20 April 2007

Odysseus Returns Home

Oh, the wonders my eyes have seen, the places my feet have trod, and the experiences which have nourished my soul! To simply say that I did and saw so much during my Odyssey would be the understatement of my life. This adventure saw the realization of many life dreams, and the birth of others. I will never be able to fully recount the tales, but I will probably try to for the rest of my days.

All of my friends here are curious and excited to hear about my travels, and I am equally excited to share the stories with them. They shake their heads in disbelief or call me crazy when I list the countries I visited in the past two months. They show faces of amazement when I tell them about my time in Albania. They laugh about my visit to the sauna in Tallinn (for which I still plan on devoting an entry ). They express disgust when I describe tripe soup, beef tartare, or head of calf. Finished with one story I eagerly await for the next question and think of the perfect words to use in order to elicit the response I desire.

Before I continue, here is a recap of the last week or so of the trip.

I spent five days in Paris during the first week of April. My timing couldn’t have been better, the city bloomed with Spring flowers and trees. After hearing so much about the City of Lights I had an impression of a divine city, but once I arrived I could see it was only mortal. Like any large urban area, it has its share of troubled and neglected areas; however, for the most part it truly lives up to its reputation of beauty. I believe it was the most beautiful city I saw in the two months.

I spent the first two days alone and seeing some of the main sites: the Louvre Museum, the palace of Versailles and its horizon-sprawling gardens, and the Notre Dame Cathedral. I also visited some of the lesser knows, like the Pompidou Center, the Holocaust Memorial (an interesting note: the Nazis had an effect on every country and nearly every city I visited), and the Jardin des Tuileries. I tried such foods as head of calf and Angelina’s famous Mont Blanc dessert. The first was the second most disgusting dish of the trip, and the second vies with Greek baklava for the position as the best sweet.

I spent the rest of the time in Paris with Natalie, my friend from America who is studying in Angers, France. Together we climbed the steps of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, strolled down the Champs Elysees, and visited or saw other sites such as La Defense, the Parisian catacombs, the Montmarte neighborhood, Moulin Rouge, Napoleon’s Tomb, the Latin Quarter, and the Basilique du Sacre Coeur. Food experiences included escargot, beef tartare, and french onion soup. While eating beef tartare (raw hamburger meat topped with a raw egg) I felt like I was breaking every rule in terms of sanitation. Contrary to what one might think, it tasted good enough for me to order again.

My favorite, and most anticipated, site in Paris was the catacombs. In order for one to reach these old quarries he must descend far beneath the grand boulevards of Paris. At the end of the 1700s Paris faced sanitation issues and one solution was to exhume over a million bodies and store them in the damp underground tunnels. At first, workers threw the remains into piles, but eventually they adopted a more organized method and stacked the various bones along the dark corridors. At the underground entrance to the catacombs reads an original engraved stone in French, “Stop! Here is the empire of the dead.”

Inside, Natalie and I found innumerable skulls, leg bones, hips, and other various remains lining the tunnels. Most of the time they are in simple rows, but at other times are arranged in basic geometric shapes, like a heart. Other original stone carvings along the way present macabre quotes, like “If you have seen a man die remember that the same fate awaits you.” Our mood understandably changed from curiosity and excitement to morbid fascination and reflection. Surrounded by death one can not resist contemplating his own eventual demise. The queasy, the very young, and those with a fear of life’s end should never step foot into the empire of the dead.

Now, on to cheerier subjects.

Natalie and I left Paris for Mont Saint Michel and met up with Andrew, another friend from home who is also studying in Angers.

At a certain point along France’s Normandy coast a rocky protrusion juts up from the sea floor and reaches for the heavens with its crowing abbey. During high tides this outcropping becomes a mountain-island, and half a day later at low tide it stands exposed by barren mud flats and stretches of quicksand. A religious community first began on the Mont around 700 AD in dedication to Saint Michael the Archangel, who supposedly appeared here. Over time an abbey, fortress, and a small village were built clinging to the rock. During the Hundred Years War the community resisted all attacks by the English soldiers. The abbey itself exists like an extension of the rock, and its towering spire scrapes the sky. The stark contrast between the flat surrounding landscape and Mont Saint Michel amplifies the glory of the natural element and the man-made structure.

That night from one of the ramparts we watched the sun setting over the barren sea floor, and then the tides rushing in under the vanishing twilight. During the most impressive displays they say that the tides move as fast as a galloping horse. Some people have perished from walking too far out onto the mud flats during low tide, and then drowning when the high tide comes. We saw the depressions and channels in the sand glaze over with a black glassy surface, and the water progress ever closer to the Mont. At its closest point we could barely hear the sound of the lapping waves approaching.

After dinner we were forced to ride rented bikes back to our hostel in the early morning hours. The ride brought us through a dark French countryside and chilling winds. Most of the time we rode along old farm roads or gravel tractor paths with only the stars and a small flashlight to light our way. Two hours after we left the Mont we walked into the hostel and fell asleep in our beds.

For Easter Sunday we returned to the Mont for Mass in the abbey, and then some strolling in the quicksands.

Unlike in the movies, one can not suddenly sink waist deep into quicksand. In reality it is a very slow process and someone would have to stand still for a long time to reach that point. However, with violent shaking of the feet or strong vibrations in the sand one can speed things up. Exactly like the liquidfication effect during earthquakes, after a few strong strikes with our feet moist yet firm sand would turn into something like gray watery pudding. We allowed ourselves to go only shin deep, but even that created resistance sometimes strong enough to require a helping hand.

