I was a stranger here yet better known
Away from all I thought myself to be—
Away from all routines that made me, me,
I found myself in being severed grown.
Away from all the people I loved best
I found myself in newer company—
I found my soul in this older country
Away from where in strivings I would rest.
I came in laughter ready to enjoy
Yet leave a somewhat sadder, wiser heart—
Yet leave more whole for being torn apart,
I return dyed a deeper shade of joy.
Away I went to see the world’s wide wealth,
I return now, a world within myself.
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.
- Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
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
“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
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
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
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.
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.
Okay, so the title of this post is a bit misleading. To clarify, I have not taken lessons in speaking Italian and, if I’m being completely honest, my Italian speaking abilities consists of basic greetings, “grazie”, and apologetically smiling and batting my eyes. Oh, and I got pretty good at ordering coffee and gelato.
But anyway, back to the title. Last year, after I returned from a trip to Europe, I wrote about the lessons I learned as a traveller while there: https://abookishcharm.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/a-europe-state-of-mind/
Having just returned from a couple weeks in Italy, I figured I would do something similar. However, instead of just travel tips, the following are life lessons which I learned from my time in Italy.
1. Show some gumption.In one of my stories, a character goes on a trip despite being terrified of airplanes, ruined plans, and -shudder- strangers. The important thing is that she goes anyway. Sound familiar? I have the same fears and, after cancelled flights, nighttime desert drives, lost luggage, and generally dashed expectations, I was on the verge of giving up my adventure and going home. But then I remembered a character by the name of Paige O’Connor. A character I had invented, no less. Oddly enough, I was inspired by my own character to show some gumption and get on the plane. Granted, I got off the plane an hour later when it was cancelled. But still.
2. Sometimes not knowing is good.
I got pretty good at reading Italian menus (I mean, most pasta has Italian names anyway), but sometimes I would just guess and order something at random. It really pays to not be a picky eater. I had the most amazing pasta with mussels because of this. I didn’t even know I liked mussels and probably would not have ordered them had I known that’s what that dish was. But I did and I found a new food I enjoy. Win win!
3. Don’t be half-hearted in anything.Sure, Italians may not be the most punctual. (I became familiar with the idea of an “Italian 8am” as being somewhere around 8:15 or later.) But I will say that they give their all once they arrive. Every detail in the city where I was was intentional, from the grandest paintings and statues in the Duomo (Cathedral) to the tiniest designs on the top of a cheap cappuccino. Once a barista carried my coffee three feet to my table even though I was more than happy to take it myself because making the coffee was only half of the job.
4. Don’t be typical.The most embarrassing moments I had were when people knew I was American. It made me feel so obnoxious. But it helped that I was not in the usual tourist hotspots for the majority of my trip. I stayed mainly in Cremona, the most adorable little city I’ve ever seen. Despite being the violin-making capitol of the world, it is off the beaten path and thus has more of the spirit of Italy than commercialized Milan or even Verona. I had a much more enjoyable time learning to live in this unique place than touring in the usual destinations and I think this “road less travelled” philosophy extends to life beyond travel as well.
5. Music is at least 25% setting.I was in Cremona to study classical music, which was nice, but I loved listening to a street performer play Adele on his violin just as much as the concerts I attended. I’m usually not a fan of pop, but with the bustle of cafes, the sun’s setting light reflecting on the cathedral, and the taste of gelato fresh on my tongue, I enjoyed the slightly-pitchy rendition of Adele just as much as the polished performances I had been listening to all week.
6. Shoes are always a good idea.
Two facts: 1) Italy produces the cutest shoes I have ever seen and 2) Italy is geographically shaped like a boot. Coincidence? I think not. Actually, I’m pretty sure that this is legitimate evidence for Intelligent Design.
7. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder.I never seem to realize how much I love my family until I’m alone, stressed out, and far away. At this point, even a brief call from my dad or snapchat from my mom (I know, she’s hip) means the world to me. And distance seems to make me only remember only the good things about good old Gilbert, AZ and all who live there. There truly is no place like home…especially when you are away from home.
