Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Defining Moments in Europe : My Personal Memories

I've been missing Europe lately.
Not in the way that you miss the summer when everything crusts over with snow mold in February and you don't see the winter as beautiful anymore, or the way you miss that other high heel you lost at a rambunctious house party.

I miss Europe the way I miss my favorite dog that we put to sleep last year.

It feels more like a breathing, growing person to me than a country or a place.
Some places I visit, I feel like they are locked down that way--only existing when I am there.
But Europe... I know that Europe is going on without me, adapting heart beating on, and I want to serve as witness.

For some reason, only momentous things happening in the United States count as history for me.
And living in Utah, those moments are few and in-between in particular.
But every day feels like history in Europe, even when it is just your own personal history that is being added to as you sip the best cup of coffee you've ever had in your life in a sidewalk cafe and make a mental note--amending your life's chronicle: I had the best coffee of my life at the Cafe Latin.  I took the first sip as the bells of Notre Dame rung.

I have been to Europe 3 times.

I have not been there in 3 years.
But I'm having fun reminiscing about my favorite places there.  That you may not have heard of before, as they are not particularly mainstream.

St. Mary Abbot's -- London
The first time I went to London, I stayed on High Street in Kensington.
Everyone in my group was knackered with jet lag, but I caught one glimpse of those Mary Poppinsesque chimney silhouettes out of the window and grabbed my camera and a bottle of water and dashed out of the hotel on my own.
I didn't wander far, of course, being a girl alone, 16 years old, and never having had been to Europe, but I wandered deep.
Which means I didn't walk a terrible distance, but I wandered down alleyways and up ancient stone paths without using a map or noting markers to make my way back the same route;
 I firmly believe getting lost is the best way to enjoy a city.

And get lost I did.  A light rain started to sprinkle me.  This is SO London! I thought to myself.
I had entered a small stone courtyard full of arching old trees and I suddenly saw a spire and realized I had come upon a parish tucked into the city.  I was enthralled and began snapping away on my camera, fiddling with the knobs to turn the image to black and white to better capture the atmosphere.

There was a walkway with ancient graves, one of them nearly entirely enveloped in a tree, the name of its occupant long washed away by the weather and hands of the grieving.  As I rounded this tree I gasped, for there, sitting on a stone pile near the cemetery was a meditating monk.

I observed him for a moment, savoring the comradery of just the two of us in this secluded nook of London, in the rain.  It was so spiritual and so human at the same time.  Then I tucked my camera back into its pouch and left him to his solitude.

Sognefjord -- Norway

Nature in all of her beauty.  All of her overwhelming, pure, pre-human beauty.
That is the wonder that is Sognefjord.

We were staying in Olso with our delightful Norse relatives, who own a cabin perched on a small fjord off of Sognefjord.  So we took a boat up Sognefjord to get there.
We went early, to enjoy the area before boarding the boat.
There was that strange mist in the air that is like virtue itself (you know what I mean? The kind of fresh fog that you feel breathing in will make you healthier?).

The water is an indescribable color.  It is emerald green, then iridescent purple with sparkles of blue running through it.  It ripples like a cotton sheet on a clothesline, throwing off dazzling streams of sunlight.
It is glacially cold and glacially clean, so clean you can see more than twenty feet down.
I perched at the end of a dock by myself and slipped off my shoes (to the aghast stares of the few others sitting on a bench 40 feet away).  It was freezing but it felt so good.
The mountains of the fjord rose up around me and I hoped they would swallow me whole.
It felt so gloriously real to have the sun warming my upper body and the water like hands of ice massaging my feet.  I thought about my Viking ancestors and decided they probably did this sort of thing all. the. time.

The boat ride was beautiful, needless to say.  Waterfalls and wildlife, clapboard houses perched on the side of the water with painted little boats bobbing in the waves.  Picturesque, but also rugged.
You feel that you could close your eyes and open them to see a Viking longship sailing toward you.

