Looking Back

It has been almost six months since we boarded a plane to leave the United States and begin our Cultural Routes experience, but I still struggle to find the words that can encapsulate everything CR means to me into a single blog post. Where do I even begin?

From the outside, Cultural Routes looks like a three and a half week vacation. Even though we were warned from the start that CR is so much more than a trip, it is impossible to understand CR before actually experiencing it. Dr. Pitcock calls CR an “experience” for a reason. I knew that CR was going to push me to grow and to connect with the rest of the familia, but I could not have foreseen how much CR10 was going to impact my life.

Looking back on those three and a half weeks feels like a dream because so much happened as we explored Europe together. I have no clue how we managed to pack so much into each day, but somehow we did. We experienced art, culture and history of each city in such a hands-on way that those places feel like a part of who I am. More than that, the people I experienced those cities with have become a part of me.

I am a firm believer that every person in this world is a teacher. No matter how big or small the lesson is, every person we interact with leaves their mark on our hearts. These are the lessons I learned from every person in the familia.

Abby, you taught me the power of the introvert. We bonded over both being introverts, but the way you handle friendship, group environments, and leadership is honestly inspiring. You impress me so much with your leadership abilities and presence. I love that we both love Audrey Hepburn and got to bond over that as well. You are classy, stylish, and beautiful.

Brittany, you taught me the immense joy that comes from laughter and the importance of not taking everything too seriously. Your love of puns and silly jokes had us rolling on the floor laughing so many times during CR. Your laugh still makes me smile, even when I hear it in the BLUU in passing. You brighten every life you touch, and I am awed by your ability to handle stress with a smile. You are the face of grace, beauty, and joy.

Brooke, you taught me the power of inner strength. I was awed by the stories of how you overcame the challenges you have faced in your life and those stories continue to inspire me to this day. You truly know how to rise to the occasion and thrive. You have so much courage and confidence, which are qualities I still struggle with. I hope that someday I can carry myself with the confidence and courage you possess.

Emma, you taught me the unconditional love of friendship. Even though we did not end up in small groups together, you made it a point to reach out to me and spend time with me whenever you could. You put tireless energy into developing genuine relationships with the people around you in a way I can only hope I’ll be able to match someday. I will always be impressed by your heartfelt interactions with everyone you meet.

Indigo, you taught me overwhelming positivity. I will never forget our quiet moments as we walked together in the back of the group, reflecting about how everyone needs to take a step back and take a breather sometimes. Your lovely singing voice warms my heart. You always knew what to say to cheer up the group, even when you were having a rough day. You handled more personal conversations with such maturity and grace.

Jacob, you taught me about the connection between humility and faith. You love God so much. I learned so much about my faith from your passion, which I appreciate so much. You also were so willing to admit your flaws and rely on God to show you how to make those changes in your life, which was honestly incredibly inspiring. Thank you for your life lessons and deep religious talks.

Jake, you taught me that behind every wild, rambunctious extrovert is a loving, gentle soul. You were the life of the party, yet you were so aware of everyone that you could always tell when I was feeling disconnected from the group and somehow got me involved. I connected with you so much during our discussions about the future. You are definitely going to achieve greatness with a twinkle in your eye and a skip in your step.

Kyle, you taught me what it means to have a passion and to chase after it. Despite your calm outward demeanor toward people you don’t know as well, you have a fire in your soul. You are so committed to your dream of ending childhood slavery, and your dedication to that dream turns heads wherever you go. I can only pray that I find my calling and chase after it in the way you do.

Lauren, you taught me the value of boundless enthusiasm. I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone as genuinely enthusiastic as you. It makes me smile every time I think of your “Oh my gosh, WOW” comments when you were told something exciting. Your enthusiasm and your tremendous faith make everyone want to be around you and experience your sunshine all the time.

Marat, you taught me the importance of being intentional. You are an introvert, like me, but when you open up to others, your beautiful true colors shine through. I learned so much from how you went at your own pace to open up to everyone on CR. You were so intentional with how you established connections with others, and that allowed you to form some of the strongest bonds with others on CR.

Nishu, you taught me that it’s good to laugh at yourself every once in a while. I love looking back on the night in Munich where we all watched the video of you getting out of the river. You were embarrassed, but you took it well. So many of your jokes involved not taking yourself too seriously, and I firmly believe that being able to laugh at yourself is a necessary life skill. You are hilarious and you make us all smile.

