What Traveling Alone Through Europe For Two Months Taught Me

What Traveling Alone Through Europe For Two Months Taught Me

A 20-year-old woman's thoughts on history, the importance of not working too much, and rediscovering one's joy.

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At the start of this past summer, I, like most other college students I know, found myself in a state of utter burnout. I had been devoting every ounce of my energy to my studies, working, fighting for a turbulent relationship, applying to internship opportunities, and trying to find even a moment of free time for myself—an often-futile task. I had been willingly pledging myself to helping others with errands, babysitting, and offering physical and emotional support whenever I could, and as much as I was happy to do it, it left me with nothing for myself, until I one day, feeling both defeated and exhausted, knew I needed to be the one to make a change.

My mother is from Germany, so I had spent much of my childhood summers running across the fields adjacent the Rhine River, playing for hours on end with my brother as my grandma and mom watched over us. That feeling of spending time in a different place with different values, customs, and culture resonated with me, even at a young age, and made me always have a longing to get away from the familiar. Upon finding that I needed a break from my day-to-day, I worked and worked to save up as much money as I could to spend an indefinite amount of time abroad in Europe.

After a four-month work binge, I had saved about $2000, booked a one-way ticket to my first destination—Copenhagen, Denmark—and decided to plan the trip as I went along for the rest of the way. Although an undoubtedly risky decision, I could take my schooling with me online and I had several family friends living in various countries with whom I could stay, so my biggest concern became learning how to get from Point A to Point B wherever I ended up.

Two months later, I had explored the hip, yet history-laden, streets of Christianshavn and the anarchist republic of Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen; I had marveled at the picturesque castles of Sweden, and danced down the street to the tune of ABBA's Arrival album; I had learned how to country-hop by train, how to survive on fifteen euros for a week when my debit card was stolen and no ATM would accept my credit card, and where to find food when restaurants and supermarkets were closed on Sundays in Germany; I had hiked up one of the tallest mountains in the South of France to a town established at the turn of the century, swam in ice-cold rivers that flowed through steep gorges, and fell in love with La Socca, a thin, airy bread made of chickpea flour, water, and olive oil that is an essential (and indescribably delicious) part of Niçoise cuisine.

The places I visited themselves were beautiful beyond compare, but it was the people that allowed me to live a thousand lives in a limited number of days that were the most bewitching of all. I dined on roasted vegetables with Danish hippies on a patch of grass beneath the shade of one of the commune's lush oak trees, discussing the beauty of nature and man's over-complication of life; I was spontaneously educated by a retired German art dealer after staring at a painting I couldn't quite understand for the better part of an hour; I partied poolside with the crew members of a mega yacht docked in Antibes, listening to stories travels to exotic islands around the world with neurotic celebrities and impossibly wealthy public figures; I laughed with an English-Ukrainian physics teacher beneath a statue we did not know was famous until a group of tourists started taking what we thought were pictures of us; and I watched from a cozy window seat as hundreds of mothers and fathers took their children to school each morning on foot or by bike, relishing in that quality time.

"This. This is what life is about," I thought, almost daily.

I returned home completely out of money and exhausted, but what I took away from that trip was worth more than any amount of money could ever buy. After visiting countless churches and cathedrals with needle-like spires, intricate stained-glass windows, and almost unbelievable murals, I began to wonder how many souls had passed through those doors, had lit a candle for a loved one, or had prayed for a miracle on those pews. Walking down cobblestone alleyways and up steep, cliff-side steps I dreamt of the journeys of billions before me, just trying to survive and thrive in their own times. What had it taken back then to be great? Did they know something we don't? I imagined the simple, handheld tools and countless hours spent toward constructing the elaborate roofs that sloped almost poetically. How is it that modern structures crumble more in one decade now than others have in one century? Where did such skill, craftsmanship, and, most importantly, patience go?

Despite several places back home in America having these ornate features too (for example, St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City), what is it about Europe that keeps even the families who have lived on the same streets or in the same houses for hundreds of years always in awe of these commonplace things? I noticed most locals never lost that glimmer in their eyes of love for their home, their history, and their future…so why do we? Has The American Dream really become just about materialism and having everything the way we feel it should be or want it to be? Why can't we accept and love things for how they are? When did enough become never enough?

