Roma: non basta una vita

I can’t adequately put into words why I love Rome the way I do. The city is a series of contradictions. It doesn’t mesh with the things I usually am in life; rational, pragmatic, largely drama-free, and often in a hurry. Rome is none of those things. This city is messy, loud, and dirty. It is history piled on top of more history, and it tries to account for it in different ways, or sometimes, not at all. No one is in a hurry (except every Roman driver!), Italian time is a real phenomenon, and from the traffic to stores closing in the afternoons, very little makes sense to those of us who appreciate the orderliness and practicality of daily life elsewhere in the world.

However, the infuriating and wonderful thing about Rome is that for every event, person, or thing that frustrates me to no end, there’s another that makes me wish we could all be a little more Italian. Italians truly believe in living ‘la dolce vita’. The sweet life is one that most Italians strive for on the daily. They speak, love, gesture, eat, drink, and live with passion. There are so many words and phrases in Italian that focus on enjoying life; passeggiata (a leisurely evening stroll), meriggiare (to escape the heat of the midday sun by resting in the shade), abbiocco (the drowsiness that follows eating a big meal), il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) just to list a few…

A three hour meal is a regular occurrence, and you can enjoy the city by doing everything you’re supposed to as a temporary Roman, or by doing nothing at all. Just being in this city is an experience in itself. You’re always walking through some record of human history whether you realize it or not; imperial history, republican history, art history, literature, modern history, and current events. You’re drinking water straight from the Italian Alps carried by millennia-old aqueducts, and some of the best wine in the world produced only kilometers away. Coffee becomes an art form and the best pasta is made lovingly by someone’s grandma from a family recipe that is older than the United States. The tomatoes just taste better in Rome, and the gelato, obviously, can’t be beat.

Where else in the world can you accidentally happen upon the Pope addressing the people of the world, walk past art and through buildings produced by the masters of the Renaissance, see one of the modern wonders of the world, or see none of the above, and still feel the weight, import, chaos, and passion of a city?

So, if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in Rome, indulge in an overpriced Aperol spritz of a café all’aperto at a restaurant in one of Rome’s many piazzas where people watching is more than a hobby, enjoy some cacio e pepe, and revel in la dolce vita.

On Its 2770th birthday, this is my love letter to Rome. It’s one I think I’ll be adding to for quite a while. Rome keeps pulling me back in a way no other city can.

After all, non basta una vita: one lifetime is not enough.

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(Approximately) 1072 Reasons to Study Abroad during College

I just got back from my study abroad reunion in Rome. A week spent in Rome with people I met a decade ago during my first experience abroad, in one of my favorite cities in the world. It was more than enough motivation for me to create an ode to studying abroad, and reminded me to continue to work daily to convince the young people I know to experience this incredible opportunity. So here goes:

