While I’m, quite obviously, not cut out to be a monk, I found last weekend that I have a lot to learn from their way of life.
I was welcomed as a guest into the quiet walls of Westmalle Abbey (not to be confused with Downton Abbey), which lies to the north of Antwerp.
Here, I journeyed with the monks and mirrored their way of life for a short time – enjoying their hospitality and some much needed, introspective alone time.
Meals of bread, jam, fresh cream and cheese and, of course, my favorite Trappist beer were kept in silence, as per the way of the monks.
Brick walls enclosed the chapel, guest houses and monk quarters, keeping out the sounds of the highway that carry from just down the dirt path. You could hear noises of the farm in the far distance – of cows and roosters – but mainly the only whisper you could hear was wind in the trees.
The first church service started and ended before daybreak, and no one bothered with watches or clocks, as the chiming bell tower kept time.
There were no engagements, no responsibilities – outside of morning, afternoon and evening prayer and the occasional coffee break – of course.
My friend, Lyndsey, and I made a best friend while on an evening walk in the courtyard – a cat named Felipe who was thoroughly convinced he was a guard dog. A monk in charge of the guest food, named Benedict, also became a friend, asking me all about America and offering a listening ear to my thoughts on Europe.
There were beautiful parts of the day, carved out for you to simply be alone in your room, meditating, praying, thinking – whatever you feel called to. For me, this was precious time to really stop and think about my journey, not only this semester, but the journey of the last two and a half years.
I feel like I’ve gotten to know myself fairly well – college and travel will do that to you – but with every new experience I know I’m still gaining glimpses of the person I want to become.
I’m so grateful for an experience like Westmalle, which made me press pause on a busy schedule – something I’m never inclined to do – and simply sit and think about how Europe has changed me and why it’s changed me. Press pause and think about what I want to do differently when I go home in just two short weeks. Press pause and say thank you for everything I have experienced this semester, both the difficult and the incredible.
A cup of mulled cider in one hand and steaming bowl of curry in the other, I weaved my way through food stands and crowds in a street market just south of the River Thames.
I sat down to enjoy my street food alone at a green picnic table for four, surrounded by a diverse array of nationalities and ages, all of us warming from the heaters above and the cider in our stomachs.
A young mother wheeled her two young sons in my direction, attempting to juggle their two bratwursts in one hand and her cellphone in the other. Looking around, pleading, she asked if they could sit with me. I smiled a, “yes,” as she situated her boys and answered her phone, trying to give directions to a friend nearby. Five minutes later, with no end to the directions in sight, she told her friend to stay there and she would come to her. She looked at me again and I took my cue, “I can wait with the boys.”
I never caught the boys’ names, but one was six and one was four. And they were the most adorable kids in all of London, probably. The six-year-old and I struck up quite the conversation about what I had seen in London. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: This is my first time in London!
Me: Well, this is my first time in Europe. I’m from the United States, and I’m living in Belgium right now.
Boy: I think London is the best. Did you come on the train that goes alllllllllll the way under the ocean?
Me: I did! You could hardly tell you were under the ocean, which is amazing. I really like London, too! I’ve seen Big Ben, the changing of the guards, Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s, Covet Garden. It’s all beautiful. And everything is already so Christmasy here!
Boy: Wait. But you haven’t been on the Eye yet? (As he points to the London Eye, which we could see in the distance.)
Me: Uhm, no. It’s a little pricey!
Boy: (While giving me the most condemning stare a 6-year-old can): But you’ve GOTTA go on the Eye!
Me: How much do you think it costs to go?
Boy: (Holds up bratwurst) Probably like only five of these.
If only, kid. London Eye or no London Eye, we both agreed London was one of the greatest places in the world.
More scenes from London:
If you’re reading this, you also have to listen to this simultaneously. Now you may continue.
This semester I’ve stood in the center of some of Europe’s most incredible cities.
But nothing man-made ever does it for me quite like nature. Standing at the edge of the ocean or at the foot of a mountain, it’s those moments that knock the wind right out of me and make me feel so small in a necessary, humbling way.
I don’t know when my infatuation with Switzerland started, but after spending the weekend there, I can tell you it’s not fading anytime soon. I have been dreaming about (and shamelessly googling) those mountains, lakes and hillsides for years. I knew this semester was my chance to make it happen.
So, this past weekend I journeyed to the central lakeside village of Lucerne. A couple of my roommates and I flew into Basel, where we spent the night in a hilariously hipster hostel right next to a lovely local brewery. We got up early and hopped on a train toward the mountains in plenty of time to see the sun warm green hillsides and red and orange forests.
(Autumn is absolutely the time to visit Switzerland, as well as every other season, I’ve decided.)
As we left the rolling hills behind and the mountain peaks began to materialize in the distance, I had to actively tell my heart to calm down for fear it would burst. The guy sitting across from me got a kick out of me smashing my face against the window for a better view, at least.
We rolled into Lucerne just as a drizzly morning faded away and blue skies began to peak out from the clouds. I causally walked (a.k.a. sprinted) to the lake, which was maybe 10 feet from the train station.
White sailboats wound through the deep, still blue waters. Belfries and steeples rose above the colorful buildings. I was so taken that I almost missed the snow capped mountains looming across the lake, surrounded by lush countryside. And I was left breathless at everything I could never dream of making.
I left Switzerland with an empty wallet but a full heart, a trade off I’m always more than okay with. I’ve found this semester that there’s this thing happening when I travel — this creeping feeling that grows the further I go — that though I’ve seen some incredible sights there are more cities to get lost in, more mountains to climb, more food to try, more air to breathe. It’s overwhelming and crushing how far I want my boots and backpack to take me, especially under the knowledge my time here is fading.