OC, you taught me to expect the unexpected. You are the master of surprises. I was worried that our personalities would be so different that it would be difficult for us to connect, but I was proven so wrong. You are one of the smartest, most fun-loving people I have ever met. I loved talking to you about books at dinner. I definitely think that you are going to change the world someday.

Olivia, you taught me awareness. I was fortunate enough to be in every single small group with you, and I am so grateful for the amount of time we got to spend together. You have so much charisma. You have an eye for photography and for noticing how other people are feeling. You are so aware of the people around you and always take care to make sure everyone is doing well. That care for others is going to take you far in life.

Ryal, you taught me fierce loyalty. You are so aware of how people perceive you and are so determined to make sure that you leave a positive, lasting impression in other peoples’ lives. Our talks taught me so much about the strength of true friendship and the importance of knowing your flaws and working hard to make a change. I know that you would do anything to protect those you love, and that is a truly impressive virtue.

Taylor, you taught me the joys of storytelling. You are so good at telling stories. You had us crying we were laughing so hard at some dinners. You express your experiences with such joy and wonder that it is impossible not to smile when you share your stories. I hope someday to be able to put a smile on faces as easily as you can.

Lindsey, you taught me kindness. You have already helped me so much as my Honors advisor, but on top of that, you looked out for every single one of us on CR. We felt so safe in your hands because you did so much to ensure we were safe and happy. You give so much of yourself to help others. You are truly an angel.

Dr. Pitcock, you taught me how to challenge myself while still accepting the characteristics that make me who I am. I was ashamed of being an introvert before CR and I felt like it was something I needed to fix about myself. While you challenged me to participate in dinner conversations more and step outside my comfort zone, you still encouraged me to take breaks and allow myself to recharge. You made me a much more balanced individual and made me grow so much as a student and as a person.

These are my teachers. I learned so much more than history or culture in Europe – I learned about life, love, and friendships. I am a completely different person than I was before taking my first steps in Berlin, and I could not be more thankful for who I have become. Thank you CR10. You will forever be a part of me, and I can’t wait to continue CR through our relationships for the rest of our lives.

 

Gondolas Galore

*Note: I know CR has ended, but I still have a few blog posts from the end of the CR that I never got to finish and upload. I don’t want to toss them out, so I’m going to go ahead and post them anyway.*

My new favorite mode of transportation is by gondola.

On our free day in Florence, we were allowed to choose to travel to either San Gimignano or to Venice for the day. At first I struggled to make a decision, but then I remembered that since I was a little girl, I have dreamed of going to the city with rivers for roads. My younger self thought that gondolas floating down the waterways, endless bridges and nothing but sidewalk to walk on was the coolest thing ever. I decided to make my childhood dreams come true – I bought a train ticket to Venice.

Going to Venice was the slightly less popular decision of the two. Of the sixteen of us on the experience, only seven people decided to go. Olivia Wales, Taylor Long, Olivia Chambers, Emma Hofmeister, Jacob James, Jake Lynn, and I chose to wake up super early and hop on a train to see the “City of Bridges”.

Venice was more beautiful than I ever could have expected! We had a surprisingly relaxing day in Venice. We spent the first hour or so taking random alleys and side paths to get to the main square. We somehow managed to avoid most other tourists and locals while strolling through Venice. It was incredibly peaceful and quiet as we walked along the many canals and dozens of bridges. Eventually, we crossed Rialto Bridge, the oldest of the four bridges crossing the Grand Canal and the most grandiose. We took a while to admire the view of the Grand Canal. We were stunned by the realization that instead of parking lots, people in Venice have their own private moorings to tie up their boats! This concept of a “water parking garage” blew our minds.

We kept walking and eventually arrived at Piazza San Marco, or Saint Mark’s Square. This is the largest public square in Venice, and surprisingly, it wasn’t extremely crowded. The Piazza is beautiful! On one side is a breathtaking view of St. Mark’s Basilica. On the other is a wide open space with a museum surrounding the square. There is also a large bell tower and a walkway leading to the water. We wandered around the square for a while, taking in the view. We eventually left the square to get lunch.

