Books from Abroad

I’m back from a six week tour and study trip to four different countries and, thanks to jet lag, my brain is wide awake while my body is still confused as to whether it’s time for second breakfast or a mid-morning nap.

So I will take advantage of this forced downtime to go on my regular post-travel blogging rampage. Expect more than one post within the next couple of days! To start, though, I will begin with my “Read across Europe” post.

In every city I visited, I did my best to find a bookshop. In most, I succeeded, and with an overweight suitcase, returned home with many new reads to add to my library. I tried to be thematic with my selections and ended with a nice little collection of books from abroad. They served as a second way of documenting my travels and expanding my understanding of the lands I visited, the homes of their authors.

  1. Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

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Our first stop was Amsterdam, home of beautiful canals, more bikes than in all of America, a certain district we did our best to avoid, and- of course – the Anne Frank House. We toured it, but I felt that I ought to have read her book first, so I picked it up in the gift shop on the way out and was engrossed in it throughout several train rides and an international bus journey.

I ended up being glad to read the book after having been in its setting. However, I was surprised to see just how roomy the secret attic was; I remember elementary school teachers telling me with horrified tones how the hiding space was probably smaller than my bedroom, perhaps even smaller than my closet. This was no the case, as I found out. However, reading the book I was struck by the brutal honesty of its young authoress. Anne Frank was, well, frank about the too-real trials of their situation and yet she also possessed a wisdom and eloquence beyond her years. I was convicted by her ability to write with such clarity and skill in the darkest of times.

2. Poems of the Great War 

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“In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow.”

From the first line, I was stuck by the poignance of these poems; they are full of yearning, mourning, and heartbreak but also hope and loyalty and courage. I picked up this little collection in Ypres after a strenuous bike ride through the surrounding farmlands, where once the poppies grew.

Although few poppies grow among the memorials of Flanders Fields now, the memories of the Great War linger. The museum and the poems in this book keep them alive, reminding, entreating us to never forget and to carry on with wisdom in light of the tragedies of the past.

This book kicked off my love of poetry, which continued to influence my reading choices throughout the rest of this trip.

3. The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory 

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This book caught my eye just as I finished exploring the castle in Edinburgh. In a city so rich in literature and history, it was a no-brainer that I needed to purchase a book. I had been hoping my something by Sir Arthur Conan Dolye or Robert Louis Stevenson or even J.K. Rowling as they all lived in Edinburgh, but this book focuses on a key point in Scottish and English history, so it worked just as well. It turns out the author got her Ph.D. in 18th century literature from Edinburgh University, which is pretty amazing if you ask me.

It was a great book for gaining insight into Mary Queen of Scots and Tudor England. Was it my favorite book? No, but it was interesting and certainly passed the time on another long train ride.

4. Underwoods by Robert Louis Stevenson

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I found this gem in a quirky bookstore in Inverness. Besides a sporting goods shop where I bought amazing running shoes, this bookstore was the only interesting thing in the city. However, Inverness is situated in the Scottish Highlands, which I strongly believe to be the most beautiful place on earth. This collection of R.L. Stevenson’s poetry is not only over one hundred years old, it smells of “ancient Egypt” and is filled with thrilling rhymes and imagery. For instance, “Wine-scented and poetic soul” (from “To a Gardener”) won me over at once.

Update: I read several more poems and am in love with R.L.S.’s ability to marry humor and earnestness within the same stanzas.

5. The Wrong Box by Robert Louis Stevenson

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After his poetry, I was on a Stevenson reading trend. In St. Andrews, a beautiful coastal town in Scotland, I found another darling bookstore, complete with ladders and books old and new. There, I picked up this “black comedy” and laughed my way through it all the way from Cambridge to Glasgow on my final train ride.

It was a pleasant way to pass a 4.5 hour journey, though Stevenson made me painfully aware of my limited vocabulary. I ended up having to scribble a list of words to look up later in my journal. Still need to do that…oops.

But, after this, I purchased a Stevenson collection on my abomination (er, I mean, my Kindle) and enjoyed finally reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, shocked that I’d never read it before and astounded at its insights into human nature.

6. Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare. 

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G. David, a bookseller in Cambridge, is one of the most magical places in the world. Unfortunately for me, my wallet did not agree, so all I could afford to buy in the end was this teeny-tiny copy of Much Ado. 

We saw this comedy performed in the King’s College Fellows Garden as part of the 30th annual Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, so it seemed a fitting (and suitcase weight limit-friendly) souvenir. Besides, I think sassy Beatrice might be my literary twin and this is definitely my favorite of the comedies.

