Saturday, December 22, 2012

River Teeth

So I can officially say my exchange is over. I hop on an airplane in less than 10 hours and head back home just in time for Christmas with the family. So naturally, I'm feeling quite reflective and sentimental. I have said all of my goodbyes and am now trying to make some sense of the last 4 months. How can I keep what I've created here? Because it would be so easy to just go home and pretend like this was nothing but a dream.

My friend studying in Budapest shared a passage with me when I visited her last month. It is part of the introduction of a collection of short stories called "River Teeth" by David James Duncan. I remembered it again as I was reflecting today, and I thought that it was the perfect text for my final blog post. I can't think of a better way of understanding how we capture, process and preserve all of these names, faces and places: 
"When an ancient streamside tree finally falls into its bordering river, it drowns as would a human, and begins to disintegrate with surprising speed. Tough as logs are, the grinding of sand, water and ice are relentless; the wood turns punk, grows waterlogged, breaks into filaments, then gray mush; the mush becomes mud, washes downriver, comes to rest in side channels which fill and gradually close; new trees sprout from the fertile muck.
There are, however, parts of every drowned tree that refuse this cycle. There is in every log a series of cross-grained, pitch-hardened masses where branches once joined the tree's trunk. "River teeth," we called them as kids, because that's what they look like. Like enormous fangs, ending in cross-grained root that once tapped all the way into the tree's very heartwood.
They're amazing objects. A river tooth's pitch content is so high that some, sawed in half, look more like glass than wood. The oldest teeth, after years of being shaped by the river, look like objects intelligently worked, not just worn: sculptures of fantastic mammals, perhaps, or Neolithic hand tools. And they all defy time. I have found spruce river teeth, barnacle-festooned in the estuaries, that have outlasted the tree they came from by centuries.
I'd like to venture a metaphor:
Our present-tense human experience is like a living tree growing by a river. The current in the river is the passing of time. Our individual pasts are like the same tree fallen in the river, drowned now, and disintegrating with surprising speed. We resist time's flow with our memories and language, with our stories. Our pasts break apart even so. Entire years run together. We let the filaments of memory wash downriver. The past decomposes. New life, and new stories, sprout from the fertile silence.
There are, however, small parts of every past that resist this cycle: there are hard, cross-grained whorls of human experience that remain inexplicably lodged in us, long after the straight-grained narrative material that housed them has washed away. Most of these whorls are not stories, exactly: more often they're self-contained images of shock or of inordinate empathy; moments of violence, uncaught dishonesty, tomfoolery; of mystical terror; lust; joy. These are our "river teeth"-the knots of experience that once tapped into our heartwood, and now defy the passing of time.
Almost everyone, I believe, owns scores of these experiences. Yet, perhaps because they lack a traditional narrative’s beginning, middle and end, I hear few people speak of them. I resist this hesitancy. Fossils; arrowheads; adobe ruins; abandoned homesteads: from the Parthenon to the Bo Tree to a grown man or woman’s old stuffed bear, what moves us about many objects is not what remains but what has vanished. Let go of what can’t be saved. Honor what can. Collect your river teeth."
So I began thinking about my own river teeth. What will remain from this semester while everything else decomposes and becomes mush? 
I would first, have to guess that the image of sitting with my sketch book at Scheveningen beach will remain. The stormy waves always made the whole scene wonderfully unsettling. I would bike the 25 minutes to the Hague's beach every other week or so, take my journal, sketch pad or a book and just sit. It was rarely sunny and never warm, but nonetheless, I fell in love with the threatening clouds and mysterious waters of Scheveningen. There's no better place to just sit and feel really, truly alive. 

My second river tooth would be strolling along the harbor strung with holiday lights in Dordrech, Holland and meandering around the Christmas market Munich, Germany. There has been so much Christmas market visiting, hot sweet cider sipping, Christmas tree gazing, and carol singing this past month, and I hope the warm feeling of Christmas in Europe does not fade. 

