Adventures in Culture and Travel

15 December, 2012

Absinthe Bar

My absinthe experience.
Je ne regrette rien. That's the theme of the day. There were certain touristy things which I've had on my list to do since I arrived. Things that fell through the cracks, over missed dinner dates, or failed rendezvous. Time is running out, and I'll be damned if I'm leaving Belgium with any regrets. I can honestly say, today, I completed the list. In the morning I ran out to Stockel for waffles, then to Chez Leon's for moules provencale followed by a walk from Anderlecht to Vlezenbeek to the secret Neuhaus discount outlet. Then I said good bye to one of the first people I met here, Liz (who is an awesome blogger and you should check her out, read her blog.) Then off to the Grand Market for the Plaisirs d'Hiver, a light show, and finally absinthe.

Absinthe? Oh yeah. I briefly texted a friend while waiting for the eight PM opening time (apparently it's best to be smashed after dark), but she declined. No worries, my bilingual, bisexual, bipedal bar maiden kept me company while instructing me the finer pleasures of the French method of drinking absinthe. Apparently there are three, but we both agreed the French who set the higher standard in most cases, should be the methodology we'd employee for our experimentation and my curiosity.

Dripping water over a sugar cube on a slotted spoon, eventually you have a sweetened licorice drink with the same alcohol levels used in funny car racing (Formula-One for you European types). Technically they call absinthe a "spirit", and you're in good company when you drink it. Everyone from Hemingway to Oscar Wilde has consumed the Green Fairy as it's known.

So where do you get absinthe? Floris bar, across and part of Delirium here in Brussels. About 5 Euros a glass, even on a thirty degree night, it will make you sweat. You can feel the skin peel off of your lips as you come into contact with the glass, and the fauna in your digestive tract weep tears of anguish as they burn away. Apparently I'm in the minority at stopping at two of these too. The two gentlemen beside me took a family pack of 12 glasses to a table and began their evening of debilitation without much worry. Let's just say,  that absinthe, is by far the strongest alcoholic drink I've ever had. It's not truly all that pleasurable other than the novelty, (I'm not big on licorice.), but none-the-less, it is the one drink you will find that is the one which you'll, perhaps, both regret drinking, and not-drinking should you abstain. So go for it, live a life without any regrets!!! (Or kidneys.)

14 December, 2012

She Fell From The Sky

Out of the sky she fell to the earth.
So this is goodbye. I wondered what it would feel like. I think I always knew, but hoped that it wouldn't be like this; that I'd manage to take most everyone's non-requested advice and be able to see the positive aspects in it all. Like anyone would choose the alternative, if they could? As if I want to feel any of these final moments in the manner I do. As if my nervous system itself is rooted in this reality, and being ripped from its soil.

It's a terminal diagnosis, knowing I'm leaving the world and I have to say a final goodbye to everyone I love. I did my share of "living like I was dying"  this semester. There's no doubt as I crossed from Paris to Spain, and from Krakow to Rome somewhere between Amsterdam and Brussels I lived with a passion de vivre unlike most. A result of my early prognosis, even before I arrived, and my willingness to make the last four months of my life here count for something more than merely just studying abroad. I lived lifetimes this semester, more than many of this world are ever given a chance, and I'm deeply grateful for it, and humbled by it. Most of all I think it's helped me accept the inevitable, this, the final moment of this life.

I feel a bit like Hucklberry Finn watching my own funeral, watching friends re-affirm the obvious, that they knew from the beginning of our friendship, the brevity of it, and that my demise was doomed from the start. Indeed, perhaps initially that was their reluctance in becoming attached, yet it's clear by my departure, I too have sucked them into this madness, this exodus from their world merely by the hope I've clung to with a naive faith.

A faith that most followers of God profess but rarely display, and for a me, a self-professed atheist who fell from faith over a decade ago, must seem startling, shocking, and confusing. Indeed I am confused, and given this predicament it's no surprise that in my visit to the thirty or so odd cathedrals, and churches across Europe I would turn to prayer.

One must wonder exactly how painful this departure is in order for me to turn to silent internal whispers of despair. This is where God lives: in the tearful desperation of humanities's screams, in our hopes and dreams.

