Archive | March, 2017

Life Lessons Abroad: PT 2

27 Mar

Hello, Dear Readers!

Last week I went on yet another wonderful, yet completely unique, vacation to Europe. I took my Grampy & brother to Prague, Vilnius, & Amsterdam! We went during my brother’s college spring break & had an incredible time.

However, this vacation was completely different. Even though it was only eight days of travel, my adventures once again were complete with intense, unexpected amounts of soul searching.

Of course we had a great time (um, HOW could you not) it was just a very emotional trip–& one I’m still processing.

As a writer, I always try to find symbolism in interactions & experiences. So here are the main life lessons I learned while on this trip abroad…

  1. Prague: Change is Not Only Inevitable, It is Necessary 

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(Above: Grampy & Adam in Old Town Square, Prague)

The first stop on our trip had to be, where else, but my beloved Praha!

Since living there three (!) years ago I had always vowed to someday show Grampy my beautiful second home since he never got the change to visit while I lived there.

I always love taking people to Prague for the first time, mostly because of their set expectations of the city (a.k.a. none). No one knows what to think of Prague before their first visit. It’s a mysterious up-and-coming tourist destination that only gained independence 25+ years ago. But venturing to Prague with no pre-conceived notions is a beautiful thing, because the city will absolutely blow you away. And that’s exactly what happened.

Looking back on our trip now, Grampy said that this enchanting city was the most pleasant surprise & his favorite of the three destinations we traveled to!

While this makes me happy to hear from a tour guide perspective, I was also happy to get the closure I needed from the city as well.

You will always have a nostalgic bond to the places where you spent significant amounts of time, especially if it was the site of major personal growth. Well, if you’ve been following this blog for more than a few days, you know that Prague is the single most important city in the world for me. It’s not only where I grew up, but where I learned to survive.

Prague is the place where I found myself & it will always have a special place in my heart.

But going back to symbolism & personification, I must say that I’ve always loved Prague & the Czech Republic in general, because of how dated everything seemed. Mullets are a fashion statement, Crocs are footwear staples, your credit card isn’t accepted anywhere, pub receipts are pieces of paper with tallies on them, internet is spotty everywhere & English is not widely spoken.

While living in the city these were things that would, at times, drive me crazy. However, after a while it simply became a part of that Czech charm. Prague, even though it was a major European city, always had a sort of “off the grid” vibe.

But unfortunately during my latest visit to Prague I noticed some changes—the city had made strides to join the 21st century!

Suddenly WiFi was available everywhere, computer paper receipts were handed to me at the restaurant, Grampy’s card was used all over & there’s even now a metal detector for you to walk through to enter Prague Castle!

For anyone else looking in, these updates seemed necessary, but for me, it felt like Prague was selling out just a tiiiiiny bit.

Because three years ago I was blindly walking winding streets lost with a paper map & now here I was sitting in a Costa Coffee by the Astronomical Clock posting Instagram photos. Things change I guess.

However, one thing that did NOT change was the strong bond with the incredible friends I met up with while we were in Prague!

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(Above: My former EF work wife & more recent Praha transplant, Meghan. And my TEFL ride or die bestie who moved to the city with me all the way in the beginning, Brandi)

Let me first admit that having friends abroad is both a blessing & a curse.

It’s a wonderful thing to travel & have a tour guide in many different cities around the world or watch loved ones succeed in different environments. But damn, does it suck how little I’m able to see these incredible people 😦

For some reason I’ve noticed over the years that my deepest friendships were those with other expats or people who live far, far away. Maybe it’s that worldly perspective that never leaves after you’ve attempted to assimilate to other cultures on your own before. It’s a sense of chameleon survivalism that bonds people to together.

The first friend we met up with in Prague was my beautiful angel lover, Meghan! I first met Meghan a few years ago at my current job & we bonded instantly. She’s a sassy free spirit with a huge heart. But last year she was looking for a change of pace so I suggested following in my footsteps—move to Prague, get your TEFL, teach English–& she actually did!

This was my first time reuniting with her since she moved to the city last July & unsurprisingly, we had a blast! We all met at an awesome pub, ordered traditional Czech food & downed a ton of beer—it was my dream night in Praha!

Meg, I’m so proud of you for sticking it out so far (we all know those first few months are NOT easy). And I noticed a beautiful aura of happiness around you regarding your new home. I love you so much, girl, & I’m always here for when you need to vent 🙂

The next friend we met up with in Prague was Brandi.

If you remember correctly, you know that Brandi has seen me at my best & at my absolute worst. She has a common theme of being my second mom in Prague & has nurtured me so much through some pretty low points like CZ Visa struggles & my break-up with Filip.

It was so wonderful to catch up with her. We dropped the boys off at a nearby sports bar & sat at a random Starbucks talking for hours. And it was probably one of the realest conversations I’ve had in a while.

Even though we haven’t seen each other since 2015, nothing had changed. We picked up right where we had left off & for me, this is a sign of true friendship.

