Wednesday, April 7, 2010

En route from London to Chicago

April 6, 2010
I’m on my way back to the United States. About half the group was up at three this morning, at the train station by about four. As I said goodbye to the rest of the group, I couldn’t help but cry a little bit – they all get to go back to Hiram together, but I’m going to be separated from the only people in this whole world who could understand the last three months. I’ve become very fond of all of them. The closer I get to home, the more excited I am to see all the people waiting for me, especially my family. But at the same time, I don’t know how I’m going to describe the experiences I’ve had to everyone back home. I don’t know if I’ll even try – it will probably come out in bits and pieces. Everyone else had lives that continued while I was away; I know I have a lot to catch up on as well.
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were free for Easter, and I spent most days finishing up assignments or walking around town. On Saturday morning, there was an adorable morning market in the center of Blankenesse . There were stands selling Easter eggs, flowers, books, crafts, meats, fish, produce, and cheese. People walked around with huge armfuls of branches, which looked like they were plucked right off one of the just-budding trees, but were actually sold at the flower stands. There was a certain austere allure to these non-floral decorations. I found out just this week that my great-grandmother was born in Blankenesse, in the same area where we were staying. As I walked around, I wondered which houses could have belonged to my family, which streets my family walked on, if they attended this same Saturday morning market. I wish I could say that I immediately fell in love with the town, but despite its undeniable charm it really creeped me out. The Elsa-Brandström house, where we stayed, was the same way: charming but creepy. I could barely bring myself to walk around the inadequately light hallways while relying on the energy saving lights which flicked off seconds after I passed. I would suddenly find myself in the pitch-black and the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up.
At night, we went out and experienced Hamburg’s Easter Weekend, which is very different from the United States. We wandered through the dark woods and the dark streets lined with dark houses, all permeated with the same austere allure as the branchy bouquets. At any given moment and without cause, my fight or flight mechanism would tingle. But I suppose this atmosphere made the Easter fires, a Hamburg tradition, seem even warmer and more welcoming.

The Saturday before Easter, people collect Christmas trees, scrap wood, and anything else flammable and pile it into gigantic stacks along the shore of the Elba. Just after the sun goes down, the huge structures are light, and the Hamburgers celebrate the beginning of spring en masse. A group of us hiked down a steep set of stone stairs through the perfectly sinister woods and finally arrived at the bright, cheerful fire parties. We began at a more subdued family affair, then walked a bit down the beach and found the riotous parties. People had clambered up any structure along the river, people were drunk and dancing around the fires and two ambulances wailed conspicuously in the background. The friends of the fallen sent their injured off with hollers and waves. The party went on.

We didn’t stick around for long – we wandered back into the woods and then up to our favorite hole in the wall bar. It was here that I finally met a character that had been talked about in our group for several days – Robin, the German rapper. I liked him the second he sat down outside with us because he was the archetype of what a European rapper should be: he imitated white, upper class Americans imitating the hip hop scene. “Yo,” he greeted us. “What’s shakin’ my…?” We all tittered. He moved on, not acknowledging that horribly offensive phrase. He told us about his rap, about how it was real, about the heavy shit that Americans rap about, and how it’s hard out there for a pimp. He wore a white cap with the name of his “label” on it, baggy jeans, and a red, white, and blue jersey. I regret not sticking around longer: apparently the more beer he drank the more hilarious he became.

It was late when I arrived back at the Elsa-Brandström House, but my alarm was set for five the next morning to make it to Hamburg’s fish market in its prime. Every Sunday since the Middle Ages, vendors have set up stalls in this particular area of Altona, near Hamburg. Easter is no exception. Of course I didn’t wake up by five, but I stumbled out by 6:15 and got on the train in the same clothes I had partied in the night before and had slept in. We followed the small crowd of people down to the, harbor, where a huge mass of people wandered around countless stands selling everything imaginable. If I were the knick-knack type, I could have bought literally any of the souvenirs of any of the countries that we’ve visited that I passed up when I was actually in the country of origin. But unfortunately, the only thing I wanted to buy (a beer stein) was poorly represented. Perhaps seven in the morning was too late for a market that begins at four.
Denny had told us about a “truly riotous” bier garten that takes place in one of the public buildings in the area that coincides with the fish market. Around eight in the morning, three of us followed the stumbling drunks to a huge hall filled with beer stands and appropriate munchies-type food. A strength test was in the middle of the hall, with a line of people who wanted slam the mallet down and receive instant validation of their brawniness. Every few seconds the crash of the mallet overpowered the 80s-styled band playing at the front of the hall. I drank the earliest beer of my life on a nearly-empty stomach, went home and passed out until lunch.
Sunday night was low-key: I finished up the last of my work and turned it in. Monday, we didn’t have class until after lunch – it ended up going until dinner. We had been compiling the lessons of the trips, and had been instructed to reduce the comments into six succinct messages. This seemed impossible and I think that the platitudes we finally agreed upon were shallow representations of the trip. But it might be nice to package the last three months into bite-sized pieces for the rest of the world. Towards the end, Nate stood up and publically thanked Denny, David, and Sigrid for all of their hard work and making this amazing program actually happen. This incited the first set of tears.
And now we’re on the plane back to the US. The man sitting next to me has ordered diet coke from the stewardess twice, and each time she tries to hand him a regular coke. He says in his ever-polite British accent “diet please,” and hands her back the coke. He’s with his wife and two adorable children on their way to Orlando, to see Disney World. I love the idea of people vacationing in the United States – I hope they really enjoy it. Being back in a pseudo-American situation on this plane has been kind of refreshing. I understand the culture, I understand the language, and everything seems normal and familiar. I think I’ll enjoy it for about a week, then wonder when I’ll zip off to the next country. It’s time to stay distracted until I transition back into my American life.

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