Walking in the Footsteps of Ghosts

by Gwendolyn Bodner

The customs line at the airport: what a perfect opportunity to daydream as you stand in the same place, the weight of your body making a permanent imprint in the industrial carpet as you wait to have your passport stamped. As I fight a losing battle with the carry-on that is slipping from my drooping shoulder, I imagine the country I left behind just a plane ride ago. In vain, I try to imagine myself back in Salzburg, Austria, where I delighted in walking through the Old Town, taking in the picturesque scenery of people milling about the Kapitelplatz and Mozartplatz while the Hohensalzburg Fortress stood protectively over the rooftops of this quaint town. I remember the thrill of sliding down a wooden miner’s slide in the salt-mine in Hallstatt. The notes of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony linger in the memory of spending my 21st birthday attending a concert at the Musikverein in Vienna. I chuckle to myself as I remember my trip to Berchtesgaden where I walked through Hitler’s Bunker and saw his Eagle’s Nest. Although I couldn’t talk the other Susquehanna University students into recreating the scene from Sound of Music where the children and Maria dance along the edge of the fountain, there was no better way to spend the last day of the trip than to stroll through the Mirabell Gardens at dusk. Yet, among all these delightfully fond memories of an unforgettable trip, it is the trip to a concentration camp that gave purpose and meaning to my GO experience.

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I have always been very interested in learning about the Holocaust and I’ve made a point of reading memoirs and autobiographies about the genocide. I’ve always found documentaries and movies about the Holocaust fascinating. Since reading Anne Frank’s Diary in fifth grade, I’ve been intrigued by the psychology of the genocide. In every account of the Holocaust I’ve read or watched Adolf Hitler has been described as a little man with a funny mustache. It seems inconceivable that this funny little man could be responsible for the horrifying deaths of millions of people. Even more inconceivable is the number of people who believed in Hitler and helped him execute the attempted extinction of millions. Although I went to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. when I was thirteen, I always dreamed of being able to go to a real concentration camp and see for myself what I’d read about in such graphic detail. Granted, this is not a trip that many thirteen-year-old children dream of. In fact, it’s not a trip most adults dream of. However, my desire to visit the museum was motivated by my curiosity about Holocaust and how we could allow it to happen. Knowing that the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. offered one of the most uncensored and authentic account of the genocide, I thought visiting it would supplement the literature and documentaries I’d so far used to inform my research on the Holocaust.

During our lunch, Andrea and I ended up talking to one another and having quite a meaningful conversation about the Holocaust and God. Andrea is more active in her practice of religion than I am, but we both pondered the question of how a supposedly omnipotent, omnibenevolent, merciful god could allow such a genocide to happen. I felt that visiting the concentration camp was an important experience to watch the introductory video where survivors of Mauthausen gave testimonials about their experiences. I almost dreaded the experience of watching the video, fearful of the effect watching the video in a real concentration camp would have. It wasn’t the first such video I had seen, but perhaps actually watching it at a concentration camp made it a more profound experience. It was horrifying to learn about the stairs that prisoners had to climb while carrying heavy boulders. Even more horrifying, was learning about how prisoners had to carry heavy rocks up stairs, only to be pushed off those same stairs. The reason for pushing the prisoners down the stairs? To impress the SS officers who would come to observe and assess the camp. There was one man who said there was a guard who would have the prisoners lay against one another in the cold, wet, mud to form a bridge over which he could walk so he didn’t get his boots dirty. “Inhumane” doesn’t seem to be an adequate word to describe the horror that people experienced in concentration camps like Mauthausen.

I think I liked the tour the most because the young woman who led us through the camp brought a new perspective to the experience. I was nervous about how to react as an American learning about the Holocaust from such a young person who is part of the culture that contributed to the genocide. I acknowledged that this was part of her job as a citizen of Austria, but I was curious to see how she talked about this event in history. She seemed to be comfortable talking about this darkness in her country’s past, though she appeared nervous as well to speak to a group of Americans who obviously had their own preconceived notions based on what they were taught about the Holocaust. It was humbling to compare myself to someone who has more reason to be troubled by her past than I did and to reconsider my own beliefs and perceptions of the Holocaust and those involved. The enormity of how complex humanity is was emphasized perhaps in the length of the tour than in all the literature I read about the Holocaust.

