By Natasha Myers '17
There is nothing more thrilling than the pure rebellion that accompanies relinquishing oneself to an entirely new somehow and somewhere. When we travel, we choose to willingly lose control of the world we know, to seek hope around a cobblestone-paved corner, and to search for answers to an endless supply of questions about the great unknown. Whether physically or mentally, sometimes we rebel enough to choose to never come back from our discoveries.
In May 2013, my older brother, Austin, a senior at Clarke, and I embarked on a 19-day trip through Europe with just the bags on our backs and the restlessness in our hearts. The minute the plane set off from Chicago O'Hare into the sky, I made a decision: I would recklessly abandon my perception of the world as I knew it and never come back.
Believe it or not, it is remarkably easy to walk four hours through the bustling city of Vienna, Austria, on legs fighting with jet lag, accompanied by a mind that hasn't rested in a solid 24 hours. In fact, with the assistance of a heavenly cappuccino from Café Central (the renowned and constantly busy establishment where the likes of Stalin and Lenin dined on a frequent basis) and simple adrenaline at the thought of a new place coursing through my veins, it was no trouble at all. To be honest, at first glance, I was personally not a fan of Vienna. The people are generally less friendly than the typical European, focused on the work day ahead and nothing more. In addition, the city itself is overwhelmingly fast-paced, sweeping you up along with it. But with the biased persuasion of Austin, who studied in Vienna during the spring semester of 2012, I quickly learned to love it.
Our first two days in Vienna revolved around appreciating the pristine white architecture, commonly tinted with teal and gold and overflowing with historical relevance. From the Roman ruins accidentally discovered during the implementation of the U-Bahn (the European equivalent of the metro) to Heldenplatz (Heroes Square) where Hitler gave his infamous Anschluss speech, Vienna has history in abundance. We were even lucky enough to view the entirety of the city from the top of the Stephansdom, one of the most exquisitely built structures in the city. In addition to its stunning architecture, one of Vienna's major attributes is its implementation of districts. The city is organized according to district, beginning in its center and fanning outward. Consequently,Vienna is an ever-changing entity; as soon as one you enter a different district, one notes distinctions in both appearance and aura.
What is a good trip without a massive bump in the road that will eventually turn into something that will provoke a laugh in the future? Our journey to Oberau in Berchtesgarden would certainly qualify as such a bump. Austin and I had just gotten off a long train ride from Vienna to meet up with Austin's high school buddy, Bart, in Salzburg, Austria. Bart's one job during the trip was to get us on to the correct bus to Oberau in the short 15-minute time span we had after disembarking from the train. Thanks to Bart, we spent a solid half-hour running around Salzburg, looking for an extremely inconspicuous bus stop that we wouldn't have found had we had a whole day to find it! Eventually, we hopped on a later bus, just to find that it would be hours before the connecting bus to our destination would arrive. So, we made the executive decision to hike up the mountain to the elevated little town of Oberau. Needless to say, we were a few grouchy campers as our legs screamed at us for making the difficult trek. The hike was worth the exertion, extremely rewarding at the top. Despite the crummy weather, the view from the top of the mountain was stunning and entirely worth the sore legs the next morning.
Everyone has had an experience that stirs up a magical feeling in his or her heart. For me, the magic has always lied in the enchantment of concerts, with the drumbeat pulsing through my veins, not a care in the world running through my mind as I unite with strangers for just a few hours to feel free through the music. In Munich, Germany, I was lucky enough to discover where my brother finds his magic: in a rowdy crowd of Europeans, revved up for a football match. Austin's favorite soccer team, FC Bayern Munich, was playing in the Champions League final on our next stop of the trip. All of Munich teemed with excitement at the prospect of a championship under its belt. After meeting two people native to the city, we wound up at a massive viewing party, camping out hours before the match was set to begin. Playing rounds of Battleship to pass the time, we were eager for the game to begin and the real party to start. And take my word for it when I say, it truly is a wonder to be in a crowd of European football fans. Your voice joins euphorically with that of the stranger's next to you in soccer chants, and you exchange unabashed hugs when a goal is scored. It is a strange thing to say that being a spectator at a simple championship game makes a person feel entirely invincible. But seeing people's bliss in the midst of their passion is something else entirely.