At first I felt silly, but considering I'm an avid meditater, and how it's quite similar, I made my attempts genuine,  heart-felt, and reluctantly tearful at times.

I prayed in Notre Dame, Saint Nicolas, Our Lady, and dozens of churches across Europe. I walked 118 kilometers across Spain on pilgrimage and dropped in the pews of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and prayed. I went to mass, and sung with hundreds of other pilgrims  I went to church at The Well (Nativitas), a four person mini-church in Brussels, and I prayed. I prayed asking,  I prayed till tears came to my eyes, till I hurt and fell asleep, exhausted at it all, staring out at the 3 AM skyline of Brussels from my bed.

Yet as I called out, there came no answer, only silence. The opportunity for confirmation, reassurance, for anything from this deity that others can hear, but I can't, never came. Just emptiness, and darkness. Now my two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu is at an end. That darkness awaits for me as I say my goodbyes in these last few days. Farewells to friends who as of next week will become the people I once knew, and flashbacks of time gone-by, just before I take the shadow's hand and walk off into the darkness.

I'm not sure what's out there, among the stars, among that which I can't see, what comes next, but I know what was for a time, here, was real, and was so very special, and beautiful. I'm no longer clinging to hope; I've finally accepted leaving. It's time to go. It's time to go between that where I am, and where I'm going. I've been running for four months, but the race is over. So I'm just going to walk now, walk over to the edge of this universe, put my arms out, close my eyes, and  lean back till I begin to fall. I'll smile in my descent, thinking of you: the people I loved, and the moments we shared. Where ever I land next, I'll miss the Hell out all of you, with all my heart, and all my being. That's something you can have faith in.

Now I'll leave, just as I arrived, falling out of the sky, breaking apart in the atmosphere just to say goodbye.

09 December, 2012

Reverse culture shock | The Dark Homecoming

This should serve as a warning. To all those who take travel candidly, who see the study abroad experience as nothing more than a footnote on their resumes someday; you may take home more than you ever bargained for. Since first experiencing this phenomenon myself, I’ve been asking the question: where is home, when your heart is oceans apart? This simple question, for me, best describes the dark homecoming many who travel will discover, but never see coming:  reverse culture shock.

It’s a silent disease, in that no one expects it to happen to them, and most of the time you don’t even know what it is, till you’re afflicted with it. But the term has existed since 1963, despite the obscurity of education on the issue (Kramer). Considering the effort of preparing study-abroad students for their arrival on foreign lands, you might assume culture shock is a dangerous phenomenon. I too went through hours of discussions, charts, diagrams of icebergs, and interviews to be sure that I was not a liability to my home university, or prone to the effects of this. But what they don’t tell you, what no one prepares any student for,  is that moment when they arrive back home and discover they’re worlds apart from the life they left. Their experience has changed them, and reverse culture shock transpires to make the traveler feel as though they’re the foreigner in their home country.

            You’ve traveled the world, spoken several languages, but you become saddened by the lack of Nutella or angered by the ignorance of baguettes at your local supermarket. Family and friends are disinterested in your adventures, and the memories of experiences that seem so profound to you, become prisoners of the mind. You’re silenced, perhaps shunned, you’re hammered back into the life you once lived, but no longer fit into. Worse is, you might discover that your family and friends have moved on without you, leaving you in free fall from your world which is collapsing in on its self.

Even more perplexing is the importance placed on culture shock, when studies have proven that the magnitude of reverse culture shock is far worse (Mooradian 40). These may seem like a simple case of temporary discomfort, but suicide is common among those who live abroad, and is often considered the result of culture shock. If R.C.S is indeed worse, we must assume deaths such as Tom Miller’s, who jumped from the 8th floor balcony, a stern warning to those who pursue travel serendipitously (Stoller). Indeed suicide is the fourth leading cause of death to Americans abroad, and often these deaths are rarely reported.  Perhaps it’s the idea of coming home that drives them to such desperation?  What about those stories of passengers running for emergency exits mid-flight? Could it be that they were seated next to this dark passenger?

