Nameless

By | 2017, Europe | No Comments

You are led up a path amidst a crowd of so many others. Humiliation quickly becomes your new state of living due to the treatment of your captors. Everything you own is taken from you – your clothes, hair, individuality, and even your most precious possession: your name. In exchange for all this, you are given a new identity – a simple number, a resource to be exploited for as long as possible but as short as necessary.

This scene plays through my mind as I walked through the Mauthausen Concentration Camp Memorial, trying to imagine what it might have been like to be a prisoner there during the Second World War. These thoughts make me wonder how the prisoners would have reacted to this dehumanizing process. I imagine that if I were standing in their place, I would probably try to maintain a hold on the dignity I knew that I inherently possessed as a human being. As time passed, however, I would probably soon despair and allow myself to believe that I was worthless and lacked dignity.

I wonder if these thoughts of mine could have been similar to what prisoners felt during the war or if they found a way to remind themselves, and each other, that they are more than just a number. Were they able to find and maintain a personal identity despite the fact that it was their identity that had been stolen from them in the first place? If so, how? Unfortunately, these are questions that I may never find the answers to unless I were to find myself in the same situation.

Forging Identity

By | 2017, Europe | One Comment

As I gaze back on the road we’ve traveled to date, I see the theme of identity steadily journeying alongside. This travel term has surfaced questions about who I am and where I belong, as travel tends to do, and I see the same questions being asked by the different nations we visit and defining their past and present narrative.

On a day trip to Girona, Italy, our tour guide Alex said that identity is fiction and “you choose the identities you want to embrace.” What an interesting thought he had. I guess I had never considered how much we are in control of our identities. At the same time, we cannot help what associations others have with our identity or what they are perceiving.

In Catalonia, the fight to preserve identity continues. The Catalan’s are unable to fully embrace their desired identity in part because of the larger state of Spain. They want to speak freely in their native tongue and continue their traditional customs but certain laws and the constant flow of tourism makes this next to impossible.

Slovakia’s budding identity is still forming as the post-Soviet nation has only emerged from Austro-Hungarian despot in the last 100 years. The ability to explore individual identity and private investment is still new to them and the messy tension of that transition is apparent.

The German identity has been so profoundly impacted by Nazism that, when speaking with them, it feels as though WWII happened yesterday. The events of the war are present in the minds and hearts of German people, informing the way they see themselves more significantly than I had imagined. Their history is in the open.

Identity is always shifting, growing, deconstructing and reconstructing. As much as identity is fiction it is real, fought over, and sacrificed for. I’ve found that the very questions permeating my curious heart are the same questions that have followed humanity in every place it has called home. It’s been amazing to see first hand evidence of the rise and fall of vast empires and to see human beings, consistently in suspense and incomplete, remain through it all.

A Truer Kind of Love

By | 2017, Europe | One Comment

The past couple of weeks in Austria, Slovakia, and Germany have left me grateful for the opportunity to gain a new understanding of WWII as I interact with material remains of its history. A few days ago, we visited a bunker which had been constructed for Hitler’s use, and was never completed. It has now been transformed into a museum called Dokumentationszentrum Obersalzberg, which focuses on Hitler’s regime and rise to power. Much of the information offered at the museum spoke in detail about how Hitler was able to gain such widespread support for his ideology.

For one, National Socialism made a habit of using propaganda to influence the masses. What really put the nail in the coffin, though, was a concept called ‘volksgemeinschaft’. ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ spoke of a shared “language, history [and] blood” passed on from one Germanic generation to another. This identity, according to Hitler, was superior to all others, and needed to be preserved. This vein of thinking insisted that ‘others’ who did not share this identity be excluded or eliminated in order to preserve and protect its purity.

The call to exclusion, however, was hidden behind the hope and promise of unity. In one speech, Hitler addressed himself to German workers, promising a united people free from the separation of class. His regime proposed programs that made vehicles and vacations accessible to lower income families, for example. The problem with the unity that Hitler offered, besides the glaring issue of violent exclusion and genocide, was that it was a unity that insisted on sameness.

It was interesting for me to connect some of the teachings we have learned in class on difference to what had played out in this dark moment in history. On the surface, playing off differences between people, offering a “we’re all the same in the end,” is a great way to avoid conflict and live in harmony. The reality, however, is that this mindset can actually be quite harmful. Rather than building bridges, this way of interaction does not acknowledge the reality of differences – and sometimes big ones – between people. Yet differences make up our identities. They are, in some ways, who we are. Rather than ignoring them, we can, and must, embrace differences, remembering that they create space for authenticity, dialogue, beauty, and a truer kind of love for one another.

