The Semester That Was: Condensing Copenhagen (in just one blog post)

I have taken about 16,300 pictures and have shot about 34 (very) amateur video clips in these past four months while studying abroad in Europe. 

These pixels tell a story of nervous excitement and astounding moments of wonder. There are many countries and cities featured which partly dot the landscape of one impeccable continent. They showcase the life of living in a foreign city in a foreign country, teaching us that learning is not limited to the classroom or that the daily nuances of life can make a regular, average day that much more exciting. They also dive into the lives of people who call these great places their home, not just sticking to the tourist trail, but rather using this trail as a backbone, branching off into the unknown parts of a city, of a countryside, of a culture. 

It’s hard to believe that I can still remember starting my Denmark blog, excited to be able to regularly annotate my experiences, journeys, memories, and trials on a constant surface. Now that I have seven hours left in the apartment that I once called home for four amazingly quick months, memories of what has been and what will forever be rush back through my mind like the indescribable Gullfoss of Iceland or a raging Tivoli roller coaster in downtown Copenhagen.

The challenge now, as I write this final post to close out the latest chapter of this grand storybook of life, is to make sure that this time spent in Denmark does not go by like a Copenhagen summer sun shower. Not just because I know many people will be asking many (many, many, many) questions about everything Europe-related, but also because of the magnitude of what I actually just went through. Sure, based on much it flew, it can feel like any trip to Europe, but it’s so much more than that. I LIVED ABROAD. I lived in another country, independent (somewhat), and free to go off and make this as enjoyable an experience as possible. I had the chance and opportunity to make a city like Copenhagen my own, a place which started out unfamiliar but now is stuck on me like the first glance of the Norwegian fjords. Sure, the travel, the seeing all the wonderful sights that have been placed on earth, the frequent flying, the hostels…all this certainly have made it quite a journey, but I would be remissly denying the point of this whole semester if I fail to talk about the meat of this time, which was really spent in an around my home base of Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital city. 

Taking a different way to get to class through colorful side streets, filled with vintage shops and atmospheric cafes. Watching the swans relax on the lakes as you huff and puff around it on what has been your only time in recent years where you intentionally decided to go on a run. Being that guy taking photos inside restaurants, cafes, etc. in order to capture the feelings and vibes and soul found in every nook and cranny of a place. Trying out new experiences that you might not have ever experienced in you ‘normal’ life (i.e….pubs, bars, gay clubs, champagne, helping to lead youth group, etc.). Forgetting your kilpkort in your room and making what should have been an easy 40 minute train ride into a long, stress-ridden bus and then train ride, last for at least 40 minutes longer. Voluntarily plopping yourself in an apartment building full of 19 strangers and leaving that feeling sad to have to go. Hearing other students be jealous of your core class because of how tight-knit a group you are (and how you willingly hang out together, even after your core class or study tour is over). Knowing that the locals actually understand and appreciate your view and outlook on the upcoming semester, resulting in some pretty amazing friendships with some pretty amazing Danes. Building even more godly relationships which span international borders and continents. Intentionally walking or taking public transportation out to one of the many urban neighborhoods and simply walking, snapping photos along the way (it doesn’t look touristy if no other tourists are there, am I right?). Spending the final night laughing until your sides hurt with new Danish friends whom you love to pieces. Enjoying a delicious white hot chocolate in a very hyggeligt cafe with some other amazing people, refusing to say the ‘g-b’ word. 

This is what an experience studying abroad is really about. It’s not solely about the international travel, or even inter-city travel. It’s not about how many times you Skype or Facebook chat your friends and family back home, saying ‘I’m in _______’. An experience studying abroad is personal. It forces a person to look inside themselves, notice qualities that they had no prior knowledge, and be an experience which leaves a person utterly speechless and amazed by all that has happened in such a short time. It’s supposed to be a time when you can’t believe how fast it flies by because you just want to stay in this new life for a long time. This is when your travel bug NEEDS to go on hibernation for a little while, since the number of times you have dived deeper and deeper into a culture has left you in sensory overload. It’s supposed to be a time when you don’t want to leave, but you also want to head back, since you are more aware of how special the place you live, go to school, and/or call home is. It’s when you realize that the little, familiar things that seemed unnecessary before become amplified and all the more necessary. 

