I have officially been in Europe for 3 weeks. I’ve finished an entire course, took a few weekend trips around the country, and even stayed in Stockholm, Sweden for a few days. I’ve eaten great food, terrible food, and had some interesting experiences while watching Danes drink in the streets at Distortion, one of the largest music festivals in Europe that spills socialization into the streets during the longest summer days. I’ll be honest in saying this post is as much for me as it is for my readers: whether you’ve enjoyed reading about my experiences or not, it has been an excellent way for me to keep my thoughts straight through my adventures. So, This is going to be a small weekly review, from arrival to the start of my second session. Read the rest of this entry »
I am three weeks into my course looking at what is remembered and what is forgotten in Berlin’s history. In our short time here we have gone on numerous excursions as a class to visit sites that reflect this theme.
In our second week we had our longest and most intimidating journey, a visit to a concentration camp. This past semester I took a class on the history of the Holocaust as part of my history degree, so I knew the logistics of what happened. I knew that Sachsenhausen was a concentration camp just outside of Berlin. I knew it held prisoners for a variety of qualities categorized as criminal offenses by the Third Reich, from political beliefs and sexual orientation to being Jewish, Sinti, or Roma. I just didn’t know what to expect when seeing the camp in person.
To get to the camp we took an hour-long ride on the S-Bahn followed by a 10-minute bus ride through a picturesque town. Upon arrival we were met with a large map of the camp emphasizing the enormity of Sachsenhausen.
The camp was meant to be the ideal model for all camps that would follow. Our guide explained the semi-circular set up of the camp. One main guard tower above the entrance was able to control the entire camp with one machine gun because the barracks fanned out like bicycle spokes from its base. A curved track paved with uneven stones separated the barracks from the tower. Prisoners were forced to carry weights while testing shoes for the German army, trekking back and forth across the track until collapsing from exhaustion.
Throughout the visit we were faced with the cruelty and suffering that was commonplace at the camp, from torture devices, gallows, and crowded bunks, to the crematorium. Some of us felt numb and uneasy, whispering to each other as we navigated the camp on our own.
In contrast to the raw leftovers of history we witnessed, were the intrusions of the current day. There were hundreds of other visitors to the camp that day, many with handheld, brick-like walkie-talkies that explained the history of the camp in whatever language was needed. There were some who snapped selfies in front of the gates near the sign that read “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” – work sets you free. The experience left me feeling disconnected from what that site was.
Our visit to Sachsenhausen served as another example of how Germany handles its darkest period in history. During the war, the scenic town was still where it is today, right next to the camp. German civilians could not have ignored the enormous structure located down the street from their own homes. They would have witnessed the new prisoners arriving at the local train station and seen the smoke stacks as no one made a return trip. Similarly, the camp remains as prominent as it was as a reminder and warning to all of us today. If we allow ourselves to forget, then we are enabling the conditions of fear and hate that emboldened the Third Reich to take hold once more.
I just had the most amazing opportunity that I will never forget. Myself and 18 new friends traveled to Isefjord, a small freshwater fjord connecting Kategat (the cat canal) to mainland Hoelbæk of Denmark. We met in Copenhagen and took a scenic train ride through rural Denmark at a beautiful 7 am. We walked through the town of Holbæk, known for one of the oldest hotels in Denmark and for the beautiful ports that host many of the country’s documented wooden ships.
In Denmark, wooden sailing ships are not only a living piece of history, but they are a prized possession that requires much responsibility. To be a licensed wooden ship in Denmark (one that belongs to an illustrious club, that is), there are rules that dictate everything, including how the deck must be washed and how the sails must be sewn (criss-cross seams fail a ship upon inspection).
Once we were on the boat, safety demonstrations began. We put all of our stuff down below where there was enough sleeping rooms for 23. Soon, we began leaving Holbæk for Hundested, or “dog’s place.” The temperature was warm for Denmark, but the sea breeze was perfect. Kenneth told me he had almost never seen such a perfect Danish day for sailing.
Out on the front of the boat, rigging was set to help hoist the sails. Between the 3 of us, we were able to shimmy out past a net, onto the beams beyond the boat to raise the sails in a windy adventure. We saw jellyfish go by underneath us at a comfortable 5 knots. We sailed for an entire day before landing in port, the beach of Hundested. It was a beautiful small city, one that most of the crew was pretty familiar with. Kenneth, Jonas, and Johnny showed us around and let us have a great time around the city, teaching us new words and Danish and laughing at our all-together Americanness.