  1. Studying abroad allows you to experience international travel in a way that is safe and supported. Especially if it’s your first time abroad, this creates a level of comfort for you (and likely your parents) that will make the unknown a little less threatening.
  2. You’ll discover more about yourself in that time period than you would imagine is possible. Not only more about your personal likes and dislikes, tolerances and intolerances, but your travel habits, communication style, friendship-building capacities, how you spend and budget money, what is important to take from your travels, and lots of other abilities you didn’t know you had or could develop.
  3. Integrating yourself into a different language and culture is the best way to learn either; choose to really engage in the place, and the benefits are limitless.
  4. You can make friends from all over the world who will love for you to come back and visit for decades to come.
  5. Your (adopted) home city will likely be a great jumping-off point for other travels around the region or continent you’re in–independent or group travel is much easier with budget airlines and rail systems that are much more extensive than at home.
  6. Adapting to daily routines outside of your own helps you become more flexible and tolerant, not only when you’re traveling, but when you get home also.
  7. You’ll likely experience a wide variety of new foods, and you may gain some new favorites to take home with you as go-to comfort food that will evoke instant memories of your trip abroad. It’ll also give you a reason to go try new ethnic restaurants at home, if you’ve discovered a love for moussaka, arepas, or shawarma while you were abroad, and want to expand your gastronomic experiences.
  8. You’ll gain skills that will help you post-college. You’re more marketable as a prospective employee with language skills, a proven track-record of taking on new challenges, or the worldliness that comes with experiences outside of the US.
  9. You’ll wow your friends and family with the skills you’ve gained while abroad. The first time I traveled with my parents after my study abroad trip, they couldn’t believe how assertive and proactive I was, and how easily I could navigate new cities and public transportation. I certainly wouldn’t have been equipped to help them travel more easily, if I hadn’t been given the chance to figure it all out during my semester abroad.
  10. If you choose to “disconnect” from technology to some degree while you’re abroad (by choice or necessity), you’ll discover that life without smartphones, though more difficult, can be more fulfilling. I studied abroad before smart phones existed, and I’m certain I had a better, more adventurous experience as a result. I also rediscover this every time I travel, and rely less on social media when I get home.
  11. You’ll discover things about your home and home life that you will come to appreciate more when you get back. It’ll help you realize how important some relationships are, and maybe help you understand some that aren’t.
  12. You’ll think about the world differently; knowing people and places different from your regular help you on your way to becoming a global citizen.
  13. You may be inspired to attend grad school abroad and continue your international education; especially in central and northern European countries, you may even get to go for free!
  14. You have time to truly get to know a city; the best discoveries are made when wandering aimlessly or walking to class, not usually when walking from one tourist site to another.
  15. With the diversity of programs available at many universities, you can continue a more traditional course of study OR take classes unrelated to your major; both will enrich you beyond belief.
  16. There are SO many places around the world to study, and so many types of programs, there is actually something for everyone. Want to study zoology? Ancient languages? Native cultures? Mechanical engineering? Literature? ALL can be done through one program or another, and through the lens of another language, culture, perspective, etc.
  17. There are lots of opportunities to study abroad for the same or nearly the same cost as a semester at school would normally cost. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can’t afford it; there are so many ways to make sure you can!
  18. You are not likely to have fewer responsibilities, more freedom, or more opportunities than you do in your undergraduate studies. Do it while you can, or you may have to wait until your retire to feel like you have the time again!
  19. Wanderlust is real, and once the travel bug bites, you’ll be doomed to a life of exploration, expanding your horizons, and experiencing new people and cultures.
  20. – 1072. You’ll see and do remarkable things, be better prepared for the world post-college, and you’ll make lifelong friends along the way. This is exactly what college should be about. 

Take these to heart, and go forth, and set the world on fire!

MC Lean

Global Gratitude, part II: back on solid ‘Merican ground.

So, this post rounds out Eurotrip 2016. I’m grateful for the chance to chronicle my experiences this way, and in a few years, when names and places are escaping me, I’m glad I’ll have this lengthy, delayed, though hopefully *mildly* thoughtful account of an incredible few weeks. I can’t quite thank the Goethe-Institute or the people at the Transatlantic Outreach Program, Deutsche Bank, Robert Bosch Stiftung, Siemens, and the German Foreign Office, enough for the opportunity not only for two weeks in Germany, but for enabling a continuation of my trip, allowing me to see two new cities, and return to one of my favorites. My kids and I will benefit from the experiences I gained in these short weeks for the rest of my teaching career, and certainly I will for the remainder of my days.

Of course, as I’m a millennial, after I got coffee, the next thing I did when I got back on US soil was update facebook. Don’t ask why. I can’t explain the human compulsion to chronicle life via social media, but I willingly participate. Here are my immediate thoughts upon landing in Detroit:

11 July, Detroit Airport

“Back on solid ‘Merican ground. Gratitude is oozing out of me as I reflect on the past four weeks, so why not start sharing it now? In no particular order, I am especially grateful for…
1. A funny, engaging German seat mate named Rudy who kept the wine and the conversation flowing
2. Live piano and a Caribou in the Detroit airport
3. Snarky, clever British flight attendants who DO NOT like being accused of sounding a little bit Irish, thankyouverymuch…
4. Seeing American men in baseball hats as soon as we got into the airport (superficial I know…so sue me!)
5. The incredible people I met and the incredible places I visited in just over three weeks in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria.

What a gift to love the place I’m coming home to just as much as the places I’ve been.”


I cannot overstate the importance of this particular trip in helping remind me why I do what I do, and am becoming who I am becoming. The two week immersive learning experience exceeded my expectations in ways I can’t describe, but the 11 days that followed were self-indulgent, freeing, enlightening, and reassuring. 


My first Christmas back home after my study abroad experience, my mom got me a gift that has remained incredibly profound in my daily life, though I don’t know that I’ve actually told her that. It was just a piece of card stock, about the size of a business card, with a quote that I didn’t fully understand the value of then.

“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”

Mary Anne Radmacher

How true it was then, and remains to be. London and central Italy await…and I can’t wait to head back to where it all started. Roma; non basta una vita.

