Saturday, February 2, 2013

Ending Remarks.

Well, I'm home. I arrived safely home last night after a long day of travel. The flights were flawless; couldn't have asked for smoother travel. No delays, no issues, just sarcasm and security. Just another blessing to add to the list.

As I'm currently trying to recover from jet lag, I am going back through all of my pictures from the last month (all 981 of them) and replaying each day in my head. All of the lessons learned, funnies said, and memories made still seem like yesterday, and I intend to keep it that way. Ever since I left Richmond's airport, I have been bragging to anyone I talk to about the wonderful month I spent in central Europe. They just smile politely and agree that it was quite an opportunity, but only those of us who share that bond completely understand. And that is something that I know we all value; something that we will never lose.

It is still sad to think that the trip is over. It was weird going to bed last night after not seeing anyone from our group in over six hours. I missed it already. I missed laughing at Cody's mezzo mix addiction. I missed giggling with Lindsey about our lisps in our retainers before bed. I missed Anne telling a story because they always made me laugh, and I missed Keifer's comments about the dysfunctional nature of our group. I missed attempting to start ab work with Stephanie after our afternoon pastry. I missed competing with Elliot to see who could be more awkward. I missed our ridiculous dinner conversations. I missed walking the streets of beautiful cities. I missed hearing a muffled "ay yo frauline" coming from one of the guys. But most of all, I missed the bond all of us created.

But now it is what I think about, laugh about, and smile about. I learned so much on this trip-- about the course, and about myself. Our little group made it so easy to get close, which is really what is need when studying such a hard topic as the Holocaust. You really do need that support group there, it keeps you sane. But regardless, this was hands down the best class I've ever had. I learned more that I could have ever imagined in those few weeks together. I would highly recommend it to anyone I come in contact with. The world is a classroom; but there is something good about learning, not behind the desk.

January 31, 2013

Our last day out and about was greeted by beautiful sunshine! It was a perfect note to go out on. We had two places to stop at today and it was a beautiful day for it.

Our first stop was the Holocaust Museum, one of the best I’ve ever been to. The information was clear and honest, also reminded the visitors that people in Budapest helped and hurt the Jewish population during 1944 and 1945. There were many stories of survivors that were spread throughout the museum. It also had sound effects that would echo throughout the building, which gave it a creepy yet realistic effect. For example, the sound of people walking was heard by the images of death marches. Very good effect, but very creepy at the same time.

Our last official stop on the trip was the Jewish synagogue. As the biggest one left in Europe, it sees many visitors, as it should with its beautiful design and elaborate decorations. We learned it wasn’t destroyed during the war because the Nazis were already too preoccupied when the moved into the city in 1944.

We ended the day early in preparation of tomorrow’s travels. Although the trip is over for the most part, I will always cherish what I have learned on this trip!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

January 30, 2013

Welcome to Budapest, Hungary! We arrived early this afternoon after a peaceful train ride across the border. This is a lovely country too—many buildings resemble the architecture of the ones in Vienna. Even in the misty rain, everything was just as breathtaking.

After grabbing lunch once we arrived to avoid keeling over from starvation, we walked across one of the bridges that goes over the Danuee River and connects the former cities of Buda and Pest. We took a trolley up to a beautiful castle that sat on the edge of the mountain, looking over the city. It was located in what used to be controlled by the Germans in 1944. After taking some super touristy pictures, we headed back down the mountain and took the subway under the river to where the Parliament building is located. The sun was quickly setting, the rain was falling harder, and we still had one stop down the street. Classy as always, we jumped the guardrails, giggling and laughing about God knows what, but fell silent as soon as we realized what we were looking at. On the edge of the concrete walkway, looking over the riverbank, were dozens of bronze shoes-- a memorial for Jews that were shot into the river by Hungarian police in the 1940’s.

There were men, women, and children shoes. Scattered in pairs, some with candles burning inside of them. Right on the edge. Where we were standing. Then it hit me; this wasn’t a memorial in remembrance, not a museum with pieces of their lives. This was a killing site. I was standing where so many innocent people screamed, cried, or took their last breath. I began to picture it. Gunshot. They’d fall into the river. Sink or float down shores, depending on what the weather would have been. Then I looked at the shoes. They could have been left. People could have been shot clear out of their shoes. And that’s all that’s left of them. A memorial of bronze shoes attached to the edge of a beautiful river walkway.

