“People never get the flowers while they can still smell ‘em” – Kanye West
One of the things I’ve been making more of an attempt to do, to varying degrees of success, is actively be thankful for the opportunities and fortunes I have gotten in my life so far. Recently, the biggest has been the opportunity to study abroad in Grenoble, France for a semester. While I was there, I managed to travel across more than a dozen states that ranged from Egypt to Scotland, come back to America for two weeks to go on the annual D.C./NYC trip that all sophomores in business honors take, and end it all with the international honors trip to Hong Kong.
It’s been an adventure, to say the least. No, more like a story to be lived for 5 months and then revisited like picking up an old book, when the days were slow. Since I've returned, I’ve spent hours reliving that tale; sometimes with company and sometimes alone, marveling at the scale or stupidity of the things we did. But after being back in America for two months, I wanted to really sit down and reflect on that time. It seems like somewhat of a paradox to condense so many experiences all around the world into a few pages of thoughts but somewhere in the midst of my musings and ramblings, I think I’ve done a decent job.
1. It's a big world outside America.
I considered myself a worldly person before I left America but even I didn't understand this completely. America is such a vast country with so many regions that it's easy to forget that it's just one of around 195 countries in the world. With so much going on domestically, it's easy to rationalize why international news shouldn't be that much of a focus or any focus at all. Most people in America remain fairly in the dark about international events and their impact on global currents which eventually make their way to impacting the United States. Even for people who do stay in tune with international events, it's easy to lump everything into one big bucket of "other international stuff". What's harder is to understand that each country is its own unique world that was shaped by historical, cultural, and political events in its past which directly impact on its inner workings today. From becoming familiar with the unique history of Poland’s milk bars (where all prices were tied to the price of milk) to finding myself amid carnival celebrations in Germany (to celebrate the departure of Napoleon), it was incredible to experience so many ways of life in such a brief time.
With the impact that America has had culturally, on the rest of the world, it’s easy to just expect everything to be like America when abroad. There are an abundant amount of fast food shops and English speakers in the world now to where you can choose to experience time abroad like that. But it’s an artificial veneer of a country, and each place has a unique beating heart which would take a lifetime of living there to even begin to understand. That understanding is what I found was critical to my perspective after I returned to America. No country in the world does things because it is inherently a certain way or because the people that inhabit it were destined to act in whatever crude stereotype America decides to label them by. It's always a result of the history, culture, and politics that shaped them. Does that give these countries a free pass to continue reprehensible behavior? Of course not. But at least conversations can focus on the roots of their problematic institutions than superficial perceptions that only cultivate more fear and mistrust.
2. The world is miles apart than what is shown on the news.
Things are never black and white. Ever. Due to the news, it’s easy to dismiss taking interest or travelling to another country because of what is shown on T.V. According to media, Europe has become a hotbed for terrorism and should be avoided while the Middle East remains the same black hole of doom and despair it was labeled as since the 90s. It makes sense that the fear of terrorism in these countries is amplified to such levels. America has had the luxury of being one of the best insulated countries in the world from acts of terrorism, even including 9/11. Terrorist attacks are so infrequent, compared to the rest of the world, that the fear lingers far afterwards. Couple that with sensationalist media and general American lack of world knowledge and it makes it easy to typecast countries and regions left and right, spreading the fear. However, people from countries which have seen repeated attacks can tell you that these horrible events do not take away from the beauty of their individuals countries.
I saw this first hand when I went to the Middle East. Tourism has halved in Egypt since the al-Sisi government took power and attacks rocked major cities. Is Egypt's new military government oppressive? Yes, but it's also brought stability to the region, beaten back encroaching ISIS fighters in the Sinai and desert western regions, and is working to restore tourism in the region. Have attacks happened? Yes, but that didn’t take away from the remarkable service we got to witness in a Coptic church at the heart of Cairo or the immense peace I felt as I sat in a mosque in the depths on Islamic Cairo. It didn’t make the sunset of Alexandria, which was bombed a week before we went, any less breathtaking either.