I appreciated the pictures our tour guide showed us in the beginning of the tour. The two depictions of the prisoners carrying the rocks up the Stairs of Death were interesting to study. For example, it was remarkable, the volumes one picture could speak and the distinct impression it wanted to give, just through the omission of the SS officer in the propaganda picture, but the inclusion of the officer in the artist’s drawing. In one picture, the men looked like they were voluntarily carrying the rocks while in the other it was at gunpoint and from a fear of death. The propaganda picture also mitigated the treacherous climb up the steps and the potential domino effect of men falling down them when those at the top were pushed backward.  It was chilling to see the picture of the SS officers standing as a group smiling at the camera like any high school soccer team. How could they live with themselves? What drives a person to commit the atrocities for which these men were responsible? Is there a fair and just way to punish these men and hold them accountable for what they did? Can we hold them accountable?

I wondered how I would react during the tour, whether seeing the buildings and the showers would affect me more than I expected. Perhaps it is the distance of time, but I found that I wasn’t as affected as I thought I would be. After all those years of studying the Holocaust, reading countless memoirs and biographies, and watching documentaries about Hitler and the Third Reich, I expected to be more affected by the experience of walking in the same concentration camp where the horrors took place. I remember standing in the middle of one of the barracks, looking around the empty space and at the worn wooden floors. I remember hearing my own footsteps echo in the empty space as everyone stood in the room in hushed silence. We were all thinking the same thing. We were imagining the prisoners crammed into this space, sharing fatal diseases and sorrow. We knew that the number of prisoners far exceeded the capacity for the room and we tried to imagine what “living” in such conditions could have been like.

And yet,  I felt as though I was working so hard to feel something, that I kept trying to imagine myself as a prisoner in the camp. When we saw all the memorials in the open grass outside the gates of the camp, I wanted to feel something more; I wanted to be more empathetic with the victims of the camp and feel what those who built the monuments felt. I wanted to cry in sorrow for the suffering of Hitler’s victims. I wanted to feel anger toward those who perpetuated atrocities against the prisoners of Mauthausen and the other concentration camps. I wanted to feel something. Feeling anything was better than feeling nothing. I wanted to feel something more than acceptance of the Holocaust as a part of history. I didn’t want to feel like I was standing in the middle of an elaborate replica of a concentration camp. I wanted to feel like I was in a real camp where real people once walked and experienced what I’d only read about. To connect more to the experience of being at Mauthausen, I recalled one of the English classes I took this past spring. In the class, I read a text about the Israel-Palestine conflict and learned about the Jewish tradition of putting rocks on graves. Before leaving the camp, I slowly walked toward the memorial for the Jewish prisoners and put a few small rocks on the cold marble. It was a surreal experience to stand in the middle of a camp through which you know thousands of prisoners passed. It was haunting to stand in the barracks and think of how scared these people were, how they couldn’t even go to the bathroom when they needed to. There are certainly a number of ways to imagine how you would react in such a situation, but I don’t know if is truly possible to know until you are there and fighting for your life. Throughout my whole time walking through the camp, I desperately tried to picture how I would have behaved had I been a prisoner. It was overwhelming and challenging to appreciate the reality of Mauthausen as more than a recreated model of some far away camp that once existed. I was walking the same ground that SS officers and prisoners walked. I tried to imagine the screaming coming from the human test subjects in the hospital building. I tried to imagine the officers playing soccer on the field just next to the barracks where people were put to die; the smell and sight of those buildings. The imprints left in the grass were like scars of the past.

