My Digital Story

It only took me *two* months this time. :)

Here is my digital story. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words so a video must be worth even more, right?

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‘Cause Croats don’t wear sweats to class.

Kudos to you if you’ve stuck with me this long!  I’m sorry that I took such a long break from posting.  One of these coming weekends (and I don’t mean another seven months from now, I swear) I’m planning on finally putting together my digital story video to accompany a short post about why I needed to distance myself from my experience while I processed and what it means to be alone (heavy, introspective stuff…I know).

Btw that word in the title is pronounced CROW-at.  It doesn’t rhyme with boat.  Just in case you were wondering. :)  In that vein, regarding the title of this post, one of my former residents, Kate, made a comment like this before leaving for her semester abroad in Ireland.  In most of the US, the standard dress code for undergrad students is sweat pants and a hoodie (swap out for a T-shirt and gym shorts during warmer months…which, in Iowa, pretty much just means May and August).  Wear jeans if you feel like “dressing up.”  Personally, I like being stylish.  Skinny pants, scarves, ballet flats.  It may not seem like it to those outside the Midwest, but in relative terms, I am a veritable Audrey Hepburn.

I can’t even imagine what European students who come to the US think about it.  Are they relieved that they can literally roll out of bed five minutes before class and no one will notice a thing?  Or are they appalled by our lack of fashion sense, our rejection of the workplace dress codes we will soon face in the so-called Real World, our affinity for all things comfortable (or is that just called laziness)?  Zagreb and ZSEM were pretty much the complete opposite.  Nary a pair of yoga pants will you see there.

As I mentioned higher in this post, my study abroad experience left me needing A LOT of process time.  In fact, I’m still processing.  Maybe I’ll never stop.  Maybe reflecting is going to be a constant presence in my life from now on, kind of like a friend you’re glad you met and had a good time getting to know but now can’t seem to get rid of (and, actually, you’re not really sure you even want to).  Or how I keep bringing up “Well, when I was studying abroad in Europe…” whenever I’m doing or seeing or eating something that sparks a random memory.  Sorry folks, but you just need to accept that you’re never going to hear the end of it.

A Pinterest post suggested a simple way to remember your experiences abroad (which would work for places right here in the good ol’ US of A, too).  Whenever you go to a museum, buy a couple postcards of your favorite works.  For instance, in the Louvre, you could go standard with the classic Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo.  If you’re trying to be a hipster or just tend to like more obscure art, pick up copies of The Women of Algiers and Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s The Four Seasons (just google it – the detail is *really* cool).  Clip the stack of postcards to your car’s sun visor and flip through whenever you’re stuck at a traffic light.  Or use them as a rotating set of bookmarks.  No matter what pictures you choose, just find images that “speak” to you.  The classics are fine, but if you don’t particularly care for them, they won’t jolt your memory into either a gentle breeze or slightly upsetting whirlwind of reminiscing.  The ones that do speak to you will.

Someone commented, why not just take pictures of the artwork yourself and save money on the postcards.  I took plenty of pictures of the pyramids outside, but I decided not to take pictures of anything inside the Louvre.  I guess, to me, the artwork I found most intriguing and engaging simply can’t be captured properly in a photograph.  Yes, it can jog your memory, but the very act of taking pictures seems to interrupt The Process.  In the moment…just enjoy it.

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In the City of Blinding Lights (part 2)

Another gem I found in Rick Steves’ articles was an itinerary for a self-guided “Historic Paris Walk.”  This was a great way to make it through some of the typical tourist spots of Paris (Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, Pont Neuf, etc.) while including some less-well-known sights and things to do along the way.  I personalized the tour a bit to meet my needs regarding time (I swear, I could have had a whole month in Paris and not done everything I wanted to) and bodily injury (going at “Fr. Bud pace” in Rome did a number on my knees so I avoided stairs, but I just had to keep walking…I was in Paris, after all!).

The first stop on my walk was Notre Dame.  The Disney movie sure had me fooled about this building’s size because it seemed no bigger than any of the other churches I’ve seen – maybe even below average.  But the size isn’t what makes Notre Dame really interesting…that job belongs to the architectural details – especially the sculptures of the façade.  Here is another spot where it helped to have some background knowledge about the Bible and what certain images in art represent.  I’ve included some pictures below to illustrate what I’m talking about:

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This far-away view gives some perspective…see, it’s barely taller than the surrounding buildings.

