Two Cities Yet Twin Stories

T. Time: III of VII

There’s some good in this world

and it’s worth Fighting For

-S.G.

It’s not often that I am rendered incapable of words. That must be obvious to you by now, my long silence on the blog non-withstanding. Entering the humbling halls of St. Peter’s Basilica and La Sagrada Familia did the trick. Today, as I watch the cursor blink lazily back at me, I am again at a loss. Our country has just made a major decision. It truly breaks my heart to see the division which it has caused, and grappling with the reality of the fragmented populace that it has revealed in a land we deemed to be that of unity will be the challenge of our generation.

There was never any doubt, no matter how the votes were tallied last week, that the nation which many of you may call home has slowly been revealed as battered, tired, and some may say defeated.

So today, I’m not going to demand revolution or submission. I will not be so arrogant as to tell you that we must storm the streets in protest. I will refrain from demanding your compliance with the new regime. Today, we will discuss something much more difficult to grasp than the immediate recoil of defeat or the smug elation of victory.

Recently, I took a fairly hurried trip to Prague. This last March, my program informed us that for an extra fee we could sign up for an excursion of the city – which naturally I marginalized and decided I could plan myself. As such, I and two of my friends booked an Airbnb, snagged train tickets, and planned our departure four days prior to the day we were to leave. I know, quiet the responsible and pensive decision to make.

Who would have thought that in light of recent events, from the hurried planning to national elections, this trip would be one of the most hopeful I have been on in my time away from the United States. We marveled at baroque architecture and the Lennon Wall and explored a city full of history, culture, and sweets. We spent nights and days with those that we loved, and I even had a chance encounter with a friend would have never thought I would see in Prague.

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has”

Thus after relishing the weekend in the laughter and good conversation of friends, it’s no wonder that Prague is a city in which I felt unwilling and disappointed to leave. In a way, it parallels a trip I had many months earlier.

Montpellier the city wasn’t anything outside of the ordinary for the French Riviera. Graceful giant cathedrals of stone and impressive architecture all rising before the beautiful sight of the Mediterranean. While this was impressive, what made the trip truly special was the people – both strangers and friends. The host Florence was incredible. While she spoke hardly any English, she was jovial, generous and kind. Finding ways to communicate with us through gestures and even cracking good natured jokes at the expense of yours truly. A store clerk was incredibly gracious as he ushered us in. Again, he spoke hardly any English – however, he gave us incredibly kind discounts on what we purchased. Even when a ragged man walked in and began to pay for his beverage, the clerk smiled and waved him through, not asking for any kind of compensation.

Later that same night, the three of us sat with the ceiling high windows thrown open to reveal the night sky and the bright lights of the city, illuminating a massive church across the street from our fifth floor apartment. The hours passed by as we discussed our hopes and dreams, the trajectory of humanity, and what we hoped to accomplish for our fellow man.

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A look at the majesty of Prague

 

As you recall, I mentioned in my first entry that this story would be full of colorful and vibrant characters and friends both new and old. That’s something that I think these trips really display beautifully in concert with one another. Separated by a few months, they both teach the same lesson.

You’ve probably been feeling a few different emotions over the past week. Whether it be elation with the conclusion of this grueling year and a half of politics, or exhaustion as you come down from your democratic induced high. Maybe it’s the victorious feeling of triumph as your candidate emerged victorious, or perhaps the crushing despair of a defeat too horrible to imagine.

Yet I implore you; never lose faith in your fellow human beings, and never give up on those that you truly care about. Don’t despair. Don’t lash out in anger or euphoria in your victory. Strive to see the good in humanity. It does the soul wonders, and could even do more for the world in which we live.

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“Imagine” – J. Lennon

-Your meek conductor and Watchword Guide, T. R. E.

 

Find Your Alps

T Time: II of VII

Don’t lie

 Don’t cheat

Don’t create a life for yourself based on those things

If you do you will never know

Peace

You will have to constantly check yourself

and that is no way to live

-D.J.

In the past month and a half, I’ve had an unquantifiable number of experiences. I rediscovered my spirituality under the vaulted ceilings of Sagrada Familia and Saint Peter’s, and witnessed a never ending sunrise over the North Sea. I’ve received a Papal Blessing; studied the Cradle of the West in the shadows of both the Athenian Acropolis and the Roman Pantheon; and contemplated life, love, and friendship in the French Riviera – turns out the fifth floor in Marseille has some great views.

Barcelona is as vibrant as Rome is mighty. Florence is as moving as Luzern is stunning. Venice is a curious city, and Milan has some righteous pizza; word on the street is that it’s known for fashion, but I digress.

