Last summer I worked for a criminal defense attorney on a case involving murder, the death penalty, and intellectual disability. My involvement with the case and interactions with our client clearly make me a biased observer but I also became aware of what I see as a serious flaw in the American justice system. I wrote this article about it as one of my last before stepping down as the campus editor for Uloop News at Texas A&M.
In September of 2012 I left my home in Texas for a semester to study politics in France and Germany. I crossed the Atlantic with big expectations as well as uncertainty for what the future would bring, but nevertheless more excited than I’ve ever been before. My three and a half months in Europe was an incredible experience in many ways - I feel like a global citizen now, I gained knowledge of the EU that will certainly have a positive impact on my career, I had incredible experiences that will be with me forever - but most importantly, I learned what it means to be an American and realized how much I appreciate that.
Living in College Station, regularly driving three hours to visit my family in Fort Worth, and making plans for law school that require a map of the entire country, the past few years I have faced a minor identity crisis in trying to decide where I call home. I wasn’t lost or depressed, I just didn’t feel attached to any zip code and sometimes that worried me. Now I know that my home is here in the United States - and that’s more than most people truly appreciate. I couldn’t be more satisfied.
This lesson came from discussions with Europeans and other American travelers, but it’s been my own reflections that led me to realize why I’m proud to be an American as well as how to be a responsible member of the global community. Millions of us fly the flag, talk about patriotism, and get tears in our eyes when we hear Lee Greenwood, but I often wonder how many people understand what it all means. I’ve always considered myself a patriotic American, but spending such a long time away challenged that mindset and the result has been a careful, conscious realization of why that matters.
I wouldn’t expect every student to come away from their study abroad adventure with the exact same lesson as me, but I know that anyone who works up the courage to go abroad will return home with a new perspective on their own life and the lives of others. I hope to write more on this topic in the future and would love to talk to anyone who wants to hear about my trip and the lessons I learned. I have to thank CIFE (my host institution in Europe), Texas A&M Study Abroad, and the political science department for the incredible experiences I had. I also want to encourage anyone who is thinking about studying abroad to do whatever it takes to make it happen. Living in Europe was incredible, and I know there are countless other places I would love to go and see, but I’m happy to be at home in the United States for now and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Saturday I took a train to the German city of Görlitz, which is on the border with Poland. On the other side of the river from the city is a city called Zgorzelec, which used to be part of Görlitz until 1945 when the Polish border was moved to where it is now, splitting the two cities in half where the river Nelsse runs.
Thanks to the Schengen Treaty, which allows free travel within the “Schengen Area (most of the EU and Switzerland), we were able to walk around both cities without dealing with any type of border control. I didn’t expect much difference between the cities besides language and currency (although businesses on both sides accept euros), but I was surprised to find that they were actually very different.
The German side was a nice little touristy town with a bunch of old churches and a great Christmas market. The Polish side was much less exciting for us, except for the extremely cheap restaurants and a flea market. Zgorzelec was noticeably less English friendly than Görlitz and I felt much more like I was walking around a former communist country than I have in East Germany. But we did get to eat dinner in a nice restaurant for much cheaper than you would expect.
Last night I watched the professional hockey team here in Berlin, the Eisbären Berlin (the Berlin Polar Bears). We hadn’t heard anything much about hockey in Germany from people we’ve met but we routinely pass by a big arena where I heard that the hockey team plays so we looked into it and found out that they still had one home game remaining before we leave the continent. So last night Carmen, Carly, Wayne, and I took the subway across town to O2 World, a stadium where concerts and sporting events are held in Berlin. Once we were in the area of the stadium it became clear that we were in the right part of town for a hockey game. It looked just like it does around a sporting event in the US with a mile radius of the stadium dotted by people wearing jerseys and walking toward the center. Along the way street vendors had popped up, selling beer, hot dogs, and pretzels, among other things.