As I leave later today for Boston (hopefully), I admit that I am not saddened. It has been a great..no…is there a word that is stronger and not as overused as amazing?…experience, with people, places, memories, and stories that will live on through these pictures and videos for years and years to come. It is gone for now, but I am determined to make it back in the air again, heading for some unknown destination, God-willing. The feelings a person receives from travel and/or living/studying abroad are exhilarating and, frankly, hard to put into words unless you experience them yourself……but it’s all extremely worth it in the end. 

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From Kanakuk to København

The final week of the semester brings up the first of many good-byes to the people and places that have made these few months so special. Since I leave on a Sunday afternoon, the first place on the list is the church that I have called a spiritual home for these four months, the First International Baptist Church, FIBC of Copenhagen. 

When I was preparing to come to Denmark, I can’t say that I was personally nervous about many things. I was certainly anxious about many unknowns and the sheer number of question marks surrounding the upcoming journey. It was definitely a whirlwind within the first few days, but one thing that I intentionally wanted to make sure I did early was find myself a new church. As with any other part of the transition process, I needed to make sure I felt as comfortable in my new surroundings as I possibly could. For me, this meant needing to find a place where I could have great fellowship with other Christians, serve in a church body, meet many Christian Danes (and other Christians period), and get constant accountability and spiritual guidance, whether that was in the form of church Sundays or bible studies or both. 

I had an uneasy feeling at first, knowing that Denmark was not a religious country by any means, especially compared to the environment I was accustomed to in the ‘Bible Belt’ South. Of course, I knew Copenhagen would not be Knoxville, but I really prayed that God would lead me somewhere in this generally non-religious nation.

I really don’t know why I was so anxious about this, if I’m honest…..

Within the first few days, my prayer was answered, thanks to a really awesome and really unexpected encounter. I felt like I was a freshman all over again at UT’s immersion fair. All of the booths of all the clubs and organizations that are offered to students in and around the Copenhagen area were sprawled out just the same as it was in Knoxville when I first arrived, just maybe without the free candy or drinks or flyers half-forced into your hands from all directions. 

As I walked past the religion tables with all different churches in and around centre city Copenhagen, a voice broke the awkward silence caused by me not wanting to provoke any conversation by looking into a person’s eye (I feel like I’ve grown into this habit the more I’ve had to go through many information sessions where I don’t want to spend a long amount of time conversing with others). 

‘Is that a kamp shirt?!?’ 

Well, that’s kind of an odd thing to say….how does anyone out here know about the happiest place on earth? True, I was wearing my staff shirt from that summer of 2012, but Branson, Missouri seems like such a world away from the capital of a Scandinavian nation. I must have been paying less attention to what was going on than I thought I was because this same guy apparently was following me around the corner until I finally realized he was talking to me. 

Turns out that this man worked at the same summer camp that I worked at for about 10 years before I got to Branson. He and his wife both worked at kamp and the two are both well-known and well-loved by those who have been in Branson for long enough…he’s even still in the Gospel Skit intro video, decked out in beads and a headdress and talking with a funny Schoomp-like accent. Never would I have imagined that K-Kountry would be the link that would help me settle in to life in Copenhagen. 

Instantly, I realized how big of a gift God had given me. It was a bunny, a lay-up, a gimme….something so obviously placed in front of you that you can’t not just take advantage of the opportunity. On paper, it might have made more sense to test out other churches, get a solid sense of where I wanted to be for a semester. It might make sense, but in this case, just as was the case my freshman year in Knoxville, I felt comfortable right off the bat with the first church I ran into. I truly felt like I had my prayers answered in regards to finding a church home, and FIBC provided that for me. 

Throughout the course of the semester, I have been so thankful to be involved with a slew of FIBC activities, from working with the youth group ministry every other Friday night to meeting with the young adult ministry (known as Connect) every Wednesday night to having Thanksgiving dinner and celebrating the Advent season. From their website, FIBC is advertised as an international community of followers, all on the journey of faith. Yes, everyone seemingly comes from a different country, is of a different nationality, and therefore has a different story, but the one thing in common is the shared faith in God and in Jesus, all within one community. The simple idea that faith and belief can extend and transcend beyond international borders and not just within the college campus ministry bubble that I am used to is remarkable. I am sad to have to say good-bye to this new community that I have grown to love over four months, but, just as the case has been with my friends in Knoxville, I know that God will keep these relationships strong and fresh because of what is behind these friendships. When something like a strong faith in God is the bond that ties people together, not much can wear it away. It may be good-bye for now, but certainly not for forever. 

