Rome

Being in Rome is like being in another country surrounded by another language, but with one significant twist: In Rome, I was immersed in an entirely new world of Catholicism.

It was like this in Costa Rica, too: At first the newness simply clings to the edges of your clothes, occasionally brushing up against your cheek, making itself known to you but not drowning you in its unfamiliarity. After a week or three, your body has adjusted to the altered air, and when you breathe it in, it inflates your entire self, steaming out of your lungs and pervading your entire body. Soon that too becomes electric, your awareness of it at its best; it tingles out of your fingers, nose, toes, and lips, and alters everything you touch or perceive.

It is so magnificent to be changed by something that has radically altered the history of Western Civilization, global politics, art and architecture, and human mentality for almost 2,000 years. And that’s just Christianity and Catholicism. The Roman Empire has been around for thousands of years longer than that.

It doesn’t leave, either. The electricity may lessen, but I am permanently affected by my time in Rome. I spent the entire semester studying the history and culture of Western Civilization while being completely surrounded by it,  but I came back with the knowledge that there is so much I will never know. What a beautifully painful thing to come to realize.

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We did it.

There were times I thought I would never make it to Rome, and while there, there were times I feared I would never make it back. But I went, I did it, and now I’m sitting at a table in my favorite coffee shop in the small town of Midwest City, Oklahoma and writing about it. I never thought I could travel all over Europe, but I did it. It makes me think, what else have I always wanted to do but shoved aside, thinking I never could? I’m going to dig those up, and I’ll make a toast to the next adventure.

Until next time,

it’s good to be home.

Peace.

Kelsie

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City on the Water

I like it when things aren’t what I expect them to be at all. It’s like when I meet a someone for the first time, or even before that, and I come up with these preconceived ideas about that person by what I see on Facebook, hear from someone else, or even just by what I think after having had a usually insignificant encounter with said person. We all do this. But once I really meet them and get to know them, they are so much better- I am not capable of creating an idea of a person even close to how dynamic and wonderful that person actually is.

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The Bridge of Sighs.

Venice was kind of like this. What do you think of when you think of Venice, Italy? Unless you’ve been there, then I imagine your thoughts on it were kind of like mine: a beautiful, whimsical city that is alive in the bright blue waters of the Italian coast, basking in the sun as tiny boats and gondolas glide throughout the canals, selling fresh fruits and vegetables as they swirl along with the romance of couples deep in love filling the air.

Hopefully you’re at least a little more educated about the current state of Venice than I was. While the beautiful city is a lot like what I just described, that’s not all it’s like: a culture heavily influenced by Renaissance, centuries of refining the construction of ships and bridges, a unique and rather intense political history of doges and Napoleon Bonaparte, the Black Plague, and centuries of innovative craftsmanship, including glass making. (The history of Venice is actually really really interesting; read more about it here).

But there’s even more than that, too: Venice is sinking. The marshy land and tiny islands that the entire city is built upon, due to increasing water levels and erosion, are literally sinking. And, as it goes, flooded houses the ruin of your family business tends to drive people out. It’s nearly impossible to live in the city, and it’s one-of-a-kind atmosphere is filling it up with tourists and not much else. I think that the authentic, ancient culture of Venice will have been washed away within the next 100 years.

I went on a gondola ride with some of my friends late at night. It was nothing like what I would expect: there is no night life, no music, no twinkling lights in the streets… nothing. The city is essentially dead at night. But, despite this, it was still beautiful: there is not much more peaceful than gliding through the canals of an ancient city, elegant buildings hugging you on both sides, and all you can hear is the gentle swoosh of the paddle in the water as the lights from the building windows reflect off the water. This is the authentic Venice.

Venice is not dead. I met the city on the water in the darkness and tranquility of the night. I think, really, this is how we truly meet things: Strip away all the assumptions and premature judgement, and let the city speak to you rather than you to it.

It will always be so much better than what I could have ever believed.

The Sound of Krakow

St. Mary’s Cathedral towers over the quaint town square, keeping a watchful eye over the city of Krakow. The Gothic church is crookedly nestled in the Western corner of the plaza. Its red-brown brick and asymmetrical steeples are each topped with an unique ornate cap- the righter most stacked with a single dome in the center and 4 smaller domes surrounding the larger, and the left, only slightly more interesting in view but much more so in purpose, climbs up into several pointed, decorated contraptions, as if it were reaching up to scratch the sky. It is this taller steeple that holds so much weight within the Polish culture. Every hour, on the hour, if you crane your neck and look up the height of the tower, you’d recognize a small, tube-shaped thing peak itself out of one of the long open windows so discretely that it would be impossible to notice if one weren’t paying attention. But, as you squint your eyes in attempt to make sense of the oddity, all questions are answered with what your eyes fail to capture but your ears so suddenly do: It is a trumpet, a melody that dances in the cool breeze and gently falls down onto the people, softly landing on shoulders, gliding under hats and into ears, filling the square with its modest yet elegant tune.

