Snapshot: St. Petersburg

By: Hannah Festle
Sewing Machine factory turned bookstore, the glass dome sticking
three stories up, the inside stuffed with books and stationary and
tourists and racks of candy and foreign treats, with overpriced jars
of peanut butter that I bought without hesitation. That was where
I found the prints of cityscapes that I took home to my sister, and
where I said goodbye to everyone the night of the boat tour in
May, our last night together—upstairs, in the room with children’s
puzzles and games, near the line for the bathroom. Goodbye to
Meredith and Madison and Jennifer—we didn’t talk to each other
again, probably all knew that we wouldn’t, but pretended that we
would as we hugged and spoke English in the middle of the store.
Today I saw someone wearing a fur coat. Today the sidewalks
were not shoveled and there was ice everywhere. Today someone
talked about setting us up with conversation partners, today someone
talked about teaching English, and today my host mom said
I should take trolleybus 15 home, but I was scared, so I took the
metro even though it was so far away.
That’s what strikes me—the memory of the unusual, and the
place where it disappears from my notes. I try to find the place
where I recognized that half the women on any given metro car
wore fur, where I stopped noticing it as something special. Where
did I realize that the sidewalks were not shoveled or salted—where
did I start to pick my way across the mounded ice like everyone
else, without thinking? The closest I can find it is with people—
the night we, the American students, had a mixer with Russian students
in a café, speed-dating style, to find our future conversation
partner, I wrote about everyone I remembered. Later, a few names
would appear again as they became the main characters in my life.
I wrote pages when I met the people I would teach English to,
two little girls and the mother of the younger one, and eventually
it faded to taught the children again.
But even with those, I can’t
find the places where the unusual fades to the regular—where
I was scared to get home before my host mom
turns to got home,
made tea, watched last night’s NBC News on my laptop without
headphones while I ate the dinner host mom left for me in the
fridge.
It’s strange, the way memory works. There are people on this
campus who fade together into a shapeless mass until I meet
them—then, one face among them sticks out as special. The people
I met on Welcome Weekend have become, four years later, fixtures, or not-fixtures—the dorm shower that I hated the first night
has become just
the shower. When I lived out my first few days in
St. Petersburg last year, I saw it through a haze of fear, but when
I look at it now, I can see myself encountering the elements of the
next four months for the first time.
We arrived in Pulkovo airport on a Thursday, or maybe it had
turned to Friday by then. We, the thirty-one Americans, had come
by different flights, but the majority of us had ended up on the
same propeller plane transfer from Helsinki. We met a few Russian
students who were helping the program coordinators in the
Starbucks of the airport—Katya was among them, tall and brown-
haired. When we had the costume ball at the end of the semester,
in the big hall at Smolny, with the pale peach walls and white trim,
the huge windows, she would be in our group of American and
Russian girls still dancing as the guys lost interest. We would get
lost in Moscow with her, trying to find the museum where we had
a tour, as the late-March snow pattered down.
We introduced ourselves, strangers then—this long before we
could identify a new piece of clothing on someone as
new
and not
one of the few things brought from home. We went to the hotel by
bus and got our roommates for the weekend. Mine was Nina—we
talked, briefly, about whether I knew the girl from her high school
who had gone to my college—I did, but not well. Later, we would
teach English together, twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, in
the basement office of an apartment building near the Marble Palace,
near the center of the city. I would know her as well as any of
us knew each other, by the end. We drank beer when we checked
the English grammar in an essay and walked back to the metro,
buzzed, talking about Trump and whether or not we were afraid
after the terrorist attack in April.
We ate in the hotel dining room with the other exchange students,
still moving fluidly at the tables before groups formed—the
ones who started going to clubs right away, and the ones who did
not. Eventually those two groups stopped speaking to each other.
None of us knew how it happened, but it was fast and it stung. A
group of us, a mix of the two sets, went on the first night to Lenta,
a store with glowing yellow letters near the hotel, something
like a Walmart-Target-Sam’s Club mix, if a combination of those
stores sold ice skates and had stalls to buy a cell phone or to trade
money. I would go to different Lenta branches again—for gloves,
for a blanket, for soap, to put money on my burner cell phone. I
found other places near the end. I learned how to go to the bank to
deal with the phone, and started going to the cosmetics store near
the bus stop closest to my apartment—more frightening because it
was smaller, but only the first time I went in.
We took a bus tour. We went from Pulkovo up Moscovsky
Prospeckt into the city, where apartments with cracked, flat faces
lined the street—stores on the first floor, homes above. We passed
the apartment where I lived for those four months—number seventy,
yellow, above the grocery store, next to the bank, directly
across from the Frunzenskaya metro station. Later, that would be
among my favorite phrases stansiya metro Frunzenskaya, as the
