Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Sampling of Countries

The past week and a half has been like a small sampling platter of little-known countries from Central Europe for us to taste and savor. The first flavor we experienced was seeped in ancient beauty. A busload of students ventured to the village of Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic, where we found Professor Lanier’s description of the town as "a place that never left the 15th century," to be true. Amid the cobblestone streets was a castle and gardens perched upon a hill, a monastery brewing beer, a river meandering through the village, and bears guarding the palace entrance. Danny and I were intrigued by the stores full of marionettes and sweet cinnamon rolls.

The second flavor of the week was brief but luxurious in Ljubljana, Slovenia. On our 15 hour bus transfer from Austria to Croatia we spent the night in this capital city. I was charmed by the mix of old and new architecture, the snow-capped mountains, and new language. In a large group, we ate arguably the best meal on the trip so far, in a traditional Bosnian restaurant. The waitress brought out plate after plate of sumptuous dishes and we gorged ourselves with each course. I didn’t have any preexisting schema to anticipate what Bosnian food tastes like, and I still lack the vocabulary to do it justice, but it was amazing. Meat dishes, salad dishes, breads, it was truly a feast.

The next country we savored was a small village by the Adriatic Sea in Bosnia Herzegovina. We stopped for coffee, treats, and soaked up the sunshine, the first since arriving in Austria. Our journey through Bosnia was on a small two lane highway through curvaceous mountains that brought spectacular views with each twist.

A few more hours of driving and we encountered our final flavor of the summer school course: salty, tropical, and a little gritty; Croatia. We arrived at our hotel and were greeted by the blue clear water and skies of the Adriatic. We are staying in a small ocean village called Mlini, close to the gorgeous, walled city of Dubrovnik.

Our simplistic hotel is the site where less than twenty years prior, the Serbian rebel forces stayed while they bombed the surrounding area. To this day, there are the standing shells of former five star hotels sitting unused and lonely on the coast’s edge. Our lodgings are less accommodating than Danny had anticipated. I laughed at his antics and tried to point out the fact that our room was less than twenty feet from the ocean, but between the overwhelming smell of ant-killer, wiring coming out of the wall, flooding in the bathroom, a nonfunctioning room phone and air conditioner, and finally, a four inch centipede crawling onto the bed, Danny argued our way into a room change.

Since arriving we have indulged in the sand, sun, cold ocean water, boat cruises, island tours, parasailing, kayaking, cave exploring, and visits to Dubrovnik. It has been a delicious change from the cold and dreary days in Austria. Studying has been a near impossibility for all of the law students with the gleam of the sun and water shining in their eyes. Conversely, my biggest challenge and responsibility of the day has been preventing sunburn while I frolic on the beach. We are unquestionably “on vacation” now.

Danny is eager for the ferry ride to Italy, and I am excited to start traveling on our own. There is only one day left of class for Danny, and then a farewell dinner before the law program ends. It has been fantastic meeting and becoming friends with all of the law students from Missouri, Florida, and Atlanta. We share some amazing travel stories and experiences together that we won’t soon forget. We are hoping to take up a few of the offers, and visit our new friends in their respective states.

Until next time (when we will be in Rome!), Do videnja (Good bye in Croatian).

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mauthausen, Concentration Camp

Danny and I just returned from a concentration camp memorial in Mauthausen, Austria. The hair on the back of my neck is standing up just remembering what I saw there. Our group arrived at the memorial and I found the gray and dreary weather fitting for the tense nervousness I felt about entering such a place.

Going into the museum hall, I looked out at the green flowered fields and the walled fortress of the concentration camp and was surprised at its unobtrusiveness. Danny had the same thought and said to me, “If you didn’t know what the history of this building was, you might think it is actually kind of nice.”

We watched a video outlining the atrocities that took place at the concentration camp. The evil of man knows no bounds. Historians estimate that between 200,000 – 300,000 people were killed in this work camp through hard labor, starvation, gassing, or other forms of torture and murder. It was the last concentration camp to be liberated by the Allies.

The theater was dead silent as the film came to an end, and we wiped our tears and headed into the mist outside to see the physical structures that bore witness to the carnage. I have seen videos on the holocaust before, and I have felt the numbness that comes with the knowledge of man’s wickedness, but being there and actually touching, seeing, and breathing in the air of that place is a whole other experience.

Climbing up the hill and through the fortress doors I immediately felt a physical sense of repulsion. I felt the weight of all those souls who had perished here, and was overcome by a strong feeling of evil. The chills I felt up and down my spine and the sudden dryness of my throat were a physical reaction to the anguished and malevolent energy that clung to the buildings. Mauthausen is truly an evil place.

We entered the rooms where prisoners were kept, and it was impossible to not imagine the hundreds of people who died where I was standing. I felt as if the tired eyes of all those tortured spirits were watching my steps and considering my presence silently. I was not alone in that room.

Danny and I came upon the crematorium, a staircase descending into a dark basement below the prison cells, and I could feel swaths of hate pouring out from its underground lair. I did not want to go into this room, I was afraid of this room, but I told myself I should see it, to make it real.