 

MC Lean

Ich Liebe Österreich

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The Hills are Aliiiiiiiiiiiive…

All I needed from Salzburg was another Sound of Music Tour, and the end of my Eurotrip would have been wonderfully complete. What I got instead was a hike up a mountain, an incredible view from the top, a European castle with trick fountains, a boat tour of the city, and walks along the Salzach that made me feel like Maria, ready to break into song at any moment.

I decided to return to Salzburg, as my last addition to my time after our group tour. I wasn’t sure that I wanted five days in Prague or Vienna (right on one count, and NOT on the other!), so I knew that I would enjoy Salzburg as a finale. I had been to Salzburg before, as a young, impressionable 21 year old. I enjoyed the city, but really came for the Sound of Music Tour. Not really knowing what to do with our time, we also went to see the Eisreisenwelt ice caves about an hour outside the city. Beyond those two adventures, I don’t recall much else that we did in those three days. This time around, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the beautiful countryside that surrounds Salzburg, and was much less afraid of venturing outside the city center on public transit I wasn’t sure how to navigate.

But first, the highlights from the best tour in Europe:

 

Other highlights from my few days were my tram and hike up the Untersberg, my mini-Maria photo shoot at the top, the trick fountains at Hellbrunn palace, wandering around the city, eating an enormous pretzel that served as an entire meal, msuci festivals popping up all over the city, and a boat tour of the Salzach. I was living and loving life in Salzburg, and can’t wait to get back!

A couple Salzburg travel tips:

  • Get the Salzburg Card if you’re planning to do even a couple touristy things. I got the 48 hour version, and it allowed me to do several things I was already planning to do, and also encouraged me to do several things I wouldn’t have done if I had to pay for them individually. It also allows you to use all city public transportation for the duration of your card.
  • If you’re at all a fan of the movie or of film nostalgia, GO ON THE SOUND OF MUSIC TOUR. I was apparently a little too enthusiastic about it, because while I was talking to the person selling me the ticket, I convinced a Brit and his Chinese wife (both of whom hadn’t seen the movie) to join us. They loved it, and went to watch the movie as soon as we got back!
  • If by this point in your trip, you’ve had enough sausages and sauerkraut, Salzburg has really great international cuisine. I stopped at a burger shop, which had vegetarian and vegan options, in addition to traditional (and non-traditional) burgers. There was a great-looking Chinese restaurant, great (authentic) Italian, and Indian cuisine just down the street.
  • Birkenstocks are truly solid footwear that I would suggest all travelers consider investing in. I didn’t bring tennis shoes on this trip, and I climbed an actual mountain in my birks. The Germans make footwear ready for the Alps.
  • Salzburg warrants a several-days-long stay of its own, but it’s also relatively close to Munich and Passau (of Danube river-cruising fame). If you’re in either place, think about making a day trip or a short weekend out of Salzburg. You won’t regret it!
  • Thus far, I’ve only been to Salzburg and Vienna, but Austria is on my list of incredible countries (not just cities) to visit. I’m looking forward to more and more exploration of Austria in coming trips!

Safe travels, MC Lean

 

Vienna has my heart.

I knew so little about Vienna before I got there it was almost criminal. I knew the Habsburgs were important. I knew about the Opera house, and I knew that Rick Steves loves Vienna. If I’m being honest, the last reason alone was enough to get me there, but man, was I in for a treat. While in the city of music, I discovered SO MUCH MORE to love about the former seat of a powerful empire, and the cultural hub of Europe.

To start, knowing as little as I did, I followed a TripAdvisor “Three Days in Vienna” itinerary. The Ringstraße, or ring road, circles the city. My hotel was outside of it, so getting to Ringstraße, and following it became my initial method of navigating the city. My first stop was the Winterpalais, per the itinerary’s suggestion, and what I found upon my arrival left a bit to be desired. Their exhibition at the time was modern art, and the art found in various rooms included a Bud Light box, a display of assault rifles made out of metal pipe, and stuffed sock monkeys. The palace was beautiful. The exhibit was something else. I decided after that experience I would just walk and see the city for the remainder of the day.

I made it a priority to find the cakes that Vienna is famous for, making my first choice the Sachertorte, a Viennese specialty made of dense chocolate cake and a thin layer of apricot jam, that is covered in dark chocolate icing. I stopped at the less touristy location of Konditorei Heiner, on Wollzeile, instead of the location on the main shopping thoroughfare of Kaerntnerstraße. I might have gone back the next day to try the other cake the woman helping me suggested, where I also happened to meet a lovely woman from Pittsburgh who had lived in Vienna for the last 20 years. Good conversation always enhances good dessert. I also had the chance to stop at the famous Café Sperl and enjoy a Sperltorte. Kaffee und Kuchen is a tradition I can definitely get behind. It’s a good thing I was only in Vienna for three days!

