Airplane Thoughts

When I flew back to the U.S. last week (a casual 26-hour trip) I watched two films that were drastically different and yet exactly the same in their messages. One film was called Human Flow by Ai Weiwei and the other was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, directed by Martin McDonagh. After I watched the first one, I cried a lot. And then I watched the second one and cried a lot too. And after I finished crying a lot, I thought a lot. 

What if we were raised in a culture of acceptance instead of in a world where “good” and “bad” and “right” and “wrong” are defined differently among people to the point where disagreement becomes disrespectful? 

I asked myself what it means to me to feel home in a place that was not always my home. I came to the U.S. seventeen years ago with my family, as an immigrant, and when I think about what that was like, and then I think about refugee families today and what it must be like for them, I feel so much pain. 

My wish would be for everyone who arrives in this country to find safety and feel home, but I know that not all do. I know that fear drives people to choose actions that are easily mistaken for reactions based on hate or judgement. But I also know that we, as humans, are inherently good, and that we are so capable of loving each other no matter where we come from. I know the latter is a stronger and better know, because that is the know that I lived. 

I arrived here at ten years old, and I felt accepted. I went to school and was approached politely by children wanting to be friends, despite the fact that my skin was darker and my eyes smaller. My teachers saw potential in me and guided and supported me genuinely. Strangers smiled at me and showed me kindness. Neighbors treated me as an equal neighbor. And it didn’t take long to feel home.

In Weiwei’s film I didn’t see much of my own story. I saw the version of mine that is a nightmare for me but a reality for others today. And no one deserves a reality like that. I don’t know the solution to the refugee crisis around the world, but I know what I can do and what I am willing to do. And it matters; small actions matter because in the end it is not about the action, but about the exchange between people.

After watching Three Billboards, I realized something that allowed for a new level of awareness in me: We need to get a head start in understanding and internalizing the idea that we are supposed to be in this together. That really is how simple it is. 

Both Three Billboards and Human Flow are talking about the same issue but framing it in different stories. In Three Billboards, the fighting parties come from the same place and are separated only by how they were raised and the roads between them. In Human Flow, they are separated by oceans and wars and cultures. Both are trying to tell us that we are separating ourselves from each other and it’s killing us. We’re nourishing hatred and bigotry and racism and ignorance and differences and we are choosing enemies in the people we share this Earth with. That’s not fair, and we have to fix it.

There is a quote in Human Flow that is important for the world to hear: “It’s going to be a big challenge to recognize that the world is shrinking, and people from different religions, different cultures, are going to have to learn to live with each other.” It shouldn’t be a challenge to meet our neighbors in the middle. It should be natural to our humanity.

In Three Billboards, Woody Harrelson says,Through love comes calm and through calm comes thought.” Love should be our first language as people. Love should be at the center of our existence, as individuals and as a species.

We are better than what we are doing to each other right now. We have to put it together, and we have to take it seriously. We need to choose love, and we need to choose it more often. 

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Day 17: Norwegian Culture

One of the days I learned the most was this one.  I got to go to one of Ninna’s family parties to celebrate her cousin’s Konfirmasjon (aka Confirmation), and it was such a great experience.  I consider myself very lucky to have been welcomed into someone’s home and personal event.

The confirmation was (from what I understood) very similar, if not the same, as the religious Confirmations that my friends had here in America.  We did not attend the service at the church, but I still got a deep glimpse of their traditions.  And a lot of delicious, fresh food was involved so I also lucked out in that sense.

First of all, the house we went to was beautiful.  Huge and modern; large windows; lots of wood; and very high ceilings on the main floor.  Second, the food was YUMMMMY.  There was a very aesthetically pleasing platter of smoked salmon that made it look delicious, but I was not a big fan of the salmon.  I don’t like raw fish or sushi.  But it is one of Norway’s best and most expensive foods so I couldn’t not try it.  There was an assortment of other meats, a very sweet fruit salad, a pasta salad, and several other dishes that I can’t remember.  And I swear I took pictures but for some crazy reason, I can’t find them.  It’s making me very sad.

There were also some delicious desserts that were homemade and baked by Ninna’s little cousins, who are barely ten years old.  I remember a chocolate/mocha type of cake, cookies, another cake (I want to say it was strawberry flavored), and other treats.  And now it’s making me very sad that I can’t remember all the desserts that were served.

The Konfirmasjon celebrant was wearing a “Bunad” which is what they call their traditional dresses worn on special occasions such as this, and May 17th, Norway’s independence day.  The dresses represent where you are from; Ninna wore a green one with certain pins and designs that represented where her family came from, while her cousin wore a red one with different pins and designs that celebrated her family’s origin.  I can describe the dresses as very traditional (as in 18th century, early American colonization times) and similar to pilgrim clothing.  

