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 Discovering the Simple, the Humorous, and the Profound

UMD Students Study Abroad

by Erik Lund

“Travel is personal,” said Stephanie Thompson, a sociology major currently spending her sophomore year abroad in England. “How you respond to different cities or countries,” she went on to explain “differs from person to person.”

Cory Hertog and Corey Onderick waiting for their train out of Amsterdam

Stephanie Thompson in a big shoe in Amsterdam, Holland

The forty-four students studying in England this year, myself included, just returned from our three-week winter break, in which many of us took the time to explore continental Europe or see sights around England.

Students set off in different groups and visited dozens of cities and countries, anywhere from London and Paris, to Oslo, Norway, Copenhagen Denmark, Berlin and Munich Germany, Geneva Switzerland, Rome Italy, Amsterdam Holland, and Belfast Ireland.

What I found, while swapping travel tales with my classmates our first week back at university, was that even when people travelled in the same group to the same places, every person came away with a a different interpretation. Even though every one of us had a unique story to tell, there were also common themes that helped us to connect with one another and make sense of our experiences.

A first impression of a city, or a country could often be exciting, enthralling or scary. My first destination was Amsterdam, and for me and my two travel companions, Corey Onderick, and Cory Hertog, it was our first time on the European continent.

Here’s an except from my travel journal:

“At any given moment in Amsterdam I thought I could be struck by a bus, car, train, scooter, moped, motorcycle, baby carriage, lorry (semi), bike taxi or bicycle. Blindly crossing the street could be fatal. Bikes are everywhere! They far outnumber other forms of transportation including cars. It seems nearly everyone in Holland owns a bike. On top if that, bikes take many forms. Nearly always, there are two people on a bike. The second person rides either on the back luggage rack, in the front basket, in an infant seat, or in an attached cart. Everything is transported in or by bikes, whether it’s the mail or the fresh fish just picked up from the market. Walking is intense. There are usually three lanes of traffic on any given street: car, bike and pedestrian. Bikers get upset when you’re in their way. I got used to listening to the chime of bells from bikers warning me when they’re approaching. There are two things I would never do in this town, (especially in combination) drink heavily or listen to my IPod. I needed all my senses to be on the lookout, probing the peripheries.”

 

While most of us took advantage of the break to relax and be entertained, English major, Sarah Tyler chose a different route. She visited Dachau. She shared this heartbreaking excerpt from her journal:

“The small, grey pebbles of gravel crunched underneath the feet of our rag-tag group of ten as we walked across the frozen ground. A delicate dusting of snow lightly covered the branches of the trees surrounding us, and highlighted every bar in the cast-iron fence we were approaching. You might have said ‘it’s a beautiful day!’ if the setting had been anywhere else, if the bars in the fence didn’t form the words ‘Arbeit Mact Frei’ – ‘Work Makes You Free’. But the sky was blanketed by a dense layer of grey clouds, and a heavy silence hung over our heads; not even the birds made a sound.

"We were entering the concentration camp at Dachau. It was the first of all the Nazi camps. Built in 1933, it was a model for all the subsequent camps. I almost didn’t have the willpower to write about what I saw there. It was terrible, just terrible, and I felt more like leaving the memory of it inside my head.

"…uniforms…cold…guards…can’t go on the grass…machine guns…barrels of slop food…barracks – no foundation – 200 men in barracks for 50…checkerboard bowl…dogs…needle pin seat/camera button…special solitary rooms for dangerous prisoners…all men camp…skeletal… starving…dying… ovens… hanging rafters…gas chambers… shower…gas chamber for uniforms disease…work camp…too sick to work…mindless eater…extermination camp…family photos…all saved…killings – gold – silver and hair all taken and used by Nazi…people become resources…barbers used as doctors and vice versa…murderers used as “doctors”…perform “surgeries”… priest were the only ones allowed to pray…Jews farthest from outside assembly area…least time to eat/clean…3 am wakeup…stand outside for days as punishment…ovens…

"European couple getting their SMILING photo taken in front of the ovens…two 13-year old American girls snapping pictures in front of everything… didn’t anyone tell them this is a gravesite?... piles of bodies…death in transit to camp…some survivors give tours in summer… unbelievable…I am the last generation who will get to talk to death-camp survivors…

"Our guide said he celebrates liberation day from Dachau as his second birthday – that on that day he was reborn – even though he wasn’t yet born. He also mentioned how packed the camp is in the summer and tourists in their shorts complain about the heat. It was freezing when we went; two degrees gave me a somewhat better understanding because of it. It was a terrible, moving, life changing experience. Something I will be unable to forget. It is burned into my memory like a tattoo.”


Sometimes it is a simple event that touches us. Stephanie Thompson had an overwhelming moment as she sat on the edge of the Irish coastline, mesmerizing herself by thinking of the people that lived out their day-to-day lives along those shores.