I want to keep the image of tiny rooms crammed with so many exchange students that the fire department would be horrified if they knew. Students from Romania, from Zimbabwe, from Peru, all excitedly talking about politics, movies and upcoming trips, or teaching others fun words in their native languages or weird customs from their countries.
I want to always save the picture of biking to the open market on Saturdays, eating the greasy, cheesy bread from the first stall in the fourth aisle. Buying apples and cherries, wishing we had enough money for the boots and sequence dresses. 
Hopefully I'll keep the taste of turkish pizza and fries with lettuce, chicken, tomatos, garlic and chilli sauce piled on top. The taste of stroopwafels, of poffertjes and milka bars. The taste of cheese samples, in shops in Gouda and Delft. 
All of these things, I hope, remain, even though I know not all can. But as David J Duncan reminds me, I must honor what can be saved, let go of what cannot, and keep all of my river teeth on a shelf to gaze at and polish from time to time. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Fall of Icarus

I returned home at around 8:00 tonight, excited to journal, do a little cleaning, and call it an early night after a very long week. I was just about to crawl in bed when I opened up to see what had happened in the world while I went to university, walked through the stormy Hague, and caught up with good friends. But instead of the standard storm warnings and update on the current state of the economy, I saw reports of the most devastating tragedy I could have imagined: news of 26 murders in a Connecticut school shooting, 20 of which were children. I sat on my bed, audibly crying for several minutes, feeling tears for the first time since arriving on this continent. I cried for the children, for their parents, for my entire nation who will be in mourning tonight. But I also cried when I realized that I was probably making a joke or talking about weekend plans when the first bullet was shot. I cried because I go on living, studying and laughing while horrifying events take place all over the planet, every day. I thought back to last May, when I happened upon a poem / painting combination in a museum in Manchester.

"Landscape With the Fall of Icarus" is a painting by the 16th century Dutch artist, Pieter Bruegel, depicting a scene from Greek mythology in which Icarus drowns in the sea after the sun melted his wax wings and he fell from the sky. In this painting, however, the focus is on the world going on around the drowning- on the farmer plowing his field and the shepherd herding his sheep. 

The poem (with the same name) that accompanied the painting was written in the 20th century by American poet, William Carlos Williams. I can't think of a poem that describes my sentiments more accurately: 
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning 
It isn't that this tragedy in Connecticut went unnoticed, that these children, their parents, their friends, will be easily forgotten. But it is true that I will go to a Christmas market in Dordrecht tomorrow, eat some Dutch oliebollen as I walk through the oldest city in the Netherlands, and maybe even bike to the beach one last time. 
I know that It is not heathy or desirable to always be in a state of mourning for all of the suffering that can found in the world, but it is sad that it took a tragedy like this to remind me that there is a world outside of my experience here in the Netherlands. That not everyone is going dancing every Tuesday or Christmas-market-perusing every weekend. 
I pray for these families and for our nation, even as my life goes on in the midst of this tragedy... as the people outside my window drunkenly sing Wonderwall by Oasis, as the farmer keeps plowing, and the shepherd keeps herding. Meanwhile, Icarus drowns. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Here to There

We live in an incredibly mobile world. As I was coming back from Budapest on Wednesday, I started counting how many modes of transportation I took to get from my friend's apartment in residential Buda to my doorstep in the Hague. I counted 7: I walked (1) to the tram (2), took that to the subway (3), and then hopped on a bus (4) that got me to the airport. I boarded a RyanAir airplane (5) and flew to Brussels, where rode a bus and headed to the train station. I took a train (6) to the Hague, where I jumped on my bike (7) and rode home. This process made me think about the wonders of traveling, and I decided I would ruminate a bit on this strange thing so many of us do with our time.

-The way we travel is not really normal or natural. It is normal to wander, but not on this scale. I've been able to see more in my 20 years than my great grandparents could have ever seen in their 80. I forget that the idea of leisure is a fairly new concept for the working / middle class. I don't live hand to mouth and I have time, money and means to travel, which was a luxury reserved for the very wealthy and daring adventurers until relatively recently in history. I need to continually remind myself that it is not natural to be 6000 miles away from home, traipsing around Europe on a whim and popping from here to there and back again. 