These experiences will be covered in due time. In my last entry, you probably gathered that I am a longwinded person. As such, never doubt that I’ll find an excuse to talk about things of the above nature. But those stories and all they contain are for another entry.

For it was in the Alps where I found my peace.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Rockies guy. Those mountains are in my blood, and I truly believe that some of the most beautiful sights on earth are in the great state of Colorado. However, there’s just something special about wandering through the jagged peaks that appear to have sprung to life from the words of Tolkien, with lakes and clouds alike winding lazily through the stone behemoths.

Our program had an excursion during which we were able to hike through the highest Alpine Pasture in Austria. The timing could not have been more perfect as we were arriving when the people of the Salzburg area were taking their herds down from the mountains for the river and giving thanks – imagine something akin to Thanksgiving, but with more cows.

Every year at this time and only this time, a mass is held in a small chapel set in the middle of this meadow in the clouds. The organ plays and the congregation sings on what seems to be the top of the world, as cattle graze peacefully in the foreground set against a backdrop of majesty.

It was within this moment, with music and sights, that I found peace. This isn’t to say that it is a peace that will be felt forever – life is full of unprecedented shifts and unpredictable turns. But it reminded me of an exchange I had a few weeks ago in Nice, France.

Good friends are want to clash on occasion, particularly when they travel in such close quarters for extended periods of time. But it was during this mild conflict that my old friend reminded me of something – be at peace with who you are. Don’t just own it, celebrate it.

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“I put it to you then – defend who you are” – Socrates on the Acropolis, most likely.

Often we are faced with to urge to justifying the essence of ourselves, what we believe in, or who we aspire to be. Too often we shy away from these challenges. We laugh away the discomfort, belittle ourselves, construct walls to shut people out of the most critical portions of what makes us who we are.

I put it to you then – defend who you are, and be at peace with who that is. For the record, this is not about “Finding Your Beach”.  The Study Abroad Department couldn’t land me the rights for that slogan in time for the release of this entry. This is about finding your Alps. Finding your peace. You don’t have to be around a chapel and alpine bovines – all you have to do is be unafraid of what makes you, you.

Don’t try to lie to others about yourself, and absolutely don’t cheat yourself from being the person that you are meant to be. Don’t second guess or yearn for the past, but be at peace with everything that you are in the present, and continue to develop that into who you are meant to be. You owe it to who you are in the now and who you will become.

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A group of us at Postalm, the Alpine Pasture. Life’s too short to take yourself too seriously.

Additionally, I need to provide a disclaimer: The University of Denver is not responsible for mishandled or lost Amazon shipping orders of Austrian Cattle.

-Your meek conductor and Watchword Guide, T. R. E.

We Found Love in a Hope-Filled (Za’atari Refugee Camp)

This post is long overdue for many reasons. I have been in Jordan for three weeks now and have not had the urge to write down my experiences and share them. Well, that’s not true. I’ve had so many moments and times and inspirations to put my experiences into words, but I’ve been scared. I’ve been scared because I want to do these experiences justice. I don’t want to let people down. Then I had a dear friend remind me that this space and this blog isn’t a place where judgement is welcome. It’s my space to invite you in to take a peek at the wonderful moments that are perfectly imperfect. That’s all. And there is one moment, one day in particular that is imperative to share and frankly, I have a responsibility to do so because of the life-changing, eye-opening capacity this day embodied. So – here it goes.

On September 19th, my study abroad group had the incredible opportunity to visit the Za’atari refugee camp, a refugee camp that currently is called home by about 80,000 Syrian refugees. I won’t spend this time delving into the facts about Za’atari, but take a moment to educate yourself about this particular camp because it’s commonly called a “model” refugee camp (if there really is such a thing). If included in Jordan’s population count, it is the fourth-largest “city”. In my opinion, Za’atari looks and functions as it’s own city.

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We started our morning with meeting with a member of the Jordanian police and a women from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who gave us a quick overview of how the camp runs and answered our eager questions. We were scheduled to then visit an NGO called Questscope.

Questscope is an NGO that is run by Syrians for Syrians within the camp. It is a safe-space where youth can come to seek mentors, knowledge, art, and everything in between. Syrian adults have the chance to be mentors and teachers of their craft to the Syrian youth who are seeking a haven to be themselves and regain some sense of normalcy.  Questscope offers alternative education for the youth who have lost years of education when “formal” schooling is sometimes not an option. We started by getting an overview and history of Questscope and what they are advocating. They are advocates of dreams. The selfless people who work/volunteer for Questscope strive to unlock the abundant potential that these Syrian youth have bursting from their souls.