After lunch, we explored Venice a little more and eventually ran into a couple of gondoliers. Gondoliers are professional gondola drivers, easily recognizable by their striped shirts and wide-brimmed hats. We split into two groups and hopped in. The view from a gondola puts Venice in an entirely new perspective because you see the city from the water! Our gondolier pointed out the more well-known areas of Venice as we cruised along the water. He even showed Emma, a huge James Bond fan, the areas of Venice where a James Bond movie was filmed. We floated along the Grand Canal and went under the Rialto Bridge, learning about the city from our gondoliers the whole way.

After the gondola ride, we got gelato and talked as we continued exploring the city. Jacob, Jake, and I eventually decided that we wanted to climb the bell tower and check out the view of Venice from above. The others went to find a spot by the water to sit as we rode the elevator to the top. Our jaws dropped as soon as we stepped out of the elevator. Venice from the air is beautiful! We could see the water on one side, the multicolored buildings on the other. Seagulls circled lazily in the air, the water twinkled in the light, and the sound of a clarinet player in the street below floated up to us as we took in the view. We took pictures and admired the city. We had wonderful, thoughtful conversation and came down from the tower with new perspectives.

After our whole group reconvened, we sat by the water and talked for a long time. Eventually, we decided it was time to head back. We took our time to appreciate the channels and bridges and bright colors of the buildings one last time as we made our way back to the train station. On the way, I looked down and realized that there were a couple stolpersteine on the ground. We first discovered these “stumbling stones” in Berlin. They are small, brass plates put into the cobblestone streets with names of Jewish people that lived in the buildings in front of the stones inscribed into them. The stones mark the names, the date of deportation and the name of the concentration camp that they were deported to. They are a direct reminder of the loss that incurred during World War II and the massive impact of the Nazis. It was eye-opening to see a direct reminder about how people were impacted by the Nazis all the way in Venice. We left that place with a little more to think about.

We ended the evening with dinner and a long train ride back to Florence. The final activity of the night was a hike to the Piazzale Michelangelo, where we admired the sparkling Florence at night. Reflecting on the day I had, I couldn’t have been more thankful for how the day went. We had a peaceful day in a city I had only dreamed about going to as a little girl. Not only that, but I got to experience it with some of my best friends. I was so thankful for CR10 as I gazed out over the Arno that night.

Step By Step

You learn a lot about yourself while hiking nine miles across the hills surrounding Cinque Terre.

Cinque Terre, or “Five Lands”, is a city in Italy that is composed of five towns or districts. We stayed in Riomaggiore, the fishing district. The town was beautiful! I’ve never seen a town quite like it. The buildings are all on different levels on the side of the hill, painted in bright colors. The cobblestone streets were alive with joyful people greeting each other in Italian. The ocean in the distance was sparkling in the sunlight. We had so much fun exploring the city before going to dinner and going to bed the first night.

Our only full day in Cinque Terre was a hiking day. We had two major hikes – one to climb the huge hill right next to Riomaggiore to reach the church on top, and one to hike along the hillsides to some of the other cities. I love nature, but I haven’t done a significant amount of hiking in my life. My brothers have been far more exposed to it due to Boy Scouts, but I didn’t get a ton of those experiences as a kid. Riomaggiore sure changed that.

The first hike was beautiful! Because it led up to a church, there were stations of the cross set up along the path. I spent a lot of time in the back of the group, pausing at each station to reflect and look around. Along the hike, we could see the terracing all across the hillsides. Every now and then, a view of the water would peek out behind the trees. When we finally arrived at the church, I became speechless. We were able to see all five towns of Cinque Terre built into the harbors, with the sea to the left and endless hills and farms to the right. Looking out across the sea, I couldn’t pinpoint the place on the horizon where the sea stopped and the sky began.

We then came back down and began the second hike, which was much more difficult. We had to climb hundreds of steps to get to the top of a nearby hill where the second city is located. Exhausted, sweaty, and in pain, we hiked the whole way to the top before getting lunch. Everyone was so wiped out by the end of the hike that lunch was extremely quiet compared to normal. After lunch, we climbed and hiked along a path that gave us a stunning view of the ocean to our left. We walked along the path past dozens of vineyards into a forested area and eventually hiked down to one of the further away towns of Cinque Terre.