After the tour, when we went to the museum part of the camp, it is perhaps the memorial room with the triangular pieces of granite that have the names of the Mauthausen prisoners etched in white on the surface that made me feel most connected to the prisoners since arriving at camp. Suddenly, there were thousands of names mirrored in the black granite. Suddenly, the victims of Mauthausen were not unknown. Seeing their names etched in stone made each person real, made the lives, families, jobs, houses, and communities they were forced to leave behind real. Seeing my own reflection in the black stone amidst the white names of the Mauthausen prisoners made the whole experience far more personal. I no longer had to imagine the people who walked within Mauthausen. They were all there, preserved forever. Seeing the myriad of names and my own face reflected in the soft lighting of the room was indescribable.

When I finished reading the placards of the other exhibits, I went to see the cremation furnaces, the rooms where they would keep the bodies cold until they could be cremated, the room where they would extract the gold teeth of prisoners, and the gas chamber itself. I will never forget finally seeing these parts of the camp, seeing framed pictures of several victims hanging from the wall of the gas chamber.  This experience has brought so much more meaning and power to the literature I’ve read and studied about the Holocaust. Mauthausen will always stand apart as one of the best–and most haunting–parts of the trip.

 

Read an interview with Gwendolyn here.

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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.

Interview with Gwendolyn Bodner

Where did you GO, when did you GO, and how long were you there? 
I went on the GO Austria trip for three weeks in May 2015.  Why did you choose that trip?

Why did you choose that trip? 
There is not a time in my life when I can’t remember seeing my father’s framed poster of the inside of the Musikverein in Vienna hanging on the wall in our music room. We have moved several times since the first time I remember seeing that poster, but in every home we’ve made sure to have a music room where we can display it. Initially, I didn’t realize the poster depicted the famous concert hall in Vienna. However, when my father told me about his trip to Vienna and what it was like to see a concert at the Musikverein, I made a promise to myself to one day sit in the audience at the Musikverein too. My desire to keep this promise, my interest in Austrian history/culture, and my desire to practice the little German I studied at SU were all considerations that helped me choose Austria for my GO program. In a wonderful turn of events, not only did I enjoy the trip far more than I could ever have imagined, but I got to listen to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony performed at the Musikverein on my 21st birthday!

What was one of the craziest things that happened while you were abroad? 
As I’m sure every person who has gone on their GO trip can attest, crazy experiences are a wonderfully exciting aspect of traveling abroad or anywhere else for that matter. However, one of the craziest things I did while in Austria was take a tour of the salt mine in Hallstatt. After donning a “heavy-duty scrubs” to protect our clothing from the salt on the walls of the mine,  Dr. Steinau, several members of the group, and I walked into the depths of the mine. As our tour guide said, there was nothing better than the pure salt air to clear our lungs. It was like breathing in the salt air at the beach. Hallstatt roughly means “place of salt” which is why I thought it would appropriate to take a tour of the mine that gave this quaint place its name. While taking a tour of a salt mine doesn’t sound too crazy, sliding down the miners’ slide did turn this tour into one of the craziest I’ve ever taken. The slide is essentially two wooden banisters that you simply sit on and slide down (praying for no splinters!) There were two such slides in the mine that tourists had to use in order to continue through the mine (and the tour). At the end of the second (and steepest) slide, each person could find out how quickly they were sliding. Photos of everyone sliding down the slides were of course offered at the end of the tour; a wonderful souvenir of this crazy experience abroad!

If you could start the whole thing over, would you go to the same place? Why or why not? 
In a heartbeat! Since returning from Austria, I haven’t been able to stop talking about the trip and reminiscing about all the incredible experiences I had there. It doesn’t matter where you go, anyone who has gone on their GO trip can relate to how difficult it is to describe everything that happened on the trip so that someone who wasn’t there can imagine all the unique experiences that made that trip so special and memorable. Even in the months after returning from Austria, I have found the greatest challenge not in readjusting to being home, but in telling people just how amazing the trip was. It is perhaps the “homesickness” I feel for Austria and all the places we went and people we met that serves as the best reason why I would go to the same place if I could “re-do” my GO trip. Even months after leaving Austria, I still can picture in vivid detail the places we went, the people we met, and even some of the conversations we had. In a way I suppose I am going back to Austria; my little sister will be a freshman at SU in the Fall 2016 semester and she plans to go on the same GO Austria trip I went on in 2015.