8. Blessings really do come in disguise.Before leaving, I said it would be my nightmare to lose my luggage since I hate shopping and had been careful to pack cute hair/makeup stuff. But, alas, when my bag did end up getting lost- and, with it, my cosmetics, hair stuff, and outfits, I had to let this go. And, you know what? I found out a couple magical things: my natural “boho-homeless” hair isn’t bad, a little lipstick goes a long way, and shopping is fun when you can make the airport pay for everything. I might even try to lose my bag again when I head to Rome in a few months!
9. Make your own opportunities.I found myself slightly bored at times during my time at the music academy (that’s the downside to learning my music in advance I guess), so after wallowing for a bit, I realized that moping would not solve anything and decided to make some new opportunities to keep myself occupied. It ended up being amazing! I met so many wonderful musicians/professors and was given the chance to study composition and even write and premier my own piece! (Check out the link for a video of the first performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dj8KdhZpWNs)
10. Inspiration is out there!
Maybe my brain was just in a heightened state from all the travel stress. Or maybe it was all the Italian espresso I was drinking. Either way, I could not seem to escape the ideas for poems, stories, and compositions that were thick in the air in Cremona. I had to carry several notebooks with me at once just in case I needed to catch an idea like a Pokemon.
11. Simplicity is beautiful. And delicious.Italy is without a doubt the land of food. Everything I ate was beyond delicious, but, unlike America, the meals did not need to be supersized to be good. The portions were smaller than here and made with minimal ingredients, but because everything was so fresh and only whole foods were used, the food in Italy was unbeatable. I ate a tomato here in AZ today and it tasted like disappointment in comparison.
12. Why rush and devour? Savor.I mentioned already the concept of an “Italian 8am,” but it actually is a pretty solid idea. I like schedules and maximizing my use of time, but I learned to take more time to savor things from meals to coffee to commuting during my stay in Cremona. Having to walk everywhere taught me to slow down and enjoy my surroundings, the slow process of dining out taught me to truly taste my food as I ate it, and the tiny coffee sizes forced me to value every sip. As a quick, busy person, this was freeing.
I’m sure I will have to update this post with more lessons as I continue to recover from jet lag and, as such, remember more and more of my trip. For now, though, this will have to work.
I’m currently on vacation in Montana with my family, staying in a charming cabin near Glacier National Park. The cabin has a guestbook in which visitors are asked to record the highlights of their stay. In flipping through it I became bored immediately. Most people wrote things like this:
“Ate pizza and went skiing. Fun times! Lovely cabin. Thanks!”
“Met some fellow Canadians while in the hot tub. The weather was excellent.”
“Went hiking with some goats. Ice cream shop in town was good.”
“Thought we saw a bear. False alarm. Lol.”
Dull, right?! Well, being a writer and, admittedly, a Bigfoot enthusiast, I had to do something to break up this pattern of lameness… It is with great pride and no small amount of humor that I present to you my vacation log. It is my hope that it will entertain and frighten guests long after I depart this place. 😈
Don’t be a tourist. I don’t mean don’t travel; by all means, see the world and explore new places! But don’t be a tourist, defined as “a person who travels for pleasure, especially sight-seeing and staying in hotels.”
That doesn’t sound so bad, but can one really experience a place through simply seeing sights and staying in hotels? No! To truly travel, one cannot be a basic tourist; one must be an explorer, investigating unfamiliar places and actually living in them, even if just for a few days. In France, a tourist might see the Eiffel Tower, but an explorer bicycles around Paris in search of tiny bakeries and the perfect macarons. In London, a tourist will stay safe and dry inside the red double-decker buses, but an explorer would wander the rainy streets alongside the locals until breaking for a steaming cup of tea.