I will admit that after seeing so many natural and man-made wonders in two months I had become disillusioned and hard to impress by so called must-see sites. However Mont Saint Michel surpassed my expectations and restored my faith in the places to see in this world. As such, it was a fitting finale to the Odyssey.

We left in the afternoon and returned to Paris, where we went our separate ways. I boarded an overnight train to Munich and awoke the next morning in familiar territory. I spent the first half of the day walking around that city before beginning the last leg of my trip. In the train station I didn’t need to check a schedule or ask the information desk for help; I knew where I was going- Eichstaett.

Reaching my apartment I slid the key into the hole, turned it, and pushed the door open. That adventure was over.

In the last two months I: became a victim of crime in Rome; saw the devotion of which man is capable at the monasteries in Meteora, Greece; witnessed the beauty that man can create while viewing St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City; learned of the horrors that man can perform by the constant reminders of the Nazi regime all over Europe and the Communist authorities in the East; admired ancient relics in Athens; searched for my family heritage in Maar, Germany; traveled from the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast to the snow-packed Arctic; and came away with enough experiences to keep this paragraph going for pages.

I hope by following along with me in these past two months your own willingness to go out and live life grew. During the trip there were times when I was anxious, nervous, or embarrassed in certain situations, but I pushed on and was rewarded with an amazing experience. As humans, we cling to continuity and the well-worn path for the sake of comfort and ease. We tend to dislike change and fear the unknown. However, staying with the tried and true ways leads to a boring life, and prohibits progress. Never allow nervousness to prevent you from trying something new and living more actively. Usually the worst that can happen is that you’ll walk away with an embarrassing yet entertaining story.

I myself learned some lessons along the way, some applicable for the rest of my life and some specifically for traveling. For one thing, while on the road one can never have too many plastic bags. I know understand why I often see homeless people with a collection of these bags. After being given the wrong amount too many times to remember each, I will always count my change. A friendly smile goes a long way, especially when you can’t speak someone’s language. I will always keep better attention of my surroundings, and my trust in gut feelings and intuition has been reaffirmed. While true jerks and evil individuals exist in the world, the majority of people mean well and many will go out of their way to help others.

This last lesson was perhaps the strongest felt. Time and time again the friendliness and helpfulness of strangers surprised me. In Albania, a woman paid for my bus ticket across town and then found a taxi to take me to another city, where a man on the street invited me to coffee. In Greece, another woman led me through the streets of her town to a phone and an English speaking friend. A man in Romania guided me through a chaotic train station and made a deal with a cab driver for me. Individuals invited me and my parents into their home in Germany. The list could continue, but I think the point is made.

Though difficult to fathom, even after two months of travel and accomplishing life goals I remain unsatisfied. No, not with my Odyssey, rather with travel in general. I believe that I have now visited more countries than the average person will see in their lifetime, but so much more remains. In fact, I can picture myself returning to nearly every place I visited, yet I know that I will never again lay eyes on the majority of them. As I wrote in my very first entry, I believe that travel is the best way to experience life; therefore, I will never rest when it comes to seeing the world.

Here are some photos from the second half of the trip:

The village of Maar, Germany, from where my paternal ancestors originated.

The largest Ikea store in the world at home in Stockholm, Sweden.

The medieval skyline of Tallinn, Estonia.

The former Communist Ministry of Culture and Science, now partly a movie theater, in Warsaw, Poland.

The Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France.

La Defense and the Grand Arch in Paris, France.

The catacombs in Paris, France.

The Basilique du Sacre Coeur in Paris, France.

Reindeer sleigh ride in Rovaniemi, Finland.

Dealing with the quicksands of Mont Saint Michel, France.

Natalie, Andrew, and myself out by Mont Saint Michel.

Mont Saint Michel, France.

Me and my friend Nawell in Nantes, France.

La Tour Eiffel in Paris, France.

The Fisherman's Bastion in Budapest, Hungary.

One of the thermal baths in Budapest, Hungary.

Part of the dinning area inside the Snow Castle of Kemi, Finnland.

Views of the quicksands and mud flats around Mont Saint Michel, France.

The cathedral of Angers, France.


Anonymous said...

disillusioned!! no, no, you were inured. hahaha!

- natalie

mc said...

Nicholas, what a great read - it makes me gasp to hear you talk about all the places you have been. Incredible! Those hours at Mulan Bistro and Breakaway were well worth it weren't they! Like you I am ready to go some more too.

mc said...

Oh yeah, it was good to see Natalie and Andrew in the pictures in France. If you read this Natalie or Andrew - I hope you are having as much fun and enlightenment as Nick is.

Nick O. said...

Natalie: Or perhaps I was disenchanted?

MC: Yes, it turns out hours of putting shoes on people's feet is worth it.

Andrew said...

the thermal bath in hungary might be one of the best things i've ever seen.

Andrew said...

too bad i didn't actually see it.

b said...

I think the reindeer sleigh is cool.

Nick O. said...

Andrew and B: Both were pretty fun. That second floor in the bath picture is actually the sunning area. There was a glass roof and large windows that let in natural light.

The sleigh ride was more peaceful and relaxing than exciting. The driver tried to get the reindeer to run toward the end of the ride, but some moss distraced the animals and they tried to eat. Then I think the driver cursed at them in Finnish. Other than that though, peaceful.