Finding light after darkness.

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The bottle sprung open, and the little orange pills inside of them flew across my desk and the floor. I tried to scoop up the ones that had survived the explosion and put them back in the bottle, knowing that they made the difference between a day of uncontrollable anxiety and a day of not feeling. And as the former kept becoming unbearable, I frequently found myself opting for the latter. Finally, I forced myself out of my room—my face unwashed, feeling a bit gross, but at least the outside of me matched what I was feeling inside. But as I walked outside, I heard the chirping of birds filling the silence and I knew things would be okay eventually. I made my way to the same place I’ve kept finding myself over the past week: in front of this large, red fountain outside of the library. The water falls from above, creating a circular wall and a crashing sound.

Here, many people congregate, often sitting alone, spending quiet time in front of it: resting, writing, talking, sunbathing. Even as I sat here writing this, a young woman approached the fountain, sat down on the steps in front of it, and lost herself in quiet reflection, watching the water fall. Passing behind the fountain are students, professors, and university staff and workers, making their way between the library, the café outside, and Main Quad nearby. It’s one of the few places on this campus where I can find solitude and mental clarity without actually having to be alone.

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The altar in Stanford’s Memorial Church during weekly University Public Worship

I’ve been finding that same sense of solitude in the weekly church service, University Public Worship, that I’ve been trying to go to most Sundays. A Protestant ecumenical service in our gorgeous Memorial Church, its services resemble the structure of a Catholic Mass. But unlike the Catholic Church, outdated practices—like the refusal to ordain women as priests—are thrown out the window. Each week, I walk in proudly with the rainbow watch band that I’ve started wearing again, and I can finally feel accepted. The people in the room range from all sorts of Christian and non-Christian traditions, and surprisingly, years and years ago, when a census on the congregation was done, a very large number of regular attendees considered themselves atheists or agnostics, even as the various ministers come from Anglican, Episcopal, Methodist, and other Christian traditions. This congregation is fairly private—I don’t know anyone’s names, and they don’t know me—creating a certain sense of anonymity that has been oddly comforting. It’s a similar vibe as sitting in front of the red fountain, a place I can be in solitude without having to truly be alone.

Re-enchantment amidst a Disenchanted World

Holy Wisdom gathers us together with tenderness and care.
With gentleness, She calls us into the dwelling place of God.

Our pain, our fears, and all our unmet longings—they are safe in Her embrace.
In the company of God, we tend honestly to the state of our souls.

In the depths of our being, She dwells with Her healing love.
In due time, God mends the broken heart.

The Beloved One says, “Come.”
Let all who long for restoration bring every ache and ill.

Last spring, I shared that I stopped believing in God after my brother’s cancer relapsed for the second time:

The day after [my brother relapsed], my pastoral tutor told me that it sounded as if I had died many times over, that death seemed cyclical to me. For the last nine years of my life, I feel as though I’ve been brutally murdered and then resurrected, only to be killed yet again. None of this feels like it has come out of nowhere; for the week before, I was constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown with absolutely no idea why. I had been having such horrific nightmares that I couldn’t sleep. I looked so exhausted and weary that other people began telling me that they were worried about me. I even considered going back on antidepressants after months of not needing them. And then I got the news, and it suddenly felt like it all made sense.

It’s been a month since I stopped believing in God. It’s been a whole month and I haven’t been able to find meaning in any of this. If you go back and read any of my previous posts, my outlook has always been, at its core, a spiritual one of hope, one that finds meaning in everything. Today marks yet another day I can’t find that.

Since then, I’ve managed to find meaning again. My brief stint with an “atheism of pain” could not be described in the same ways as the atheism of many of my friends and peers, those who, through rationality and logic, have come to the conclusion that there simply cannot be a God. Instead, my temporary atheism could best be described as a frustration with the random chaos of the world, a desire to believe in something more than the pain that I’m experiencing that I simply couldn’t feel connected to at the time. Meanwhile, I’ve always been a spiritual person, having grown up in the Catholic Church, educated by the Jesuits, and carrying the principles of Catholic social teaching—human dignity, solidarity, charity, distributism, and social justice—with me even as the Catholic Church more or less left me.

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The entrance to Main Quad

German sociologist Max Weber once described this decline in religiosity as “disenchantment.” With the rise of Western science, monotheistic religions were cast aside as irrational, and in this disenchanted world, bureaucratic, secularized Western society reigns supreme. As Weber famously wrote, modernity is characterized by the “progressive disenchantment of the world.” But this isn’t a prescription for the future: Weber’s disenchantment thesis is best understood as a dialectical relationship between disenchantment and re-enchantment, a cyclical process of becoming disenchanted and then finding re-enchantment. The slow death of God, to Weber, has culminated in the return of gods and demons who “strive to gain power over our lives and again … resume their eternal struggle with one another.”

This dialectical relationship between disenchantment and re-enchantment has played out on a personal level in my life, and after, as my pastoral tutor told me, “I had died many times over, that death seemed cyclical to me,” I’ve begun seeing my life become re-enchanted again. While most Christians probably wouldn’t consider me Christian—the belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who died and rose again for our sins is probably a non-negotiable that I cannot say I’ve honestly believed since about the age of 15—I’ve still found myself to clinging to “spirituality” in the broadest sense, without forcing myself to really have to believe in anything too dogmatically. I’ve found myself in church on Sundays. I find myself looking up at the stars on many nights, tracking their movements like the astrologers of old. I find myself sitting quietly, allowing my breath to match the breath of the Universe. I find myself returning to the cultural traditions I grew up, such as not eating meat on Fridays during Lent even if I no longer fear hellfire for not doing so.

In some ways, really immersing myself in my academics has been a curse. I take a lot of comfort in intellectualization, and it’s the way I come to terms with the mysteries of human understanding. The social world around us, as confusing as it is, is something I believe can be explained with the right tools and methodology, and that’s what has kept me in love with social anthropology (my major) as a discipline. But at the same time, it can be exhausting to constantly peer under the surface of every social interaction and phenomena. And when it comes to things as personal as spirituality, I usually leave the question of “what does this mean” for when I eventually have an existential crisis about how to reconcile my academic life with what I should or should not personally believe. But lately, I’ve found myself feeling more at peace with the inherent contradictions that come with this: I may understand re-enchantment as the social phenomenon it is while also finding myself needing to re-enchant the world in which I live in, even if my actual belief in these things is shallow and not deep. You may wonder what I actually believe. The answer? I believe in both everything and nothing.

Astrology, of which observance has been steadily rising in my generation, is something I find myself turning to more and more—not necessarily as a tool for divination, but as an intellectual exercise that helps me ascribe greater meaning to the celestial bodies in the sky. At the same time, I’m constantly thinking about how astrological belief itself is a unique case study, whose irrationality and lack of scientific basis challenges our notions of the modern and the idea that we have somehow reached modernity. And this isn’t unique to astrology: I’d even argue that the growth of Marxist thought and the rise of democratic socialism in American politics, of which I am an active participant given my unabashed socialist views, should really be understood less as a return of a political ideology and more as a new system of belief that has the possibility to create a sense of re-enchantment in our disenchanted society. (See the tension?)

Casting out the darkness

“He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.” — Dr. Jose Rizal, Filipino scholar, revolutionary, and national hero of the Filipino people

By this point, it would be reasonable to ask, “What exactly is the darkness that you’ve been trying to find light within?” If you had asked me many months ago, my answer would have been one word: cancer. But now, with my brother being cured of his cancer thanks to the development of CAR T-cell therapy, I can’t simply pin the darkness I’ve been wandering through on a biological disease, as if chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, or immunotherapy will be the be-all and end-all. What’s often ignored in discussions about cancer is the emotional and psychological pain that comes with it. Even though everything should be getting easier, in some ways I’ve felt like things have been getting harder. I find myself reaching for my anti-anxiety medications more frequently than before. I’ve told the story of my brother’s cancer more times than I can remember to the point where it’s become rehearsed. But it was only when, while having a long conversation with a friend in my room, that when I tried telling the story of his most recent relapse again, I burst into tears—something I don’t do very often.