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Sam, Helen, and I in the plaza in Krakow.

St. Mary’s Trumpet Call began in the early 1300’s and was primarily used for 2 things: A call at dawn and dusk to signify the opening and closing of city gates and to announce a spotted fire somewhere within the city. It later was used to commemorate each of the social classes as it would play a total of 4 times on the hour, each time facing out to the North, South, East, and finally the West. This latter tradition is still held today. However, the fact that the tune seems to end abruptly does not go unnoticed- the trumpeter does in fact cease to play in the middle of the tune. Tradition holds that in the early 1200’s (Though yes, the trumpet is thought to date to the 1300’s) a Mongol troop was spotted approaching the city. Though the gates were closed before the Tartars could get inside the city walls, the trumpeter was shot in the throat from outside the walls before he could complete the warning anthem signifying the approaching enemy. The Polish hold this story to be of great significance, and the anthem has stopped playing at the exact same note since.

One can learn a lot about a city based off of what they keep as tradition. The fact Mary’s trumpet call is sealed with the identity of Krakow is such a display of the embellished uniqueness that the 7th century city has to offer. The trumpeter seems to fit right in with the stone-walled castles, legends of dragons, and even the modern gentleness and charisma of Pope Saint John Paul II. It is fascinating to examine just how a single object can come to symbolize an entire culture. Thinking about the trumpet call opens the doors to ask important questions about our own culture, and others as well: What does this society hold to be important? What has stood through hundreds of years? Why is this particular thing so valued?  It are these questions that can lead us to a greater understanding of history.

The Ultimate Tourist Trap

I think all of us who travel have done this at some point during our adventures. It’s a 21st century thing, really, and with so much of our generation traveling, it’s an easy thing to fall into. I know I’ve done it more than once.

It’s easy for us to go somewhere new and exciting and see all the unique differences that that culture offers and marvel in those unique tendencies that are so distinct from our own. We tend to pride ourselves in our ability to value those cultures for their individuality and experience that difference rather than be the “stereotypical tourist”, taking extra care to keep a safe distance from giant colorful tour buses, the corner McDonald’s, and the pestering salesman waving neon selfie sticks at anyone who breathes in his direction.

This is great, don’t get me wrong. Understanding cultural differences and learning from those is and will always be a good thing, there’s no doubt about that.

But I challenge you this: is it possible to focus to much on those exciting differences that we neglect to see how all of us, our culture and theirs, when it comes down to it, are all simply members of one single humanity?

We put so much effort into recognizing the worth of these cultures because the generations immediately before us have had some problems with this, yes? The internal dialogue is so predictable: Italians drink wine at almost every meal. I don’t do this in the States, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I appreciate Italy for it being so different! But after doing this too many times, our goal of appreciating those cultures for what they are ultimately does a 180-degree flip: they become a place so unique and so separate from our own that we ultimately isolate them. The conversation quickly becomes something else: They can believe what they want; I’ll admire it, but it’s not relevant to me.

How are we supposed to really learn anything from that culture if we’re so busy admiring and separating it from our own? And, if we truly believe there is nothing to learn from it, is that not devaluing to that culture as well?

Obviously the situation I just described is not as intense as I made it seem, but I won’t deny that it does happen in some level for all of us travelers. The solution is easy- Admire the uniqueness of other cultures, yes, but instead of focusing only on how those differences make them separate from us, search for how they bring out our similarities on a deeper level.

After all, we all are simply human.

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Thoughts of a semester.

Languages

The first thing I noticed about both Brussels and then Amsterdam was the incredible diversity in the usage of language. Dutch and French are equally spoken, but the culture is also colored with thick stripes of English, lesser prominent dashes of Italian, German, and even the occasional flecks of Spanish. I took it as a strange sort of compliment to be spoken to in a language other than English.

Knowing even a piece of a language other than your own opens doors to communicating with not only the people who speak said language, but to those who may know just bits and pieces of that language as well. In Madrid, I met a man who was from Portugal. His primary language was Portuguese, but had studied Spanish in school. Even though neither he nor I speak Spanish very fluidly, we were still able to communicate with each other and hold a small conversation.

There is another level to this, too. I came to Italy not speaking a hint of Italian but after taking the quickest-and-miniest crash course on the language, I am now able to read it fairly well due to my knowledge of Spanish. My two languages opened the gateway for a third.

