Well, I hardly learned any French at all this semester, but at least I learned how to say ‘thank you.’
I leave tomorrow morning to make the long journey back to Fayetteville.
My room is in shambles as I try to pack, and I’m trying not to think about seeing my mom’s face for fear I’ll start the waterworks now. I’m also trying not to think about leaving Brussels for fear I’ll start the waterworks now. So essentially, I’m just not going to think about anything for the next 24 hours. Except this blog post. And maybe packing.
I am constantly amazed at how quickly time goes. Part of me feels like I have always been in Brussels, the other as though I’ve just arrived. To say this season has been the most trying and gratifying of my life would be an understatement, possibly. I think I’m ready to leave, but I’m not yet ready to say goodbye.
So, here are some of my favorite snapshots from my time in and around Brussels. Consider it an ode to Belgium and the people in it who have made this experience so incredible.
I have to say a special thanks to FTbrussels, Serve the City and The Well — who were my supporters and my family this semester. Brussels may be a transient city, but goodness is it full of wonderful people. This city and all of you in it have made me better, so thank you. I’m not going to say goodbye, because I have a feeling there will be a season ahead where we all meet again. So, merci beaucoup! Until we meet again.
“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!”
— J.R.R Tolkien, The Hobbit
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.
Take hundreds of people and stick them in a huge, square room. Feed them sandwiches and give them coffee. Make them run and rush and jump when you say so. If this sounds a little bit like a pycho training exercise, you’re not too far off. It’s also known as an EU summit.
Journalists sit, lined up at tables sprawled across the Schuman building. If you walk around enough, you can hear most of the EU’s 24 official languages. And yet, everyone is waiting to say the same thing, though in their own language. Everyone is waiting for the doors to open, the leaders to emerge and the announcement to be made. As my bureau chief said, it feels more like regurgitation than journalism. And yet, it’s still infinitely important to report what goes on behind those closed doors, where the direction of Europe is decided.
The big topic at this summit was data protection. Angela Merkel had a NSA hacking scandal break the morning of the Summit, propelling forward debates of privacy and responsibility, and of course renewed distrust against America. It has been absolutely fascinating to sit back and listen to European journalists rail on America, especially where I was sitting just a stone’s throw away from Daily Mirror and Daily Mail reporters. If you need some more sensationalism in your life, I know exactly where to point you.
Besides eavesdropping (I am American, you know), I spent the summit running around to different events and feeding quotes to the FT reporters writing articles back at the summit building. I quickly found that covering a summit well takes multiple hands and even more ears, and I have no idea how some papers like the International New York Times do it as a one-man show. Attending every presser and doorstep feels impossible, but it’s those details that count. I was sent to the Party of European Socialists doorstep, where the party members magically appeared in shinny black cars and walked down a red carpet to reports yelling questions.
Occasionally some stopped and answered, such as European Parliament President Martin Schulz. But most, i.e. Italian PM Enrico Letta, walked right on by. Regardless, it was incredible to be just a few feet away from political giants (in Europe, at least) and it felt unreal more times than not, especially when sitting in the same room as Angela Merkel and David Cameron later on.
Lampedusa – and the EU’s vast migration issues – were set to be the key topic of debate for state leaders on Friday, and yet, the majority of what I heard and read remained focused around America’s spying blunder. While the experience as a whole was an incredible learning opportunity, this part of it made me uneasy. As timing made phone tapping the new hot topic, that’s what journalists’ questions centered around and what merited front-pages.
EU leaders said the topic of migration will be revisited at a summit dedicated to the subject in June of next year. Until then, it will be more words and full, reporters and papers, and Lampedusa will be forgotten. Where’s the urgency Europe spoke of when the Italian border dominated front pages just two weeks ago?
As one of my journo heros, Martina Stevis put it:
“But the pressure on Europe’s fragmented asylum system will only mount in coming months, as Syria’s civil war deteriorates and the weather in the Mediterranean worsens in winter. For those desperate enough to attempt a boat crossing to Europe’s southern shores, next year’s summit may be seven months too late.”
When I was about to graduate high school, my parents graciously offered me a trip in celebration of making the leap to college.
Now, if I had said Mars or Nepal or somewhere a bit off the map, my mom probably would’ve reined me in. But, “anywhere,” she said. “It’s your trip.”
Looking back, I wonder if I should have given it some more thought. Yet, at the time, I didn’t even need five minutes. “Puerto Rico,” was the ready response.
