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.