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Some of the workers from Questscope we had the privilege of meeting. (Photo courtesy of Questscope blog)

After a quick tour of Questscope’s facility (which is comprised of caravans),  I was in awe. Syrian youth have access to a library, computers, art supplies, sports facilities and trainings, and most importantly, support. One of the most prominent images that stuck with me after this tour was the art space. The art work these people created wasn’t bleak or sad – it was joyous and unique. I didn’t see art that could have easily depicted the tragedy every single Syrian had been though. I saw dancers, mermaids, pride for Syria, and creations that proved hope was abundant in the camp. It was a moment that took my breath away.

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A sports field that provides a refreshing patch of green where kids can be kids. (Photo courtesy of the Questscope blog)

After lunch, we were invited to interact with the youth during some of their activities. If you know anything about me, I immediately rushed to the room where music was blasting and dancing was infectious. It was a women-only zone where the women, both mentors and mentees alike, could shed their inhibitions and own their bodies. They immediately turned on the TV and cranked the volume so all the women could participate in Zumba. Side-by-side, we danced, we sweat (a lot), we looked like fools, we laughed and smiled.  Zumba organically morphed into free-dancing where the women could openly express whatever their bodies wanted. We were taught dance steps from dances that you could tell were an important part of their identity. Every time I looked into the eyes of these women, pure joy was spread across their faces and their smiles never once left faded. I lost track of time because I was overflowing with joy.

Let me take a moment to be selfish. Dancing with these women meant more to me than I can put into words. Dance was re-introduced in my life when I was at a low point and it renewed my spirit and made me whole again. Being able to share such an intimate and personal moment with these women, expressing ourselves though dance, still brings tears to my eyes like it did that day. It was a truly magical, euphoric moment that I will never, EVER forget.

These women and these people could have given up. They could have said life treated them unfairly and stopped living it. But they didn’t. They continue to dance and they continue to smile and they continue to move forward because of their incredible courage and unwavering pride. I held their hands and I felt their strength. I shared moments with them that are forever etched on my heart. These people have not and will never give up. They want to return to Syria and resume the lives that were taken from them. They want to be doctors, lawyers, activists, and artists. They want the world to know that they’re simply mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and at the end of the day, people just like you and me. They watch the same sun set and dream of a better and brighter future because no one can take their dreams away from them. They are my heroes.

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Watching the sun set after a day at Za’atari.

Please, share this story. Not for me, but for the 80,000 Syrian people who have had their lives changed forever. They are not Skittles, they are not peanuts, they are not your next news story, they are not the enemy. They are HUMAN BEINGS with families, passions, hopes, goals, pride, dreams, and ambition I wish I had. They are true inspirations. Give them the autonomy and respect they so rightly deserve and share their stories. It is a small move that can have lasting impact. Hope is abundant at Za’atari and it’s time the world knew.

*None of the pictures within the camp our original or my own (only the sunset at the end of my day in Ajloun). I wasn’t going to Za’atari to take pictures and diminish these people to a social media post because they are SO MUCH MORE than that. I went to learn, listen, and observe. And to have my life changed forever. 

3 Things to Know When Getting Ready for Spain

I was scheduled to leave for Salamanca, Spain in early September of 2013, but had one foot out the door in June.

Sitting in my parent’s house in Boulder, Colorado, I was itching to rediscover the freedom I so coveted while in college and excited to explore Spain and Western Europe, where I’d never been before. I had worked all summer, leaving  all my worldly possessions strewn across the floor of my childhood room, knowing that those 3 months were just a stop gap to where I really wanted to be.

In my sagely, and immensely humble, 20 years on this planet, at that point, I’d learned if you got an itch, you’d better scratch it. And so I did just that, I scratched that study abroad itch and was consumed by the desire to leave. Instant gratification definitely got the best of me.

In all that scratching, though, left me without a few key pieces of information that would have been really valuable before leaving for my trip.

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The Spanish Tortilla de Patata is love. The Spanish Tortilla de Patata is life.

First, improvising will get you a long way, but some structure is both nice and necessary.

I arrived in Spain at around 8:30pm, with the last bus leaving for Salamanca from Madrid around 9:00pm. I thought it would be easy to simply walk off my flight, find the bus station, buy a ticket, and that would be that.

In short, I was profoundly, utterly, and horribly wrong. In Spain, you are supposed to buy your ticket well before you arrive, something I realized as the ticket office was closed and I watched my bus drive away. This, however, is where structure comes in. Knowing I didn’t have a lot of time to make my bus, I researched the departure times of trains leaving for Salamanca from Madrid. The last train left at 9:37 from Chamartín station in southern Madrid, which I decided was my last shot.

