La Città Eterna: A first-timer’s guide to Rome

I’ve been back from Rome for over a month, and think about how soon I can return on a daily basis. I’ve been asked many times why I have such an affinity for Rome, and all I can articulate is that I think it stems from my opportunity to get to know the city as a temporary resident of it. I didn’t cram weeks or months worth of history and sites into a few days. I didn’t have to stop at the most convenient or most English-friendly restaurants, and I didn’t have to wait in long summer lines to see (but not really get the significance of) famous Roman landmarks. It is definitely a city that needs to be experienced, not merely seen.

So, here are some tips for the first-timer (or return-tripper) to Rome. I love this city, and want everyone else to experience the same love, so I’ve put together some thoughts on what made the trip more special and worthwhile for me. I broke it up into four sections: the Centro Storico, general commentary on other sites in Rome, Roman Churches, and Vatican City. My must-dos (of which there are many) are in BOLD, but I think everything listed is worth the effort. At some point, I’ll create a post about just gelato, but for now, the sites will be my first priority! Truly take the time and energy to get to know the city, and the payoff will be unforgettable. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, so it probably shouldn’t be seen in just one day either…😉
CENTRO STORICO (The Historic Center)
  • If you want to make sure to visit the “big sites,” the first one on many people’s list is the Colosseum. However, if you have the time and energy, the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum are now covered by the same ticket. To save time, you can go to the Forum first to get the ticket, as there is often a shorter line there. If you’re into Roman history, take some time on the Palatine Hill. I think it’s the most under-rated part of the Forum and Colosseum area; it’s where Romulus and Remus were, when they were found by the she-wolf who kept them alive. If you’re not getting a guided tour, I would suggest using an audio guide–Rick Steves is usually my go-to. For most people, it’s meaningless to wander around these spaces unless you can get some kind of tour to orient yourself. Cross the Via dei Fori Imperiali and see the Imperial Fora too–you don’t need a ticket, but you can see Trajan’s Column, and the back side of Trajan’s market (a fancy mall in its day), which is really cool, and you can actually go into the market if you buy a ticket on the other side.
  • The Campidoglio, or Capitoline Hill (right by the Forum), has a really wonderful museum, and the square itself was designed by Michelangelo, and is beautiful at dusk. Get a gelato and ponder life here while the sun sets over the hills of Rome.
  • Piazza Venezia is the square in front of the monument to Victor Emmanuel. If you’re interested in WWII history, Mussolini’s headquarters was the building on the right. From the balcony on that building, Mussolini declared war on Britain.
  • If you go behind the building with the balcony, there is a secret garden, hidden in the busyness of Rome. The courtyard of the Basilica di San Marco Evangelista al Campidoglio is a great place to sit and enjoy gelato, rest your feet, and get away from the noise and bustle of the city.
  • If you want one of the best free view of Rome, and a good walk too, climb the Aventine Hill. Go past the Circus Maximus (circo massimo metro stop) up the hill to Giardino Degli Aranci on the Via de Santa Sabina. it’s awesome, though only open until 6 in the spring and fall. It’s also close to a pretty special spot in Rome, if you want a neat, kitschy experience at a keyhole–looking through it, you’ll see a perfectly framed St. Peter’s Dome, and you’ll be standing in Rome, looking through the sovereign state of the Knights of Malta, and looking at the Holy See.
  • The Giardino Degli Aranci is also really close to La Boca della Verita, which is pretty cool, but doesn’t mean much if you haven’t seen Roman Holiday. You should definitely watch it before you get to Rome; it’ll make everything better. Plus, Gregory Peck.

