13 August 2007

And So It Ends

I look through the scope and focus in on the target in order to examine my shot, direct hit. Smoke leaves the barrel as I lower the rifle and reload. One target down, infinite remaining. I find a suitable successor and carefully take aim. My breathing slows as I concentrate on the new goal. Once again, my finger eagerly rests on the trigger.

My study abroad experience has finally reached its conclusion, and with it this blog arrives at its final post. It pains me to say it, but tomorrow I leave Eichstätt and this country behind.

I always found it interesting how the Americans and the Europeans perceived Eichstätt differently. To many of the Germans and other Europeans with whom I discussed this topic, Eichstätt is a small, rustic town about as exciting as early morning network television. However, to the Americans, well, most of the Americans, Eichstätt represents one of the best things to have ever happened to them. When I tell a German that I would like to come back someday he or she usually gives me a look of disbelief and says something to the effect of, “But it’s Eichstätt.” Many of the Germans may have positive views of the town, but when the weekend comes they head home.

To me, this difference in perception is simple to explain. For the Germans, and many of the other Europeans, Eichstätt is not so unique or different from other European towns and cities. It has a beautiful centuries-old city center. The town observes fun traditions and festivals throughout the year. And its sense of community is tangible.

I believe, and in some degree through my travels have learned, that these qualities exist in cities all over Europe. For one thing, Europe is older than America and naturally possesses more historical buildings and traditions. With this longer history also comes a stronger connection to one’s home and as such a stronger sense of community.

I also could not fail to mention that most European towns are designed and exist in such a physical manner that they better foster a sense of community. For example, when one walks or rides a bike to go somewhere instead of driving with a car (something easier to do in Europe), he has physical contact with his neighbors and the other town residents, and the opportunity to stop and talk with them. He begins to recognize faces, not cars. The random encounters with neighbors or shop keepers help to provide a connection and feeling of belonging, and therefore a sense of community. I can now testify to that from my own experience.

For the Europeans, the size difference between their hometowns and Eichstätt, and therefore Eichstätt’s smaller offer of activities, is the only major difference. For the Americans, Eichstätt provides them with a new, and probably sometimes radically new lifestyle and method to experience life.

I arrived in Germany on September 28, 2006 and will leave on August 14, 2007. This Tuesday, when I board the plane to fly home, will mark the 321st day that I have not set foot on American soil since my original departure. It will not quite reach the 365 day barrier to consist of a true year, but for me it will be close enough. In the end, such an accurate account of the time I have been here means nothing to me; I feel like I have lived for a lifetime in Eichstätt.

In this past year I have observed this town and its people as they shifted through the seasons. Autumn brought damp weather and heavy fog that easily nestled into place in the valley. Winter followed with colder temperatures, but only threats of heavy snow or icy conditions. The holidays accompanied and showed up with delectable treats like Glühwein, Stollen, and Lebkuchen, and with enjoyable traditions like the Christmas markets. The town residents seemed to enter a more lethargic state of living that persisted until Spring bloomed. Then they hung their coats; although, not too deep in the closet because the odd German weather ensured a few more cold spells well into the Summer. Spring ushered in a new season of generations-old festivals such as May Day and Fronleichnam, not to mention the expected new flowers and greenery that enveloped Eichstätt along the valley ridges. Summer brought fine weather, outdoor fun, and Bavarian-style beer fests. With each passing day I remained well aware that my return crept closer and closer.

Likewise, with each passing day I fell more in love with Eichstätt , Bavaria, and Germany, and came to lament my imminent flight home. I will board that airplane with remorse and regret. I will not simply leave behind many friends, but also a culture and a lifestyle which I have come to accept as my own and with which I feel connected. Last September 27th I flew away from my home; on August 14th that event will occur again.

During my time here I have learned many valid lessons which I can apply throughout life, perhaps this return is simply the last teaching my time in Germany will offer me. I have never before been forced to say good bye to something to which I have felt so attached. Yes, I said good bye to my family and friends a year ago, but I knew I would surely be returning. Although, I must say that a couple of times did arise when I questioned the certainty of that return.