Brandi recently got engaged to her long term Czech boyfriend (WHO I INTRODUCED HER TO WHEN I LIVED IN PRAGUE!), so expect future adventures when Mama G & I venture back to the city this September to celebrate their wedding 🙂

Brandi, you are absolutely one of my soulmates. You are such an incredibly strong woman & please know that I am always here for you, girl. Can’t wait to see you again this fall!

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(Above: View of the Prague Castle from the banks of the Vltava River)

While it was odd to see how many changes & updates there were in Prague, it was nice to know that my friendships with these two lovely ladies were exactly the same. And more than that, I even saw pieces of myself in them. Meghan represented me in about March 2014 (finally legal to work, had close friends/a relationship & was getting the hang of things yet still daily cursing the Post Office/CZ Management styles), & I assume Brandi represents me if I never moved back to the U.S. (something I actually wonder about quite frequently—especially in times like these).

Love you both so much, ladies! Thank you for, once again, teaching me so much. Ahoj 🙂

 2. Vilnius: To Understand the Present, Look At the Past

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(Above: At the Gates of Dawn in Vilnius, Lithuania)

After a wonderful little reunion in Prague we headed next to Vilnius. I know, you’re probably wondering “where”? & if not, then you’re most definitely wondering “why”?

Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, a small Baltic country located in Eastern Europe, near Poland & Russia. It’s known for its dumplings, churches & basketball players. It’s one of the only countries to still celebrate pagan traditions during Christmas & Easter.

Vilnius is also the city where my great grandparents used to live before escaping the Soviets & immigrating to the U.S.

Originally Vilnius was not too high on my bucket list. It was a city that I would someday eventually like to travel to. However, when booking this trip, my brother was the one who really pushed for it (he actually has the country’s crest tattooed on his shoulder blade, LOL). So, seeing it as another new country for me & a cool place to learn history, I booked a flight to Vilnius.

And boy, am I glad I did.

Growing up, I never really knew too much about my heritage. All immigrating grandparents were deceased & the closest connections we had were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day for our Irish heritage & eating rich creamy hamburger dumplings called Klaskies (sp.?) that my dad’s grandmother taught him how to make.

I would say to people that I was “Irish & Lithuanian” but never really knew what it meant. Our heritage had been watered down with assimilation so much with each generation that it was hard to find answers. It was a bit of an identity crisis. I would often revel in friends who were first or second generation Americans. Their food, language & family traditions were mesmerizing to me.

But as I matured, I realized that while immigrants may bring delicious food & beautiful culture to a new home, they are also often carrying a historic pain.

Uprooting one’s life & family to move far away to a new language, culture, & way of life is one of the single most difficult things a person can do—especially if you’re bringing you’re entire family with you! Moving to Prague only gave me a tiny miniscule glimpse of this & I cannot even imagine the courage & resilience those who immigrate must possess, especially if their move is to seek refuge.

After asking more questions over the years, I realized this was my great-great-grandmother’s case.

When he was a young boy, my Grampy lived with his parents & siblings, but also his grandmother or Babudda (sp.? F.Y.I. we also learned this is NOT the Lithuanian word for “grandmother” but actually derived from a Baltic-Russian hybrid language).

My Grampy doesn’t remember much about his Babudda except she wore all black, would constantly say the rosary & spoke zero English. During his childhood, Grampy would actually only speak to Babudda in Lithuanian. He has since forgotten the language from lack of use, but still remembers a few words.

Before our trip to Vilnius I read that there were city archives one could utilize to find out about their family. I thought this would be a great idea, until my Grampy informed me that he didn’t even know Babudda’s last name. This idea really shook me. A last name is a huge part of family, community & identity. However, Babudda fled Lithuanian at such a young age, got separated from her family & immediately began working in a factory in the U.S. to support herself & the children she had at a young age. Times certainly were different & she sounded like an incredible strong woman which I someday hope to learn more about.

After learning a little bit more about my family heritage (including more about my dad’s maternal grandmother who fled from Latvia/Lithuania to the U.S. & actually lost the tip of her thumb on barbed wire in the process), I felt like I was ready to face Lithuania, this mysterious, undeveloped Eastern European country.

In hindsight, I can’t even believe how silly my pre-conceived notions were of the city (hey, how much do YOU actually know about Lithuania?!), because Vilnius was so incredibly modern.

We arrived in a tiny airport & were picked up by a driver who worked with our Airbnb host. He not only spoke great English, but was super helpful in telling us more about the country—including the fact that Lithuania has some of the fastest internet in ALL of Europe due to having some of the best IT Schools (the more ya know!).

Right away I knew I would love Vilnius & I was right.

We explored the city in an incredible free walking tour that took us through the picturesque Old Town, winding side allies & most unique of all, the quirky autonomous neighborhood of Uzupis. Uzupis, (much like Copenhagen’s Christiania) is a place where a lot of artists live & displays a very laissez-faire government style. They even have their own Constitution which included things like: “Everyone has the right to die—but it is not an obligation.”

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(Above: The hilarious, yet pure, Constitution of Uzupis Republic)

Uzupis, much like the John Lennon Wall in Prague, made me smile. It’s beautiful & hopeful to know that in places with such ugly pasts there is hope for a bright future.