 

So there you have it! These are my souvenir books, though I also read a wealth of English and Cambridge authors’ books (on my Kindle…alas, it is so convenient for travel…)

  • Romeo and Juliet – Shakespeare
    • Aside from the traumatic Globe experience, I admit that I love this play, not because I make the painful mistake of thinking it is a romance, but because I am fascinated with the way in which it is simultaneously comic and tragic in its plot. Essay on this later?
  • Sermons on Ephesians – Reverend Charles Simeon of Cambridge
    • Wonderful resource to have on hand as I studied Ephesians during my stay in Cambridge. Simeon is concise and insightful.
  • Silhouettes and Skeletons – various
    • This was a weird one and I’m not sure why it was on my reading list for my Cambridge course. It sought to give a character depiction of Simeon and sort of did, I guess… maybe.
  • An Experiment in Criticism – C.S. Lewis
    • This book was incredible and is reshaping how I approach various works of art. I already want to reread it as I know there is a wealth of ideas that I missed.
  • Letters to Malcolm – C.S. Lewis
    • Also insightful, but I wish I could have read Malcolm’s letters to Lewis…
  • Ariel – Sylvia Plath
    • At first, I was shocked and annoyed, considering Plath’s poetry to be nothing more than long and unnecessary sex and suicide metaphors. However, upon closer reading and applying the openness Lewis advises in Experiment, I found a new depth and beauty to Plath’s writing that inspired my own attempts at poetry.
  • The Art of Prophesying – William Perkins
    • This was a nice, concise guide to preaching which, naturally, my honors institute friends and I overcomplicated.
  • Samson Agonistes – John Milton
    • Do NOT make the mistake of skimming this in your head on an airplane. Instead, read it aloud with some literary friends; I promise you will find new meaning and beauty in it this way.
  • Manual of a Christian Knight – Erasmus
    • Rule No. 5 was about the only part of this book that did not make me want to give it up. Yes, it was helpful in some parts as it described our spiritual battle, but overall it was just. so. long. and. wordy. Still, when we discussed it, I – as usual- appreciated it more than before.
  • The Silver Chair – C.S. Lewis
    • This book seemed so straightforward until we discussed it…But it was a relief to read a children’s novel after so much theology.
  • Very British Problems – Rob Temple
    • This had me laughing aloud, but I think a more apt title would be “Awkward Introvert Problems” because all of the so-called “British Problems” are things I too fear.
  • Misery – Stephen King
    • Well this was equal parts inspiring and traumatizing…it’s writing and construction were brilliant and its story had me captivated for nearly all of my transatlantic flight. But now I wonder if I really want to be a famous writer as the plot centers on the kidnapping and torture of one…Still, it was my first King novel and I certainly enjoyed (is that the right word?) it!

 

Well, there you have it! My Euro-trip 2017 summed up in the books I read and purchased. Hopefully it gave you some new reads to check out in the future and maybe some new literary destinations to visit.

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A Europe State of Mind 

It has now been over a month since I returned from the trip of a lifetime: a two-and-a-half week journey through Europe with my family. When I call it the “trip of a lifetime”, I mean it! Sure, I had to punch my snoring relatives in the middle of the night once in a while, my suitcase was a pain to shut as my souvenirs accumulated, and I fear I spent my college fund on macarons and ice cream, but these are the little jests that life throws at adventurers and since every day I find myself thinking about our trip, I figured it was time for a post to summarize the top ten things I learned in Europe: 

    

1. Everything sounds better in an accent…unless it’s German. 

When I first stepped onto our British Airways flight and was called “dearie” and “love” by our oh-so-English flight attendants, I just about died. Seriously, they could have come on the intercom and said, “Sorry everyone, we forgot to fuel the plane and you are all doomed” and I still would have listened happily. Of course, I inevitably found myself slipping into the accents of every country we visited and, equally inevitably, probably offended numerous Europeans. I also discovered that the stereotypes are true: everything sounds proper with a British accent, French is beautiful even when it is spoken by a clearly disgruntled cab  driver, and Italian never falls to make me crave pasta and gelato. German met the stereotype as well… Don’t get me wrong, I love German art songs and find it a lovely language for singing. However, a German-speaker could have been telling me I was the sweetest girl in the world and I still would have been terrified. Sorry Germans. Maybe shorten some of your words. That would help you sound nicer and cut the costs of producing such ginormous road signs. 

 

Much British. Very accent.

       

2. Try not to act so…American. 

I had heard before that some Europeans are typically unkind to tourists, but found that this is completely not the case! Even in the sketchy areas of Prague and Paris, everyone was kind and helpful. Again, the only exception was when a German car rental employee told us after a mix-up, “America cannot help you; you are in Germany now.” (Still, I decided to take the high road and blame Obama.) However, I think this cranky German car guy might have had a point; everywhere we went, we attempted to learn the basics of the customs and languages because we recognized that we were guests. As visitors to another country, many people forget this and, as a result, locals might not treat them very kindly. What we found, though, is that if you make an effort to follow the ways of that country and treat the people as your hosts (whether the cab driver, the hotel bell boy, or the cider vendor) then you will receive equally gracious treatment. 

        

Is taking a selfie in the Louvre too American?