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Racing towards the finish line….

It’s finally December and the students of DIS are coming ’round the corner and down the homestretch. Papers are being crammed in on top of other papers. Presentations are presented by the foursomes or fivesomes. Final video projects are shown to throngs of captivated (relatively) peers who all realize that the long semester of classes culminates in such informal moments like this. The semester is winding down. There is an unspoken (or sometimes unwantedly spoken) realization that the last times where people may see each other or live with each other or go to class with each other are soon coming to an end for now.

Now that the Christmas lights have been officially turned on and the calendar has been changed to the final month of the year, I think I have finally accepted the fact that this semester-long experience is winding down like a Copenhagen sunset in the winter….much faster and earlier than I’d like it to, but realizing that I can’t prevent it from happening. When I was younger and had to say goodbye, I would usually be some stage of a hot mess. I really dislike saying good-bye to anything or anyone, especially when I was younger. Now that I’m older—and slightly more mature—I’ve realized that saying goodbye doesn’t necessarily have to equal an emotional Broadway performance. With the gift of online social media, cell phones, and Skype, I have come to realize that when I say good-bye to anyone, it’s either more like a ‘see you later’ or more of a pause in a relationship which I have been so blessed to have received in such a short amount of time.

I don’t want to reflect on the semester that has been just now, since there is still a week and a half left to have fun with and make more memories. Whatever time I have that isn’t taken up by the chaotic nature of the last week of school is best spent trying to make sure that I do all I can with the people that have made this time in Denmark so special. It’s a delicate glass box of emotion stored inside me, one of genuine bittersweet-ness. I realize, understand, and am ready for my time here in Copenhagen to come to a close. I am saddened to leave and am not thrilled that I have to leave all my new friends that i have built such solid friendships with over four months, but I am also looking forward, excited for the opportunities that come down the road, wherever God decides to lead me in the United States. This has been yet another gift of a chapter in my life, but all chapters in all books have to end at some point.

The end of this one is approaching its conclusion rapidly quick.

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Home for the Holidays?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZT3luYtedg —> Journey South says it pretty nicely….

It just turned midnight on Thursday, November 28, 2013–the final Thursday of the month–here in Copenhagen, which means that it’s officially Thanksgiving back home in the United States. For the first time in my life, I have not been able to be home during this time of the year. It may be just 18 days or so until I return home from Europe, but being outside of my home nation for this extended period of time has made me realize how odd it is to not celebrate Thanksgiving at least in the United States. It might not match what Christmastime brings every year, but I see Facebook statuses and posted pictures and the like splattered across social media sites and it makes me miss home a little. Let me say this now…I don’t feel homesick at all. There hasn’t been a time when I’ve truly felt like I’ve wanted to pack everything up and go back. I made a decision almost a year and a half ago now that I wanted to go abroad for a semester (and so far, it’s been beyond worth it!), but I can’t help but feel a little distant at times. When you have to rely on something like Facebook in order to keep some sort of visual contact with those you care most about across the ocean, it can be a bit draining after a bit of time. I suppose for anyone studying abroad during the fall semester, the hardest time where one could feel homesickness is during the holidays, especially in a country where some of the more American holidays are not celebrated. It’s a tad strange out here, where the lights and advertisements on the tv screen are not full of turkeys, but of Christmas trees. It is certainly festive, but it doesn’t quite match a warm house, great people, great food, and just relaxing in each other’s presence. The traveling, the sights, the languages, the newness of a place like Copenhagen is special…everything about studying abroad is special, but nothing quite beats the power of being in a place where you truly feel like you belong, in a place where, no matter how many miles away you go, there are family and friends to always turn to. That community, whether in New England or in East Tennessee, was always going to be the thing I would miss most about coming over to Denmark, so it’s no surprise that this is the part I miss nowadays…18 days are all I have left and I’ve never felt more bittersweet about anything. There is a distinct divide between not wanting to leave, but realizing how much I want to come back. 

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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

One of the things that people who study abroad in Copenhagen, or anywhere in Northern Europe really, needs to fully understand when they sign up for this is that it has its winters….and that the winters come at you pretty hard. Sure, it is late November and it has yet to snow, sleet, hail, or freeze over yet, but the temperature plummets and the skies get darker quicker than what some are used to.

