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What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been

Sunday, December 22, 2013

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As I conclude five months living and traveling around Europe, I am filled with many thoughts and emotions of all kinds.  My time on the continent has been absolutely incredible, with an influx of people, cultures, experiences, and food that have combined to form an incredible fall.  Personally, the growth I have experienced has been immense on many levels, not so much academically as in previous semesters but more in the areas of cultural and Spanish literacy, communication and relationship skills, and personal reflection.  I have seen worldly treasures and gems of art, archeology, and anthropology, and my admittedly low sense of cultural sensibility has been thoroughly strengthened through first-hand experience.  My first venture out of Boulder of more than a month in my life, I am happy to have broken out of the bubble, because I was both able to experience incredible places while simultaneously realizing just how much I really do love my hometown.  While I am ready to be coming home for the holiday season, I am not exactly glad to be leaving; there is a definite bittersweet quality to this exit as I am leaving behind an enormous amount of great times, generous people, and above all memories that will stick with me forever.  This past semester has shaped me incredibly in valuable ways, and reinforced in me what is sure to be a lifelong desire to travel, explore, and experience everything the world has to offer.  I have learned to travel with the bare minimum expenses, and am pleased to have found out that I require very little in the realm of material satisfaction and luxury to experience live enjoyably.  My interpersonal skills have improved immeasurably, and my trust in humans from all different backgrounds and appearances.  Without a single word of the local language, I was able numerous times to receive help and vital information with a smile and some hand gestures.  Much of the fearful and uncomfortable encounters with strangers can be broken down and avoided easily by reaching out and attempting to be friendly, and my time on the road has simultaneously opened up my heart to others while tightening my sense of material, physical, and practical security.  Trust, a verve for adventure, and confidence certainly are failsafe manners with which to carry one’s self and experience the world.

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My foray into Spanish culture is one that I will always remember fondly, and served as a great base with which to compare the other places of my travels.  Direct, overt, and passionate about their views, history, culture, and manners of living, it has been equally informative and amusing to discuss with locals sports, politics, and lifestyles.  Common attitudes have included a disdain for a stressful life, ambivalence towards politicians and organized government of all kinds, a wary distrust of the United States and most other European states, a fanaticism for football (soccer), and above all a love for the finer things in life, especially family, sleep, cheese, wine, ham, and olive oil, and general relaxation and sociable fun.  The country is made up of many different regions and influences, and it has been very interesting to note variations within the country as well as around the continent.

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Andalusians have some things much more in common with Croatians than they do with Galicians, and the Mediterranean cultures certainly retain strong similarities.  The climate obviously brings visible distinctions to ways of life.  Mediterranean peoples, speaking from my time in Spain, Slovenia, Croatia, and Turkey, are much more open and live life outside, talking with neighbors, going out on the town very often, and living lives in peaceful surrender to brutal summer heat.  In contrast to this amiable availability, personal space is forfeited completely, and American standards of approachability are rendered null and void.  Politics and language are much more wild and spontaneous, and there is an emotional edge to interaction that is omnipresent and graciously inviting.  Large families and communities form the basis of social life, and there is a love for all times spent in the company of others.  Food is wholesome, fresh, and healthy, derived from the natural bounty of fruits, vegetables, and seafood available in fertile areas.  Cooking is very simple, virtually devoid of seasoning and most culinary manipulation, using few ingredients and letting them speak for themselves.  Meals are served family-style at the table, and personal plates are often forgotten during a meal, participants choosing and encouraged to draw from the serving platters in the middle of the table.  Eating with hands is often a necessity, and wine is almost always present.  A love for quality olive oil is evident, and the main meal of the day is a large lunch, eaten around 3 PM with the whole family.  Living with my host family in Granada was easily the most enjoyable and impactful element of my time in Spain, and the development of my language skills allowed me to have real, meaningful conversations with Spaniards of all ages and walks of life.  In all, fun in the sun is a motif that permeates the entire region, and it has been pleasant and enjoyable to partake in the festivities and openness present in these societies.

