23.12.09

Where I Went

This will all make a little bit more sense if you're looking at a map.

I flew into Durham Tees Valley Airport in Britain, which is a very small airport in North Yorkshire county, where my uncle lives. I spent a week with him and my cousins, and saw three castles, two abbeys, and quite a lot of fog. I also washed a car, went to the library, went to a baptism, ate out, ate in, went to Church, rode a pony and generally loafed around the house with my cousins. It was a leisurely time and I was sad when it ended.

I spent half an hour in London, switching trains. All but one minute of that was underground. I took the Eurostar train across the Channel to France.

In Paris I met N and we started our tour: four countries and six cities in two weeks. It sounds like a death march but somehow, by sheer force of will, we managed to make it mostly just a two-week extended process of loafing around, with a few train rides thrown in. It helped that we had a lot of cool people to meet: we stayed in hostels half the time, and the other half we stayed with my cousins, my friends from BFTF, a friend of my brother's from when he served his mission in Germany.

The breakdown:
Three days loafing around Paris, and then three in Belgium: an afternoon loafing around Brussels, a day where I loafed around Leuven with family (my cousins and their cousins) and N. went to Ghent. Then a night with family in Antwerp and a day loafing around Bruges. Another day loafing around Antwerp for N, and I went to Church and then caught a train to Darmstadt, Germany, where I caught up with a some friends from BFTF. N came in later that night, and we spent two days loafing around Darmstadt with Laura and Cristi before heading on to Berlin. Three fabulous days in Berlin, and then on to Prague, where we spent another three days loafing around.

N. flew back home from Prague, and I got on a train to Poland, where I met up with Kryzsiek and Martyna. We spent three days in Wroclaw before going to Warsaw, where we got on a plane to Bulgaria. We spent three days in Sofia, with more BFTF alumni showing up every day, before catching a bus to Blagoevgrad, the site of the BFTF reunion.

Blagoevgrad seems to have been carefully chosen for having absolutely no attractions other than American University in Bulgaria, where we stayed. So it was a week much more about people than about sights.

After Bulgaria I went with some Laura, Cristi, Isidora to Valbona's house in Skopje, Macedonia where we stayed for two days, and then on to Isidora's place in Zrenjanin, Serbia, where we stayed for a week. And then I flew home.

It really wasn't until I got home that I really had time to think about my trip at all, and within another week I was on my way to college, where there wasn't much room for the past either. And so I write here to try and keep alive a few things that I know are important, to try and tease the lessons out of this list of places that I traveled to.

Why I Went

I realized that I've been posting a lot about the details of my trip without having ever given the broad picture. I'd like to fix that now, so this post will cover how I ended up going to Europe in the first place, and my next post will give a broad overview of where I went and what I did while I was there. Then I'll go back to posting about the details, because those stories and pictures make up most of what I really want to share.

I ended up in Europe through a series of coincidences and tremendous luck, or rather through one stroke of tremendous luck. My junior year in high school a teacher handed out an application for a program called the Benjamin Franklin Transatlantic Fellowship. The short description mentioned that it was a month-long international relations program held at Wakeforest University and funded by the State Department. Forty students would be accepted, and thirty of them would be from across Europe and Central Asia. The main goal of the program would be to connect youth across the Atlantic.

That sounded really exciting, and for the first time in my life I actually applied for something. I had to work fast because applications were due one week from when I'd gotten the flier, but I had some teachers kind enough to offer to serve as references, and I managed to write the required essays and fill in the required forms.

I got accepted. And during the first year, in North Carolina, I found out that there would be a second year of the program: a reunion somewhere in Easern Europe the following summer. And now I had friends all across Europe.

In January, BFTF announced that the reunion would be during the last week of July in August, and the flight costs of the American participants would be paid by the State Department. Then they told us that if we wanted to travel before or after the conference, we could, and the State Department would still pay our airfare to and from the continent but we would have to pay for the traveling in between.

And that was my stroke of luck. I couldn't quite believe it was real.

I mentioned this to my friend N., and he said that he'd be saving up money from his job, and that he'd come and travel with me if I wanted the company. By April, I realized this trip was actually going to happen, and N. and I laid out a rough plan for our trip while we were at a Model UN conference together. I also planned some other travel with friends from BFTF. By the end of May, I had arranged a six week trip across nine countries, with the BFTF reunion conference in the fifth week.

It was great. It changed my life and didn't. I'm glad I went, someday I'd like to go again. I can't thank the State Dept. enough. If you thought that the US government never did anything for ordinary Americans, I am living proof otherwise.

