Trees

I found John Fowle’s recollection of experiences with trees to be surprisingly cathartic. I’ve decided to explore my own relationship with trees in hopes of arriving at a fitting conclusion to this semester’s homage to the tree.

Several moments stick out vividly as I flip back through life’s pages, the first of which is a collection of memories from my childhood, during which time my family took several trips west. I am blessed to have seen much of the country in which I was born, and when somebody says “America” it is not still-frames of Time’s Square, Boston Harbor, or the Hollywood Sign that come to mind, but rather majestic panoramas of the Grand Canyon, craned-neck snapshots of impossibly tall Redwoods, and splendid glimpses at Yosemite’s plentiful waterfalls.

I recall walking on casually-trodden trails at dawn, eyes still half-shut, but heart overwhelmingly content, as I would soon witness a majestic Zion sunrise with my family. On one occasion we decided to “rough it” and stay in a cabin (yes, my Mother’s idea of “roughing it” stopped there), in which there was no television [Gasp!]. It didn’t matter to my siblings and me, however, for there were rumors that bears often lurked outside at night, and we were intent on spotting one. Much to our collective chagrin, no bear, nor moose for that matter, ever graced us with his presence. It made no difference to us, though, because we were immersed in what seemed to be a magical forest. In the company of trees, as Fowles aptly puts it, time seems to warp. Life is different in a forest.

My mind speeds forward a decade and stops at the base of Mount Washington, the tallest mountain in the Northeastern U.S., and home to some of the world’s most inhospitable weather. The climb marked a transition in my life, as I and several friends summited the peak shortly after graduating high school and before parting to attend our respective colleges. It was an event marked by strenuous exertion which punctuated a fond chapter in my life. I recall the long amble through the woods, and the odd serenity I felt in the company of good friends with whom I would soon grow distant.

Most recently, I had the incredible fortune of traveling to Ghana, where I and my peers walked high above the forest floor of Kakum National Park. I inherited an unfortunate fear of heights from my mother, which made this rope-bridge canopy walk all the more terrifying…I mean thrilling. I had just completed four months of travel in Europe and now Africa, both places to which I had never before ventured. As I stood on a platform built upon one of the forest’s tallest trees, my eyes strained to the horizon, I was overcome by emotion. I was in a remote corner of the world, which was largely untouched by man, and I was suddenly keenly aware of all that I had done with my life, and all that still stood before me.

I read recently that the feeling of awe is incredibly powerful in developing one’s brain. It expands our notion of what is, and what can be. Now, I realize that trees were not the immediate focus of many of my thoughts here. And that’s the thing with trees. The most profound memories of my life have occurred in the company of trees, though they have rarely been the subject. Trees, by necessity, are detached from man’s creations. It is in that detachment that I have truly been able to identify the beauty in my life, whether it be a wonderful childhood and a loving family, a loyal group of friends, or the host of opportunities I have been given, like the chance to travel. This semester’s focus on trees has urged me to slow down, appreciate complexity and seek amazement. The world is a beautiful place.

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It All Comes Together

As I was making my way through the final chapters of this book, I happened across a brief video, whose message is essentially this: if the world is merely a spec in the expansive universe, what then is the significance of the plights of those who inhabit it? I arrived at a similar conclusion upon finishing the final pages Haskell’s account of the mandala. After wading through his dense, painstakingly crafted prose, liberally adorned with revolting anecdotes of nature’s most unsavory creatures and mating processes, I emerged with a reverence for that which I do not see, or better yet, that which I choose not to notice.

I was happy to see that Haskell finally makes an effort to provide what I believe to be his reasoning for writing this work, though an acknowledgement of such earlier in the book would have been appreciated. Nevertheless, after pages of seemingly disjointed and unrelated recollection and exposition, Haskell manages to tie his observations together with poignancy. He laments that although he feels intimately close to the mandala following his one-year immersion, he also senses a chasm wider than ever before, noting on multiple occasions the sheer magnitude of his ignorance.

Much of the piece is devoted to the microscopic creatures that drastically outnumber those visible to the naked eye. Towards the end of the book, Haskell challenges the relevance of physical size, arguing that science has become so prescribed, objective and, well, scientific that it has lost sight of the subtleties that make life the wonder that it is.

