December 04, 2017

For the early years of my life, being Jewish meant double the presents around the holiday season, bagels in Sunday morning Hebrew school, free Bar Mitzvah sweatshirts, and a few extra days off school in September. My Jewish identity was held between celebrations and traditions, family gatherings and songs.

I don’t remember when I first heard the word “Holocaust,” but I remember being treated differently than the other students when we started learning about World War II in fifth grade. In sixth grade, I had Holocaust jokes hurled at me for the first time. In ninth grade, I visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C., well aware that I had family who perished in the execution of 6 million Jews in Europe. When I went to Western Europe and Israel in my senior year of high school, I touched my heritage with my hands; tangibly getting a taste of the Jewish experience on the continent. After visiting synagogues and Jewish quarters, I finally began to truly process what it meant to come from a long line of European Jews and how much my ancestors have struggled for thousands of years to get the Jewish people where they are today.

No experience has been as formative to my Jewish identity as travelling during my semester abroad. While not particularly religious, I partake in cultural traditions, was involved in a Jewish youth group and  am involved in the University of Delaware Hillel, and attend services during the holidays. With each travel experience, my Jewish identity was brought to the forefront and forced me to reflect on how much of my life was distinctly Jewish.

The cities I’ve been to have varied in cuisine and architecture, friendliness levels and cultural norms, clothing and language; all have tasted different on my American palate. But the common thread linking every city is at some point or another, most in recent history, Jews were not welcome there. I knew that Prague had a Jewish quarter, the center of old town where there was a collection of synagogues and kosher restaurants. When I went to Budapest, one of my first trips, the Jewish quarter was a few streets stuffed with trendy bars and restaurants, but also the largest synagogue in Europe. The beauty of the building brought me to tears. That very same building that was transformed into a stable for farm animals during Nazi occupation. Berlin, Munich, Venice, Florence, Rome, Krakow, Vienna – each city has a designated perimeter where Jews were once forced to live, work, and exist in increasingly inhumane ways. When I visited Auschwitz just two weeks ago, I was able to trace my finger along a map. Had it been in a different context, it may have been a map of places I visited, or dreamed to visit one day, European metropolises of art and culture. The expansive map denoted cities from which Jews were transported to the death camp. I’m no longer just learning about the history, but walking into the pages of a textbook by occupying the spaces once reserved for two dimensional photos in class lessons.  I walked through the camp, heard stories of victims  that were no older than myself, no different in their age or hopes or goals or culture. I sat during High Holidays in the seats of a congregation in central Prague where every single member perished in the camps. Eleven million victims – a number that became even harder to process at the scenes of Nazi crimes.

The week of the Las Vegas shooting that left nearly 60 concert-goers senselessly dead, I toured Terezin, a camp just outside Prague that the Nazis used for propaganda for the Red Cross as an example of the good living conditions inside the camps, which were fabricated. My brain couldn’t comprehend the disgusting cruelty of the Nazis, and I wondered how humans could even possess such capacity for evil. Did they lack even the smallest doses of kindness or empathy?

People leave sites of Nazi crimes vowing “never again,” confident that something of the scale and nature of the Holocaust could never repeat itself, however, on the backdrop of America’s deadliest shooting, I couldn’t help but wonder. Kindness and healing can be ubiquitously found, but the existence of those who choose to take the lives of others in their hands persists.

The world’s largest memorial is hidden in streets spanning the continent, and if you don’t stop to look down at the sidewalk once in awhile, you’ll miss it. Stolpersteine, literally translating to “stumbling stone” in German, is a 25-year ongoing art project throughout Europe commemorating those displaced and persecuted during the Holocaust. Four inch by four inch brass cubes, stolpersteins can be found outside shops and homes, particularly in Jewish quarters, and are easily missed unless you are specifically looking for them. Stolpersteins are placed in front of the last freely chosen residence or place of employment of individuals murdered in the Holocaust; each reads “Here lived…” and the name of the occupant, along with birth, deportation, and death date, if known. The name stolperstein  is both a reference to the physical object – they are placed not quite flush with the sidewalk in hopes of tripping up passerby, and the historical Anti-Semitic remark referencing that “A Jew must be buried here” after tripping over a protruding stone. Once a single stolperstein was pointed out to me, I couldn’t stop seeing them. City to city, country to country, even region to region, brass markings would pop up on the sidewalks, as integrated to the city as the pigeons and souvenir shops. I didn’t think that studying abroad would be such an inherently Jewish experience, yet just like the stones embedded in sidewalks spanning thousands of miles, my Jewish identity kept popping up where I didn’t expect it, and my own path seemed to trace that of my Jewish ancestors. Place to place, evil act to to evil act, historically and presently, I was reminded of my role in carrying on the history.