I also spent most of a day at Schloss Schönbrunn, exploring the beauty of the Imperial Palace and gardens. It was a busy day at the Palace, full of large tourist groups, but it was definitely worth the time and energy to get there and endure the crowds. I could have spent all day in the gardens, if there wasn’t so much else to see and do in Vienna!

I wandered through south Vienna for the rest of my second day, found a little bit of hipster Wien that reminded me of the Lyn-Lake area of Minneapolis, and finished my adventures at Silberwirt. I had a delicious Tuscany Cordon Bleu filled with Parma ham, mozzarella and basil, breaded in sunflower seeds. Hands down, it was the best meal of my trip; the setting of Silberwirt’s garden in their courtyard was perfect, John Legend happened to be my dinner companion, and the concern and care my waiter showed me made the night even more lovely. The Austrian people have been nothing but kind and caring in my several experiences in Salzburg and Vienna.

Other reasons to love Vienna:

  • The Kunsthistorisches Museum is incredible–not only do they have a huge amount of art from the Habsburgs, while I was there, they had an exhibit on photographs taken in Egypt in the early 1900s, so while experiencing Greek, Roman, Habsburg, and global history otherwise, I could also revisit one of my favorite travel experiences.
  • It has craft beer stores, where I found Surly. Beer that’s produced 10 miles from my house is available in Vienna. Though I always try to stick to local brews when traveling, my affinity for Vienna grew exponentially with this discovery.
  • It has some of the best street food–if you’re not sick of sausage, stop at Bitzinger Wurstelstand Albertina right across from the Opera House. I had the käsekrainer–a cheese sausage inside a delicious, crusty piece of bread. Keep in mind, if you’re trying to be a good guest in Austria (or Germany for that matter), don’t offend them by putting ketchup on your sausage!
  • The Viennese Opera is world-famous. If you can’t get tickets (which you should try to do), they’ve started live-streaming the shows outside the Opera House. Pick up some quick dinner across the street (see above!) and enjoy the Opera outdoors.
  • It is also an incredibly progressive city–there was a change several years ago to make the Ampelmännchen more representative of modern Austrian society. The change was supposed to be temporary, but as of July, they were still there, as public symbols of tolerance for all to see.

I can’t wait to get back to Vienna, and experience everything else the city has to offer. I’ll definitely plan for more than three days next time!

MC Lean

Praha, in Czechia

A little aside before I begin: If you’ve been reading from the start (hi mom! 🙂 ), you may or may not remember me mentioning the “nickname” or shortened name the Czech Republic had decided to start emphasizing earlier last year. Turns out…very few people are using Czechia. [edit: I received an email from a gracious reader in Switzerland (!!) who informed me that google maps is already, in fact using the name Czechia. The reader is a member of the “Civic Initiative Czechia” (Občanská iniciativa Česko) that is working to mainstream the name that has roots in the Bohemian and Moravian history of the nation. He pointed out, very rightly, that it will certainly take time to get the name more mainstream, but it seems it is definitely gaining steam.]

I had high hopes for Prague. I had heard wonderful things from several friends, one of whom says it’s his favorite city in the world, and I had wanted to go for quite some time. It is a beautiful, historic city, and parts of my experience were thoroughly enjoyable, but in my short time there, it never really felt like a city I could fall in love with. However, there were some definite highlights: the free walking tours I took were great, and Prague Castle (and the monastery’s restaurant just outside the castle complex) are definitely worth a stop. I had some really interesting food, and some delicious beer (that in some cases is actually cheaper than water), and the weather could not have been more perfect for my time in Praha.

My most favorite part of Prague was its Jewish history walking tour. The one I took was self-guided, and included visits to several Synagogues, a few museums, and the Jewish cemetery in the heart of the Jewish quarter. Had I planned better, I would have also gone to Terezin (Theresienstadt in German), especially after I learned so much about the significance of that particular labor camp during World War II. I would definitely suggest a visit there, as it provides incredible (often missing) context for the Second World War, and the Jewish experience outside of Germany.