In addition to the Bayern match, Munich also held a second momentous experience for me. On a dreary day entirely fitting for the occasion, we set out for Dachau, one of the larger concentration camps in the midst of the Holocaust. Words cannot describe the disbelief that accompanies a trip to this place. As I saw where the barracks once stood, keeping miserable souls prisoner, I couldn’t help but feel absolutely defeated at the thought that something so cruel could have once occurred. I left Dachau with a heavy heart, but I definitely recommend you go if you ever get the chance to. Besides being eye-opening, Dachau puts our life into perspective, reminding us that there is so much we take for granted and so much we have to be thankful for.
As if our trip hadn't exceeded our standards already, it only got better as we took a step into what I am relatively positive was a figment of heaven. Bordering Switzerland and Austria, the picturesque town of Konstanz, Germany, was like something out of a storybook. One of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Mainau Island was just a short boat ride from the mainland of Konstanz and smothered in flowers from all over the globe. From Konstanz, we ventured into Switzerland — for me, the most anticipated part of the trip. In a word? Gorgeous. All of the pictures you have ever seen cannot even begin to compare to the beauty of that mountainous country. The landscape is entirely surreal; snow-capped mountains spill out breathtaking waterfalls everywhere you look, the sun beaming in between the peaks. Unfortunately, for Austin and me, some inclement weather took the luster off during our stay in the Swiss Alps. As a result, we did not have the opportunity to go to Jungfraujoch (the top of Europe), or any other renowned view. Rather, we made the best of this leg of our journey by hiking everywhere and going to Trummelbach Falls. Tumbling with 20,000 liters of water per second from the glaciers, the 10 waterfalls all connect within a cave that is hiker and explorer friendly.
Talk about culture shock when we made the transition from the snowy peaks of the Alps to the colorful scenery of the Mediterranean coast! On the coast of Italy lies a region known as Cinque Terre, where five villages border the ocean like something out of a dream. In Vernazza, the least tourist-attracting of the five villages, and where Austin and I chose to stay, the town’s single street in the whole town was bustling with activity. It was a whole other world, where shops closed periodically through the day to allow for rest, and smiles lit up every face you laid eyes on. It also held my favorite part of the trip, a two-hour hike from Vernazza to the neighboring village of Monterosso on treacherous paths with nothing standing between us and a free fall into the rocky shoreline below. Although I am not particularly the most daring of all people, to accomplish the hike on the brink of bliss was rewarding beyond measure.
After Vernazza, we ventured off to Venice, characterized by my motto, "A gelato (or two) a day keeps the sadness away." In addition to enjoying the fantastic cuisine, we pondered the sheer artistry of the expansive city. The creativity is extremely prevalent as you lay your eyes on the gorgeous architecture that lay between the canals of bright blue water. Despite the fact that it was surprisingly my least favorite stop on of the trip, Venice had an aura of sophistication and relaxation in one.
To say that this trip was life-changing sounds almost cliché. But it was. Put simply, it changed my perception of the world. Although I have been abroad numerous times before, this backpacking trip opened my eyes to all that truly lies beyond the little universe where I spend most of my days. When you take a moment to stop and think about people wandering a completely different kind of world at this very minute, you can't help but feel mind-boggled. After taking this trip, I truly understood that there is so much more for all of us to experience and see out there. Who knew that my wimpy self would one day hike a rocky slope in Italy, or turn down a road leading to goodness-knows-where just because the opportunity presented itself? Who would have guessed that my brother and I would become the best of friends throughout the long train rides and days of adventure? What sort of divine intervention gifted me with the chance to be opening my window each morning to snow-capped peaks and fresh mountain air, or the warm ocean breeze drifting through people's laundry lines against their colorful homes?
Clarke University is composed of so many different souls with the potential to make an impact. Our own unique adventures, such as my 19-day trip around Europe, shape who we are and the effect we can choose to have on the communities in which we live. I urge everyone who has the chance to visit abroad to do so. Leave the world you know to discover a new somewhere. Then bring your stories back to Clarke, where you can truly make an impact that will leave an unfading mark.
Natasha Myers is a freshman at Clarke