doors banged open—because the announcement meant I was finally
home. It was a quiet station, shaped like a low, domed colosseum, with
red tiled walls and mosaics inside. The metro stations
were all beautiful—palaces of the people, something lovely to
see when it was gray and cold outside. Frunzenskaya didn’t rival
Avtovo with the crystal columns or Chernyshevskaya with the
chandeliers, but it was beautiful. Not many people got off there. It
felt different than the others because of that—I fell once, slipped
getting out, and people stopped.
The bus tour took us to the highlights of the city—they were a
blur then, and I didn’t know where we were. It would take weeks
to find some of those places again—Trinity Cathedral, with the
blue domes and gold stars, and the Strelka, the tip of Vasilyevsky
Island. We drove past Sadovaya, the neighborhood where
Crime and Punishment
was set, with jumbled crosswalks and old,
hard-working buildings. I thought it was the most beautiful place
in the city, and I went there sometimes just to see it, and again
on my last day when the sky was black with clouds. We saw the
outside of the Hermitage, the palace-turned-museum, green and
white and gold, where I went five times, once just to look at the
ornate rooms the art was in. We saw sky-blue Smolny Cathedral,
with the surrounding blue buildings, formerly a convent, now
a branch of St. Petersburg State University. We had class there,
every day, knew the stone hall where our rooms were, the
double-desks and drafty, deep-set windows. Potted plants sat in the
windowsills. The woman at the coat check desk gave me the same
claim number almost every day, just by chance, and she started to
laugh about it—I didn’t know what she said, but I knew the tone,
and we smiled at it when she gave me number three. These places
meant nothing to me then, and I felt nothing but outward admiration,
still untouched.
On Sunday night, we met our host families. We waited in our
seminar room near evening, the one with the U-shaped tables
where we had learned about cultural sensitivity and taken our language
tests. I was one of the first to leave. Ira, the main coordinator, was tall
and young, with short dark hair. Later, she would
take us to the banya and slap a group of girls with birch leaves in
the steam room, which was so hot that sweat ran off of us from
the moment we walked in, till we had to run out and jump into the
ice-cold pool, naked because no one had brought a swimsuit to
Russia in February.
She came to get me in the seminar room, me and maybe Aiden,
a math major who had taken three years of Russian, with brown
hair and heavy snow boots like mine. I would spend Friday after
-noons with her, during the long break between classes, eating in
the cafeteria with the tiny metal tables. I went to Spasa Na Kravi
with her, the Church on the Spilled Blood with the onion domes,
every inch covered in gold and mosaics. That would have been the
first weekend. I went there two or three times, always in different
groups, but I saw the outside in detail, up close, every Thursday,
as I ran through the cobblestoned area surrounding the it to get to
English tutoring. The day I thought that it was an inconvenience
of a building, I had to stop running while I fought back the urge
to laugh.
 The host families were there for a reception of their own, wait
-ing in a room across the lobby, with tall windows looking out over
a gray parking lot. Someone else took Aiden to find her host, and
Ira took me to mine—Marina Vasilyevna, tall and dyed-blonde,
sixty-ish, round-faced, wearing a brown fur coat, beaming. She
hugged me when we met. The day I left in May, she helped me
put my suitcase in the Uber and hugged me hard, and I fought
back tears on the way to Pulkovo. When she got home, usually
after me, she had a particular heavy sigh as she stopped to take
her shoes off in the hall. If I asked first how her day had been, she
would say
fine, or
normal, which would be the expected way to
answer in Russian—
how are you, I am fine.
If she asked first, and
I said
good, I would see her smile, and she would round her day
up to
good, or to a smiled
okay. She was an engineer, or had been
an engineer and now did something else. She had a daughter and
two grandchildren, a girl and a boy, who lived in Germany. I heard
her Skype them almost every night when she made dinner, laugh
-ing—I knew their voices by the end.
Marina Vasilyevna didn’t have a car, and took me to her friend,
who had driven her over—Natalia was the only part of her name
that I caught, and she was shorter, dark-haired, wore a black fur
coat. She was just meeting her student, a red-haired boy named
Jacob who had told us to call him
Yasha
—the Russian equivalent
of
Jake. Half the group had made fun of him for it, behind his
back, and even I had thought it was a little much—presumptuous,
somehow, like he was trying too hard—but I got it as I heard my
name transliterated into Russian—Khana—as Marina Vasilyevna
told me to come. I would have liked to have chosen something I
could pronounce.
Outside, it snowed lightly, and the parking lot was caked with
ice, thick and gray. Natalia never stopped talking, loud—she and
Marina Vasilyevna laughed off and on as we reached her car, small
and dark red. Yasha started to talk as we put his bags in the trunk,
and went around the side. His Russian wasn’t easy, punctuated
by um and long hesitations, but knowing that he understood well
enough to try to join in scared me. Later, I abandoned trying to un
-derstand full sentences, and I abandoned concern with accent and
I gave up being afraid. My Russian was broken, but it was enough
to say
one ticket, please, student, international student, enough to
communicate when I did or did not understand, to thank the guides
in the Marble Palace who brought me the English brochures or