22.12.09

Unexpected Sights

I chose to visit Wroclaw for only one reason: my friend Krzys is at university there. And so I arrived in mid-July, with no particular plans other than to spend a few days with him before heading off to the BFTF Conference.

I'm glad I went to Wroclaw. If I hadn't, after all, I never would have seen this:

16.12.09

Tram Lines


This is a sight you don't often see in America, at least not any more. It's something I never saw before I got to Europe.

I like tram lines because they're like mechanical spiderwebs. I like them because they remind me of long exposure photos, the kind where you see not only a person but the trail of their movement hanging behind them in the air.

Trams are ways of connecting places, and tram lines are those connections hanging in the air, before and after the cars go past.

14.12.09

Pre-Luther Protestants

The two pictures in the post below are of Tyn Church, which stands taller than anything else around Prague's Old Town Square (for a quick reminder of how old Prague is, realize that New Town was built in the fourteenth century.) N. and I spent 2 of our three days in Prague wandering through Old Town, so we spent a while looking up at the spires of Tyn Church.

The golden image on the front is the Virgin Mary, but it used to be a chalice. That's because Tyn Church was once a center of the Hussites, whose main break with the Catholic Church was over whether lay-people should receive Communion wine as well as wafer.

The Hussites, so named for their support of Jan Hus, split from Catholicism more than a century before Luther did. And they didn't simply disappear either. Tyn Church was held by Hussites until 1626, and today's Moravian Church claims direct descent from Jan Hus.

9.11.09

A Memory of Falling


2009 has been a year of important anniversaries in much of Eastern Europe. For Poland, June 4th marked 20 years since the first free elections since World War Two.

The Czech Republic will have a similar anniversary in late December.

And twenty years ago today, the Berlin Wall fell-- or at least became irrelevant.

It was two years before my birth, and therefore six years before my memory-- but it is well within the memory of much of the world, and certainly deeply ingrained in the national memory of Germany.

Needless to say, my time in Berlin was filled with reminders of the Berlin Wall.

My hostel was on what would have been the Eastern side, not far from the New Synagogue, and within easy walking distance of the Brandenburg Gate.

From 1961 to 1989, the Gate, dedicated to peace, stood in an uneasy no man's land, referred to by West and East Berliners alike as "the Death Zone".

The common history is that the Berlin Wall went up overnight-- it actually went up over three nights, with barbed wire laid in the streets one day, and guards posted at the perimeter, and a concrete wall two days later.

According to Robert Frost
"something there is that doesn't love a wall" and there were a lot of people, among them many of the divided Berliners, who certainly didn't love the Berlin Wall, but there was a dominant political situation which did love such a Wall. There were people on both sides perfectly eager to divide the world into Two Camps. A wall made for a convenient dividing line. "Good fences make good neighbors."

This was not so convenient for those who died trying to cross the wall, or those who had family on the other side, those who had crossed over for the night to visit a friend and woke up in the morning to find half their world cut off...

But nothing is forever, or at least few things are, and walls tend to be among the more ephemeral things in this world (even more ephemeral than flowers, for when a wall falls down it doesn't grow back the next spring).

And so the wall is gone... but the Germans haven't let the grass grow over it quite yet. Some things need to be remembered.

21.10.09

Three Pictures From Trains


The station in Zgorzelec, Poland.


A tunnel somewhere in Germany.


Windmills.


16.10.09

Candlelight and Polish

My second night in Wroclaw, we went to a bar in the old Jewish district to talk. I had hot chocolate because I don't drink, and Krzysiek had hot chocolate because he was driving us home. The chocolate was good and the bar was quiet and we were all very calm even though none of us was the least bit tired.

Most of the conversation was in Polish. Krzys doesn't like telling long stories in English because they take too long to think out, and that was fine with me because I enjoyed just listening to the sound of them, which is very soothing and beautiful.

One night I even began to dream in Polish, not understanding a word, and woke to find that Krzysiek and Martyna were already awake and talking softly in the kitchen, which was right next to the room where I slept.

One day Martyna asked me to imitate what I heard so that she would be able to hear her own language without the barrier of meaning to get in the way of the flow of syllables. When I tried, she and Krzys broke out laughing: "That was not Polish," they said, "It was Russian."

10.10.09

When New is Old (is New Again)



Work on Berlin's New Synagogue began in 1859. The dedication in 1866 was a major event: Otto von Bismark, the Chancellor of Germany, was in attendance.

