These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
As embarrassed as I am to admit this, before studying abroad I was anxious about almost everything that traveling involves. On the trip to Paris I took with my mom my junior year of high school I think I spent half the time we were there worrying. I was one of those people that focused on the who, what, where, when, why, and how's of travel, and wanted everything planned out. Now, 3 years later, I am here to say to anyone who is like I was, stop. Our lives are full of routines as it is, what time you go to work, when your favorite TV shows are on, homework deadlines, the list goes on. Travel should never be looked at as another thing you need to schedule, as it turns what should be an adventure into "What's next on our list?" So get rid of those guide books with the "Perfect itinerary for blank number of days in blank European City", and learn to let cities take you where they want you to go. While this line of thinking is true when it comes to most (if not all) European cities, my trip to Paris with my brother two weeks ago is the perfect example.
When my parents told me my brother was officially coming to visit, I could not have been more excited, and choosing between him flying into Amsterdam and Paris was an easy choice. I had been to Paris six times already but was still desperate to go back, so it was a given that I would choose my favorite city to show my brother. Other than booking our train tickets and where we would stay, I hadn't really thought of what we would actually do for 4 days in Paris. It wasn't until our last day there, when it was rainy and grey that I realized how bad plans can actually be.
When it comes to Paris and weather you never know what you're going to get. Rain could come unexpectedly, or the days you expected it to rain it could be a perfectly sunny day. On our last day in Paris, as the rain came down and my brother and I crouched under my umbrella, I caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and thought of all those poor people who had planned to visit it that day. I think the worst advice any guide book can ever give is "book tickets in advance to avoid lines." Once you book tickets for something your day now revolves around that, rain or shine. You can't just wander the city, because you may actually get lost and miss the time on your ticket. You can't spend extra time at the museum you thought you'd only need a few hours for, because that would just ruin the whole day. I'm not saying you should go into a trip not having a few ideas of what you want to see, but to remember that most often times it's the things that surprise you that create the best memories.
You may be asking, how does one get the best of the planned and unplanned? It's quite simple, don't plan around the "tourist attractions", and fit them in when they work. The evening my brother and I went to the Eiffel tower we went because it was a clear day and I knew we would be able to actually see the city, and so we went. Going up the Eiffel tower on a nice day without advance tickets can seem impossible, but the stairs hardly ever have a line, and as my brother said, "Even on vacations, you shouldn't skip leg day." So while everyone waited in line for the elevators at the Eiffel Tower, my brother and I were already at the top sipping delicious, granted overly priced, champagne. When it comes to the Louvre, look at the forecast before bed and if it says rain the next morning, get there before it opens. Not only will you be one of the first in lines, but then you have a perfectly good reason to relax, enjoy a macaroon and espresso at Ladurée along the Champs Élysées later in the day. Get off at a metro or bus stop and walk. European cities are full of history; the chances of you running into something you wanted to see anyway are around 99%. On the off chance you don’t, your chances of finding a delicious, not overpriced tourist restaurant have now gone up exponentially.
All the trips I've taken this past semester have slowly helped me come to this one conclusion: people need to stop having checklists of all the monuments they need to see, and all the museums they feel the need to visit. I hope that travel can eventually stop being about how many things one got to see, and start becoming about the things one actually stopped and experienced.
How Plum Flowers Embarrass a Garden
When everything has faded they alone shine forth
encroaching on the charms of smaller gardens
their scattered shadows fall lightly on clear water
their subtle scent pervades the moonlit dusk
snowbirds look again before they land
butterflies would faint if they but knew
thankfully I can flirt in whispered verse
I don't need a sounding board or wine cup
林逋 Lín Bū (967-1028)
(Poems of the Masters; translated by Red Pine/Bill Porter, Copper Canyon Press, 2003)
梅花 méihuā. Song dynasty poets were enamored with them. Prunus mume, Chinese plum, Japanese apricot, ume from the Japanese, mei from the Chinese, winter plum – the flowering tree goes by many names.
The annual International Plum Blossom Festival begins in late February. By March, the Zhongshan national park on the edge of Nanjing is bursting with five-petal blossoms.
A few months ago, when a friend asked “what is Nanjing famous for?” I answered, “the massacre.” True, but a nicer answer would have been the plum blossoms. The festival officially launched in 1996, and while it still seems to be a well-kept secret, its organizers are aiming high, an event to rival Japan’s cherry blossoms. The “international” month-and-a-half festival is one the city government’s website boasts attracts millions.
I visited on a Wednesday, when only a sprinkling of people milled about. Sometimes I walked for full minutes without seeing anyone at all, a beautiful rarity in urban China. Many of the people there were workers pruning trees, or elderly people who seem to congregate in parks.
The smaller numbers might also have been because I entered the part of the park that required a ticket, leading to Plum Blossom Hill and the gardens staged after famous scenes from the novel Dream of the Red Chamber. I realized on my way out there was a back gate standing wide open.