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Green Library at Stanford University

When I told a friend today that I think I just needed another day off, despite all the academic obligations I have, she told me, “Think of it this way: you’ve had multiple weeks of craziness. Of course you need a day or two.” The truth is, it’s been a crazy past few weeks, a crazy past few months, even a crazy past decade that started in August 2010 when my brother was first diagnosed with cancer and my relationship to the world around me changed forever in irreparable ways. Maybe this is one of the marks that I’ve finally become comfortable in my academic career—now in my senior year at Stanford, I’m not afraid to advocate for myself and all that I need to thrive.

From the clinical depression and anxiety I was diagnosed with sometime between my brother’s second and third bout with cancer, to what I can only describe as Complex PTSD, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that comes as a response to chronic traumatization over the course of months or years, especially in childhood, these are all just some of the many battles that life has thrown at me at such a young age. Considering that 1 in 4 women newly diagnosed with breast cancer experience PTSD, the constant traumatization and re-traumatization of watching your younger brother be diagnosed with cancer and then relapse and relapse again since 2010, and even having to donate my own bone marrow at the age of 12 for what ended up becoming an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant, seems to have left an indelible mark on my psyche.

It can be frustrating that the “political capital” I’ve built up by being an active participant and critical thinker in my classes must be spent on what can only be described as time needed to manage my disability, a term I chose to intentionally embrace as it gives a medicalized understanding to those who may not understand how debilitating depression, anxiety, and PTSD can be on someone already as emotionally fragile I am. But at the same time, I am proud of the way that I’ve learned to put myself first, and I’m grateful for the kindness and understanding of my instructors who, throughout my college career, have told me to unabashedly protect my health. Because without taking the time to look back on how my past affects me, healing can never come.

When I’m stuck in these ruts, the ones where I feel petrified and lost whose frequency has been increasing, I think back to the words of Dr. Jose Rizal: “He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.” These past few days, I’ve spent a lot of time looking back at where I’ve come from. And thanks to the help and kindness of those close to me, many have been there to help show me how I’ve turned trauma into something beautiful—how I give my love to so many; how, even if I struggle to connect with my own emotions, I can be so emotionally in tune with others; how the radical honesty and authenticity I’ve been working towards adopting has helped my friends who are underclassmen feel the space and agency to also advocate for their needs.

Tomorrow, I am excited to wake up with the sunrise and head back to the red fountain outside the library with my morning cappuccino in hand, where I can read and write in peace. And then I’ll go to my anthropology class, refreshed and ready to grapple with ideas around asylum and prisons. After, I’ll finally chip away at all the schoolwork that I’ve abandoned during this needed period of introspection. And in the evening, I’m excited to eat teriyaki salmon with a friend I haven’t seen in so long, then go to a fraternity (yes, a frat) with a different friend for their study night with unlimited espresso beverages (much needed), study spaces, and an open mic night (you can tell I go to Stanford!). I look forward to the future, including to the next quarter, when I’ll be stepping outside of my comfort zone and taking a video & film production class where I’ll be producing a documentary: hopefully on pain at Stanford, since there really is so much unique potential for a juxtaposition between stories of suffering here and visual images of palm trees, sunshine, and sunbathing students.

But today, as I continue grappling with it all, I give myself the time and space to rest.

The Spirit sends us from this place with power:
to disrupt cycles of violence,
to practice healing within and around,
and to create bold alternatives to norms that harm and destroy.
With this knowledge and assurance,
may we go and make it so.

With love and power,
Josh

One Oxford term down, one to go

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I woke up this morning exhausted, still a little bit sick, and unsure if I ever really fell asleep last night. I got up out of my bed and fumbled across the tiny sleeper car to open up the window. Grey skies. Sigh. I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting. Actually, that’s a lie—I had a romantic notion of train travel across Britain, fueled by a bizarre Victorian-era fantasy of afternoon tea while watching the rolling hills of the countryside. But in reality, much of the United Kingdom has been swamped with heavy bouts of rain this week, and it was 6:30 in the morning… far from “afternoon tea.” I blame the National Railway Museum in York for filling me with these romantic notions.

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A dining car at the National Railway Museum in York

A knock came at the door. Breakfast was delivered to my room—a smoothie bowl, orange juice, and English breakfast tea. As I slumped back in my bed, sipping my tea, I couldn’t help but watch the remarkable contrast between the bright green hills and the depressingly grey clouds. It was, after all, the only thing to do for that last hour of the journey. But then finally—a break in the clouds. For just a brief few minutes, the bright rays of the sun shone upon the Scottish countryside, lighting up the small homes on the hills. It was a brief but beautiful sight as the landscape quickly changed from rural Scotland to the Glasgow cityscape.

This is my third month living in England as a visiting student at the University of Oxford. I’ve been affiliated with Brasenose College, one of the thirty-eight colleges that compose the university, and it has a reputation as “the happiest college at Oxford.” Some fun facts: Brasenose was founded in 1509; that’s before Ferdinand Magellan tried to circumnavigate the globe. The most famous alum: probably David Cameron (don’t worry, everyone I’ve met is much more pleasant than the former prime minister).

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Hertford Bridge, also called “the Bridge of Sighs” after the one in Venice (although it’s actually much more similar to the Rialto—which I can confirm after spending a month crossing the Rialto every day)

It’s been a journey—mostly good, a bit funny, and at times just ridiculous. I think I’ve acclimated pretty well: I add milk and sugar in my tea, I spend many nights a week at my college bar, I’ve learned how to pronounce cities like “Edinburgh” and “Slough” almost correctly, I’ve grown used to asking about dress codes for events, and I’ve figured out which piece of silverware to use in a formal dinner setting. My phone, much to my frustration, has started to autocorrect words, such as “realize,” to match its British spelling (‘realise’). It’s stupid, and it makes me want to throw my phone against the wall.

This term, I did a tutorial in anthropology theory; tutorials are a style of learning unique to Oxford and Cambridge, where I had a one-on-one, once-a-week meeting with my tutor (mine was a fellow at All Souls College since Brasenose doesn’t actually have anthropology) to discuss my weekly essays and go over the material. Tutorials are a bit of an antiquated system, and there’s no real reason they continue to exist beyond just tradition. But it’s one I really prefer; the individual attention and frequent writing and personalized feedback has really helped me improve my ability to write and more critically understand social theorists. It’s even come to the point where I’ve been able to trick a few people into thinking I understand late nineteenth-century philosophy!

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Formal hall at Magdalen College during my first week at Oxford. Magdalen, along with Brasenose and Corpus Christi, is one of the colleges that Stanford students can be affiliated with.

While my anthropology tutorial—as well as the Spanish tutorial I’ve been doing—is taught through Oxford, I’ve been doing a Stanford seminar with about six other students taught by the faculty-in-residence this quarter, an experimental course on arts in prisons in the United Kingdom. It’s not my favorite thing in the world, but it’s been an eye-opening look at the criminal justice system in England and Wales, complete with a visit to a youth prison facility and a prison for sex offenders.

The “arts” piece of it has been a bit more whimsical to me since I’m personally more interested in the “prisons” aspect, but now with just a week of the class left, I’m really grateful I took it, mostly because I got to meet someone—a Stanford Law School graduate, actually!—who does amazing work in advocating for youth in prisons. Instead of trying to recap her life story, I’ll share this, which is available publicly online:

When she was 16-years-old, Christa’s best friend was raped, and she became determined to be a district attorney. But when she got to law school, she signed up to teach the Fourth Amendment at juvenile hall, and her life path changed. She saw something powerful happen as the group of Chicago kids she taught developed into a community where even gang loyalties relaxed. She was personally transformed by the experience of hearing them long for something better than what they saw ahead of them. Christa transferred to Stanford Law School after her first year but took her juvenile hall experience with her. She started a Street Law program at Stanford, similar to the program in Chicago, to teach incarcerated and other at-risk youth about the law. But this time, Christa built her own curriculum and was soon being asked to speak about it at national conferences.