Puerto Rico is where my mom came from. Surrounded by water, made up of cobble-stone streets filled with Spanish speakers, it was about as different from Arkansas as you can get. And I longed to see it. I longed to see where I came from.
But this post is about the other side of that coin.
After all my last name is Bauman, which is clearly not Puerto Rican. And the Baumanns (we dropped and “n” somewhere between the home country and Ellis Island to make us seem less German, you know) come from the Rhineland, or so my father tells me.
So, naturally, my heart’s been longing to see the second piece of what perhaps used to be mine for a while now.
Last weekend took me to Cologne (Köln), a stunning, ancient town spilling out from both banks of the River Rhine.
I have no idea where in the Rhine valley my surname calls home, but I hope to one day. Until then, I’ll be content with seeing as much German country as I can.
The train ride from Brussels to Cologne took me through some beautiful valleys and hills. My Mizzou travel buddies and I reached our final stop at the Cologne station late afternoon on Friday, grabbed our backpacks and stepped outside.
A stunning view of the cathedral every postcard in Cologne features greeted us, basked in golden 5 p.m. light. We meandered to our hostel, which I’d highly recommend, before making our way to a local beer hall, of which Cologne is famous for.
One very German meal later – filled with mashed potatoes, sausage and the city beer, kölsch – and we were ready to roll (literally) into our bunk beds.
Fantastic weather stayed with us all weekend. We started our day at a chocolate museum (I was cast in the role of Augustus Gloop. I smashed it), got lost in the streets surrounding the river and boarded a river cruise for the afternoon.
As the sun started to droop, spreading it’s rays into the depths of the Rhine, our boat circled back toward the cathedral.
Though thousands of miles separate me from my family, whom I very much so miss, in that moment I couldn’t help but feel at home.
Three weeks ago, I walked into the office of the Financial Times Brussels bureau for the first time.
Dressed in my best business-profesh attire, I rang the door bell to one of the many row-houses found across from a beautiful park and the Belgium Royal Palace. It was a little after 9 a.m., and I swayed back and forth in the cool Brussels air to the rhythm of my screaming nerves. “What if I’m late?” “Did I bring an extra pen?” “I definitely shouldn’t have had that last cup of coffee.”
Countless, insignificant thoughts and questions rattled around inside until someone finally opened the door. A woman juggling an espresso and a dust pan looked down at me, her naturally cheery faced mixed with confusion. “You are…,” she asks with an accent I can’t yet place.
I give her a nervous line about being the new intern, and she quickly ushers me into a newsroom far different than any I’ve stepped into before. She introduces herself as Catalina, the housekeeper of the FT office for the past decade.
“Darling,” she says in what I learn is a Romanian accent, “I’m going to go make you some coffee. Do you know you’re here an hour early?”
Catalina’s warmth was a beautiful surprise-start to my internship this semester with the Financial Times Brussels bureau.
To say my learning curve going into this internship felt as deep as Greece’s debt cerca December 2009 would be an overstatement, but just barely. I met Catalina on the doorstep that Monday morning full of expectations and doubt — the unhealthy combo that accompanies any major change. I think the fear I most heavily carried up the steps and to my corner desk was the fear of looking foolish — whether it be for arriving late (or in actuality massively early), struggling to understand austerity or failing to articulate the difference between the European Council and the Council of European Union (let’s get a little more creative with names, people).
Over the past three weeks, of course, there have been times when I felt foolish. But so far I haven’t been asked to simplify a very convoluted EU system or solve the debt crisis, so I haven’t looked nearly as foolish as my irrational fears would have led me to believe. What I have been asked to do is play a small part in one of the most accurate, longest-standing newspapers in Europe and in the world. And I’m finding more and more that feeling foolish is directly correlated with learning, and continually learning is the whole goal of becoming a good journalist, isn’t it?
My desk is a front-row seat to how a paper of this weight and responsibility thrives. In offices that were long ago living rooms and bedrooms, FT journalists have been recording European (and world) history here for the last 40 years.
I still get to the office anywhere from an hour to 30 minutes early, but now it’s on purpose. I check in with Catalina before she leaves and ask her how her family in the states are doing. I make an espresso downstairs before I grab the day’s copy of the FT, sit down at my desk and open up my pink textbook.
The nerves are still there – I feel them every time I walk into an EU press conference or mess up a dial on my Ph.D-required desk phone. But what I feel now – more than my own self-doubts or insecurities – is an insatiable excitement to learn everything I can from a paper I respect more and more everyday. And that’s far more fun than feeling nervous.
We’re three weeks in, and I know I still walk like a tourist – self-doubting, struggling to find street signs and metro terminals.
