Good God – after the AP French exam, the words “cultural comparison” hold terrible pain.
I am going to reflect on my trip to Europe now, even though I have been back for two weeks already, and I should have done this right away. I hold great appreciation for a few American luxuries now: free water, free bread, free toilets, driving. Driving is a big one. I kind of got used to the walking across cobblestone streets or just being able to run across the road without really disturbing your morning run. It’s a little disorienting having nothing be within walking distance anymore, but I missed the driving time. But yeah, free water and bread and toilets. Those are important things in my life that I have always taken for granted. I have also discovered that there are some American concepts I am entirely over – sales tax. Also I would appreciate more food in the nearby area, good bread, and the prevalence of patisseries, and I am not as excited to be back to a place where something “old” is from the 1850s. I just came back from a place where there were cellos older than my country on exhibit at art museums. Please, America, shut up.
On June 2nd, we landed in Heathrow Airport and got turned around so many times in the airport our trip seemed somewhat doomed to be an endless loop of getting lost. But by the time we stepped off the train in York, I think everything seemed to be settling in. Already in that short time, we had dealt with not knowing where half the group was, getting lost, figuring out train station deadlines, and actually riding a train. I would like to point out that English trains were really great, because they served you tea and stuff and usually had free wifi. Such luxuries were scarce once we left the island country. But that’s beside the point. The days in York were spectacular. We spent three nights there, I believe, and I think by the end of it, we roamed the stone streets like they had always been familiar, and we knew where the nearest Pizza Express was – an important fact to know when you get back to the city at 7:30 only to find that everything in York closes at 6. The coolest thing about the York leg of the trip was that York became a home base, but a lot of our exploration took place outside the city. We spent time in smaller cities when our journey brought us to historical sites like Hadrian’s Wall and Rievaulx Abbey. You kind of just got at figuring out what was a good tea parlor and which castles were worth it to visit. I think jumping around like we did, all wired and ready to go, readied us for the rest of the trip.
We returned to London for our stay at the glorious Hotel Malaysia (sarcasm intensifies). I wasn’t expecting London to be as big as it was, although I found that after a day or so, I had memorized the tube stops we needed, and I was definitely getting better at finding my way around with a map. Even though we spent three days in London, I don’t feel like I saw the entire city. There were so many unvisited districts, those that probably weren’t as filled with tourists, and I would have loved to just get a better sense of London itself. The sites we saw – the wide range from Westminster Abbey to the Tower of London to Stonehenge (in the inner rings!) – was what ended up making that part of the trip so special. While I feel like I could not have gotten around as easily as I could have gotten around, say, Florence, I think it was the best first-big-city stop possible. I can definitely add that my favorite museum of the entire trip was the Churchill Museum/War Rooms Exhibit down in the actual Cabinet War Rooms. Also, seeing Titus Andronicus at the Globe was definitely one of the best experiences I could ask for, despite the play not being Shax’s best-penned tale.
I find myself surprised that we spent a solid 7 days in England, but we left for Paris on the 9th, so hey. The first thing I was excited for was speaking French where French-speakers belong, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was kind of thrilling to be on the inside of what felt like a big inside joke. Not having a language barrier meant that exploring Paris was just as easy as exploring London. In some ways, I don’t feel like I got to know Paris, because we were only there for a whopping 3.5 days, and at least two of those days were dedicated to exploring Reims and Bayeux. I specify 3.5 because on the last day we were in France, we returned to Paris and had a scattered visit of Notre Dame de Paris – THE cathedral, you know – before boarding a train to Germany at like 4 PM. It doesn’t really count as an extended stay. The other half of France was spent exploring sites of WWI and WWII, which I thought possibly to be the most important section of the trip. We were also nearing the halfway point of the trip, so we spent at least half of the time on all buses asleep. I would definitely say that the day we spent entirely on D-Day was probably one of my favorite days of the trip, just because everything we did just felt so important, and you could tell that both what had happened and that we were learning about it was quite real and quite important to the people living there. Another big part of our trip to France was the not-quite-as-historical-but-no-less-pressing train strike that hindered a good deal of our progress. At one point, we had to board a bus two hours earlier than we were expected to leave the hotel, and most notably, we were halted in the middle of Germany for a solid twenty minutes because protesters were on the tracks. The strike was scheduled to be like two days and ended up being about two weeks, and it ended up delaying a TON of trains all throughout the continent. Thanks, France.
