My Travel Intentions for 2018

I read somewhere recently that one should set intentions, rather than make resolutions for the beginning of a new year. I don’t know that I’ve ever actually held onto a resolution long enough to see an impact in my daily life, so I’ll get on board with setting intentions for 2018. These won’t be about my health or finances, though those will likely come too. These will be travel- and human-related. Better to write them down, if they’re actually going to happen, right?! Hopefully I’ll come back to these, and update my progress, for my own sake!

Wishing you and yours a happy and healthy 2018!

  1. Take advantage of at least five new cultural/historical experiences right here at home. Thinking about starting with the Somali Museum of Minnesota, the Mill City Museum (which I still can’t believe I’ve never been to!), and the top of the Foshay Tower.
  2. Make concrete plans to get to South America. Find a travel partner for Machu Picchu, find a company for my Trail trek, and start saving! Doing responsible, adult things means less disposable income, but this particular site seems time-sensitive, as travel on the Inca Trail is being limited by the Peruvian government.
  3. Be more open to new people when I travel. It’ll take work to make this happen, especially when I eat, as I often eat alone, but this also applies generally. I usually have my RBF on in full-force when I’m in situations that could turn precarious, but especially as the image of Americans around the world is changing, I will try to smile more often, and experience things that will find me in communion with other travelers I can learn from.
  4. Be more open to spending money when I travel. I’ve been really conscious about spending money on experiences, rather than souvenirs, but I’m also still a product of my mother (who I’m convinced actually grew up during the Depression). I think I often miss out on cultural touchstones in an effort to be frugal. That €4 to sit and sip espresso at a cafe in Roma that I can never justify, the Czech Pilsner at dinner overlooking the Charles Bridge that I hesitate in ordering, the three or four meals it takes trying to find the best schnitzel in Vienna. None of those are necessary, but everyone needs to eat, and all of those choices enhance experiences. I need to remember that. And dang it, when you want an Aperol spritz in Piazza del Popolo with people you haven’t seen in years, spend the €11!
  5. Plan my 2018 to include at least one road trip and at least three new cities.
  6. Connect with at least five current and former students about study abroad options at the college of their choice.
  7. Write an actual letter once a month to someone I’ve lost touch with, but want to keep in my life.
  8. Actually write more here too–this blog is largely self-serving, but if I can convince even one person of the importance of travel (or reinforce what they already know!), it’ll be worth it! Once a month might be tricky in the doldrums of early spring, but it’s a pretty minor commitment to make.
  9. Help at least two people who have the desire to travel (but lack the practical planning tools) to take their first trip, domestic or international.
  10. Be the best ambassador I can be for everything I represent. Minnesotans, Americans, teachers, women, sports fans, politically-engaged individuals, travelers, etc. Life today is challenging enough; we should all try to do the best we can to represent ourselves to the world with integrity, virtue, and value.

That sounds like a pretty valuable way to bring in 2018. Hopefully, I’ll update this list as the year goes on, but until then, hope we’ll all find fulfillment and challenge in 2018. It’s gotta be better than 2017, right?!

MC Lean


10 years as a traveler: my love letter to the world.

In front of my apartment at Via XX Settembre 49. Leaving Roma in 2007, returning in 2014, and our mini-reunion in 2017 (after a full day of biking the Appian Way!)


On December 22, 2007, I met my family at MSP in international arrivals, after requiring that they pay crazy amounts to park and come in to greet me. I had been gone for four months, after all.

I had spent those months visiting London, Salzburg, Munich, and Berlin, living in Athens and Rome, traveling around Greece and Italy, and finally, stopping in Paris and London again on my way home. I studied history, art history, theology, culture and language, and took my senior seminar on ethics and morals. I lived in a hotel with 27 other students, and shared an apartment with eight other women. I ate out for every meal in Athens, and cooked lots of pasta and ate lots of cheese in our tiny Italian kitchen in Rome. I learned the dangers of walking in Athenian traffic, and the stop-on-a-dime habits of Roman drivers. I wandered through political protests in the cradle of democracy and endured countless transportation strikes in the Eternal City.

I came home from that adventure on December 22nd, 2007. I distinctly remember sitting at Christmas celebrations feeling off. I was happy to be home, and even happier to be eating all of my favorite foods with some of my favorite people, but I just couldn’t put my finger on why I wasn’t entirely happy. That December 31st, instead of seeing friends I hadn’t seen in an entire semester, I sat at my parents’ house. Alone. On New Year’s Eve. It was then that I knew that reverse culture shock was real, and that something just wasn’t the same as it had been the previous three Christmases of my college career.