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Above: the guy holding his head is St. Denis. Below: check out the details of the Last Judgment from the central portal on the facade (people being led to purgatory, the devil tipping the scale).

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I exercised great restraint at my next location: the Left Bank (“Rive Gauche”) Booksellers.  Lining the Seine at street level are green metal stalls bursting with old, second-hand books.  If there’s one thing I love more than new books, it’s second-hand books…They just seem to have a piece of story attached to them besides what the author actually wrote, and it’s even better when they come with an actual inscription or scribble inside the front cover.  While my French is decent (I read pretty well and speak/listen well enough for basic communication), it’s nowhere close to good enough to justify buying a book written in French.  Oh well…another time, Paris, my love.

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The third thing I want to confirm as a “must-do” during your time in Paris is Sainte Chapelle.  This church was built in the mid-13th century, and its upper chapel is certainly the main attraction.  Let there be light, indeed.  Stained glass covers 15 panels of over 1,100 scenes (that’s for a grand total of 6,500 square feet!)…and the resulting atmosphere as you exit the spiral staircase is like stepping into another world.  It’s best to do this during the height of an overcast day – too early, too late, or too bright and the effect is muffled.  Again, it helps to have to background knowledge of the Bible – it gave me a little burst of excitement each time I found a scene in which I could identify the story depicted.

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Judith killing Holofernes

Judith killing Holofernes

Super skinny stairs!

Super skinny stairs!

More to come about my bread-making class and seeing the inner workings of a grand church organ up-close. :)

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In the City of Blinding Lights

I knew there was a reason I’ve always been in love with Paris.

I spent my entire week in the “City of Lights” in a strange sort of mix between disbelief and awe that I was actually getting to live out my dream…How many people get to say that about their life, seriously??  Like Rome, Paris is a city that can be enjoyed to its fullest by planning ahead, and I’d like to take a moment and give props to Rick Steves for his travel articles because they helped me access Paris “through the back door.”  What is this concept of traveling “through the back door” you may ask?  It’s a term Rick Steves coined and one that I try to live by during my times as a solo traveler.  Everyone goes to see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame when they go to Paris (which are certainly “must dos” in Paris)…but how many people take a bread-making class and learn how to make baguettes, brioche, and fougasse; or climb up a flight of stairs to the console in the back of the Eglise St. Sulpice and watch a world-renowned organist play up close?  No matter where I travel it’s always the “back door” experiences that stick out in my mind the most (and the ones that make the best stories)!

I’ll first get out of the way a list of things I would NOT include on your list of “things to do in Paris” (or at least don’t make them a priority).  If you’re as big a fan of books/reading as I am, you may decide you want to visit the national library (Bibliotheque Nationale)…well, don’t try it, because you have to be a card-holding Parisian student to get in.  You, like me, will just have to be satisfied with peeking in windows and looking at the gorgeously intricate interior via pictures on the internet.  Also, the Moulin Rouge – one of the most iconic attractions in Paris, after perhaps the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, was a bit underwhelming.  Leave the Moulin Rouge in nostalgic black-and-white photo postcards and calendars…Reality ruined this one, at least for me.

Ok…now for the good stuff.  :)  I’ll have to split this between two posts because there’s just so much to talk about!  I felt busy every single day I was in Paris, but I think I still wouldn’t have time for everything I wanted to do even if I had a month.  We’ll start with the traditional sights-to-see/things-to-do…

The Louvre was one of the most overwhelming experiences I’ve had during my travels (purely because of the museum’s sheer volume of works), but it still falls toward the top of my list.  Although, I will say, if you’re not really interested in art, it might not be worth it to you.  I think that just because something is famous (particularly paintings, sculptures, etc.), if it doesn’t “move” you…forget it.  And if something’s not famous, like that obscure painting in the corner that nobody’s heard of but you can’t tear your eyes from…now that’s what’s worth your time.  I’ve taken some basic art history so I had some familiarity ahead of time, plus I did a little research to see what others’ top lists of pieces to see in the Louvre were.  La Jaconde (aka the Mona Lisa) did not come close to the top of my list.  Perhaps others find it intriguing, but it just doesn’t move me…plus, at less than 2-by-3 feet, the size is – again – underwhelming, considering its fame.  The Mona Lisa’s neighbor Woman With a Mirror (Titian) was one I did find intriguing, along with the paintings Francesca and Paolo (Ary Scheffer) and The Women of Algiers (Delacroix), and the Victoire de Samothrace sculpture.  Google image them if you want to see which ones I’m talking about, but those pixilated images can’t capture a subject’s lonely or desperate gaze that seems to hold my eyes in a fix.  I was lucky enough to time my Louvre visit so I went on a Friday night – open late AND free to under-26 year olds…Score!

