Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for Zero

I have so enjoyed this challenge and I know I will be so thankful to have these memories recorded here. Since I have ZERO words of my own left, I am going to leave you with one of my favorite quotes to wrap up this month of travel blogging....

"If adventures do not befall a young lady in her own village she must seek them abroad."
-Jane Austen 

Monday, April 29, 2013

Y is for You Were Made for This

I could talk about Young Life all day long.  It started up at my high school during my Junior year and I was instantly hooked. Before Young Life I was missing my old church group back in the states and I was desperate to know God, to experience life abundant with Him.
Young Life transformed how I approach my faith and I love that I get to still be a part of the work it's doing in high schools today. While still a student I had two opportunities to travel with Young Life to Romania.  Since there are no true Young Life camps overseas the international schools went on these service project trips over spring break instead.

We flew into Budapest and hopped on buses to drive a further 18 hours into the Transylvanian alps. This place look like the stereotypical Eastern European towns you see portrayed in movies. Everything about them was dark and grey and dirty and a little creepy and just desperate for love. Driving into the town in a dozen huge coach buses made us celebrities of a sort. The local ministry there welcomed us with open arms and instantly put us to work.

The first year we were in Lupeni. There we built a skate park, taught English lessons and dealt with the "ditch." Oh the infamous ditch.  A muddy, toxic waterway that we were tasked with making deeper and wider and lining with rocks to enhance the water flow, thus preventing the local hospital/school from flooding.
Looking back it was not the smartest idea to put ditch-mud all over my face. I have a very vivid memory of digging my shovel into a pile of garbage and uncovering a dead dog. Yeah, I wasn't kidding about the toxic part. There were hundreds of stray dogs running around the town because owning a pet is costly and many were just let loose- one of the many lasting affects of communism (along with the deep poverty and corruption). Needless to say we all left with a nasty cold, affectionately referred to as "Lupenitis."
The second year, this time in Petrosani, we built a basketball court and a playground that we ran wild on with the kids that hung around us like a happy swarm all week.

And of course there was another pesky ditch flooding a local resident's farm to be tackled. Why are the dirtiest jobs always the most fun and rewarding? 
Young Life's tagline is "you were made for this" and truly those two weeks of service made that real for me. We were made to know the perfect love of God and then to live it out in our lives so that others may know Him too. I have honestly never felt more like I was where I was meant to be than when I was in the trenches of that town. Covered in mud, eating the spam sandwiches, loving on the little kids, so excited just to hold our hands and tell us their names and have us braid their hair. 
"I have come that they may have life and have it to the full." John 10:10

Saturday, April 27, 2013

X is for Aix en Provence

I can't believe we are almost done with the A-Z Challenge!

Today we're travelling back in time to 2005, to France, this time for a week's exchange program in Aix (pronounced the same as "X") en Provence. I was housed with one other girl from my class in the home of a local French woman in this picturesque town.

I remember being so thankful that I had my friend staying there with me. Our houser picked us up from the airport and so began the week long experience of stumbling through conversations in French and exploring this town in the Southern region of France.
Aix is such a pretty little place and just oh so charming and French. In the mornings, after a breakfast of buttery croissants we would head out of the house and attempt to figure out the directions to the bus stop that we received from our host "mom." We'd hop on what we hoped was the correct line and head into the town for language classes. We only got off on the wrong stop once. For lunch we'd venture out  and put some of what we were learning into practice-ordering food, asking for directions, shopping,
We also took a day trip to Avignon and saw the historical Palais des Papes which became the residence of the Pope in 1309 during a period known as the Avignon Papacy. While there we also saw the Pont du Gard and the Pont d'Avignon (the inspriation for the song by the same name).
Of course looking back I don't think I really took this trip too seriously. Mostly I remember just hanging out with my classmates and probably relying a little too heavily on the actual French kid in our group to help out with homework and getting around.  But I promise opportunities like this are not wasted on high schoolers...