It was a slow burn, but over the next several months, it became clear that it was a permanent feeling of different-ness at home. I didn’t know what or why, but something had changed. I re-adapted to life in central Minnesota as I finished my senior year and prepared for student teaching. Adult life awaited, but I just wanted to get back on a plane. Turns out, that feeling doesn’t go away either.

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”

Bill Bryson

Before I left, I wasn’t sure I’d survive the semester. When I got home, I knew I’d never be the same. Ten years later, the wanderlust that was implanted over that four months in 2007 has grown into more numerous and diverse interests than I could ever have anticipated. It has led to trips all over the world with dear friends to share experiences with, and adventures by myself, discovering the joys of solo travel. It has taken me to five continents, and provided me a lengthy list of future trips to be taken. It has shown me who I am and what I value as a human, and has made me a better teacher and person. It has cost me thousands of dollars and enriched my life in ways I can’t explain. And it all began with a semester I didn’t know I would survive.

My mom gave me a little business card-sized quote that I’ve carried in my wallet every day since. I certainly didn’t realize the power of that quote at the time, but I come back to it often.

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

― Mary Anne Radmacher

There’s so much of the world to see. Get out there and do it.


MC Lean

Road Trip Necessities

I haven’t taken a road trip that has lasted longer than my 5.5 hour drive back to school in Milwaukee since I was 7. In the early 1990s, my family drove to Mount Rushmore in our Volvo, listening to Raffi for approximately 8.5 of the 9 hours it took us to get there. We stopped at the Corn Palace and Wall Drug, my brothers and I had matching sunglasses, and we took the obligatory photos that prove I was cuter, blonder, and more stylish when I was 7 than I am today.

This summer, I’m undertaking a pretty massive road trip that will last 3 weeks and 3300 miles for several reasons:

  1. I haven’t before, and that’s a good enough reason to do anything.
  2. I have to get to Salt Lake City for a National Endowment for the Humanities Landmark Seminar on Manifest Destiny and the Mormon Trail somehow.
  3. Along the way to SLC, there are people to see and places to visit. I get to see some friends that I haven’t seen in a while, and experience parts of the country that I’ve never seen!

My entire road trip will keep me within “fly-over country;” the crassly-named, non-descriptive way to categorize an entire HALF of our country. I’m a proud midwesterner, and though Minnesota’s topographic features may be lacking, I’m excited to share the beauty and diversity of the great plains and the Rocky Mountains with my kids and my friends.

In preparation for this undertaking, I’m trying to populate a list of road trip basics:

  • A road trip playlist: needs to be upbeat and singable enough to keep you awake, and diverse enough not to become repetitive. Though I’d love lots of suggestions, some of my go-tos are: anything John Legend has ever sung, the original cast recording of Rock of Ages (the stage production, NOT the movie!), which is a nonsense story, but a GREAT soundtrack, and Hamilton. Because duh.
  • Road trip snacks: portable, not messy, and won’t make me feel like death as I’m driving through Wyoming. Also will keep me from spending hundreds of dollars (and gaining hundreds of pounds) on soda and chips at gas stations, hopefully!
  • Road trip-themed reads: though I’m glad to be visiting friends and seeing and doing fun things, I’ll also spend quite a bit of time alone. Good books with themes about travel and adventure, self-discovery, or nonfiction about nearly anything are always appreciated!
  • Pit-stops: I don’t sit in cars well, so having sights to stop and see will make the drive significantly more pleasant. It just so happens that a large portion of my route will take me along the Oregon/Mormon Trail, and will give me plenty of historical sights to stop and see (and parts of my childhood to reminisce):

On the way from Salt Lake City to Madison, Wisconsin, with a pit stop in Sioux City for a family wedding, I’ll also be stopping in Kearney, Nebraska, at another Oregon Trail highlight, the Field of Dreams movie site, and the New Glarus brewery, for the best Wisconsin has to offer.

I’ll be chronicling my trip during and after, in hopes of highlighting the beauty and uniqueness of this region of the country, but first, let me know: what else do I need to know about road trips to make this enjoyable, rather than painful?