I was frustrated with myself for the majority of the hike because I was feeling grumpy and lonely. I was having a hard time keeping conversations going with other people. I kept asking myself why I was feeling down when I had these wonderful views all around me and when I had incredible company. I spent some time reflecting and realized that I was having a difficult time engaging with other people because my body was telling me that it needed to recharge. I am naturally an introvert, so I recharge when I am alone. However, being an introvert makes it more difficult for me to initiate conversations with people I don’t know very well. That was one of my personal goals for CR – to practice engaging in conversation with other people and to step out of my comfort zone. I realized while on the hike that I have been pushing myself out of my comfort zone to the point of exhaustion. I can’t become discouraged with myself if one conversation doesn’t go well or doesn’t last a long time; it is perfectly natural. I have been beating myself up about spending time alone when I could be talking to people and getting to know them better, but that is how my body naturally recharges. Of course I felt exhausted and grumpy; I was refusing to let myself take a break! I was pushing myself too hard to become something I’m not – an extrovert. I realized that it is perfectly okay to be introverted, as long as I don’t allow it to inhibit my interactions with others. Once I discovered this, I was content to be alone in my thoughts for a while.

Later that night, everything turned around. We had a wonderful seafood and pasta dinner, ate gelato by the harbor, and had wonderful conversation. It was a reminder for me that it is okay to sit back and recharge. Conversation can’t be forced, and sometimes my instinct when I am trying to push myself out of my comfort zone is to force conversation even when my body is exhausted. I can’t help being an introvert. I can, however, spend more time reflecting and determining when I need to take a step back to give myself a mental rest and when I need to engage with others and establish and strengthen new relationships.

Ciao, CR10

This blog post is going to be a little different than the rest of the posts I’ve done. Instead of a long post describing a single day in detail, I compiled a list of some of the moments from CR that make me smile.

The first night in Florence: Dr. P surprised us with one of the most beautiful activities yet. We walked along the Arno River and paused by the Ponte Vecchio bridge, one of the few bridges in the area not destroyed by Hitler’s army during World War II. As we were watching the sun set over the Arno, Dr. P walked over to us and asked us if we were ready to get on the river. Sure enough, we looked at the river and saw a gondola waiting for us. We climbed in and floated along the river as the sun set and the lights came on. The streetlights along the river added a fairytale feel to the scene, making the water twinkle in the light. This night makes me smile because I sat next to Brooke, who was laughing with joy the whole time because she was enjoying the experience so much.

IMG_2385

The second night in Florence: Dr. P made sure to bring us to the Piazza della Signoria in time to see the street musicians. We relaxed on some nearby steps as we listened to a guitarist play hit songs to a soundtrack in the background, eventually ending with the tenor aria Nessun Dorma. Next, to my surprise and joy, a flute player arrived to perform. As another flute player, my jaw dropped in awe as this man began to play. His flute playing was absolutely magical! He opened with “Beauty and the Beast” and blew everyone away with his performance. He also ended his performance with Nessun Dorma, filling the air with his magical sound. I smiled the whole evening listening to him play and looking around at the artwork in the piazza. Florence is a perfect blend of art, culture, and history rolled into one city. I love music, so experiencing that kind of music in a place so full of creativity and life was an experience I’ll never forget.

The first day in Rome: After traveling to Rome in the morning, we dropped our bags off and had lunch. Unfortunately, I was feeling awful. I had the beginnings of a sinus infection and the symptoms were wearing me down. I could barely focus during the meal because I couldn’t breathe, I felt dizzy, and my throat hurt. Dr. P pulled me aside and suggested that I don’t participate in the cooking class that evening so that I would be rested for the Vatican the next day. I reluctantly agreed. I’m not going to lie, I was heartbroken that I would be missing out on a unique opportunity to learn to make pasta, tiramisu, and other yummy foods with fifteen of my best friends. However, I understood that the Vatican was going to be an experience of a lifetime, so I stayed behind. To my surprise, right before everyone left the hotel to go to the cooking class, Brooke and Emma came into the room and brought me goodies from the store nearby! They gave me a giant bottle of water, a Powerade, some caramel candies, and Kit Kats, which are my favorite chocolate candy bars. It meant so much to me that they thought to treat me and take care of me, knowing I would be disappointed that I was missing out on the class. Even after the class, everyone came in to check on me and see how I was feeling. They even brought me dinner and hung out with me as I ate, telling me stories from the cooking class and joking around. I felt so loved and cared for, which really helped me cope with the disappointment of missing out on the cooking class.