In the same way, a tourist visiting my home state of Arizona will pick up a postcard with a stereotypical desert scene (tumbleweeds, mountains, and a few saguaro cacti thrown in for good measure) but will not realize that there is so much more to this state. Sure, we have the Grand Canyon (all tourists know that) but as majestic as the desert and canyon are, Arizona has so much more to offer! We have haboobs (its not a naughty word, I promise; they are massive dust storms), the most colorful sunsets I’ve ever seen, cities full of attractions, and even snowy mountains! Just the other day I posted a video of myself throwing snow into the air on Instagram and a college friend of mine commented “I thought you lived in Arizona!” Well, I do, but to anyone who just looks at AZ from a tourist perspective, the snow and pine trees are inconsistent with the dusty and hot images portrayed in media and even on our license plates. However, Arizona is more than just “gila monsters and tarantulas”, as some Maine resident so eloquently put it and it is easy to discover this if one puts out the necessary effort as an explorer.
How does this relate to literature? Well, just as one cannot fully experience a place from a few cheap postcards and a couple bus rides past the most famous monuments, one cannot grasp the full significance of a novel from its labels and, I venture to say, its misconceptions.
Take Tolstoy’s self-proclaimed masterpiece Anna Karenina for example. On the cover of a film adaption of the book, it was described as “Tolstoy’s tragic story of star-crossed lovers.” NO. NO NO NO NO NO. THIS IS NOT A LOVE STORY!!!
I’m not sure if the cover designer for this film adaption did not read the book or was just stupid, but either way, he completely missed the point. In zeroing in on the obvious story of the lust-affair (I refuse to recognize it as love) between Anna and Vronsky, the cover designer and potentially the reader/viewer is acting as a tourist, reducing a great work of literature to a mere soap opera, thus doing Tolstoy and him or herself a disservice in failing to grasp the more essential messages of the novel.
For instance, in gasping over the central scandal of A.K., the reader might miss the search for spiritual peace that serves as Levin’s motivation even more so than his desire for a family. Similarly, the conflict between the traditional Russian ways and the industrializing Western practices might be forgotten, erasing any true comprehension of the context of the novel within history and society. More concerning, however, is that in overlooking such essential themes, the reader forgoes the opportunity to make connections between these ideas and those within other works of literature and even within his or her own life. Questions raised by an analytical reading of the text such as “what is the role of desire?” and “is everything motivated by a sense of self-service?” cannot be answered if one is relying solely on the most basic understanding of plot. Certainly the deterioration of morality and the struggle of desires found directly within the affair between Anna and Vronsky is significant, but in mislabelling this as a romance or love between “star-crossed lovers”, the reader runs the risk of missing even these most obvious themes and becoming a literary tourist who is concerned only with the surface. This provides entertainment, just as looking at a postcard or snapping a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower provides entertainment and perhaps even a sense of accomplishment, but ultimately it is not as rewarding as truly dedicating oneself to analyzing and drawing less obvious insights from the novel through literary exploration.
To be a literary explorer is to abandon the beaten path of skimming and summarizing, to delve into a book and search for underlying themes and hidden details. It means to live within the novel, making connections and pondering implications, rather than simply to take snapshots of quotes without understanding their context or characters without examining their motivations. Just as to have a more accurate and full knowledge of the world, one must act as an explorer rather than a tourist, to be a genuinely good reader, one must abandon the shallows of literary tourism and explore the greater depths of analysis.
To close, consider this: If you were to travel to London, what would you most remember: seeing Buckingham Palace or finding the yummiest meat pie in a hole-in-the-wall pub? Or in Paris, would you value seeing the Mona Lisa with thousands of other people in the Louvre or finding a piece of brilliant art for sale by a local? In Arizona, would you remember the scorching sun or the many different climates? In the same way, as a reader, when you finish a novel, will you remember only the most prominent story or will you choose to explore beyond what can be learned from SparkNotes summaries? Ultimately, it is your choice, but as both a traveler and bookworm, I can assure you that playing the explorer is always the most rewarding (and most exciting) role.