In Turkey, Erdogan has made moves to becoming a much more authoritarian figure but his investment into Islamic works of culture have preserved countless monuments. Though his actions in power have promoted fundamentalist Islam, I also found one of the most moderate and even footed descriptions of Islam and its rituals on poster boards outside the Blue Mosque.
The contradictions between governments, media attention and ground realities in a country always took me by surprise. If we had fallen in the trap of living in France like it was a bunker and refusing to venture outside or refused to go to left-field places like the Middle East, we would have truly missed a life changing trip. And that’s the juxtaposition that exists, where these incredible countries grapple with the unfortunate realities of terrorism and authoritarianism. It doesn’t take away from their merits and should never be a deterrent to not visit them or at the very least, learn about them.
3. Take the road less travelled.
It's easy in this time, where media is so prevalent and inflammatory, to believe that the entire world is filled with hawks ready to prey on innocent travelers. It sounds a little amusing but I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve heard people cross a country or region of the world off their travel plans because they were afraid of the people there. This fear of the unknown is present in a lot of lack of travel to Eastern Europe apart from tourist saturated hubs like Prague/Budapest and the Middle East but it exists in Western Europe too. Everyone was ready to go to Berlin and Munich but the second we talked about wanting to see some smaller cities, out of the way, enthusiasm dropped. These larger, well-known cities appeal to us because they’re familiar.
Globalization has spread to a point that some areas of Berlin could be mistaken for a suburb back in the United States. English is spoken rampantly in Prague/Budapest and there is always a fast food chain in sight wherever you go in these cities. So, it’s something comfortable which can be easily compared to the United States. I guess there’s a bit of native culture in there too. But the true cities which we will never forget were the ones no one in our group would even think of going to. That’s where we had experiences that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. If we had stayed in Munich, we would have missed the small town of Wurzburg where we stumbled upon a fervent Carnival celebration and the smaller town of Rothenburg Ob Der Tauber which was a perfectly preserved 1300s medieval village. If we hadn’t left Krakow, the abandoned remains of the massive Zamek (castle) in Ogrodzieniec, 2 hours into the Polish countryside, would have remained a mystery. And of course, if we hadn’t gone to the Middle East we would have truly missed out on one of the greatest experiences of Study Abroad,
Of course, I couldn’t finish any reflection of my time abroad without giving special attention to Poland. Warsaw was the very first city we ever went to and was crucial in making in me confident in my abilities to plan and execute a successful trip. Without that confidence, I may have never attempted more intricate trips further down the road. In hindsight, I don’t know what compelled us to go there.
It was our first trip in Europe and I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Well, that wasn't completely true. I had some idea. I'd spent the last few days before leaving, obsessively researching Warsaw and had an above average understanding of its culture, history, and notable sights. I'd also spent a few days learning some basic Polish phrases like greetings, how to order, asking questions, and other general things that would perhaps help us. After all, Warsaw was the more Soviet influenced city compared to its western brother, Krakow. The Polish wasn't too hard for me to pick up either, given my previous studies of Russian. However, as I looked out the plane window down onto the glimmering lights of Warsaw on that cold January day, I knew no amount of preparation could quite brace me for the mystery of what this city would hold.
Warsaw ended up being a modern, bustling metropolitan city with a tinge of Soviet influence that hinted at its troubled past. I was awestruck. This was a city that had been essentially leveled in World War Two and the degree to which it had been rebuilt was incredible. Though English was a rarity, my basic Polish phrases ended up getting us a lot further than I expected. With a combination of my broken Polish, people's broken English, and a lot of hand motions, we swiftly made our way through the sights of Warsaw. Food was also dirt cheap and significant easier on our stomachs than the American fare I'd been chowing down for 20 years. We could scarf down 3 delicious plates and not feel like there was a rock in our gut. Of course, if I had to describe everything we did in Warsaw I would fill up close to a novel. But, one experience will always stay with me.