The New Synagogue was one of many in a city which at the time had one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, but it was new sort of synagogue in a few very important ways. Most synagogues were hidden in courtyards or alleyways. The New Synagogue was on a major street, just a short walk away from Unter Den Linden, which was (and is) to Berlin as the Champs Elysee was (and is) to Paris.

The New Synagogue was a clear statement that Jews, who had been in Germany for more than a thousand years already, were there to stay. This was not only a challenge to the various limitations on Jewish life which had existed throughout Europe since the Middle Ages, it was a challenge to the traditional Jewish view that life in Europe was life in exile.

The New Synagogue was part of the Reform movement. It had a choir, a sermon, and a seminary-educated rabbi, which all made it more like a German Protestant Church and less like a traditional synagogue. Those who attended saw themselves as fully Jewish, fully German, and thoroughly modern.

Things were never without complication, and walking the tightrope between being a part of society as a whole and maintaining existence as a people was never an easy task, but the 3,000 seats in the synagogue's main hall were filled every Shabbos.

Not even Kristallnacht could change that. The Nazi mob which came to burn the synagogue as it had burned others that night found itself face to face with a policeman who swore to protect the history of his city and nation. The fascists, used to having police egging them on or standing aside, were so surprised by his action that they actually dispersed.

The building survived the Nazis, but it would not survive the war. British bombs destroyed the main hall, and after the war everything but the facade was demolished. Most of it was rubble already. And the Jews who had built it and filled it each week were never coming home.

For years only the front stood, a partial ruin. Not until the Berlin Wall fell was it restored, and it was six years before the building would hold a synagogue once more. But it does now, it's the only Reform synagogue in Berlin, and so the old New Synagogue is new once more.

6.10.09

Daily Bread

I make grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch today.

I think the hardest part of making grilled cheese is buttering the bread. For Americans, buttering bread is made simple by the fact that we usually toast in first. This cannot be done when making grilled cheese.

On my last morning in Europe, in his apartment just outside of Belgrade, my host taught me how to butter un-toasted bread properly. The trick is to slice the butter so thinly that it's practically the thinness you'll want already. When you have a thicker slab and try to spread it, the bread tears.

A simple lesson.

I met Nikola at church the week before. He is a branch president, which means he was in charge of caring for the members of the small group in Belgrade. He's young for the calling, just 24 years old. When I showed up at church, a foreigner and stranger, he asked whether I had a place to stay and offered a bed at his place. I was staying with friends, so I didn't need it then, but the morning before I had to go to the airport, realizing I would have to wake up at 3 am the next day to catch the bus to ride the two hours to the capitol if I stayed in Zrenjanin for the night, I called him and asked whether I could still take him up on the offer. He said yes, and told me he could even give me a ride to the airport in the morning.

So my friends put me on a bus at 5pm that night and I met Nikola in Pancevo.

He was making pasta for dinner (His Italian aunt taught him the recipe) and he let me use the computer to call my family on skype. Then we talked for a while-- he's travelled in Africa and the US, and wanted to hear about my trip.

We got up at 6:30 to go to the airport. Nikola had no car, but one of his friends drives a taxi and was willing to do a stranger a favor.

They dropped me off, wished me luck, and I spent the next two hours in the airport waiting for my flight to America and writing down everything I could remember from the past two days.

I left my e-mail address, but forgot to pick up his, and we haven't been in contact since I got home. Occasionally I think of ways I could try and reach him. I'd like to thank him again.

A New Angle on Things



25.9.09

Caritas

In my philosophy class, we've been discussing ethical egoism, which is basically the moral theory that we should base our decisions on our own self-interest, because our self-interest should be our highest good. Part of one of the definitions we've used in class says that we "have no unchosen obligation to help other people." Generally, the theory suggests that you should help people only when it's in your own interest.

I'm glad that most people don't think this way.

For much of my trip, I relied on the kindness of strangers. This was especially true in Belgium, where I stayed with my cousins' cousins-- the relationship is distant enough that they certainly had no familial obligation to help me, especially while hosting other relatives. Yet host me they did.

And more than host me. A. went out of her way to pick me up at the train station, about an hour from her house, before she had ever met me. On the way home, we saw a young woman at a bus stop, arm outstretched and thumb up.

Most people, even those who are generally charitable, would be likely to agree that there is no moral obligation to pick up hitchhikers, especially hitchhikers who can just wait an hour or so for the bus to arrive.