A lack of engagement, people hushed by fear or apathy, allowed not only the Holocaust to happen, but countless genocides, assaults, and vicious acts in our present era. People no longer fear to identify themselves as Nazis from modern Germany to the United States, and this growing hatred is all too familiar. Elie Wiesel said “I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people. Their best characteristic is their desire to remember. No other people has such an obsession with memory.” Not only do we remember, but we learn. To remember is to make a promise, vowing for the memory to shape your behavior, to be an active player in fighting modern injustice and hatred. My Jewish identity in Europe reminded me that I am part of a larger tapestry of culture and a story that has been going on for thousands of years. In understanding this past, it is imperative that I, we, move forward, conscious of speaking up when witnessing corruption or wrongdoing.

~Liv

 

October 27, 2017

I have a lost quite a few things abroad so far: I have unwillingly parted with two pairs of headphones, a pair of shoes, my sanity, and track of the time. As I write this, I am convinced that the date on the calendar is a lie. My internal clock is unable to understand that for almost two months I have been traversing Europe, and though my body has been to multiple countries over the span of a handful of weeks, my brain has been moving through it in a wondrous, childlike awe. While palming my phone with Snapchat perpetually documenting my daily adventures, I still comfortably inhabit the role of tourist. Each day, I am picking up on cues that I am really living in Europe, building a (temporary) life here. I gave tram directions, in Czech no less, and no longer have to rely on Google Translate for my grocery shopping excursions. While I am far from claiming to be a local, the world is allowing me a modicum of ownership over it, and and I am exceptionally grateful.

Bucket lists are ubiquitously populated with far-off cities, hinting that travel seems to be almost an innate human need. Studying abroad was something I knew I had to do since high school, and was a way to quench my insatiable thirst for travel, but it wasn’t until I got here that I really thought about why living in another country for a few months was so important to me. In my last post, I talked a little about what I was hoping to get out of this experience – I knew I wanted to live a different way of life, become a more competent and culturally aware citizen, and see places that I only ever dreamed about. While I am getting each of these in heaping doses, I don’t think I could have made a plan for what I was going to get out of this experience until I got here. The exploration of the unknown, turning over rocks that I never knew existed, has intimately changed the way I view the world. Even with all of these admirable and noble reasons, I can’t truly say why I’m here. But I think that’s enough. Simply being present, actively listening, and allowing the novel environment to shape my identity is sufficient for my role abroad. The fact that there might not be a set reason for travelling is reason enough – allowing the infinite possibilities that the world provides to intermingle with my own experience to continuously build upon who I am.

As an American I knew that the international community often looked at our way of life with utter confusion, but it wasn’t until living here that I can see the error of our patriotic ways. I’d like to spend this blog post chronicling the things that Europe simply does better.

Lady and the Tram

Public transportation here is incredibly clean, fast, and efficient. I am highly convinced that if we invested in trams in the U.S., Uber would become obsolete. Trams, buses, trains, the options for moving your person from one place to another are endless and affordable. While one can expect to be met with unpleasant smells and people, for the most part individuals keep to themselves, creating an overall relaxed and pleasant environment (two words that have never been used to describe the NYC subway). I am still trying to figure out a way to bring an entire tram car back as a souvenir, but that’s a work in process (feel free to reach out with any ideas).

Escalators and bathrooms

To add to the list of arbitrary objects that would never draw my attention in the U.S., escalators and bathrooms have earned a few moments of marvel. Upon approaching an escalator in Munich that would lead me down the metro, I didn’t find the unidirectional perpetual motion that I’m familiar with, but realized that the escalators were activated once someone stepped up to them. The escalators would move either way, depending on which way the passenger came, and a pole next to the escalator would display an arrow pointing the direction of motion. The functionality and sensibility of this simple piece of technology excited me immensely.

In Europe, it’s common to have to pay to use restrooms in restaurants or public locations. When I slipped a 1-euro coin into the bathroom at a train station in Berlin, I was not expecting a high-tech experience. The sinks in the bathroom were hand washing machines that, upon placing your hands inside the machine, dispensed the perfect amount of soap and water for an ideal amount of time that would conserve both water and energy. The machine even dried your hands, and at the door of the bathroom you were encouraged to rate your overall experience on a touchscreen pad. Needless to say, I gave it 5-stars.