Prague seemed like a really little “big” city–or a really big “little” city–with its historic center compact and wonderfully walkable. It’s been the backdrop to many movies set in Europe, and partially as a result, it has been touched by western commercialism and consumerism, and not in a fantastic way. Economically, I understand the need for it, but I ended up in a mall that would unrecognizable from an American mall on more than one occasion. I had the opportunity to shop in pretty mainstream European stores more in Prague than I did in the rest of my solo trip combined–certainly avoidable, but as I love to wander, it was an unfortunate side-effect of my methods. When I go to Prague again, I’d take a few day trips outside of the city, to Terezin, and to Český Krumlov, a castle that is an hour or so outside of Prague. Nevertheless, everyone who is interested in important history, beautiful architecture, good food and drink, and seeing parts of the world they haven’t before, should go to Prague, and decide for themselves–I’m sure there are really appealing parts of the city that I missed out on.

Tell me what I missed–let me know what fantastic Prague attractions I neglected, or some Czech experience that I didn’t partake in that would have made the trip for me–I’m sure there are some out there!

I was fortunate, however, to find a little piece of Americana in Prague, as I was there over the 4th of July. A jazz club right off Wenceslas Square was having a night of American show tunes. If you know me at all, you know I love me some good old-fashioned musicals, and enjoying them while also honoring our Founders was an unexpectedly great way to commemorate the Declaration. It was as John Adams would have wanted.

On to Vienna, Austrian hospitality, and a return to the German language!

MC Lean

The Stasi Museum, data privacy, and yet another difference between Germany and the US

29 June, Berlin

Our third day in Berlin was actually spent largely outside of Berlin, at the Biosphärenreservat Schorfheide-Chorin, where we got to experience Germany’s outdoors at their finest. We met with youth rangers, and experienced some of the activities they do with German children who come to visit the nature preserve. We communed with nature, had an incredible lunch cooked in their outdoor kitchen, and got to decompress from city life and busy travel days.

One of the really reassuring things for me, just as homesickness was setting in, was experiencing landscapes that looked just like what I see at home. It all of a sudden made perfect sense that during the period of massive German immigration to the US in the middle of the 19th century, so many of those Germans came to the upper midwest in search of a new life. Turns out, it looked just like home. That had to be as comforting for them as it was for me this afternoon.

30 June, Stasi museum, East Berlin

Today was an incredible day, full of brain-stretching and challenges to our current expectations of human decency. We started the day listening to Dr. Thorsten Wetzling, a fellow from the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, a think tank focused on how German politics and technology intersect. Dr. Wetzling took time to discuss security and data privacy in Europe with us. Not only was he incredibly fascinating, but it seems in our conversations afterward he also illustrated to the group of 15 of us just how little Americans know about data privacy, and for better or worse, how much we just trust that the right thing is being done for the most part.

One very insignificant, but illustrative example of this was our experience the first morning we were in Germany. One of our group members wasn’t in the lobby at our meeting time, and it seemed logical to all of us that we could just get the room number, and go knock on the door. Because of the importance of data privacy in Germany, the front desk staff wouldn’t give out the room number, even to our group leader, who was responsible for the entire reservation. Until put in historical context, this just seems like an inconvenience to Americans who lose hotel key cards and get new ones at the front desk without even verifying their identities. Germans are leery of allowing anyone access to information that could potentially compromise their safety and security. This is even evident to a much lesser extent in their public bathrooms. There is zero space between the door and the walls in German restrooms; no accidental peeping or feeling of slight discomfort in German toilets!

The incredible carefulness of most Europeans on the issue of data privacy is very clearly rooted in their own national and continental histories. After that meeting, we ventured to the Stasi Museum, which reinforced the importance of that context. The Stasi, or Ministerium für Staatssicherheit were the secret police of the East German government, and the influence they wielded was incredible. Our tour guide at the museum talked fast and was an incredible storyteller with incredibly personal connections to the subject. About 10 minutes into our tour, I was thinking out loud, and said: “think about how much more we’d know if everyone talked this fast and passionately.” The museum, and our guide, were both incredible sights to behold.

Following the atrocities carried out by Hitler and the Nazis during World War II, the Stasi ruled the lives of East Germans and those along the border during the Cold War. As with the gentleman we met at Point Alpha, who served as a West German guard along the border, the lives of those who were designated threats or even potentially connected to western, capitalist ideas were targets for psychological warfare. Schools indoctrinated students to believe that anyone who didn’t adhere strictly to the ideals and beliefs of the East German government was an anarchist bent on bringing down the fatherland. They created mobile units of solitary confinement, drove people around aimlessly to disorient them, randomly moved bicycles and cars from their designated spaces to make people think they were losing their minds, and pitted family members and neighbors against each other, in tests of loyalty and patriotism. The files the Stasi kept on DDR citizens have been opened, but many East Germans still don’t want to relive this incredibly painful, divisive era of their history.