A. pulled over, let the young woman in, and asked where she was headed. I don't know how long she was in the car, but I bet it was more than two miles, the recommended distance of charitable companionship in the New Testament. It was certainly longer than a comfortable walk, and as I mentioned, it might have been an hour or so before the next bus.

A. believes in helping people, believes in it as a basic and practical way. She is unlikely to receive direct benefit from many of these actions-- certainly not from picking up someone who just needed a ride to the next bus stop (this is rural Belgium, so that can be quite a distance.) The world would be a cold, sad place without people like her.

19.9.09

A Witness of Absence


My grad-student brother recently went to a conference on Jewish American and Holocaust literature. One of the major discussions among practitioners and critics in the form is about how to be a witness to the holocaust, how to stand as a witness of one of the most horrendous atrocities of history, how to speak of the murder of more than six million men, women, children.

The strongest witness, all agree, is the witness who is no longer here. Who witnesses exactly by not being here.

Berlin, it is said, is a city of memorials. There are many, but the most haunting for me is a witness of absence. It stands in the Bebelplatz, across from Humboldt University, on the spot where, in 1933, the Nazis encouraged students to burn more than 20,ooo books.

And so now there is, under the earth, this empty room, lined with empty bookshelves: A reminder of what was, and now is gone.

14.9.09

Sleeping

Despite the fact that I have no classes before 10am, I haven't been getting nearly enough sleep in the last week, which leads my thoughts back to happy memories of better days during the summer... carefree days when I could sleep as much as I wanted.

These days are mostly a fiction, a trick of the mind, a mirage brought on by the aforementioned lack of sleep... with three days or less to see most places I visited, I didn't sleep much at a lot of the stops.

A specific memory comes to mind: my first night in Sofia, I stayed up until four am trying to help a friend figure out whether it was feasible for him to board a train to Istanbul-- I had my doubts, but he loved the idea, and when I went back upstairs to the room he stayed awake for the rest of the night, researching timetables and talking to the hostel's night clerk.

The last days of the trip, though, were fairly restful... we had all been traveling for weeks, and it was so hot in Serbia that there was almost no point in going out during the day-- so we'd sleep until noon, then loaf around, reading and watching movies, and then go out only in the evenings when the sun was low in the sky.

Moving through timezones did some damage to my internal clock, but I find that these lines are far less disruptive than the personal timezones of the hosts I stayed with-- the routine of a place has power more power to shift a sleep schedule than such an arbitrary thing as the rising or setting of the sun.

11.9.09

Eight Years Later

and it almost seems like a normal day. It even is a normal day, except for the memory.

We remember things. Some days, I don't know whether it's good or bad, but we remember things, and we need to do something to make sense of that, or at least do something.

No more words from me today. Instead, an essay from Brian Doyle:

Kaddish

by Brian Doyle

Kaddish L’anashim

The man who just liked to read the newspaper quietly

The man who loved to preserve tomatoes

The man whose two-year-old son is mortally ill

The man who slept with his two dogs

The man who occasionally vacuumed his lawn

The man who was building a dollhouse for his daughter

The man who was assistant treasurer at his church

The man who helped found a church in New Jersey

The man who was the best probationary fireman ever

The man who built tiny ceramic railroad towns for his daughters

The man who built forty crossbows

The fireman who died with his fireman son

The fireman who died with his fireman brother

The fireman who died with his policeman brother

The fireman who ran in with his fireman brother who survived

The fireman who hugged his fireman brother before entering the tower

The man who had ten children, the youngest an infant

The man who loved Cole Porter

The man who loved Bruce Springsteen

The man who loved Abba

The man who loved The Who

The man who was identified by his Grateful Dead tattoo

The man who loved model trains

The man who loved surfing

The man who loved the Denver Broncos

The man who loved the Detroit Lions

The man who loved his racehorses

The man who loved to run at night

The man who loved to fish for striped bass

The man who fished for bluefish from his lawn

The man who loved his boxer dogs

The man who loved fine red wine

The man who loved Stolichnaya vodka on the rocks

The man who loved skyscrapers

The man who loved birdhouses

The man who loved Les Paul guitars

The man who loved dominos

The man who loved comic books

The man who was rebuilding a 1967 Mustang

The man who rebuilt a 1967 Mustang

The man who was rebuilding a 1948 Studebaker

The man who was rebuilding an MG convertible

The man who restored an old hotel

The man who started a ska band

The man who built harpsichords

The man who had been a model

The man who could ski like the wind

The man who drove a taxi as a hobby

The man who drove blind women to church on Sunday

The man who delivered papers every morning before going to work as a cook

The man who meticulously rotated the socks in his drawer for even use

The man who liked to handicap horseraces

The man who wasn’t a saint by any means according to his mom

The man who was the youngest county treasurer in Missouri history

The man who liked to cook kielbasa

The man who liked to cook pinto beans

The man who liked to cook meatloaf

The man who liked to paint his daughters’ fingernails

The man who made a thousand paper cranes for his wife

The man who made tea for his wife every day

The man who cooked for his blind mother as a child

The man who had his mom’s name tattooed on his arm

The man who had a bulldog tattooed on his arm

The man who had Death Before Shame tattooed on his arm in Gaelic

The man who really wanted to go to Egypt

The man who had been a boxer in Britain

The man who had been a private detective

The man who had been a cricket star in Guyana

The man who had been a basketball star in the army

The man who had been a lacrosse star in Australia

The man who had been a lacrosse star in America

The man who had been a hockey star in Canada

The man who had been a hockey star in America

The man who was an expert surfer

The man who carried a surfboard everywhere

The man who was a quadriplegic and typed with his mouth

The man who played the bagpipes

The man who played the piccolo

The fireman who played the pennywhistle

The man who made tea and toast for his wife every morning

The man who hung out the flag with his daughter every morning

The man who made wine in his basement

The man who knew everything about boats

The man who fixed his son’s toy boat in the basement the night before

The man who liked to quote Federico Fellini about the passion of life

The man who was slowly going blind

The man who bought bagels for everyone all the time

The man who tied fly-fishing flies with his daughter

The man who drew cartoons and caricatures of his friends

The man who went to thirty-five Bruce Springsteen concerts

The man who went to Mass every morning before boarding the train

The man who cared for his kid sister who had cerebral palsy

The man who was a minister for House of God Church Number 1

The man who was an elder at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses

The man who served two kinds of caviar at football tailgates

The man who mounted a telescope on a sewer pipe in his yard

The man who was married in full Scottish regalia

The man who spoke Portuguese at home so his children would know the language

The man who carried an old lifeguard from his wheelchair into the ocean for a last swim

The man who carried a woman and her wheelchair fifty floors to the street

The man who had been a furrier in the old country

The man who was deaf and had been a furrier in the old country

The man who was deaf and knew everyone in town

The man who sat with the girl no one liked in high school

The man who invited a mentally retarded girl to sit at the football player’s table