In one of my more embarrassing moments here, I actually started bawling at the end of her final day with us. I was trying to thank her for how much of an impact she had on me, and then I broke down crying. Stupid, right? The next afternoon, I called my parents, told them I wanted to stay at Oxford for another term, and that I was staying so I could study human rights law. Both my parents were initially not pleased—I was supposed to go to Santiago in the spring, which was already a very last minute decision, and just days before the withdrawal deadline, I wanted to back out. But when my parents heard I wanted to study law, my mom was immediately in favor of me staying.

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A reflection I shared on Facebook about two and a half weeks later, after visiting my second prison

My sudden realization that I want to pursue a human rights career is by no means the only reason I wanted to stay. I’ve made such amazing friends here, something I didn’t expect to do since it’s notoriously difficult for Stanford students to really feel integrated during their time here. But thanks to a perfect storm of being a little bit pushy, forcing myself to be more extroverted than I’ve been since my first month at Stanford, a stroke of good fortune, and running into some incredibly warm and inviting Oxford students, I can say pretty confidently that I’ve made at least a few friends. It’s truly such an experience to walk down into the Brasenose bar and realize that, on any given day, I know enough people to feel comfortable.

I’ve only just started becoming comfortable enough with people to really get to know their fuller personalities and their stories. I’ve been criss-crossing the United Kingdom, spending time in southern England cities like London, Windsor, and Bath, heading further north to Birmingham and much further north up to York, as well as to pretty random places, like Swansea in Wales. As you might have guessed, this week I’m in Scotland—I’ll be in Glasgow to visit some Oxford friends for the next few days, and then I’m off to Edinburgh to join the other Stanford students on the trip we take every term. (Next term, the trip will be in Cornwall, the weekend before Easter.)

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A rare occurrence: snow at Oxford! Truly a magical time.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve done a good job of meeting a variety of people and seeing as much of this country as I can, even if that’s meant a few long nights because I always choose new experiences with Oxford friends over regular study times and travel within Britain over travel across continental Europe. And yet, right now, I feel like if I left, I’d be closing a chapter of my life that I’m nowhere near finished reading. How convenient is it, then, that I have until the end of June?

Come mid-April, I’ll be surrounded by a new crop of Stanford students. They’ll come in with the same sense of magic and excitement that I did, and with luck, the magic will never disappear—even if it becomes shaped by the contours of reality. The week after Easter, I’ll be cheering on a few of my Oxford friends who will just be finishing exams. I’ll be spending my time reading and writing about international human rights law and social class in Britain, as I pivot to studying a mix of law and sociology. I’ll be spending my free time sitting on the grass to celebrate what the British call “summer” but I call “an exceptionally warm winter,” And of course, I’ll still be exploring the random nooks and crannies of the United Kingdom.

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Oxford in Feburary, LGBT History Month in the United Kingdom

Exactly three months ago on January 13, I had just finished my first week in Oxford, nervously wondering whether I would enjoy being here, whether I would make any friends, and whether I would want to stay. If you would have told me that I’d actually be here until the end of June, I would have been in disbelief. But I don’t know why I’m so surprised. From the week I turned twenty years old, just nine months ago, I’ve chosen to chase after adventure after adventure, taking great leaps of faith that have led me doing everything from a cross-country trip across the United States, three weeks of studying the Venetian Republic in Venice with a brief stop in coastal Slovenia (complete with a brief archeological dig!), a week-and-a-half in Israel and Palestine meeting with people from both sides of the Green Line, and traveling through Western Europe where I did everything from stumbling upon the yellow vest protests in Paris to meeting my brother’s bone marrow donor in Berlin.

Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” And now, the adventure continues, against all odds.

The Joys of Christmas in Paris

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IMG_1618As I look to my right, I see cute, small houses next to the train tracks. Not long ago, I boarded my train in Basel, a city on the Rhine River in northwest Switzerland, en route to Berlin, Germany, where I’ll be for the next few days. Traveling through Europe by train has been the perfect change of pace to a surprisingly restful week in Europe, a far cry from the hustle-and-bustle of Manhattan and Brooklyn and the exhausting experience that is flying through JFK.

Paris was, in one word, beautiful. I was staying in the southern tip of the Latin Quarter, in Les Gobelins, in a hostel called—and I’m really not kidding—Oops!” Unlike Brooklyn Heights and the DUMBO area, a surprisingly charming neighborhood where the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge can be found that completely surprised me in terms of how much I enjoyed being there, Paris was actually about what I expected—in the most magical ways. I thought it would be much more hectic given that it was Christmas, after all. But after coming from New York City, I don’t know if anywhere can feel as hectic and overpopulated.

Side note about Les Gobelins: there were a bunch of giant teddy bears dotted throughout Les Gobelins—on benches, on the metro, and even in storefront windows! That’s why the featured image at the top of this post is me next to a bunch of bears…

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My first full day in Paris was Christmas Day, which began with a short metro ride from Les Gobelins to Montmartre, where the Sacre-Cœur Basilica was. That morning was actually the cutest morning in Paris, bringing me my favorite memories of Paris: Getting off the station, my friend and I began walking our way through Montmartre to look for Sacre-Cœur. Because it was Christmas morning, the streets were quiet. Fat pigeons—and I do really mean fat… the pigeons here are really quite plump—followed us on our walk through the streets, as the basilica began to appear in the distance. I hadn’t eaten yet, and I ended up stumbling upon a small bakery on a random street not too far from the train station; I bought a slice of quiche lorraine and an espresso, as older French women went in to buy baguettes and pastries.

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Even just eating my quiche and drinking my espresso on a bench nearby felt serene. (It helped that the quiche was delicious.) It didn’t totally feel like Christmas, but there was a certain simple magic to it that I hadn’t experienced in a while, especially since being a student at Stanford is just stressful all the time. Christmas Mass at Montmartre started less than an hour later, where one of the cardinals was presiding over it. I haven’t gone to a Catholic Mass in the longest time—maybe since last Christmas?—since I’ve started attending non-denominational Protestant services in the Episocopal style at Memorial Church at Stanford, but even though those church services look nearly the exact same as a Catholic Mass since Anglicanism/Episcopalianism isn’t really all that different, the universal, repetitive nature of Catholic Masses were of comfort since it was in French, a language I don’t understand.

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Ironically but unsurprisingly, Sacre-Cœur was much more hectic than the rest of Montmartre that morning, but even as we were leaving the Montmartre area a little past noon, it was clear that people were just beginning to walk around. Even a few stores were beginning to open, which seemed odd to me given that it was both the early afternoon and Christmas Day.

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Angelina

The next stop after Mass was the Tuileries Garden. My friend and I wanted to go to Angelina for lunch, partially because it was one of the places that we knew for sure would be open on Christmas Day. I was surprised that the wait for a table was only about five minutes, and even when we went back the next day to try the full brunch menu there was only a very short wait.

My friend and I had taken a weekly French cooking class at Stanford in the fall before we came to Paris, one of the most sought-after, “must-take” classes at Stanford—behind social dance and wine tasting. (I took social dance my freshman year and absolutely loved it, and wine tasting—along with beer tasting—is on my list of classes I’m planning to fight for a spot for when I return to Stanford in my senior year.) I went in with pretty realistic and achievable goals—I wanted to be able to crack an egg, which I can say that I pretty definitely achieved, especially after making shakshuka in my house’s kitchen with the Israel Fellow at Stanford! But I think more valuable than the recipes was actually just being exposed to different staples of French cuisine: one of those being the croque madame.