The third day in Rome: We had the opportunity to visit the Villa Aurora, a historic hunting lodge owned by Princess Rita Boncompagni. She gave us a personal tour of the villa, pointing out the breathtaking frescoes and describing the magnificent artwork in each room in detail. We paused in one of the rooms for a while as the princess told us about the history of the villa. She asked us if there were any singers among us, and Indigo raised her hand. The princess then told us we were standing in the room where the idea for opera was born! She then asked Indigo to sing for the group – she wanted to record it and store the in the building’s archives. Indigo agreed. She sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and her angelic voice took everyone’s breath away. She even made some people cry. Afterward, we were stunned and silent for a moment, then rushed her with hugs and smiles while the princess looked on.

IMG_4688.JPG

These are just a few of the countless moments of CR that make me smile. It is impossible to describe CR accurately to someone who hasn’t experienced it; the best I can do is describe moments like these. CR is so much more than a trip. CR is an incredible, indescribable experience because of the people we experience it with. Without Indigo, Emma, Olivia Wales, Brooke, Ryal, Kyle, Jake, Jacob, Marat, Nishu, Taylor, Olivia Chambers, Brittany, Lauren, Abby, Dr. P, and Lindsey, the experience would have been completely different. These people pushed me out of my comfort zone, changed my perspective, and inspired me to learn and grow. They comforted me when I was down, made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt, and forged friendships so strong that I know they will last for a lifetime. There is no better way to get to know people than through getting lost together in foreign cities, and as I got to know everyone, I was constantly impressed and humbled by how much I have to learn from these people. I could not be more thankful that I am lucky enough to call all of these people my friends.

Although it pains me to say goodbye to three and a half weeks of life-changing experiences, we are stepping forward into the future together. CR may be over, but we can carry everything we have learned and the friendships we have made into the rest of our time at TCU and beyond. I am sorry to let CR go, but I cannot wait to continue to build these friendships for the rest of my life. Thank you so much, Dr. P and Lindsey, for the opportunity to experience CR. Thank you, fellow CR students, for making CR an experience I will never forget. Tu es familia.

Highs and Lows

I never expected to jump off a cliff into a river fed by glacier runoff or to paraglide in the Swiss Alps, but that’s what I did today.

After an exhausting day of traveling from Munich, Germany to Interlaken, Switzerland, we arrived at our hostel. Dr. Pitcock told us that as soon as we put our bags in our rooms, we could come back down and sign up for adventure activities. I was simultaneously excited and extremely nervous. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Being the indecisive person that I am, I decided to look at all the options and overwhelm myself with choices. Great move, Audrey. There were so many different activities available to us, from skydiving to kayaking to bungee jumping and so much more. I spent a long time debating every option and eventually made a decision. I originally thought I had narrowed it down to just kayaking and so I could have a peaceful, relaxing day, but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. In order to strengthen my bond with more people on CR and to push myself out of my comfort zone, I decided to canyon. Not only that, but I decided in a spur of the moment decision to add paragliding to my list. I walked away from the signup list, quickly realizing I was going to participate in two life-threatening activities in one day. Now that I have done both, I can tell you that this was one of the most exciting days of my life.

For those of you that don’t know, canyoning is an activity in which you jump from various high places into an ice-cold river and move down the river without a raft of any kind. That’s right, you did read that correctly. We put on wetsuits, helmets, and life jackets, rappelled into a canyon in the Swiss Alps, and hurled ourselves from 15 feet drops into a river, avoiding landing on rocks and getting sucked into currents along the way down. It definitely doesn’t seem like the smartest or safest idea, but we had an absolute blast. Our tour guides were fantastic and gave us clear directions. A few times, though, we thought they were joking when they told us what we were supposed to do. One of my favorite moments of the canyoning trip occurred after we rappelled around a giant rock in the side of the cliff face like Tarzan. We climbed down from the swinging point, feeling accomplished that we avoided falling into the swirling, almost whirlpool-like area way below us. Our tour guide Matt then turned around and told us to climb back the way we came, because we were going to cannonball straight into that whirlpool-like area. We thought he was joking at first, but he was completely serious. Those moments were terrifying. I looked down the drop, waiting for the tour guide to count me off, certain that I would bash my head against a rock or get stuck in an undercurrent in the water and die. Thankfully, none of that happened, but today was definitely an exercise in trust. Our group had so much fun bonding over how ridiculously cold we were and talking about how relieved we felt that we didn’t die between every jump. There were so many great moments. Indigo almost jumped when the tour guides weren’t ready and Matt had to yank her backward onto the rock so he could count her down. The helmets had names on them so the guides had to refer to us by our helmet names, so we spent several minutes cracking up about Ryal being called “Snooki” and Kyle being named “Frodo”. We laughed together and freaked out together and supported each other when we got scared. It was a wonderful bonding experience.