As I walked around the lake early today, looking at the mountains break from the morning mist with church bells ringing from old town, I knew that moment was irreplaceable, and what I saw this weekend was unforgettable.
I may not be able to see all of Switzerland like I’d like to – I may not even ever make it back – but I will always have the memory of those moments where the troubles of the world, the fears of my world, are stilled at the sight of such majesty, reminding me of the great works my hands aren’t capable of creating.
The day I arrived in Barcelona was also the day of the Barcelona vs Madrid game. Talk about perfect timing. My roommates and I traded the grey skies of Brussels for the deep blue ones of Spain last week for our fall break. When we hopped off of our bus and into the heart of Barcelona, flags were already adorning every balcony and red and blue jerseys were as abundant as the sunshine.
We asked the very kind Dutch girl at the front desk of our hostel where we could go to watch the game with some locals (because who wants to watch a Spanish football game at the Irish pub across the street?) and she pointed us in the direction of a local sports bar hidden within the winding cobbled footpaths of old-town Barcelona. In the daytime this little sports bar is completely unnoticeable, but that night it was overflowing into the nearby streets with screaming fans holding a euro beer in one hand and a plate of patatas bravas in the other. Wearing my newly purchased Barcelona scarf, I know I blended in just seamlessly. Eh, but I at least picked up pretty quickly that the best way to make friends was to yell with gusto whenever you deemed appropriate, even during commercial breaks. By the end of it, I was just as loud as any old local there.
About halfway through the game some guys at the end of the bar started a chant that soon engulfed the bar, and I had this grand idea of: hey, enjoying this moment in the moment isn’t enough so wait let me take a video and Instagram it and then everyone can see I’m in Spain and then I’ll be even cooler than those chant-starter guys down there. So, I reached into my purse for my iPhone only to find that it was blazing hot. I’m talking Spanish hot-chocolate (which is really more like fudge and is so great) level hot. Needless to say, my phone was fried.
When I got back to my hostel later that night – after Barci had a stellar victory – and discovered my phone was out of commission indefinitely, I was rather shocked by the huge wave of disappointment I felt. Not disappointment that my phone keeled over for no apparent reason (though that’s frustrating), but rather a sense of loss for all that I wouldn’t be able to share. I wouldn’t be able to Instagram that view from the hilltop fort that stands high over Barcelona, or tweet about my first authentic pan of paella or Facetime my parents about all my adventures. Heaven forbid, I would actually have to disconnect from that continent across the ocean. I would have to enjoy the moment rather than think about how I can best socially construct the moment. I would have to care about the experience itself rather than care about what other people think of my experience.
I have been wildly convicted while studying abroad of this crushing desire I have to construct who I am – or rather – who I appear to be and what this experience appears to be. After all, if you look at my Instagram feed or Facebook profile, you’ll find a girl fortunate enough to spend a semester in Europe, who is capitalizing on all these adventures and loving every moment of it. You’ll find that because that is what I want you to see. And it’s not very truthful.
Because I haven’t capitalized on this experience like I know that I want to – I’ve let homesickness and weariness be excuses to plant myself behind my computer screen rather than dive into these European cities I know I could love. I read an article a few weeks back by a great NYT columnist with the title, “Traveling Without Seeing.” It should be required reading for just about anyone who has the desire to travel but especially folks planning on living/studying abroad in the future.
The author, who was in Shanghai at the time, talked about how he had to force himself to close his laptop and actually venture into the city. My favorite excerpt:
“But I’m haunted by how tempting it was to stay put, by how easily a person these days can travel the globe, and travel through life, in a thoroughly customized cocoon.
I’m not talking about the chain hotels or chain restaurants that we’ve long had and that somehow manage to be identical from time zone to time zone, language to language: carbon-copy refuges for unadventurous souls and stomachs.
I’m talking about our hard drives, our wired ways, “the cloud” and all of that. I’m talking about our unprecedented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tailored reality of our own creation, a monochromatic gallery of our own curation.” – Frank Bruni, “Traveling Without Seeing.”
I’m haunted by how much time, effort and energy I’ve spent tailoring a reality of my own creation while abroad. And this past week was a phenomenal opportunity to do something about it rather than just talk about it. Without social media or connection to anyone outside of stunning Gaudi creations and overwhelming tapas bars, I finally felt like I was able to really feel the cities of Barcelona and Madrid. The extra time I had was spent getting lost in giant markets, accidentally walking into beautiful churches in time for 7 o’clock mass, bonding with bakers over churros and exploring the cities for myself by night. It was spent reflecting over what museums – like the Picasso museum in Barcelona and the Prado in Madrid – were teaching me through their collections. It was spent finding the little things – like a 125-year-old creamery in the heart of Barcelona with the best flan in the world – that make you truly fall in love with where your feet are. It wasn’t spent taking ten minutes to pick out the perfect Instagram filter.
The truth is – this experience of living abroad is really changing who I am and how I think of myself and the world I’m in. In just one week, Spain taught me how to fill my life with more kindness, more silliness, more curiosity. It taught me that documenting my travel is infinitely more rewarding from behind my trusty Canon or notebook rather than from behind constructing the next social media post.
Spain showed me that I can, in fact, travel with sight if I only just let go of trying to manufacture the moment and simply appreciate it for what it is – a beautiful, quickly fading step in a winding journey.