Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Crystallization, wet cobblestones, and pistachio gelato.

               Austin Fay 

    Reflection Essay, Eurospring 2008



Learning, traveling and experiencing Europe as a group of Americans enriched my experience. More specifically, as a midwesterner, I could see the tendencies of my region contrasted against the old countries of the western world. I also experienced the intelligence and conservatism of England, deeply rooted in their culture and thinkers. I also experienced the traditionalism of other European nations, while in the 21st century giving legitimacy to the European Union which is seemingly contradictory to the old cultures it encompasses. What became more apparent while traveling was the real motives of some of my classmates and what they were there to do. Why they took out their loans, went to the preparatory classes, and shot themselves across the Atlantic to a land they’ve never been.

I’m not sure I knew why I was there right away. Maybe I wanted immersion. Maybe I wanted to learn from a genius. Maybe I wanted to feel what it was like to have the Oxford experience. Maybe I wanted to hyper-inflate my student loans so when my peers left to go back to summer jobs and boyfriends, I could board an overnight train alone to the south of France with a man from a country in Africa I can’t pronounce who didn’t speak English or Spanish or French and slept with the cabin light on. It’s difficult to quantify, to calculate and arrange memories when all these past experiences are still sloshing around in my head. Only sometimes settling and crystallizing and revealing themselves, like my new fascination and appreciation for Italian Renaissance art from reading well-selected texts and visiting the Uffizi. The experience of standing in line to pay 6 sweaty euros see the chapel you have to pay money to see while women who sat peacefully on the sidewalk with a sign asking for change is not so translatable. Why there are beggars there, whether or not it was a scam (the catholic church has fairly expansive welfare efforts all over the globe), why people standing in the sun didn’t give their sisters on the sidewalk their newly converted euros. Why I didn’t. I suppose some day, when enough time has passed, I’ll know what it all meant.

The morning we arrived in Rome, I asked the concierge to help me plot our hotel on a map of the city and then copied the spot to three other maps and headed in the direction of a moped rental company with 5 other classmates. Fifty euros a day seemed like a decent price for the undersized moped, so the six of us took off onto the hot pavement of the ancient city. We didn’t know which direction we were heading, and the Italian drivers around us were dangerously sure of where they were headed. So, leading the other two mopeds through the city, I just had to make it up as I went along. We got lost, crashed once, got separated, found each other, found where Julius Caesar was murdered. It’s now a cat sanctuary where community members can come and groom the animals and take care of them as a hobby. The healthy cats lounge in the long cool grass all day in an archaeological site eight feet below street level. We explored all day in that city, but could’ve done it for a month. Found some amazing pistachio gelato at an agricultural fair, tasted classic Italian liqueurs and beer, drove on the roundabout that follows the border of the old city and colosseum. We saw parts of the city we would have never otherwise experienced. At the end of the day, after it started to rain and the wet cobblestones began to slip under our wheels, I went back to the hotel mentally exhausted from how alert I had to maintain my driving and dabbed a starchy white washcloth under the faucet and wiped the city of Rome from the back of my neck and behind my ears. The brazenness and stupidity to set off into one of the oldest cities in the world with its illogical streets and optional stoplights, and then the patience to know when navigation was impossible, was one of the more enriching experiences I had while on the European tour. I remember Matt saying, “If I can find my way through Rome on a moped, I can go anywhere.” We were all proud of each other and amazed that we survived the day.

I remember writing in my personal essay before going to England that I was having trouble giving an ultimate value to my education. Lectures given by Dr. Chapman were unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I tried to sap as much information and stories from that man’s head as I could. I audited the Science and Discovery courses several times while enrolled in his Politics, Power and Law course and attending the general European and British history courses. His mind was a steel trap. I truly believe I was in the presence of a genius. His capacity for facts, dates, names, chronology, stories, and everything that comes along with all those things was astounding. I had never had a course in European history, and I feel blessed that it was from that brilliant englishman in that beautiful english city. He loved what he taught, and knew it was important for an American to learn and I believed him because he took so much joy out of teaching me and talking with me. I’ve run across three educators in my life like that. I don’t remember having any specific expectations for the trip before I left. It was as exhilarating and informative as I could have hoped Europe to be, and Dr. Chapman was a major part of that experience.

Oh. My journal. My journal was destroyed in Pamplona, Spain. If you want to run with horned, hulking black animals of death in the street you have to wear a uniform. White shirt with white pants, a red sash around your waist and a red bandana around your neck. This traditional Basque uniform was 11 euros at a street vendor and required to be worn all week during San Fermin (The Running of the Bulls). Changing into my new clothes, my small black notebook fell from my back pocket into the streets to be swept into large black trash cans later that morning. From there it was covered in the filth from the streets, beer, wine, other people’s trash from the festival. It was the worst thing that could have happened. I would’ve rather lost my bag and passport while crossing the Strait of Gibraltar to Africa. So, most of this is from that unreliable shifting basin of memory.

No comments:

Hemingway's House

Hemingway's House
In Havana, Cuba.