That was toward the tail end of the festival, a beautiful late March afternoon. There were still quite a few blossoms, even if the lady selling tickets next to the big PLUM BLOSSOM FESTIVAL sign said when I asked where to find them, “oh, plum blossoms? Those are all gone.”
I would lose money on a bet to differentiate between plum and peach and pear blossoms, or cherry, but trees all over the mountain were still in bloom. There might have been some jasmine blossoms thrown in there, too, possibly osmanthus. Without a field guide it was hard to say.
As early as the blossoms come, the trees bear fruit in June and July, coinciding with the rainy season of East Asia. The downpours are called 梅雨 méiyǔ, the plum rains. The fruit is used to make sour plum juice, 酸梅湯 suān méi tāng, and of course 梅酒 méijiǔ, plum wine.
The Asian plum trees originated in southern China around the Yangtze river, later spreading to the other parts of Asia. There are rumors of a tree in Hubei province dating from the Jin dynasty, some 1600 years ago.
Plum blossoms are important in traditional painting, invested with a wealth of cultural and symbolic meaning, named in a long series of numbered lists: one of the four season flowers, one of the four nobles, the five petals symbolizing five fortunes.
While unequivocally proclaimed the city flower of Nanjing, there’s a bit of a contest over national flower status. The plum blossom since 1964 has been the national flower of the Republic of China, which is to say, Taiwan.
The Qing Dynasty declared the national flower of China the peony. The People’s Republic has gone through several nomination phases, but no single flower has been ratified as the final choice. Several factions were pushing for a dual-flower recognition of both the plum blossom and peony.
On the way out, I went past part of the Nanjing branch of the UNESCO-recognized world heritage Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
It’s a large park. I was wandering in the palace part, apparently still a hike from the actual tombs. The layout is similar to that of other famous imperial locales, the Forbidden City among them: thick-walled gates, wide outdoor corridors leading ever inward to taller guard towers and inner buildings.
Toward the back I ended up in a landscape that looked a bit like the Secret Garden. I kept wandering, not sure where it would lead, but eventually it looped back around to the palace complex where I could stand by the parapets and look down at the walkers and steamed-bun sellers below.
As I sit here in the Munich, Germany train station, awaiting the 21:00 train back to my wonderful home in Florence, Italy, I am starting to think over my time in Europe for the past three months. It seems so odd that what feels like just a few short weeks ago, I was a scared, dependent, 20 year old, stepping off the plane into completely uncharted waters. I had never uttered a word in Italian, never had my passport stamped, and never thought I would be where I am now. In my time here, I have ridden a bike along the Meditteranean Sea in Barcelona, gone scuba diving in the French Riviera, won a free beer at the Heineken Museum in Amsterdam, crossed the Charles Bridge in Prague, and a whole host of other activities I had never even dreamed of. Three months ago, if you had told me that someday, I would be staring at an octopus in real life, dressed to the nines in my scuba gear at the bottom of the bay in Nice, I would have called you insane. But sitting here, in Germany for the second time in three months, it seems completely normal.
Everyone warned me, before I got on that plane back in Minneapolis, that studying abroad would change me. That I would come back with incredible fashion sense, picky taste in food, and a snobbish attitude toward anyone who hadn't experienced the things I had. But I am here to tell you how wrong those people are. In fact, I feel the complete opposite of arrogant or snobbish. I feel like the luckiest kid in the entire world. I do not take these experiences for granted, and am blessed enough to be constantly reminded of that.
I used to be afraid to go anywhere alone, and now I can sit in a German train station for four hours completely alone and not think a thing of it. I can take an overnight train with people speaking German on one side of me, and Italian on the other, and not feel intimidated. Studying abroad has given me the confidence I have always admired in others (or maybe that's just the Hofbrau talking).
One of my favorite places I have visited, is the tiny town of Cortona, Italy. It is where the film, Under the Tuscan Sun, with Diane Lane was filmed. It is everything you imagine when you picture Italy; fabulous pizza, beautiful doors and windows decorated with flowers, clothes hanging off the line, and of course, a view of the beautiful Tuscan hills. It also helped that my mother hitchhiked to get us to the top, only to make us realize that the only was down was hiking...did I mention Cortona is located at the top of a very large hill? About 4 kilometers (2 1/5 miles) from the nearest town.
But if I'm being completely honest, studying abroad isn't just about the places you travel to, though that is a wonderful perk. The best part about studying abroad is the bond you create with your host city. Florence will always hold a most special place in my heart. It is the place where I really grew into my own, was challenged to my very breaking point, met some of my very best friends, and completely fell in love with Italy. Never has a single place given me so much, simply by housing me. I will be forever grateful to the city of Florence. And someday, when I return there, possibly with a family of my own, I will remember the days I spent walking those streets, eating the best food in the world, making some of my favorite memories.
I guess my point is that the person writing this blog to you today, is a completely different person than the one who wrote to you three months ago. And I couldn't be more grateful to the experiences I have had, and the people who have helped me have them, encouraging me no matter what.