Our walking tour was charming & informational, but I knew that while in Vilnius we had to educate ourselves on the cities darker times as well, so we decided to go to the KBG Prison & Museum of Genocide.

Much like The Anne Frank Haus in Amsterdam, this museum was of course, very emotional & difficult to visit, but insanely important. I am a firm believer in being a multi-dimensional tourist when I travel, for it chips away the Western privilege & forces you to actually contemplate the history of the streets you’re walking on.

I’m not sure how much you know about the history of the Soviet Union, but much like the Nazi Regime, this was a very disturbing time. While Nazis targeted Jews & minorities, the Soviet Union targeted those who would not bow to the Communist Party. The state was controlled by rigged elections, media propaganda & a whole lot of “alternative facts”. Resisters were either tortured for more information & killed, or rounded up & deported to hard labor camps. Thousands & thousands of people died & this was not too long ago (CZ gained independence in 1989), which makes it even scarier.

This museum was uncensored, raw & incredibly real. It was the actual building where the KGB originally met to formulate their plan for the deportations & the basement features actual cells were prisoners were held, questioned & tortured.

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(Above: KGB prisoner cells in the basement of the Genocide Museum)

Visiting the museum was not only one of the realest travel experiences I’ve ever had, it was hands down the closest I’ve ever felt to my family’s heritage. It was both a stark reminder of the pain & struggle that my ancestors endured as well as a terrifying representation of the patterns of history when power is abused.

It’s no secret that it’s a tumultuous political climate right now in the U.S., which I was overjoyed to escape for a week. While Prague showed a ghost of the past & tempted me with the idea of just how easy it would be to escape it all & move back, Vilnius was a cold hard reminder that I need to stay right where I am. Because, like my ancestors who stayed behind to fight injustice, I too am a resister.

Remember, history repeats itself, dear readers, & you absolutely do not want to be on the wrong side.

3. Amsterdam: There Is A Place For Everyone In This World

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(Above: Me, Grampy & Gillian in Amsterdam!)

After friend reunions in Prague & family history lessons in Vilnius, it was time to head back to the U.S. However, never one to pass up an opportunity to squeeze as much culture into one trip, I decided we needed a long layover on our way home.

I searched flights & then I saw it—a 22 hour layover in Amsterdam! Some people might just want to get home to rest, but I wanted to visit a completely different city on our trip for the boys to compare the different ends of the European culture spectrum (in Vilnius LGTBQ couples are not recommended to openly display affection; in Amsterdam you can basically openly display whatever you want).

Amsterdam is absolutely one of my favorite cities in the world. I love how unique & open minded the city is (prostitution & marijuana have long been regulated & legal), as well as the incredible artistic influences (Van Gogh is Dutch), & fantastic food (Stroopwafels!). It is truly one of a kind & a place I believe everyone should venture to once in their lives!

Another great plus of going to Amsterdam was an opportunity to reunite with Gillian (a.k.a. the cooler older sister I never had!) who lives a short distance away in Den Haag. Gillian took the train in to spend the day with us & finally meet Grampy (a very unlikely but surprisingly successful meeting).

As you know, Grampy is one of my favorite people in the world. Therefore it is extra special when he gets to meet some of my other favorite people like he did on this trip J

We decided to drop the boys off at The Heineken Experience & grab some wine to catch up. I always love talking to Gillian because she is one of the most courageous women I’ve ever met & hands down one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. We first met when we were both working at that awful school in Prague & a beautiful friendship was born!

Gillian has played a major part in turning me into the woman that I am today in regards to my ethical morality & for that, I am forever grateful. She is originally from California but has lived all over the world until finally (probably?) settling down in Den Haag a few years ago. As someone who also loves to wander & will most likely have a few more (international?!) moves in my future, it’s nice to see her so happy in a place that feels like home.

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(Above: Me, Grampy & Adam with the ‘IAmsterdam’ sign)

As I approach my later 20’s I feel the looming social pressure more & more to settle down, get married & have kids. But who KNOWS if that’s what I really want to do or will end up doing & it’s anybody’s guess as to where that will be & with who. Gillian gives me hope that I truly can someday find a home that feels right on my own watch, not society’s. And that home can be absolutely anywhere in the world that feels right.

Gillian, thank you again for being the best & putting up with all our antics that day! Per usual, our “work meetings” got way too wild & I’m sorry for Irish Goodbye-ing you! You are my older sister, but remember, I am the little sister who is still learning by making dumb decisions. But if who I am now compared to who I was when we met September 2013 is any indication—you know that I do definitely learn from you. I love you & am forever grateful for all The Onion Articles, Florida Man News & of course, poignant essays about intersectional feminism & privilege. I really look up to you & hopefully we can see each other this fall 🙂

So there you have it, dear readers! Another great vacation in the books, but this one was served with quite a lot of soul searching, which is exactly how I like it. I am back refreshed, recharged & ready to face whatever comes at me this year (or at least until my next trip this September). And I cannot wait to take Grampy on his next adventure! 79-years-young & he’s doing more globetrotting than most people I know.

Until next time, never stop exploring & be not only aware, but open, to all the incredible life lessons around you.

JG ❤

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