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My visit to the Eiffel Tower also benefitted from getting the timing right.  I went once during the day and again at night.  During my daytime visit, I first went shopping on Rue Cler for all the fixings to make a picnic lunch (see Rick Steves’ website for an itinerary of great shops).  I took my food to eat in the nearby park then approached the Tower for a truly ridiculous amount of picture-taking.  What can I say?…it’s a very photogenic monument.  Nighttime, however, is when the Eiffel Tower really shines – both literally and figuratively.  Paris is often overcast, and the golden glow of the Tower lights up the underside of the clouds in a way that is both mysterious and magical…kind of like Paris itself. :)  Nighttime is also when you need to get the timing right for viewing the Eiffel Tower because it sparkles for several minutes starting at 6:00pm.  My last night in Paris I was walking along the Pont Neuf which has a lovely far-away view of the Tower and noticed it was about 5:50pm…so I plunked myself down on a bench and waited for the light show!

At the fromagerie, it's a "festival of mold."

At the fromagerie, it’s a “festival of mold.”

A law requires that the produce's country-of-origin be posted.

A law requires that the produce’s country-of-origin be posted.

Lunch in the park :)

Lunch in the park :)

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All lit up!

All lit up!

Stay tuned in the next couple days for more about my Paris visit…including the Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, my bread-making class, and a “Historic Paris” self-guided tour!

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A Roman Holiday

Hello all!  I’ve been absent from writing the past two weeks because I just got back from Italy and France…talk about a dream come true!  I spent four full days in Rome (bookended by two half-days), then jetted off to spend a week in Paris.  Don’t be too jealous…you, too, can travel to these places and have your own dream vacation;  keep reading for my recaps and travel suggestions because let me tell you, planning ahead for locations as jam-packed as these with things to do is a must.

Those of you connected to the Ambrose community will know that each winter break a small group (ok, not really small…it’s about 20 students, plus Fr. Bud and a couple more chaperones) travel for about two weeks to several cities in Italy as part of a “Rome and Christianity” class.  I knew some of the students taking this course so I though, my goodness, I’m just a hop over the Adriatic Sea…I should join them!  A bit of email tag later with Fr. Bud and my friend Kemper, it was all set.  This brings me to my first suggestion…don’t go to Rome alone.  Not just for safety reasons (it’s packed with tourists and infamous for scams and pickpocketing – which never happened to me, thank God) but because Rome just doesn’t seem like a city tailored to the solo traveler.  I think it’s best to go with a group (and when you have a priest leading you who is an expert on Rome and Christianity, it’s even better!), or at the very least bring along an excellent guidebook in addition to tons of reading up beforehand.  Rome just isn’t a city to go into without some background knowledge.  Honestly, ancient ruins and artwork just aren’t that interesting in and of themselves…it’s their history, the story of who created them, when, and why.

I was so fortunate to be able to spend three of my full days with the Ambrose group – on those days we were able to see the Trevi Fountain, Vatican City/St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon, other less-famous architecture/infrastructure (the Appian Way, catacombs, etc.), and A LOT of churches (the class is about “Rome and Christianity” after all).

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One thing I would suggest doing before planning your trip to Rome is look up when the Pope will be giving an audience.  This should be on a list of “things-to-do in Rome” that are definitely worth your time.  I’m not even Catholic and thought it was a really cool experience.  My guess is that most of the people in the audience were Catholic, and I could just feel the energy and excitement radiating from them seeing the person they hold in highest esteem in their faith tradition.