I contemplated with myself an important question: at what point does one make a decision to change his life in a revolutionary or drastic way? And furthermore, when does one set aside a safer and more certain future in exchange for perhaps a riskier but more enjoyable one? While on vacation most people dream about quitting their job back in the city and finding a new life there at the beach, but when the week ends they obediently pack their bags and return home. They understand that the job back home supplied them with the pay check that made the vacation possible, and that drastically changing one’s life is difficult to say the least. Simply put, once most people reach an established life they will rarely deviate too far from it until retirement. Here is where I arrived at my personal answers to the questions from above.

I am young; I have no established life. On the contrary, my life remains wide open for change. This is my advantage. I decided I would choose the intelligent path and return home to finish the degrees I began. Then, if I so desire, I could change my life in a revolutionary way. I will say good bye to Germany very soon, but I have a sneaky suspicion that it will not be my final farewell.

However, I realize that when or if I journey back to Germany I will not find a life identical to this year’s experience. I shared this year with an amazing group of people who became new friends. In my time here I have met at least one person from each of the inhabited continents, and I could not begin to count the number of nationalities. This diverse collection of opinions, cultures, traditions, and styles provided me with new discoveries about the world. My German improved from an intermediate level to one which I feel confidant in calling “socially fluent”(Keep in mind that Mark Twain referred to German as “awful” because of its difficulty). While I had an idea of what to expect, the culture and lifestyle were still new to me. I aimed to involve myself in and assimilate with German and Bavarian life as best as I could. Somewhat unfortunately, I feel like I performed very well in that regard, and the culture will never again be as foreign to me as in the beginning. This exploration into the world, culture, the German language, and myself were the main reasons for the exuberant feelings I have from this year. That feeling of uncertainty and not knowing exactly what to expect caused this year of discovery to thrill me as much as it has.

Most of the stories, memories, and details from this year will never leave me, but some may fade. In order to aid my recollection, numerous mementos and souvenirs will join me on the flight to Memphis. Two cook books will help to keep the tastes of German and Bavarian cuisine on my tongue. Other books will entertain or torture my mind when I need to practice my German. Music CDs and songs stored on my computer will allow me to remember many of the parties I attended and some of the interesting songs to which Germans listen. Not to deprive my eyes from recalling this year, I will also return with many photographs. Actually, that’s quite an understatement. The pictures you have seen on this blog are only the tip of the iceberg. I will land in Memphis with approximately 3,500 photographs burned onto CDs or saved on my computer, as well as a handful of short videos.

For me, and I hope for you, the reader, this year reconfirmed the importance of my personal credo and the principal message of this blog: to always fire at will. As said, this year will never again happen. I can return to Germany or even Eichstätt and try to replicate it, but it will never quite match the past eleven odd months. In this moment, with these conditions, and under these circumstances I will never stand again. I cannot honestly say that I lived each of the past 320 days as if they were my last, but I feel like I tried my best to at least live most of them to the fullest and take advantage of the opportunities they offered.

I know this blog has accomplished one of its two purposes, to act as a method to stay in touch with family and friends, but I hope it has also achieved the second, to inspire the readers to avoid passively living their lives and to explore their world. I have shared with the reader my travels from small German towns to Mediterranean capitals, and from wealthy global metropolises to cities of the developing world. I wrote about Bavarian culture and traditions. I told of my own new experiences and first-time attempts. I tried to demonstrate the advantages and need for living in the moment. I have done all of this to carry out that second purpose. I hope blind eyes have not read my typed words. I hope that the reader has learned something from this year as well.

I regret that I must leave, but of course I also look forward to seeing my family, my friends, and my beloved hometown of Memphis. This is one homecoming about which I have had plenty of time to ponder. I return during the heart of Elvis Week, the time of the year that thousands of fans come from around the world to pay tribute to the singer on the anniversary of his death. I also return in the midst of triple digit temperatures, the likes of which I never came close to feeling here. When I return I want to run on the trails of the pine forest in Shelby Farms Park and smell the evergreen scent heavy in the damp morning air. I desire to coast under the shadows of the bald cypress trees along the Wolf River and to glide across the smooth and tranquil waters of Herb Parson’s Lake with my kayak. I long to sit on the river bluff and watch as the sun sets over the flat Arkansas Delta, and the day’s last rays of light race across the Mississippi’s turbulent waters and glitter on the downtown high-rises. I need to taste that heavenly food created when succulent pork lands on a hot charcoal grill and receives the name barbeque. These activities will keep me busy once I return, but I will likely continue to miss Germany for quite some time.