Safe travels to all who have summer adventures on the horizon! MC Lean

(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

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

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

Borders: real and imagined

6/23, Vacha

I’ve been thinking a lot about borders and boundaries while we’ve been here. Borders are completely artificial, even when they’re physical, yet they are very real, very political man-made divisions that separate us in consequential and concrete ways. The inexplicable loyalty we feel to a place because of the boundaries imposed by some mapmaker, explorer, ruler, or politician hundreds of years ago, or in some cases, only recently, exists nearly everywhere in the world. All you need to do is talk to a Berliner about someone from Bavaria, and the strength of loyalty to state over loyalty to nation will become immediately apparent. (I know, I know…I’m one to talk, right? Minnesota is always on my heart. Figuratively and literally). German nationalism is a different beast than American nationalism, but loyalty to the bundesdländer: that’s real, and very strong.

While in Vacha, in addition to our incredible school visit, we had the chance to take a brief tour of the town, and experience a museum dedicated to telling the story of the Jewish residents of the town. We heard from the former Headmistress of the school that we had just visited, who left her position to research and develop the stories of the Jewish residents of Vacha that she and others shared with us. Vacha is a town situated right on the former East-West German border, and we had the chance to climb the tower next to the museum in order to see the border first-hand. From the tower, we saw the division between the former East and West Germany, and a guard tower that was maintained to remind citizens of the world today about the separation and the legacy it has in modern Germany.

Standing in this tower in Vacha, in the state of Thuringia (Thüringen in German) provided another profound German experience with the artificiality of borders. There was no visible divide; the grass was the same green, the houses looked the same, the water in the river didn’t flow opposite directions. It was a completely artificial division that stood for very real, tangible things. This division ruined, and in some cases, actually cost lives. It broke up families, it broke alliances, it broke economies, and it broke spirits for decades of Germans, both then and now. One local story we heard was of the house that fell right on the border in the photo above. Portions of it couldn’t be inhabited by the same family while the Iron Curtain remained, so the family packed up those rooms, and lived only in the portion of the house in West Germany. That was just one example of the very real division of the country during the Cold War.

One of the requirements for participation in TOP is the creation of a unit to be shared with other teachers to improve the teaching of Modern Germany. The unit I will be writing has to do with this notion: the importance of borders, the continual shaping and reshaping of them, and the human impact of these imposed divisions. I’m particularly interested in how the East-West division still affects a unified Germany today, 25 years later. Because of my experiences in Korea last summer, I’m also hoping to see if I can make comparisons between the successful and less successful aspects of German reunification, and the current barriers to Korean unification. If I can pull it off, it’ll hopefully be a thoughtful, useful way to frame current events by contextualizing them in the past. The importance of the lasting legacy that is associated with those boundaries has become increasingly apparent as we travel the former Iron Curtain. We’ll visit the Point Alpha Foundation tomorrow, which plays a significant role in educating about and maintaining the former border itself, and will be an incredible opportunity to learn about the East-West divide, and actually walk the border that figuratively and actually divided the world during the Cold War.

In a time where borders have become fundamental components of our daily conversations, and are consistently used to fan the flames of political rhetoric and division, the continuing importance of the Iron Curtain and borders in today’s world is striking. I’m hoping that as I reflect on this experience now and during the school year, I can help my students think meaningfully about sovereignty, conflict, and other boundaries around the world; the Korean Peninsula, US-Mexico, Sudan-South Sudan, Russia-Ukraine, China-Tibet, and so many other conflicts over man-made boundaries and artificial divisions. Difficult and important issues to think about, especially in working to help the young people and future politicians and policy makers I get to teach make sense of our world.

MC Lean

Our first days in Passau, Refugees, Migration, Cultural Exchange, and Gilmore Girls

6/22, on a bus somewhere in Bavaria

I was hoping to keep up with this much better than I have, but here we are, four days in, and only one blog post written. We’re currently on the bus from Passau to a little town in Bavaria called Neumarkt where we’ll visit an all-girls school. So far, adding photos from a memory card to my iPad seems nearly impossible, so pictures will have to come later, unless I can remember to take a couple on my phone at every stop. For the three of you who are still reading these, I’ll work hard to do that, as the photos really do improve the quality of the posts. 😉 [edit: clearly I didn’t find a sufficient solution to this problem, so here were are, three weeks after the fact.]

Passau, in lower Bavaria, was a lovely, quaint little town, with a large university, a bustling city center, and a large river cruising presence. It’s a very different place when the river cruise ships are present–as most of the people who come off the boats are non-Germans of a certain age, it definitely temporarily changes the demographics of the city, and certainly makes it a bit harder to move around freely. As with any city, I much prefer to stay until the most touristy of tourists head out of town. It’ll be one of my many travel tips, whenever that post comes to fruition. So many of these cities have completely different personalities when they’re more locals than not. Assisi in Umbria, Italy is the best example of this I’ve encountered. It is most definitely worth buying a train ticket, getting there yourself, and staying a night or two rather than cramming on a bus with 50 other tourists for a three hour tour of the city.