Haskell comments that in the mandala “individuality is an illusion.” The fate of magnificently large trees rest in the hands of fungi and bacteria and nematodes, whose microscopic forms nourish and support precariously balanced food chains. He argues that this relationship is but one aspect of the story of the mandala – the story that science often fails to recognize. Haskell argues that, like the squirrels who bask in the sun because they enjoy the rays on their bodies, or the coyotes who howl as the sun disappears from view each night, animals have feelings, emotions, and stories. “My experience with animals,” Haskell says, “is richer for knowing their stories.”

I was struck most powerfully by Haskell’s concluding observation that the singular life, as in “my life,” is an ephemeral and selfish construct, whereas the collective Life, the force of being that has persisted in various forms for billions of years, is comparatively permanent. When we step back and view Earth as a small speck in a giant universe, we realize that our place in it is utterly insignificant. Insignificant that is, save for our place in a beautifully complex, hopelessly intertwined, and forever-evolving story that is Life.

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New York Unseen

After spending the weekend in of the antithesis of Haskell’s forest, the bustling and charismatic metropolis that is Manhattan, I was struck by the uncanny parallels that exist between the seemingly disparate settings. As I lay in my Midtown hotel bed thumbing through The Forest Unseen, seeking some respite from the controlled chaos to which I long to contribute professionally, my mind wondered through the scenes Haskell so  vividly paints; those of elements of the forest that I hadn’t ever given a second thought.

Never before had I considered the surface area of a tufted-titmouse, or that of any bird, and its relation to the bird’s ability to weather frigid cold. Nor had I pushed my own limits of survival amongst the elements, or contemplated the parasitic horse hair worm and its unfortunate affinity for crickets. But as these thoughts passed through my head, I realized that neither had I considered the intricacies of the cities in which I have spent a large portion of my life. Just as the forest is a marvel of nature, rich with cycles of fertility and unwritten laws of survival, so too is a city of eight million which as managed to grow exponentially and sustain itself for centuries on a finite geographical footprint.

At cursory glance, this comparison might seem overly simplistic. I argue, however, that just as it is important that we consider the intricacies of purely natural systems such as forests, it is also vital that that we look to the systems that we as humans have devised and now deem ordinary. One of Haskell’s main objectives, I believe, is to disavow the notion that what is common and largely understood is of little use to an advanced and fast-paced society.  It is not until we begin to question and explore the mundane that we rediscover awe and find the impetus to improve.

For example, I walked down Second Avenue close to midnight this Saturday, only to have my ambling routinely interrupted by fleets of garbage trucks, each hastily moving from one massive trash mountain to the next. I considered the complicated trash operation of my relatively large suburban town, realizing that I must multiply it by a factor of over 200 to achieve the scale of New York City. How would this process be improved and made cheaper, I wondered, if we were simply more aware of the size of the chore. A similar awe for complexity surfaced as I took an early morning stroll and watched several of the city’s ubiquitous stainless steel food carts being unloaded from a flatbed truck. I had never considered process by which they were cleaned, stowed, staffed, restocked and transported throughout town, and placed on well-traveled street corners. It is yet another piece of the impressive logistical feat that is New York City. I could go on, but I believe my point is clear enough.

In addition to providing beautiful and evocative prose, Haskell has succeeded in awakening me to the wonder of the ordinary, an achievement in which I believe resides substantial value. People tend to defend, cherish, maintain, and celebrate the things and ideas they hold dear. Whether these object include forests, cities, nations, religions, other people, or anything at all, I believe humanity would benefit from a keener attention to the intricacies of the commonplace, and a reverence for the nuances without which life would not persist.

 

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Our Collegiate Way of Thinking

I have not spoken to one individual who finds Ryan’s Collegiate Way of Living to be a modest representation of the residential college model and its history. It is, without doubt, laden with pride for Yale’s century’s old system, and its overtly pompous air is understandably off-putting. However, I am growing increasingly frustrated with the views of many peers, who seem stuck on the notion that pride in any form is an undesirable quality.