I have come to take many of the facts of life here for granted and will only better realize that once I am away. I will miss the centuries-old Baroque architecture of the city center and Willibald’s Castle faithfully overlooking the town from its perch on the valley ridge. My mouth will not thirst for so much water without the consumption of so many fresh salted pretzels from the bakeries. However, whenever thirst does arise Hofmühl beer will not be there to quench it. From now on, whenever I drive I will remember how my own two feet brought me nearly anywhere in Eichstätt, although most of the time with the aid of two wheels to speed things along. I will wonder how certain businessmen and women, whose faces I now recognize, are doing. I will picture myself back in the Theke talking with friends and enjoying life. Last for this list here, but still nearly the first for the entire list in my head, I will dearly miss this town’s, Bavaria’s, and Germany’s seemingly constant ways of celebrating life with festivals, parties, and traditions. I know that my loss of these things will force me back sooner or later.

The year before I came to Eichstätt I spoke with a German student during the final days of her study abroad year in Memphis. One of her comments left a great impression on me. She said simply, "This has been the best year of my life." Hearing this I vowed to find the success and happiness in Germany that would allow me to say the same at the end of my year abroad. I need no time to consideration it; this year has been, without a doubt or even a minor exception, the best of my life.

In the immortal words of Steve Miller, “Big old jet airliner, don’t carry me too far away, because it’s here that I got to stay.”

In conclusion, I would like to issue thanks to a number of parties and individuals. First and foremost, I owe a thank you to my parents. They have helped to make this year possible and easier with financial support and their ever-so-wise advice. Next, thank you to the readers of this blog, whether I knew you or not. As said, I hope you have enjoyed reading my tales. I extend extra thanks to those who posted comments and questions, and furthermore to those who did so regularly. Those small messages reassured me that my hours of typing and documenting my experience were not all for nothing. Of course I must thank my home university and the Catholic University of Eichstätt for creating this study abroad opportunity in the first place, as well as the professors and staff from both universities who supported me in my endeavor. Thank you, or shall I say Danke schön, to Charlotte, my ever so helpful and obliging guide in Eichstätt, and the others with AK International, the group which organized events for the foreign students and helped them with any problems. Another Danke to all the Germans who patiently listened to me and helped me in those first weeks when my German was less than stellar. I have reserved the last thank you the most generous group of all the parties involved, Eichstätt, Bavaria, and Germany themselves.

I address this thank you to those three. When I came to you I was nervous and anxious as what to expect. I was excited as ever, but how this experience would turn out remained blurred. I left my home to come to you, but found a new one once I arrived. You welcomed me when I was new, accommodated me as I adjusted, and embraced me once I poised to accept you. I believe that I have experienced nearly all of the human emotions possible while I have been with you. I have seen you at your best, and I have seen you at your worst. You are not perfect, but you come close. You have shown me your history, and a possible glimpse of my future. You have taught me many lessons, and now, ever so cruelly, you will teach me one more: to say good bye when I must. From now on, whenever I raise a glass with my family and friends we will say cheers, but I will always think, “Prost!” I will miss you, but rest assured that you have not seen the last of me. Vielen, vielen Dank für alles.

My travels and explorations will never end; the world offers too much for that possibility to exist. I may find my next possible great adventure right at home. In my travels around Europe I have grown to feel that I should explore America better before more lengthy foreign expeditions. My own country offers a wide array of cultures and distinct regions for discovering. To simplify things, the people in them all speak English. If this adventure ever materializes I may create another blog for it, or revamp this one. Grand American adventure or not, I will continue to explore the world and fire at will.

I will age and eventually arrive at an established life, but I will always allow the words of Lord Tennyson in his poem, “Ulysses,” to inspire and kindle that explorer's fire inside of me: “One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Now, if you excuse me, I have a home to return to.

07 August 2007

One Last European Adventure

I’m back in Eichstätt for the final week of my study abroad experience. I spent the last or so seeing northeastern France and my dream city of London. Here’s a brief tell of the tale.