It makes sense, therefore, that the same time of the fall semester where the final workload piles up is the same time when the temperatures start to go down, which is when the moods of the students abroad begin to also decrease in terms of happiness. It’s a common idea that Danes become slightly more depressed during the winter months because the sun starts setting within the 15:00 or 16:00 hour, way earlier than it should ever go down. 

I don’t know how true this really is, but there is nothing that brightens a person’s mood in late November quite like the holiday season. In Denmark, where they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving like we do in the United States, the Danes are able to put a lot more effort into the Christmas season as soon as Halloween season ends. And, believe me, Denmark goes all out for the Christmas season.

I think I’ve been spoiled a bit by the numerous times I’ve been in New York City during the winter time (add one more this December), so I am used to a city being decked out in December, but I’ve also been spoiled by how much the United States celebrates Thanksgiving. To me, November is a month dedicated to Thanksgiving. As soon as the clock switches to the eleventh month, I’m getting ready for turkeys, brown and orange everything, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, cranberry sauce and Thursday football. I’m the kind of person that refuses to listen to Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving. So, with all that said, it’s a bit unusual for me to be in a country where Thanksgiving is a bit obsolete.

At the same time, Copenhagen certainly is very good at celebrating what they do celebrate. Lights and ‘hyggeligt’ Christmas markets line the streets and major sights all over the city, bringing some much needed fun, happy, positive light to the people and streets of a very-quickly darkened city. The most famous Danish amusement park, Tivoli Gardens, closes down from the end of Halloween season until the 15th of November in order for the crew to re-vamp the park with fake snow, plenty of lights, one-time shops, holiday shows…everything really, except for the rides, which stay there the whole time. Otherwise, you can walk down many of the main streets and harbors and get a whiff of roasted peanuts, hot chocolate, pancake sticks…it all really just smells like the holiday season, even if it is in November. 

A major part of the Danish culture is the idea of ‘hygge’ (pronounced hoo-guh), which is all well and great, but is hard to understand (there’s no direct translation…the closest I’ve seen is ‘cozy’, but that’s not quite it) unless it’s the middle of winter. The idea of ‘hygge’ really revolves around staying warm and cozy (during the cold winter months, for instance), hanging out with family and/or friends and just simply being together. The holidays for Danes are a time spent with family, being happy and content with just being together and celebrating all the great times ofthe holidays with each other. 

Or, if you’re a student studying abroad during this time, it’s a chance to really bond with the people in your dorm or apartment, sharing a Thanksgiving meal with people whom you never imagined you’d be eating Thanksgiving turkey, sweet potatoes, or s’mores pie with. It’s a time to expose some Danes to how Americans celebrate a time of being thankful and grateful for what we have, while at the same time realizing how much of a blessing it is to be with some great people in a great city in a great country on a great continent. It’s okay that we’re listening to Christmas music on repeat in November because it’s useless being upset or stressed or anxious about much of anything when the holiday season comes around. 

Glade Feriedage (that means ‘Happy Holidays’ in Danish….at least according to Google Translate). 

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London On Par: I Think I’m In Love!!!!!!

I’ve heard it said before that when a guy looks for a potential wife, he tends to look for a girl that shares qualities similar to his mother. I don’t know statistics or anything, but I can understand the reasoning behind this. The familiarity that a person has with his mother’s positive qualities can easily translate into the qualities that are desired in a potential spouse.

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For me, it’s the same with world cities. I’ve been blessed to travel quite a bit around the world (mostly just Europe and the Caribbean, but you get the idea), but New York City has always been my favorite city every time. I have a fascination that comes with this American mega-city which has been hard to compare other cities with. That is, until I finished this past weekend.

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Joining New York City at the top of my list of my absolute favorite cities in the world is the city which once was the governing centerpiece to New York (as well as every other former colony): London, the capital city of the United Kingdom. I usually am excited about every city that I have ever been to—there is just amazing sites, people, places and culture found in every city, hence my love for everything–but London is one of the few cities that has given me a feeling of wonder, awe, and excitement months (years?) before I arrived, as well as a desire to return as quickly as possible after I left.

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I refuse to compare London to its counterpart that shares the top spot on my list. Attempting to compare London and New York City is unfair to both cities, is really hard to do first of all, and is simply unnecessary in my opinion. Both cities are simply incredible, yet should really be looked at individually.