The man who flew small airplanes on Sunday mornings

The man whose first son was born the day after he died

The man whose first son was born a week after he died

The man whose first son was born two weeks after he died

The man whose son was born three weeks after he died

The man whose daughter announced her engagement two days before he died

The man who wrote a song about noodles with his daughter

The man who cleaned his neighbors’ gutters

The man whose parents were deaf

The man whose parents survived the Holocaust

The man whose identical twin survived

The man who once painted his black dog white

The man who was a professor of geography

The man from Cut Bank, Montana

The man who dressed up like Elvis for his daughters

The man who wanted to coach high school basketball

The man who wanted to be a fly-fishing guide in Montana

The man who shoveled snow for his pregnant neighbor

The man who called his mother every morning at nine sharp

The man who called his father every day after his mother died

The man who called his wife three times a day

The man who called his wife every day after lunch for fourteen years

The man who left notes on the breakfast table every morning for his son

The man who fixed a television transmitter with his shoelaces

The man who coached every basketball player in his town for ten years

The man who was working overtime to save money for his daughter’s birthday

The man who met his wife at a production of Romeo and Juliet

The man whose wife found out she was pregnant after he died

The man who helped his wife down eighty-eight floors and then went back in

The man who boated down the Mekong River

The man who rescued children from a daycare center that morning

The man who rescued twin infants from a burning building

The man who rescued an elderly couple from a burning building

The man who carried a man from a burning building

The man who carried a woman down seventy flights of stairs in the 1993 bombing

The fireman who carried a paralyzed child on a tour of the station house

The man who delivered a baby in an ambulance

The man who carried toys with him for distraught children on his paramedic calls

The man who carried dog biscuits in his pockets everywhere he went

The man whose dog cried all night long for two weeks afterward

The man who mowed the Little League field with his own lawnmower

The man who had just taught his son to whistle

The man who taught his pet bird to whistle

The man who had just taught his daughter to dribble a basketball

The man who had just signed up for his first college class

The man who went to college classes every night

The fireman who was also a substitute teacher at the junior high

The fireman who accidentally burned down his own firehouse

The man who wore photographs of his children on a necklace

The man who did cannonballs when he jumped into the pool

The man who had been homeless for years but finally had a job

The man whose job started the day before

The man whose job started two days before

The man who started his own carpet-cleaning company

The man who grilled ribs in winter while wearing a parka

The man who loved to catch crayfish in his creek

The man who raised racing pigeons

The man who carried his failing wife everywhere in his arms

The man whose police shield is in President Bush’s pocket

Kaddish L’nashim

The woman who loved her two dogs

The woman who loved her three dogs

The woman who loved really strong coffee

The woman who was a firefighter

The woman who loved to ride her bike in the desert

The woman whose job started the day before

The woman whose name meant love and joy in Yoruba

The woman whose sons were named Oz and Elvis

The woman who raised llamas

The woman who taught karate to deaf children

The woman who taught every Sunday at Holy Rosary School

The woman who had piercing hazel eyes

The woman who had a famous giggle

The woman who sang lead soprano at church

The woman who played piano for opera troupes

The woman who loved dancing to the Violent Femmes

The woman who loved everything British

The woman who fought the bully in school

The woman you could count on for anything

The woman who was raised by missionaries in Japan

The woman who had prayed the rosary with the pope

The woman whose son is autistic

The woman whose identical twin survived

The woman who had been homeless

The woman who brought clothes to homeless mothers

The woman who died with her nephew

The woman who died with her brother

The woman who died with her husband and brother

The woman who had toured the country singing with Duke Ellington

The woman who wanted to open a flower shop

The woman who listened with her fullest attention

The woman who fed sparrows every morning in her backyard

The woman who gave her place on the elevator away that morning

The woman who was the craziest chocolate person ever

The woman who called her dad every day

The woman who loved pedicures on Sunday mornings

The woman who had just quit smoking

The woman who first kissed her husband under the twin towers

The woman who died on the 104th floor

The woman who had planned everything about her wedding except the invitations

The woman who wrote forty-five word stories

The woman who wrote her will the day before

The woman who sketched commuters on the train every morning

The woman who was seven months pregnant

The woman who discovered that morning that she was pregnant

Kaddish L’yiladim v’yiladot

The boy who wanted to be an ambulance driver

The girl, age four, flying with her mother

The boy, age three, flying with his parents

The child inside the woman who was seven months pregnant

The children inside mothers who didn’t know of them yet

The children who would have been conceived in years to come

Their children, and their children’s children

May they swim in the sea of the Lord forever.

9.9.09

Conflict Resolution at the Brandenburg Gate

Recently read an article which said that people in happy marriages don't have less arguments than less-happy couples, they just tend to resolve them better-- usually with humor.

I think this holds true for good friendships too.

At the Brandenburg Gate, N. didn't like the picture I took of him.

So he took this picture of me:

I got the message.

Our final pictures made everyone happy.

8.9.09

5.9.09

Cat Burglar

About that cat in the last post. That morning, my friend told me the following story:

She awoke at 3pm in the 3rd story hostel room the four of us were sharing to find the window open and a mewling cat on her chest. In that state of groggy confusion, she concluded that the cat had entered the room through the window. The cat began to lick her face, and she shooed it away, at which point it crawled over to the next bed and began licking mine.

It is at this point that Alea says she began to get worried.

So she called out to wake me up. I didn't respond at first, and then sat bolt upright as if I had never been asleep.

Alea explained the problem, grave as it was by saying, "Matt, there's a cat in the room! What should we do?"

Before all the avenues of possible action could be properly explored, the cat scampered out the half-open door.

I turned to Alea, said "the problem has resolved itself' and fell back to the bed, my eyes closed, as if I had never been awake.

Realizing that she would get no help from me at all, Alea went and barricaded the door with her suitcase to prevent the kitten from returning. It took her some time to get back to sleep.

I have absolutely no recollection of any of this occurring.


2.9.09

Sofia, Bulgaria 7/21/09




























































It is impossible to take a kitten seriously.

29.8.09

Literary Archeology



Just outside of Darmstadt in Germany is a medieval ruin which would have little to distinguish it from any of the other hundreds of medieval ruins in Germany except for a short story contest held in Switzerland by a few friends staying in a cabin for the summer.