While I too found the contents of the book to be charged with borderline arrogance, I also felt, on more than one occasion, jealousy towards Yale’s system. It was a jealousy more deeply rooted, however, than the superficial envy that surfaces every so often, when I hear of the impressive achievements, extensive opportunity, and intangible pedigree of those to whom an Ivy League education has been bestowed. Instead, this was an envy rooted in what I feel to be senses of complacency and inferiority among students at our own University.

I am admittedly guilty of the aforementioned way of thinking, perhaps more than others, as my competitive nature drives me to continuously benchmark my performance, abilities, and potential to those of others.  I often find myself discounting my talents, however, with the belief that those of the most nominally prestigious ranks possess abilities that are superior to my own. However, it turns out that this notion of is inadequacy founded on rather precarious grounds. It is an internalized, visceral feeling of admiration, couched in the assumption that some achievements are simply unattainable for someone like me, and  will instead be pursued by Ivy League brethren. It turns out, however, that this mentality is a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.

While I have always been somewhat aware of this complex, it hasn’t been until late in my college tenure, with the task of finding a fulfilling and rewarding career more pressing than ever, that I have begun to realize how much of an impact this predisposition might have on my future, and those of my peers.

My point here is a simple one: we do not possess sufficient pride or confidence, neither as a school, nor as a residential college, to justify our true worth. I suspect that we too would come off as a touch arrogant if we were to speak of our school and residential college in such endearing terms as Ryan, but is that really a problem? Is it any more obnoxious than loudly displaying school colors that for all intents and purposes should never have been paired together to begin with? I argue that it is not. Furthermore, I feel that pride within reason is not only a good thing, but an integral characteristic of a sustainable organization.

I view pride as the outward manifestation of personal significance and meaning. We show pride for the things that are important to us, and those things that we hope to see live successfully in posterity. My school is one of those things, as is this Residential College. Both are entities to which I have devoted and invested a great deal of myself. All too often, however, I feel that I and my peers are reluctant to express what these things truly mean to us.

I believe that our school and residential college are both in the midst of a similar rise to prominence, one whose continuance will be dictated by an ability to differentiate, prove, expand and relate accomplishments. To do so successfully, I believe, will require taking a page, or several, out of Ryan’s book. We must be willing and able to talk about our history, capable of passionately explaining our purpose, and unafraid of displaying our culture to the world, all with an unwavering sense of pride. In many of life’s arenas, a small touch of arrogance, paired with a healthy dose of humility, is the recipe for success.

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The Journey of a Lifetime

It is hard to believe that the semester has officially come to an end. While there is surely mental rumination yet to come, tomorrow marks my last full day in Riva San Vitale, and by all accounts the end of my study abroad experience. It is certainly a bittersweet feeling if there ever was one. I miss my home, family, and friends; I miss the United States, Massachusetts and Virginia. At the same time, I have forged a connection with Switzerland and Europe, the likes of which I could have never imagined. Toughest of all is the sense of finality accompanying my departure. Never again will I have the opportunity to simply drop my engagements and live in a foreign country for four months, largely insulated from many of the responsibilities that would otherwise tie me down.

As I look back on my experiences this semester, I am directed to the document upon which I spelled out my initial goals for the Presidential Global Scholars program. As is the case with many glimpses in the past, hindsight reveals and overwhelming degree of innocence. As I compare the goals that I had set for myself, I’ve concluded that I was both eerily clairvoyant, and woefully naïve in predicting my time abroad.

I had separated my original goals into overarching, thematic aspirations, and place-specific, experiential goals. It is easier to measure the extent to which I achieved the latter set, so I will begin there. Of the 24 specific things I had hoped to experience, I was able to accomplish, conservatively, eight. It is safe to say that I became more aware of the reality of travel (cost, time, planning, etc.) during the course of the trip. I found that I had been far too idealistic in preparing for my experiences, a point that I have explored in the past. More importantly, however, was the fact that my priorities changed throughout the semester. I became less and less concerned with seeing the blockbuster tourist attractions. Though these were indeed interesting, I found that trying solely to visit the Mona Lisas and the Coliseums of the world was a quite exhausting way of traveling. The times during which I was most at peace often involved walking alone through smaller cities like Edinburgh or Lugano, or going on morning runs at the base of the acropolis in Athens. I realized that many of my most memorable experiences were low-key and spontaneous. So, despite the fact that I was unable to see visit all of the locations I had originally hoped to visit , I am at peace knowing that I made up for this by way of experiences that were more unique and just as worthwhile. Note to self: Timothy, you can handle spontaneity. It is O.K.