Every day, different members of the crew cooked a meal and did the dishes. In Denmark, customs say that if you make the meal, you eat last, inviting your guests to partake first. While we weren’t used to this, the first mate was quite strict. That being said, the fruit here in Denmark is the best you will ever have. Denmark doesn’t use preservatives like other countries, meaning the food goes bad faster here, but tastes must fresher. We had bread fresh from the bakery in both ports. And, we learned to make a tenderloin-sausage stew that was absolutely fantastic! Everything we had on the boat was good!
While many of the sights were beautiful and amazing, easily the best part of this trip was the crew. The captain, Markin, was the quietest, but one of the funniest. He obviously loved our energy and laughed at our jokes and bad dance skills on the boat, but never spoke to the guests directly. Christina, the first mate, was a delight. She was the person who helped us all cook and taught us the tradition of logkake, a layer cake that is made for celebrations in Denmark. She also was dating the captain, which she explained happened during a 2 month excursion to Spain.
Johnny was the funny guy. He had been on the ship the longest as a crew member and loved the seas. He was very open and loved to talk to us all, though his English was spotty. That made Kenneth, a 27-year-old student on the ship, even more fun. Kenneth was as fluent in English, no doubt about it. He only needed to look up a few words during the entire trip. He was an amazing artist and really enjoyed spending time with us.
Finally, “micro-man” Jonas was the most reserved about the group. Jonas was only 19 and was a student in the sailing school. He was very wary of us when we started, but he warmed up pretty quickly. We got him to laugh, though his English was the worst. Not bad, at all, but definitely a challenge.
The crew really took us in and taught us the meaning of hygge. Hygge is the traditional moral of the Danes, a way of life that incorporates comfort, compassion, and welcome into their lives. I can’t imagine being able to recreate the feeling of watching the sunset on a small boat with the comfort of new friends.
When I was preparing to study abroad there were a lot of warnings about culture shock and homesickness; and of course when my mom was driving away, leaving me at the airport, I was shaken up. That nervous feeling did not leave me until I met the other Indiana University students in Berlin. Since then I have been too busy exploring to be bothered by weird instances of cultural confusion, like the Kontrolleurs on the trains. The Kontrolleurs spend their days in plainclothes slipping onto trains and flashing their badges before requiring everyone to show their validated ticket. Being caught without the correct ticket will get you kicked off and earn you a pricey fine.
While I’m on the subject of public transportation, I think Bloomington could take some pointers from Berlin; they have it down to a beautiful, eco-friendly network of trams, trains and buses. To get to class I can take a tram from the hotel we are staying in on a five-minute ride to the Oranienburger Straße stop which is at most a two-minute walk from our classroom at IES. The trams are particularly nice because they have their own lane to operate in and only stop when requested, making for quicker commutes. To get virtually anywhere in the city, we can also take the U-Bahn, the underground train or the S-Bahn, the above-ground train. I prefer the S-Bahn because you can see the city as you travel. A tip to those riding public transportation, Germans are not fond of noisy, over-talkative groups so save your breath and keep it down. Also, don’t be alarmed if you feel like people are staring at you — I’ve gathered that they are just an observant bunch and don’t mean anything by it.
On our first day of class our professor paired us off and assigned us each a treasure hunt to find different sites or things around the city. Mine took me from the first place the Berlin Wall opened to the best döner kebab stand to a fancy mall overlooking the zoo. I felt like I was back at Freshman Orientation learning my way around campus and finding places to hang out or study. An early favorite of mine is the Teirgarten; a huge park perfect for jogging, sunbathing, reading, or just watching the other visitors, usually with their impressively obedient dogs in tow. When you are close to the outside perimeter of the park and can see the Brandenburg Gate, it feels just like any small, green space in any city; but when you are deep within it wildflowers, weeping willow trees and countless statues surround you. If you’re lucky and find yourself near the statues for Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn, you’ll hear chimes — solidifying the feeling that you are in some kind of fairytale.
After finishing our scavenger hunt we reunited with our class to tour the Reichstag, the home of Germany’s parliament. Touring the Reichstag gave an interesting insight into the theme of our class. The exterior of the building has historic grandeur while the inside is pristinely modern. There are few reminders of the mysterious fire that destroyed part of the building in 1933 after Hitler came to power.
Our tour guide led us through the enormous glass doors and began to explain the dusty, charcoal graffiti found on the walls. At the end of World War II after taking Berlin, Soviet soldiers descended on the Reichstag and left their mark on the walls. She explained that it was decided that it would be preserved to serve as a constant reminder of Germany’s history.
