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,
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
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
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.
Bassett and Stephanie Thompson on the Northern Ireland coast
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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