But we’re three weeks in, and slowly but surely, I’m learning the shy but sweet Belgian culture.
It’s not flashy like Paris, proper like London or spicy like Barcelona. Brussels has too many personalities to fit a category, and all of them are subtle.
I’ve only met one Belgian who was born and raised in Brussels; he is an 80-year-old fellow Sunday market goer. I never caught his name, but he said he’s seen the capital of Belgian, and apparently Europe, change a lot over the past eight decades.
But he said three things have remained constant, unwavering Brussels pillars: beer, waffles and comics.
I’ve gotten a taste of Belgians’ love for these three necessities over the past few weeks. It’s hard to find a bar in town that doesn’t serve ten or so Belgian beers, and if you’re lucky, a trappist beer will always be on tap. Last weekend was a crowded, crazy beer festival held at the Grand Place. There were twenty too many shouting Canadians for us, so we made our own beer festival at one of the city’s best known bars, Delirium. After tasting the incredibly diverse brews, it’s easy to see why Belgians treat their beer with as much affection as a family member.
Also dear to the heart of any Belgian, or let’s be real and say any Brussels tourist, are waffles. Brussels and Liege waffles are generally hailed as the best around, through apparently they’re very different. I can’t speak to the Liege waffles yet, but I can tell you Brussels waffles are unlike any I’ve had. They’re also diabetes waiting to happen. Prepared with a yeast-leavened batter, these gems are lighter, thicker and more crispy than the Plaza 900 waffles I grew accustomed to freshman year. People more knowledgable than I have weighed in on the best waffles in Brussels, and by the time I leave, I’ll hopefully have tried most all.
Hopping on the comics strip bandwagon was a little harder for me, mainly because they’re not something you generally put in your belly. After witnessing the Brussels Comics Fest last weekend, however, I’ve got to say the level of cartoon-dedication here is impressive. A Macy’s Thanksgiving Day styled balloon parade in the morning gave way to a spectacular lights show at night, both of which celebrated the history of comics in Brussels. As a TinTin fan growing up (he was a journalist, you know), it was fun to see a celebration of something so classically Belgian.
I’m far from a Brussels native (nearly 60 percent of those in Brussels are foreigners, so at least I’m not alone), but I take comfort in the knowledge that I’m a fan of the three things my 80-year-old, Brussels-born friend said were most classically Brussels: beer, waffles and comics.
Fantastic news. I can stop stressing about understanding and reporting on the European Union. Really I should just tell the Brussels Financial Times bureau we can start covering the capital of beer and chocolate rather than the capital of Europe, because it’s all going to collapse five years.
At least, that’s what Friends of a Reunited Europe would have you believe.
This museum (loosely called) was organized by the Royal Flemish Theatre and can be found just a few streets from the heartbeat of the European Commission. The exhibition transports you to year 2063.
The brilliantly dusty and drab museum displays “the final years of the long peace,” before the EU dissolved into chaos due to its own bureaucracy and inadequacies.
Though unification brought peace following the two bloody European Civil Wars, “the ensuing prosperity and stability lulled Europe to sleep,” according to a pamphlet written in both English and Esperanto and handed to every visitor before entering into an eerily lit hallway to the future.
But before we get there, let’s take a look at the EU as it stands in September 2013.
The Friends of a Reunited Europe ask their visitors to reflect on a time in Europe when a single currency was used, boundary lines evaporated and “when it came to climate summits and international conflict resolution, Europe had to content itself with a place along the side-lines.” Striking a chord yet?
Highlights from the multistoried exhibit include the EU’s “Acquis Communautaire” — or body of European law — which grew to about 311,000 pages by 2017, according to the Friends of a Reunited Europe. All 311,000 pages are on display, stacking from the first floor to the fourth. Also on display is the now extinct euro, old EU propaganda and two maps that illustrate how extremism and regional separatism grew into the kill shots that derailed the European Project in 2018.
Perhaps most powerful is the last room of the exhibit. After your eyes adjust to the sheer darkness, you’ll see a window on the far right, illuminating a series of print paper. In both English and Esperanto rests a real-life letter from exhibition creator and visionary Thomas Bellinck to a friend who committed suicide after bankruptcy.
At first glance, it may seem Bellinck is overly pessimistic and critical of both the current and future EU. Yet, a theme carried from dusty room to dusty room is the “Fear of Loss,” which Bellinck nicknamed the last room in the exhibit. Much more can be found in any of the great articles written about Bellinck and his creation. Whether in an interview or speaking with patrons in the bar on the top level of the museum, Bellinck stresses the exhibit is very critical but ultimately is a pro-European exhibition.
