Monthly Archives: June 2016

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 live their lives. These things come 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.