Disgusting, immoral bottom line: if humans are intent on it, we can do incredibly damaging things to each other, without inflicting a bit of physical violence. Second moral of the story: if ever you’re in Berlin, make sure you stop at the Stasi museum.

Our fifth day was unplanned for the most part; some went to Sachsenhausen, some went to Museum Island, and I wandered the city, trying to plan a lesson and take in the city in whatever way it happened to unfold. Turns out getting stuck in an hours-long downpour was a part of the spontaneity of that day. Those of us who stayed an additional day also had the chance to watch the Euro Cup game in the Tiergarten, right in front of the Brandenburg Gate. As someone who’s not a fan of crowds, drunk people, or soccer, it was much better than I was anticipating. I could definitely see the excitement of enjoying soccer. I’m still not there yet, but much closer to potentially trying again…at some point…in the distant future.

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Praha awaits…stay tuned!

MC Lean

 

Berlin; Day 2

I apologize for the tardiness in keeping up with these posts; I figured that I should finish one adventure before I take on my next, so I’ll hopefully be more faithful in documenting the last weeks of our trip. This is all more for my own memory than anything else (…and also for the two family members who actually read this!), but if I can encourage even one person to do or see some of the things we had the chance to experience, it’ll be worth it.

28 June, Berlin

Our second full day in Berlin started with a wonderful surprise. Though I’m sure many of us had heard of “Cabaret” or read the Berlin Diaries, I had no idea prior to coming who Christopher Isherwood was, or why his tales were such an important part of Germany in the inter-War era. We took a walking tour of the neighborhood Isherwood experienced as an adult. We learned about Isherwood, his experiences as a gay male in Hitler’s Germany, the Schöneberg district of Berlin, and got to hear wonderfully-told stories that we may have never encountered otherwise. It was an incredible morning in the most unexpected of ways. If you’re interested in taking the tour, Brendan, a Brit expat, was a wonderful guide, and gives tours regularly.

We then had the chance to experience the Topography of Terror, which is a necessary stop for anyone who wants to feel the weight of life in Berlin during and after Hitler’s Germany. The documentary evidence of the Third Reich is incredibly moving and heavy; the remnants of the physical structure of the headquarters is eery, and the traveling exhibits they have are well done.

The remainder of the day was one of the most emotion-dense afternoons I’ve experienced. We had the incredible opportunity to hear about the experiences of Margot Friedlander. I’ve written about our experiences with Mrs. Friedlander before, because such an experience needs to be documented in numerous ways. The inhumanity and injustice of her experiences and the experiences of millions of others have weighed on me many times since, and it doesn’t get easier to understand. I think of what she shared with us on a near-daily basis, and often repeat the mantra she shared with us for living in the modern world:

“Be a mensch. Be a human. Be a thinking, feeling human being.”

We then got to experience the German people’s second favorite food–Italian– as we met with a representative of the federal foreign office for dinner. I enjoyed our conversations with someone so interested in our experiences and the education systems in the United States. It’s still incredible to me that the German government has made such a concerted effort (and financial investment) to help others encounter modern Germany. I’m grateful for the chance to have participated, and for the continual chances to relive it; here, in my classroom, on social media, and through the hundreds of photos and memories I took back home with me.

A really productive, thought-provoking day. One that will definitely be motivation to get back to Berlin soon!

MC Lean

 

 

Travel Tips from McLean Meets World!

I am by no means a wizard when it comes to travel. I have actual and figurative bumps and bruises from doing things the hard way, the long way, and the just plain wrong way in my travels. I also know that just because something has worked for me does not mean it will work for others, but I seem to keep sharing the same pieces of travel advice to friends and family. I thought it was about time to write it down and put it into the ether, so here I present to you: McLean Meets World’s 14+ tips for making the most of your travels:

 