Other sites in Rome

  • Campo de Fiori isn’t just a tourist draw–it has great fruits and veggies, and one of the best bakeries I’ve found in Rome. Il Forno Campo de Fiori is in the back of the square if you’re facing the Giordano Bruno statue. It’ll be behind you on the right side–get some pizza by the etto (hundred grams), and sit by the French Embassy, Palazzo Farnese, just around the corner.
  • The Trevi fountain should be seen during the day (reaaaaaally early if you want it mostly to yourself), and at night, pretty late for the same reason. It’s SO much better with no tourists and fewer people harassing you with neon light up balls, or selfie sticks, or whatever is being sold at the moment. It was one of the most pleasant surprise of my first trip to Rome; turn a corner, hear moving water, and there it is: La Fontana di Trevi!
  • The Spanish steps are not as cool as you’d hope, especially because you can’t sit on them and drink copious amounts of wine anymore, but head down the Via Condotti to window-shop at some of Rome’s most expensive stores, that extends straight out from it. Immediately on the right is Antico Caffe Greco, where Keats and Byron drank coffee. Stand, or sit and pay a bit more, but it’s worth a stop if literary history is your thing.
  • If art history is more your thing, the Villa Borghese is awesome. The gardens are beautiful and romantic, and good for a bike ride or walk, and you can get a good view of Piazza del Popolo from Pincio if you walk to the far west side of the gardens toward the river.
  • If you’re not sick of art yet, the Villa Farnesina is another beautiful home full of great art (lots of Raphael here), and well off the beaten path, for those of you who don’t like crowds.
    Churches
  • The Pantheon is SO incredible. A functioning Catholic Church, and a burial site for many famous Italians, including Raphael, and Umberto I and Vittorio Emmanuele II, both Kings of Italy. This is another site you should see during the day AND late at night with fewer people around. Get some gelato, and sit outside of it by the fountain thinking about life (notice a trend developing?). I had some pretty profound thoughts by that fountain, and seeing snow fall through the oculus in on my bucket list.
  • San Giovanni in Laterano–the Papal Basilica. It’s kind of out of the way, but a really cool church, and significant for pilgrims. In a building across the street is the Scala Santa, which people will climb on their knees seeking repentance.
  • Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore–another papal basilica, close to termini, and different architecturally than a lot of churches in Rome.
  • Chiesa de Sant’Ignazio is one of the Jesuit churches in Rome, so I’m a fan, but also close to Campo de Fiore, and has a really neat dome–I won’t ruin the surprise for you, but go if you’re close. Once inside, look up. Walk toward the sanctuary and keep looking up.
  • St. Paul Outside the Walls (Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura) is another papal basilica, and a bit out of the way, but supposedly built over the tomb of St. Paul. Very pretty if you’re in the area anyway.
  • Santa Maria in Trastevere gets raved about, but I’ve never been. I would guess that many, many people can’t be wrong! Check it out.
    Vatican City
  • I suggest taking a full day or two half days at least if you’re planning to see the Cathedral and the Vatican Museums. If you want to go to Castel St. Angelo, which is nearby, make it at least a day and a half.
  • St. Peters: make sure to walk around the piazza and Bernini’s colonnade. It’s a pretty spectacular sight. There’s a papal audience on Wednesdays that you can get tickets for the Papal Audience at St. Peter’s from Santa Susanna on via XX Venti Settembre, which is pretty close to Termini, if you’re going or coming through there.
  • There’s also a brief Papal Angelus on Sunday mornings if the Pope is in town. He largely doesn’t speak in English during it, but still worth doing in my opinion, though I’m Catholic, and a fan of this Pope. The schedule for this varies more widely than the Papal Audience, but it occurs at noon.  There’s also mass multiple times a day in English, Latin, Italian, and other languages as well, if that’s something you’re interested in.
  • Definitely climb the dome of St. Peter’s. It’s worth it regardless of the weather, but make sure to do it if it’s a beautiful day. If you’re able to, I suggest you hike all the way up. Save the money the elevator would cost for gelato–it doesn’t take that long, and along the way, you get to walk around the inside of the dome, seeing the incredible mosaic work that makes up the art of the interior dome.
  • Regardless of whether you’ve had your fill of museums, make sure to spend time at the Vatican museums–most people spend 2-3 hours, though it’d be easy to spend significantly more. I would suggesting getting your tickets beforehand so you don’t waste time waiting in line, which you can get through the Vatican (not any of the heinously obnoxious people selling tickets as you wait in line!). Use Rick Steves’ audio tour, or if you prefer, get a guided tour, which are available from lots of companies, and from the Vatican itself (they also recently started doing adults-only happy hour and evening tours–if you can get in on that, it sounds pretty spectacular!). It’s frustrating to wander around without something or someone guiding you, so have some sort of plan or guide. Make sure to mail something from the Vatican post office at the exit to the museum–it’s the only place in the world you can get a Vatican postmark! (plus, your family and friends will feel like you’re extra thoughtful when you tell them that tidbit!)
  • If you have the time or interest, I suggest taking a Scavi tour too–it’s the necropolis under St. Peter’s, and will take you through the more modern parts of the crypt as well. It’s more of a Catholic pilgrimage, but if you’re into religious history, or history generally, it’s still worth it. The information on the website isn’t up-to-date, but if you email, they respond quickly. You need to reserve ahead of time, and it does book up weeks in advance, particularly around holy seasons like Lent and Advent.

So, here’s the first draft of what will likely be just one of many posts about my favorite city. Get in and enjoy the grit and well-worn nature of the place and its history; it will grab a hold of you and never let go. I can’t wait until I’m back in La Città Eterna!

 

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

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.”

The cutest city I ever did see.

After a heavy, fulfilling day in Friedland, we were on our way to Quedlinburg. A small central German town, unknown to most of us prior to our journey, Quedlinburg was one of the highlights of the trip for me. Situated about halfway between Hanover and Leipzig, found in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt, the entire old city of Quedlinburg is a UNESCO world heritage site. The old town has one of the highest concentrations of timber-framed homes in the world.  Spanning five centuries, these homes (and now businesses) are some of the cutest, most endearing parts of this quaint city.