These taken-for-granted items are great examples of a European way of doing things that just makes sense. The lack of dryers to accompany my clothes-washing was a pest at first, but now I can understand why people wouldn’t want to waste energy, money, and space on something that a wire rack does just as well.

Cafe culture

One of my favorite activities in Prague has been picking a different district every day and finding a coffee shop where I can read, hang out with friends, do homework, or just people-watch. Coffee is no joke in Europe, and through my kavarna shopping I have learned to fall in love with café culture. Cheating on Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks has never tasted better- I have yet to have a bad cup of coffee in Europe. Each espresso is brewed with extreme care, and consumed as such. The lattés are served with foamy designs on top, and savored with cheesecakes and a wealth of other sugary-sweet pastries. Pastries seem to be a way of life here, consumed after every meal or as a meal of their own, and I am certainly not complaining. Intricate cake designs normally reserved for special occasions decorate the shelves of even the cheapest coffee places.

Coffee shops are for more than just providing a caffeine fix—most are multi-purposes spaces where one can enjoy a delicious meal, spread out and work for a whole day, or grab a drink after work, as most cafes double as bars. I have my cafés that provide beautiful views of the city or hidden gardens, ones that are aesthetically decorated like a trendy Instagrammer’s dream, one that specializes in artisan and experimental coffee, one that feels like a student center- a huge, lofty space bustling with students, one that has swings instead of regular chairs, and a café for everywhere in-between. The variety and sheer number of cafés is something I didn’t know my life was missing until living in Prague.

Eye candy

Living in Prague is like walking through a fantasy storybook every day. Each block is crowded with gorgeous, multicolored buildings adorned with elegantly curving cherub statues, gnarled gargoyles, and iron balconies. The sidewalks in this city are older than the United States itself, and the age and preservation of the architecture is evident in every inch. Prague was spared from bombings in both world wars, thus most of the city’s design and structures are original, dating back to 11th century and even earlier. Walks to class are never boring when each building looks like a masterpiece. Even some of the more mundane bridges are gorgeous, and older than the United States itself. The architecture is further enhanced by the fact that the for an urban environment, the streets are immaculately clean. Litter-free streets and sidewalks have been the norm in almost every European city that I’ve visited. In some combination of adequate trash receptacles and city workers with the sole purpose of keeping the streets clean, sidewalks are free of clutter, adding to the already fantasy feeling of the cities.

Street art

While the streets are clean, the walls certainly aren’t. Particularly in central European cities, like Prague and Berlin, graffiti and street art can be found on almost any building. Graffiti isn’t necessarily the sign of a sketchy neighborhood, though, but instead integrated into the fabrics of the city. While it remains illegal, except for a select few “legal sites” designated by city officials, graffiti and street art cultures are vibrant and thriving in many European cities. I have the honor of taking a class on sub-cultures while here, and in it, I have discovered a newfound respect and appreciation for the medium. While some people use a spray can to just tag their name anywhere and everywhere, many artists create pieces with social and political meaning to create a discursive commentary. Most people are familiar with Banksy and his pieces, but while in Berlin I took a street art tour that exposed me to innumerable talented artists posting their work for free on the streets. In Berlin, city officials don’t crack down as hard on street artists because they realize what an integral part of the city it has become. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, thousands of previously government-owned buildings were left abandoned. Artists secured this no-man’s land for creative expression, activities which included huge art displays like a stolen Soviet Fighter Jet placed in the middle of an abandoned mall. While many of these were eventually bought out and turned into commercial shops or apartments, the remnants of this period of free expression remain all over the city. As a democratic yet controversial means of art, street art and graffiti give a way to read the issues that many people care about. In my subcultures class, we took a field trip one day to the Lennon Wall, a legal graffiti site and one of Prague’s most famous landmarks. We were each given a can of spray paint and were told to create whatever was important to us. I chose to decorate the wall with the words “She’s Persisting” as a testament to my strong feminist identity that has traveled with me across borders, and bring a feminist voice into graffiti and street art, which is thought to be a man’s game (in reality, 40 percent of street artists in Europe are female!) While I’m sure my graffiti was covered and layered on top of within hours (I actually know it was- I went back the next day to check), the freedom of creation was incredibly empowering, and I loved that idea that thousands of tourist eyes were able to see the message I was trying to portray, just like the thousands of others who have left their art up around cities.

