Studying abroad is largely done for the opportunity of experience. With experience is the sense of encounter, which every semester we challenge our students to put into words. Our congratulations for the spring 2012 semester go to Richard Lindenfelzer for his winning entry into the Travel Writing competition! With strong entries from Lindsay Harrop and Joe DePietro, as well as Richard, the competition was so close that the ICLC staff had to defer to an outside judge to settle the stalemate. The following is Richard's winning submission.
It’s far too easy to forget where you are when you have no concept of home. If you squint you can make out some stony gorges in the distance, a pair of granite towers, a school on a hill—and even further out still, an ocean, perhaps, a mother and a father, smiling warmly, awaiting their son’s return, a small gray cat, a pale, two-story house, a forest where a childhood was spent—all this swirls around and floats into the night sky, a foggy mist, making this world and that world wrap around and turn into itself until what you’re left with is an indistinguishable mud of experience.
At least that’s what it is in the moment. Sitting across from me is a redhead I like to have with me at all times, probably for security. It’s really dingy here but that’s fine. A man is asking us what we’d like to drink, and I’m wondering whether to even bother trying my French—this man is about as français as my small gray cat is. I sigh: even the hookah industry is a globalized affair. But that doesn’t matter; what’s important is I’m nowhere I expected to be, everything that is happening to me is brand spanking new, and I wouldn’t trade the group I’m with for the world, no matter how impromptu we may be.
I first took French in seventh grade, which is relatively late. I’ve been scared of heights my whole life, but I remember with the most vivid detail my teacher opening our textbook for the first time, pointing out le Tour d’Eiffel and saying you could climb it. I knew right then and there I would, and I did—almost a decade later. That was earlier today. Now, between puffs of blueberry, listening to our blonde friend recount scandalous tales of her Parisian tête-à-têtes, I turn to my left. Through the hazy dimness I see a group of three off in an enclave. What the hell, I’m out for the night—I go make three new friends.
I go and meet the Canadians.
I might as well say right now that the Canadians were the ones who got away; I never did see them again, though it wasn’t for lack of (desperate Facebook-fueled) trying. It was love at first sight. He and his sister were with their friend, visiting Paris for the weekend as a good ‘ole apologizing lumberjack-y ménage à trois. I could never pinpoint what it was that grabbed ahold of my heart so. Perhaps it was a pair of effortlessly blue eyes, a stupidly innocent smile…or something equally romantic, like alcohol…
We spent the rest of the night together, hopping from one bar to the next. It wasn’t until I made the dire mistake of going to the restroom that I lost the Canadians; I returned and they were gone, off into the abyss of baguettes and wine, now just another blur in the swirl of memories that is the weekend. I’m a little depressed, but when we get back to the hostel I’m reminded that my redheaded friend and I are living with even more Canadians, as well as an Argentinian, some New Yorkers, and a couple Dutch, amongst others. All these people coming from all over, all students, all meeting by chance in this apartment that has an incredible view of the sparkling Eiffel Tower…
Paris is so gay.
It’s a privilege, for sure. It’s something my small gray cat will never see. And in the rational bits of my brain I understand this, even though I know it takes time to digest this stuff, possibly even years before I can truly look back with actual clarity and old-timey wisdom and say “I learned so freaking much it’s insane.” I can wait for that, though. I don’t want that kind of clarity just yet.
On the plane back from Paris I’m trying to sort through the romantic haze that was the weekend, and I find it’s almost impossible to get the experience just right in words. I still try, though—it’s definitely a multi-step process, where some things hit you over the head immediately and some things will come with time. I’ve been a lot of places this semester, so: the immediate things? For one, I’ll forever have a spot in my heart for the Canadians. Secondly, there are some seriously old things in this world, and some seriously important things have happened millenniums before I even existed. And if that’s not humbling, I don’t know what is. Thirdly, Pret’s falafel and haloumi wrap is the Chuck Norris of sandwiches. Or maybe the Peter Parker of sandwiches, it’s more unassuming.
The things that are still in the development stage, the second tier of reawakenings and realizations, are more academic in their scope. This world is a changing one, and it is already a different beast than it was, say, fifty years ago. Then, if an American student had shown up in Berlin for purely academic or recreational reasons, he would be lauded because that would be a damned impressive feat, and he would be immediately immersed in a much more distinctive and homogenous culture. Now it’s commonplace—easier, sure—just different. My experience was that “culture shocks” must have become a thing of the past, because the cities are all in some race to an invisible end, and a transnational economy has asserted that it will not tolerate the ones who fall behind.
In other words, competition means a whole lotta Starbucks.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just how it is. I wouldn’t change my experiences for the world. I really feel like my traveling appetite has been whetted, but that’s not to say there isn’t more of the world I want to see. From the breathtaking slopes of the Swiss Alps to the earthy taverns of Dublin, we’ve given Europe the double—, triple—, sextuple-take it deserves. Especially for the Canadians.
Soon, though, it’s back to the land of hot dogs and apple pie, sprawling skyscrapers and grassy plains, and dollar bills and Hollywood movies, which is cool—I hear it’s a place people would really love to visit someday.