pulled me off to let me see through the doorways of rooms that
were temporarily shut, to ask the guides in the Rumyantsev Man
-sion what rooms my ticket meant I could go into. Once a woman
and her husband stopped me on the street to ask where the Russian
Museum was—excited to hear a sentence I understood and knew
the answer to, I whipped around and promptly forgot the word for
left. I said
it’s that way and not to the right, a little sheepishly, but
I had at least pointed them to the side of the yellow building. They
were close.
In the car, my bag was shoved into the seat behind the driver,
half sitting up—I sat next to it, Marina Vasilyevna on my right.
Natalia drove; Yasha rode by her, still making an effort as they
kept talking, kept laughing—there was a frantic edge to how he
spoke. I tried to listen. There were no words I recognized, not
it or she—nothing but yes, which Marina Vasilyevna said off and on
as Natalia did most of the talking. She drove fast in the snow. The
sky was white. She and Marina Vasilyevna made no move to put
on seatbelts, so Yasha and I didn’t, either—I felt strangely loose in
the backseat, wedged in as I was. Yasha stopped trying to talk, fell
silent in the front—maybe he ran out of energy, or things to say, or
stopped understanding. Natalia talked. Marina Vasilyevna agreed,
yes, yes, yes, and sometimes looked sideways and smiled at me,
her eyes crinkling. I smiled back.
They dropped us off on the street outside a yellow apartment
building, on the road I recognized from the bus tour. We pulled
my suitcase out onto the wet sidewalk, caked with more gray ice.
Later, I would know this area. I would know what to buy in the
grocery store under our apartment, which seemed to have noth
-ing recognizable as food the first day I went in. I would go for
the same things on repeat—syrok, dense, sweet cheese dipped in
chocolate; sushki, round, unsalted pretzels good with peanut but
-ter; the containers of not-at-all-spicy Chinese food, in the refrig
-erated section with the sandwiches I didn’t like. The cashiers in
green aprons would recognize me as the American who just barely
understood them—they would never make small talk but would
turn the screen with the price to face me, which I never saw them
do with anyone else. In April, when I went to Moscow and then to
Kirov, took the train back to Ladozhskaya Station and the metro
back to Frunzenskaya, I would think
I’m so glad to be home
as I limped up the stairs.
But in the moment, I saw nothing—rain, ice, a building. The ice-
caked path between the stores, back to the courtyard, where there
were parked, snow-dusted cars that looked like they had spent the
better part of their existence in the Soviet Union. The red metal
door, so cold that frost grew on it. The stone steps and wrought-
iron railing inside, the wires running thickly above the doors that
didn’t match. It looked grim. It would always look grim.
We went up two flights of stairs, each carrying one half of my
suitcase. Her door was on the right—they were all different, on
the landing. Hers light, yellowish wood, paneled, with a metal
doorknob that didn’t turn. She unlocked it with two keys almost
the length of my hand, long and shiny metal. There was a space
inside, then another door—then the hall with two rooms on the
right, a bathroom on the left, and the kitchen at the end, receding
into darkness. My room was the living room: there was a fold
-ed-out sofa, a desk-table between the two windows, a TV stand
and glass-fronted bookshelf with the translated works of Shake
-speare and Jack London, an upright piano, and a metal clothes
rack. I tried to say that it was a beautiful room, but I was nervous
and might have said
apartment
or corner
or red, because all the
words that started with k
sounded alike to me. She said that she
would make dinner and call me when it was done.
I cried when she left. It looked too big, like everything was too
far apart. The clothes rack with the wire hangers was sparse and
empty; the windows were high and cold. Later, I loved watching
people in the icy courtyard. I drank tea and wrote in that room. To
-wards the end, when the ice and the walking and insufficient shoes
had taken a toll, and all my joints ached and it hurt to take a step,
the sofa-bed became comfortable.
In the morning, she took me to the metro—told me what words
to say to buy tokens, showed me a map on the wall, and made
me practice holding my purse against my chest so no one could
steal it. Frunzenskaya was on the blue line—then Technologich
-esky Institut, a transfer point with red. We got off there, where it
was more crowded, and waited for Natalia to bring Yasha to us.
He was of limited importance after this day—he was in the other
set of students, and my host mom only asked after him once. But
for that morning, he was a comfort when we got on the crowded
car. I watched the doors slam, and saw my own reflection for a
moment before I grabbed for a bar to hold on to. By the middle of
February, I would be able to stand without holding anything. By
the end of February, I would take trolleybus 15 home from Smol
-ny, and stand staring out the rain-speckled windows after I knew it
was time to give up my seat, usually about five stops in, when the
bus got crowded. If traffic was bad, I could get off near Technolog
-ichesky Institut—mounded with flowers in April, after the bomb
went off on our blue line, between there and Sadovaya—and walk
home before the bus got there.
There are not places where those things appear in my notebook,
the intangible part of the experience. Details shift and change as
the extraordinary became something I could understand. These are
the memories that have held me—the memories of starting to un
-derstand a place, and of becoming—foreign as I was, even by the
end—a regular there.