First was the Warsaw uprising museum. The Warsaw uprising is an unfortunately understated historical event that is deeply important to any Polish citizen. Facing a Soviet absorption after Nazi liberation, a country which had tasted independence only a handful of times in its history, made a valiant stand in Warsaw. The Western powers, with all their talk of sovereignty and equality for nations, did nothing as the Soviets advanced in Warsaw. The citizens fought bravely but were no match for Stalin. Resistance was brutally crushed and the very streets we had driven down to enter the museum ran red with blood. But the revolution continued, in Poland’s underground, and decades later men like Les Walesa would bring hard won independence.
There was a large panel on the ground floor of the museum that depicted Poland after World War Two, shot from an aerial camera. The city was absolutely decimated. In fact, decimated doesn't even do the destruction any justice to the description. The whole panel was filled with a ravaged city with broken buildings that barely emerged from the hazy smoke that covered the air looking like twisted tombstones. I just stopped and stared at the photo for minutes, unable to process how a city could be so utterly annihilated. Then I remembered the Warsaw of 2017. It was a booming cultural center that had risen from its ashes just 70 years prior. Seeing that change made me think of cities in the Middle East today. Kabul, Baghdad, Basra, Damascus, Aleppo all used to be thriving models of progress in the 50s and 60s. But recently, they had been broken just as Warsaw had after World War Two. It was painful seeing their state today but after seeing what Warsaw had come from, I realized that they too would emerge one day. Perhaps it would be 10 years from now, perhaps 70 but one day they would rise and be beacons of modernity and stability where current generations would stare at similar panels of their ashes and be similarly awed at their rebirth.
Warsaw was a gem in Europe that we stumbled upon almost by chance. It's inspiring story of revival and rebirth was equally as amazing as the vibrant nightlife that challenged the austerity of its Soviet rulers. I knew we would return.
We did return, about a month later in February to go to Krakow and see Auschwitz. But even then, Poland managed to surprise us. The night before we left Vienna, I was googling Krakow to see if there was anything I had missed on my list of places to see. My eye suddenly caught a photo on the fringes of my search page. It was a massive castle, abandoned for centuries, 2 hours away from Krakow in the small town of Ogrodzieniec. I knew we had to go. So, when we arrived in Krakow, we convinced two Uber drivers to take us the Polish countryside just to see this 12th century castle. Finding no one in sight, we hopped the stone walls and made our way to the highest turret and caught an unforgettable view of the Polish countryside. It was so deserted that we spent over an hour just enjoying the absolute silence in the depths of the castle.
Of course, Auschwitz was an unforgettable, sobering experience that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. We all grew up reading about it and the stories of people who spent time there. I always figured that I would be able to wrap my head around its horrors once I stood there. But even on the train tracks that millions of innocent Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, political opponents, and other minorities came in through, I couldn’t do it. The magnitude of death and destruction at Auschwitz was just so great that even looking at photos right where we were standing wasn’t enough for me to visualize the impact. There was so sense of awe in Auschwitz as we’d felt with other historically significant sights. It was just cold, dead, and silent despite the crowds around us. None of us spoke to each other, we just sort of wandered around in our own thoughts but all of us could feel this overwhelming sadness that just enveloped the whole area like a thick blanket. I remember staring at the gas chambers, untouched since fleeing Nazi’s had attempted to destroy them after the war was over, still unable to understand how many had lost their lives here. All I could think of was the quote from “Night” by Elie Wiesel.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
Auschwitz was an experience I will never forget.
Krakow was much different than Warsaw. While Warsaw looked metropolitan, conservative, and austere, Krakow was a medieval city packed with what seemed like all of Poland’s youth. As we walked the cobblestone streets after the city walls, loud music and laughter rang out all around us. In the center square, the cloth market was bustling with last minute buyers struggling to negotiate a decent price before sellers packed up until Monday, just as they had been for centuries. There was so much life in this city. I could see why Polish people were so fiercely proud of their heritage. This was a country that had been invaded, ruled, and destroyed so many times through history but the Polish identity continued through it all. It fought on the beaches and ports of the North Sea, it fought on the fields and in the streets of Warsaw, it fought in the rolling hills that surround Krakow. It never surrendered.
Author James Michener says it much better than I ever can; No invader has ever conquered the heart of Poland, that spirit which is the inheritance of sons and daughters, the private passion of families and the ancient, unbreakable tie to all those that came before then.