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My second suggestion of what’s worth spending your time in Rome on isn’t actually located in Rome.  I spent one of my full days away from the group and instead went by myself to Naples to explore the city and climb Mount Vesuvius.   That’s right, folks…I have officially climbed a live volcano!  It’s probably the most hardcore thing I’ve ever done (which, really, just tells you how un-hardcore my life is…), and it was definitely a day well-spent.  I didn’t really plan much of what I wanted to do in Naples.  I did try to go see a supposedly beautiful sculpture in the Capella Sansevero but it had such a long line of tourists I decided it wasn’t worth the wait.  The experience of looking for the church was still worth my time, though, because I had to ask people – usually the men who run streetside newspaper shops – how to get there, which forced me to have mini conversations with the local people (who also taught me the correct pronunciation of the church’s name: san-seh-VER-oh…when in doubt, I’ve decided it’s most likely right to just emphasize the word’s second-to-last syllable).  While I was wandering I also bought an orange (I don’t know what Florida oranges are like, but my guess is they have nothing on the melt-in-your-mouth sweetness of Napoli oranges…sorry, Erica) and I stumbled upon a lively street band.

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The visit to Vesuvius was something I looked up/planned ahead of time.  I knew I had to catch a short train from Naples to Pompeii and from there take a bus to the halfway point up the volcano.  The people who know me best will know I’ve definitely not always been an outdoorsy person.  Something about solo travel has changed that.  Maybe it’s the thrill or adventure of it, but hiking is now one of my favorite exercise activities to do…and climbing to the top of a volcano was definitely thrilling!  It was rocky and rough and put a couple decades of hurt on my knees but it was totally worth it!  The smell of sulfur wafting up with the steam was both gross and kinda cool, and the view looking out onto the Pompeii bay as the wind blew on my face was heavenly breathtaking. :)

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Nothing runs like a Deere.

I love Iowa.

Especially rural Iowa.  I really do.  Study abroad is supposed to broaden your understanding of other cultures, but it also develops your understanding of your own cultural identity, and I never realized how deeply ingrained rural Iowa culture is in my identity.  The first thing most of the other students thought when I said I was from Iowa was that I lived on a farm with cows in the middle of a cornfield.  That’s not entirely false – I do live just across the highway from a farm with cows, and my extended family still does farm so I can tell you difference between a heifer and a cow, a steer and a bull.  Plus, fun fact for the day, Iowa’s top crop is actually soybeans, not corn.  But Iowa is about so much more than that.  If I had to sum it up in a catchy way, I would say that (rural) Iowa is about food, faith, and family.

I know it’s true in many places around the world that “food brings people together,” and it’s especially true in Iowa and on special holidays.  I think part of what makes Thanksgiving feel so special is that the holiday’s emphasis on food brings people together in a way other holidays don’t.  It was so hard being away from home over Thanksgiving!  Since I’m the only American here, no one else was recognizing this day (just think about what the holiday celebrates if you don’t get it…).  No turkey and stuffing.  No apple pie.  No sweet potatoes or green bean casserole.  I could go on, but clearly this is a holiday centered around food.  The thing is, it’s not just these special occasions that showcase what makes food so special in Iowa/the Midwest.  People deliver casseroles to families after the death of a loved one.  We pass down recipes for generation after generation (for example, I learned how to make my great-Grandma Mary’s coconut bars after trying a batch made by my great-Aunt Gen at a family reunion).  And – my personal favorite – potlucks are a much-loved tradition for multiple church denominations.

Which brings me to my next point.  While certainly not everyone in Iowa is Christian, I think it’s generally know that the Midwest is part of the “Bible Belt” aka a bigger percentage of the population is Christian than on, say, the East and West Coasts.  And I think this “God-fearing, hard-working” quality shows itself especially in rural Iowans.  I won’t go too deeply into this because I know it can be a controversial topic, but this importance of faith has led to me being treated…differently here.  I can’t separate my faith from my identity and, consequently, my behavior, and it seems that’s an unusual quality for some Europeans to interact with.