I was glad it was raining at this point. It seemed like the sky was crying for such a terrible tragedy. Or maybe I was. I guess I’ll never know. I was weak in the knees, and my stomach was in knots anyway. I wish I could go back in time and reverse what happened. But still, I can’t help but think of the police who shot them. Surely, this took its own toll on them. No one can be completely heartless to not feel pity, or even regret later on. No one could be that mean. Could they?

As powerful as this memorial was, it definitely was one of the best things we have seen since we arrived in Central Europe. In the midst of all of this sadness, it puts me at peace to see something meaningful for the first time in a while. 

January 29, 2013

Our last day in Vienna! What a sad statement. I have enjoyed this way too much to believe it is already coming to an end. On our last day, we took a very interesting and thought-provoking walking tour of the first, second and third districts. Our first point of business included walking around Jewish neighborhoods prior to the war. It was very interesting to see how the neighborhoods have changed into warehouses and businesses and sixty years ago families lived there.

Next, we wandered around the three districts looking for plaques that commemorated the Holocaust and the devastation that occurred. One of the plaques remembered a school that was opened for only three months for Jewish children. One building was a holding camp for 300 hundred Jews that could probably only comfortably hold 100. An apartment used to belong to a family that was robbed, deported and murdered (can you imagine living there now?). An art studio used to be a synagogue where Jews came to worship. It is really hard to imagine the lives of these people that are barely remembered. It is also hard to imagine living in these places now, knowing what happened. This is probably why so few things are recorded and commemorated.  Who would want to continue on with their lives knowing awful things happened and so many lives and hearts were broken.

But it still needs to be remembered. It’s the least that we could do. That’s why it was frustrating to see these tiny little plaques hidden on the ground, where people will only see them if they are looking.

That’s the most frustrating part. A city filled with so much history, and you have to look to find it. To me, that’s absurd. The only way to learn from past mistakes is to recognize shortcomings. It is plain to see that some of the places we have visited recently are having a hard time putting these mistakes into words. As for the rest of us trying to study the culture and the Holocaust, maybe it is the lack of words that says it all. And maybe it is our responsibility to make sure something gets done with it. 

January 28, 2013

As our days in Vienna are winding down, so are the things we do each day! Today, the only stop on our agenda was the Military History Museum. In a beautiful, winter wonderland walk to the museum in fresh fallen snow, I thought back on how wonderful this trip has been. I have learned so much—things I can’t even imagine learning about in a classroom. I am truly blessed for this experience.

I am also blessed in the aspect of being able to recognize good museums from bad ones. Not that the military history museum was bad, it just did a bad job on explaining anything. It jumped through eras in history, faster than you would skip rocks on a lake. I learned more from the room summarization papers that were given out in each room. I don’t mean to be ridiculously negative, but I think that they did not do a good job of educating people that come to learn more about Austria’s military in past wars.
Franz Ferdinand's uniform

It was cool, and yet, really gross to see Franz Ferdinand’s bloody and cut up uniform that he was wearing when he was assassinated. They also had the car that he was riding in on display too. It was really gross to see bloody stains that are almost one hundred years old, but at the same time, it was neat to see the remnants of something that sparked World War One.

The rest of today has been pretty chill. I just hung around the hotel doing a little pre-packing for later this week when we head to Budapest, Hungary. I can’t believe we are in the last week of this trip, but I am looking forward to the rest of what is planned. 

January 27, 2013

This weekend we were out and about braving the cold once again. With a high of ten degrees, we walked (and shivered!) as we walked Vienna. We were happy to start later on Saturday so we could sleep in for a bit longer. Our first stop was brief at the Maria am Gestade—a beautiful but small catholic church that was located right in the middle of Vienna's first district. 