Next was paragliding. I was so thankful that Marat offered to go with me, because I would not have done it on my own. It was one of the most unbelievable moments of my life. We got on a bus and drove up a huge mountain. My paragliding guide constantly joked around with me about only having 11 days of experience as he set up the parachute. We strapped in and prepared for takeoff. Unfortunately, the wind had other ideas. It took us five tries to get off the ground because the wind was so inconsistent. Eventually, however, we ran down the hill and the wind lifted us into the air. I have never seen a view like the one I saw today in my life. There are no words to describe the experience of flying thousands of meters in the air with the Swiss Alps, two gorgeous glittering lakes, and the city of Interlaken below you. I grinned the whole time we were in the air. It was humbling to see God’s beautiful creation from the air in that way, and I spent most of the ride taking everything in and feeling thankful for the opportunity I have to grow while on this experience. I don’t think people take enough time in their busy lives to look up, so literally being up high today made me realize that, despite the issues we may have in our lives, we have so much to be grateful for. I also really enjoyed getting to steer the paraglide for a little bit and doing some rollercoaster-type stunts in the paraglider.

I ended the day with Jacob, Marat, and Dr. Pitcock. We rode a train up the mountain and took time to appreciate the view and talk. While this activity wasn’t as thrilling as the other activities today, I enjoyed spending time with them and getting to know them a little better while looking at the Swiss Alps. There aren’t many times in life where I will be able to make that statement, so I took the time to enjoy it today.

While today didn’t turn out exactly as I thought it would, I had so much fun. The lessons I learned today aren’t drastic, but they are good reminders.

1. Be careful when you’re wading through waist-deep water. There might be rocks that you can’t see.

2. The highs and the lows in life have valuable lessons to teach, whether you mean high and low figuratively or literally. In today’s case, it was literal.

3. Expect the unexpected.

4. Remember to take the time to appreciate the world around you.

5. Push yourself out of your comfort zone once in a while. You might experience something incredible.

There is Hope

As I sat in the Carmelite chapel in the very back of the Dachau concentration camp, I reflected about the power of faith. So many aspects of Dachau left a pit in my stomach – the roll call area, the barracks, the crematorium and more shattered my heart into pieces. I cannot fathom how humans are capable of treating other humans in the way the Nazis treated the prisoners of the concentration camps, and I had to pray a lot to find a way to come to terms with everything I saw in Dachau.

The most sickening aspect of any concentration camp is the dehumanization of people. Not only were the victims of Dachau starved, tortured, beaten, and brutally murdered, but they were stripped of everything that makes them human. They lost all free will, all individual human rights as soon as they entered through the gate inscribed with the words “work sets you free.” Pretty ironic, right?

I reflected on this a lot as I stood in the Schubraum, the room in which the prisoners are registered, told to remove their clothes, and forced to give up every possession they own. As I walked through the room, I paused in the place where the prisoners stood as they removed their clothes and turned in their belongings. This is the room where prisoners became nothing more than a number to the SS officials. Looking at the tables that contained personal items from various prisoners broke my heart. Every item told a story. I saw a prayer card, likely carried by a priest or a person dedicated to his faith. I saw a small photo of a young couple laughing and hugging. My heart shattered when I realized that these items are the ones that people couldn’t leave at home when they were deported to the camps, the ones that they carried in their wallets and looked at when they sought comfort. These items carry stories that define the person who carried them, and they were stripped away.

Despite the atrocities of the Holocaust that I relived as I walked through Dachau, I did not lose all faith in humanity. As I prayed and reflected in the chapel, I realized that the Holocaust represents the two extremes of human nature. The Nazis, the SS, and those who prided themselves in persecuting, torturing, and murdering other human beings committed some of the worst crimes against humanity in all of history. On the other hand, the survivors and victims of the Holocaust prove the strength of humanity in the face of evil. Even when they are chained by the colored badges on their uniforms and are suffering the worst tortures imaginable, they did not all lose faith. The victims banded together and depended on each other and on God to survive, which is reflected in the religious memorials in the back of Dachau. These ultimate survival stories give me hope. If hundreds of thousands of people were able to trust God to survive the horrors of the Holocaust, I can overcome anything I can set my mind to. My problems are much less significant than those who were prisoners of Dachau, but I can learn from their inner strength and courage and apply it to my life. Good outlasts evil, faith outlasts hopelessness, and love outlasts hate. All we have to do is depend on and trust in each other, and we will overcome.