Friday, April 26, 2013

W is for Warsaw

Sophomore year of high school was in a new school in a new country. I spent most of the first few months there sulking and stubbornly trying not to like it. But slowly my attitude changed and I started saying yes instead of no to the opportunities and friends that were all around me. One of my first adventures that year was to Warsaw, Poland with ISTA- the theater program I talked about here.
(taken from my yearbook)
This trip was a lot different from the one in Terezin. Instead of staying "on-site" in a concentration camp, we were comfortably housed with families from the American School of Warsaw-where the program was hosted.  That was probably one of the "perks" of going to an International School. Whenever any of the sports teams traveled for competitions they were housed by the families of the host school. Our family hosted some boys from the Brussels soccer team one year and it was so fun. Since I never played any team sports in High School, I was excited to experience this from the other side.

This entire city was touched by World War II and we visited many of the memorials that honored the city's resistance to the Nazi occupation and the damage it caused. Below is the Warsaw Uprising Memorial and the Little Insurgent Monument.  
What I mostly remember from this trip is how grey and snowy it was- which was pretty much exactly how I imagined Poland would look. But beneath the cold, Poland's landscape held a lot of stories. Our goal for this festival was to find out what the city wanted us to learn from it, and then with our ensemble groups, find a creative and original way to share those narratives with an audience.
I hardly knew the people I traveled with from my school and I was the only student from my grade there. But I don't remember feeling out of place or alone. That is definitely the greatest gift of the international school community. New students arrived every year and you didn't have time to be exclusive or choosey. I learned to form friendships fast knowing they could be gone at the end of the year. That was everyone's common ground.  Looking back on that trip I feel like I was braver than I knew. These days would I have the guts to go by myself, stay in a stranger's house, and then stand on stage in a foreign country with people I'd just met?  I'm glad I have my memories of Poland, and the ISTA Festival that brought me there, to remind me of what I am capable of doing. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for Valentine's Day

Maybe this is too much for one week or even too much for one month.... but for Valentine's day, on the same trip I talked about here, we visited Dachau concentration camp. I'm not going to write a long post like my post on Theresinstadt. Mostly because this place disturbed me to my core but also because I could never ever find adequate words to describe it. I want to remember this trip, but I'm not sure I know how to write about it. 

It was a dark and cold day when we drove into the town in Upper Bravaria. I'm glad there wasn't blue skies and sunshine, it wouldn't have felt appropriate. 
The barb wired walls of the camp butt right up against the neighbouring town. Real life goes on outside- just as it did during the war. I think that is what gutted me the most. When the American soldiers liberated the camp they forced local citizens to come and see first hand the horrific truth that many had simply turned a blind eye to. 

Only one row of barracks stand, the rest are just a hollow concrete frame. A single line of trees now lead down the empty rows where thousands, lived and died.  
Dachau was the first concentration camp built in Germany and was used as a prototype for most of the future camps built.  It was classified as a work camp. Prisoners "lived" on 600-800 calories, very few hours of sleep and were essentially worked to death.
We stood in the gas chamber and passed through them to the crematorium in absolute silence. I'm not sure I said a single word until I walked back out of the camp.  Under the sign that read "Abreit Macht Frei- work makes you free."  Afterwards I breathed out a sigh that felt like it came from the depth of my soul. You don't leave that place the same-how could you? The devil himself put stakes down in Europe and the evidence is still there for you to see and you'll never forget it.

It was the most heartbreaking Valentine's day I will ever know.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

U is for Under the Bridge

One of my favourite places in London is the Borough Market. This huge market is located under London Bridge, not to be confused with Tower Bridge:
In case your planning a trip across the pond, and not planning to take me along as your personal tour guide, just hop off the tube at the London Bridge stop (on the Jubilee or Northern line)-the full market is open Thursdays-Saturdays. When visiting the Borough Market be sure to come with your appetite and some room in your bag because you're gonna want to load up.
There are hundreds of stalls, vendors, and traders with every type of deliciousness you can imagine. Fresh vegetables, exotic fruits, sliced meats, my absolute favourite olive bar.
There is food from every corner of the world and you can make a meal out of the sentence: "can I try a sample of that, please?" In one direction there is Paella being stirred up in a bathtub-size pot perfuming the air. To your left is a stall just for oysters. To you right, Italian chorizo and Spanish ham, cured and dried, and sliced paper thin right off the bone for you to snack on while you browse.  Hmm.. that yogurt I had for breakfast suddenly seems completely inadequate...
And speaking of cheese... Be sure to visit Neal's Yard Dairy while your under the bridge. It stinks to high heaven but it is the perfect place to pick up a hunk of salty parmigiano reggiano to eat with the proscuitto di parma you picked up a few vendors back. 
The Borough Market is always bustling and you could spend hours getting lost in the labyrinth of stalls. In the summer I recommend a glass of Sangria while you meander around in a haze of mixing aromas. Follow your nose and the rumbling in your stomach to the next stall and the next and happily slip into a food coma. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T is for That Time I Stayed in a Concentration Camp

