Global Gratitude, part 1.

After I left the group, I was reminded that traveling alone provides quite a bit more space to think about what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Though I really do appreciate solitude, and love walking around cities on my terms, I don’t enjoy eating alone, so I felt like I needed to occupy myself while I would eat. One way I often passed the time was to write down whatever I was thinking about. As I continued on in my solo travels, I realized that what I was often thinking about was gratitude. So, in honor of that, with an eye toward the upcoming November holiday when everyone seems to exude more gratitude than during the other 11 months of the year, I’m sharing my thoughts of gratitude. Because I truly do understand how lucky I am to get to do the things I do, I’ll hope to continue doing this year-round, not only when I travel, but in all aspects of life. Some of my reflections are deep and meaningful (to me), some are incredibly practical, and a few are even completely superficial, but the gratitude is real in all cases.

4 July, Prague

“Today, on the 240th anniversary of the ratification of our Declaration of Independence, I’m grateful for the freedom of movement. In the literal sense, certainly, as the 25,000 steps I’m walking a day have freed me to see these cities in the way I want to. Figuratively though too, as the ability to travel, to explore, to be challenged, to be restless…this is what makes life worth living.”

5 July, Vienna

“Today, I’m incredibly grateful for wireless internet access. It certainly makes most other aspects of life easier, but it has also revolutionized travel. I can call or text across an ocean for free. I can connect with fellow travelers or new friends in more meaningful and direct ways than ever. I can book hotels, tours, and train tickets, find advice and events to attend, and I can even watch Netflix in my hotel room on nights when I just want the Sound of Music.”

6 July, Vienna

“Traveling is a trip (ha!). Suddenly, I’m acutely aware of every person I walk by on the sidewalk. Every noise, every piece of refuse, every smoker. After two weeks of being surrounded by Americans nearly every waking moment, now, it’s just me. There’s some satisfaction in that, to be sure. I do what I want when I want. I stop to eat when I feel like it, and don’t need to find bathrooms on someone else’s schedule. I can skip the ‘checklist’ tourist items if I feel like it, and wander random streets until I don’t want to anymore. I can walk and walk and walk, destination unknown, with my fitbit as my only constant companion. But Aristotle is sticking with me today. People truly are political animals. I’m realizing with every day that passes how much I truly thrive on interactions and connectedness. I find myself smiling at every baby I see. I eavesdrop on English conversations, making passing judgments on the people and the topics I’m listening in on. Today, I’m especially grateful for a kind Viennese waiter, who, once having gotten over the surprise that I was having dinner by myself, chose the beer, the side, and the meal I would be having. Having spent an entire day without saying more than 20 words in English, this man and his kindness was exactly what I needed to enjoy the best meal I’ve had thus far in Europe. The food was great, but the care for someone who would only be in his life for an hour or so was an incredible reminder of the value of slowing down and taking time to think, appreciate, and listen. Often, life moves at too hectic a pace to appreciate. My two hour solo dinner, my kind waiter, my delicious Austrian cuisine, the beautiful Viennese evening…doesn’t get much better than tonight.”

7 July, Vienna

“Today, I’m thankful that I get to see the world while I’m able to. I go too many hours between meals, I walk until I seemingly can’t anymore, and then I walk some more. Today, I went to Schloß Schönbrunn, a 17th century Baroque palace that was once a home to Austro-Hungarian Emperors. While there, I realized that one of my travel flaws is that I get easily annoyed with tour groups that are big, loud, and inconsiderate of other people’s space. What I need to remember instead is how fortunate I am to have the means and the self-assurance to travel on my own (and the RBF probably doesn’t hurt…). Group travel is awesome and exhausting and a variety of other things, but being here and doing this on my own is a pretty incredible thing.”

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Berlin; day 1

27 June, Berlin

I had been to Berlin once before, as a young, impressionable 21 year old on my first international trip before my study abroad experience began. I did what I thought tourists were supposed to do: checked boxes of the most well-known sites in the city, ate some sausage and drank some beer, and moved on to Athens without any particular affinity for the city. I later realized that my love for Europe was borne out of being immersed and uncomfortable; a few days in Berlin was clearly not enough to fully understand the gravity, history, and modernity of this incredible city.

Nine years later, I’m thankful that I’m older and (arguably) wiser. Berlin is an incredible, cosmopolitan city that is continually changing and growing. We only had a week there, but I could have done another few weeks or months without question and still wouldn’t have seen even close to everything I wanted to see. We stayed in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, which provided a really interesting mix of ethnicities, foods, and sites in close proximity to our hotel. Immediately upon getting into our rooms, we promptly left again to find somewhere with a big screen to watch the German national team take on Slovakia in the Euro Cup. Though I’ve never been a soccer fan, it was fun to be in the city during the tournament. If soccer is the most popular sport in the world, I’ve got to be missing something, right? (…the jury’s still out on that one…)

The next day, we began seeing Berlin in earnest. We started the day with a lecture from Professor Wolf Wagner on the realities of modern Germany. We had lunch in his neighborhood, at a Swabian restaurant, which had food representative of Swabia, an ethnic enclave that today is divided between Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria in Southern Germany. We then took a bus tour of the city, and ended the day with a wonderful tour of the Bundestag, and lessons on German government and history. The Reichstag is an incredible mix of modern and traditional, and effectively incorporates the less savory aspects of its history well.

Like many public structures and monuments in Germany, the Reichstag presents information and history surrounding the government under National Socialism or during the period of Divided Germany generally without commentary. It doesn’t tell you what to think, or how to feel, but allows for the space and the interpretation to make the experience your own. This upsets some people, both travelers and Germans alike, and there are even domestic protests that surround the ways Germany chooses to honor those who lost their lives in the Holocaust. The way Germany, and Berlin in particular, deal with the atrocities in their history is remarkable. Controversial, definitely, but I just came across the German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which literally translates to “coping with the past,” which they’ve had to do with regularity in the 20th and 21st century. Especially since the fall of the Wall, memorializing those periods of history has become a priority in the country, and is done with incredible care and consideration. It is continually both reassuring and terrifying that we are so close to so many awful chapters in human history, and the way we deal with them is continually improving and expanding. Lots more to come on the ways that Berlin remembers and memorializes, but in an attempt to keep this chronological, I’ll just say that our first day and a half in Berlin only left us all wanting more…

(Also, ’tis the season to promote this fantastic opportunity, since the application just came out. If you’re a STEM or social studies teacher, please, PLEASE check out the Transatlantic Outreach Program. The application can be found HERE, and I’d be happy to answer any questions you have on the application, the lesson evaluation, the workshop, etc. Take advantage of this opportunity!!)

MC Lean