Our next stop, as I mentioned earlier, was Germany. We got into Berlin at 1AM, so we didn’t actually leave the hotel until 10 or 10:30 the next morning. Yes, that’s profoundly late for us. We only spent one day in Berlin, but I think we hit the big sites: Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie museum, and the Holocaust Memorial. I have a lot of thoughts about the memorial and matching museum, as I think the site is most awesome for the way it makes you forget that you’re in a big metropolitan area. If any of you are in Berlin, I highly recommend taking some time to walk through the memorial. It is highly conducive to reflection. The museum commemorating the Holocaust is equally – or perhaps even more so – moving, and it’d definitely something you can’t miss about the city. Our second stop in Germany was to my all-time favorite stop of the trip: Weimar. Weimar has the vibe of a slightly-larger York and the historical significance of Paris – it was the site of the Weimar Republic, the Bauhaus Movement, and it was a popular hangout of cool people. You know, like Martin Luther. And Goethe. Casual. It was also bombed to pieces in WWII (I mean, it housed the Interwar government, come on), so every building there is shiny and the color of sherbet. Not kidding. It’s beautiful, and I loved everything about it. Of all the cities we visited, I can most easily see myself returning to Weimar to spend some time writing and investigating the coolest parts of German history and culture. One complaint I do have about Germany in general is that I don’t speak German. It’s at the top of my language-learning list, as I really do want to go back and study there and live there. But not speaking the language kind of makes you prone to having difficulty in places like restaurants. Weimar was also where we hit the end of the free water (tears have been shed).
I’m making a separate paragraph to talk for a second about Buchenwald and Ebensee, the two concentration camps we visited in Weimar and Salzburg respectively. One of the big days in Weimar was dedicated to Buchenwald, the infamous and honestly quite massive KZ. This is the reason I cite D-Day Exploration as being almost the most important thing we did – this matches it. We probably spent three or four hours in Buchenwald, and I feel like I could have spent many more hours just walking through the ruins of barracks and work yards. Also highly conducive to reflection. I think Buchenwald to be fascinating because it is really quite beautiful, in a sort of twisted way. It’s a place that, without the KZ/Soviet work site, would be a gorgeous location. Now you feel sort of odd about thinking it to be pretty in any way. Ebensee, a sub camp of Mauthausen, was entirely different from Buchenwald in many ways. It was our second concentration camp and third dedicated Holocaust site of the trip, so I think we all went in expecting something very similar to Buchenwald, and that was not the case. After the war, Ebensee was basically forgotten, and now there’s a village there – a dedicated village with people who are genuinely uncomfortable by the historians and relatives that come to pay their respects. All you have left of Ebensee now is the main gate and a memorial – aside from the massive underground tunnels that still remain. This is another thing that feels really cool in a way that it shouldn’t. Ebensee was created as a site for rocket building, so the prisoners were forced to dig out these gigantic tunnels. With the right clearances, you can wander around in the finished and unfinished parts of the tunnels – utterly incredible. Terribly sad, all in all, but definitely an important experience that deserved its own special mention.
After a few days in Germany, we headed to Salzburg, Austria. People didn’t warn me for just how gorgeous Austria is. I fell asleep on the train ride in, so when I was woken, all of a sudden there were these breath-taking mountain views all around. It was something I wasn’t expecting at all, but I am absolutely thrilled that I got to experience. We spent a few days in Salzburg, and one was dedicated to relaxing at this small resort town, St. Gilgan. We all got to take boats out into the lake and go swimming in frigid water. A lot of people later claimed it to be their favorite day of the trip, and most people agreed that Austria was one of the best parts of the trip as a whole. I agree, partly because we got a lot of time to just explore Salzburg and take it all in. That was really important.