 Do you have any advice for people who want to do the same trip?
To anyone going on this trip, enjoy every minute of it and don’t be afraid to try new things whether it be food or sliding down a wooden slide in a salt mine. As cliché as that advice sounds, taking it to heart will be what makes this trip one you will never want to end. I would also tell anyone going on this trip to do their research on the places included in the itinerary. When you actually visit those places, like the Hohensalzburg Fortress, they will be so much more meaningful and significant. You will appreciate why it is important to have the experience of seeing a five-hour Wagner opera at the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) like we did when we saw Die Walküre on my GO trip. Lastly, talk to people! If you know any German use it! It doesn’t matter if you only know danke or bitte. The purpose of any GO trip is to become more globally aware and sensitive to your role in the world. People, and everything they can teach you, are an integral component of achieving that purpose. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn as much as possible about the country from those most qualified to tell you about it–the Austrians!

 Besides visiting the concentration camps, what was one of your most memorable experiences?  
Besides visiting the concentration camp, one of the most memorable experiences on my GO trip was celebrating my 21st birthday on the trip. I would have been happy to be anywhere in Austria on my birthday. However, what made it truly memorable was the itinerary planned for the day I turned 21. We began by doing a group “project” that involved walking around Vienna in groups of four to find famous monuments connected to the Holocaust. Then, we went out to dinner at Scala, this lovely Italian restaurant where the professors on the trip bought me a glass of Prosecco and everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to me. After dinner, I was speechless as I sat in the concert hall that I’d only been able to imagine since I was a very little girl. The overwhelming joy of (finally) sitting beneath the exquisitely decorated ceiling of the Musikverein, listening to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, was the perfect ending to a day I will always treasure and remember. I couldn’t have asked for, or planned, a more perfect birthday.

Interview with Alexis Gargin

When and where did you “Go”?
I went to Vienna Austria. I left America on Labor Day weekend and returned Thanksgiving weekend. I was there just under three months so that I did not have to get a Visa.

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Alexis in Germany

Why did you choose that trip?
There were a few different reasons I chose to go to Vienna with my program provider. I wanted to test my German skills in a German speaking country and then I learned they still need some work. I found Austrian history really interesting. I had never lived in a city, but I did not want to be overwhelmed by a very large city. And my GO trip was with the study abroad program BCA and I liked the classes and excursions that they provided.

What aspect of the culture of your destination felt most difficult to acclimate to?
The language was difficult for me and so it was very difficult or me to just talk to people. I did not go with a large program or a university and so I did not have many people to hang out with, making the language barrier even harder.

What’s one of your most memorable experiences from the trip?
I went to Sazburg one of my first weekends in Austria. I went with my friend Jake and Salzburg was the first trip that we had ever planned and experienced on our own. We learned from mistakes such as getting off at the wrong bus stop or almost missing the last bus to the train station. We stumbled upon a St. Rupert’s Day festival, which we thought of as a mini Oktoberfest, Ledderhosen and Dindl included. We went on a Sound of Music Tour and our British tour guide had us singing along to Julia Andrews as we drove around the Austrian countryside. It was interesting and unique, and one of the few times we really allowed ourselves to be or rather to act like tourists. I learned some interesting truths about the film and the real family.

What ended up being the most surprising part of your GO experience?
I really learned that you need to make the experience, other people and things will shape it, but your attitude and actions make it. I absorbed culture by simply being there, taking in the sites every day, riding the Strassenbahn, eating the strudel. I was an independent adult and I needed to choose how to travel, to eat, to live. I needed to make my time in Vienna, because if I did not, the time would keep going until I had to leave and I would have too many “I wish I did this” or “I should have experienced that” ideas clouding my memory of Austria.

What’s one thing that you saw/did on your trip that you think everyone should experience at least once in their life?
I think everyone should experience a German/Austrian Christmas Market. They are very large and all over Vienna. One day when I was showing a few friends around the city, I kept stumbling on a new Christmas market. Each one is a little different, but they all have ornaments, punch, and food.

Interview by Regan Breeden and Amanda Schader