The instructor for French cooking was actually another Stanford junior, who himself had spent a good amount of time in France and spent a summer at Le Cordon Bleu. While in New York, I messaged him on Facebook to get restaurant recommendations, and Angelina was on the list! I had actually been there once with my family the last time I went to Paris—when I was about nine years old—and I just remember that the hot chocolate was to die for. This time around, because I hadn’t eaten, I went straight for the croque madame, and luckily the hot chocolate there is so rich that my friend and I were able to just split one serving. There’s more bread and less cheese than I would’ve liked—compare the first picture of the croque madame at Angelina with the second picture of a croque madame that I had on my last evening in Paris to see what I mean. It was a little pricey, but it was good enough to make us want to come back the next day for the full brunch course.

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Croque madame and hot chocolate at Angelina

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Croque madame in the Latin Quarter

Christmas Market & Champs-Élysées

Full from our surprisingly large meal, we wandered into Tuileries Garden, where there was a Christmas market happening. And what better time to go to a Christmas market than on Christmas? I had heard so much about Christmas markets—one of the staff members in my house at Stanford studied abroad in Berlin last year, and he mentioned that I should definitely check out the European Christmas markets—that I didn’t know exactly what to expect. It felt a bit like a bazaar of sorts, with people selling everything from hot fried foods to jewelries and scarves. I decided to treat myself to chaud vin, mildly-spiced hot wine, usually thought to only be for special occassions but I think Christmas in Paris certainly counts. (I didn’t actually like it all that much—I prefer normal-temperature wine, actually—and if I went to a different Christmas market, I think I would’ve preferred just getting a hot cider.)

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Look at the mulled wine cup I’m holding—very festive!

I didn’t realize the Christmas market was really close to the Louvre, too, which was a great surprise. It was closed for Christmas, but that didn’t make the area surrounding it any less pretty. If anything, it was probably even prettier because fewer people were in the area! From the Louvre, we walked down Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. There were a few notable things: first, there was a Franklin D. Roosevelt Avenue and Station—it used to be named after an Italian king because Italy was an ally of France in World War I, but when fascist Italy (and the king) ended up aligning with Nazi Germany in World War II, the French decided to rename it after Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American president who allied with the French during the Second World War.

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Place de la Concorde

Second was that some of the windows of the storefronts were actually partially shattered. I’m pretty sure this was a result of some of the yellow-jacket protests in Paris that had been taking place in Paris every weekend since the end of November. These demonstrations were because of French dissatisfaction over inequality, as my Uber driver told me, and raising of the gas tax that affects mostly the lower and middle classes. Because these protests connected themselves to the French Revolution—yet another uprising over inequality in French society—yellow-jacket protestors marched down Champs-Élysées and to the Arc de Triomphe, a very clear call-back to the French Revolution itself.

If anything, that was the thing I found most interesting about Paris: its connection to its history. It felt like I was constantly stumbling on sites from the French Revolution—from Notre Dame, which was sacked, pillaged, and transformed into a Temple of Reason during the ban on Catholicism; to the Jardin des Tuilieres, which is what is left of the old Tuileries Palace that was burned down in 1871 and was, back in 1789, the holding place for the Royal Family before they were executed; to the Place de la Concorde, where Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were executed by guillotine.

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Lately, I’ve been particularly interested in revolutionary histories (of both the left and the right), especially after spending the last quarter at Stanford studying the Spanish Civil War—where fascist dictator Francisco Franco led a coup of the democratically-elected socialist government of Spain—in the Spanish class I was taking. I never took a European history class—only world history was offered in my high school, and I am so glad I took that class seriously (to the point where I did 180 hours of extra credit for it in second semester of senior year), so a lot of my learning about the French Revolution, one of the most foundational moments that set up the world we live in today, has been both drawing from my own history education and researching more about the different places that I’ve been stumbling upon. This connection to history certainly isn’t unique to Paris—tomorrow, I’ll be doing a walking tour of Berlin with my brother’s bone marrow donor, and I’ll be studying at the oldest university in the English-speaking world for the next few months (Oxford).

What’s Next…

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IMG_1464 12.01.44 AMI’m currently off to my third country on this Grand Tour of Europe: Germany. Geneva, Switzerland, was beautiful, and being there made me think really hard about how I would maybe want to work for the United Nations one day, which I think would really fit the global character of my interests—I am an anthropology major, after all. France too was wonderful, and I’ll actually be returning to Paris for a weekend before I head to Oxford; that weekend will be a bit more about R&R and writing since I’ll be mostly alone, although I’ll be meeting a friend or two from Stanford before they officially start their winter quarters in Paris. On the theme of meeting friends, completely by chance, my trip to Paris overlapped with a different friend from Stanford, who lived in my freshman dorm with me! Since she studies classics, she’s here for a Latin program until the school year starts again. (It was actually with her that I had the other croque madame that I posted here!)

IMG_1241I am going to be continuing to eat and drink (more of the former, less of the latter) my way through Europe—in Berlin, London, and Paris (again) before a much longer three-month stint in the United Kingdom… which is still in Europe as much as it seems to not want to be! It turns out that I won’t have completely used my Eurail pass—I’ll have about one or two days left of train travel on it—so you can bet that I’m going to try to escape the United Kingdom at least once in Germany to reach the mainland.

At the same time as I’m gearing up for three months at Oxford, I’ve also been preparing for the following three months in Santiago, between buying plane tickets and having to update my resume to be considered for internships and volunteer opportunities. I recently heard back from the director of the Stanford in Oxford program about the Spanish directed reading I’ll be taking, so now I know who my tutor will be; I’m excited to be seriously devoting myself to language learning again, something I knew has been important to me since high school. As a side note, my time in France and Switzerland has made me even consider the possibilty of studying French on top of Spanish—French, of course, is the other key language of international politics (other than English), so who knows? It’d fit the UN theme, too!

Until next time!

There’s Hope in West Virginia

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“I think a lot of us on the coasts—and I would include myself in this—view West Virginia as America’s dumping ground.”

That’s what I told Julie* yesterday as we sat on her balcony, looking over the lush mountains of the Ohio Valley in West Virginia. We were both exhausted. I could feel the jet lag setting in. It was shocking to me to realize that I had only just returned from Italy to New York City two days before, and yet somehow I was already having a quiet morning in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia. I told myself that I didn’t have the time to deal with jet lag—I was on a tight schedule, trying to get from Queens to Manhattan for dinner then a train to Newark for the night, before returning to Manhattan the next morning so that I could take a train to Pittsburgh and drive to West Virginia. Turns out, I’m really good at delaying exhaustion, but at some point sooner or later, it’ll catch up to me.

Julie was also probably dealing with a similar sense of chronic exhaustion. She had just returned from India a few weeks ago, where she was doing education-related research for an NGO called Kakatiya Sandbox and picked up the morning habit of having lemon water and yogurt. In the spring, she was studying abroad in Florence, Italy. And now, she’s been working on an independent research project on barriers to access to higher education among West Virginia high schoolers.

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Education is something that runs in her family. Her paternal grandfather used to be a superintendent, and her mother, who used to be a teacher and worked her way up through the school system, is now the superintendent of the Ohio County school district. Education is what Julie credits to transforming her into who she is today—Stanford, despite all its faults, gave her the opportunities to do things like live in Italy and India, connected her to a research team where she could do the serious, in-depth, and impactful work on education that she’s doing today, and helped expand her worldview. But what she might not realize is that, just as her social environment has created such an impact on her, she’s impacted the world around her just as much, if not more.