My junior year, 2005, I traveled with 4 other students from my high school to the Czech Republic. We flew into Prague and spent just one day exploring the city. 

It is an absolutely beautiful city that I would love to go back and really visit- but that was not what we were there for. From Prague we boarded a bus to Terezín. This walled military town was turned into Theresienstadt, a Jewish Ghetto and concentration camp, by the Nazis in 1941 and that is where we would spend 4 days for an ISTA (International Students Theater Association) Festival of Tolerance.
The Nazis used Theresienstadt to solve their question of what to do with the "special" categories of Jews- the artists, musicians, composers, actors, the more prominent and wealthy families.  Those who passed through this camp were put to work drafting propaganda for the Third Reich.  A propaganda video was also filmed here and a special performance of the children's opera,  Brundibár, took place when the International Red Cross was permitted to visit Theresienstadt. They came to investigate the growing rumors of extermination camps. For their visit fake stores and cafes were built to give the appearance of comfort. In the grass shown below, they strategically placed the healthier inmates and staged a futbol game.
To hide the evidence of over-crowding many of the inmates were deported to Auschwitz or Treblinka. Under threat of punishment or deportation the inmates acted their part and the Red Cross fell for the gimmick. Once their propaganda project was complete, the entire cast and the director of the film were shipped to Auschwitz where they perished.

But with access to paper, pencils, paint, and canvas, many of the inmates, in secret, found ways to record their own experiences of the reality of the camp. Much of the secret work was hidden in the walls or buried underground making it the largest collection of art from any of the camps. Many of the drawings and journals were created by children in the camp.  Of the 15,000 children deported to Auschwitz, 14,900 perished. They are survived by 4,000 drawings now on display in the museum built in the old barracks and the book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, which is a collection of poetry and art made by the children of Theresienstadt attempting to find relief from the horror of their world.

I'll pause the history lesson here and get back to my own trip there.  You might be wondering what in the heck a group of high school students did for 4 days in this eerily quiet town. Honestly before the trip I was completely freaked out. We would be staying in the old barracks from the Ghetto (obviously updated from the original days) and I had a dark pictures in my head of what that meant. I was terrified of walking in a place filled with so many ghosts. There were students from all different schools, not just international ones. The only real requirement was that you had to audition and you had to know English. I shared a room with 4 girls from Slovakia....I didn't say English had to be your first language. This arrangement was a little awkward at first but definitely appropriate given that the theme of the trip was tolerance.  It's powerful word to focus on in a place that saw so little of it.
As visitors we toured this town, now mostly empty after the war. We visited the art exhibitions on display in the barracks left relatively untouched since the day the camp was liberated. We saw the hidden synagogue with the menorah painted on the walls in lieu of candles. One evening we all partook in a traditional Passover meal as the holiday season fell during our stay. It was a surreal and powerful thing to be a part of in a place like that.

We saw the deportation point with the overgrown train tracks that at one point led to hell on Earth. We saw the crematorium and the sat with our journals and heavy hearts by the river near where the ashes of thousands were dumped to conceal the genocide as the end of the war drew near.
How did I stand by this river and smile. I'm not sure. It's strange and the emotions are raw. But in this place where human depravity and suffering were rampant we created joy. We laughed and played and sang and moved and remembered and lived and I think that is an honorable and appropriate tribute to the memory of this place.