1. Climb something tall in every city. You get a better understanding of the geography of a city if you can see it from above. You see the movement of traffic, people, and the urban planning (or lack thereof) that helps you make sense of the place. Plus, if you actually climb the stairs instead of taking the elevator (if there is one), then you’ve always got a justification for that dessert you’ll end up having anyway (also, bonus justification if actually climbing saves you the cost of said dessert–you are officially doubly free of guilt).
2. Take a walking tour of the city, if one exists (especially a free one!). Many companies have started tip-based walking tours of major cities around the globe (in Europe in particular) and they’re a great introduction to a city you’ve never been to. I try to find one on my first or second day in a place. Traditionally, they’ll take you to all of the major sites, and then you can decide for yourself later if you’d like to return and invest time and money in the place. For 10-15 Euros, you’ve got a great introduction to a city, potentially some new friends to visit the city with, and a nice 2-ish hour walk through what is likely a beautiful, history-filled place.
3. See as many monuments at night as you can. Certainly go during the day and enjoy them while they’re full of tourists, even (especially?) if you’re already hot, sweaty, and cranky. But go again at night–some of my favorite moments have come with a cool evening breeze, fewer people, and a more personal experience with some of the world’s most famous sites.
4. Always know some of the language, even if it’s just please and thank you; certainly more is always better. If you have particular dietary needs, make sure to have a phrase or two written down if you’re not comfortable saying them. More often than not, sincere effort and a smile will get you about as far as you’ll absolutely need to get–but sometimes it won’t. In those moments, keep in mind #5.
5. Remember that you’re an ambassador for your language, and more importantly, for your country. Americans are notorious complainers–so far, this has held true on all five continents I’ve visited. Sometimes it’s warranted, and sometimes it’s people getting angry for others not doing things we’d expect them to do at home. Remember, all things are relative. Try to be kind and respectful, wherever you are. And of something is frustrating you, take a deep breath and think about why. Don’t be the person who becomes the stereotype for a whole country. And certainly don’t be the person who gets angry at a non-English speaker, in a non-English speaking country for not being able to understand your English!
6. Basic cultural competency will make your trip easier. Take a few minutes before you go to look for some information about tipping, restaurants, currency, escalators, voice volume, common scams, etc. When I travel, I operate using the assumption that most people are good and mean well. Keep that in mind, and definitely try to let that be your guide, but also be ready to protect yourself from being an easy mark. (This is where practical advice like: don’t carry/flash large sums of money, always have multiple copies of your passport, and don’t get in cabs with strange men at the airport, come into play. Those are important too–I’m just going a bit heavier on the philosophical here today. Also, I assume if you’ve seen the movies Hostel or Taken, you’ve got most of the bigs ones covered! And if you haven’t seen them…don’t.)
7. Group travel is great…until it isn’t. If you’re traveling with a larger number of people, especially with varying degrees of travel experience, make sure your group knows basic information about how to interact in big groups abroad. Also remember there will likely always be people with you at sites who aren’t in your group–don’t ruin it for them by monopolizing anything; a person, a place, physical space, or things.
8. Do as the locals do. Don’t go to places that (literally or figuratively) scream for tourists. Though they can be, often, they won’t be authentic or quality meals or purchases. If you find a place that’s full AND full of people speaking the native language, stop and check it out.
9. Homesickness is real regardless of how long you’ve been away, and sometimes all it takes to lessen it is a little dose of American commercialism. Stopping at an American chain for some comforts of home is okay, and can sometimes get you through a rough stretch of travel. BUT, indulge with serious moderation and with some stipulations. Don’t get Starbucks coffee in Vienna; get Viennese coffee. Don’t even think about McDonald’s fries in Belgium, get pommes frites at EVERY OPPORTUNITY. Don’t compare your Roman meal to Olive Garden, and don’t ask for alfredo sauce in Italy. It doesn’t exist.
Homesickness can also be improved by getting to know other travelers. I’m surprised every time I travel when I catch myself eavesdropping on conversations I hear in English. Sometimes I insert myself, and sometimes I don’t, but talking about shared experiences gives you a great starting point for new friendships with other travelers, whether or not they speak your language.
10. Always use the restroom when it’s available to you, especially if it’s clean and free. The American chains mentioned in #8 are often great places to use the restroom, though you should always buy something if you’re planning to use a restroom there. Museums and restaurants are also great places to use them. Carrying tissue or a small amount of toilet paper is probably also a good idea, just in case you find yourself in a jam.

11. Know your travel triggers and work to avoid or minimize them.

  • If you get irritable and angry when you do too much or sleep too little (and who doesn’t?!), build in time to be exhausted and recuperate. If you’re going 24/7 for as long as you’re in a place, the value of your experiences starts decreasing rapidly. I’m certainly guilty of trying to fit in too much, and not really caring about what I’m seeing or doing. This is when I get frustrated at myself, after the fact.
  • If you shut down quickly after getting hungry, know that, and make sure the people you’re traveling with know too. And then find something to eat, or always carry something with you. Almonds are my go-to; easy and portable–pack some!
  • If you get uncomfortable in loud, cramped spaces, try to avoid them, or at least know how you best deal with them.