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Oglebay Park

Her time in California, Italy, and India have been a source of excitement and intrigue among people in Wheeling, a small city of under 30,000 people that was once a manufacturing center but has since had its population substantially decline as factories disappeared. Pretty soon after getting into West Virginia, Julie had alerted to me to the fact that we’d be going to the radio station for a cooking segment. That afternoon, before we left to the grocery store to pick up ingredients, I saw Julie frantically writing down her pesto recipe on a pink sticky note, double checking other pesto recipes on her phone. “I just need to make sure I know what I’m doing before I get there,” she said, throwing her mini-blender in a tote bag as we ran out the door.

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The radio station experience itself was unique. I’ve had experiences with local media; my brother, a former two-time cancer patient, has had a good amount of media exposure, and I’ve been on local news channels and our local NPR-affiliate station as well. But there was something different about this one. I’m used to the “liberal elitism” of Dallas, a phrase I genuinely don’t like to use, but I think it’s more prominent in Dallas than anywhere else in Texas… maybe even the rest of the South. At this radio station, the host of the show, an incredibly sweet and funny man, was missing some of his teeth and had a certain politically incorrect humor that occasionally broke out into the airwaves. He made brief mentions of his son who was in Iraq, and he closed off the show with “God bless you,” something that you simply don’t hear in Dallas.

The day we were there was for the weekly food segment that he does to close out the day, probably a more fun and exciting segment to sit in on than their politics or sports segments—in case you’re wondering, Wheeling is strong Steelers territory. Julie had filled in for her mom on a previous radio segment, and when she was asked about her time in Italy, she mentioned the fresh pesto she learned to make with her host family. Hence how I ended up standing behind the desk of a West Virginia radio station, watching Julie pull out her blender and fill it with basil that we had bought just a half hour before. Southern cordiality and friendliness shone through here, too, and I even got a few shoutouts from the radio host on the air. There were some brief mentions of how I was from Dallas—a great place to be from, since its combination of liberal metropolitan environment and conservative Texan surroundings makes me never seem like too much of an outsider, no matter where I am in the country—and also how I love pineapples.

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I don’t know if I’d really call my experience in Wheeling as a culture shock. It was certainly different—it is still West Virginia, after all—but it was much more scenic and urban than I had expected. Whereas Canadian, Texas, which sits in the Texas Panhandle instead of one of the two West Virginian ones, was genuinely small and rural, Wheeling is like a suburb without a city. And that’s a remnant of its once large stature within the area, before globalization led to the fall of American manufacturing. Unlike Canadian, which had a sizable Mexican-American population even if it’s much smaller than urban areas like Dallas, Wheeling was nearly entirely white and aging. Those demographics help explain why long stretches of Wheeling were just Christian churches, law firms that mostly deal with workers compensation and medical malpractice cases, and retirement homes. It’s a site of significant brain drain, in which the best and brightest minds end up abandoning Wheeling—and the state of West Virginia as a whole—due to the significantly fewer opportunities.

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Foggy mornings in Wheeling

“Wheeling has so much potential,” Julie told me as we sat out on her porch, minutes after I had admitted to her that I assumed West Virginia would just be a boring and unsightly place. The morning fog had finally cleared, and with that came a renewed optimism on her end. The tiredness in her voice that had characterized so many of our conversations the day before was replaced with a new sense of vigor as she told me more about the areas that West Virginia needs work. But even more exciting was her plans of how she’d fix it, drawing on her recent experiences in India, her background in economics, and the cultural knowledge and connections she’d built up throughout her time growing up in the state.

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I wasn’t the first person to suggest she should go into politics. So many others had seen her passion for the state, her love of the people, and how she’s a junkie for mountaineers, country roads, moonshine, and coal mining. And there was already precedent for it in her own life—her mother and father keep her grounded in local politics, and she’s close enough with Senator Joe Manchin that she got coffee with him a few weeks ago and worked for him in the Senate last summer. But the issue continues to rest in West Virginia’s lack of jobs for her—her interest is in policy, especially education policy, but there are few opportunities in policy or academia. “I hope to stay connected to [West Virginia] forever,” Julie told me, whether that was through her research, through business, or just in returning home to visit. “Maybe if I’m a fancy rich person someday,” she said, her smile widening as she chuckled, “I’ll get a little cabin somewhere that I can come and have my vacations in and escape from reality to. I don’t know. But I do love it here.”

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And the truth was, I loved it, too. At many points, Julie took so much personal pride when I agreed with her that Wheeling would be a perfect center for leisure tourism. Hell, it was a great place for me to rest in between nine-hour plane rides across the Atlantic and equally long train rides across New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

If you had told me a year ago that I would’ve spent two days in West Virginia with a girl who I had met in a statistics class—and that I’d love it!—I would’ve thought you were crazy. But there’s a certain charm to Wheeling. Especially after enjoying rural Texas so much, I can’t tell if it’s just that, like many Americans, I fetishize Americana to a certain extent and that West Virginia, with its coal mines and its Trump voters, is just a great symbol of the American “heartland” nowadays. To some, that fetishization isn’t the worst thing—at least people are interested in places like West Virginia, right? But there is a certain irony and danger in so many of us from urban, metropolitan areas yearning for “the real America” while still viewing places like West Virginia as—in my own words—a “dumping ground.”

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I said earlier in this post that Julie has already had an impact on the world around her. I’m definitely one of those people who’ve felt her impact and learned so much from her just in the past two days and three nights that I was with her. Especially after I abandoned economics and dove headfirst into anthropology, exhausted by microagressions by my mostly straight, white, and male peers, Julie’s sense of social responsibility to her community and her unrelenting ability to push through setbacks in funding have given me so much hope. Her interest too in policy writing itself, a requirement of Stanford economics majors that few look forward to with as much excitement as she does, leaves me even more confident that I’m watching the development and growth of a future leader and change-maker.

And I’m just genuinely glad to have gotten to see the beginnings of it firsthand.

***

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Entering Pittsburgh this morning

I’m currently on a long train ride to Philadelphia after Julie dropped me off at the Pittsburgh Amtrak Station bright and early this morning—all with enough time to make it back to Wheeling to watch her younger sister go to school. I’ll be home in Dallas for a few days after today before I head off to New England and then to the Holy Land.

This is a topic for a future time—maybe for while I’m at home—but it’s been impossible to disconnect the current political moment that we’re in from the research I’m doing, which should technically be what most people consider apolitical… or at least unconnected to partisan politics. But my very nature and existence is political, as a colleague and classmate of mine who’s a returning student reminded me in Italy. I’ve been thinking a lot about coalition building, what the future of our country can look like for people in places as different as California and West Virginia, and what that means in both the short-term (i.e. 2018 and 2020) and the long-term (i.e. how I proceed from here). And at the recommendation of my friend Whitney, I’ve been listening to a documentary–podcast (The Wilderness) on the train that’s included some emotional speeches by both Barack Obama and Bobby Kennedy.

As I close out this piece of my journey, and come very close to closing out “part three” of my overall travels, I just wanted to very publicly thank Julie, her parents, and her grandparents for taking me in these past few days and showing me a piece of the country that I probably would never have gone to on my own. My time in West Virginia was too short, and there were so many things I’d loved to have gone more in-depth about—from the strength of unions and organized labor to Trump’s support in the state to even just Julie’s mother’s dissertation and wonderful research around education—but I guess I’ll just have to come back. Who knows, maybe I’ll return to West Virginia next year?

* names changed

The Spirituality of a Slovenian Spa

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* Names changed, as usual.

For most of the spring and summer, I’d been looking forward to my time in Venice, Italy, as a three-week break from traveling the United States for my independent research project on educational mobility. Or at least, that’s what I told my advisors, my classmates, my family, and my friends when they posited the completely crazy, totally out-of-left-field idea that maybe, just maybe trying to travel to about twelve different states in the span of about six weeks. (That number bumps up to thirteen if you include Oklahoma, which I didn’t stop long in, per se, but drove through on my way to the Texas Panhandle after being re-routed.)