More interesting and perhaps more telling of my growth while abroad was the extent to which I accomplished my broader, personal-growth goals. As I review these, it appears that I was a bit more successful – I’ll score myself a five out of seven. I will begin by talking about the goals I feel I was not able to adequately accomplish. These both involve cultural immersion, and undoubtedly play off of each other. The first was to become proficient at speaking Italian, and the second was to form deep relationships with locals. While in Europe I have certainly realized the value in learning a different language and have spoken about it at length in a previous post. Unfortunately, despite making definite progress, my Italian skills are not quite where I would like them to be. As such, I feel that I was precluded from really developing the relationships with locals that I had hoped to make. Nevertheless, I think the cultural experiences that I did have were quite beneficial. I am also still determined to learn another language. I am not sure if Italian is the right one for me, but after my time in Europe I am convinced that learning languages is one of the best things that one can do to improve cultural competency and global awareness. If all goes as planned, I will be celebrating my one year PGS anniversary with a blog posted in German.

Although my Italian growth was somewhat disappointing, I feel that I definitely made significant progress in other personal goals that I had set for myself. Among these was a desire to better understand Europe as it relates to the global economy, being that I am a business student and will be resuming my business studies upon returning to the United States. I feel fortunate to have visited places like Greece, Italy, and Ireland, countries whose financial problems I had only been able to read about in news publications. After spending time in these areas I feel that I have a better understanding of the intricacies of the financial difficulties facing the Eurozone, as well as a cognizance of some of the cultural undertones which are surely contributing to the manner in which the Eurozone crisis plays out. I also had the opportunity to visit Germany, the figure of European economic strength. Again, it is surprisingly eye-opening to be able to place a face to a name that had only been able to read about. Finally, my experiences in the financially strong and geopolitically neutral country of Switzerland have only added to the broader perspective of global business that I now possess. Our time at the World Economic Forum, for example, was one of my favorite components of the program.

Another goal that I feel I was successful in accomplishing involves the way in which I view Europe. Before arriving abroad I had seen the continent as a more or less homogenous place containing arbitrarily drawn borders and culturally insignificant language differences (an exaggeration, of course). However, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Each country that I had the opportunity to visit had drastically different cultures, people, architecture, and natural beauty. Despite the fact that the Eurozone is often a symbol of cooperation and solidarity, I have learned that national pride, too, is an integral component of the region.  I feel that I have a grasp on what makes an Italian different from Swiss, and a Swiss from a German.  This improvement in global perspective will undoubtedly change the way I view Europe upon returning to the United States.  

A final goal that I set out to accomplish, and to some extent feel that I have achieved, involves what I called “finding my niche in the world.” This is one that I know I will keep thinking about as I distance myself from this experience; like many things this semester, the true meaning of the change is not yet apparent. Nevertheless, we have spent time talking about a lot of the world’s big problems throughout PGS (hunger, poverty, energy, etc.), as well as the fact that the solutions to these issues will only come with the collaboration of the correct group people. I always imagined applying myself to something that would produce good in the world. If nothing else, PGS has taught me that there are a lot of areas in which there exists such a need – a need for dedicated and caring people who are interested in solving problems together. So, while I am still not sure what exactly my impact will be, I have an infinitely better idea of what my impact could look like.

These are obviously just a few of my reflections of this semester; I could go on for far longer. I have realized throughout this process that it takes a while for the blog seeds to germinate. Therefore, I am enthusiastic about continuing to talk about my PGS experiences throughout the summer and beyond. I am also positive that I will have experiences in the near future that will ignite PGS feelings and memories. I will be sure to share them despite being far away from Europe. However, for now it is time for me to say goodbye to a place that has undoubtedly changed my life, and will surely influence path I take for years to come. It was one of the hardest experiences I have ever gone through, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Thank you Riva San Vitale. Thank you Switzerland. Thank you Europe and Africa. I’ve had the time of my life.