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Instead, I like to compare exploring the city of London to playing a round of golf (such as on an English countryside course perhaps)…..I know it’s a stretch. I know it sounds a bit silly…just go with me on this one. Here are a few reasons why:

1. It takes a lot of patience.

For those of y’all like me, golf is a game that drains a lot of patience from what little I have in general. It’s the kind of sport that is meant for the individual, meaning that it involves a lot of ups and downs which test both the physical and mental aspects of the sport. It’s also the kind of sport that one cannot simply pick up on the fly and then be a professional at. It takes lots of practice, time, and hard work in order to really be great at it (or at least somewhat decent).

It’s no secret, really: London is kind of big. Or huge. Or gargantuan. It is one of the world’s colossal mega-cities for good reason. For those few that are used to such size, London might not be that hard. For everyone else, it will be quite an experience stepping out of a tube station for the first time…that is, if you manage to navigate the Tube correctly without smashing into hundreds of people. London is an environment that is not for the easily-stressed, so having a calm and relaxed mind is almost as necessary as it is to have pounds, not dollars. Once you get that, as well as remember that the English drive (and walk, fun fact) on the other side of the road than Americans (and pretty much everyone else), then the rest of the trip can be pretty smooth.

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2. It takes loads of discipline.

Even the greats of the PGA and LPGA have to have a distinct level of discipline to their game in order to make it to the top level. Rather than simply drive it long every single play, a good golfer knows his range, his ability, and the power of each club. Knowing when to go all out and when to hold off a little on the power and go in for a nice approach chip can make the difference between making the cut and leaving a tournament early. (See patience…that ties in as well).

London is not only big, it also has tons and tons of different sites to see, neighborhoods to explore, and experiences to take part in. If you’re like me and have only a weekend in London, a couple of things must happen: 1) You’ll have to come back (at least multiple times) because 2) you won’t be able to see everything, so it’s wisest to narrow down what you really want to see. London is big, plentiful, yet also pretty expensive, so it’s also best to discipline yourself so that you save as many quid as possible. Some of the sites are relatively the same (For instance, The London Eye, The Shard, Tower Bridge Exhibition, The Monument to the Great Fire of London, etc. all involve seeing the skyline…the skyline won’t change that much…maybe pick one or two of these). Another solid discipline is to realize that because of the size of the city, investing in public transportation probably is smart. The travelcards (or Oyster cards if you’re there for a longer period of time) are excellent ways of quickly getting around the expansive Underground system….I took five different trains and 22 different Underground subway rides. Knowing the most efficient and effective ways of seeing and getting around London contribute to making it a worthwhile experience.

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3. It’s always a lot more fun with company.

Aside from the competitive nature of the tournament level, golf can more or less be a solid social activity as well. Think of the possible outings with your boss to let some steam off, or rolling around in a golf cart with some buds while hitting some balls around—pure, casual, time-consuming fun that can also be a good use of a beautiful sunny day…especially if one of your pals is a member to a fancy golf club.

As is the case with any city, London is best seen among the company of others. Needless to say, when you know a local Londoner, it is much, much easier to experience the parts of a place that many tourist groups end up not going to. Experiences like eating with new friends in a local English pub in a small countryside village. No city light pollution, not much sound from the outside—just good, old-fashioned, cozy hanging out in a pure English setting. As I love doing in any city, experiencing a city through the eyes of a local make the trip way more wholesome to me.

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And when you’re blessed enough to have one of your best mates live in an area near such a city like London, it adds a ton of appeal for that city. I would still really enjoy London as a world city, but this added element pushes it way over the edge for me. It’s not so much a question of if I will make a return trip to London…it’s more ‘how quickly can I get on a plane back across the pond?’

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24 Hours in Scotland? Challenge Accepted!

The sun initially began to light the Scottish countryside at the same time that my first ever experience on Ryan Air landed on the runway at Edinburgh Airport. This glimmer of light had twinges of both hope and anticipation, resulting from the high praises that I had received in relation to the Scottish capital city.

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Out of all of the cities across the great European continent, it was Edinburgh that got more complements and much more praise than pretty much any other city. For years, my lone experiences or portrayals of Scotland, and Edinburgh specifically, were really nothing more than a Mel Gibson ‘Braveheart’ fairy tale. Fantasy thoughts of rolling hills, bagpipes, mysterious lakes, stone castles….the list goes on and on. Edinburgh itself was a bit of a mystery to me, so I was intrigued to learn about what makes this city so special, even for a little under 24 hours.