I’ve seen on TV that European soccer matches are full of energy and regularly feature enormous crowds all singing and chanting together but didn’t know what to expect from a hockey game. Fortunately, it was very similar. Fans in what I assumed were the season ticket section sang and chanted for almost the entire game, waved flags, beat on drums, and the announcer even provoked fans to yell certain German phrases at appropriate times. We were lucky enough to see the Eisbären pull off a win, 1-3. I think my favorite part was after each goal when the announcer would say “Eisbären” and the crowd would respond with the home team’s score and then he would say “Mannheim” (the opposing team) and the crowd would altogether yell something in German. We still don’t know what they were saying but it was too long to be a score.
Since everything was in German we had some trouble joining in the chants and songs but the atmosphere was enjoyable nonetheless. Seeing the Eisbären play in Berlin will definitely go down as one of my fond memories of the city.ä
One morning last week as I stepped outside I was shocked to see the sun peeking through the clouds, forcing me to squint in the brightness. I realized that this was the first time I had seen the sun in at least a week, possibly more. Berlin is clean, friendly, most people speak English, and I’ve felt safe just about everywhere I’ve been, but the weather is definitely not on the list of its good qualities.
Without looking at any actual statistics, I would say at least 85% of the time I’ve been here there has been a blanket of gray cloud cover from sunrise to sunset. Being so far north the days are also shorter at this time of year. The gray clouds are accompanied by a pretty constant 40-50 degree temperature and near-certainty that it will rain lightly for at least an hour or so every day. Dark, gray, wet, and cold, are all words I could use to describe Berlin in November.
But there’s some good news, too. Tomorrow morning there is a 40% chance of snow. It’s not likely to stick around, but being from Texas that’s still something to look forward to. Also, as temperatures continue to drop I presume the usual misty drizzle will start to become occasional snow flurries. Berlin’s dreariness is fought back even further by the opening of Christmas markets recently. As far as I’ve been able to tell, these are basically the German equivalent of a county fair - occupying large parts of the city with booths set up for various traditional food and drinks as well as a Ferris Wheel and other rides in at least one of them. So the weather may be pretty depressing right now, but that doesn’t stop anyone from enjoying the city.
Several years ago one of my favorite movies, In Bruges, sparked an interest in the Belgian city of Bruges (pronounced so it rhymes with the Olympic sport of luge). By the time I came to Europe, I wasn’t thinking much about visiting the city because I had so many other places to see on my mind. But after over a month of talking with people about where I should visit in Europe, and buying a rail pass that would take me to a variety of countries - including anywhere in Belgium - I decided I should try and see it.
Of the five of us who bought the rail pass, two decided to spend our one and only 3-day weekend going to Switzerland (which they had to buy separate plane tickets for), leaving the rest of us to decide for ourselves how we should spend the extra time off from school. I suggested Bruges for the weekend and Kyle said he would join me, but that he was worried about having to pay for a hotel or hostel. As an alternative he started checking out a website for travelers called Couchsurfing.com where people offer to host guests for free. It sounded kind of sketchy and unsafe, but after reading more and hearing about people who had done it I started warming up to the idea.
So Kyle found a woman in Bruges who was willing to host us for the weekend and we left Saturday morning. Our host’s name was Hady and she was very welcoming and happy to talk and get to know us. Before we set out to explore the city on Sunday morning she gave us some advice about what we should see and then left us with a key to her house. I was surprised and honored that this stranger trusted us enough to leave us with her key but she said she does it all the time. I guess some people just know when they can trust others and knew we weren’t going to take advantage of her kindness.
Thanks to Hady, we learned a lot more about the culture of the area than we would have if we stayed on our own. Bruges is in the northwestern part of Belgium, where they speak Flemish. I knew beforehand that Belgians speak French, German, and Flemish, but knew nothing about what Flemish was. I asked if it was similar to Dutch and Hady explained that it was basically Dutch, but with a different accent and a few different words here and there. She said she would understand Dutch just fine and that their news stations spoke Dutch so others could understand them, but that non-Flemish people had difficulty understanding her. This just added to my experiences and impressions of Belgium as being a very unique place - especially this area of Belgium.