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On Berlin

I had heard conflicting opinions of the city of Berlin prior to visiting last week. However, many of them agreed on such qualities as “cold,” and “raw.”  Admittedly, my preconceptions of the city were also formed by my fondness of Goodbye Lenin!, a 2003 film depicting the intricacies and implications of the Cold War in Berlin. It too, by the sheer nature of its content, paints a drab and dispassionate picture of the city. As such I arrived in Berlin with the expectation of a sterile and impersonal architecture and people, and a more or less bland relic of conflicts past. These expectations could not have been more wrong.

Our first stop was Treptower Park, one of three memorials in the city dedicated Soviet soldiers who died in the war. The centerpiece of the park is a massive cast of a Soviet soldier who stands holding a baby in his left hand while crushing a swastika with the sword in his right hand. It is an extremely powerful visual, and one that set the mood for the rest of our visit. As we exited the park we passed a row of large stone monuments, each depicting a scene of Soviet valor and inscribed with a quotation by Joseph Stalin. It was then that I and the group with whom I traveled realized the true complexity of Berlin’s history, especially from the American perspective.

Our next stop was the East Side Gallery, a stretch of the Berlin Wall that has been painted by professional street artists. It depicts psychedelic and rather odd scenes which generally call for world peace and an end to violence. Though quite unconventional a bit unnerving, I was once again moved considerably by the emotion embodied in every inch of the space. We had spent just one afternoon in Berlin and were, somewhat inexplicably, already numb and at a loss for words.

We went off seeking dinner in a city known more for its ethnic foods than its local cuisine, but were lucky to fund a traditional German restaurant where we were served what might have been the best meal I have ever had. This was to be the first of many incredible dining experiences in the city. In fact, by the time we left Berlin we had begun joking that only the incredible cuisine is capable of providing a well-needed respite from the tumult and sadness that permeates the city’s every corner.

This was all followed by a whirlwind Saturday in which we took guided Berlin tour which included passage through the majestic yet ominous Brandenburg Gate, time among the indescribably emotional Holocaust Memorial, a sickening stop above the bunker in which Hitler took his own life, and a brief photo-op with the disappointingly touristic Checkpoint Charlie site. After some encouragement by a hearty German lunch, we stopped at the Topography of Terror museum, a gut-wrenching recollection of Hitler, the Gestapo, the SS, and the rise of Nazism. We emerged silenced by overwhelming emotion.

You would think I was crazy If I told you that after all of this Berlin was the city to which I would like most to return. But, last Saturday night as I stood in the glass dome of the Reichstag, the government building that permits visitors seeking a panoramic view of Berlin’s skyline, I saw a city doing its utmost to cope with a troubled and complicated past. The large majority of the city was razed by Allied air raids just over 60 years ago, and was bitterly divided in my lifetime, but now sits speckled with cranes that lift modern buildings from this deep history. The flourishing art scene is an inspiration that nimbly balances a delicate past with the promise of the future. We have spoken about palimpsest and its importance in understanding place. Despite its relative youth, I have witnessed no greater example of this than in Berlin, and I am counting the days until luck allows me to return.

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Rome, Naples, and Being Average