After that, we walked a couple of blocks to JudenPlatz. This square was supposed to be in memory of the Jews and the Holocaust but it did a worse job than the museum did on Friday in Slovakia. The memorial was a large concrete… umm, well for lack of better words, box. It looked like a storage unit or some type of structure that contained utilities for the surrounding buildings. The closer we got to it; we realized that it was designed as books, lined up as if on a bookshelf. However, we have no idea why books were representing the Jews. The longer we stood in this square, the angrier we got. In a city that lost so much due to the Holocaust, their attempt to commemorate those poor people was awful.  It’s as if Austria is just playing pretend and covering up what really happened. Everything we have seen up to this point finally came together. Berlin accepted the responsibility of remembering one of the worst times in history, but Vienna, who’s Jewish culture was similar to Berlin, can’t seem to make it right. Not that it ever could be right. Nothing could ever make that right.
As quickly as we began to fume about the lack of remembrance in Vienna, our moods quickly flipped as we approached the higher end of the city, passing tons and tons of shops that I could only dream of being able to afford. I laughed at the guys drooling over watches that cost more than a small fortune. But karma always makes its payback so when we walked around the corner and I did a little dance in the middle of the street because there was a Tiffany’s and Co. store, I couldn’t really say anything when they all just rolled their eyes. A girl can dream…

Up the street from the glitzy section of town, is the Hofburg—the city palace. This palace was interesting in the amount of detail it had. The entire first section (and it was huge) displayed dishes that were used in the palace. I never realized how many dishes were used in one day! After roaming through rooms and rooms of dishes and feeling like I was in Beauty and the Beast, we entered another section of the palace and explored the rooms and the life of the wife of Franz Josef, Elisabeth, and his mistress, Sisi. They weren’t as big, but equally as beautiful as the rooms at Schloss Schonbrunn. We saw the rooms where Elisabeth spent a majority of her time, avoiding her husband and beautifying her image. Its crazy to think about someone, who lives in such a beautiful place, lived such a miserable life.

For the second time since we arrived in Europe, the sun came out when we were leaving the palace. We hurried to the bus station, grab a sandwich to go, and jumped on the bus to ride to the top of the mountain to look out over Vienna. Twenty minutes of curvy, cobblestones roads through a quaint little village that turned into snowy hills and trees took us to the top. And when we got there; oh man, it was wonderful. The sun was shining, everything was white, and it was perfect. Even in spite of the haze, nothing could have made the breathtaking view better.

After a coffee and a croissant (I love croissants) we headed back down into Vienna. We went into the Cathedral that we climbed several days before. It was even prettier inside than it was up the 300 and some steps. There was an orchestra playing, which echoed throughout the entire building. I could have just stayed there the whole day and marveled at every tiny detail that made this place as lovely as it was. So beautiful.

We had a bit of a break before we trolleyed (see what I did there?!) across Vienna to the best dinner I think I have ever had. SO much Austrian food, SO good. It was a cute little place; I probably would have appreciated it more if I wasn’t already inhaling the deliciousness of my plate-- juicy meat, hearty dumplings, fresh veggies, and sweet sauerkraut. If you aren’t drooling yet, well, you’re not human.

Today involved a lot of… umm… food. We went to a gigantic brunch at a ritzy hotel on the other side of the city. Completely with a meat, seafood, cheese and dessert bar, we carelessly gorged ourselves until we physically could not lift our fork to our mouths. It was to the point where we didn’t want to let any food go to waste. So plates stacked up, as our stomachs got fuller and fuller. It was glorious, until the pain kicked in. Painfully, we used all of our energy standing up, then waddled like pregnant women out of the hotel, down the long sidewalk to the trolley that would take us to the Wien Museum.

The Wien Museum was actually really cool. It was all about life in Vienna. It showed games that many Viennese played over the years, models of the city during different time periods, and pieces of St. Stephan’s Cathedral that was damaged during the war.

By the end of the museum, we were all struggling not to collapse into a food coma. We waddled back to the hotel, where my bed immediately consumed me for two hours, sleeping off the food. I was so excited to sleep, that I didn’t realized until after my nap that we left the keys in the door when came back! Sometimes, I really do concern myself, but nothing beats that nap. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

January 25, 2013

They say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Well, when in Bratislava, Slovakia, I suggest just being thankful that you are only there for a day is enough. We met to go to the train station at 8:30. We were extremely happy that our meeting time was pushed back an hour, as it originally was supposed to be at 7:30. We aren’t morning people.