We took a night train to Rome (a tip: don’t get excited about the night trains and you won’t be disappointed), which is my least favorite leg of the trip. I can sum it up in a few words as being hot, crowded, touristy, and all in all just unpleasant. The food was spectacular, but when you can’t really enjoy any sites because you’re dying of sleep deprivation/heat exhaustion/being accosted by street vendors/the Roman Forum going on strike (how does that happen?!), things aren’t as awesome. Don’t get me wrong, when we were inside the Colosseum and exploring the Vatican, everything was fantastic. But in comparison to the smaller and less tourist-packed cities, Rome was not my favorite. I did have one fantastic memory, though, which was waking up early to go for a run around the Colosseum. It has to be early – when the sun is up, but before the street vendors are out. Then everything is absolutely serene and perfect, and you’re right there with the Colosseum. Wow. What an experience.
My favorite Italian city was Florence, which I found to be overall quite pleasant. Rome has all the historic stuff and thus attracts a lot of tourists, but our Florence agenda was basically just churches and art museums. That made it more like the cultural center, which was awesome. Art museums are death to your feet, but it’s really worth it to be able to see how history plays out on a canvas. Another traveling pro-tip: book tickets to the Galleria del Acedemia and SEE THE DAVID. It’s not just a statue. It’s the biggest statue you’ll ever see, and since they don’t let a ton of people in there at once, it’s a neat place to go without feeling overwhelmed. Uffizi is also a cool museum. Also, the churches in Florence are really cool and historically rich as well – instead of just viewing, you learn about the people who built it and what it was used for and all that, because people actually care about that sort of thing in Florence. A highlight of Florence for me was visiting one of the still-thriving marble workshops that is buried into an alleyway. It was kind of a hidden jewel of Italy for me, so if you’re ever in Florence, seek it out. Also, the food is really good. Pasta is awesome. I’ll tag Milan on to the end of this paragraph, as we were only there for an afternoon, but Milan was neat as well. We didn’t really get to see anything but Milan’s Duomo, but that was a neat experience all the same.
We finished the trip with a few days in Zermatt, Switzerland. That’s a resort town at the base of the Matterhorn, so we spent two solid days going for hikes. Although a series of unfortunate events made going to the Hornlehutte (Matterhorn-climbing base camp) not an option for me – I can go into a full out tirade, but it’s not important – we still got to climb a lot of the way. My group got only to the Schwarzsee, but a lot of the group got further up before getting sent back down thanks to snow. The next day, I went hiking on a trail on the opposite mountain that brings you to see like five lakes. We got to lake three before turning around, but we did go swimming in freaking-cold water for a bit, and that hike was all-in-all way more satisfying. My notes on hiking are that I am the absolute worst at hiking because I am super out-of-shape when it comes to going up things. Still, if you can get to the top, the views are incredible, and all flat lands/downhills/sharp up-down-hills (surprisingly) are fun too. I would say that it was an extremely worthwhile experience, and I’m glad to have done it. The entire group had a World Cup party – forty people in one room isn’t easy – to celebrate the US loss to Germany…That was our real last night in Zermatt, so it was a happy one. After the next day, which was totally relaxing, we went to Zurich for our last night and then boarded a plane to come home.
That took me a long time to write out, and I didn’t get into very much detail, but wow was this trip worth it. If any Westminster kids younger than me are reading this, I advise x10000000 going on RTH. The trip hurts, and at times, your alarm goes off for the 5:15 run and you want to cry, but it is the most amazing experience of my life, and I really can’t find myself regretting this EVER. Especially if you’re interested in history like I am, because I don’t think the trip would have been half as fun were I not so obsessed with the people that came before me. I’m glad to be back in the US with all of my things, clothes I can actually call clean, and my writing. But wow, I would go back in a heartbeat. I would also label the trip as being the very essence of Victory. Total V, in fact.