Another aspect of European culture that struck me as beautiful and missing across the pond, is the recognition that prioritizing working over everything, although it may provide a living, is not living. In Copenhagen, fifty percent of the city's working population bicycles to work, rain, snow, sleet, or shine, every day so that both taking in nature and one's own health can be among the morning's first priorities.

Most Danish employers allow their employees to adjust their work schedules to better accommodate their families' needs; both the father and mother are granted one year of ma/paternity leave if the couple has a child on the way; and during the summer, on days where the sun is shining and a slight breeze billows over the harbor, you'd be hard-pressed to find people indoors, even after a long day's work. Similarly, in Germany, government and regional holidays or days of observation mean both working adults and school-age children are given the day off to spend time with their families; as aforementioned, most shops and restaurants must be closed on Sundays for the same reason; and every employer is required to give each of their employees a minimum of four weeks paid leave.

So why do all of these statistics matter? Simply because a level work-life balance enables people to live, to enjoy their lives on their own or with those they care about, while also not having to sacrifice basic human necessities. Some rightfully argue that Europe isn't all joy and butterflies, and that's true. I acknowledge that each individual country, people, and culture have a plethora of issues, but who or what doesn't? Another argument is that what "they" have could never work here in America because of scale or deep-rooted value/cultural differences or practices, but has anyone really tried some of these centuries-old practices here for a long enough period to see what the result(s) could be? When did the importance of the pursuit of things overtake the pursuit of happiness?

Creating excuses is a mechanism that helps downplay one's fear, and most often of the unknown. I left America to escape my excusing others' inexcusable actions and feeling like I had been pouring from an empty cup for too long in a place I felt stuck in. This trip was me looking myself in the eyes and declaring, "No more, you deserve to be happy too!" It was not until I took myself by the hand and lifted myself out of my rut that I was able to finally fully embrace that truth. No one thing, feeling, or person is going to swoop in and save the day unless we can acknowledge that everything we have needed to walk forward has been here with us all along. Of course, however, it was the kindness, simplicity, outlooks, and laughs of each person that I met along the way that made the fear of taking those first steps, and the subsequent joy found, all the more worth it—fueling my growth, shifting my perspective, and encouragingly nudging me farther down my life's path, ever-toward the things that set my soul on fire. Find what ignites you, and do not be afraid of it. Run toward it.

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I Visited The "Shameless" Houses And Here's Why You Shouldn't

Glamorizing a less-than-ideal way to live.
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After five hours of driving, hearing the GPS say "Turn right onto South Homan Avenue" was a blessing. My eyes peeled to the side of the road, viciously looking for what I have been driving so long for, when finally, I see it: the house from Shameless.

Shameless is a hit TV show produced by Showtime. It takes place in modern-day Southside, Chicago. The plot, while straying at times, largely revolves around the Gallagher family and their continual struggle with (extreme) poverty. While a majority of the show is filmed offsite in a studio in Los Angeles, many outside scenes are filmed in Southside and the houses of the Gallagher's and side-characters are very much based on real houses.

We walked down the street, stopped in front of the two houses, took pictures and admired seeing the house in real life. It was a surreal experience and I felt out-of-place like I didn't belong there. As we prepared to leave (and see other spots from the show), a man came strolling down on his bicycle and asked how we were doing.

"Great! How are you?"

It fell silent as the man stopped in front of the Gallagher house, opened the gate, parked his bike and entered his home. We left a donation on his front porch, got back to the car and took off.

As we took the drive to downtown Chicago, something didn't sit right with me. While it was exciting to have this experience, I began to feel a sense of guilt or wrongdoing. After discussing it with my friends, I came to a sudden realization: No one should visit the "Gallagher" house.

The plot largely revolves the Gallagher family and their continual struggle with (extreme) poverty. It represents what Southside is like for so many residents. While TV shows always dramatize reality, I realized coming to this house was an exploitation of their conditions. It's entertaining to see Frank's shenanigans on TV, the emotional roller coasters characters endure and the outlandish things they have to do to survive. I didn't come here to help better their conditions, immerse myself in what their reality is or even for the donation I left: I came here for my entertainment.