This can go even further. I don’t speak a hint of Dutch, but while in Belgium and the Netherlands, I was able to understand certain words based off my strange assortment of English, Spanish, and Italian. With one deeply rooted language, another fairly strong, and the mere seeds of a third, I was provided with enough to gather up a few little acorns of a fourth language.

The influence of the diversity of the languages on the attitude of the locals in Brussels and Amsterdam was so great. Different cultures are not only accepted, but welcomed. The kindness of the natives was so distinct, and more than once a man offered up his seat on the metro for me and patience was firm as I stumbled along with wide eyes in the new and exciting environment.

It is this wonderful aspect that has left my heart longing to go return to the gentle, beautiful cities and to try with all my strength to learn another language or solidify the ones that I have. Imagine the possibilities for those who can speak 4, 5, 6 languages! The world is open so wide for these, the greatness of diversity and knowledge is heavy in their arms. It gives people a sense of security knowing the ability to vocally communicate is there.

So go and learn a few words in that language you’ve been waiting for just the right moment to learn. You’ll be surprised where it can take you.

I’ll leave you all with one last thought: Eat all the Belgian waffles you can.

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Up

Assisi is the most peaceful and beautiful place I’ve ever been to.

The climb up to St. Francis’ hermitage was steep. It took us an hour to trek what was barely a mile. The thought of St. Francis hiking the trail on the regular was enough energy for me.

The little cave we were climbing to could be what one would call a “thinking spot”. The man would go up there to get away from the hustle of city life and pray about what it was God wanted him to do. He agonized about whether he was called to be a hermit to pray for the people or to be with them, helping them and loving them in the person. I don’t think he ever actually figured this out.

Is this not such a human issue?  His struggle is so much our struggle, especially that of a near-graduating college student. I’ve felt that anxiety of not knowing what I’m going to do with my life. I could so vividly imagine the man lying on the cold floor of his little cave and begging God for some sort of answer about what to do and when to do it, falling asleep there, in silent contemplation.

But the hermitage, it turns out, was only half up the mountain. It was obvious to us that St. Francis would have continued to climb it, as far as he could, loving all the beauty of nature around him as he went.

So we did too. Passed “Trail for Experts Only” sign. Over the chest-high stone wall. Weaving up the mountain, we went on up, step by step, until our thighs were numb and the air was too thin to get a good breath. Up. St. Francis would have kept going.

We reached a barbed-wire fence just below the peak of the mountain and walked alongside it until we found an opening.

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 The beauty surpassed what could have ever come through in a lens.

The final stretch was the hardest of all. The climb was so steep we had to dig our hands into the rocky dirt to level ourselves, and the though the distance was short, our lungs ached for a break in the exhausting activity. But we continued; up.

The top was absolutely beautiful. Patches of snow were scattered across the peaks. Horses grazed on the hill across the valley. We could see the entire city of Assisi and all the calm and peacefulness that was so recognizable in the quaint little town was there even more so on top of this mountain. The sun was beginning to set over the town and all it’s marvelous colors were being delicately painted across the sky.

Assisi, your beauty and peacefulness are unfathomable.

 

Dallas Abroad

Last weekend I passed my time in Madrid, Spain, and let me tell you, it was one of the greatest places I’ve ever been. I know many would disagree with me, but hear me out.

Anyone who knows me even a little knows how much I love Dallas. The independent attitude and artistic vibe is so unique and has yet to be matched… until last weekend. Madrid was like a Spanish Dallas. A Spanish. Dallas. My favorite city in the world combined with the authenticity of the Spanish culture and language!? What more could I ask for?

Now I’ll admit that it takes a certain kind of person to really appreciate Dallas, Texas and probably Madrid, too. In these places graffiti is not gang signs or petty vandalism, it’s the product of a creative mind and artistic expression (yes, there is a difference). People don’tn stay out until 3 A.M. because they’re getting drunk or selling drugs (though there is a little of that too), it’s because they’re truly enjoying each other’s company at the only time of day they’re not all at work or in school. People are EVERYWHERE. Couples kiss on park benches. Friends laugh emphatically on the streets. Dogs trot alongside their owners and sniff every lamp post they pass.

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I bought it.

A man eloquently plays the Spanish guitar underground in the metro station. His fingers dance across all the strings; the music resounds through the concrete tunnels.

An artist props his table up in La Plaza Mayor and studies not only the architecture, but the emotion of the buildings above him and frosts acrylic paint across the white canvas with his pallet knife, painting the essence of his city onto the fabric.

With the added bonus of churros con chocolate, sangria, and paella, you could take me back to Madrid any day. We could awe at the still life street performers and say no to las discotecas all over again, explore, and come to know it even better.

Until next time, chao, mis amigos.