Ultimately, whatever it is that’s bothering you, think about why you’re there, and whether you think you’ll be back. Plan accordingly.

12. Write things down. There’s certainly no need to carry a large journal with you, but I’ve found that a small moleskine that has a piece of elastic to keep it closed is handy. I’ve started writing things I’m grateful for at down time during travel days or at meals. Traveling alone affords more opportunity to do this, but I’ve found that I’m more centered and grateful if I take time every day to realize how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing. Also, if you make some great finds in a city, and know that you’ll want to share them, it’s better to write them down or take pictures of things than rely on your overstimulated, likely overtired brain to file away long-term.
13. Think about what you want to acquire on your trip. Some people come away with lots of souvenirs and gifts for themselves or friends and family at home. Others place experiences ahead of things. Some can meaningfully combine both. You have to know what’s more important to you, and how you plan to budget for both experiences and things. I learned the hard way as a broke college student that sometimes prioritizing finances means you can’t have both, and may miss out on experiences. However, the years that followed my study-abroad experience where I didn’t wear the t-shirts I bought, could finally acknowledge I didn’t REALLY need that extra scoop of gelato every time, or couldn’t remember the significance of a little statue I *needed* to have at the time have convinced me that bungee-jumping over the Corinth Canal would have probably been a better way to spend my time and money. This is truly a live-and-learn situation. Sometimes you have to miss a few great experiences or purchases to figure out what is important to you, but once you know, you’ll save yourself time, money, and space in your suitcase in the future.
14.  Get Lost. Make an effort to find the “road not taken” and walk as far as you’re inspired to walk. If you have the time and inclination, go somewhere without a destination. Play metro “golf” and get off at random stops to see whatever you can see. Or, have one destination in mind, and take the long route to get there. I know this sounds scary in a city you don’t know, and perhaps with a language you don’t speak. If you’re worried about this–know how to get to ONE big attraction or site from where you’re staying. The train station, a tourist site, a store or restaurant; these can all work, and if worse comes to worse, you can find a method to get back to that place, and your destination won’t be too far. Also, I always carry a physical map with me, with the place I’m staying marked, or the cross-streets memorized. Map-reading is a seriously underrated skill, and will serve you well (and impress your friends) in times of crisis, or just during periods where you want to navigate the old-fashioned way. Technology can also help immensely. If you don’t have a great sense of direction, download the google map for the cities you’re going to, and have an electronic backup.
Some of my favorite travel experiences have come this way. We rode a bus line to the end, wandered around, and heard a booming voice speaking in German, and had just come upon the Pope’s All Saints’ Day address at St. Peter’s Square. We wandered from our apartment in one direction, and heard the sounds of splashing water, only to come upon the Trevi Fountain. I also found the best cake shop in all of Vienna this way, and made it a priority to retrace my steps several times over the next few days. 🙂 However, you should also know the cities you’re wandering–if there are dangerous parts that should be avoided, know that beforehand. I’ve walked into more than one protest-turning-into-a-riot in politically/socially-motivated/active areas. (Keep in mind: All of this should be taken with a grain of salt, and safety should be a priority, BUT get out of your comfort zone!)
[edit: I can’t believe I forgot this tip the first time around–thanks Ben!]
15. For the best experience, work hard to be a traveler, not a tourist. For me, a tourist gets a picture in front of a famous landmark, but doesn’t care about the history. A traveler interacts with a place. A tourist visits cities superficially, checking places and sites off a predetermined list. A traveler gets lost in the streets, and wants to feel the kinetic energy of a city and its people. A tourist chooses to minimize discomfort and often takes the path of least resistance; a cab instead of public transport, a restaurant with English-only menus, an American chain hotel. All of these are acceptable options, and even preferable in some situations, but think about why you choose them. Before you even board a plane, think about why you’re going and what you want to learn. Be prepared for discomfort, but expect enlightenment. Be ready for frustration, but embrace serendipity. Make smart and safe decisions, but expose yourself to the unfamiliar.
Growth happens when we are capable enough to deal with the unexpected. Travel is about that growth; of humanity and awareness, intelligence and capability, and relationships between ourselves and the rest of the world, both physical and human. Be ready for it to change you, and if you think it doesn’t, try again. And again. And again. Change the places, the travel partners, the modes of transport, the season, the attitude, and sometimes before you even realize it, those things will all have changed you.
So…what did I miss? What other useful tips would help the seasoned and not-so-seasoned traveler? Comment below and let me know!
Safe travels, friends. MC Lean

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.”