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Europe Archives - St. Stephen's University

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.

What’s in a Name

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Europe is a place of culture, history and apparently the very hot sun. I have the opportunity to travel to seven of these beautiful countries. Each sharing their back stories with the young Canadian. On this trip we’ve had the opportunity to visit some very important historical sites. Some uplifting and inspiring while others hold a dark and tormented past. However, a common connection is the tagging. Mainly during the long train rides, bus rides and countryside have I noticed graffiti. An harmless and colorful activity that people ensue to leave a mark. To them it may not seem like some random word written in a public space but instead, their mark.

Yet, I have also noticed that in places such as the Mauthausen Memorial/Concentration Camp and Hitler’s bunker there were an abundance of names engraved into the wall. The people seem to be from all over the world, from different years ranging from 1989 to 2017, reminders to “Never Forget” and couples writing “2gether 4eva”. I cannot help to think what drive do people have writing their names or whatever else on the walls of these types of places. Why on earth would people want to associate their namesake in places where hundreds of people suffered and passed or where a notorious dictator had once walked himself. It is understandable for people to want to remember or show that they were present in this place at one point in time, however, why leave an everlasting mark in a place where chaos and death ensued? I cannot help but wonder how people came to terms with making that decision but their name is now forever in the halls of the underground or remains of a former prison.

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

By | 2017, Europe | No Comments

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.

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.

History is Deep and the World Was Created by Others

By | 2017, Europe | No Comments

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

By | 2017, Europe | No Comments

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.

Tourizing a Culture: Juxtaposition of Tourism and Pilgrimage

By | 2017, Europe | No Comments
Tourizing a Culture… interesting title, you may say. This guy has issues with tourism. Does he not understand that he is a tourist himself on this European excursion.The answer is that I do have an issue with tourism, and I do not consider myself a tourist. I’ll explain. Okay, so, it may be true that I fit the tourist stereotype with my camouflage backpack, cutoff jeans and water bottle (that leaks when you lay it on its side). Whether or not I look like a tourist, I don’t feel like one (or I don’t like to feel like one). What defines me as an other-than-tourist is my disposition of heart.

Okay, so if you’re not a tourist, than what do you define yourself as? A hillbilly lemming or a student just wanting to complete his BA? Though both terms may be moderately accurate, I define myself as a pilgrim.

What’s the difference then between being a tourist or a pilgrim? From my experience on this European adventure, and from many academic discussions with profs and peers on this topic, I have concluded a pilgrim to be a giver and a tourist to be a consumer. As I mentioned, the defining feature between a tourist and pilgrim is disposition of heart. The monks of Montserrat, Spain, define a pilgrim “as a person on an outward journey with an internal quest“.

A pilgrim intentionally seeks inner transformation through geography, place, culture and its history.

A pilgrim has to outwardly seek experience other than his or her own with an intentional curiosity and with a desire for inner transformation. She then can encounter place, culture and history as gift.

A pilgrim allows his experience to transcend his spirit, while a tourist allows their experience to expand their photo collection and trinket accumulation while encountering cultural history from a place of ignorance. Tourists ignorantly rob culture of its voice and history by making “cultural experience” a sport.

“A pilgrim has to outwardly seek experience other than his or her own with an intentional curiosity and with a desire for inner transformation.”

It saddens me to visit historical hallmarks such as St. Paul’s cathedral in London, England, and the Colosseum in Rome, Italy, as being caterers to tourism rather than sites of pilgrimage.

Visiting Assisi, Italy, we were greeted as “dear pilgrims” by a Fransician priest, Fr. Klaus. It hit me that my being here was not to seek out what I could consume from Assisi, but to listen to what Assisi wanted to say to me personally in relation to the whole of humanity in its wonderful difference. It is apparent that Christ spoke to St. Francis through the iconographic crucifix of San Damiano, asking Francis “to rebuild my Church that is falling into ruin around you”. I waited in the silence of San Damiano and there I heard the place and its history speak. It spoke the same words “rebuild my Church”. Because I did not go looking for what was lost to me, I was found.

This place and culture revealed to me my internal quest. After this experience I stepped into a “tourist” shop with a pilgrim’s heart and carefully chose a San Damiano cross as a reminder that I, like St. Francis and so many other pilgrims of beauty, am meant to rebuild Christ’s Church (an expression of love) by sharing the gift of love with all those I meet and think about. As I approach life, cultures and humanity in this way, I hope to become a competent giver and not a tourizer.

A Vast Empire

By | 2017, Europe | No Comments

I remember the first time I ever saw a Roman aqueduct. When I was about six or seven years old my family took a trip through Syria. I specifically remember being really excited about it because we had learned about them in class not long before. It was three arches high and seemed to stretch on forever.

Being from a place that was no stranger to Roman ruins, I found a particular interest in these systems. The first running water in history and how much these masterpieces have shaped society all around the world is fascinating to think about.

Yesterday we toured the town of Perugia, in Italy. When we were heading to supper, I had the great joy of getting to walk on one that had been turned into a path. As I stood on the cobblestone path built so long ago, I was instantly brought back to seeing the aqueducts in the Middle East. In the moment of reminiscing on childhood memory one thought came to me. I was just in Rome the other day, and now I’m standing in one of the greatest architectural achievements of their empire. Thinking back to the ones in Syria I was suddenly hit with the true span of the empire the Romans had. Thinking about how far away the Middle East is and how they have the same things built by the same people really hit me hard. I always knew the Romans had a massive empire that reached the Middle East, but thinking about how far away I am has been on my mind lately. These last few days have really put into perspective for me how vast and great the empire truly was.

If I Ruled the World

By | 2017, Europe | No Comments

If I ruled the world, how would I do it? How could I lead a multi-everything society without excluding or “othering” those who are different than me? I don’t know. I don’t really think that anybody knows. But while we may not have the exact answer, we have to try harder to find a way for harmonious co-existence and the longer I am in Europe the more convinced I become that secularism is not the answer.  

Secularism cuts to the core of what it means to be a human being. If religion and faith in their many forms are an integral aspect of the human experience then secularism, by its very nature, rends the sacred unity between man and the “something more” that he seeks to understand and express. While Europe’s recourse to secularism is understandable given the history of religious wars in this part of the world, I can’t help but wonder if they are somehow shooting themselves in the foot. In another chapter of the world’s history, terrible things were done in Communist Russia when a man tried to implement a political system that was intentionally bereft of God.

Clearly, as the future ruler of this culturally diverse world, the path ahead of me is complex, burdened with a vast history of religious injustice and systemic exclusion of the “other”. However, perhaps what the world needs most is not the separation of church and state but the collaboration of educated multi-faith leaders who are passionate, political and people minded.