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There’s no question: Edinburgh is a traditional city. It’s central area for many visitors and tourists is its Old City district, specifically the Royal Mile stretch of mostly cobblestone roads that make its way from Hollyrood Palace (Her Majesty’s home when visiting Scotland) up the hill to UNESCO’s Edinburgh Castle, a stronghold for the Scottish military. This district has changed little from how it was centuries ago, decorated almost entirely in cobblestone, with splashes of newer, colored buildings that highlight and emphasize the older structures. Throughout this districts are one of its more distinctive features: the number of crosses, entries, passes, courts, wynds, etc. that matriculate and connect the roads surrounding the mile. These tiny little pedestrian paths make the Old City like a giant, old-fashioned maze, sparking the curious travel bug in everyone. Many just lead to dead ends at people’s flats or shops, but it’s still intriguing simply exploring the many hidden corners to find out what lies around the next bend in the path.

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If Scotland is known for anything, it is the natural beauty that spans nationwide. Edinburgh is a city that fits with this kind of mold. It’s not over-the-top and not filled with a modern set of buildings which take away from the historic significance. Its numerable parks and green spaces (not to mention the giant park just on the other side of Hollyrood, which is home to the massive Arthur’s seat—->BEST CITY VIEW IN SCOTLAND, for sure) provide a more livable atmosphere, as well as a chance for visitors to see the people up and out, even if it is the middle of November in Northern Europe.

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24 hours in Edinburgh may be just the right amount of time for someone coming to visit the Scottish capital, since the big attraction of this part of the world is the Highlands and the natural scenery of almost every part of the Northern British territory. It’s a great jumping-off point, but I say that tongue-in-cheekish, since this is indeed a city that is worth visiting among the higlights of Europe. It has hints of modernity, yet is deeply entrenched in its historic roots. It has expanded diversity-wise, but still holds true to its tradition and heritage (exhibit A: when I visited Edinburgh castle, there was a special 21 gun salute for Prince Charles’s birthday…aka they shot off 3 canons 7 times each, along with a traditional military band and bagpipes). On a continent. where many of the major cities are revamping their image and becoming way more modern than what might be necessary, Edinburgh remains in pretty much the same condition it was many years ago. This has a distinct and certain appeal to visiting, which can be understandable when everyone and your mom continue to rave about a small city in the north of the United Kingdom.

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¡Viva España!

Even a sanitation workers’ week-long strike cannot hide the beauty and stature of Spain’s capital city of Madrid. It’s certainly never a welcoming sight when you step out of the metro station into the city centre and come across piles of trash strewn about as if a concert has just taken place. When you realize that the trash continues as every block, you realize something is up.

This, however, is why it is not possible or wise to judge a city based on the first few minutes. Combined with my running around trying to get to a tour within an hour of arriving from the train station in an unfamiliar, it certainly would have been easy to be very critical of Madrid.

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Temporary problems aside, Madrid feels more royal, with a kind of stately feel to the architecture and lifestyle, compared to Barcelona. I know it sounds kind of obvious, being the capital city and everything, but since Madrid was (and actually technically still is) a village prior to being the largest Spanish city, there are parts that look like it was built when the crown moved into Madrid. Places like Plaza Mayor and the areas surrounding the palace and the Gran Via seem to seamlessly blend into the original parts of the city, creating a cool blend.

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The past half week that I’ve been in Spain has been a great introduction to the two largest cities in this vast and diverse country. I definitely would like to come back and go more in-depth, but for the amount of time spent, I certainly believe I’ve gotten a literal and figurative taste of the Spanish culture. With food being such an important piece of the picture, I feel somewhat infused in Spanish culture after finally having some authentic jamon and paellas and tapas, etc. Also being able to kinda speak the language and get by with my six years of school language feels both amazing and humbling to be able to know enough to bridge something like a language barrier….I was even confused for a local by someone at one of the walking tours I went on simply because I was speaking Spanish!

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As an avid traveler, that kind of little experience or little moments of wonder makes all the effort, the money, the potential stress all the more worthwhile. Diving into a country head-on and becoming as immersed as one can possibly get makes the trip more enjoyable and more fun than simply going at it like a typical tourist. It makes spending just two days in a city In Madrid feel like it has been much, much longer. That’s when travel becomes fun. And that’s when I genuinely enjoy it.