What I liked best was seeing how proud they were of their culture and their dresses.  In America today, it would be humorous for somebody to wear Bunads, but in Norway it was an honor and an exciting opportunity.  

Overall, I think this day was very insightful.  I talked to all of the people in Ninna’s family–there were about thirty people (more or less) at the party.  They were all such friendly, welcoming, people.  It was very funny to try and talk to the younger kids because they were shy to speak English.  In Norway, English is taught in all schools and everyone knows how, but they hardly ever speak it, so all of the parents at the party were glad to have their kids practice their English speaking skills with me.

I wasn’t surprised with how open everyone was.  I was so glad that they were.  And I would like to assume that they were so curious about me because I was so curious about them; that they were just reciprocating the vibes of interest I was giving.

With this I want to point out one of my very favorite things about travel, specifically to foreign countries.  It will always be a challenge to go to a country you are unfamiliar with.  It will always be a test when you find yourself facing a language barrier.  And it will never be easy to suddenly be thrown into a culture that you can’t immediately identify with.

But isn’t that where you find the beauty of learning?  Learning takes place much stronger outside of the classroom, in my opinion.  Experience is where it’s at.  To be engaged completely, mind and body, in a situation is the quickest way to learn.  And travel is the best way to do that.

People are always complaining of boredom.  Stress.  Confusion.  But it is so simple if they would just open their eyes to see the possibilities that exist in opening the door where travel is knocking.

Step out of your boundaries.  Discover the vastness of everything.  There are so many places to see.  So many languages to be exposed to.  So many foods to try.  So many traditions to experience.  And so many lives to encounter.

And yet everyone is still complaining.  We always want more.  “More” is out there.  Buy a plane ticket and you will see.

[I will attempt to find photos from this day, but for some reason they don’t exist on my computer right now.  Hopefully an update by tomorrow!]

Day 9: Pisa / Florence / Rome

Day 9 was a day full of trains, terminals, and traveling.

We started in Florence and decided to take another day trip, this time to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower.  Another bucket list item of mine is to see all of the seven wonders of the world–this would be my first.  There are a few different lists; I wouldn’t mind crossing them all off!

So we took a train in the morning to Pisa, and we were in and out of that little town in no time.  We walked from the train station to the Tower–had some breakfast, shopped a little, and checked out a farmer’s market on the way–and spent just under two hours at the actual site.  Here are some of the photos I have to show for those two hours:

(This very tourist-y picture of me probably took up a majority of the time we spent in Pisa…)

I think I remember the price of climbing to the top of the tower to be about 15 Euros and I really disagreed with that so I had to pass.  Isn’t that a little lot pricey?!  I could go for a 20 minute gondola ride in Venice and have a Euro to spare with that!

Anyways.  Onto more important things that don’t make me so frustrated…

We arrived back in Florence early afternoon and got to go to the Santa Maria Novella.  Of all churches, I think I was least impressed with this one.  The design was beautiful but the inside was average.  Although I may be the only one who felt that way.

I stopped by the Gelato Festival while my mom went inside the church at the Duomo.  I was wearing shorts so I wouldn’t have been allowed in–there is a strict dress code.  Knees and shoulders must be covered.  The Gelato Festival definitely kept me happy so I can’t really complain.  I spent a whopping €8 on my last gelato in Italy.  The largest cone they had stuffed with chocolate and nocciola with wafers on top.  Need I say more?

Our last meal in Florence was at a restaurant called Fool’s Pizza.  I particularly enjoyed their lasagna dish, and my mom had this delicious spaghetti carbonara plate.

We took a train back to Rome in the evening, and I spent the rest of the night packing and getting prepared for the following day–the beginning of the second half of my trip!

So I guess this blog marks the (almost) halfway point of my travels.  In just 9 days I took 2 planes, traveled to 7 cities, rode 2 boats, climbed well over 400 steps, and made more than a handful of memories.  And the best part is that I got to begin again with a new adventure the following day!

It was a pivotal moment in my 3-week journey, and I could honestly say that I looked back on the last nine days of my life and had nothing but good stories to tell and no regrets.

Day 8: Venice / Gondola / San Marco

One of the places I absolutely needed to visit on this trip was Venice; any time I’m close to a destination where I can cross something off my bucket list, it becomes necessary to do so (or at least try).

So we spent one day in Venice, and I’m not sure if I was just rushing or if there really wasn’t much to do there. We got there and walked around for a little while, shopping and looking around. And then we took a boat ride to Piazza San Marco. The boat ride was a nice way to relax, take some photos, and see Venice from its canals.