Mutual Suffering

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The train was sweltering. We were traveling from Vienna to France, although this particular train would only take us as far as Germany. Along with our group of 25 and many other miscellaneous travellers, there was a group of 15 or 20 girls. These girls were the catalyst for what I now dub the worst train ride of my life.

For one, they were loud, very loud. As they yelled cheers and sang songs together, I wondered if the consequences for murder were as severe in Europe as they are in North America. They also had no consideration for other people on the train, as they sprayed hair spray and painted their nails in the very confined train that had no openable windows. Luckily none of them sat next to me, instead I was with a different man who’s name I never caught.

We didn’t talk much, maybe 10 words all together, but the bond we formed on that train was one or true suffering, one I will remember for the rest of my life. Misery loves company as they say. It started when the girls sang their first song together; we shared a look of annoyance and both rolled our eyes as our ears were assaulted with multiple high, cheery voices. As the train got hotter, we shared sighs of torment as we fanned ourselves for dear life. When our ears popped from pressure changes, I offered him a piece of gum, the only verbal interaction we had.

In the end I never got his name, I never even learned what language he spoke. Yet in that moment we understood each other; we were comrades in agony. Suffering is universal, regardless of your background, and that day I discovered that you do not need to understand a person’s language to understand them.

A Break from My Comfortable Reality

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At the beginning of our trip, we discussed the idea of liminal space, and how we would be taking a break from our comfortable reality. In travelling, we are suspending ourselves from our everyday experiences, to instead, learn in an experiential way. We have been given the opportunity to experience things that wouldn’t be as easily understood, if it had been taught in a classroom. This style of learning is what makes the knowledge gained more meaningful, tangible, and unique. Considering all of the sites and cities we’ve visitedand everything that we’ve learned and experienced, we’ve come to understand that breaking from our reality iboth substantial and valuable. 

Memorable is the time we rode the crowded London underground, to visit the British Museum. Where we viewed the unimaginably vast collection of ancient artifacts and paintings, that helped me establish a better appreciation for history interacting through art. Travelling through the outskirts of Barcelonawe visited Montserrat where my close friend and I had the chance to climb the serrated mountainside. In this experience, I gained a clearer appreciation for life. Something often obtained in good company, with a breathtaking view of natures grandeur. 

After this, we traveled to Rome, where we walked through the historic site of the Roman Forum. Surrounded by the ruins of ancient architecture, in a city that is so modern, reminds me how far humanity has come, without being able to forget how much further we still have to goIn Perugiaentering the remains of the city’s historic castle, we learned about its captivating history. Having been preserved and embracedthis history now shapes its future generations.

It wasn’t until I was walking through Mauthausen Concentration Camp Memorial in Vienna, that I had looked down at my feet, and realized the places I’ve been over the last six weeks. Experiential learning gave us this opportunity to be so immersed within culture and history, and it will continue to change our intentionality about the way we live our lives. Having travelled  outside the comfort of my previous reality, I discovered that what I’ve learned has expanded my worldview so much, that when I return back home, my reality will be different.


Me standing on the cobblestone of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp Memorial.

As I Am

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Before I even left for this wondrous and harrowing adventure, I was struggling with the idea that my spirituality wasn’t up to snuff. The struggle became more prominent after a mere two weeks. My devout classmates made me question my interactions with God. Was I only paying the bare minimum dues or was I not even close?

Through prayer, I ask for strength, then I try to remember to show gratitude. That’s the extent of our relationship. Sharing my spirituality is hard, so anything besides silent prayer makes me feel more awkward than usual. This will be the first time I publicly talk about my faith and quite possibly the last (depending on the response I get).

In Florence, I came face to face with Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene. She was wretched – nothing but skin, bones, and scraggly hair. She was pleading through her brokenness, pleading for someone to give her a chance. She was beautiful.

Penitent Magdalene

 

She helped me realize that I should not be ashamed to approach God as I am. My spirituality doesn’t look like my peers’, but why should that mean it isn’t valid? Mary Magdalene was readily accepted by God despite her sinful past. I had spent so much time worried that I would be barred from heaven for a whole lot less.

My spirituality is not less because it is private. I can praise God behind closed doors and not feel guilty because others sing for the world to hear. I’m not a bad Christian because I don’t have the Bible memorized. These are things I’m trying to believe. If Mary Magdalene found her own way to live faithfully, then I can too.

Different Deities Have Dignity Too

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I was perfectly content admiring the depictions of Christ in just about every section of Western European history in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Each one was beautiful to me, and I took a moment to give attention to each piece. When I began to walk down a hall filled with images of Hindu gods, I did not have the same reaction. I thought they were boring, portraying the same four armed goddesses over and over again. As if struck with lightning, I suddenly realized how hypocritical that was!