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Slightly in contrast, I have found the Northern European and Germanic cultures and states to share commonalities derived from a cooler, harsher climate.  Stops of varying lengths in London, Stockholm, Belgium, Holland, Prague, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria yielded a few clear similarities between the locales.  Life is certainly more individualistic, upbeat, and efficient, and more time and effort is devoted to work and education.  The people are generally taller and thinner, and life is lived at a much more rapid rate.  With fewer sunlight and lower temperatures, the daily schedule is moved up much earlier, and is lived in a more American-style duality between the workplace and the home.  Foods are traditionally heavy, hearty mixes of roots, dairy products, and red meats, and dinner serves as the family meal of the day.  Skins are fairer, temperatures are milder, and society maintains a more sophisticated beat.

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My travels have represented an eclectic mix of experiences that yielded an infinite amount of memories, and I have tried to pare down the mass volume of my seemingly continual vacation in a concluding analysis.  First are a few numbers that I took note of:

  • 16 countries in five months, each speaking their own language - in order, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Spain, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Turkey, Belgium, Portugal, Holland, Germany, and France.

  • Four amazing families – the Faas’ in Switzerland, Bans in Croatia, Roordas in Holland, and Joslyns in Paris – who exhibited incredible and overwhelming amounts of kindness and hospitality and who really made the trip for me.

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  • Zero paid trips to the restroom.
  • Countless pushups and sit-ups next to beds and at hours of all kinds, amounts of salt and olive oil, episodes of Anthony Bourdain, samples at stores and markets around the continent, liters and liters of water consumed, amazing sunsets.
  • Infinite amounts of smiles, handshakes, hugs, laughs, history, tradition, passion, emotion, and fun.
  • Few poor, less than optimal, or regrettable experiences – a migraine-riddled return trip from Portugal really the only one that comes to mind.

Next is a list of memorable installations of the active holiday, initiated with my main partner in crime Griffin Bohm and continued whenever possible by myself, in addition to going to the gym in Granada whenever I had time and had energy leftover from travelling, which was not often.  I regret not buying a pedometer before I left, as I have never walked so much in my entire life, equal parts due to cultural adaptation, budget-conscious avoidance of public transportation, a desire for fitness, and general restlessness:

  • Riding bikes all over Switzerland with the Faas’, Holland with Anne, Budapest with Griff.

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  • Runs in amazing places, including the Royal Gardens in Madrid, numerous trails around and through the hills above the Alhambra, a deserted Parc Guell at sunrise, and along the Bosporus in Istanbul and Guadalquivir in Sevilla.
  • Swimming in the Rhine River on Swiss Independence Day.
  • A memorable triathlon around Lake Bled consisting of a few laps around the lake on bike, a hike up to a small peak overlooking the lake, and a swim out and back to the cathedral on an island in the middle of the lake, accompanied by the Bohm brothers and some Danish friends from our hostel.

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  • Hikes through the Vingtar Gorge in Slovenia, Plitvice Lakes and an Istrian cave in Croatia, around Zdiar, Slovakia, the Slovensky Raj National Park in the Tatras, Cabo de Gata National Park, a gastronomy hike with some old Spaniards in Quentar, Granada, through the hills of Ronda and other mountains around Granada, and a three-day urban hike through Paris that was so strenuous that I am including it in this section.

  • A few memorable peaks summited, including Tomislov Dom above Zagreb, Stare Spilko in Slovakia, and Mulhacen in Spain.

My trip also took me alongside many major rivers both in the open and alongside and through cities, with I think is cool, including the Rhine, Zurich, Vingtar, Danube, Hlata, Thames, the Stockholm Archipelago, Bosporous Straight, Guadalquivir, Tagus, and Seine.

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Food-wise, I learned a great deal about sourcing local, fresh, seasonal ingredients, cooking in simple and sustainable fashions, and evaluating and appreciating meals in their social and communal as well as nutritious contents.  There were a few moments when I tried local foods that literally made me stop everything else, close my eyes, reflect, and shiver in moments of perfect harmony.  A few of these included:

  • All meals cooked by Hugo Faas (pasta, sausage, potatoes, cheeses, breads, salads, muesli, desserts) and the grandmothers of Loren Ban (fish, pasta, fruit, salads).

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  • Tapas in the San Miguel Market in Madrid (toast with seafood) and at Los Diamantes in Granada (garlic shrimp).

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  • An Indian meal of chicken vindaloo and vegetables in London.

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  • A Kebab from the God of Doner in Istanbul.

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  • Falafel in the Marais Jewish district of Paris.

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  • A Liege waffle outside of the Bruges train station.
  • Gruyere cheese from Switzerland, Gouda from Utrecht, and Comte, Rochefort, and other unnamed creamy variations from Paris.
  • A baguette and croissant from Paris.
  • Tortilla from my host mother.