In different sessions throughout the day we were instructed to take our cue from the artists there before us and practice our own story telling, drawing and poetry writing, singing and movement.  We were then split into smaller ensemble groups and we worked together to compose our own response to what we had learned and observed. One of the most moving moments was sitting in the attic of the barrack and listening to the testimony of Helga Hoskova. She shared her memories and some of the 100 drawings she made while living in those very barracks as a young child. The diary she kept was hidden for her by her uncle in the walls of  records department where he was positioned.  When she was 15, a year younger than I was when I visited, she was sent to Auschwitz and survived. Her uncle was later able to retrieve her journal and coincidentally, Helga's Diary: A Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp, was released yesterday.

Aside from posterity, the reason this post is so lengthy is that soon there will be no more Holocaust survivors. I feel the burden to share the story of that place. I was stretched so much there. Pushed so far out of my comfort zone and forced to expand my view of true tolerance and also bravery in the midst of fear. I learned how to tell my story and pay homage to the past.

140,000 Jews came through the gates of Terezín. 33,000 died due to the horrible conditions, brutality, and illness.  87,000 were put on a train to Auschwitz. At the end of the war only 17,000 had survived.

(You can read a better summary of that year's ISTA Festival of Tolerance here.) 

Monday, April 22, 2013

S is for Side

Side (see-day) is in the Antalya province of Turkey and I traveled there with a group of friends my senior year of high school before graduation. Upon arrival in Turkey we purchased our visas at customs and then hopped on a bus to our hotel.  I remember so clearly that feeling of  freedom and independence and good times ahead. There were no parents, teachers, chaperones, no schedule of activities or clue of what we were doing. Just my friends and I celebrating the end of senior year.
We stayed at the most beautiful all inclusive resort and had most of our meals at the hotel. The majority of our trip was spent pool side, or on the beach, or banana boating in the Mediterranean. But we did venture into town to go dancing and have late night kebab sandwiches. We also went into town one day to go sightseeing and shopping. 
There are a lot of Greek/ Roman influences here in Turkey. We went to a night club that was built in the ruins of an old temple to Apollo. They also hold concerts in the Greek coliseum seen below. I loved the contrast of the old with the new and the blue waters of the Mediterranean with the dry desert feel in town.
Walking around this country was quite an interesting experience- so we didn't do too much of it. For the most part I noticed zero women out and about the town. I felt very blonde and very foreign and very grateful that we were traveling with some tall boys. Although it was sweltering hot, looking back now I probably shouldn't have been walking around in a tube top and cut-off shorts. High schoolers, am I right? Cut-offs are also not ideal when riding a camel.
Just a few days after returning from Turkey, with a tan, a knock-off Tod's handbag, and some awesome memories in tow, I graduated from high school. I am so thankful my parents let me go on this trip. They probably weren't too keen on 20 kids alone in Turkey. But they knew that in just a couple weeks they would be packing me up and moving me into a dorm room in another country a whole ocean and a 5 hour time difference away. I guess Turkey probably didn't seem so hard compared to that.
 (My mom wrote about her thoughts on the matter here.)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

R is for Rome

We traveled to Rome in February 2005 and we did it all! I know some people think Rome is too touristy but there's a reason it attracts such crowds. 

Rome was the center of the world for a time. The center of civilization, democracy, culture- everything. These days you have to look past the crowds and the street vendors and the gelato carts. You have to use your imagination to rebuild what was out of the ruins. But it's still there for you to discover. And the gelato is always a nice addition.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Q is for Quilon

In England they just don't name the castles. Our home was named Quilon. 
This house, was more than a house. It's where at first I didn't want to live and then later I didn't want to leave. 
And it held my favourite garden. The stone patio with the pond, the secret paths, the lavender beds and the tea house.
Yes... you read that last line correctly. I fished a dead hedgehog out of that pond. My mom thought it was a leaf. She touched it, it was wasn't a leaf.  She freaked out, came screaming into the house and then I, the child, had to scoop it out with a bucket and throw it away. It scared us all. 
I could share so many stories, so many memories from this home. This was the easiest post to write and I got so emotional writing and remembering that house. That house, my bedroom (with the window seat and the most dated curtains ever) in a foreign country that became my country. Oh my heart...it swelled here, found a bigger God here. Quilon holds so much of our family.