We continued on our tour to an interior balcony overlooking a wall-sized window facing the east. Our guide pointed out the bullet holes left in the ceiling from the Battle of Berlin and then focused on the slightly darker line on the pavement outside. She explained the Berlin Wall used to run directly behind the Reichstag separating it from what used to be East Germany. She laughed as businessmen walked along the line, unaware that a group of tourists were observing, perhaps oblivious to what they were walking on. After one week here, these are the kind of ironic contrasts we are starting to get used to.
So far, my new friend, the FitBit ChargeHR, has tracked 104 flights of stairs, 23.6 miles, and 52,699 steps. For roughly 48 hours, I’d say we have made a dent in the calles of Venice. It’s hard to describe the feeling I’ve gotten from walking around Venice.
Animated. Dreamy. Imaginary.
I feel as though the only way to describe the area is like a Disney feature; like everything was made to look authentic. There is no way that the buildings look like this naturally, right? But they do. They haven’t been rebuilt, or repainted. They don’t tear down out-dated buildings and put in new ones. The grime that collects beneath the windows reveals the character and the age of the buildings so it is left as is. Each square has a church that the square is then named after and they are in no way similar to the churches from home. Each one is breathtaking in its own way and overpowering by its height and detail. Trying to imagine the mind behind designing these building inside and out is overwhelming.
There is a sense of trust that comes with the city. The calles can be small and not suggested for claustrophobics, but you trust that you’re safe in the 3′-wide walk way. On my first day I found that — unlike in the US — dead-end streets are not marked. So locals would watch as I turned down a street and would then wait expectantly as I return from the calle reaching for my map. You learn quickly to follow people because they most often know where they’re going. An unspoken navigation is found in the footsteps of others.
The food, my God, the food. Croissants, lasagna, olive oil, wine, cheese, pizza. Everything. All made within the morning you buy it. The first thing I bought was a chocolate croissant which I was pleasantly surprised when it was filled with Nutella. Then Lasagna. Taylor (my new roommate and adventure buddy) both ordered a 5″x5″ serving and a liter of wine to share. The small restaurant was very pleased when we accidentally tipped WAY too much and then later realized that they include the tip in Venice. Our waiter kissed our cheeks and shook our hands as he walked us out of the restaurant. Oops.
Slowly learning how this place works.
Sadly, the gondolas are a rip off. They put the most handsome men on the shiniest, smallest, slowest boats and row people around the city. Of course I want to sit on your upholstered sofa boat while you wear that tight striped shirt and sun hat but, Sir, I am not giving you €100 to do so. But a girl can dream.
So today we woke up around 8:30 and walked to what I thought was a cathedral but it is simply a Baroque landmark that was built in thanks for the lifting of the plague in 1630. It was right on the tip of one of the venetian neighborhoods and looked out over the main canal. Then we walked to a grocery store led by Ed, our tour guide, professor, and source of comedy for the trip. He showed us some of his favorite stops in the area and then abandoned us to find our way home.
(Don’t be scared mom, walking in Venice at 11am isn’t a dangerous thing.) It is probably safer than the later hours due to the lack of pestering Bangladeshis selling selfie sticks and silly LED toys, and the flood of tourists wandering around with said selfie sticks not watching their surroundings. Good times.
PLEASE! Feel free to posts any questions or certain things you would like to know about below! I’ll get to them when I can! Caio!
Being abroad for only a few weeks has already been a life changing experience. I have now been in Florence, Italy for exactly two weeks and have already accomplished more than I could have even imagined. This trip has been a whirlwind of chaos, excitement, and nerves and I could not be any happier. Leaving the day after the end of the semester was something that was very stressful, from trying to move out of my dorm and back into my family’s home, to packing up my stuff to live in a foreign country, on top of studying for finals is something that I would never have imagined accomplishing, but I did.
I left for Florence on Saturday, May 7 and arrived Sunday morning into Rome from Chicago and then proceeded to take a train from Rome to Florence. Arriving at the hotel on my own was intimidating, but once I got there, everyone was friendly and welcoming. My program is set in Florence for six weeks and there are about thirty people participating. Together, we all stay in a hotel which is on the top floor of a building that has amazing views of the center of Florence.
Let’s be real: everyone who studies abroad is so excited about the place they will be visiting and the people they will meet, not necessarily focusing on the courses being taught. As obvious as it might seem that STUDY abroad has quite a bit of work associated with it, it seems like some of the students who are studying around me are baffled by the expectation to complete work at such an exciting time. Along with studying during your adventures, students have all of these amazing plans that they know will absolutely work out 100% of the time and will be perfect and be life changing…
I think it’s time to set some realistic expectations for what you might experience while studying abroad. Read the rest of this entry »