Thursday, June 18, 2009

Well, I'm back

As surely all of you are aware, I am back in the United States. And have been for a couple weeks now. It's perhaps not my finest blogging hour, but I wanted to give you all a run-down of the last few weeks in Europe nonetheless, on the off chance any of you who are still interested haven't already asked me about it in person. I'll try to keep it brief since there's obviously a lot to cover.

We had finals, but the end of our semester was really the Model EU. This was pretty much exactly what it sounds like, in which all of the students in our program took a role to play in a two-day EU Summit. The vast majority of people were Heads of State, Foreign Ministers, or Finance Ministers. Because I was "resourceful," I was a Secretariat, which doesn't serve any official function beyond facilitating the meeting and trying to broker deals between people. I worked with the foreign ministers, and our topics were resolved successfully in our two day summit. Or at least as successfully as acting out and drawing fictitious conclusions can be.

The completely logical thing after this was to use my study days wisely. In doing so, I went to Croatia for a few days, notably Zagreb, Split, and the island of Brač. Croatia, especially the latter two places in it, is hopelessly beautiful. Really, all of the Balkans seem to be. Split is centered around a Roman Palace from 300 AD that has since been completely integrated into the town, which is pretty interesting. The beach on Brač we went to is one of the most famous in Europe, part of a regional park, and is not enhanced by man at all. Which made it all the more impressive.

The Beach in Brač

The tower of Diocletian's Palace in the center of Split

Split overall

Anyway, came back, had finals. You don't particularly care about that. Subsequently, I did not return to the United States. Instead, I jetted off to Italy for some sightseeing in Florence to visit a friend there, with day trips to Bologna and Venice. Italy as always is physically beautiful while making me culturally uncomfortable. It is difficult to explain what exactly about Italy does, but I get a perpetual sketchy vibe. Perhaps most importantly, though, I did successfully visit Venice before it inevitably collapses into the ocean in a few years due to global warming. So that mission was accomplished.

The Grand Canal in Venice

The Duomo in Florence

From Italy, I flew to Madrid, where I met six friends from Tulsa flying to Europe after graduation there. We subsequently embarked on an eight day train trip from Madrid to Paris, with stops in San Sebastián and Bordeaux. The weather was not entirely cooperative (especially with the upper echelons of the temperature range), but it was an enjoyable last hurrah through Europe nonetheless. I enjoyed both of the Spanish cities immensely and for very different reasons. Madrid is grandiose and spectacular, completely imbued with the history and power of the Spanish state. San Sebastián is a much more intimate city, completely avoiding the monumentalism of Madrid and having a much slower paced atmosphere. Also, as the cultural center of the Basque movement, San Sebastián (known as Donostia in Euskera, the Basque language) provided a cultural experience completely unique to the Basque territories. It so happened that on the day of our arrival, the Basque populace was instituting a general strike. Businesses were closed, almost all restaurants were closed, bars and clubs were closed, the entire city was just shut down. Fliers were scattered everywhere. There were sporadic vocal protesters milling through the streets as well. I never once feared for my safety in anything (which I surely would have if I had been in Italy, for whatever reason), but it was really interesting to see the general belief for the Basque cause among the general populace. However, it was very difficult to see if this passion was only the passion of a select few who intimidated the rest into going along with the strike or if the tenets of the Basque movement were truly held dear to all.

Madrid bullfighting ring

Madrid's national bank

San Sebastián

Bordeaux, along the Atlantic coast of the France, marked our next stopover. It was largely enjoyable except for a train snafu that ended up costing us a substantial amount of money. Bordeaux, unlike many of the cities in the latter parts of my journey, allowed me an opportunity to see the real parts of a city, rather than just the tourist parts. I usually find this far more enjoyable than merely hopping from tourist point to tourist point, so I appreciated some insight into how local people actually manage to live, especially in a city as expensive as Bordeaux. As the Euros were beginning to run low by this point, I really really wanted to know how they did this.


Finally, we ended up with my return trip to Paris. I attempted to find some different things to do in Paris this time around. I still went to many of the main tourist points, as some of my friends had never been to Paris, but I managed to get to Versailles, the Père Lechaise cemetery, and the Pompidou Center, where I had not successfully navigated last time in Paris. It was good to get a little further down the seemingly endless list of worthwhile destinations in Paris, since it's hard to say when I will make it back.


Finally, I left my friends in Paris, hopped on a train to return to Germany, where I remained overnight in my apartment's kitchen pulling my second all nighter in as many weeks (the first being my night of constant travel [10 pm train to 3 am bus to 6 am flight] to reach Italy), had one last train snafu, and then departed Frankfurt for home on the 27th.

Anyway, now that I've been in the United States, I've been trying to reflect on things a bit. It's hard. It's impossible for a trip like this to not affect my outlook on life and things. Things about the United States that already annoyed me - like urban sprawl and poor recycling - will only annoy me more. Being able to get international perspectives on issues is always enlightening, and I certainly wish more of our leaders would do the same. In the United States we have a tendency to get self-righteous tunnel vision, sort of the logical extension of manifest destiny and the Puritanical self-importance that the country was founded on. Just because it's a long standing tradition doesn't mean it's right, and it's something that the country needs to get better about. Different historical experiences lead to new insights that can help solve some of the problems we've developed. Hopefully we can do that.

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