***
hannah feustle is a senior Creative Writing and English double major
from Baldwin, MD. She studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, in spring
2017. After graduation, she plans to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing.

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The Dragon’s Horde

By: Mikayla Meyers
Dublin is a dragon and on my first night, I rode atop its
head. Pairs of feet still stained with United States soil
flitted across slick cobblestone streets. The night hung
as a black curtain above warm lights—string lights strewn across
street alleys, lamp lights, storefront signs, pub lights. The air
tasted sweet with an earthy metallic. Street music reverberated
between brick and called me over to stay awhile. But there was too
much to hear, too much to see, and the body of the dragon curved
on. We skipped down the streets, a flock of wild, adrenaline eyes
and parched lips. Air-weary travelers, the pub lights lured us in to
music and drink. Once we tired of one, we rushed the streets in
search of another, and another;
The International Bar, Temple Bar,
The Hairy Lemon.
Our hearts were insatiable. After two drinks,
the dragon called me back to its streets. This time, alone. I found
my way back to the music and stood in place for a while to feel
the moist air settle on my cheeks. The first night is what I pictured
it would be like, but it was only night, and I had yet to see Dublin
under the scrutiny of day.
In daylight, the hypnosis of city lights is quieted. The city
becomes something new altogether. In the daylight, I realized that
Dublin is a dragon.
Let me elaborate.
Its body, scales of uneven cobblestone, snake and glide beneath
the untrained feet of a visitor. As feet walk on and familiarity is
lost, the body bends below and guides one street into another, and
another, and another, until bearing has returned. Webbed spines
fray along its jaw, and when the wind blows past, tight and quick,
it makes music. Dusted with bar-light stars and dew from misty
rain, Dublin’s flesh shimmers. It is a dragon with a 120-meter-long
lance for a heart. This lance has many names:
The Spire, The Monument of Light.
The lance has a magic about it.
Light never ceases to shine from its peak. It is the vision of one, unified
Dublin. Butas most hearts are, this one is still conflicted.
Dublin has scars over old wounds. It has notches in its bones from bullets. Their
remnants stare back, blasted into the pillars of the General Post
Office, a building that sits along the dragon’s spine: O’Connell
Street Lower.
If Dublin is a dragon, then what might be its horde? I say “horde”
and not “hoard” because this dragon collects live things. They sit
in heavy jackets and thin jeans on O’Connell Bridge and the ends
of Ha’penny Bridge. Their sleeping bags gather by storefronts and
crosswalks. One man sits and reads from dawn till dusk every day,
another woman asks tirelessly for just enough euros to rent a
hostel room for the night. They take turns with a tub of chalk and
write poetry on the sidewalk.
They write;
Some people look down on me
Because I am Homeless
But who are they to judge
For I bleed blood and
I breathe the same air
So! How can anyone judge
For no one in life is…
—and it sits unfinished in the minds of passersby. They only
looked because suddenly, the concrete was colorful beneath their
feet.
Splitting between the scales are buildings as spikes, meticulously
groomed at a maximum of 60 meters high. The buildings are
full—fit to burst, leaving its horde to camp in the streets. In the
cold and mist of December 2017, the dragon counted 2,385
children in its horde. It counted 3,712 adults and 1,028 families. The
horde continues to swell.
I ventured this dragon alone often. My tastes had changed.
Before, I had preferred a second mind around as back-up in case
my own failed. But in Dublin, I found a comfort in being lost. It
helped slow my world down. It taught me to walk with purpose in
the present, instead of rushing to something in my future. When I
slowed down, the city felt like a dream—real, yet just beyond my
comprehension. Lost, I met with beings from the dragon’s living
horde. Some were on feet consumed by a nervous pacing. Some
sat coiled in their sleeping bags, staring a week into the future. At
the crosswalk by Christ Church Cathedral, a woman rushed to me,
her hair thin and oily, her eyes red from exhaustion.
“Spare some euros please, please, spare some euros please!
Please!”
My response was robotic, trained; it was all I knew.
I’m sorry,
I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
“Just enough for a hostel for the night, please! My father is in the
hospital and I have to visit him, please, only enough for the night!”
I’m sorry,
I have no cash on me.
I’m sorry.
She heard me. She nodded and continued past without a word.
Before Dublin was a dragon, it was a tiger. Crisp businessmen
with eyes trained towards a new frontier brought their dreams to
Ireland. They expanded their companies on Irish soil and watched
as the country’s capital flourished. Ireland became the
Celtic Tiger.
Its citizens, for the first time in a long time, felt secure. They
felt fearless as they shopped in stores, ate out in restaurants, made
down payments on houses yet to be built. The Celtic Tiger assured
its people that they and their spending were immortal, even as the
nation’s economy began to stagger under the weight of progress. It
was a denial that led the nation into a crippling recession. Houses
now sit vacant, cold, unobtainable to the people who then found
themselves scraping for some semblance of stability. When the
Celtic Tiger fell, Dublin resurrected as a dragon with a currency of
its own—a horde in the thousands.
At the corner of Parnell Square is a garden. A long pool of water
stretches down the garden and out at the sides in the shape of a
cross. Flowers bloom when in season, and the grass on the risen
earth is a striking green year-round. At the head of the cross, up a
small climb of stairs, is a monument. At its base are three human
bodies sculpted to appear to be clothed in loose cloth. They are
thin, dejected. The first, a man, lays close to the earth as if near
impact from a fall. The second, a man who looks like the same man
from before, but only at the start of the fall; as if rewound in time.
The third is a woman. She stands the tallest yet leans faintly to the
left. Forming from the backs of all three is a flock of large birds
taking flight. This garden is the Garden of Remembrance, and it
commemorates the lives of those who died amidst the struggle for
Irish freedom. The monument, atop its perch at the head of the
garden, shows the Irish people rising from the ashes of their past.
This garden is surrounded by a fence and locked at nightfall.
Next to the fence, a tent sits pitched into the grass, and clothes
hang haphazardly from a tree to dry.
I was not a stranger to the city at night, but I preferred it during
the day. I made 20-minute trips by bus from Dublin City
University to the city center in front of Trinity College. From noon
until late evening, I wandered the body of the dragon with no real
purpose or direction. In the back of my mind, all I was searching
for were sights, music, and a cup of coffee somewhere hidden
from the rush of jaywalking feet and double decker buses. A handful
of those evenings in the city, I came across the same man.
His hair was grey and ruffled, his beard sticky but not unkempt.
The clothes he wore were stained and torn. His skin looked faded,
wax-like. His eyes stared past everything—past the buildings, the
dumpster, past my body walking by. When I came across him,
he would mumble under his breath—caught in a heated argument
with himself and a phantom that sat not far from his own lips. One
evening, something about him had changed. That evening, he was
pacing feverishly back and forth between the curb of the street and
a locked storefront gate.
“No… No… No!… No…No! No!” He shouted, shaking his
hands like they were crawling with something. I kept moving. I
knew the man as well as a frequent stranger could know him. I
was used to passing him quickly. A step before passing him, he
lifted his arms and bellowed, “I’m not scared of you! I’m not
fucking scared of you! Come fight me, I’m not scared! Fight me!” He
crashed his body into the storefront gate and punched it with a
sharp hook. The gate echoed a light rattle but did not give way. It
was a sudden aggression that startled me. Where my feet should
have sped, they halted, frozen. I looked, but only for a moment.
He seemed to understand that the gate was metal, and he was only
flesh. The man went back to mumbling and leaned against the gate
in defeat. I walked on.
Dublin tries to hide its horde behind the Leprechaun Museum,
behind a bus tour, behind a Carroll’s gift shop on every street.
They sit, invisible, a few yards away from where people stand
daily with smiles on their faces, holding out pamphlets about
angels. Every so often, someone will notice a piece of the scattered
horde along the street. They will bring them a warm cup of coffee,
crouch down, and have a nice chat as if the day was warm and
home was waiting for them both. It is in those small moments that
you can see them smile. Their eyes are glossed from loss of sleep,
but the conversation brings a redness back to their cheeks.
Dublin is a dragon whose scales look different from afar. They
reflect like a mirror, and we see only what we feel we ought to see.
In case you were wondering: yes, I did drink Guinness; yes, I did
go to the pubs; yes, I went to the Guinness Storehouse; but I tire of
responding to an image of the dragon from across the sea. Dublin
is a vibrant city. There are stomping feet in its pubs, music in its
streets, and art blooming in bookstores and studios. Dublin’s body
is old, but its breath is young and changing. And yet, the horde is
still there: living things waiting for the warm season and counting
their euros to pay off a hostel room for the night. The horde does
not always look like defeated bodies strewn across the streets.
When they find themselves with 2.70 euros, sometimes, they take
the bus. Their children return from school to a hotel room shared
amongst two, three, four others. Dublin is a dragon with hypnotic,
fiery nighttime eyes, and with a horde ever swelling.