I just recently returned from over a week of travel in Naples and Rome where I saw my fair share of historically and culturally significant sights. Naples, home to Vesuvius, Pompeii and a host of other ancient and geographical landmarks, was incredibly memorable, while the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Vatican City and even a glimpse at Pope Francis combined for a surreal whirlwind tour of Rome. While last week was without a doubt one of the more enlightening moments of my entire European experience , I came to the surprising and somewhat disconcerting realization that I may be growing numb to the historical and cultural magnitude of the sights which I have had the great fortune of visiting this semester.
I first realized this while exploring Pompeii last Friday. At the archeological site there is a covered outdoor exhibit housing the myriad vases, pottery, and artifacts that were so incredibly preserved after the 78 AD eruption. Also stored there are several of the casts of ancient people who were engulfed in ash expelled by the infamous volcano. These casts serve as the focal points for the unique exhibit, while hundreds of pots and vases surround them on wooden shelves. I walked along the periphery of the exhibit in awe of the nearly perfect condition of the artifacts, and of the eerie reality still present in the casts of the people who perished in the eruption. I reached the end of the exhibit where I saw that one of these casts had been haphazardly stored a shelf, as if there was not enough room for it to occupy a central locations like the others. At first I didn’t think much of it, but just as I began to walk away from the exhibit and onto another part of Pompeii, I realized that I had just dismissed an artifact 2000 years of age and rich in history as an uninteresting and commonplace museum “filler.” Clearly this was not the case.
This happened again at the Coliseum  in Rome.  When I learned about the types of functions that were held in the space I was impressed, but I’m afraid I not nearly as much as I should have been. I arrived back at my hotel that night, and as I often do after a long day of travel and exploration, I found myself replaying the events of the day in my mind. I remembered our guide mentioning the exotic animals involved in the displays at the Coliseum: elephants, lions, tigers, leopards and hippos. How on earth did they obtain these animals, I wondered, especially in the disgusting quantities purported by our guide? Capturing and transporting tens of thousands of massive and ferocious animals must have been no small feat nearly 2,000 years ago.
Nevertheless, astonishing facts such as these have been passing through me, unappreciated, with increasing frequency lately. It is only when I begin to carefully scrutinize my experiences that I comprehend the gravity of the things that I have seen. The truth is that my time abroad has been quite exhausting, at least in the sense of the strain placed on the mind. Every day has been an entirely new experience. The novelty which was at one point energizing and invigorating has become commonplace. I expect to witness something new each day. Newness has become average.
I am now craving a routine; something that, though occasionally mundane in nature, can cut through the superficiality of tourist attractions and “must see’s” and offer a glimpse at real life. I don’t know what to make of this desire other than that it will soon be fulfilled. In just one short month I will return to the United States, dropped back into what is more or less a “normal” life. The question is, however, how do I make the most of the experiences that still lay ahead of me? We will soon be leaving for Ghana, which is sure to offer a preponderance of newness, and shortly after, Northern Switzerland, a place that while relatively close to our post in Riva San Vitale, will undoubtedly be much unlike than anything I have seen. I suppose that an awareness of this tendency towards complacency is the best that I can do. I must do my best to appreciate the scale and significance before me, and ignore for just weeks more the light of familiarity that is now clearly visible at the end of the tunnel.
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Spring Break in the British Isles

I feel that I am just settling in from a long week of travel, but seeing as how in just 48 hours I will be off on another international adventure, I thought I would reflect on last week’s exciting journey. Spring break for PGS means personal travel – we can go anywhere we want. Some of us decided to travel to the British Isles and spend a week in Dublin, Edinburgh, and London.  Having never quite learned the naming conventions of the area, I was quickly forced to distinguish between the British Isles (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Ireland), the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), and Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales). I say forced because one of the first things I realized was that people take these cultural differences quite seriously. As I witnessed firsthand, inaccurately referring to an area could really offend locals.

In fact, one of the most striking aspects of my trip was the stark cultural differences between the people and cities with which I interacted despite their sharing a common language. There was certainly added comfort in travelling to an English-speaking region. We first noticed this on the bus from the Dublin airport to the city center. There were no signs at the stops, so we were largely unsure as to where we should get off. However we were accustomed to life in Switzerland or Italy where such a situation would mean attempting to form a question in a foreign language, or simply taking our chances. We were still in this mindset upon arriving in Dublin, until I realized that the people on the bus spoke English!

It is amazing how much a city opens up to you when you are actually capable of understanding the language. There is a certain stress that completely dissipates, as a deeper level of the city becomes easily accessible. However, I learned that English-speaking doesn’t necessarily mean comprehendible.  A group of Irish passengers on our flight to Dublin were engaged in a jovial conversation, though I could only pick out snippets of it on account of their extensive use of seemingly foreign words and slang. The conductor of our train from Edinburgh to London had a Scottish accent so thick that I questioned that English was even being spoken. However, I think it may have been an anomaly, as even the Scotsmen sitting beside me broke into laughter at the apparent unintelligibility of the man               on the loudspeaker. Nevertheless, it was a reminder to me that a shared language does not necessarily mean a shared culture. Just as there are different dialects of Italian spoken throughout Italy and southern Switzerland, there are different dialects of English spoken throughout the world.