Finally, the element that ties this all together is family.  Again, you readers should know that these generalizations don’t apply to all Iowans – I speak from my personal experiences.  At the same time, I do think the importance and close-knit quality of family is stronger in the rural Midwest than it is in other parts of the States.  Another reason it’s been so hard for me to be away for four and a half months.  Thank God for skype and the postal service because I had a hard enough time dealing with homesickness, even with weekly parental skype dates and frequent letters from home (both from my biological family and adopted church family…there’s that faith element again).  Something I noticed while I was here is that the importance of close-knit family isn’t as strong (or it just doesn’t manifest itself in ways I could see, or I by chance interacted with people for whom this value happens not to be strong).  My family might need God’s grace to get through life, but you’d better believe if you need something they’ll drop everything to make sure you’re alright.

I want to leave you with two things: a selection of songs and an explanation of this post’s title.  Country seems to be a genre of music people either love or hate.  I proudly belong in the first group.  Lots of the international and Croatian students made fun of me for that, but I think that’s just because it’s something they don’t understand.  Below are songs (via youtube – if they’re cheesy, as music videos often are, don’t let that ruin the song for you) which have been frequent players in my iTunes lately, and I think the selection shows a variety of what country music is.  Sometimes life is fun and upbeat and love works out, and sometimes relationships are broken and life hurts.  That’s what I love about country music.

Finally, while “International Harvester” is a catchy song, I say it’s not a real tractor (or combine or whatever) unless it’s green and “runs like a (John) Deere.”

Kenny Chesney “She’s Got It All”

Carrie Underwood “Blown Away” (start at 0:45)

Gloriana “(Kissed You) Good Night”

Gary Allan “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)”

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Buda+Pest

Here are the pictures from Budapest, as promised!  To explain the title, the city is actually split into two parts: on the west side of the river is “Buda” and on the east is “Pest”…put it together, and you get “Budapest!”  Apparently Budapest is very photogenic because I took over 200 pictures!!  Sadly I will not be posting all of those, but here is a selection of what are the best/my favorites:

A tram on the street with one of the bridges lighted in the background

A tram on the street with one of the bridges lighted in the background

The sign above a stand serving a delicious desert...there's a picture of that later :)

The sign above a stand serving a delicious desert…there’s a picture of that later :)

Adorable old man at the Christmas market

Adorable old man at the Christmas market

Buda castle

Buda castle

Chain Bridge

Chain Bridge

Me, Ketty, and Sonia...travel buddies :)

Me, Ketty, and Sonia…travel buddies :)

Tunnel and road leading to the top of the hill

Tunnel and road leading to the top of the hill

The Parliament

The Parliament

Budapest 109

Entrance down to the metro

Entrance down to the metro

Giant ornaments on an outdoor Christmas tree

Giant ornaments on an outdoor Christmas tree

St. Stephen's Basilica from a distance

St. Stephen’s Basilica from a distance

View of the organ and interior architecture of St. Stephen's

View of the organ and interior architecture of St. Stephen’s

A monument in a park celebrating the fall of communism in Hungary

A monument in a park celebrating the fall of communism in Hungary

Interior of the Parliament

Interior of the Parliament

Dome in the Parliament

Dome in the Parliament

Cigar holder...the men would place their cigars in their respective numbers because the inner chambers were non-smoking.

Cigar holder…the men would place their cigars in their respective numbers because the inner chambers were non-smoking.

A view of the indoor baths at the spa

A view of the indoor baths at the spa

Outdoor thermal bath (basically a glorified hot tub but soooo relaxing!)

Outdoor thermal bath (basically a glorified hot tub but soooo relaxing!)

Kürtőskalács (bakery sweet from Transylvania that's turned over live coals so the sugar melts over the whole thing)

Kürtőskalács (bakery sweet from Transylvania that’s turned over live coals so the sugar melts over the whole thing)

Ice skating!

Ice skating!

Monument in Heroes' Square

Monument in Heroes’ Square

A street crossing...people call them "zebra stripes"

A street crossing…people call them “zebra stripes”

We rented a flat for the weekend, and this is inside the janky elevator (Ketty's and Sonia's faces say it all).

We rented a flat for the weekend, and this is inside the janky elevator (Ketty’s and Sonia’s faces say it all).

Statue in the Buda castle complex

Statue in the Buda castle complex

Looking down the funicular (we took the bus to the top of the hill instead)

Looking down the funicular (we took the bus to the top of the hill instead)

The Chain Bridge from above through the misty weather

The Chain Bridge from above through the misty weather

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