Even though our time was pushed back, we still sat in silence waiting at the station. We waited for twenty minutes in a waiting room, or what resembled a glass box to stay warm in the 19-degree weather with a ten-degree wind chill. IPods on, headphones in. Wait. Shiver. Wait.

The hour train ride to Slovakia was a bit of a daze. (I think the cold is starting to get to our heads!) I continued to listen to my iPod and watched the city turn into beautiful snow covered countryside. As we were riding along, I couldn’t help but think what it would be like to wake up and look at this every single morning. Right on cue, and typically enough, every song from the Sound of Music began running through my head. For the remainder of the ride, I think I forgot that I am Morgan; not Lisle von Trappe. But we can blame that on the cold, too.

Once we arrived in Bratislava, things got interesting. We needed to take the public trolley up a hill to our visit site of the day. After several passed us, it was very exciting to finally see ours come around the corner. We crammed in the last possible standing and breathable places on the trolley. But before we could breath a sign of relief that we were in a warm place, we suddenly realized that we were experiencing the next Olympic sport—Trolley Balancing. It is a combination of surfing and bull riding. The event starts by the trolley driver flooring the gas pedal and all contenders must remain balanced on two feet for the remainder of the jerky ride. Unfortunately, our class will not qualify for this event without a lot more practice. The locals tried not to laugh but couldn’t help as we flew back and forth across the aisle of the trolley.

Laughing as we piled off of the trolley, we breathless took in the beautiful castle that was standing before us. A very old castle that had been restored to a huge white castle that looks over the rest of the city. The view was amazing despite the haze from the snow. We made a video blog and took another group picture with our banner and headed back into town for lunch.

Spending multiple hours embracing all the heat that we can, we enjoyed Slovak cuisine. I got a traditional dish called goulash, which had pork, dumplings, and a sauce with a pop. It was so good; I forgot to take a picture before I started eating half of it. Oops! The restaurant was adorable with its mix-matched walls straight out of the 1970’s. It created a warm (figuratively and literally) atmosphere and once again, I just sat back and laughed at how many awkward conversations can come up at the table. Its to a point now on this trip where is it a game to see how they come up and how long they last. Not that they offend me, but you seriously have to sit back and wonder how many people surrounding us can understand the weirdest topics of conversation I have ever heard. Like I said, I just sit back and laugh.

Once we decided to brave the cold again, we wandered to the place of a former Jewish synagogue in Bratislava. We learned after the war, this damaged building was torn down and replaced with a highway. This foreshadowed what we would learn at the Jewish Museum—which was very little.

The Jewish population in the Slovak community at the beginning of the 1940’s held 25% of the entire population, which was completely wiped out by the end of the war. The Slovak’s knew they had to teach the history of Orthodox Jews in Slovakia but they didn’t know how. They had some artifacts from Jewish households that perished during the war but they never actually addressed the Holocaust. This was becoming a theme at exhibits we are beginning to look at. Many places try to addresses the horror, but honestly, it almost turns out worse than not addressing it at all.

The rest of the day was spent in and out of pastry shops and the mall to see the classy end of Bratislava. We decided it would be a better decision to head back to Vienna to get dinner instead of waiting around for dinner in Bratislava. In the midst of this decision, we realized that we only had fifteen minutes to get all the way back to the train station, if we didn’t want to wait around an hour for the next train to Vienna. Our (extreme) power walking turned into a full on sprint by the time we reached the station. We rushed past the rush hour crowd and found our train just in time. Unfortunately, in all the commotion, we suddenly realized that we lost one of our classmates. So off the train we went, to decide to get back on the train and we would just meet them in Vienna. At the very last second, Elliot is accounted for and we all burst into laughing tears as (once again) we get the “Oh, those are Americans” stares.

This is what we put up with everyday. We get a little too loud, act silly, get stared at, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I own the title of “those Americans” and I love our flawless dysfunctionality.