 

 

 

***
mikayla meyers is a 3rd-year Creative Writing, English Literature,
and Publishing & Editing major. She is from Frederick, Maryland and had
the pleasure of studying abroad for a semester in Dublin, Ireland. After
graduating, she would like to pursue hand book binding and book restoration.

rainbows

by Keri Brady-Benzing

Though I’d never even been there before, my mom’s cousin Nora refers to my trip to County Mayo, Ireland as a homecoming. She brings me and my travel buddy turned best friend, Annie, to see where my grandmother was born and where Annie’s ancestors came from before they moved to America. We drive slowly through the county our first day, making stops in towns along the way before spending the evening with my great uncle in his tiny town of Ballycroy where there’s only a pub and a post office.

This morning started with a walk through the Ballycroy farmland. We pass by houses every now and again. Nora points many out to be empty, their owners having immigrated to America – in almost every case Cleveland, like my grandmother. The rain comes and leaves, partial rainbows appearing and disappearing across corners of the sky. More rainbows already in that hour long walk than I’d seen in my three months in Ireland so far. The land is flat and meets the sea. Across the calm water, you could see the mountains of Achill Island.

+

Nora wanted us to see the cliffs on Achill – Croaghaun. They are the tallest sea cliffs of Ireland and Britain, the third tallest sea cliffs in all of Europe. The view is best appreciated by a walk along the beach to look upon them. The first time we get out of the car, rain pours over us. We run for cover in the car and explore more of the island before coming back. The second time, the sand on the beach is wet and shiny. The sky is cloudy and grey, dull.