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Sigame y Descubra Mi Barcelona

I’ll be honest….I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of Barcelona. It seems to be one of those cities that many people that study abroad want to go to (also, it has a solid reputation of having some good nightlife options as well….shocking how those two seem to go together—‘tongue in cheek’). Outside of that, the only exposure I’ve really had to the city was either via its well-known football club and the Cheetah Girls, the latter of which I tend not to publicly refer to (I may or may not have had ‘Strut’ in my head for a good portion of the time sightseeing). Now that I’m leaving–and headed to the ‘other part’ of Spain–I’ve really enjoyed my time in Barcelona and I can see why it is such a well-known and popular travel destination.

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Coming down from Scandinavia in November, it’s pretty refreshing and well-received to be able to wear shorts and t-shirts while strolling down wide boulevards flanked my rows of trees (including palm trees!). I imagine that the shade that was pleasantly received by the number of people wandering around now welcome the same shade with wide open arms come July or August. There’s an airy, open environment (as least in the touristy areas) that contrasts nicely with the small corridors and winding maze-like alleys of the smaller, less touristy neighborhoods.

Barcelona rose to power because of its location on the Mediterranean Sea. Its growth and following prosperity as an industrial and trading hub of Spain gave the large Catalonian city wealth and power, as well as all the struggles that come with the two. Its history isn’t necessarily the cheeriest around. It’s had its plagues, its wars, its military defeats, its dictatorial reign, its royal beheadings and a lost royal lineage (the final king of the original line died from a combination of illness and laughter…yes…a joke was so funny that it put him over the top and he died).

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It’s also had a massive geopolitical battle dating back many centuries. The region of Catalonia/Catalunya/Catalan/etc. (formerly called Aragon) has always been in the middle of some territorial claim. Originally a part of the Western Roman Empire, it later became a territory of the Visigoths after they took over the W.R.E. In 718, while the rest of Spain was being settled, the Moors came from the Middle East and settled in Catalonia, joining Andalucia in the southern part of Spain. Spain itself wasn’t even fully unified, but it made strides in 1469. The marriage of Aragon’s King Ferdinand II and Castille’s Queen Isabella I became one in marriage (the pair sound familiar? try Columbus) This new bond with the royal monarchy of Madrid and the South-Central (known as Castille), along with its friendship with the equally large royal empire to the north (known as France) led to a time of peace for Catalonia….that is, until the War of Spanish Succession happened and the French Bourbon king (Louis XIV) became ruler of Catalonia. The Catalans said ‘no, we won’t go’, the French got angry at this and slayed a bunch of citizens.

Fast forward several years to the 20th century, where things get a little more normal. A renaissance begins to occur, providing a glimpse of hope, but then the time bomb that was Spain went off and the Civil War engulfed the country for quite a few years. When this episode appeared to be over, along came a man named Francisco Franco. He was many things, but he was also a powerful Fascist dictator that cancelled all pre-existing autonomies and any traditional languages and cultural symbols that differed from the ‘Spanish Way’ of doing things….

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The point of the whole history lesson is to prove that the atmosphere of Barcelona screams rebuilding and re-improvement. Every time the people of this region were ever down, beaten, defeated or held back, there was always a way that they came back and made a statement. Today’s Barcelona is a grand mix between Spanish and Catalan, the Red and Gold Spanish flag and the Red and Gold-striped Catalonia flag, simplistic and strong gothic-style architecture and colorful/creative modernist architecture. Whether it’s because of its location bounded along the sea by the rolling hills or because of its strong history of being an independent, autonomous people, the city of Barcelona is certainly more than just a different flag and Lionel Messi.

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There is a passion–that Spanish romantic grandeur that everyone rants and raves about–that fills the streets throughout the city. Like a strong flamenco performance, Barcelona is fierce yet gentle, intense yet calming, sultry and entrancing yet tranquil and awe-inspiring. With an acoustic guitar as its instrument of choice, the city springs to life in a different crescendo and altering tempos that being the city to life and give it its all too familiar flair and flavor. It rises to the occasion when its people band together to chant for RCD Espanyol, one of the people’s teams (arguably more so than FCB?). It presents itself wide open to those viewing it from the aerial gondola spanning the distance from Monjuic to Barceloneta. It struts its elegance everywhere, from Las Ramblas and Passeig de Gracia to the tiny alleys of the Gothic Quarter. When the sun goes down, the heat gets turned sky high with the passionate intensity of a fast-paced, late night flamenco performance. And, almost as a grand finale, the sun naturally descends off in the west and, unlike many other sunsets, the sun’s trail spews out an illuminating shade of orange (Go Vols!) that fills the twilight sky, giving biewers at Parc Guell, Montjuic, Tibidabo, or any of the other elevated platforms, one last taste of Barcelona, a magical city on the Mediterranean.