The Pantheon -- Paris
 You can taste the particles of history in the air here. And feel them on your skin as the oooooold ceiling crumbles occasionally.
My mother took me here.  As a French teacher, she is always going on about Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris.  The Pantheon was build to house her relics and later became the burial place of many a famous figure.  It was modeled after the Pantheon of Rome and its crypt holds the bones of Victor Hugo, Marie Curie, Zola, Voltaire, and Rousseau, to name a few.  It is a jackpot.
Our hotel was just down the hill and around the corner, so we hiked up up up to get to it.
The inside has the most marvelous murals portraying St. Genevieve (a great story, you should look into it!!) and those soaring ceilings and columns that make you want to don a toga and lie on the old marble and gaze upward for the rest of forever.

I was impressed. I was awed.
And that was before we took these worn stone steps downstairs, into the old musky smell that you instinctively associate with adventure.

You feel like you've entered an ancient Egyptian tomb.  You become instantly reverent and silent as you peer down each hallway that holds the remains of so many magnificent people.

I was drawn to the tomb of Victor Hugo, which he shares with Zola and Dumas.  I touched my hand to the cold stone and cried.
I cried for how France treated him as a traitor, I cried for his exile, I remembered how he had to eat animals from the Paris Zoo during the Prussian Siege. I remembered his last words, from his will: "I leave 50 000 francs to the poor. I want to be buried in their hearse. I refuse [funeral] orations of all churches. I beg a prayer to all souls. I believe in God."
Then I smacked the stone and exclaimed "how COULD you Victor?! How COULD you??"
This pertains to my issue with him and Les Miserables. 
I read it once (right before this trip) and never got over it.  It did something to me.  To say it upset me is to say an amputation is a scratch.
I never read it again. I never saw it on the stage or watched a film adaptation or listened to the music.
I've been girding my loins--I want to re-read it and see the new film out. We'll see.
Seeing the other tombs were all moving in their own regard.  It was incredible.
And so lonely down there! There was no one else down there and I thought of how important these people were to the world, and now they lie there turning to dust with only one another for company.

Sorrento -- Italy

This place is a real doozy.  On the Italian coastline, its name is derived from the Odyssey, as they believe this is where the sirens (or mermaids, as locals call them) dwelled.
Where limoncello was invented, and where Dickens, Nietzsche, and Goethe vacationed (the latter probably due to the former  :) ), this city perched along the sea is truly unique.
It smells like lemons and salt water there, and everyone waves or calls out "ciao!" with a smile as you pass.
We only stopped here for a night, but it was a definitive moment for me.
Once I'd dumped my stuff at the hotel, I threw on my bikini and ran down the winding roads to the water.  There is a small sliver of beach below the towering cliffs and I only stopped jogging when I hit the sand.

Then I dove.  The water wasn't too cold and I must have stayed in for five hours.

I skipped afternoon tea and floated until the sun began to set.
I had brought my goggles, and diving down, I realized that the beach used to be much further out, and there must have been some kind of cotillion patio, restaurant, or dock road now covered by ten feet of water, because there are the most beautiful handmade patterned tiles under that water.
Apparently there are all kind of dives off the coast here, and entire villas and archaeological masterpieces that have been found under the water.

As I dove down, I recovered tiles and old shards of pottery.  It blew my mind.
As a history nerd obsessed with the ocean, this was a merging of two worlds that before this moment had been completely separate in my mind.

I snatched giant hermit crabs off the bottom and let them crawl in my hand as I bicycled in the waves, treading water, before diving back down and placing them back on the floor.
When I had exhausted myself from diving, I floated on my back, looking up at the cliffs and colorful villas, the sun bathing everything in bright brilliance, and I thought this is the most perfect moment of my life.
I only got out of the water as the sun set, and wandered slowly back up to the hotel in my bikini, dripping wet, freckled from the sun, my goggles dangling at my side and my pockets bulging with the ocean tiles I had collected (I still have them).  When I got back to my room I threw on a sundress and drank a cold glass of white wine on the patio, trying to comprehend the revelation I had experienced in the bay.
 I cannot wait to return and share that miracle of a place with my husband and make new memories.

So that's it.  Those are my personal favorite places in Europe. I experienced something special in each place that I will never forget.   Isn't it fascinating the way places factor into memories?

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