I ended up needing it. After realizing I missed my bus, I ran to a taxi. The old man driving the taxi was one of the most kind individuals I had ever met in my life. I explained my predicament to him, he flew to the station, then jumped out of his cab to walk me to the ticket counter and make sure I got on the right train. Having flexibility in a loose structure quickly became my mantra.

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Me after the Barcelona, Real Madrid match in Barcelona

Secondly, arrange what you need for your extended trip, get rid of half of it, and bring an extra bag for your flight home.

In packing, especially, I found that I could have packed much more efficiently than I did, and I only brought one suitcase and a carry-on backpack. If you’re studying abroad for a few months, mine was a total of four, often times you’re going to span two seasons. This leaves you with a slight predicament, in the sense that there generally isn’t a one-size-fits wardrobe that you can wear throughout your entire trip. In my case, coming from Colorado, I expect 60-70 degree days to extend through October and the occasional day in November. Moreover, I thought, when the sun is out, it’s always warm, so I’ll need plenty of shorts.Spain is notorious for being hot and I thought I was in the clear.

Not only did I find that wearing shorts was largely looked down upon by Spaniards in autumn, it never was quite warm enough to warrant wearing them anyway. So they sat and took up valuable room in my suitcase. The same principles apply towards toiletries and other non-essentials, particularly in the developed world. No, your host country may not have your preferred body wash or shampoo from home, but they will have an equivalent. Don’t pack it, there are greater things at stake, and often times, you can find higher quality items to augment what you can’t bring, like the sweater, dress shirt, and pea coat that accompanied me home.

This brings me to the last packing point, bring an extra bag for your return. When I was gone, I missed birthdays, holidays, and all sorts of other occasions that require gifts. I had accumulated a few new things myself, and was gifted more, all of which added up, slowly but surely, to take up a lot more room. Having an extra, cloth duffle bag that I folded up into my original suitcase allowed me to fit everything coming home. That being said, this only works if you have one checked bag and one carry-on when you leave home. Most international flights allow for two checked bags, so take advantage of it when you really need it: on your return flight.

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Showing the Fam around Salamanca

Finally, realize that your accent will forever be tainted by the guttural, Spanish version.

It doesn’t matter how much you resist. It doesn’t matter how much you practice. It doesn’t matter how many classes you take on your return with professors from Latin America. The Spanish accent sticks like a tongue to a flagpole on a blustery winter day.

Give into it. Learn that joder, with that scratchy “j”, is the most descriptive, utilitarian word in the Castilian dialect. Resign yourself to the bizarre existence of vosotros, and forgive yourself for the first time you say zapato as your tongue slithers its way through your front teeth.

And more than just resign yourself to it, practice and immerse yourself in a Spanish dialect that you’re not necessarily familiar with. Websites such as Matador Network have lists of Spanish idioms that are really useful. Watch a soccer match in Spanish, if not only to count the number of seconds the announcer screams “GOL!!!!”. Practice your vosotros. Watch a Spanish movie, there are a plethora of wonderful ones, my favorites being “Mar adentro”, “Hable con ella”, and “El laberinto del fauno”.

Joder tío, obviously, there are many more ways to prepare, but I hope this helps with a few aspects that may have slipped under the radar.

-Max Spiro, Graduate Study Abroad Assistant

 

How did you get ready to go abroad?

After months of planning, checking off things to do on DU passport, and having all of my final paper work completed, it was finally time to actually start getting ready to leave. Here’s the mental checklist I had to live, breathe and sleep with right before my departure:

Mental checklist:

  • Check in with SMART Traveler Program – Since this was my first time travelling alone, I had to make sure I took all the safety precautions!
  • Plane ticket confirmation – you know that uneasy, nervous feeling you get when you think you forgot to do something? This was me all the time, except I don’t know how many times I checked the date and time to make sure I didn’t miss my flight or booked it on the wrong date until the day I actually had to leave!
  • Money $$ – I created a Charles Schwab bank account to make sure that I saved some money abroad by avoiding transaction, withdrawal and conversion fees and I also had been saving up money from working at Olive Garden over the summer.
  • Communication – I wasn’t sure how effective my T-Mobile Simple Choice International plan was going to work but I decided to stick with it and cancel it later if it didn’t work. (Luckily it did, and I didn’t have to worry about connecting back home again!)
  • Pinterest! – I created numerous pin boards with food and places I wanted to check out while abroad. It made me excited and less nervous that the reality of being able to actually go to those places was a close reality.
  • Packing! – The task I procrastinated the most took me the longest time to complete! I packed clothes for all possible weather and later realized that I had no room to bring anything back! Packing to study abroad has to be one the most difficult things one could do the week of departure, and I don’t know how I did it but it happened!