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Inside a church in Slovenia

Turns out, rapid travel is pretty tiring. It’s something I wrote about in my last blog post about Venice and New York, where I found so much magic in the quiet, simple moments in each place. But now, with only about three days left in Italy, I can definitely say that I’ve found peace and rejuvenation.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” — Audre Lorde

Spirituality and travel go together. It’s partially why I’m reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac, a Beat Generation writer whose travels heavily influenced his eventual turn to Buddhism (as chronicled in The Dharma Bums, which takes place after the events of On the Road). My friend Jackie* and I have laughed a lot about how this specific leg of our travels—the Veneto region of Italy—feels an awful lot like the beginning of Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Except that it’s mostly been “Eat Eat Eat” instead. There’s no real time to progress to the third part of that book title—”love”—but there sure has been a lot of time for deep spiritual connection and personal contemplation. It’s just that I didn’t expect so much of that to be in coastal Slovenia.

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Piran, Slovenia

I embarked to the coastal Slovenian cities of Piran and Koper for about three days total at the beginning of this month, which was when I posted my most recent blog post on Venice. The purpose of the trip was to understand how cities outside of Venice were influenced by the Republic of Venice, and after stepping foot in Piran and Koper, it was pretty clear that these two cities on the very small strip of coast that Slovenia has were very Venetian in character.

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Streets of Piran

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The city center in Koper

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Excavating in Torcello

I’m not gonna lie—Slovenia ended up being my favorite piece of these past three weeks altogether. Koper and especially Piran had all the character of Venice, but with more open space, fewer people, places where we could actually swim, and so much less humidity. It was perfectly timed, too; our excavations in Torcello, which is an island near Venice that’s still in the Venetian Lagoon, came right after returning from Koper, and there’s no way I would’ve survived the heat and exhaustion of an archeological site if I didn’t have the time to rest beforehand.

Jackie and I made the single best decision of the entire trip: going to a spa together. We found one in Koper that was about €40 per person for 150 minutes in a private spa room, complete with a hot tub, sauna, shower mister, and a few bottles of Prosecco. Our professor, Krish, had told us about how great Slovenian spas are; apparently, because salt mining was a major piece of industry in Slovenia, the spas are wonderful, although you’d have to be naked (unlike Italian spas). As it turned out, the spa Jackie and I went to in Koper was less Slovenian—the name “Veneziana” should’ve tipped us off on that—but considering we only knew each other for two weeks, avoiding full-frontal nudity was probably for the best.

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Those two-and-a-half hours were some of the most restful, rejuvenating, and reinvigorating hours of this whole last year. Jackie and I had brought our books with us—for her, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (she’s an English minor after all), and for me, On the Road—but the two of us ended up not spending any time reading since we were so busy talking and really getting to know each other at a much deeper level. We spoke about everything: past loves, our aspirations for life, our visions of how we want society to look, and the pains of losing a friend. That hottub became a site of deep spiritual and emotional connections, where two wandering souls were finally able to come together and begin wandering together.

It’s cheesy, but getting to know Jackie here in Europe has been so incredibly special. Our paths probably wouldn’t have converged on campus—she studies psychology while I study anthropology, our social circles are fairly distinct, and the areas that we devote our time and attention to on campus are different. But starting this spring, after she returns from studying abroad in Madrid and I return from studying abroad at Oxford, we’ll be working together on one of our shared priorities: improving mental health and wellness at Stanford’s campus. The way I see it, my time at Stanford is not just about learning material; I’m here to assemble a team around me. And Jackie is someone who I’m so excited to be working with through the future, as well as just having as a friend!

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Jackie and me in Pellestrina, Veneto, Italy

The next day, we left Koper and returned to Venice. But before we left, we made sure to eat well, including having some delicious Thai food made by a woman who served as a cultural food ambassador for Thailand! Since coming to Venice, a lot has happened. We helped out with an excavation for three days in Torcello, where one of us in the group found an infant skull. That was pretty freaky… especially since we didn’t expect to find any actual human remains and had been joking for the past week about our trip not being complete unless we find a human skull (be careful what you wish for!). I spent a morning at a cemetery. And I started working on my final paper for this class: an examination of the exertions of state power and the development of biopolitics in the Republic of Venice, using the Jewish Ghetto as a case study.

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Feltre, Italy

Right now I’m in Feltre, which is closer to the Alps. I’ve been sitting outside at a café, drinking an espresso and letting the cool breeze cleanse me. It’s been a pretty emotionally draining last couple days. I’ve been having trouble shaking the weird realization of my mortality after seeing that human skull. Going to a cemetery the next day didn’t help. I had a painful falling out with someone dearly important to me, and I turned to the friends closest to me for comfort—the time zones don’t help, but the love and support they’ve given me have only solidified my belief that I’m assembling the best possible team around me I could ever have. I’m incredibly proud of how I handled the whole situation with a sense of dignity and grace that was consistent with how I believe people should be treated, even when that same respect and kindness is not reciprocated.

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My brother is in the hospital for pancreatitis. He’s been so kind and loving about trying to make sure that I don’t worry from 5500 miles away, but it’s hard not to be worried about him every waking minute. I’ve been visiting quite a few more churches, and every time I go, I make sure to light a candle and say a prayer for both him and me.

Before I know it, I’ll be back in the United States. I’ll be making a return to New Jersey to visit Whitney again (who made an appearance in my post about New York City). It’s been a whirlwind of a trip, and it’s not even over! Truly, it’s been such a clarifying experience already. But until then, I’ll just continue sitting here, in Feltre, watching the rain and finishing my espresso.

Finding the Magic in Simplicity

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* Names changed.

Last week, I got to witness something truly magical. It was an early day for me, not by choice—I had just flown from New York City to Venice, Italy, the day before, and the jet lag had really affected me. I had trouble falling back asleep, so around 5:30am, I pulled myself out of my bed, threw on some clothes, and wandered out the front of the remodeled, twelfth-century monastery where I was staying. Venice was still asleep, so it was just me on the streets and a few workboats on the water.

And that’s when I saw it: the sun rising over the lagoon. I sat on the dock, my feet hanging over the dirty lagoon water as I watched the sun’s hues change from red to orange to yellow before its light diffused into the clouds.

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I can’t remember the last time I saw the sunrise. I’m an early riser for a college student, but I’m never up by dawn. And that made this sunrise even more magical—it was probably the first one I’d seen in years, and I probably won’t see another one for a really long time.

I’ve been in Venice for over a week now, and I have a little less than two weeks here. It’s been such a wonderful trip so far, although it’s been far less glamorous than I would’ve expected. I didn’t think I’d miss the United States as much as I do. Italy is wonderful, but especially as someone whose Italian only goes as far as “posso avere una pallina di gelato” (“can I have one scoop of gelato,” probably the most important phrase), I miss being in a country where I speak the same language as everyone and where people share the same cultural values as me. My feet have been swollen from so much walking, the heat and humidity of this time of year is killer, and I don’t have the academic background in art history and European history to truly appreciate all of the lectures and cultural sites I’ve been visiting. Travel is hard. I miss home, and I miss my country.

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At the same time, I’m so genuinely glad that I’m here. The Veneto region is beautiful. I commute throughout the island by vaporetto (water bus). I’m seeing beautiful basilicas, churches, synagogues, and museums every day. I eat my fill of pasta, pizza, and gelato every day. And because I’m here through Stanford, I have the help and support of the university in terms of affording meals (which includes a meal stipend for lunches and dinners), knowing where to go (the program has a busy but eventful itinerary), and just generally having peace of mind. I’ve met such wonderful Stanford students here from a variety of disciplines, I’ve gotten to learn a lot about the history of Venice, and I’m getting a pretty cool crash course in archeology—this weekend, we’ll be at our excavation site in Torcello Island, which will be hot and grueling but also such a unique experience.

I’m surrounded by such extreme beauty here, but in reflecting on this past week, the most meaningful pieces of my time in Venice—and even in New York City the week before I arrived—have been the moments where I’ve found the most peace and simplicity.