Our first afternoon in Germany, we took a boat tour of the Danube, the Ilz, and the Inn rivers, which converge in Passau. The city has dealt  with some serious flooding in the recent past, but the rivers have become an important part of the identity of this city.

The Inn River (left) and the Danube River (right) converging on a city park



The next morning, we took a walking tour of the city, which was just about the perfect thing for a group of 16 jet lagged Americans to do. Starting at Dom St. Stephan, we walked through the city, learning its history, ranging from medieval walls to World War II Allied outposts. We also had a very important cultural experience on our last night in Passau; the Euro Cup is happening, and we had the chance to watch the German National Team play Northern Ireland from a biergarten in Passau. Die Mannschaft, or the Machine, as the team is called, is a pretty big deal, and one of the things EVERYONE in Germany can get behind. I’m sure this won’t be our last experience with futbol while we’re here.

While in Passau, we met with several people who are directly involved in dealing with the refugee situation in Germany. As a border town, Passau has experienced a significant influx of immigrants since 2013. At one point, they had as many as 10,000 refugees coming into this little city of 20,000 every day. One of the people we met with was a lawyer who specializes in refugee and immigration law. She mentioned that in Passau alone, there are over 200 social service organization in the city alone that are working to help refugees assimilate and integrate into German society. I was really interested in what organizations apart from the governments of Bavaria and Germany sought to do to deal with the considerable (and hopefully temporary) strain this puts on resources, education, economic production, and infrastructure of places where immigrants come in large numbers. Many Germans see this as not only a complication, but also as an opportunity, as Germany has an aging population that needs more people to replace workers who are retiring. They also know first-hand the problems and perceptions that can sometimes accompany a diverse and non-integrated immigrant population. The Turkish guest worker programs of the 1960s-1980s gave Germany a bit of experience with integrating a largely non-Christian population into mainstream society, but it has some very clear differences as well. Certainly though, the Syrian push-factors change the way the Germans need to deal with this influx. The most incredible thing I heard while we were talking with her was this:

“We need to help these people because they need help.”

As a strong proponent of, you know, being human, I thought the responsibility some Germans feel for their fellow human was so affirming. Good people exist everywhere, and the idea that if we can help, and there are people who need help, help should be provided, is not revolutionary, but it’s just one that we need to keep working on living out. The Germans are facing a seriously unfair portion of the immigration situation, but it seems that in our first visit with people who work directly with refugees, human-heartedness is the overwhelming sentiment.

After that, we had the chance to meet with locals to talk about life in Passau. We happened to meet with two teachers, Sonya and Eva. They work at two different schools in Passau, but are both high school teachers who are well-traveled, interesting, and unafraid to engage in deep and meaningful conversations with Americans they had just met. We talked politics, terrorism, immigration, education, and of course American TV shows. It surprised me how interested they were in American TV, but Gilmore Girls seems to be an international favorite! It was the perfect beginning of our experience to meet locals who were as genuinely interested in learning about us as we were about them, and definitely reinforced the importance of exchange: ideas, languages, people, culture, TV shows…it all helps us better understand people outside of ourselves. What a good message to leave Passau with!

MC Lean

Me, Derek, our host Sonya, Candace, and Downing on our first full day in Germany

Germany Awaits!

The time has come! Thanks to an incredible opportunity through the Goethe-Institut available to STEM and social studies teachers called the Transatlantic Outreach Program, I’m headed to Germany for two weeks with other social studies teachers who are interested in learning about Modern Germany, and making a concerted effort to educate our students on modern issues in Europe and beyond. On Friday, I’ll be heading to DC for orientation, and then on Saturday, we’re off to Munich! The itinerary is comprehensive and varied–lots will get done in a seemingly short period of time! I’m hoping to post from every city, as well as about unique opportunities we experience along the way, but I’ll only have an iPad to do so, so please forgive typographical errors that you may find.