The time I have left in Europe is precious, and I don't intend on wasting a single second. I hope I haven't bored any of you too much with my European life realizations. But I must leave you now, I have to catch my train. I guess the one thing Europe hasn't taught me is how to actually make it to things on time. But like I said, I've still got some time. Ciao for now!
Andrew Morrison | March 12th 2014 17:49 BT
Two weeks ago, I woke up in Rio De Janeiro to a cacophony of samba music and streets flooded with elaborately costumed belligerent tourists while the residents of Rio went about selling fruit and stocking their shops. It was 7:30 in the morning and my week long Carnival experience was merely beginning. A strike among the waste management staff in Rio had left the streets covered in garbage but people continued to celebrate no matter what they were stepping on. Carnival is like the marriage of Halloween and ancient African traditions to an average tourist but I wondered how actual Cariocas, people from Rio De Janeiro, actually feel about the festivities. To understand the customs of the holiday, I will take you into my experience and offer resources for you to learn more about this remarkable and cultural celebration.
[Traditional dances at Ipanema Beach were just one of the many cultural performances open to the public to participate it - Credit: Andrew Morrison]
Carnival was derived from ancient Roman Catholic traditions and was transplanted to Rio De Janeiro during the 19th century. The mixture of cultures making up the population of Rio and the extravagant samba school parades are what makes Rio one of the most unique Carnival experiences in the world. Last year, Carnival attracted over 2 billion tourists and generated approximately 2.5 billion in revenue. In Rio, Carnival is big business. The celebration differs regionally however, with the greatest popularity occurring in the northeastern and southeastern regions of the country. The large cities in these regions basically shut-down during the week of Carnival which takes place Friday to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
[With waste management workers on strike and thousands of tourists flooding the city, garbage began to pile up rapidly during Carnival - Credit: Andrew Morrison]
The extravagant parades are made up of 12 different samba groups competing to be the best school of Rio De Janeiro. Each group represents a different neighborhood of Rio De Janeiro and they must develop a completely original choreographed song with an allotted 80 minutes to perform. These performances are practiced for seven months in a giant warehouse in complete secrecy and when Carnival finally takes place, each group of 5,000 plus performers takes public transportation to the famed Sambadrome and begins their show. The floats are enormous and highly elaborate like moving art galleries pushed by people for the entire 80 minutes. No machines are allowed in the performances. The best six of the 12 samba schools go on to the champion’s parade but only one is the true champion.
[Perhaps the most iconic figure of Carnival is the Queen of the Drums - The woman that leads the entire samba school and must impress judges with her samba choreography - Credit: Ndecam via Flickr CC]
This year the group Unidos Da Tijuca won the competition with their “agility” themed performance. Every performer represented something related to speed like a pack of cheetahs or a swarm of racecars. Another group represented pirates of the Caribbean, complete with twirling sword fights and scallywags being shot out of cannons hundreds of feet above the crowd. The bit that consistently entranced me was the duo flag bearers that lead each group like a prom king and queen. They have the honor of presenting their school’s signature flag and the mission of charming the crowd, judges and cameras. Often, but not surprisingly, a member of the duo is a Brazilian celebrity. The entire Sambadrome experience costs a minimum of $200 for basic admission. Tourists can also pay to participate in the famed parade, even wear the costumes and learn the choreography.
[The Sambadrome is the epicenter of Carnival in Brazil seating over 72,000 patrons - Credit: Chupacabras via Flickr CC]
Some attend the Sambadrome annually and are loyal fans to specific groups but what I learned from my experience in Rio De Janeiro was that most Cariocas would rather participate in one of the hundreds of Blocos de Rua, or block parties. The block parties are where you can learn the dances, meet the samba band members, and actually participate in the new and old Carnival traditions. These Blocos occur across the city, are completely free, and each with a totally different vibe. Some are strictly samba while others might be alternative rock. The event begins with a band, followed by dancing, and finally a parade where everyone participates including children and elderly people in wheelchairs. It is a beautiful sight to see an entire community celebrating together.
[A young boy costumed as Captain America sprays silly string into the air as his mother holds his shield. These are the kind of parades in Rio that I truly appreciated - Credit: Andrew Morrison]
My 11 days in Rio De Janeiro proved that the city had all of the exotic charms I wanted to discover for myself. Carnival proved to be the most elaborate and extravagant party I have ever attended and not to mention the record-smashing number of men wearing bras. Ultimately, I fell in love with the freedom of the celebration and the inclusiveness for all people no matter where they rank socioeconomically, what age group they are in or what gender pronoun they choose. The workers strike finally ended with the group earning the increased rights and wages they had demanded and the streets of Rio De Janeiro returned to normal. The celebrations of the workers melted into the block parties almost as if there had never been a problem. Despite the major dispute, Carnival remains the week in every year where Brazil opens up their streets to the world and pushes you to ask, “so what is normal?”
My name is Andrew Morrison and I am an environmental science senior from the University of Minnesota completing soil science research in southern Brazil for an entire year. If you have suggestions or ideas please contact me via my site
To learn more about Brazil use these resources:
- The entire Sambadrome parade of 2013
- A free online course about the history of Brazil
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