wrapping up.

Aside

It doesn’t seem like it’s been four months since I left America for the beautiful Magyarorszag. And yet, in just four days, I’ll be once again boarding a plane that will take me across the Atlantic, take me home to the great white mitten, where snow and family and the promise of two weeks of English await. And then I’ll be off again to Haiti.
I don’t want this time in Eastern Europe to end, but I’m ready for familiar faces and a language that is not only familiar to me, but also understandable.
As this semester comes to an end, I’m struck by how much I’ve learned and how much I’ve seen this fall. I will miss being surrounded by such history. I’ll miss being surrounded by this city.

But this city will go on without me. The cashiers at Spar will no longer be overwhelmed with a mad rush of Americans after Monday night class. There will be more seats on the 47 for the elderly passengers on their way to the markets. My professors will teach more new students, the Christmas markets will be 20 people short, and I’m sure our Hungarian guards will welcome our departure. The green bridge, connecting my Buda to bustling Pest, will not mark my absence; the Hungarian bartenders, baristas, and waiters will no longer have to handle the Americans from Calvin. This city will go on without me.

In a sense, though, I will not go on without this city. It’s become a part of me. I’ve grown accustomed to the forty minute tram rides, the awkward encounters with basically everyone in this country, even the disgusting dorm in which we live. And when we touch down in GRR, when I leave this family for my own back home, I think I’ll finally start to realize how much I really do love this place and its people… and, yes, even its language.

Sziastok, Budapest. It’s been a great semester.

bosnia.

Last weekend, my group and I took our second-to-last journey together. The only one we have left will take us to Amsterdam and, eventually, North America. But last weekend was spent in Bosnia, which we spent, when we weren’t shopping(…), learning about a war we should have known much more of.

When you drive down the roads in Sarajevo, it takes more than just a glance out the window to notice the terror that this city’s experienced in the past two decades. You have to notice the bullet holes that still dot many of the buildings. You have to spot the bombed-out buildings that haven’t yet been reconstructed. You have to listen to your tour guide as she tells you about the time she and her mother escaped through the “tunnel of life.” You have to know that the spots of red paint (Sarajevo Roses) scattered throughout the city honor victims of a war that happened in my lifetime.

It happened in my lifetime. Which means I could have been born on the exact same day of the exact same year but in Bosnia instead of America. My father could have been killed running to the other end of town to get me water. My uncles could have been killed fighting against the Serbs. My apartment could have been completely destroyed. My mother and I could have escaped the city through a tiny tunnel. This could have been my life.
But it wasn’t, and it’s not. Instead, I pleaded ignorance to everything that happened in what used to be Yugoslavia. I’ve returned with a bit more knowledge, but I’m mostly still confused.

All that said, Bosnia has recovered impressively–at least architecturally. We had to remind ourselves that the “Old Town” Sarajevo was really younger than we are. Mostar, 80% of which was destroyed in the war, has rebuilt almost everything exactly as it was before 1992.
It’s a beautiful country, even though its memories and blood stains are still fresh.

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The Tunnel of Life. The only safe way out of Sarajevo during the war.
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Mostar.

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Road to Mostar.

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We got to see the corner where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, starting WWI.

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The tunnel is behind this house.

home.

Last week, I went home for five days. And by home I mean Paris. Those of you who know me well know how much I love Paris and how much I’ve longed to return over the past eleven years. For fall break, two friends and I boarded a tightly-packed RyanAir flight to the West of the continent and landed in the City of Light just two hours later.

I was greeted by refreshing diversity, the alarmingly expensive Euro, the delicious smell of croissants, and the familiar sounds of French. Oh, how I reveled in being able to understand the conversations around me. 

For a lot of the trip, we did the tourist thing. We saw all the big sites, we walked into so many churches, we ate baguette underneath the Eiffel Tower, and we bought pastries a lot (I mean, if you’re only in Paris for five days…). But we also took M3 to the 17 arr., and we walked down Rue de Courcelles to see my apartment and my grocery store and my bakery and my school and my park. How good it was to be home. 

After another quick flight, we landed back in Budapest. Again, it was good to be home. As much as I love Paris, I was tired from fitting the entire city into five days, so rest and quiet were welcome. And now I’m sitting here, listening to Christmas music, enjoying the fact that Advent calendars are already out at InterSpar and that Christmas markets will be set up in just two weeks. And getting excited that I’ll be home for the holidays.

But what is home? Is it Paris? Budapest? Grand Rapids? Maryland? Nigeria? I’m not really sure. Because whenever I think about any of these places, whenever I land in any of their airports or drive in on any of their highways, I breathe a sigh of relief, because I once again feel like I’m home. Maybe I’m not supposed to know where home is yet, or maybe it’s supposed to be all of them, everywhere my heart is happy.

halfway.

Okay, so it’s not the halfway point until Sunday, but since I’ll be in Romania this weekend (and since it’s been a while), I’ll just post now.

It’s been two months. Two months here in wonderful Hungary (and its surrounding countries). In some ways, it seems like much longer. In others, it seems like I’ve only been here two weeks.
And despite all the places I have yet to explore in this beautiful city, Budapest is familiar now. I finally know the names of all the tram stops between home and school. I can navigate my way around tourists as I walk to my Service-Learning placement. I know my favorite bakeries. I can get to all the big sites without using Google maps.
I am beginning to know this city (FINALLY).