This realization has actually been quite frustrating to me. The Latin American Spanish that I learned in high school is less applicable to the Castilian Spanish spoken in Spain, and the Italian I am now learning is not the same as the southern dialect of Italian spoken in Naples, where we will be studying in just a few days. The notion of “knowing enough to get by” is not one with which I am generally comfortable, yet it is a fact of life that I have been forced to accept while studying in Europe. It is like looking at an incomplete puzzle, and it has been at the root of nearly every instance of feeling like an outsider during my time abroad. With all that said, however, I found every city that I visited last week to be incredibly beautiful and culturally rich. I am quite anxious for the opportunity to return to and further explore the British Isles.

 

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Humble Pie

With another round of European travel on the horizon, I’ve been looking a lot at the spring calendar lately. Today is day 46; my time in Europe is over one-third through. Somebody asked me yesterday if I was ready to return to the States yet. “Yes and no,” I said. I’ve already explored the “yes” piece quite a bit in previous posts – I love America, have a newfound appreciation for my blessings, etc. But, I’m not sure I’ve talked much about what this experience as meant to me, and why I would say “No, I’m not ready yet.”

We had the pleasure of spending the last two weeks with Drs. Nikki Giovanni and Ginney Fowler, Virginia Tech professors of English. Their module, entitled “Strangers in a [Global] Village”, explored the notion of being an outsider. We used the works of 20th century author James Baldwin as basis for our discussions. Baldwin was a homosexual black American who did much of his writing abroad, particularly in Paris. The majority of his writing concerned, quite naturally given the era in which he wrote, civil rights and the movement for racial equality.

We had the great fortune of studying with professors who are both scholars of the civil rights movement. As such, we were challenged to think more deeply about the American civil rights movement than many of us ever had. First and foremost, it was an example of the many European experiences I have had that have taught me about where I come from. Nikki Giovanni, who herself is among the circle of influential black Americans of the civil rights movement, shared with us her personal experiences with some of the most well-known people and places in American history. Here are two reasons people like Nikki Giovanni have been great teachers for me thus far:

  1.  She can make you feel like an idiot. On many occasions Nikki would say something like, “Well, you all know who so-and-so was.” Or, “You have all read this book, right?” But, for me at least, the response was often, “No, I am not familiar.” She spoke about famous figures in American history, books, movies, and events that have all made significant impacts on my own life. But I felt like I couldn’t keep up. I felt like I simply didn’t know enough. In fairness Nikki is a brilliant woman who has retained an impressive amount of information, but nevertheless she opened my eyes to a veritable “new world” that is both quite accessible and quite important to my own identify as an American. My time in Europe has been full of these humbling experiences. It’s good to get knocked down a few pegs when you’re starting to feel smart.
  2.  She inspires you. Humility breeds inspiration. Nikki has an amazing ability of doing what she calls “connecting the dots.” For her every person or event is tied, either directly or metaphorically, to another person or event. She says that by discovering these connections we can have a greater understanding of what goes on in the world. My intellectual curiosity has been seriously stimulated during my time abroad, both by professors and my experiences at large. There are so many chances to make these connections of which Nikki speaks. I realized this in particular when, while watching Hulu before bed last night, I found myself making a connection between writings James Baldwin and the jokes of Stephen Colbert.

So, humility and inspiration – two reasons that every day in Europe has been extremely valuable to me. We concluded the module with an essay assignment that explored a moment in which we felt like outsiders. I was missing home, so I wrote about the experience of serving breakfast at a food pantry in Lawrence, Massachusetts. But, of course, there have been many times that I’ve felt like an outsider here. Luckily however, this feeling is not a response, as it is for people like Baldwin, to a permanent and unchangeable characteristic such as race, gender, or sexuality. It is a response to something that I can change. The idea of being an outsider in Europe is transient in nature. It is a direct function of my ignorance of local language, culture and tradition. The more I learn the less of an outsider I become. Therefore, throughout the remainder of my time here, I’ll gladly take every dose of humility and inspiration I can get my hands on.