Vasudhara

I would feel indignant if someone looked at the medieval crucifixes and thought they were uninteresting because it was the same image of a man on a cross, but I was completely refusing to connect with the Hindu art because they weren’t my culture. To think the gods of another culture are boring without making an effort to understand them disrespects what they mean to the people who hold it as a symbol intrinsic to their faith and culture. Even if I do not agree or even understand the images, it does not mean that they are any less worthy of dignity and respect.

The goddess I got to know is the goddess of abundance, Vasudhara; her name means “holding the treasure”, because in her arms she holds symbols of knowledge, teaching, and fertility. These are virtues that both Hindu and Christian culture can agree are treasures worth asking a deity for an abundance of.

History is Deep and the World Was Created by Others

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Traveling through a continent with thousands of years of documented history as a 24 year-old North American causes you to feel small in the right way. We are traveling through these cities (London, Barcelona, Rome, Perugia and now Vienna) which have been here since at least the Roman times and in the cases of Rome and Perugia even further back (Rome was founded in ~700bc).

The theme for our travel term this time is ‘seeing the other’ and really I think this theme is more of a skill or a practice that one takes part in all the way through your life’s journey. Whether at home or abroad, learning to grasp another’s reality, or at least to attempt to imaginatively empathize with their experiences, is so valuable. In this process, of seeing from another’s perspective, in sharing experiences and dialoguing, we are enabled to encounter wonder, depth, worth and excitement anew.

Discovering how artwork, a stroll down a city street or a tour of medieval Italy is meaningful or impactful for someone else in a way that is other than your experience is integral aspect of learning to come to a deeper sense of appreciation. Sometimes, it’s not a thing in and of itself that we find alluring or intriguing, but rather the dialogue, passion and curiosity that surrounds it that we feel drawn to.

This travel term has had many rich and deep points of contact with history. Coming into contact with the ways in which peoples of the past interacted with the world around them (in  building great Cathedrals, vast underground metro systems, communal squares, elaborate statues or tower-houses) and contemplating these past lives together has helped to deepen my desire to know more about the lives of those who lived life together before us. For me, it’s here in this question where ‘seeing the other’ becomes a journey into a great unknown.

As I explore and learn more and more about what people’s lives were like in the past, and who they were, I find that I come to deeper sense and appreciation for where I am now and how the world I’m existing in came to be built. I find that I come to a better sense of who I am and how I am supposed to function in this world that has been passed down to me. We don’t need to be overly nostalgic or lost in the past but we also can’t be historical amnesiacs. We should know, how the society we have inherited was created, otherwise we’re less likely to steward it properly, or hand it on to our grandkids in a respectful manner.

 

Seeing A Lot More of the Other Than Expected

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Nudity. It’s not that I wasn’t expecting it. After all, Rick Steves does warn his readers in his book, Travel as a Political Act, about the German baths that he went to and the couple both stripping down shamelessly in front of him as if it was nothing (at least that’s how I envisioned it). I was expecting (or at least aware of it coming to Europe), but I guess it just feels different living it out when you’re in the midst of it.

Whether it is tourists feeling the freedom of being in a place no one knows them or a different cultural value placed on nakedness, it is a sight that anyone needs to prepare for before coming. The normalisation of nakedness in Europe made me wonder whether nakedness is more taboo in North America. Some people might see it as a dirty thing, however I think a significant percentage of people believe the human body to be good, beautiful and true, and that it is worth protecting its sacredness.

Some might believe their body’s sacredness should be protected, but if you’re ever visiting any European beaches, be ready to possibly witness the freedom exercised by grannies with no tan lines, or any age or gender for that matter.

Travelling Well

By | 2017, Europe | No Comments

I’ve been learning a lot about tourism and the different effects that it has on the local people of each region. This trip to Europe has shown me that there are both pros and cons to the growing convenience of travel. There is a stark contrast between well known tourist destinations and other cities that are off the beaten path.

While London, Rome, and Barcelona are packed with fascinating historical and cultural icons, I have heard from locals and I have felt as a tourist myself that the identities of the people of these famous cities have been altered due to the impact of tourists. Catering to herds of tourists each day has stretched the patience of some, and being confronted with homemade posters saying “Tourists, go home” has left me pondering some bigger questions about intercultural competence.

In these classic tourist areas, I can see that it is important to be respectful and aware that while, yes, Westminster Abbey is amazing, there are busy local people also sharing the same sidewalk! To me, travelling well has become a balance of taking in the sights and sounds of each place while practicing blending in with the local rhythms of daily life. I am still working on the skills it takes to be a better tourist, but it is exciting to take steps in the right direction.