-We often miss all that is in between "here" and "there." Jumping on a plane is convenient for weekend trips, but it leads to a disjointed kind of travel. Landing in Budapest was a bit of a shock for me, because I missed the transition from flat, modern, western European Holland to eastern European, former communist, hilly Hungary. I got from point A to point Z, but I missed all the points in between. If I had traveled by foot, by bike, by train or by car, I would have been able to see the landscape change, the people get a little shorter, and the leaves deepen in color. The journey would have made more sense, and I wouldn't have felt that initial shock I felt when I climbed down the stairs of the airplane and everything had changed while I slept. 

- Traveling has immense environmental consequences. When I'm drinking a coffee in Brussels or hot cider in Budapest, I don't really think about how much I'm increasing my carbon footprint by flying, driving or coasting there. I think the idea of offsetting one's travel is really cool, (look up organizations like TerraPass if you're interested) but I still have to research these companies before I hand over my reparation money. (Check out THIS to learn more about sustainable travel)

-People are wonderfully diverse. I think Europe has always been especially attractive to me because of the contained diversity. It is a somewhat united, comparatively peaceful conglomeration of countless cultures, languages and mindsets, all within a land mass approximately the size of the US. This weekend, talking to two of my fellow Loma exchanger, who are also studying in Europe, I realized that although we are in the same continent, our experiences and encounters are vastly different. Budapest is a completely different world from the Hague, and we've lived such different lives this past semester. It's refreshing to be reminded so often that this world is so much more layered and complex than I know. 

- And lastly, I am reminded, over and over again, how very blessed I am to have these opportunities. To travel, to explore, to eat chop-lickingly delicious food... to see extraordinary sights and meet exceptional people. Every time I add a dot to my travel map, I sit back in my chair and thank my lucky stars. I have been blessed with more than take-a-picture-in-front-of-the-eiffel-tower type tourism, and have tried to embrace the read-poetry-on-the-Buda-bridge-at-night or blaze-a-brand-new-trail-on-the-mediterranean-coast type traveling. And I know that I've been stretched and shaped by these experiences I've been lucky enough to have.  

The cool thing about traveling is that you don't have to be extremely rich or well-off to travel. All you need an adventurous spirit, a thrifty mind, two legs, and some daring people to share the journey with. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Better Late than Never: Italy

For a vacation where just about everything that could have gone wrong, did, Italy was surprisingly wonderful. My trip started off rocky, to say the least: My two travel buddies had flight complications, so, to make a long story short, I started my fall break in Milan, by myself. It was not exactly what I had in mind, but it ended up being a very memorable 28 hours. I met an Italian man who brought me to (allegedly) the best gelato place in all of Milan and taught me a little something about the shoe market. I spoke to an Estonian traveler in Spanish about his dog as I waited in the Milan train station. But besides talking to strangers, I did a lot of exploring, market-shopping, and people watching.

This time alone gave me the time I needed to reflect on the past two months of my exchange, and of course, reflection is definitely a more intense activity while inside the fifth largest cathedral in the world. The Duomo is a magnificent piece of architecture in the middle of Milan, and it's always interesting to be in a place that is simultaneously touristy and sacred. 

After a day and a night of wandering around and stressing about my travel plans, I finally retired to my hostel, when Lindsey, travel buddy # 1, ran in, checked in, and I finally felt like everything would work out. And that it did.

The next day we headed for Venice, which turned out to be a complete dream. It was more beautiful that I had imagined, and the more I saw, the less I believed that it was real. We did the touristy things: we slyly listened to orchestras performing in much-too-expensive-for-us restaurants in San Marcos square, we saw lovers on bridges and ate gnocchi and gelato. It was simply magical. 

Lindsey left and was replaced by Becky, travel partner #2, and we stayed in Venice for one more day and did a bunch of the same, with a lot more getting lost and walking in circles. The next day we left for Cinque Terre.