I guess in terms of logistical stuff, making lists is my way of preparing for things. However, I think that in the larger scheme of things, there is no real way to prepare for studying abroad… and that’s totally okay! The wanderlust feeling that embodies you when you visit a brand new place and the roller coaster of emotions before, during and after adapting to a new culture are things that will hit you no matter how much you try to mentally prepare yourself; that’s what made my study abroad experience so memorable!

How Study Abroad Prepared Me for My Next Adventure

For the record, I don’t quite know what my next adventure will be yet, nor will I pretend to have everything under control when it comes. Study abroad definitely beat that tendency out of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s bring it back a bit.

For many people, including myself, I got to truly travel independently for the first time when I studied abroad. I’d visited out-of-state friends in college, gone on road trips with others, but there’s always an added dimension when “international” gets thrown into the mix. There are more logistics, more languages, and more complications if something goes wrong. Through a few moments of brilliance and many more epic missteps, I learned quite a bit about living and traveling abroad. So, here’s a quick list of tangible ways study abroad prepared me for my next aforementioned adventure:

  1. I navigate a mean airport/bus terminal/metro station

I have spent a lot of time traveling, not in the sense that I have spent a lot of time abroad, which I thankfully have, but more that I’ve been exposed to some hellish layovers and travel days. Coming home from study abroad, I worked my way through four airports over two days of travel. It’s exhausting, and you shortly find that duty free looks the same just about everywhere, but I’ve found that I can navigate my way through almost any transportation hub, at this point. If I can’t, however, here’s a great segue into point 2…

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I got so good at Ryan Air

 

  1. There’s nothing that you can’t express, unless you’re too embarrassed to mime it

I first experienced complete and utter language confusion when I studied abroad. I was on a bus from Zadar to Split, Croatia, when an elderly, balding man with a significant amount of missing teeth looked right at me and said a sequence of words that my brain was unable to register. Not a word. Not a phrase. Nothing.

So I sat there, I smiled, I nodded, I placed my hands in my lap, and then stupidly stared ahead, blankly, at the colorful, speckled fabric on the back of the headrest in front of me. I’d never felt more useless in my life.

Slowly, though, I learned to appreciate the art of miming and apologetic shrugging. While I never condone complete ignorance, when your faculties fail you, a grateful, wordless plea and the choo-choo noise will point you in the right direction to most train stations. Thankfully, standardized bathroom signs have saved me from ever miming number 1 or number 2.

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Thankfully, no miming require in Barcelona
  1. Proactively Google Map

Most smartphones have some sort of map feature, which come in handy quite often. What most people don’t realize is that when you use them, your route is saved in the phone until it either dies or you select another. So, when you’re heading out and don’t have Wi-Fi, map out the route to your destination while you still have Wi-Fi. It will help you get to where you need to go and will give you your starting location as a point of reference for when you need to go back. Please, however, take it with a grain of salt and make sure you’re going to the right place before you leave the warm, safe embrace of free internet.

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Also know how to read a real, paper map
  1. Don’t lose your cool

There are some situations where Murphy’s Law always holds true, and one of them is definitely international travel. Somehow, something you’re expecting underwhelms. Now, this can occur in varying degrees along the lines of “Damn, I forgot to pack a lunch, guess I’ll have to settle for a sandwich at the airport!” or “I’m stranded in Marrakech, Morocco without a passport because it just got stolen.” Both occurred to while I was studying abroad, ironically on the same trip.

The key to surviving these situations is to either not lose your cool or have someone there with you who won’t lose their cool. My good friend Ian was with me in Morocco and was instrumental in helping me stay sane as I
became increasingly hangry searching downtown Marrakech for the right documents I would bring to the U.S. consulate. I, on the other hand, was unflappable in finding a wayward friend one of my first nights in Salamanca when her phone was dead. Flexibility, I’ve learned, is key to weathering both the little and large snafus that will happen along the way.

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I want to go to there

 

 

Now, as I plan ahead to an epic Patagonian backpacking trip, tramping across New Zealand’s rugged, Middle-Earthen terrain, or exploring the Colombian beaches, I know I have some excellent skills in my toolbox. Undoubtedly, something will go wrong, but, *knock on wood*, it won’t be that serious and I’ll know how to deal with it, or at least fake it until I make it.

-Max Spiro, Graduate Study Abroad Assistant