Check out the beauty and Disney-esque character of these buildings! It felt like Belle would pop out singing at any moment!

Relatively untouched by World War II, Quedlinburg is today, a sleepy town still largely untouched by traditional tourist pitfalls. In an effort to make the city sound even more enticing than I can on my own, I scoured the internet for other visitor information I could pass along to the six of you who are actually reading this in an effort to get people to this beautiful city. What that convinced me of even more fully is that YOU NEED TO GET TO THIS CITY! It seems to be a secret, even to the wide world of the internet–three of the four sites I found information on started with wiki.

A couple brief insights from our 24 hours there: Hotel zum Bär is centrally located, just off the main drag in the old town. We enjoyed our stay there, and I would suggest it to anyone looking for a hotel. We also ate dinner at the restaurant atop the Cathedral Hill, and the view, and the food were well worth the (not very difficult) walk up.

I have little else to say that the photos can’t say for me, except that the quiet peacefulness of this city provided a wonderful contrast to the loud, energetic, diverse, gritty city we were about to encounter in Berlin. When I get back to Germany, you better believe that a trip back to Quedlinburg is on the agenda. I can’t wait!

MC Lean

Try to Make your Life

30 June, Berlin, Written 3 July on a train between Berlin and Prague

 

“How is it possible that something like this could have happened?”

Elie Wiesel died yesterday. We heard the news after we had just gotten back from a public viewing of the Germany-Italy soccer game at the Brandenburg Gate.

I’m a fatalist by nature, which is certainly inconvenient at times, but I couldn’t help but think about the coincidental timing of his passing. It was my last night in Germany, and after spending a significant amount of our week thinking about how humans remember and memorialize tragedy and inhumanity, this news seemed particularly poignant. This remarkable man has left an enduring legacy in so many ways, but certainly in the form of several books that millions of kids all over the world have read, and will continue to read.

Being in Germany, having just spent the better part of a week learning, re-learning, discussing, and contextualizing the Holocaust and the experience of Germany under National Socialism, Wiesel’s death seemed especially poignant, as we had just met with a survivor of the Holocaust, and had discussed in several conversations how important it was to tell these stories before those who lived them are gone. Afterward, we collectively, and strongly, felt an increased duty to be the conduits by which these stories reach broader society. We had previously discussed during our experiences that some things in the world around us are rapidly changing, and many believe we (people, educators, etc.) need to adapt to those changes or get left behind.

I believe that we, as social studies, humanities, and liberal arts teachers, will forever be story-tellers. The medium may change, the means may change, but we still tell stories, help kids contextualize stories, and help reinforce stories that are undertold. As the world around us is changing and the purposes of education are shifting, I believe it is implicitly the role of educators to help kids think and engage them in the world around us. Thinking deeper, broader, harder than they would otherwise, remembering that students are people first. People who will soon leave the safe bounds of school, and enter a world where they will be citizens, and consumers, and employees, and friends and family, but will remain, most importantly, humans.

We had the great fortune of meeting with Margot Friedlander, a Holocaust survivor who lived in the states for 64 years before her return to Germany in 2010. In addition to her chilling experiences in Theresienstadt (Terezin in Czech), she also shared words of humanity to bring back to our students. During her unimaginable experiences, she shared that she had continually wondered, “How is it possible that something like this could have happened?” She told us that people needed to always use their own feelings, and avoid being influenced by politicians and public figures. She mentioned that students should focus on doing the right thing, and that though we can never love everyone, we can certainly respect everyone. Her book, Try to Make your Life, shares her experiences before, during, and after her time in Theresienstadt. An incredibly profound message, we had the chance to listen to her story, and ask her questions about her experiences.

Margot Friedlander 6

I couldn’t help but think about my experience at Oksan Seowan when she made her last comment in answering a question about what we should bring back to our students.

Be a human being. Be a feeling, thinking human being. A mensch.

71 years after she was freed from one of the most vile acts of inhumanity we’ve ever known, this woman is still actively sharing her message and encouraging us to be more fully human. The importance of her story, and the story of everyone affected by the Holocaust, and the War at large has not diminished, and as her generation passes, it’s left to all of us to work to ensure her story and the stories of others like her, are not forgotten, and the lessons that were learned are shared.

Quotefancy-58993-3840x2160

As a result of these two weeks, our conversation with this incredible woman, and my personal reflections on the importance of the loss of Elie Wiesel, I’m more convinced than I’ve ever been that teaching (in many, many shapes and forms) is one of the most profound expressions of humanity I have encountered. That’s a pretty incredible thing to start a school year with.

 

MC Lean