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On Friday, I took a wooden boat to San Francesco del Deserto, a small island within the Venetian Lagoon where a small monastery sits. Saint Francis of Assisi came here after returning from the Holy Land during the Fifth Crusade—during that crusade, Saint Francis spent time with the Sultan of Egypt, either to attempt to convert the sultan to Christianity or to bridge religious divides, depending on who’s telling the story. (It’s theorized that Pope Francis even took Saint Francis’ name as a way to outreach to Muslims.) According to legend, Saint Francis of Assisi told the birds around him to be quiet while he prayed, and for the entirety of the time he was praying, the birds remained silent. Saint Francis then stuck his wooden staff into the ground, and miraculously, it grew into a large oak tree. The Franciscan monks who now live in the monastery have kept the stump of the oak tree near one of their altars as a reminder of God’s miracles.

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I’ve written on this blog about my own difficult relationship with organized religion and the Catholic Church in particular, but there was something especially soothing about being in this quiet monastery, surrounded by natural beauty and a handful of praying Franciscans. The Franciscans in particular have always given me much hope, and their focus on protecting the environment and the most vulnerable in our society have always been in line with what I believe that religious groups should care most about. Apparently, this monastery used to be open to tourists so that they could stay there for very low prices, but as tourism to Venice rose, the monks decided to end that practice in order to retain their sense of isolation. Even as someone who cares deeply about globalism and wants to see the world become more interconnected, even though the world’s political headwinds seem to be drifting toward isolationism in this period of time, I can see why these Franciscan monks would want to separate themselves from the rest of the Venetian Lagoon and hold onto the peace and quiet of San Francesco del Deserto.

Unfortunately, these kinds of monasteries are in danger of disappearing completely. The number of people who run the monastery is in the single digits, and because they and other monastic groups often don’t have any real source of income or financial support, the costs of keeping the monastery open can sometimes be too much. The other trip participants and I were encouraged by our professor leading the trip to buy something if we were able so that it could help support them. Even though I don’t really pray, I bought a small wooden rosary as a keepsake, a reminder of this short but impactful stop.

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These moments of peace and simplicity are usually pretty hard to come by in my daily life. I’m someone who tends to move toward hustle and bustle: I’m a Stanford student, and competitiveness weighs so heavily in the air sometimes that it can be hard to move without it suffocating me. My fieldwork this summer is a dizzying schedule in which I will have crossed the country and the Atlantic Ocean far too many times for just ten weeks. And my time in the Veneto region of Italy and the Slovenian coastal cities of Piran and Koper is busy and fairly exhausting, and even though the academic work load is dramatically lighter than what I’m used to, a five-page paper isn’t exactly what I would define as a vacation.

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Tea time at Ladurée in SoHo

Before I left for Italy, I found a rare moment of peace and simplicity… in Manhattan of all places. New York City is probably the best example of hustle and bustle, where one of the fastest ways to tell whether someone is a tourist is by looking to see whether they’re looking at their phones/straight ahead or whether they’re taking in the sights of the city. I had been staying with my friend Whitney* for the past couple days, and in our first of two excursions into New York City from Newark, New Jersey, we were definitely the latter; having been thrown off track by a late train from Newark, we ended up taking the ferry across the Hudson River and then walking through SoHo, taking in all the energy of New York City as if it were either of our first times there.

From a lovely lunch and tea time in Ladurée—when I unsuccessfully attempted to get Whitney into tea—to rapid-fire visits with some of Whitney’s friends from when she was studying abroad in South America in the spring, the day felt very characteristic of the hustle and bustle of New York City. All of that was amazing—when else do you get to explore SoHo with a friend, meet a bunch of other students filled to the brim with stories of their adventures across Latin America, and even get to visit Squarespace? But the most meaningful moment for me was when it was all over.

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Whitney and I met up with another friend from Stanford who was living in Brooklyn for the summer; she, a sociology major, had just started working on an independent research project—funded by the same grant that’s been funding my travels, so we’re part of the same grant cohort—on Bosnian Muslim identity. She was still adjusting to life in New York City, so she didn’t want to be in Manhattan too long after dark. Whitney and I met her in Battery Park, about as close to Brooklyn as you could get within Manhattan without actually crossing over into another borough. After catching up for a few minutes and taking pictures at golden hour, we sat down on a bench and watched the sun set over the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty looming large in the distance.

For those couple hours that the three of us were together, we talked about the state of the world, our differing approaches and praxes, and gave each other insight into how our specific social sciences—political science, sociology, and anthropology—approach societal issues. We spoke at length about the struggles that intelligent leftist discourse has on campus, often squeezed out by a vocal right-wing minority and reactionary left-wing responses to that majority, and we talked about our hopes and plans for the future—academically and personally. And every now and then, we’d all just stop and take in the beautiful sights in front of us.

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New York City from the Hudson River

***

Today, I’m in Koper, Slovenia. It’s on the very small strip of coastline that Slovenia has, and it’s incredibly beautiful. Tomorrow morning, I return to Venice. It’s been a dizzying past week or so, but I’ve been really enjoying it! I spent some time studying medieval anti-Semitism, so getting to see the Jewish Ghetto here—which is actually where the term “ghetto” was coined—was especially exciting. And by the end of the week, I’ll be excavating. But until then, the goal of today is to rest—much needed after all the traveling!

4 Things I’ve Learned from Traveling (so far)

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Right now, I’m waking up in my bed in Dallas for the first time in a while after making a brief stop in the Pacific Northwest to visit a friend from my freshman year at Stanford. This is now day 13 of my travels across the country—and world, kind of… if you include Italy, Slovenia, Israel, and Palestine as “traveling the world.” But after spending some time in Chicago, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Menlo Park, California; San Francisco, California; and Portland, Oregon, for my anthropology fieldwork, there are a few things that I’ve learned about people, travel, and myself already.

1. You have to be open to adventure, even when it’s awkward.

It’s a pretty obvious statement, I know. I’m a very extroverted person to begin with; anyone who knows me is well aware of how much I love getting to know people and just being with others. But one of the hardest things about traveling is the constant feeling of displacement and the lack of grounding that comes with that. When I don’t feel grounded, I have a tendency to feel anxious, and that can make it hard to put myself out there in the same ways that I might be able to without even thinking during the school year.

The way that I managed to quell the shifting earth under my feet was by being very intentional about how I planned my travels. Even parts of my travels that aren’t for the purposes of my fieldwork were built with comfort in mind: I made sure that there was always one person in every city who I knew (keeping an extremely wide social network at Stanford was a key prerequisite for this), and I asked to stay in people’s homes instead of in hotels or Airbnbs (also great for saving money!). Beyond that, face masks, an occasional glass of red wine, a good book (currently reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac), and, if worst comes to worst, some anti-anxiety medications, all help.

Keeping the inherent nervousness that comes with traveling down to a minimum has helped me say yes to all sorts of new experiences. It’s how I ended up at a country concert in Milwaukee even though I don’t really like or know country music. It’s how I ended up watching fireworks at a country club on the Fourth of July. It’s how I ended up making new friends in San Francisco and getting to see a piece of the Mission District that I would’ve never known to explore before. It’s how I got to see downtown Portland by bike. And it’s how I’m going to venture into the Texas Panhandle this weekend for the first time.

2. Books are a love language. Read a lot of them.

This is probably partially a product of the fact that I’ve been hanging out with Stanford students and their families, but books have been such a huge part of my travels so far. I decided that I wanted to be able to read more, and after getting into a brief but ongoing Beat Generation phase, I finally picked up Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—both a great book overall due to its historical importance and a great book to read while traveling the country. It’s the first fiction book—although it barely counts as fiction since it’s a roman à clef—that I’ve read in a while, and oh boy, has it been a journey. I’m about halfway through the book as of right now, and it’s a really genuinely fascinating portrayal of what it’s like to be a straight white man in 1940s/1950s America.

