Tales from abroad: Europe
What is traveling if not stumbling across train platforms with bags in tow, meeting strangers in strange lands with unexpected connections, or being completely lost and feeling completely safe at the same time?
I flew into the Frankfurt International Airport one bleary morning in late May of last year to intern at the University of Heidelberg Medical Institutes at Mannheim. I had an address, a phone that I wasn’t sure would work outside of the U.S., and no idea what to do from there. It was terrifyingly exciting.
What I discovered over the course of the next couple of weeks was that Mannheim had both a fast-paced rush and an old-town charm, a certain uniqueness and a comforting normalcy. The Rhine and Neckar rivers run through its industrialized sections, the streets are named after the likes of Wagner and Mozart, and a festival filled to the brim with frothy beer and sausages was dancing with energy in the old city the weekend I arrived.
My suitemates were ambitious business students with flawless English, and had a fair amount of curiosity about my culture, just as I did about theirs. My friends were also foreign students studying at the palace-turned-college University of Mannheim. We had more in common than what was apparent on the surface: college life, our parents’ immigrant experiences, moving around throughout childhood, and more commonplace things like music, movies, and sports.
In terms of sports, Germany’s role in EuroCup 2008 was all the rage. I joined my lab mates in an outdoor viewing of a preliminary match against the Czech Republic. It was pouring, everyone’s shoes were soaked, and even that couldn’t keep these dedicated Mannheimers from cheering on the victorious German team. A couple of weeks later, the win against Turkey in the semifinals caused riots in the streets that rivaled those on Forbes Avenue on Super Bowl night. The pride everyday Germans felt during the Cup was a kind of nationalized emotion, of power behind unity.
If being in Europe during the EuroCup excited the sports enthusiast, being in Europe at all excited the artist and musician within me to even greater amounts. I visited Neuschwanstein Castle in Schwangau, which was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s castle. It was the epitome of medieval fantasies: room after room was filled with detailed paintings of scenes from Richard Wagner’s operas, including maidens with flowing hair and golden rings and knights on galloping horses.
Vienna was a phenomenon within itself. A long time ago, my parents had brought me there and I discovered that I really liked classical music. I saw a beautiful flautist playing wonderful music in the city center of Stephansplatz and decided then that I would also play the flute and one day become her. No flautist was near St. Stephen’s Cathedral this time, but I loved the other street musicians, the mimes in 18th century clothing, the Mozart impersonators/ticket sellers, the outdoor concerts in palace gardens, and the spirited gay rights parade that marched right past the capitol.
Current events presented themselves without much prying. Europeans and Americans alike were eager to discuss topics of the day. Barack Obama took Berlin by storm while I was in Germany, and London’s streets were blocked off for his visit while I romped through other sections of the city. My hosts in Paris pointed out that tourism in the French capital had taken a slight dip due to the absence of many Chinese tourists feeling the sting of Paris’s street riots over the Olympic flame, and at the same time in Munich’s Olympic park, I thought about the legacy Beijing 2008 would leave. It was refreshing to gain insight from many perspectives, to experience multiple ways of cultural thought.
The best thing about traveling is the spontaneity — the unexpected encounters. I’ve never before appreciated the bonding between travelers in a cheap youth hostel, sharing stories, tips, experiences, or “what we do in the real world.” I’ve had the chance to engage in a discussion about global politics with a South Korean exchange student in Munich, about classical music in Vienna with a friend of my parents, about obscure 20th century operas with opera singers in Salzburg, and about, well, Carnegie Mellon with coincidental alums in the upper reaches of the Swiss Alps.
“Roughing it” was a lot more fun; to think about the fact that everything you use you carry on your back and that the best advice is from locals standing in their front yards made bellhops and concierges obsolete. I have been fortunate to receive kindness from strangers, such as the universality of a red umbrella lady’s gesture for me to stand under the umbrella with her in rain-drenched Heidelberg, of well-dressed businessmen still helping me lug my suitcase up never-ending steps in Stuttgart, of missing trains and having the person behind me explain the situation in foreign tongues.
When I got home, I thought of a line by Edgar Allen Poe: “The weary, way-worn wanderer bore/To his own native shore.” Here the skyline wasn’t so foreign, here was a place I knew well, and here I couldn’t revel in the aesthetic of being lost in quite the same way. I was a bit weary, definitely way-worn, and unmistakably returned to my own native shore, but ready for the next adventure.