Until next time,

Liv


This semester, I have the opportunity to study abroad in Prague in the beautiful Czech Republic. Thanks to months of paperwork, Tetris-like packing, frantic Target runs, countless advisor meetings, and an unspeakable amount of help from my parents, I have made it to Praha. As a way to document my adventures and keep everyone updated on the amazing experience I am about to have, I will be a-blogging here on 186 South College. While in Prague, from now until the peak of the Christmas season, I will be taking classes, both for my major and and a range of topics that will further expose me to to Czech and European culture. Hopefully, I will spend my weekends taking advantage of the infinitely superior transportation system of Europe to explore more bucket-list cities.

When preparing for this trip, my imagination ran wild with scenes of me wandering down cobblestone streets, a trdelnik and coffee in hand, weaving through antique shops and parks. My honest first thoughts after landing consisted of “why are there so many KFCs here?” and “do they only play early 2000s Rihanna on the radio?” The landscape that lay ahead of me is a fascinating blend of intimately familiar images in a foreign environment. I’ve come to understand just in the past few days since landing that study abroad isn’t necessarily just about the Instagram-worthy moments of getting a perfect pic with the landscape of orange-roofed buildings or quirky boomerangs of clanging beer steins. It’s about seeing that Czech people don’t put their dogs on leashes when walking around the city and that talking on the tram is an offense so heavy it may as well be illegal. It’s about picking up on the cultural nuances that may not be romantic or fantastical, but immediately uncomfortable and confusing.

After losing a debit card and spending my entire second day on the phone with banks, being yelled at by several waiters and service workers for incorrect patron behaviors, and receiving a ticket for 800 korunas from the Czech police for incorrect tram use, I realize that studying abroad isn’t all sunshine and roses. Even simple tasks end in mild frustration, like grocery shopping and ending up with two shampoos, no conditioner, and some questionable hot dogs. The ride has been bumpy so far, but I ride through each minor setback in a dream-like state, drinking in the incredible city surrounding me one sip at a time. With every lost tram comes the uncovering of a beautiful neighborhood, like one jet-lagged morning when I got on the tram going the wrong way and found a quiet, willow-blanketed corner with pastel-frosted townhomes resembling a baker’s vision. Yesterday, I wandered around an older part of the city, curving through streets and stumbling upon dozens of the most beautiful statues I have ever seen, artistic renderings that are simply the backdrop to everyday life here. My stroll to class is complemented by views of Prague Castle’s spires piercing the sky and afternoons spent in dark wood coffee shops reading Kafka and journaling. Each eavesdropped conversation on the tram (can you tell I love the public transportation here?) is full of foreign words that taste beautiful as they dance through my English speaking ears. I have to consciously remind myself to dim the toothy grin that spreads around my face each time I see the panoramic view of Old Town as unsolicited smiles are absent and odd to Czechs.

As someone who enjoys talking about U.S. politics and attempts to keep updated with the constant news stream of our current political affairs, it will be interesting to understand the role that U.S. politics will play in my life abroad. While I have and am expecting to field questions from international people about Trump and my opinion on U.S. policies, I continue to wonder how the rest of the world candidly sees the U.S., and what news they receive about our politics on a day-to-day to basis. I am used to having conversations about U.S. current affairs while in the states and am looking forward to these nuanced conversations in a global setting. A man at a farmer’s market approached me asking about what I thought of Trump and why he wasn’t making money off his current investments in the U.S., and that certainly has made the list of one of the more interesting and one-sided conversations I have had here.

While UD boasts a premier study abroad program, very few students actually have the opportunity to take advantage of the semester-long programs. With a huge time commitment, potential difficulty fitting it within certain majors, and financial barriers, four months of travel is simply not an option for many. While my heart races constantly here in a confusing symphony of nerves and excitement, I am not going to take this rare privilege for granted. I want to make the most of this opportunity, both for myself and to spread the benefits to those around me. I hope to integrate into local culture and volunteer in my neighborhood to avoid just being a tourist who uses the city for her own advantage. I hope to seek out opportunities that will broaden my mind and challenge me intellectually, which will hopefully lead to a permanent schema change in my global awareness. I can’t wait to see what the next few months hold for me, as I’m sure it’s sure to be full of more exciting surprises on the path moving forward.

~Liv, 9/6/17

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