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Dog Eared Books in the Mission District in San Francisco, California

Even more exciting than reading the books themselves is how I’ve realized books connect you to others. Reading may be a solitary activity, but books are a way to share knowledge and the human experience with others. In San Francisco this past weekend, I was surrounded by a group of Stanford students who all love to read. They broke all the stereotypes in my head of what STEM majors do in their free time by waxing poetic about different philosophers they like to read and sharing what’s on their reading lists. We even all went to a bookstore in the Mission together. I can only imagine how awkward that whole experience would’ve been if I didn’t like to read; what would I have done while everyone spent so long roaming through the bookstore, taking books off the shelves, and calling over to each other to recommend things to read? And it definitely helped, too, that one of those people had just finished Kerouac’s On the Road as well!

There’s rich anthropological literature about the importance of giving, receiving, and exchanging gifts in the formation of social bonds. Books, in my opinion, are one of the many ways that people—especially students and their families—facilitate this kind of gift-giving. Right now, I’m borrowing a nonfiction book from a friend called Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Culture after he let me look through all his books while he was packing the night before I left the Bay Area. And just yesterday in Portland, my friend’s family let me borrow a fiction book called Euphoria which they thought I’d really like.

3. Planes can be your friends.

My schedule for this summer is pretty intense. It goes without saying that I’m racking up a ton of miles on Southwest, which I’m super excited to use to fund a free trip later! As a college student, I spend a lot of time on planes because I’m usually flying somewhere over Thanksgiving, winter, spring, and summer breaks, and I usually take about one or two trips each year—this past year I went to both Boston and D.C. in the fall and spring, respectively. With so much air travel, I’ve learned that flying doesn’t have to be the completely miserable experience that so many people think it’ll be. I usually try to book direct flights whenever possible, both because it’s less stressful and because it puts less strain on the environment. But for those times when I do end up flying for a while, either because a direct flight isn’t available or even just because the direct flight is really long, I realized that planes are actually great for either reading, getting rest, or working.

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Chicago from above

It’s pretty obvious, but planes make for a great time to take a nap. I use a charcoal eye mask to help block extra light, and I end up asleep real fast. Supposedly, this charcoal eye mask is supposed to help reduce the swelling and puffiness that are associated with tiredness, sleep debt, and flying; I’m not really sure I believe that, but I’m gonna go ahead and pretend it does. For flights that are about three or more hours or flights that are timed so that I really do need to sleep on the plane to make sure I’m rested enough to take on the city as soon as I land, I sometimes take generic Benadryl. Fun fact: ZzzQuil (a well-known over-the-counter sleep aid) is actually just diphenhydramine, which is the exact same active ingredient in Benadryl, so you can save a good amount of cash if you buy generic Benadryl instead of shelling out the big bucks for brand-name ZzzQuil.

I also like to read and/or blog on flights since planes give me uninterrupted quiet time. I read most of On the Road on a plane, and I actually wrote this blog post on my flight back from Portland to Dallas! I’m really bad about actually finding time to write—have you noticed the lack of posts throughout the school year?—but luckily, plane rides give me the time to actually collect my thoughts and write. My refusal to pay money for Wi-Fi to check Facebook and Twitter definitely help the writing process. I also try to make sure my field notes are all accounted for when I’m on the plane leaving a location; I’m often pretty busy doing interviews and just observing and participating in others’ lives while I’m in various locations, so the long plane rides give me a lot of time to actually make sure I have the notes that I need and some time to reflect on the key themes of each trip.

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Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, Oregon

4. Things always work out.

My trip to Portland wasn’t actually supposed to happen. My original plans to visit in August fell through after my contact in Portland was no longer able to accommodate my visit, but because I really wanted to visit, I very last minute made alternative arrangements to stay with a different friend. I took a leap of faith, booking my flights before I even had a place to stay—thank God that Southwest lets you really easily change your flights! (Dear Southwest Airlines, you should sponsor me and my burgeoning anthropology career!)

My mantra in life lately has been “everything will work out.” It’s something I’ve had to repeat to myself so many times in elementary school, high school, and now college, and I’ve reminded myself that so many times this summer as my travels would get more and more complicated and random things would come up that I would need to plan around and account for. But at the end of the day, I’m confident in myself. I’m confident that I’ve set myself up for success this summer: my parents instilled in me a strong sense of independence and quick thinking that has saved my ass so many times; my coursework has been geared toward both theoretical and practical skills for how to handle this kind of project (thanks, Stanford, for having multiple classes on research methodology and fieldwork preparation!); and I have the monetary resources to get by should anything happen since I built in emergency funds into my grant budget and have emergency stashes of credit both through various credit cards and a personal line of credit from my credit union just in case I’m in desperate need of a bailout.

I was pretty worried that I’d struggle to get the kinds of data that I’d need for this project, too. My biggest fear was that I’d go through this whole summer and then return to campus having nothing at all because I was blindsided by what I ended up experiencing. What if everything ended up completely irrelevant? But my lovely advisor, Sylvia, reminded me that the best part of anthropology research is when you get thrown for a loop. If everything went just as planned and exactly as expected, what’s the point? That’s why I’m rolling with the punches (see #1 on this list) and trying to not stress about the research aspect too much. After all, this summer is as much about my academic and personal growth as it is about writing a kick-ass thesis.

I’ve learned that preparation is key, and while you can’t prepare yourself for everything, you can set yourself up to handle nearly any situation. And at the end of the day, that’s really all you can do.

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Inside City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, California

So what am I up to now?

Right now, I’m ending Part One of my life on the road (yes, that’s a small Jack Kerouac reference)! In true Kerouacian fashion, here’s what my itinerary looks like as of the time of writing, split up into five parts:

Part One (complete!): Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; the Bay Area, California (specifically Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and San Francisco); Portland, Oregon
Part Two (about to begin): Canadian, Texas (a small town in the Texas Panhandle); Austin, Texas; Newark, New Jersey; Venice, Italy; Koper, Slovenia; and probably Florence, Italy, if I can swing a quick daytrip
Part Three: New York City, New York; Wheeling, West Virginia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Part Four: Boston, Massachusetts; Newport, Rhode Island; probably a few other towns in New England where I can do daytrips from Boston; Tel Aviv, Israel; Jerusalem, Israel & Palestine; Bethlehem, Palestine; and possibly a few other parts of both Israel and the West Bank
Part Five: TBD! Strong contenders are Los Angeles, California, and Seattle, Washington, since I’ll be back in the Bay Area to focus on writing.

I’ll be blogging throughout the summer about specific locations and experiences I have, as well as my general thoughts on travel and the world through posts similar to this one. I expect the commentary to get a little bit more cutting since I actually have a pretty sarcastic personality that usually doesn’t come across in my writing… that, and I think I was a little afraid to be brutally honest on this blog while in my teen years, but now that I hit twenty all bets are off. It should still be entertaining, though… the anthropology department’s student services officer told me she thought I should start a blog about my life at Stanford since my reactions to things are usually pretty funny.

If you’d like to keep up with me, you can be notified via email every time I post if you subscribe in the sidebar. My day-to-day adventures are captured via Instagram stories, so if you have Instagram (or Facebook, since my Facebook friends can automatically see my Instagram stories), feel free to check that out. Yes, you too, Mom and Dad. The frequent posts that probably annoy my friends and classmates should at least indicate to you all that I’m alive. And then of course I’ll be sharing each post on Twitter and my personal Facebook profile, but I’m thinking of restarting the Facebook Page for this blog so that anyone can follow along even if we aren’t actually Facebook friends (yes, you, random stranger, friends of my parents who might feel weird about adding their son on Facebook, and/or current/previous classmates who just want to read my travel posts without being subjected to my political Facebook statuses!).