The question is what causes reverse culture shock to be so much worse? Borrowing from Thomas Wolfe, why can’t we go home again? I suspect for some, it’s similar to Jenny Randle’s invention of the Oz Factor: “the sensation of being isolated or transported from the real world into a different environmental framework, where reality is but slightly different [as in] the fairy tale, Land of Oz” (Randles). Similarly to Dorothy, so many study abroad students aspire to return home, but in the process of doing so, something changes, and the moment you arrive back in Kansas you question your own reality. For some, like as I suspect was the case with Dorothy, life became a constant comparison to her adventures abroad. The memories become a fantasy and the high and low we ascribe to our culture gets turned on its head (Walravens 18). It’s “as if s if Dorothy in all her time in the land of Oz finally gets home and then tragically realizes she'll spend the rest of her life trying to get back to Oz” (Jones).

            The small amount of information regarding reverse culture shock comes mostly from universities which, in my opinion, insult the intelligence of students with snake oil cures such as “get involved”, or “keep a sense of humor” (Marquette). Seriously? When the Journal of Travel Medicine describes the symptoms as “strain”, “loss”, “rejection”, “confusion” and “impotence” (Stewart, Leggat)? No wonder people are jumping off of buildings! Even the universities don’t go as far as to tell you the medical recommendation for dealing with the “emotional impact” of reverse culture shock. The cure, suggested in Stewart and Leggat’s medical approach is “thought stopping” and “thought substitution” using the Rational-Emotive Theory (Stewart, Leggat). In essence the only cure is to forget. One must sacrifice everything they become abroad, who they are, to find happiness when they return home.

There of course is always another option, one which is never mentioned. As if saying that single word is unthinkable. Perhaps our concept of “home” is misguided? Definitions range from a safe place, to a place one settles, but what if home is simply whatever strange place you find your happiness? What if the dark passenger isn’t a bad thing, what if, this disease isn’t an affliction but a calling? What if we’ve made it a cultural taboo to embrace this universal human truth, the truth that we as a species are evolutionarily inclined to explore and discover? What if it’s this which makes us human and we’ve villainized it? Then that unthinkable action, that word becomes quite acceptable within the confines of this model. To cure reverse culture shock one must lean into the wind, and run!

So where is home when your heart is oceans apart? The answer is “it’s far, far away. Beyond the rain, behind the moon” (Baum). It’s not a destination, it’s a mindset. It’s waking up in whatever strange place you find yourself in, and finding your happiness. So Forget everything except that which drives you to that discovery.

Works Cited
Mooradian, Bethany L.  Going Home When Home Does Not Feel Like Home. 
            California State, Fullerton, 2004.
Stoller, Gary (2012). “Suicide: The Fourth Leading Cause of Death Abroad.”  USA Today,
2012. 16 Nov 2012.
Randles, Jenny n.d. “Jenny Randles”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia
Foundation, Inc.  30 Oct 2012.
Walravens, Jan. Intercultural Communications CMM 271 Reader.
Brussels: Vesalius College. n.d.
Jones, Liv “Getting Back to Oz”. Eat Fly Love, 2008. 15 Nov 2012.
Kramer, Nancy; Muilenburg, Andrea; Saiki Aya. Reverse culture shock. Digital Collection,
            2008. 15 Nov 2012.
Marquette University Reverse culture shock. Office of International Study Abroad. n.d.
15 Nov 2012.
Stewart, Louise; Leggat, Peter A . Culture Shock and Travelers. Journal of Travel
            Medicine. Vo. 5 Issue 1., 2006. 17 Nov 2012.
Baum, Frank L.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. George M. Hill Co. Chicago. 17 May 1900.

06 December, 2012

The End is Where We Start From.

Hermosa you are my camino now. (Spain)
A single snowflake falls somewhere in the world. Then another, and then another. Like words, before long, we find ourselves traveling a landscape of art created by our observations. Each step redefines the landscape, and our single set of footprints there to remind us of where we have been.

Much of art is like that, we look at it, we take a single glance and we think we have derived the message that the artist meant to say. Yet it's never about a single message, it's about what it means to you. It's what you perceive from the picture, in essence, it's what we ascribe to the art, the image we want to see- not often what's really there, or what the artist intended.

Look a little closer and we will discover that in those single footprints, someone has been walking in our steps the whole time, walking where we step, so that all along, there was someone else with us the whole time.