Southside, Chicago is notoriously dangerous. The thefts, murders and other crimes committed on the show are not a far-fetched fantasy for many of the residents, it's a brutal reality. It's a scary way to live. Besides the Milkovich home, all the houses typically seen by tourists are occupied by homeowners. It's not a corporation or a small museum -- it's their actual property. I don't know how many visitors these homes get per day, week, month or year. Still, these homeowners have to see frequent visitors at any hour of the day, interfering with their lives. In my view, coming to their homes and taking pictures of them is a silent way of glamorizing the cycle of poverty. It's a silent way of saying we find joy in their almost unlivable conditions.

The conceit of the show is not the issue. TV shows have a way of romanticizing very negative things all the time. The issue at hand is that several visitors are privileged enough to live in a higher quality of life.

I myself experienced the desire and excitement to see the houses. I came for the experience but left with a lesson. I understand that tourism will continue to the homes of these individuals and I am aware that my grievances may not be shared with everyone -- however, I think it's important to take a step back and think about if this were your life. Would you want hundreds, potentially thousands, of people coming to your house? Would you want people to find entertainment in your lifestyle, good and bad?

I understand the experience, excitement, and fun the trip can be. While I recommend skipping the houses altogether and just head downtown, it's most important to remember to be respectful to those very individuals whose lives have been affected so deeply by Shameless.

Cover Image Credit: itsfilmedthere.com

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For Camille, With Love

To my godmother, my second mom, my rooted confidence, my support

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First grade, March. It was my first birthday without my mom. You through a huge party for me, a sleepover with friends from school. It included dress up games and making pizza and Disney trivia. You, along with help from my grandma, threw me the best birthday party a 7-year-old could possibly want.

During elementary school, I carpooled with you and a few of the neighborhood kids. I was always the last one to be dropped off, sometimes you would sneak a donut for me. Living next door to you was a blessing. You helped me with everything. In second grade, you helped me rehearse lines for history day so I could get extra credit. In 4th grade, you helped me build my California mission.

You and your sister came out to my 6th grade "graduation". You bought me balloons and made me feel as if moving onto middle school was the coolest thing in the entire world.

While you moved away from next door, you were a constant in my life. Going to Ruby's Diner for my birthday, seeing movies at the Irvine Spectrum and just hanging out, I saw you all the time. During these times, you told me about all of the silly things you did with my mom and dad, how my mom was your best friend. I couldn't have had a greater godmother.

In middle school, you pushed me to do my best and to enroll in honors. You helped me through puberty and the awkward stages of being a woman.

Every single time I saw you, it would light up my entire day, my week. You were more than my godmother, you were my second mom. You understood things that my grandma didn't.

When you married John, you included me in your wedding. I still have that picture of you, Jessica, Aaron and myself on my wall at college. I was so happy for you.

Freshmen year of high school, you told me to do my best. I did my best because of you. When my grandma passed away that year, your shoulder was the one I wanted to cry on.

You were there when I needed to escape home. You understood me when I thought no one would. You helped me learn to drive, letting me drive all the way from San Clemente to Orange.

When I was applying to colleges, you encouraged me to spread my wings and fly. You told me I should explore, get out of California. I wanted to study in London, you told me to do it. That's why, when I study abroad this Spring in London, I will do it for you.

When I had gotten into UWT, you told me to go there. I did and here I am, succeeding and living my best in Tacoma. I do it for you, because of you.

When I graduated high school and I was able to deliver a speech during our baccalaureate, you cheered me on. You recorded it for me, so I could show people who weren't able to make it to the ceremony. You were one of the few people able to come to my actual graduation. You helped me celebrate the accomplishments and awards from my hard work.

When your cancer came back, I was so worried. I was afraid for you, I was afraid of what I would do without the support you had always given me. When I was in Rome, I went to the Vatican and had gotten a Cross with a purple gem in the middle blessed by the Pope to help you with your treatments. It was something from me and a little bit of my mom in the necklace, the gem.

Now, sitting so far from you away at college just like you wanted me to. I miss you. I wish I was there to say goodbye.

I'll travel the world for you, write lots of stories and books for you, I will live life to the fullest for you.

You are another angel taken too early in life. Please say hello to my parents and grandma in Heaven for me.

Lots of love,

Haiden

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