Cinque Terre is divided into 5 coastal towns, all connected by ocean and mountain trails through Cinque Terre National Park. We stayed in the second most southern town, Manarola, a quaint fishing village on the Mediterranean. The first day we hiked, despite the trails being (supposedly) "closed," and we happened upon sights like this:

I do believe that it was well worth the risk. We did a bit of unintentional trail blazing   

and half-destroyed-house finding


We even took a dip in the (not exactly warm) Mediterranean. 
The next day, it was stormy and windy, but it was our last day in Cinque Terre, so we decided to go up into the mountains. It was magnificent- a very eerie, spooky, doom-filled kind of magnificent. We thought we were walking through Middle Earth [which isn't actually that strange, because (I learned afterwards) Tolkein was inspired by the Swiss Alps, located not terribly far from where we were]

We hiked through a cloud and on our way down, it started to pour, so we continued down through the newly formed river and we soggily ended up in our hostel and decided a night in was necessary. We dined in our hostel and met the other guests staying there. It is so interesting to see what other young people are doing with their lives- some were studying abroad, some, taking a semester off, and others simply quit their jobs and decided to come and explore. These conversations always make me feel less ridiculous about picking up my life and moving it to a country i knew practically nothing about. 

So, we got gelato (duh!) and went to bed. The next day, we traveled to Genoa, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus (and pesto)-- a charming city on the sea. We wandered around and ate pesto pizza and stumbled upon rooftop botanical gardens and random street markets. We continued back to Milan, and the next day we flew back to Amsterdam.

I know it's unoriginal to come to Europe and frantically travel, eat gelato and take pictures of cathedrals, but there is a reason everyone does it-- these things are incredible, unforgettable, and I think I'm okay with being a less-than-hipster exchange student. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Hague Bucket List

I promise to blog about my trip to Italy (I'll even give you some key words to whet your palate: gelato. cuts and bruises. cathedrals. lovers on bridges. swimming holes. violins. rockslides. soaked socks. and more gelato.) But until I get the motivation to write of my Italian travels, I shall leave you with this list I've been working on since day one in the Hague. Some points have been dropped (I no longer desire to bungee jump off the pier at the Hague beach in 40 degree weather into 50 degree water), but many more have been added, as I hear about the interesting and unique experiences to be had here in the lovely city of peace and justice. So here it is, barely 30% complete. 

1) Observe a trial in the International Court of Justice [  ]
2) Go to a real, open air cheese market  [  ]
3) Find the American Embassy (It's gotta be around here, somewhere...) [  ]
4) Attend Candle Night in Gouda [  ]
5) Study in the Peace Palace Library [ X ]
6) Meet Sinterklaas and his elves [  ]
7) Get the pronunciation of "Scheveningen" (the Hague's main beach) at least a tiny bit correct. Apparently "Shaving Hagen" couldn't be more wrong. [  ]
8) Taste real, Dutch cuisine (and no, stroopwafels and gouda cheese don't count) [  ]
9) Watch the sunrise at Scheveningen beach [  ]
10) Go swimming in the North Sea [ X ]
11) Learn to love scarves and boots like a good European [ X ] 
12) Meet up with 4 friends from the States studying abroad in Europe this semester [ 3 done, 1 to go]
13) Tour Parliament / Run into Prime Minister Mark Rutte on the street (at least 3 people have told me they've just casually seen him around town, so it's not total wishful thinking!) [  ]
14) See the Queen [ X ]
15) Actually figure out where the International Criminal Court is located and go to it.. (embarrassing) [  ] 
16) Find an English copy of "The Hobbit" and read it (what can I say, I've got a hankerin') [  ]
17) Ride a bike as if it were a car [ X ]
18) Figure out just how the UN and the European Union work / are structured / continue to function  ... (why so complicated, Europe?) [  ]
19) Muster up the will power to pass a waffle stand and not get a fresh, right off the griddle, steamy, syrupy waffle. [ X ]
20) Go the whole semester without falling into a canal, walking into a tram, or biking into a pedestrian (So far, so good) [  ]

Friday, October 19, 2012

I'm pretty sure I just walked out of a fairy tale and back into, what now seems like real life. 