I love you forever. (Brussels)
 For me, this person was Shannon, my love, my soul-mate, my everything. Every kilometer through Spain that I bled, she was with me. Every conversation made in the dark, alone, and scared- it was her who was my voice of comfort  When I celebrated in Rome, I raised a glass to her. Then in Auschwitz,  I said sorry for the both of us. In Paris I laughed each time the turnstiles refused someone at the Metro, a curse Shannon shared the last time we were there together. At night often I'd look up at the stars, wherever I was, and remembered  what I told her before I left. That no matter how far a part we are, we're always sharing the same sky. To be honest, there were very few moments I didn't think of her, and there were many night's I longed for her companionship. We both knew this would never be easy, but she knew, all she had to do was say come home and I would, but she never did. None the less she's stuck in my brain, part of me, wherever I go.

Then one day the fragile snow melted and the world of white faded back into reality. When the last snow flake turned into the final tear. A reality where the words melt and begin to flood, and they sweep you away. I no longer felt her presence next to me. Was it my failure to reassure her, was I wrong in assuming that we'd survive the deluge? Face down, mud in my face, left with the mistakes I never knew I was making.

When I walk by myself, I am never alone.
 I miss you. I love you.
I walk for you.
The Owl and the Nightingale perched above, I push my hand into the mud to raise myself. Should this have been months ago, I would have been too weak to climb from the quicksand, but now at the end of it all, I realize it's not courage, not glory in success that flows through my veins, but the strongest of all the forces in the universe: love.

I'm not walking, I'm running back to you, running so hard I'm leaving an avalanche in my wake, running not back again, not where we left off, but to the end of it all, for this is where we start from.

02 December, 2012

The Road to Redemption

Finality is rising. This morning I traveled the snow covered roads of the former Cold War city of Krakow to the airport.  Wheels up at 9:55, I love the smell of jet-fuel in the morning. For the last five weeks I've been traveling from Spain to Paris, to Ypres, to Rome, to Auschwitz, unsure of where any of this leaves me as one final flight remains. I've been thinking a lot about this last trip, and where I'm going. I've tried to make sense out of it, even prayed about it, but there's been no answer, only silence, no way I can rationalize the conflict of heart and mind that is attached to my "luggage" that I take with me on the final flight: the flight "home".

The last thing I wrote before Rome was rather tragic, I admit. I cried for days after writing it, but now I'm out of tears, I'm out of time, and I'm out of the discipline to hold back what's lurking inside.

The truth is, I'm changed. I realized that as I went over to dinner at a friend's the other night. One who I hadn't seen in three months. Of course it came up in conversation, the person I used to be, someone quite hopeful, someone naive, someone who thought anything was possible. I'm much more grounded now, I've been broken, and what's left is a much darker individual who isn't going to write a happy ending because that's what's expected. I will write the truth, and the truth is, these last four months have been the most incredible, amazing times of my life- but it's about to end. The truth is that this factuality angers me.

It's that I know I can't change it.

What if what you loved was taken away?

While walking around Auschwitz, it was explained to me that many of the Jews arrived at the concentration camp in good spirits, with hope, their most prized possessions in hand. They may have been forced to leave their homes, but they were under the impression that in this new place, they'd build homes, and a new Jewish homeland. When they arrived, they built the buildings, they built Auschwitz, they built their own prison in what they had hoped was a new start, maybe even a paradise. After all, they were promised freedom through hardwork. Then paradise turned to Hell.

Sometimes we become prisoners of what we build.

I built this dream.

Now I just want to burn it all down. My dream I built, then lived. Now it's time to get a new dream. Time to use this new-found darkness inside to rip it apart and start anew.

I'm not sure where this leaves me, but it's time to move on. Onwards and upwards. To rip up reality with the person I've become. A heart forged in this fire. My soul charred by association. A new found strength that allows me to break out of this cage. I'm ready to bargain with the devil, this, what I love, for a new dream. To trade black tears for the chance to someday, even years from now, to feel what I feel here: happiness.

Of dreams not yet realized and words yet unspoken, I run into the future, gasping for air, crawling on my knees, knowing not if I'll make it, but that I have no choice. This is the road to redemption.

It's paved with broken dreams.