The friends were Lord Byron and the Shelleys (Percy, known for Ozymandias, among other poems, and Mary, who is the heroine of this tale). To pass the time, Byron apparently suggested that they each write a ghost story-- his and Percy's have been lost (they were probably no good anyhow) but Mary's has been remembered.

If you're wondering what all of this has to do with the aforementioned medieval ruin in Germany, you're asking the right question.

The reason this lonely castle has not been completely forgotten (although it has been almost completely forgotten) is that the tale Mary Shelley wrote that night borrows its name: Frankenstein. And thus Frankenstein Castle, un-notable in its own right, became the namesake of a great work. And thus, Frankenstein, the name of a small German noble family, became a name synonymous with terrifying monstrosities-- not perhaps the way Konrad Reiz von Breuberg wanted to be remembered, but a way to be remembered (or forgotten while your name is remembered and completely divorced from you and your history) nonetheless.

22.8.09

Late Night in Zion

Today was my third day of classes at BYU... usually I won't have class on Saturday, but I'm in a one-week accelerated course right now, as an introduction to the Honors program.

It's a lot of fun, but it keeps me busy.

I sent in my assignment about an hour ago-- it was due at midnight, so I'm making progress ;)

I don't have a European story tonight... Instead I have another boring announcement:

I like the idea of neatness (or, as G. K. Chesterton might say, the quality of neatness in writing) and part of my sense of neatness is that things should kind-of sort-of stick to a topic.

College life will, no doubt, give me a bunch to write about... and in the odd moments between doing my assignments and sleeping, I'll try to do so, and then post my thoughts online with the vague thought that they might be useful to someone or at the very least that those of you I sometimes neglect to call or write to or visit will have some notion of what I'm doing and thinking.

But this is not the place for that, because this is the place for memories of 'my tour of the Continent', as the heading clearly says.

Which means in a few days, or weeks, I will start another site for those writings, and join my brother and sister in the race to have the most blogs in the family.

Don't worry, this shouldn't make me any more neglectful of writing here than I already am... you can still hope for an update a week.

Also, new priority list, which is probably obvious to most of you but has not, heretofore, been obvious to me:

Homework second, family third, friends fourth, you, my dear readers, still in the top five... and since some of you are also family and all of you are friends, I'll take extra care.

19.8.09

Money Can't Buy

Throughout my trip, I find myself walking a very important line, which I finally find words to describe one day in Serbia.

I'm at the grocery store, buying cookies to take home to my family-- there are three different box sizes, but since I immediately eliminate the largest as an option, on the grounds that it's too big to fit in the little space I have left in my luggage, I'm left with two options-- the first, about the size of a standard Oreo box, costs about two dollars-- the other, single-serving-snack-sized, costs about fifty cents-- after a moment of staring at both options, I reach for my wallet and realize how little money I have left for my last two days in the country. I pick up the smaller box, reasoning that I really only need enough for my sister and parents to have a little taste of what Plazma cookies are like.

This is not a particularly rational decision, because I really like Plazma cookies, and I know that there's no way I'll be able to get them when I go home, unless I can find a Serbian grocery store (unlikely in the extreme). And the difference of a dollar fifty is not nearly enough, in terms of my budget for the trip, to really justify not getting the larger package.

But it's a decision I make anyway, and it's a decision I make mostly because there's a part of me that really hates to spend money.

And here comes the line I've been walking, and that I no doubt will continue walking for the rest of my life: When is saving money thrift, and when is it stinginess?

Because I value thrift. It's a virtue that comes from the knowledge that most of the best things in life are not material, and that material needs can be filled without getting things that are flashy or expensive. Thrift is the reason I stay with friends or in hostels rather than hotels. It's the reason I look for little local restaurants instead of eating in the first tourist trap I see. It's why, when I'm at home, I patch old clothes instead of buying new ones. And when I do need new clothes, my favorite way to get them is by 'thrifting'.

But there are times, like the one described above, when my penchant for saving drifts into the realm of stinginess, and I'm trying to find better ways of differentiating the two.

My simplest definition is that thrift raises quality of life, and stinginess lowers it. But since that's still a little murky to draw a clear line, I can also say that thrift is about spending money on the things that really matter, and stinginess is about spending no money at all. Or I could say that thrift comes from a sense of responsibility, and stinginess from a sense of greed.

But in the end, it's this that will guide me: Thrift is not caring too much for money, and stinginess is caring for nothing more.

Do I care too much for money? 'Cause money can't buy me love.