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The Palimpsest of Ruin: My Thoughts on Greece

Dear Dr. Papillon,

If, on my growing list of recently visited places, a city can simultaneously claim the titles of “absolute favorite” and “absolute least favorite,” it must be Athens. I had indeed, being a business student and amateur critic of the financial crisis, awaited my first visit to Greece with great excitement, thinking that I may see in vivid clarity the irresponsibility which, so says the talking heads, was responsible for the proliferation of our global economic crisis. I had always struggled to understand the problems in Greece, and hence expected an air of laziness and nonchalance to be hanging over an otherwise beautiful city, interspersed ever so sporadically with the occasional gentle protest. Since I am also fascinated by old things, and have long had an interest in classics and mythology, it seemed that Athens would be a perfect city in which to grow intellectually.

Though my expectations were in some cases half-accurate, what I found in the capital of Greece was all the while a resounding shock. It was, quite literally, a city existing entirely in ruin.  The state of modern-Greece was far worse than I had anticipated – far worse than the flaming trash cans seen on TV. When I first arrived in Europe in January, I immediately noticed the interplay of humans with the physical environment, and man’s attempt to thrive while retaining the beauty of nature and antiquity. We discussed this notion of layering within Paul Knox’s module and called it palimpsest. Upon arriving in Greece, I saw the whole idea flipped on its head.

Greece, of course, is a tremendous example of physical layering – of a city that was continuously and iteratively expanded, its ancient roots found atop from the Acropolis. However, what fascinated me was the idea of ruin, and how it can be used as a metaphor to explore the current situation in Greece (Paul Heilker has me seeing the world in metaphors now).

One of the first things that we did when analyzing ancient ruins was ask the question “to what era can we attribute this artifact?” There are generally easily observable symbols that can be used to identify an object’s age. If we are looking at a building, we can look at the column type or ornamental fixtures that could suggest time periods. If we look at a sculpture we can look at facial expressions, hip orientation or leg stances, detail, and clothing. This information provides us with the historical era in which the object built: Bronze Age, Dark Age, Archaic Age, Classic Age, Hellenistic Age, Roman Age, etc. With this information, we can generally have a good idea of the ruler in power at the time of its creation. Was it Pericles or Pisistratus? I constantly found myself connecting these questions to the modern ruins of Greece. What can we use to identify the causes of the collapse? At what point in time were these seeds of destruction actually planted? To what leader or group of people can we attribute these ruins?

The same ancient ruins also tell us a lot about what was important to the Greeks. Paul Heilker often says that “every artifact is an argument for one set of values over a different set of values.” The Parthenon and Acropolis are rife with rhetoric, proclaiming the superiority of its people, power and deity. What do the graffiti, political posters, protests and riots, garbage and downtrodden buildings tell us about the values of the modern-day Greek. What do they value? What messages are they trying to convey?

I thought about who is telling this story of modern-day ruin. The ancient Greeks had the likes of Aeschylus and Sophocles who, within grand theaters such as those in Epidaurus or Delphi, or the Theater of Dionysus, encouraged the masses gather with excitement to hear dramatic interpretations and recollections of their history. Who is capturing the story of Greece’s modern ruin? Where are the theaters? Perhaps there is no such forum, or perhaps there is and it’s no longer a place of physical beauty, but rather the World Wide Web, which is constantly capturing Greece’s ruin in a permanent yet painfully ephemeral mass of bits and bytes.

I could go on, and though this may sound like an incessant bashing of modern-day Greece, I was truthful when I said that Athens was my favorite city thus far. The ruins were beyond words, and I thought modern Greece had an irresistible and indescribable charm despite everything ugly that I saw. I just couldn’t help myself from comparing what I was learning about ancient Greece to what is going on in the world today. I realize that the metaphor has its weaknesses and many missing conclusions. It’s sentimental I know. But I still really like it.

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