“We Minnesotans don’t see the ocean that often and it made me feel really small and powerless. The way the waves crashed towards me were an exhilaration never felt before by this body. It was unreal. The enormity and power of the sea scared me. I felt as if I will be sucked in, never to be seen again.”

One find outs quickly that there is no rhyme or reason to travelling. Almost nothing goes as planned. Profoundly moving experiences are contrasted with exasperatingly, frustrating misfortune. What may bring one companion to tears, may make another angry, or scared. You’re going to get lost. COUNT ON IT. Finding some sort of familiarity often helped. Here’s another entry from my journal while I was travelling alone in Berlin:

“It’s interesting how seemingly insignificant words can take on tremendous meaning. Foreign words like Kopënickerstraße, once a barely legible street name scribbled into my journal, has become my refuge in Berlin, my home. Words like Heinrich-Heine-Strasse, my underground station, is my compass on a giant grid work of meaningless German words."

"Language is a tricky bastard, as is travelling alone. On the one hand I like being a hat in a sea of heads, indistinguishable, unimportant. I like that I can be a nobody, that I can sit back in the subway and observe other people’s lives, as if my own story has paused. I like the feeling that every single person I meet, everyone that sits down next to me in the subway, everyone that serves me a drink, I will never meet again. But at the same time, I search for familiar faces among the sea of heads. My eyes latch on to a couple, a child, an old man, and I follow them, reach out to them visually, and try to absorb their story. It is as if, in only a few days, I’m already starved for human contact.

While sinking into anonymity I also crave and appreciate those ten-second conversations with strangers. There’s an element of isolation and loneliness when you’re unable to communicate verbally with the majority of the people you encounter. An awkward meeting of two people who don’t speak a common language brings to mind the very nature of humanity. I learned that lot can be said by a simple smile or nod. Hand gestures and pointing speak volumes. You take body language for granted, but it is everything when it’s all you have."

"What is Berlin, Germany to me? Berlin is a cold, desolate, godforsaken place. It is fifty shades of grey, no snow, and harsh wind. And yet I can see the determination in people’s eyes, the fact that day after day they embrace the cold, push their children around in buggies, and go from place to place. They’ve carved out their niche in the world, just as anyone has, and when they reach for that currywurst, by their smiles, I can see that it’s worth it."

"Warm! What a crazy concept. What had never occurred to me previously is how much of a bum a lonesome traveller becomes. I’ve literally gone from place to place; entered confines for no reason other that to thaw my numb fingers, to give relief to my wind-burned cheeks."

"I had intended to go out on my own to escape, to cut myself off from everyone and everything. I am completely my own boss out here. I could sit at the table in the hostel bar for six days. But that would be a waste, wouldn’t it? Or would it? I can go anywhere, do anything, and eat what I please. Yet I find myself falling into the rigidity of old expectations."


A traveller gets used to being surprised, and often unsettling or unpredictable situations can become just plain humorous. Nikki Polansky, a Pre-Medicine student and her older sister arrived in Paris on December 23rd, and took the metro subway to where their hostel was located.

“The metro doors opened and the first thing I saw was a homeless, passed-out Santa,” she exclaimed. The man was dressed head to toe in a Santa suit, complete with urine-stained trousers, and surrounded by scattered children’s toys and beer cans.

“It was scary when it was just us and Santa at 12:30 am in the train station. If he woke up who knows what could have happened?” she said.

Stephanie Bassett and Stephanie Thompson on the Northern Ireland coast
Michael Hickel travelled by himself for a few days. He arrived by train in a small town in southern France at 5 pm. He was supposed to get to Paris that same day, but found out he would have to wait until 2 pm the following day. With no hostels in town, he picked up some bread and other necessities, and prepared to spend the night in the train station.

After dodging beggars, and settling in to sleep, a security guard came by and informed him that the train station was closing, and he’d have to find some other place to spend the night.
Gathering his belongings he set off to find another place to bunker down for the night. Eventually he found a cosy place on a hill and laid down on top of his bag, preparing to sleep.

“As I laid there I thought about how the last few days had gone,” said Hickel, “and midway through thinking ‘it couldn’t get much worse…" it started to down-pour”

Heavy rains ensued, and soaking wet and cold, he managed to drag himself underneath the cover of a bus stop roof for the night.

So what’d we learn travelling over winter break? What conclusions can be drawn? Maybe there are no conclusions and no set path to follow. Everything is interpreted differently by different people and there is one more thing I am certain of. You’ve got to put yourself out there, you’ve got throw a forty pound backpack around your shoulders, hop on that train, and venture out into the unknown. Because then this big crazy world seems just a little bit smaller.

Erik Lund is a UMD sophmore, political science and psychology major


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