My Japanese friend Mariko and I left two Fridays ago with Pauline as she returned home to France after studying in Eichstaett for a semester. Her home town is a small village close the coast of the English Channel called Mineville. Her family lives in an old barn that they converted into their home.

We stayed with her family for a couple of days and enjoyed large home cooked meals of fresh fish and crab, quiche, and other French dishes. One day we drove to the coast and took in the view from sea cliffs overlooking the ocean. In the distance one could barely make out the famous white cliffs of Dover, England. The high vantage point was dotted with the remnants of Nazi constructed bunkers and observation posts, as seen in the first photograph below. I believe the second image speaks for itself.

Two days later we left for the large city of Lille, about an hour and half drive away from Mineville. This city is the center of the region for northeastern France. Pauline lives and studies here. Here are some photos from around town. Look carefully in the second, it’s actually the entrance to a restaurant. In the last one you see Pauline standing before the city’s art museum.

On Tuesday Mariko and I left Pauline and ventured to London, England by means of bus and ferry. London may be a world metropolis with a never ending list of activities and sights, but I think we came very close to seeing and doing nearly everything in the three days we stayed. At least it felt that way to our sore feet at the end of every day.

Our hostel was on the west end of the center of town in the Kensington neighborhood. Essentially the only employee we saw during our stay was the front desk man for the night shift because we woke up early and never returned until very late in the night. But that was fine by us because this man, Dana, was a friendly Iraqi who had been living in London for ten years and quickly developed a liking for us. He would always offer to break out the juice and food meant for breakfast whenever we returned at night. We were very pleased with our last minute lodging selection.

As for sharing with you what we actually did while in London, I think I’ll simply run through some of the photos from the trip. Here we go:

There was the London Eye located across the Thames from the Palace of Parliament. At 16 American dollars a ride we decided to enjoy the view from the ground looking up.

A stroll along the Thames at night was a relaxing and beautiful way to see the city. Above you see the pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge spanning the river over to the Tate Modern, an old power plant coverted to an art museum.

Westminster Abbery, the church of the nation and the final resting place for hundreds of members of royality up to the King George III, as well as famous British authors and literary greats.

The changing of the guard ceremony at . . .

. . . Buckingham Palace.

The Horse Guards on watch near St. James Park.

Number Ten Downing Street, the simple but official residence of the Prime Minister. A new security fence prevented any pictures from a closer persepective.

At St. Paul's Cathedral we climbed up to the dome and viewed the London cityscape, a view of which one sees below.

We could have spent a day at the entire Tower of London complex, but we did manage to get in the White Tower, photographed above.

The Tower Bridge is not an easy sight to miss.

We headed to the Notting Hill neighborhood, but were too late in the day to catch the famous market on Portobello Road. However, we did view some attractive stores and cafes.

One finds warnings at almost all of the street crossing in London to look in the other direction for on-coming traffic. I suppose it's a friendly nod to the millions of foreign tourists who visit the city and must remember that traffic drives on the left hand side of the street. If you take another look though, maybe you'll understand why I now regret taking a picture of the painted warnings on a one way street.

Mariko insisted on going to this train station one night. There we discovered the site pictured below, Platform 9 3/4.

Unlike in the Harry Potter films and books however, there is no land of wizards and magic on the otherside of the brick wall. Instead, there is only place:

a mundane coffee shop for rail travelers.

This photo was of course taken in no other place but on a subway platform. A one way ride with the subway would cost the equivalent of US$8. We bought three-day travel passes that cost onlz $32. A good deal considering that we must have ridden the subway at least four times a day.

One day we headed over Greenwhich and snacked on fish n' chips for lunch. In case you never realized it, in British English a chip is a french fry.

After lunch we headed up a hill the Old Royal Oberservatory. It is one of my favorite places we visited, but of course as a Geography major I would expect that. Scientists (Geographers one might say) created the system of longitude and latitude here. As the creator of the system, what bettter place would there have been to arbitrarily choose as the loaction of the zero degree line of longitude than you own? They did exactly that, and thus the Prime Median runs straight throuh the site. When one stands on boths sides of this line he finds himself simultaneously in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres.