Bruges is a neat little city with a cool history. It started as a port in something like 1200 BC, became a center for medieval painters, and remains one of the most heavily Catholic areas of northern Europe. In the 1600’s the waterway that made it a significant port dried up and for a few centuries it “fell asleep” until becoming a popular tourist destination in the late 1800’s. Many of the buildings have markings on them which indicate historical significance, some of which date back to the thirteenth and fourteenth century. I saw the vial which is said to contain drops of Jesus’ blood, climbed 366 steps to the top of the tower in the center, walked around a museum inside what used to be a medieval hospital, and witnessed the arrival of Sinterklaas….
Sinterklass, as Hady explained, is an old legend (it may cover a large geographical area but this is how it’s told in Bruges) that’s very similar to Santa Clause - but with some big differences. First, Sinterklaas brings gifts to children on December 6th and isn’t affiliated with Christmas (which is also celebrated very passionately in Belgium). Also, instead of being from the North Pole, Sinterklaas is from Spain, and instead of elves working for him, he has black people as his servants. I hesitated before typing that last part at the risk of sounding offensive, but this is exactly how the tradition was described to me, and I will go on to describe why I have to point it out.
All day Sunday we noticed a disproportionate number of families with small children walking around. I understand the city is normally full of tourists, but it seemed like an unusual amount of little kids. In the afternoon we came to a city square with marching band and a huge crowd of kids waiting around a roped off red carpet. The whole thing looked a lot like the arrival of Santa at an event in the U.S., but with a sleigh drawn by horses instead of rein deer, and two men with faces painted black wearing jesters’ outfits jumping around throwing confetti. It was odd, and may have even been considered offensive by many Americans, but apparently it’s a long-standing cultural tradition in the area.
In the movie named after the city, Colin Farrell says “If I I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn’t, so it doesn’t.” But I neither grew up on a farm nor am I mentally handicapped and I was still pretty impressed by the city. It’s clearly a tourist city, but not in the noisy, overpriced, annoying way you might expect. It felt charming and nice, and I definitely feel like I made the most of my short time there by having a host and guide who lived in the city.
I’ve been in Europe for more than two months now. I’ve learned amazing things about the world and about myself here. Of these many lessons, one important realization came within the past few weeks: I’ve taken hamburgers for granted my entire life.
I’ve enjoyed burgers ever since I can remember, preferably with cheese, bacon, jalapenos and some mixture of sauces like ketchup, barbeque, and A1. I’ll accept a large number of variations and additions to these toppings, but the most important thing is that it’s big, greasy, and hopefully comes with a side of fries. Unfortunately, finding a burger that meets my standards here has been pretty tough. I assumed Europeans weren’t big on burgers, so I prepared myself before leaving Texas. The afternoon before my flight took off I made sure to visit Whataburger as a sort of last American meal for three months. I knew I would miss burgers more than any other food and I wanted to make my last one count.
I arrived thinking I would do my best to avoid American meals while I was here. “When in Nice,” I used to say “do as the Nicians* do.” But after a few weeks I found myself longing for a familiar meal, and I bashfully walked into a McDonalds, “just to see what the menu had on it,” I told myself. The first picture up on the menu was advertising a “hot pepper burger” which the sign claimed came with Tabasco sauce on it. To imagine my reaction you would have to take into account the number of Tabasco bottles I empty over the course of an average year. It goes on everything in my house, and seeing the sauce from Avery Island on a McDonalds menu made my heart jump a little.
Unfortunately, the end of this story is anti-climactic. The burger was less-than-exemplary (I think beef quality in Europe is lower than in the United States) and the sauce used to flavor it was some kind of orange mayonnaise with a slight spicy taste at the end. Since that day I have been trying to satisfy my desire for a big American beef burger and have done so with little avail.
The moral of the story is never to get your hopes up about a European burger. There have been two exceptions to the rule of burger disappointment, but those are few and far between. Today I got that familiar craving while strolling the streets of Berlin and found an American-style sports bar. The burger had bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and ketchup, and came with a big serving of fries - but despite the American flag toothpick stuck in the top of it, I was only slightly relieved of my longing for a good hamburger. Europe is a great place, full of awesome adventures for me and a vast amount of information and experiences to be discovered - but a burger is one thing I definitely miss about the USA.
*I only used this word to rhyme with Romans as in the actual saying. The people of Nice are really called Nicoise (neece-swah)