The beach is huge – it doesn’t seem like we’re far from the cliffs, but even as we walk and walk we never seem to get closer. We stay suspended between the shore and the water, not near either, in a space of sand that stretches endlessly each way. The three of us are the only ones on the beach and I feel so small in its vastness.

The rainbow appears in pieces. A streak appears out of the dark mountains along the horizon parallel to the beach, on the side of the island away from the ocean, away from the cliffs. The streak of rainbow, a segmented chunk, begins to grow like it is climbing its way to heaven only to decide it wants to stay on earth and fall back in a perfect arch. The colors are bright and vibrant cast against the dark sky. We are walking, but we stop.

There’s this association with Ireland and rainbows. Walk to the end and you’ll find a pot of gold. Maybe you’ll see a leprechaun. You’ll get the luck of the Irish. Rainbows, though, they happen everywhere – in the United States, in England. Somehow, Ireland is the one with the special connection, the symbolic presence.

The rainbow does not stop at the horizon. It moves in a circle, it reflects down onto the wet, sandy earth until it meets back up with itself. A circle of rainbow. The three of us in the middle.

Three months before this, I moved to Ireland with two students from my school. They were my roommates and I knew them a little bit and while excited to get to know them, I was also excited to meet new people. Through a mutual friend, my roommate and I met Annie who lived downstairs in our apartment complex. “Yeah, I’m from Cleveland,” she said proudly. I told her I was born there too and we share pride. Within a few weeks, we were planning trips across Ireland and across Europe while spending our week days and nights exploring our city of Galway.

A second rainbow starts to appear over the left side arch. It climbs its way up, mocking the slow rise of the first. It tries to be a full rainbow and achieves for less than a minute to be a full double rainbow, not only across the sky, but reflected too across the sand.

A few weeks after visiting Achill, we will chase the northern lights in Norway. The thing on everyone’s bucket list. The tour guides tell us the importance of a single moment. In just one moment the northern lights can flare up across the sky and be gone four seconds later.

The second rainbow recedes into fragments that hang over the first rainbow. The first rainbow holds strong, its colors bold, its structure perfect from end to end. I take a step back, trying to get a better view, trying to capture it end to end on my phone. The circular rainbow looks like the eye of god staring wide open at us.

A few weeks will pass from our Achill trip and our family back home in Cleveland will see our photos. Relatives of mine who’s names I’ve heard tossed around will talk to Annie’s grandmother about seeing the two of us in Mayo – the place where both families began generations ago. We didn’t even know any of our family members knew each other.

There’s a crowd now on the beach, more than twenty people. I don’t know where they came from, but people stand out there with their families and their friends staring like we are. Surfers in wet suits run out to catch the perfect wave. I don’t feel so small anymore.

I chose to study abroad in Ireland because this is where my family originated. They grew up not far from here on a little farm, this island in view. Every time I talked to family at home, they’d ask if I made it to grandma’s childhood home yet and they’d talk my ear off about how beautiful it was. Mom told me try to visit Achill, said it was gorgeous. No one ever told me it was magical.

Nora, too, grew up on the farm that keeps this island just in view. Annie’s Irish blood goes a couple generations back, no family remains here but they’ve traced their roots back to one place: Achill Island. She almost has tears in her eyes as she mentions her grandfather, who passed away recently, and says that this is his way of showing her that everything is going to be all right. After she gives it words, I know I feel deep down what she does too, though through different family, different history, different friendships, yet still linked in just the right places.

The rain comes then, hard and unexpected, but not unwelcome. The sky grows a little darker and the rainbow dims. It will be gone soon, but that’s okay.

Check out Keri’s Photos: Rainbow, Achill Island & Cliffs of Moher

Holy Spaces

by Katy Griffith

Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, England

The cathedral looks much the same as it did when Chaucer’s pilgrims journeyed to this town. They told tales to pass the time, and I think, perhaps, that we have not changed much these 600 years. We still tell stories to pass time, still go on pilgrimages. I wonder what stories I will have to tell when I arrive home from my own pilgrimage, and if they will be the kind that stand the test of time as Chaucer’s have.

The cathedral seems immense compared to the small two to three story buildings I have seen so far in Canterbury. It is walled off from town by buildings and accessible by a several hundred year old entryway. The cathedral is invisible from the cobblestone street outside. We pass through the gate and the cathedral comes quickly into view. Its size is breathtaking, and my step falters. This place has seen so much history. It doesn’t even fit in my camera frame until I squat in the grass that surrounds the cathedral and I’m thankful for the blue skies that appeared after a week of gloomy weather, for the grass is soft and dry beneath me.

It is silent inside, yet somehow the tall ceiling creates echoes. It is designed to look like the ribcage of a ship, and I wonder if I’m supposed to feel like I’m drowning. I feel uncomfortable here, like something is pushing the air out of me. I’m a stowaway on a ship and I pray that nobody notices that I’m not supposed to be here. For every tourist snapping pictures there is someone else who actually uses this historical monument as a place of worship. I’m afraid every noise I make is sacrilegious, and when anyone in my Chaucer class speaks in more than a whisper I have to stop myself from cringing. Don’t they know you’re supposed to be quiet in a church?