While there, we’ll tour a variety of German secondary schools, meet with quite a few German students and teachers, and tour German businesses as well. So here’s where you come in, loyal readers (all 7 of you!). I’m hoping to solicit some questions that you’d like answered about modern Germany. Send them my way here (in the comments), on facebook, via iMessage which I’ll be using while abroad (if you know me in real life!), or email
Looking forward to keeping you all updated on this adventure–for now, bis bald! (I hope that means see you later…if not, I apologize for anyone I offended in German!)
MC Lean

Minnesota Nice takes on the Friendly Island

(FYI: this is the first in what will likely be many posts that explains the historical significance of a place, rather than shares a funny or enlightening anecdote or focuses on current events. Apologies in advance; sometimes teachers can’t help but teach…even (especially?) when it’s unsolicited!)

Beach vacations stress me out. I know…this is the quintessential first world problem, right? (Also, please bear with me, as high school phrases and vocab have made their way into my daily life…) What I mean to say is that doing nothing isn’t high on my priority list when I travel. I much prefer to have tangible things to see and do; walking around a city, listening to people speak a variety of languages (even better if none of them are English), taking in culture and history and centuries or millennia of those who have lived in these places.

BUT, sometimes, we all need to have nothing to do. It’s good for the soul (and increasingly, also good for the bags under my eyes…), but that’s a hard thing to reckon with, when so many incredible things exist in the world begging to be done. Several months ago, a couple high school friends and I were looking for an excuse to celebrate milestone birthdays, and passport stamps seemed like they would be a necessary part of the trip. Regardless of my initial instincts and hesitations, the Caribbean island of St. Martin was the opportunity we were looking for; historical, beautiful, and not so touristy. The vacation was great; the beaches were beautiful, and the food was a tasty fusion of European and Caribbean cuisine.

Three different perspectives of our little Bay of Grand Case

However, was really interested me was the relationships between these islands and their colonial legacies. I’m always a little uncomfortable in places where the primary source of income for locals is tourism. In locations like Venice and Orlando, where tourists drive the economy, it seems to be less of an issue for me. However, in the Caribbean, and many other places around the world, the legacy of imperialism is visible and lasting, and it was frequently in my thoughts during our time on the island.


Called “The Friendly Island” because of the amiable relationship between its French and Dutch colonizers, St. Martin (or Sint Maarten on the Dutch side) is just south of Anguilla, a British Island, and just north of St. Barth’s, a part of the French collective. As my APUSH children know all too well (Hi guys!), Spain and Portugal began the race to colonize the Caribbean, named after the primary indigenous people there when Spain arrived, the Caribs, and other European empires followed soon after. Columbus and the Spanish were the first to arrive in what would become St. Martin, named after St. Martin of Tours, because Columbus landed there on St. Martin’s feast day, November 11th. The Spanish, though, were not especially interested in maintaining a presence there, and the Dutch landed in the 17th century, to few inhabitants and a flailing Spanish grip. They wanted a stopover between New Amsterdam (soon to be taken by the British, and renamed New York), and their influence in Brazil. However, in 1633, the Spanish, seeing the potential the island offered, as illustrated by the Dutch East India Company which was using the island for salt mining, began a war for control of St. Martin, which they quickly won. The Spanish left for good when they realized 15 years in, that little profit and no great successes were to be found on the island.

Both the Dutch and the French jumped at the chance to again build a presence on the island. Wanting to prevent another prolonged war, the nations signed an agreement in 1648 which divided the island, and they’ve lived happily ever after…sort of (a few border skirmishes here and there are totally normal, right James K. Polk?!). Like many Caribbean islands, the climate of St. Martin was good for producing sugar cane, so African slavery also came to the island in the 18th century, and was abolished by both the French and Dutch sides in 1848.


The harbor from the top of Fort Louis, looking at the French capitol of Marigot

Fort Louis is the most visible reminder (in addition to the language, food, and Gendarmerie, among other things…) of the French colonial presence on half of the island. Today, St. Martin is part of the French collectivity; its citizens pay French taxes, vote in French elections, and celebrate French Independence Day (14 July 1789, in case you were wondering). The Dutch half is still a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but since 2010, is an independent country, with its own currency, constitution, and government (think: Canada to Great Britain). There is no “border” between the French and Dutch halves (imagine that…), and the monument to their peaceful coexistence and the island’s license plates are the only  reminders that you’ve crossed from one “nation” to the other; well, those and the aforementioned passport stamps!

The French and Sint Maarten flags at the monument to peaceful coexistenceI

It is the smallest landmass in the world shared by two countries, and over 120 nationalities can be found on the island. If that’s not a case for successful recognition and tolerance of diversity, I don’t know what would be. Also, in 2014, it had more gaming machines per capita than any other country in the world.. So…I’m sure there’s a lesson in that somewhere too. 😉

MC Lean