10.8.09

Time Travel

The problem with posting about my trip now is that the further I get from my experiences, the less urgent it seems to share them with the world. I'm caught in the flow of a new everyday life, where my major concern is not packing my bags and catching the train to Brussels, it's packing up my life and driving off to Utah for college.

Soon I know I'll be in another stream, moving between new classes and a new home, my daily concerns and habits reformed once more.

Travel through time makes a lot more difference than travel through space, and it happens only in one direction.

Well, almost only one direction...

Memory is almost like time travel, in the sense that it takes us back to things and places that would otherwise be lost in that relentless forward flow. So posting here becomes a chance to pull my mind back to the days when I was hurtling through space as well as time, hearing a different language and seeing a different city almost every other day.

From here on out, there will be two changes:

First of all, the posts will no longer be necessarily chronological in order-- the path of memory is no straight line, and I'll tell things as I remember them.

Second, because I know it's going to be hard for me to post in my new routine, I need a routine for posting... so look for updates each Saturday and Tuesday.

Now I'm going to sleep, which brings about another kind of travel through time...

8.8.09

Wisdom Extraction

I had five wisdom teeth taken out yesterday.

While this does not leave me feeling particularly more foolish, it does leave me with a more-than-sore jaw and a yearning for soft, lukewarm foods.

Mmmmmm...Tapioca.

My recovery time will probably result in more regular postings, not less, because I can't do much but read, sleep, and bang away at my laptop.

I promise to get back to writing about the past in the near future.

-M.

31.7.09

21.7.09

Paris 1/7/09

This morning, I was completely out of it. I concluded that this was the natural result of having only had 4 hours of sleep, so instead of trying to slog through a full day of hiking through the city, I decided to get some rest and get moving once the world seemed bright and beautiful again.

Since I didn't want to doom N. to waiting for me for hours, I gave him the camera, and he headed out to the Catacombs. We arranged to meet later in the evening at Tuileries.

I think one of the reasons reason that N. and I make good friend is that we're considerate of each other, of our needs and of our failings. And we're ready to be different from each other and do different things, so instead of getting frustrated and impatient with each other, we just have fun. It makes traveling together a whole lot easier.

We may tease each other a lot, but it doesn't sting, and we don't fight, because we know that we can work things out with understanding, patience and humor, rather than arguments.

Paris 30/6/09 Highlights

1. The croissant, which from my admittedly small sample size of one, is about a billion times better in Paris than its pale American counterpart. Buttery, flakey, indescribably delicious.

2. Churches-- we entered four and saw about ten. Going in gives me a moment to stop and pray, clear my thoughts, unburden my heart, and worship the living God. Peace flows powerfully from these quiet stones.

My favorite ones are the small parish churches that see almost no tourists, but even in the most crowded, a Presence can be felt.

3. A shop I grabbed dinner at that sold only tarts, pies and quiches-- sweet pies, meat pies, vegetarian pies, breakfast lunch and dinner pies... My French may have sucked, and I was ocercome by shyness when ordering, but the concept is brilliant and the owner's kindness made my day.

High quality, fair prices, large helpings, gentle and friendly service, an atmosphere of community and trust, and everything served in a crust. That's my kind of restaurant.

4. Public parks, which are islands of solace in a sea of very long walks. Now if they'd only install a few drinking fountains...

5. The Croatians who we met at Les Invalides and walked with to the Eiffel Tower. They were an older couple, and visiting Paris was something they could do now that their children were all grown. The husband asked us about where we'd been and where we were going, bragged about his wife (she learned English in only 6 months, loved walking long distances despite having recently had spinal surgery, and was, as he made clear, generally amazing). She asked us what and where we were studying, and whether our parents were worrying about us. Both exhorted us to visit Zagreb as soon as possible, a request we will sadly be unable to fill. They were great people. I wish I'd learned their names.

6. Talking with N., especially when he lets me know, in subtle ways, that he is looking out for me. Telling me that I should buy food soon even though he is not, because it will be hours before he gets hungry. Saying we should go to the Centre Pompidou even though he doesn't really want to, because he knows that I do. Asking for me to describe a random article I mentioned days earlier. I hope I am as good company to him as he is to me.

19.7.09

England in Pictures

Several people have commented on how strange it is that the grass in the middle of the ruins is perfectly mowed.

This picture does poor credit to how amazing this electric violinist really was. To get a better idea, youtube Ed Alleyne-Johnson.

England has so much history, it can get a little confusing at times.


Near the end of the week, the REAL British weather came in.
Fortunately, we had a sufficiently spooky place to visit.