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On My Own….

Since I’ve been over in Europe, I have taken the idea of independent travel (or, more literally, traveling independently) and have embraced it a little more than when I think about it before August. Solo traveling is a concept that either some have shuddered at (like me) or that some have immediately dismissed (like me) or that some have thought about doing, but then made up excuses as to not doing it (again…like me).

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It’s understandable, really. As the social creatures that I and seemingly the rest of the human species tend to be, the idea of going off into the unknown without the company of anyone familiar is a mixture of both daunting, intimidating, and kinda odd. I’ve traveled ‘independently’ (I put quotes here since I’m not sure whether someone like Rick Steves would label it as independent travel, since I’ve known people in the cities, yet haven’t traveled them) a few times now this semester and, while it might not always be my preferred method of hopping around the world, I have now developed a kind of soft spot….here are some reasons why:

1. I CAN DO ANYTHING I WANT!!!!!!!

Minus the over-dramatic use of exclamation points, one perk of traveling by oneself is simply that one can do whatever one wants to do in city or country. There is obviously no one there telling them what to do or not do. No parents, no friends, no holding anyone back, no waiting for people, no sitting idly while someone has to use the bathroom….you get the idea. (NOTE: I do like having travel companions when I travel…please don’t take this the wrong way. I can only travel solo for so long).

2. “The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself……”

…so it’s that much better for you as a traveler if you actually are able to know your limits, your boundaries, you desires, just simply you when you are alone with you. As the Greek Philosopher Thales put it so simply, it is much easier planning for yourself alone than it is for a whole group of however many people. Logistically, it’s a lot easier getting around a city like Barcelona, Spain, for instance, when it’s just you and your transit ticket. In other cases, when it’s just you at the controls, you can go whichever direction you want to go, not just the most efficient route. If I’ve learned anything from travel, it is that the most exciting parts are the places off the beaten path, the places that might require a detour, a meandering shortcut, an intentional path to get lost on. Going the route that everyone else goes on isn’t always the most fulfilling or engaging route. In some places, like the Sagrada Familia, there are places that are so tight on room, that they don’t allow groups to go into at all. Sometimes it’s great having someone else plan out your trip…other times, it’s nice wandering off and seeing the little nooks and crannies of a place.

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3. Flexibility

I can’t think of a witty title for this one, but basically, when traveling alone, the only person you have to discuss a potential schedule change with is yourself. No need for an on-the-spot decision because you have a number of people counting on your decision or navigational know-how. Throughout today, I can’t count how many times I went through what I wanted to do next, where I wanted to go, or how I was going to get there. I might be thinking too much about it or letting me get inside my own head a bit, but it helps keep me on my toes in case something comes in and disturbs how I want it to go. There’s always a plan B, C, or D…especially in a city as big as Barcelona.

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Of course, there are always some potential negatives to this, as there is with anything else. It’s not always fun sitting by yourself at a dinner table. Sitting on a train with no one to talk to can be annoying sometimes. The moments when you want someone to take a picture in front of a view or a building and have to resort to taking an awkward selfie because you don’t feel like asking a stranger to take your camera in fear of them running away with said valuable. Or just the simple times when you’d really love to have someone or someones there to share in all the enjoyable and exciting times. In a perfect world, all of these would be a reality, but alas…that’s not how it was intended. I would be thrilled if there were people that wanted to go to places like Papua New Guinea or Belarus or Uruguay or the Maldives or Burkina Faso as much as I want to (as well as every other country), but I am aware that this is not the case with everybody. Until then, if it means that sometimes I will be traveling independently, I can now say at least that I am okay with it. Adjusting comes, but after this semester in Europe, I have definitely become more acquainted with the idea. It’s not all bad in the end. Barcelona is awesome by the way!!! More to come later on….

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