But of course, always being sentimental and reflective, I’m starting to realize how much I’m going to miss it. And understanding what I’ll miss is helping me to love everything here more–my family, my 5-day weekends, the public transportation, the Spar on the corner, the beautiful architecture, the language I don’t recognize, the ability to travel so easily, the 30 second ride over the bridge, the five different currencies in my wallet, this city, my home.

These are all things that I love, all things that have become a part of me. Today, I am grateful for two months in Budapest, but I’m more grateful for two more.

redemption.

After an emotional trip last weekend, I was ready to stay put in Budapest for the rest of the semester. But my train ticket and hostel booking said otherwise. Five friends and I dragged our feet packing and leaving for the train station. I heard the sighs and the words “I don’t want to go to Croatia” many times out my mouth and those of my friends. We were tired. We needed a break.

Turns out, Croatia may have just gained spot number one on the most-beautiful-countries list. But what struck me most about beautiful Croatia was not the delicious gelato or the wonderful city of Zagreb, but the contrast against our experiences in Poland. In Poland, we saw and discussed and mourned the results of pure, ugly evil. We saw the very worst of humanness. Croatia seemed to me the exact opposite.

A man stopping, unprompted, to direct us to our hostel upon arrival. Befriending fellow American college students studying in Vienna. The two couples ahead of us on the bus becoming friends. Pure beauty at Plitvice Lakes. Waving to our British roommate as we pulled away from the train station. Finally being in peaceful nature after busy city life. Laughing with friends who have become family.

These were all such little moments. But they were all moments of goodness, kindness, humanity. A refreshing and needed bit of redemption.

And very blue water. These are all real life:

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On Thursday morning, my group and I departed for Poland, a country I knew very little about before our journey. This weekend was a mix of every emotion–frustration at our subpar tour guide, excitement at the number of times I came into contact with something Pope-related, awe of the unforeseen beauty in Krakow, sadness at learning the number of Polish Jews who were killed in the Holocaust, happiness for delicious apple pie, embarrassment and hilarity as we trotted around the town square in a horse and carriage, horror at what I saw at Auschwitz. 

How do I even begin to process everything from this weekend? 

By starting with the good, I guess. The city of Krakow (and the random stops in Slovakia) only reassured me that Eastern Europe is indeed a beautiful, beautiful piece of the world. The mountains that guided us from Budapest, the hills surrounding Krakow that we became acquainted with during a rather lengthy detour to Schindler’s factory, the medieval buildings that survived WWII. 

Surprisingly (and disturbingly), one of the beautiful landscapes I visited in Poland was Auschwitz/Birkenau. It was flat, green, and it stretched as far as my eyes could see. The sun was shining and the sky was clear and blue. Not what I ever imagined when I imagined the most deadly concentration camp. But the beauty stops there.
Otherwise, it’s just as horrific and disgusting and heart-wrenching as it is in the movies, in the books, in the history lessons. But everything rings so much truer when I can see seven tons of hair still neatly braided, masses of suitcases still waiting for their owners, piles of shoes still well intact. Everything rings stranger, though, when stepping into a gas chamber that saw thousands of people’s last seconds of life… it still feels really surreal, and I don’t know how to explain it, nor how I feel about it. 

Perhaps as I continue to process and understand, I will write more here. For now, though, because of the weeks of preparation and the intensity of the weekend, I’m kind of holocaust-ed out. 

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“the city of one hundred churches.”

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Slovakia from a medieval castle. 

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just waiting for the Krakow trumpeter.

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entering Auschwitz.

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a rather infamous view of Birkenau (Auschwitz II).

one month!

First of all, I would like to point out to everyone who read my Nigeria blog many moons ago… I’ve officially surpassed the number of posts! In much less time. Be proud.

I’ve been in this country for nearly a month, and I can’t quite believe it! In a way, it feels like a week. In a way, it feels like years. I’ve gotten to know the city, but there is still so SO much more to explore. Thank goodness I have three more months for learning and finding and exploring and living in this city.

My classes have successfully started, and (aside from 35 people crammed tightly into a very small classroom), they’re going quite well, and I am eager to learn more about the topics we’re talking about.

Last weekend, two people from the group and I ventured outside of Hungary for the first time to Vienna. Although we were only there for two days, we saw a lot of the city and a lot of the sights. Vienna is beautiful… and quite clean compared to Budapest. :) (Not to say Bp isn’t clean, Vienna just does an impressive job keeping everything neat and tidy. See the trees below.)

On Thursday morning, we depart for Poland, with a stop in Slovakia along the way. We will spend our time seeing Krakow and visiting Auschwitz. In the past couple weeks, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about and reading about the Holocaust, which has prepared us well, I think, for our upcoming experience at the concentration camp. Learning all of this here gives the Holocaust a very real and raw element compared to learning about it in Michigan, where we can’t see the bullet holes in buildings and the mass graves behind the synagogue. Last week, we went on a tour of the Jewish ghetto, and we saw these very things.

It’s a difficult thing to talk about and read about, but I feel strangely privileged to be able to learn about it here, at the heart of where it happened.

In other (much lighter) news, shout-out to my dear grandparents, whose package I received today. A huge thank you, G&G!

some photos for your enjoyment (click to enlarge):

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This is now the mayor’s office. WHAT.

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The trees are just so impressive.

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The summer palace was glorious!

IMG_1635Not sure if they’re visible here, but the holes in this building are bullet holes from WWII

IMG_1643We were able to visit a still-working synagogue, because our guide was the coolest.

IMG_1660This is the last remaining piece of the wall that surrounded the Jewish ghetto.

IMG_1677There are 2,281 Jews buried here. Nearly 1,700 are still unidentified.