We shopped briefly at Harrod's, the world's most famous department store.

We randomly came across the Royal Geographical Society headquarters, which was founded by the famous African explorer David Livingstone. This group supported and aided such individuals as Charles Darwin, Ernest Shackleton (Antarctic exploration), and Sir Edmund Hillary (along with his guide became the first man to reach the summit of Mt. Everest).

We fell into history at the British Museum and saw such things as the Rossetta Stone, Egyptian mummies, the marbles from the Parthenon, and other important historical artifacts.

And of course we also found time to pose for pictures with a traditional London phone booth.

We left Friday night on an uncomfortable bus ride back to Germany. The main problem was the bus missed the ferry it ought to have taken and we had to wait until around two in the morning in the Port of Dover for the next one.

Maybe I’m a bit biased since London is the first foreign city I can remember wanting to visit, but it may be my favorite European city to have come across. Of course every village, town, and city I have visited across this continent has its own special quality that I like about it, but London tops all others. I found more energy in Londontown than I did in Rome, and, personally, I also found it more beautiful than Paris. If I could only return to one place in Europe it would be London (of course that excludes Germany).

London may have left another positive mark with me for another particular reason. For the first time in nearly a year I was in a culture that speaks my mother tongue. For the first time since leaving America I could speak to random strangers flawlessly, read all signs along the street, and not feel like an irresponsible tourist when I asked in English for help or information. When we boarded the subway for the first time after arriving, my ears immediately tuned into the conversations of Londoners around us in the car and seemed to say, “Hey, we recognize that!” After a year of German it hit me as a surprise to find myself surrounded by English. I suppose it’s a sign of what’s to come in a week.

The bus took us to the German city of Cologne (in German: Köln). This city is located in central western Germany along the Rhine River and is justly famous for its magnificent cathedral. If you’re not familiar with the Cathedral of Cologne allow me to introduce you to it. To be blunt, it’s huge. In fact, more perfect adjectives are massive, giant, titanic, or Everest-like. Construction began in 1248 and lasted around 600 years until 1880. The towers are a little over 510 feet tall, or about the same height as an average 50 story modern skyscraper. They are the tallest church towers in the world, and in its day the cathedral was the tallest manmade structure of any kind. One can climb to a gallery in the southern tower as Mariko and I did, but it will require the ascent of 509 steps. Only from the gallery view can one truly appreciate the engineering marvel of the cathedral when he looks out and sees that only two or three of the city’s modern high-rises reach a taller height, but even those barely nudge above the cathedral’s spires. Inside the cathedral is a tomb which contains what are believed to be the remains of the Three Magi. Here are a couple photos. I think the first one gives a pretty good idea of how massive the structure is. For the second photo I had to walk to the very end of the square in order to fit the towers into one shot. Be sure to notice how small the people on the other end of square are in comparison.

After the cathedral we boarded a train and returned to Eichstätt in the evening.

With the semester break now underway for more than a few weeks, Eichstätt is a very lonely town. Most of the other foreign students have already left, and of course my German friends are somewhere on vacation. I visited the St. Michael’s dorm the other day. This was basically my second home in Eichstätt because I visited it so often during the past two semesters in order to visit friends, share meals, and enjoy parties. I found a building nearly empty of residents. The kitchens and gathering places were just like I remembered them, but completely desolate. It was eerie enough to send a chill down my spin, and remind that my own departure is not so far away.

I’ve begun cleaning my apartment and taking down photos from the walls. The small rooms that had acquired a homey feel have now reverted back to the soulless state in which I found them when I first arrived. The hand over of the keys will be next Monday afternoon, after that I will leave Eichstätt and spend the night in Munich in order to catch my Tuesday morning flight.

The timing of my trip to France and London could have actually been better. While I was away most of my friends left, leaving me in the somewhat guilty-feeling condition of not saying a true good-bye. As said, most of the Germans won’t return until next semester and most of the foreigners have returned home for good.

It would seem that I will spend the last week of my year abroad cleaning, packing, and spending quality one-on-one time with a beautiful Bavarian town named Eichstätt.

I promise to write at least on more entry before this blog and this experience come to a conclusion.