It was strange that heading back to my apartment from the Hague train station, I had the unmistakable feeling of returning home. I just came back from a short trip to Prague and Vienna, which were equally magical and enchanting and exciting to me, but for my two friends who study there, simply "home," for now. It's funny how we fall so easily into a pattern and so quickly forget how unique and cool the places where we've temporarily stuck ourselves really are. 

In both cities, my friends asked me to point out things that struck me as strange, because after a month and a half of living in Prague and Vienna (respectively), they had become kind of immune to its peculiarities and quirks.

So, I payed close attention: 

In Prague, there were dogs everywhere- on leash, off leash, in caf├ęs, on trams.

There were and insane amount of brides in their wedding gowns, traipsing up and down the hills of Prague, from the Castle to the cathedral and back. Can't tell you why. 

There were tiny doors. 

And a man came on the train with a basket full of gigantic forest mushrooms...

I'm telling you, it was a three day long fairy tale. 

And then, in Vienna, I noticed a surprising amount of mer-creature-imagery: statues of alligators, nymphs, mermaids, giant fish, water cherubs... 

I observed that it's normal for middle aged men and women to zip around town on razor scooters and it's not uncommon to see huge groups of tourists rolling around on segways. 

These are things we that forget are actually kind of cool and unique. There are the obvious jewels of any city- the cathedrals, the castles, the parliament buildings (and don't get me wrong, these were incredible)  :


But observing the little things like the way people act towards each other on the metro, or the kinds of candy bars in the grocery store, or what special things the local McDonalds sell (like McCroquettes and Stroopwafel McFlurrys in Holland, or McNoodles in Austria) are why I love to travel. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


The travels have begun. Most exchange students in Europe spend every weekend traveling somewhere new, but I only jumped on this train last weekend. It was my first time out of the Netherlands since i've been here, and it was well worth the wait. 

In early September, I arbitrarily decided to go to Brussels for my birthday weekend, knowing very little about the city or who would accompany me there. About a month later, I found myself in a cute apartment with 10 fellow exchange student friends, celebrating my 20th birthday in a city that exceeded my expectations. 

We arrived in Brussels on Friday morning and wandered our way up the incline to check into our apartment located a little outside the city center. Once a cute old Belgian man gave us our keys and briefed us on house rules, the others set off to get coffee and pastries and I left to go find my Loma friend Anna who came all the way from Budapest, where she is studying this semester, to spend the weekend in Belgium. 

I had just put in my headphones and set my ipod to play my French playlist when Anna appeared from the fog, sporting an indie scarf and a bright blue umbrella. 

I really can't describe how cool it was to see her, catch up, exchange stories, and for the first time in over a month, experience something that felt a little like home. 

The 11 of us spent the weekend walking around the gorgeous botanical garden, taking in all of the ornate architecture, and eating our weight in waffles and chocolates.

My birthday night just happened to align with "Nuit Blanche" -- an art celebration throughout the city, where locals and tourists watched mini musicals, visited exhibitions and did strange and alternative activities that included but were not limited to:

  • listening to music via gigantic headphones and dancing enthusiastically to selections from Grease, Saturday Night Fever and Les Miserables while everyone else looks on in confusion
Latvian voice-machine
  • Singing into a voice machine from Latvia that projected participants' voices on a large, crumbly wall as the image of an ethereal woman
  • And turning oneself into a dancing hologram, projected on a stage for all to see.

So, naturally, we took advantage of this "nuit blanch," and consequently, I had an incredible birthday spent with quality people in a quality city. I came back Monday night, thinking I would be back in the Hague for almost 2 weeks until my fall break trip to Italy, but I forgot that things rarely go as planned. 

Don't ask me how or why, but in 2 days, i'm traveling to Prague and Vienna to visit two friends from the States who are studying there. So I'll dump this overstuffed backpack, do a quick load of laundry and re-pack for Prague. While I resisted at first, I am truly happy to have finally boarded this find-a-map-and-book-your-tickets train, destination: Prague.