These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
Last weekend I, along with some friends, took the train to Berchtesgaden, Germany. When the trip was being organized I was not fully committed, thinking I would spend the weekend in Vienna. My friends driving the effort mainly wanted to go to see sites where the show Band of Brothers was filmed, not something I was particularly driven to pursue. However I eventually agreed thinking at the very least I would have a good weekend in a small Bavarian town.
I do not think I have ever underestimated a trip as much as I did this one. On sunday we visited Königssee, the deepest lake in Germany. A dense morning fog shrouded the lake in mystery, made only more eerie by the music coming from tourist boats plying the misty waters. Advised by a local friend of ours to take the path where there is "danger of life", we hiked along the shore through the fog to a waterfall. The alpine lagoon and water-worn rocks created by the waterfall provided ample fun to climb and stick toes into the frigid water. After a while, wary of the time needed to catch our bus, I dunked myself in the lagoon because I wanted to get all the way in. I had not noticed however, that some of my friends headed down another path to get to the shore of the lake itself. After getting my shoes back on, I ran to catch up, emerging from the forest onto a wonderful rocky beach. The fog had burned off entirely by this point and the lake was bathed in morning sunshine. One friend had jumped in the lake proper (not just the lagoon). Feeling one-upped, and that my hearty Minnesotan blood was threatened, I wanted to jump in too so that I could also claim swimming in the deepest lake in Germany. Unfortunately we had a bus to catch and I recognized that we had a bit of hike to get back. However I was already regretting I did not go in the lake as well, and when my friends were slow to get going down the path, I went for it. I ran straight in and dove into the rapidly deepening water. Not nearly as cold as I had expected it to be, I had an enormous rush of adrenaline and relief that I did not pass up the opportunity at the cost of punctuality. A huge smile on my face and still riding the rush, I got my shoes and jacket on and caught up with the group.
As it turns out we did not miss the bus, or really come that close. Even if we had, there will always be another bus, train or plane, and when there is not you still figure it out. No matter what unexpected adventures happen, you'll have the story. If that had been "that time we got stranded in Berchtesgaden", then that would have been a memory we could have all shared. It is never worth sacrificing the important moments, like swimming in the Königssee, for your preplanned itinerary. After all, those are the experiences that are the purpose of travel. Not punctuality or a schedule. If you can already feel yourself regretting something, stop what you're doing, go back and fix it right then and there. There will never be an easier time to do so. Always take the chance, always jump in.
I’m a self-proclaimed city person, though I’ve never actually lived in one until Rome. Since living here, I’ve realized both that I was right - I love the city feel - and that at the same time, I really miss little things, like fresh air and grass.
While I am absolutely in love with Rome, I really appreciate our weekend excursions as a group to other places (especially those in the countryside). This weekend, our study abroad group visited Assisi, about a 3 hour bus ride north of Rome.
The first thing I noticed about Assisi was the quiet. Seriously. It’s such a tranquil place compared to the hustle and bustle of Rome. It was so nice to not constantly hear car horns blaring, dogs barking, or even just crowds of people talking. And when we walked the streets- gasp- there were no crowds to weave through most of the time. It was refreshing, to say the least.
Assisi is known for being the birthplace of St. Francis and St. Clare, so the visit was for my theology class. It is a beautiful place, beautiful in a different way than that of Rome. Less ruins, more rolling hills ‑ although I was still able to visit ruins, those of a castle, while in Assisi (called Rocca Maggiore).
The highlight of the trip was visiting one of the most beautiful basilicas I have ever been to, Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi (and I’ve visited more basilicas than I can count while here, so this is a compliment). This is the place of which St. Francis is buried underneath, so pilgrims from all over the world make the trek here just to see his grave. The basilica was built in the early 1200’s, and onto the side of a hill. Beautiful medieval frescos line the walls and ceilings inside.
I would be lying if I said that Assisi didn’t have a touristy feel- it was definitely there, but only on the main street that led to the Basilica of San Francesco. When I say touristy, I mean English-language menus, little stands selling Italian flags and T-shirts on the side of the street. When you live in Rome for a while, you begin to recognize tourist traps, and know how they can be avoided.
But our experience in Assisi- being shown around by a local, eating authentic Italian carbonara on the rooftop of a restaurant only reached by weaving through uphill alleyways in the old part of the town? That didn’t feel touristy one bit.
I probably could’ve stayed in Assisi all week. But, I have Rome (and several final exams) to welcome me back to reality. I have one last week in Rome - and two months left in Europe - and I intend to soak in the rest of the time I have left in this beautiful city.
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.
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