It was real.

The ovens, the body dissecting table, the corpse storage room, all of it was horrendously real. Scrawled on the inside of one of the cells was this message from a prisoner, “If there is a God he will have to beg for my forgiveness.”

As we walked back to our bus, Danny and I both breathed deeply as if we had been holding our breath for the past three hours. I felt like there were eyes on our backs, and I just wanted to distance myself from that place as fast as possible.

Seeing the darkest scars of history raises more questions than gives answers. It makes you search your soul for a purpose behind such suffering. In all the potential for good that humankind has, how does something this depraved happen?

It makes me realize how grateful I am for the freedoms I have, for the life I live. It makes me want to fight against future injustices, and I believe that Danny and I are in a unique position to do just that; Danny through law, and myself through teaching. Hopefully we can make a small contribution towards shaping the world into a better, more tolerant and just place to ensure that these tragedies are not repeated.

Ahh, Venice

Ahh, Venice. Like a cool, refreshing breeze on warm sunny day. Enveloping you, refreshing your spirit, and awakening your mind. How do I describe the beauty and romanticism of this place? I guess I should begin with our journey there.

Driving through the Austrian Alps towards Italy was stunning. Again, we were privy to witness a place where the heavens come down to touch the earth. Clouds huddled toward the upper reaches of snowcapped rock, misting the earth. Once parted, they revealed a world below of intense colors; sharp blue skies and searing green valleys, an image that my eyes won’t soon forget. It felt as if the colors in this part of the world were painted in a vivid hue that awakened the mind.

As we drove, Danny and I both felt a certain domicile pride. We were traversing the land of our forefathers and mothers. We passed by signs for Udine, the town where my great-grand parents had lived, and crossed the border into Italy where signs suddenly shifted into Italian and Danny beamed.

As we approached closer to Venice the air became salty and gained the humidity of a sea town. Danny and I practiced out of our Italian phrase book with growing enthusiasm. When we finally arrived onto the island and stepped out of the train station, the stunning beauty of picturesque Venice, took me off guard. It was every bit as beautiful as photographs I had seen and then some. Pictures could never capture the sounds, smells, and motion of the town.

Everywhere we looked there were boats of all sizes zooming by with their engines humming merrily. Tourists moved through the streets with vendors selling their wares and calling out in Italian the day’s specials. Sea birds cried from the air above and swooped in to grab scraps of unwatched food. And everywhere we went were the soothing sounds of water lapping onto ancient city walls in the wake of all the gondolas, water taxis, and motor boats.

And the smells! As we slowly made our way through the tangled streets to our hotel, each corner effused a new delicious smell. Fresh baked cheese pizza, a sea food market, pasta with white sauce, garlic bread, and a sweets store. My mouth was watering as Danny declared, “I’m going to eat my way through this city!”

When we found our hotel, we were pleasantly surprised. Our expectations were outdone as we were led up to our room and the doorman threw back the blinds. From the fourth floor, our corner room had four windows looking out over San Marco’s square, the Basilica, and canals being traversed with gondolas.

Without a doubt, Venice is the most romantic place I have ever been. The air was thick with the languid warmth of love. Couples walked hand in hand, musicians played passionate melodies on every street corner, and lovers unexpectedly paired off to dance. It was if every couple had slipped into their own private space, glowing with the drunkenness of the honeymoon, tightly wrapped in a love cocoon.

Danny and I were immediately enveloped in the mood of the city, purposefully getting lost in the winding streets and alleys, only to find our way out again. We ate some of the best food of our lives. Pasta, seafood (I tried octopus, snails, and mussels!), pizza, and gelato. Oh! The gelato! Every corner had a stand, and I tried five different flavors – I was truly in heaven. Danny ate the best and worst pizza of his life all in the same day. We went on a gondola ride with friends, shopped, ate romantic meals, toured the palace, took in the sights, and attended Mass at the Basilica on Sunday.

Danny and I laughed hysterically as we watched the Italians “communicate” with each other. For example, two little boys were playing with toy cars, and launched them flying into the air off a banister while their mother and grandmother weren’t looking. Immediately both women launched into a rapid diatribe in Italian, scolding the boys for their poor manners and grandma reached to smack one on the head. Danny burst out laughing, fondly remembering similar stories about his grandmother. Another example, Danny and I were walking through a side street in a residential area and a man started screaming in Italian, in a tone that made Danny pick up the pace and look back concerned. Danny later explained that he might not understand the words, but that tone was unmistakable, it was the “I’m-so-mad-I’m-about-to-throw-something” tone. Hand movements and animated faces were present in every Italian conversation. Strangers’ faces in the street had uncanny resemblance to various branches of Danny’s family tree. And Danny felt completely at home, jokingly pointing out the various ways that his fatherland was superior to my own. (I will give him the concession that Italian food is far better than Austrian food.)

Three days in Venice was not enough time to truly appreciate and take in the city. Danny and I quickly decided that, of all the places we have been, Venice was the one we want to revisit in the future.

So, as I wrote at the beginning, to summarize my thoughts, I can do it in only one way…

Ahh, Venice (sigh).