I feel like every picture I take becomes a crime, but I can’t stop myself. I don’t want to forget any of this. There are people who actually came to pray, to talk to God, to do whatever people do in a place like this, but I pull out my phone and take pictures of everything I can. Somehow I justify to myself that at least I didn’t pull out my camera like a real tourist.

This is the first time I’ve really seen stained glass. The glass here is like no stained glass I’ve seen before. Impossibly vivid colors, intricate patterns, and panels that are nearly floor to ceiling. The amount of man power and time it must have taken to put each piece of glass in its place, to manage to tell a story with those pictures. It’s almost miraculous. Our tour guide points out some of the newer stained glass, added in the 50’s. The people are almost cartoon like, and our tour guide tells us that their creator was heavily influenced by Disney. Now that she mentions it, I can see a little bit of the Disney princesses in their faces. It’s weird, reconciling Aurora and Snow White with the people in the glass pictures. Somehow my brain doesn’t think that these are two narratives that are allowed to cross over.

There are steps in the cathedral that are so worn down by people walking, kneeling, and crawling up them for centuries that they are no longer flat. They have worn away like river stones, rounded and softened by time and waves of people. Like cliffs that are worn away by waves, it took centuries to wear away this stone, so that it slopes in the middle like it’s made of melting wax. My feet are aiding in the shaping of these steps. My steps feel insignificant, but someday, hundreds of years from now, a college student on a semester abroad will walk these same steps and wonder what kinds of people helped wear them away.

Our tour guide tells us that the bare columns and walls we see in the cathedral were not always this way, and in some places you can see remnants of the paint that decorated them. The cathedral was not always this gray, she tells us, and the pictures on the walls served a similar purpose to the stained glass. They told stories, and served to give color in what otherwise might have been a somber space. Back when more people were illiterate, and when the church spoke only in Latin, the common people had to learn God’s stories somehow. Over time, censorship and the ravages of time have conspired and now there are only a few places where the color remains, faded now, but still hanging on.

Chaucer’s pilgrims wanted to visit this site because of man named Thomas Beckett. “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Those are the words that sent Thomas to his death.  It’s scary how quickly people listen to those who are in power, how literally they take their words and how quickly they act on them. Only God has the power to take away a life so quickly, so mercilessly. Everyone gives a wide berth to a single lit candle on the floor marking the spot of Beckett’s martyrdom, and I am compelled to take a picture. Centuries later, and he is still memorialized, still remembered. And all he had to do was die.

There’s a small gift shop by the door, and I buy a pin and some postcards, something that serves as proof. I was here. I saw this place. I am telling my story.

 

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland

There are a few large cathedrals in Dublin, and though we pass some of them on our double-decker tour bus, we decide to go to St. Patrick’s cathedral instead of any of the others. This is where Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels.  He is buried here, a statue of him stands outside of the cathedral. This is reason enough for me, even though I have never read anything by Jonathan Swift. Is it a coincidence that so far that both cathedrals I have been to have literary connections? Or is religion more closely tied to literature than I want to admit?

After Canterbury, St. Patrick’s is a bit of a letdown. It’s not as grand, and it doesn’t take my breath away nearly as much. I wonder if it’s because I am already becoming desensitized to places like this, or if after Canterbury, it seems a little redundant.

St. Patrick’s is just as silent, if not more so, than Canterbury. Since I’m not in a large group this time, I am even more conscious of the noises I make. It’s a little darker in here than it was in Canterbury too, but the stained glass is just as vibrant and no less spectacular. I take a picture of each window and hope that most of them turn out clearer than my iPhone pictures from Canterbury. The lighting is so dim in here that some of them turn out worse.

When we leave St. Patrick’s, we leave with all thoughts turned to the Guinness factory. This is our next stop and Dublin’s second holy space.

The Sistine Chapel, Rome, Italy.

I am a foreigner in Italy in a way that I have never been a foreigner before. Not only in the sense that I am so obviously blonde that I can’t possibly be from Rome, but in the sense that I can’t fathom how this city exists the way that it does. Rome is so Catholic that there are no Christmas decorations, and somehow that makes no sense and every sense at the same time. At home the Christmas decorations will have been out for weeks by now, but here in Rome you would never know Christmas was just a few weeks away.

Rome has been on my bucket list for years, mostly because I am fascinated by mythology and ancient civilizations. But as we wander Rome, I am struck with a question: how can a city built on the backs of Roman gods be so close to the city of the Catholic Church that they seem to be swallowing each other?

They’re setting out chairs outside St. Peter’s Basilica when we arrive, and I wonder if the Pope is going to be appearing in public in the next days or so, maybe on Sunday. We’ll be back in England by then, and it’s weird that I’m bummed out by this. I like this Pope, though, and I like to have bragging rights. The Sistine Chapel will have to serve. Not everyone can take a selfie with the pope.

