We got fish n’ chips and took photos, walking around the bank of the loch. The photos cannot capture the peace I felt out there. It was so quiet, and the water was so calm. You really felt like you were officially a highlander when you were out there in that vast space of land and water.

What blows my mind about Loch Ness the most is the fact that it is a big lake that attracts tourism for a water monster. I feel the same way about Roswell, New Mexico and Area 51. I find it fascinating that people are so attracted to conspiracy theories and legends like these that tourism can occur at these seemingly ordinary places, and that money is made every year due to aliens and water monsters.

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We made a few more photo stops on our way to Isle of the Skye, our final destination. We stopped at Eilean Donan Castle, a filming location for Made of Honor, which I haven’t seen, so I didn’t really get the reference. It was still so beautiful!

We got to Skye just in time; the sun was setting and we hiked up to decomposing Castle Moil, right on the coast. It was the perfect sunset. We could see Skye Bridge, and the mainland from where we stood. In some ways, Skye reminded me of the Oregon coast, where my mom and I spent my spring break two years ago.

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There was only a co-op nearby our hostel that night, so Katherine and I tried Iron Brew (a famed soda drink in the U.K. that, I was told, outsold Coca-Cola) and cooked frozen pizza. The Iron Brew tasted like orange cold medicine. Maybe that is your thing, but it wasn’t mine.

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Sunday morning I woke and watched the sun rise over the mountains of Skye. The morning was slow, and I felt tremendous peace as I walked onto the dock near our hostel. By 8AM, we were on our way touring the Isle.

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I was in the window seat, and I called out “COOS!” as we passed a field of Highland cows. “Coo” in Gallic, as you could probably guess, is “cow.” Our bus driver swerved to the side of the highway and told us we had two minutes. All 100 of us sprinted across the desolate highway to photograph and pet the coo. One of them, surprisingly, took immense interest in us and stuck its big head over the fence.

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We climbed one of Skye’s most famous landmarks: Old Man of Storr. The way up was harder than I thought; the steepness burned my calves and I was doubtful that I would actually make it. The view was so worth it. Another movie I haven’t seen was filmed there: Prometheus. Again I didn’t get the reference, but that didn’t seem to matter when the scenery was that gorgeous.

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We stopped for lunch in Portree, the capital settlement in Skye. It is a fishing town, so we got fish n’ chips again and walked around a bit. Katherine, Cat and I saw some fishermen in the bay sorting through crabs they had just caught. They were putting the big ones in a bucket and throwing the ones that were too small back into the water. Ola joked that the fried fish we were eating had been swimming without a care in the world in that same bay early that morning. I watched as the fish was breaded and fried in front of me, lathered with salt, and served up with thickly cut chips (fries). It was a tasty feast to say the least.

Portree harbor!
Portree harbor!

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After we crossed back over to the mainland, there was a good long drive back to Edinburgh. We watched Brave, which went along well with the Scottish theme. Ola had a lot of traditional Highlands music which made the drive that much more pleasant. Our last stop before the sun went down was Glencoe, which was a filming location for Skyfall, the James Bond movie. I actually saw that one in theaters when I was a high school student. It was one of the most beautiful sights I saw that weekend.

Glencoe!
Glencoe!

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The best part about this trip was the weather. Ola told us again and again that the sunny days we had were so unlike Highland (and Scotland!) weather. We were so blessed it wasn’t pouring all weekend (though, really, I wouldn’t have minded either way). I imagined what it would have been like in the height of the summer, and it made me want to come back someday. Something I love about Scotland, and the people living in this wild, cold, stunning country, is how it goes on. I notice, despite the cold or the rain, couples still take their kids out walking, or the way the mountains stand their ground despite the howling wind or splitting chill. I love the callous this country and its people possess, the firm but warm mentality that I have felt since touching down here. I am so thankful to be here.