The Brutal Honesty of Berlin

Experiencing Berlin in this way has been one of the most incredible and humbling experiences of my life thus far. Not only am I experiencing a foreign country for the first time, but I am doing so in a place so rich with history that I have the opportunity to see firsthand the impact of the two World Wars and Nazism. I also have loved exploring a new country with new friends and establishing new relationships.

Day One: This day was so exciting for so many reasons! This day meant the beginning of our exploration of Berlin, the beginning of our friendships, and the beginning of Cultural Routes. My group explored the Soviet War memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, a panorama museum depicting Berlin as it looked with the wall up, Treptower Park, the Eastside Gallery, and Karl Marx Alley. The most fascinating part of this day was viewing WWII from an entirely new perspective – the Soviet perspective. In many textbooks of history, the discussions of WWII leave many details about the Soviet Union’s involvement out. However, between 25 and 27 million of the 55 million people killed in the war were citizens or military members of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a crucial factor in WWII, but it is easy to forget. One of the most fascinating things about Berlin is that it does not shy away from monuments and museums that portray every aspect of WWII, including the Soviet influence and impact in the war. Teptower Park was especially impactful. The symbolism in Treptower Park blew me away. The Soviet Union stares across to Mother Germany, holding the child Future of Germany in his arms, and crushing the swastika underfoot. Memorials like the Soviet War Memorial and Treptower Park serve as reminders that there are other sides of the story than the ones we consistently read in history books, and that there was suffering on all sides.

Day Two: Although this day was more centered around general German history, the most impactful moments for me were at the Berlin Wall Memorial. This memorial pointed out many facts I did not know about the Berlin Wall. For instance, I did not realize that there was a region between the West and East Walls in which booby traps, barbed wire fence, and inner walls were added to keep people out. The map of the memorial had dots spread across the map, pointing to exact locations of “incidents” where people died trying to get across. It put the desperation of the East Berliners into perspective; we stood on the ground that literally meant life or death to the people attempting to escape. Seeing the faces of those who died trying to cross the part of the Berlin Wall where we stood made it feel much more real, especially because many of the deaths were children. For the rest of the day, my group learned a lot about German history. We went to the German History Museum and the Berliner Dom, which was probably my favorite part of the day. The Berliner Dom has a beautiful cathedral, a crypt underneath, and a stairway up to the dome that provides a 360 degree view of the city.

Day Three: This was the most emotionally exhausting but most enlightening day of the three. We visited the Museum to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the accompanying memorial. Even the blunt, harsh names of the museum and memorial foreshadow the brutality of the information and stories enclosed within a single city block in the middle of Berlin. Words cannot accurately describe the heartbreak I felt in my soul when I learned the stories of fifteen Jewish families that were separated and murdered by the Nazis, when I read the letters, postcards, and death notes of men, women, and children about to be murdered in the extermination camps, and when I heard the grotesque personal testimonies of people that survived the horrors of the concentration camps. Witnessing these events brought our group together as we discussed and reflected upon what we saw in Tiergarten. These atrocities completely dehumanized millions of Jews as they were humiliated, tortured, and murdered just because of their beliefs. It is difficult to comprehend how people were able to commit these acts against their fellow man and laugh about it. We discussed the effects of extreme nationalism and how to handle this information through faith. Although we did do other activities that day, we bonded the most as a group because of our experiences in the museum and memorial.

By far the most fascinating part about Berlin is its humble honesty and refusal to shy away from the past. From building an empty library in the location where Nazis burned books at Bebelplatz to memorials portraying the deaths of East Berliners as they tried to cross the wall to dedicating an entire city block to the disgusting treatment and genocide of Jews, Germany does not attempt to hide its history. It embraces its past and portrays it in as many ways as possible to keep the memory alive. In the Museum to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a quote from Primo Levi is painted on the wall: “It happened, therefore it can happen again; this is the core of what we have to say.” I think we can all learn something from Berlin about honesty and accepting our flaws and mistakes. Without acknowledging our past, we have no hope of recovering and learning from our darkest moments. I am thankful that Berlin uses its past to teach others in order to prevent atrocities such as the Holocaust in the future.