What stayed with me the most is that the problems within the current EU Bellinck highlights with his dark humor are very real and very dangerous to the health of the European Project. The further I dig into the convoluted system that is the EU for my internship, the more I’m taken aback at how much of an experiment it is. Much like the building layout of the European quarter, there’s no clear organization or finish line to the Project. Bellinck says the collapse of the EU is not science-fiction, and is a worst case scenario that is becoming more and more possible every day.
I take comfort, maybe naively, in the fact I’m working with and learning from journalists who are working to illuminate the issues in the EU that caught Bellinck’s creative and critical eye. Perhaps with enough voices and opinions, the European experiment will still be standing strong in it’s egg-shaped headquarters come 2018. And if not, you’ll find me on the fourth floor of a museum, toasting the former European Union.
The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of discovering beautiful places and winding up in embarrassing situations — a combination only traveling abroad can offer.
On our escapade across mid-Europe, my family and I have have visited Paris, the western coast of France, Bruges and Brussles, Belgium and eastern Germany.
Each place taught me different lessons to bring into my semester abroad. Of this I’m thankful, not only because, hopefully, same mistakes won’t be made twice (i.e. if you leave luggage in your car in Paris, it will get broken into), but also because I know my knowledge and experience will only build from here.
I could write at least 500 words on all I learned over these two weeks, but I know you’ll be tempted to stop reading after paragraph five (and hopefully not before). So here are some photos and some lessons. They’re in no particular order, but if you’re strapped for time, jump down to the Neuschwanstein (no, it’s actually spelled like that) Castle. It might have been the highlight of the trip. Now, I’m going to go get settled into my new flat on Rue Souveraine. Cheers!
Lessons from this gorgeous, albeit ritzy, fishing village on the west coast of France:
Omaha Beach, France // Ste Mere Eglise, France
Lessons from an incredibly sobering day:
Bruges, Belgium // Ghent, Belgium
Lessons from these wonderful, historic little Belgium towns:
(not to be confused with The Berg, CoMo)
Lessons from a town that’s been teaching Germany since 1386:
Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany
Lessons from one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been:
Lessons from the big city:
Like many in my generation, I have a serious problem with being still.
Not so much in the short-term sense, though I still don’t think I could make it through a 60-minute math class without “going to the bathroom” (a.k.a. walking the halls and thinking about anything other than fractions).
I can’t be still in that I constantly have to be doing something. And once I wrap up that something, I have to quickly move on to another, hopefully more radical, something. And once that thing ends, well, you get the picture.
For example, I just wrapped up a truly life-changing summer interning at an urban home repair camp in Memphis, Tenn. Less than 48 hours after hugging my fellow summer staff goodbye, I was on a redeye to Paris. I’ll be traveling around with my family for the next two weeks before settling in Brussels for the remainder of the semester. My internship with the Financial Times (eep!!) will start less than a week after I get situated in the backyard of the EU headquarters. Talk about motion sickness.
I’ve had at least a dozen people tell me they’re jealous of how fast and how far I’m moving. And I know, these opportunities this year has brought me are incredibly rare. I hear all the time that traveling helps you “find yourself” or “better yourself.” And it does. Or it should.
But the further I travel the more I’m learning on the rare occasions when I simply allow myself to be still, to be content, to be where my feet are…that’s when I learn the most about the place I’m at. It’s also when I learn the most about me.
You see, travel is glamorous only in retrospect. Travel is leaving behind all you knew to be true, whether that means traveling to inner-city America or a new country. It should be uncomfortable and hard. It should force you to think differently than you did before.
Travel is getting to know a place beyond the tourist attractions and guidebook recommendations. It’s learning to see beauty in a city’s grit.
Travel isn’t this constant focus — that I’m so prone to — on the next place, the next something. The kind of travel I want to experience in Europe this semester is striving to be still and LEARN in the place I am, until the current picks up again to take me a little further down.
By the time I hop on a plane back to the states in early December, I’m not going to know Paris well. I’m not going to know London, Rome, and I won’t even know Brussels as well as I want to. But I do know that if I spend my time well in these places as a humble learner, I’ll gain what only experience can teach.
So on this adventure, here’s to being a sojourner, not a wanderer. Here’s to learning to soak up every minute of where I’m walking, not looking down the road. Here’s to finding that secret to the paradox of both being in motion and being still.
Because getting caught up in it all, while taking the time to learn from it all, that’s where the true glamor of travel lies.