              

3. When in Paris, look up. 

Believe it or not, I nearly missed seeing the Eiffel Tower. I was so focused on the street art and the adorable cafes and the lock bridges (totally not the French boys…not at all…) that I did not notice this iconic structure until I was directly  beneath it. Don’t become so caught up in what is directly around you on the ground level; some of Europe’s most beautiful views are above, for instance, ornate windows, towering cathedrals, misty mountains, and the castles that are ridiculously commonplace. (Seriously, castles in Europe are like Starbucks in America; if you miss one, don’t worry since there is most likely to be another around the corner.)

 

“Beau soir indeed…oh hello, Eiffel Tower!”

 
             

4. The best art in Paris might just be sold in bakeries.

When I say “art”, I really mean macarons. Not those cheap little coconut mounds (“macaroons”), but authentic, adorable, delicious French macarons. I fear I might have spent my college funds on these cookies, but I regret nothing. In fact, I made plans to start a macaronery of my own back in the States and, upon ruining batch after batch, realized just how exact of a science it is. Well done, French pastry artists. Well done. (I should add that I did finally figure it out.)

 

The look on my face says it all.

 
               

5. Biking is always the best mode of transportation. 

Traffic is INSANE in most cities. Like, take Los Angeles traffic and multiply it by twenty and then add narrow streets and the chaos of the Battle of Five Armies from The Hobbit and then you might have a vague picture of just how crazy the traffic is  in Europe. It doesn’t help that in the U.K., they drive on the left. (I know now where America gets her rebelliousness.) The better option is to walk, but after averaging ten miles a day, that is rough. The best option is biking. We took five bike tours (Paris, Munich, Salzburg, and two in Prague) and enjoyed them immensely. Not only did we see everything we would have seen on bus tours, we got to see these things closer and have a more individualized experience. Plus, how cute is it to bicycle around Paris on a rainy night? 

         

Paris+Bicycles=Perfection (and also a bit dangerous)

6. It looks like only a quarter, but it is not. 

Euros are so fun to use. Handing over a little coin makes you feel like you’re only spending a nickle and paying a single Euro for an ice cream cone seems like a bargain. Well, plot twist: it isn’t. Euros are definitely worth more than a nickle or even a quarter and if you are not wary, you might find yourself wondering where all of your vacation  money went. After all, you only spent fifty coins and it couldn’t amount to that much, could it? Yes, actually. Yes it could. 

 

Even a commercialized Mozart candy seems like a bargain for only one Euro…

 
                

7. The best gelato is not necessarily in Italy. 

We made it a goal (mostly so we would not feel bad about ourselves) to try ice cream in every country that we visited and, to our surprise, our favorite was in Germany. (I swear that the German word for ice cream, “eis”, is the only short word I heard there. They certainly have their priorities straight.) Rothenburg, the cutest little fairy-tale town in the world, had the most creamy and delectable ice cream cones I have ever tasted. Bolzano, Italy, however, was rather disappointing in the ice cream area. Sorry, Italy! If it makes you feel any better, the worst ice cream I had was in Prague, where apparently mint ice cream literally is ice cream with chunks of mint. Ew. 

 

Do I need to explain this? It is a beautiful picutre.

 
              

8. Everything tastes better in a foreign country. 

This sounds like an overstatement, but it is not. German bread somehow is heartier and tastier than American bread. Black coffee is more flavorful and thick in Austria and Italy. The produce is fresher and I ate fruits I’ve never even seen before in Innsbruck. And, oddest of all, I ate the best hot dog I have ever eaten in Paris: a sausage on a warm baguette covered in cheese. Oh yeah, that is another lesson I learned: EVERYTHING is better covered in cheese. 

 

I ate an American hot dog last week and wanted to cry as I remembered this one…

 
                

9. My family is made up of weirdos. 

You get to know each other really well (my dad might argue too well) when you’re stuck in cars and hotels together for extended periods of time. Sure, we got annoyed with one another, but we also had a ton of fun! For instance, we spent the drive to Italy brainstorming our dream macaron business and laughing at our puns. (“Our macarons will be so good, people might think they are crack-arons.” “We can sell small ones and call them snack-arons.” “If you make another pun, you will be smack-aroned.”)

 

My mom and I unashamedly reinacted “The Sound of Music” in Salzburg. Weirdos.

 
          

10. Inspiration is out there.

From standing in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey to seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre to hearing the tale of the eccentric King Ludwig of Bavaria, I met inspiration everwhere I turned! I saw glorious archetecture, played lovely instruments, was swept away by beautiful music, and experienced amazing adventures. I came home – jetlag aside- refreshed and ready to plunge into writing and practicing in the hopes of channeling this inspiration and, one day, returning to Europe. 

 

What could be more inspirational than riding a unicorn in the city of music?

 
         

Sigh…now I am homesick for London. Of course, I am not actually British, but I felt so at home there! Here in Phoenix, I get turned around easily, but I was never lost in London despite its wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey streets. (I could not resist that reference…) Add to that all of the lessons I listed above and I am now thouroughly determined to return. In the meantime, I will do my best to incorporate what I took away from Europe into my daily life, so if you need me, I will be reading French poetry in my best British accent while riding my bike to the store to purchase gelato as I wait for my macarons to finish baking. 😉