St. Mark’s Square was such a big plaza, the church was beautiful, and the architecture was pretty unique. Overall, I thought the entire city was colorful and flower-ful!

In the Piazza itself, we had lunch in the shade while listening to the live bands, fed the pigeons (great, fun photo-opp), and walked around to see the shops and stores.

After exploring the Piazza, we took a walk around the area back toward the train station where we arrived. On the way, we saw a lot of small canals where gondola rides were offered, and our logic was this: The further away from the main tourist parts of the city, the cheaper the gondola rides would be. Turns out we were definitely wrong. This is the real logic: The further away from the main tourist parts of the city, the meaner the gondoliers (gondola drivers).

Many of the gondoliers we spoke to (deeper in the canals) charged above the average rate (an angry gondolier charged us €120), which is €80 for a 40-minute ride. We decided to go to the main canal for a ride because we knew we could bargain a cheaper price. Luckily, as we were waiting on line for the ride, a man approached us and asked us if we wanted to share a 20-minute ride with him and his girlfriend so that our per-person rate would be cheaper. After we said yes, another couple joined our group and we had the maximum number of persons allowed: 6.

The ride was very rocky which made it kind of fun! I enjoyed getting to see the architecture, buildings and bridges up close from the water. It was a great experience, and I really felt like I got my money’s worth. We each paid about €14–I think they charge more than €80 for a 40-minute ride if the gondola is full. Tip: I definitely recommend going with a group, or at least for a shorter amount of time if you’re looking for a bargain.

If you or someone you know has also visited Venice, ask them what other activities they did or spots they visited–I’m super curious. When we did everything we wanted to, we even had time to kill before our train left.

Maybe it was because we were time-pressured but I really felt like there wasn’t much to that city. Don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful (my favorite spot for architecture and color), but it was a little quiet in some areas and it didn’t seem like there was much to do.

Definitely want your feedback/thoughts on this post!

Day 7: Florence / Duomo / Piazza Michaelangelo

What I remember most about Florence was the culture I encountered throughout the city.  And by culture I mean gelato!

The train ride from Sorrento to Florence was relaxing and the views were straight out of storybooks.  Now I know where illustrators probably get their inspiration.

After settling in our hotel and walking around the streets a little bit, I walked the 400 steps up to get to the dome of the Florence Cathedral (The Duomo).  It definitely required some stamina to get up there, but it was absolutely worth the view of the city.  Many of the steps were up spiral staircases which I really enjoyed because that way you can’t really see how much more you have to go; it’s kind of a nice relief at every level.  It also helped that it was cold both in the church and the staircases because who likes to be in close proximity of other people while they’re sweating as they walk up 400 steps?

At one point, we got to walk almost alongside the dome at one of the higher levels, and the ceiling was fantastic.  I’m always taken aback by the domes in European churches.  I couldn’t believe how close I was to the ceiling itself.

Just as beautiful was the view at the top of the Duomo.  It was about 4 pm when I got up there so the sun was making its way down, and there was a slight breeze.  I could have stayed up there for a while, but I heard the gelaterias calling my name from the top of that building.

All of the piazzas and bridges were perfect in the late afternoon.  The water and the sky complemented each other more than they usually do.  The shops on the bridge Ponte Vecchio were great for window shopping but not so much buying–at least not on my college budget.

Piazza Michaelangelo at sunset was almost unreal.  I’m an avid sunset collector and to have that on my list certainly completes it.

In addition to catching the sunset on the Piazza, I also caught the last few minutes of it across from Ponte Vecchio, THAT was another great addition to my collection.  As we watched the sun go down, we looked for eels in the water below us and spoke with an American artist who travels between Florence and Connecticut, where he grew up.

The artist’s name was John Melecsinsky, and you should check out his artwork here.  He signs everything as JEM, his initials.  He spoke with us for a while about his life and passion towards art.  I couldn’t concentrate on our conversation after he told me that the Gelato Festival was being held in the city for the next few days.  Did you know gelato was invented in Florence?  Me neither.

John walked us back to a main town area and on the way showed us a gallery where his art was being displayed.  We also watched a man catch a fish in the river together.  Firenzian romance at its finest.

He was such a sweet man!  I wish we could have talked a little bit longer.

We had dinner and dessert in a small outdoor restaurant and enjoyed a nice walk back to the hotel.  It’s amazing how different a city can be when it’s nighttime.  More beautiful and yet less.

Later I’ll post about Venice!  Feel free to share your stories of Italian travels, I want to hear them!