The route we have to take to the chapel is long and mazelike. There are no doors to the chapel from the outside. It’s like a test. If you see and appreciate all of this art, then you may be allowed to see the most famous ceiling painting in the world. We meander through the Vatican’s museum, more conscious of time after we spend far too long looking at the ancient busts of roman gods, heroes, and philosophers, and therefore unable to take our time with the rest. There’s far too much to see in just a few hours and my camera dies before we are halfway through from the strain so I resort to my phone. I’ve come a long way since Canterbury. I no longer have shame.  

As we enter the chapel I almost forget that I should look up. The walls alone are masterpieces. I never knew that the rest of the chapel was painted in frescos as well as the ceiling, but it’s an unexpected treat. Once I remember that what I came here to see is on the ceiling, I turn my eyes toward heaven, scanning the ceiling hungrily. I look for the famous image of God, reaching, almost touching man but not quite there yet. It takes some time to find and the ceiling seems so far away. Each image is as magnificent as the next and I wonder why that is the one that is most famous.   

The chapel is so beautiful that I want to stand here for hours and soak in all of the details. I want to cement this moment in my brain forever, but we are on a schedule, and we can’t stay forever.

The signs said no photography allowed, but I am selfish. This painting was without precedent. It changed the course of art forever. It’s a testament to one man’s unparalleled skill. I wonder if I could ever have enough dedication or motivation to create a masterpiece like Michelangelo, or if I’m missing something essential. If I need some kind of belief system since there’s not enough raw talent in me. I know I will never have the words to express my dizzying awe at the ceiling so I pull out my phone, walk right under God’s hand and stealthily take a few pictures. It’s the sneakiest I’ve ever been, but I couldn’t leave without stealing some of that wonder for myself. I need a reminder of this place so that I don’t forget it when I leave. I need proof that this place made me feel something, though I’m not quite sure what it is.  

 

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria

The façade of Stephansdom is very gothic, more noticeably so than Canterbury, perhaps because of the lack of blue skies. It has been a couple of days since we were in Rome, and that means it’s a couple of days nearer to Christmas. There’s a massive evergreen outside the cathedral, strung with lights and topped with a star. Hundreds of people are milling around, walking to or from one of the hundreds of Criskindlmarkts that have taken over the city. The cathedral is nearly as dark inside as it is outside, and it’s difficult to make out its details.  We can only go so far into the building, there’s some kind of event going on later this evening, but we will be on our way in a few minutes anyway, several more things to see and do on our tour of Vienna.

We pass by the cathedral again in the daylight, and it’s more imposing this way. The black pollution stains on the side of the building are more noticeable in the light, and I’m told that workers have to routinely scrub the building to keep it clean. By the time they finish, the first section has already turned black again. I think about how pointless it all is, to spend hours slaving to make this cathedral look as it was intended, never fully succeeding, never getting to take a break. Faith is like that. You don’t get to take a break, it’s not something you will ever be done doing. It’s a process. Maybe that’s why faith is so hard for me, so seemingly pointless. I’m the kind of person who thinks the cathedral looks cooler where it’s black.

Even in the daylight, the inside of St. Stephens’s Cathedral is dim. In the daylight we can walk around a bit more, see the details up close. Statues and art adorn the walls and columns, and it’s noticeable that this isn’t as much of a tourist stop as the other cathedrals I have been in. Most of the people here speak German. After so many holy spaces I know the drill. It’s quiet inside, I take pictures and wonder if that is offensive to anyone, if it’s worse because I can only speak a little German.

This is the city of Beethoven and Mozart and Strauss. What was it about this city that inspired so many musicians? What is it about these tolling bells that called out to them? Was it that they toll at the same time day after day? Were they something to rely on? Were they a source of comfort? To me the bells remind me that time passes whether you want it to or not, and maybe this is what allowed these composers to create multiple masterpieces in their lifetimes. A reminder that eventually your time will run out can be a great motivator. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps me going. I can’t waste my time or I will never leave something behind that will outlive me.

A Small Green and Blue Planet, Somewhere in Space

God and space are equally terrifying to me, but I only believe in one of them.

As a deeply cynical and skeptical person, I have faith in very few things, and God is not one of them. If there’s a circle of hell for non-believers, I’d go there if I believed in it. But there is something about visiting a deeply religious place that sparks something in me. Maybe it’s just curiosity, maybe its fascination with something I can’t understand, but somethings is there.

Space is so massive that the human mind can’t comprehend it. God is similar, in a way. I will never understand why people would travel across an entire country to visit the site of a saint’s death. I will never understand why churches are always quiet. I will never understand what it is about God that inspires writers, painters, and musicians.

There are a few things that my brain can wrap around. I may never believe in or understand God, but I do believe that there is magic in imagination and storytelling. I understand wanting to build things that last, things that inspire people, things that are beautiful on their own merit. I understand wanting to leave a legacy, wanting to inspire future generations. I guess it makes sense then, why these holy places became so important and fascinating to me once I stepped foot in their spaces.

 

Read an interview with Katy here.