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My culture shock upon my brief return to the States will largely center around the feeling and customs of Europe.  Everywhere here feels and is so much older than back home, and I have been spoiled and gotten used to walking on cobbled streets past gorgeous, weathered buildings, into massive, beautiful, ornate churches and cathedrals, and over bridges and ruins dating back to Roman eras.  Everything is so much smaller here, whether literally the land mass as well as streets, buildings, cars, people, meals, chairs, or egos.  It has been fun trying to acclimatize myself as much as possible to my surroundings whenever possible, by giving my best attempts at local languages and customs.  I have furiously battled against feeling and acting like a “tourist” as much as possible, but the reality is that it is a role I adore to play.  The good news is that my four-week stopover in Colorado before moving on to Ecuador will not be too long as to fully remove me from my roving mentality, and will only serve as a perfect interlude of rest, family, friends, food, and relaxation before what is sure to be a much different yet equally invigorating experience abroad in the Southern Hemisphere.

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The past five months would not have been possible without the efforts of many people, and I cannot thank enough those who played a role in enabling me to have such a wonderful experience abroad.  My parents, sister, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends provided generous amounts of money, time, and support that facilitated my Eurotrip.  Overarching hospitality, kindness, and generosity by a host of families and individuals in many forms enriched stays, provided crucial insights into customs and traditions, eased the financial burden of traveling, and were most of all fun.  I am confident that I will be able to take a trip to Europe in the future and be able to only see and stay with friends I have made during this time, and it is a blessing and a privilege to count so many great people among the relationships I value in my life.  The amount of fortune I have in my life on so many levels is ridiculous, and I try every day to appreciate and value the amazing opportunities available.  In addition I would like to thank Griff for a simply life-changing journey through Central Europe, all my other friends in Europe, especially Phil “Holz” Greenholz and Max Spiro, for putting up with my constant attempts to connect and meet up – I really appreciate it fellas.  Finally, I would like to reserve this last thank you for my lone bottle of Cholula, which, in the adverse conditions of the Spanish culinary landscape, fought the good fight in a land of oily, under seasoned blandness.

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Fish burger in Stockholm with veggies, fried rosti, lingcod, and spinach
Fish burger in Stockholm with veggies, fried rosti, lingcod, and spinach.

I will miss many things about Granada, and the Big Pomegranate will always retain a special place in my heart.  The city exudes a certain passion and charm that really is indescribable, with Moorish cobbled streets, narrow alleys, white-washed houses, beautiful blue and green ceramic tiles, fields of olive trees rising out of maroon-colored dirt, and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada rising majestically above the timeless Alhambra.  I will miss the old people, dressed nicely and walking everywhere, eating in cafes, going to church, and contentedly brusque and traditional.  I will miss constant winks, touching, and grins, and the sound of birds chirping noisily in tree-covered plazas.  I will miss coming home from class at 2:45 ravenous with hunger and having a great, home-cooked meal waiting on the table.  I will miss my Thursday travel routine: a heaping bowl of spaghetti for lunch, a walk across the city to the bus station, a coach bus ride to the Malaga airport, and a sandwich packed by my host mom for dinner.  I really will miss always being exhausted, which has been a sign of active engagement in awesome places.  I will miss classes always starting 15 minutes late, and containing an attendance requirement that ranks among the hardest aspects of the course (one that I actually did not meet).  I will miss episodes of Anthony Bourdain before bed, and culinary research for upcoming travel destinations.  I will miss cheap, tacky budget airlines like Ryanair.  I will miss the feeling of never sitting still.  I will miss meals from grocery stores, countless amounts of muesli, chili, stir-fries, and ever-evolving hostel specials.  I will miss my host family deeply, despite some traditionalist aspects that could be altered.  But most of all I will fondly remember my time in Granada, as well as my jet-setting around Europe, as an incredibly lucky segment of my life free of many worries and full of adventure, learning, and a release and escape from the monotonous, consumerist aspects of American life.  To follow my spring and summer with such travels has been interesting and yielded revealing results and conclusions worth reflecting upon, and it is clear that a few days short of Christmas, 2013 has been a phenomenal whirlwind of a year.

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Hasta luego,

Max

Max
Political Science • Boulder, Colorado

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