Slowly

Акырын, акырын. This is my Host Father’s favorite phrase, meaning “slowly, slowly”. It is his response to almost any question I ask. How was his day? Акырын, акырын. How is his health? Акырын, акырын. How is the family? You guessed it: Акырын, акырын. While it may be just the phrase he has chosen to use, his sentiment seems to be shared by the rest of his country, an unofficial Kyrgyz ethos, one wildly foreign to an American used to the exact opposite.

In Kyrgyzstan, life moves slowly. Tea is shared with friends and neighbors for hours upon hours, sheep and horses are brought to pasture evening after evening, cows are milked morning after morning, tractors are built and repaired day after day, and life moves forward, slowly but surely. Winter preparations are methodical and precise: autumn rituals of stockpiling hay, jarring and canning fruits and vegetables, and making enough winter salad to last until the inevitable yet far off spring bloom.

In Kyrgyzstan, homes are crafted and maintained by their inhabitants. There is always work to be done: turkeys that need to be herded, dirt that needs to be shoveled, wood that needs to be chopped, and fishing docks that need to be built. There was work to be done yesterday and there will be work to be done tomorrow; rush not. To the Westerner used to an instantaneous and fast-paced life it seems simple yet wholesomely profound and calls upon the use of muscles not previously flexed. Namely, this way of life requires patience.

Of all the skills I expected I would need when coming to Kyrgyzstan with the Peace Corps, patience was not one I wholly considered. It was the technical skills, the teaching practices, the cultural adaptation, the relentless optimism, and desire to make the world a better place that superseded such mundane characteristics like patience. These skills, however, would lay impotent without a strong foundation of patience. Never have I felt more useless than the first few weeks of living with a host family. It is quite the transition to go from the pedestal of compliments and reassurances of moral righteousness that accompanies Peace Corps acceptance to the humbling impotence that accompanies Peace Corps reality. No matter who you are, language is difficult, culture is nuanced, and isolation is legitimate.

I have been in country for a little over two months now, and am just beginning to understand the scale of the task I am charged with. However, the longer I am here, the more resolute I become. Learning happens slowly. Language takes time, as does teaching, learning cultural norms, herding sheep, drinking tea, and shoveling dirt. As I’ve learned from my short time Kyrgyzstan, the absence of patience is caused by the possession of arrogance; arrogance that language can be acquired in two months, that cultural mastery comes naturally, that fast work leads to less work, and that change happens overnight. It doesn’t. Rather, it comes, as my Host Father likes to say: Акырын, акырын.

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The Conservative Commune: Finding Commonalities in an Uncommon World

Somewhere in the rural, mountainous countryside of the Pacific Northwest, there is an organic kale farm situated on a commune. This kale farm is 100% organic and self-sustaining. It is run by a gang of tie-dye wearing, dread growing, 20-something-year-olds “hippies” who left their previous lives because they felt the call of a simpler, more sustainable existence. These farmers sell their kale to the local organic food store, which then sells it to community members for their post-yoga smoothies. On the weekends, the yoga goers, market owners, and kale farmers meet at the local coffee shop to drink fair trade organic coffee. Everyone is friendly and loving and sees the value in self-expression and doing what you love. While they sit sipping their coffee, they vent to each other about how the big corporations are ruining the environment. They talk about how capitalistic greed is making the rich richer and the poor poorer, and how far our nation still has to go before we consider all races, genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations equal in the eyes of the law and one another. They’ve never voted for a Republican in their lives and attribute our problems to the “heartless conservatives” who are setting back valuable progress, and only dream of a world where liberal policy reins king.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the farmland of Nebraska, a middle-aged man wipes the sweat from his brow after a long day of work harvesting the corn his family has been growing on their homestead for four generations. Corn farming is all he has ever known; his father was a farmer, his father’s father was a farmer, and his grandfather’s father was a farmer. Every night, after a long days work, he comes home to his family and eats a steak cut from the local butcher who buys from the cattle farm in town. After dinner, he meets his friends from the farm bureau at the local bar where they vent about how corporations like Monsanto are destroying the American farmer. They are collectively frustrated with the elites in Washington who don’t seem to do anything but bicker and waste their hard-earned tax dollars. They may not have a fancy degree, but their inherited folk wisdom has worked for as long as they can remember and don’t see much use in changing it now.   They’ve worked hard their whole life and never complained once. They’ve never voted for a Democrat, and despise the “millennial and liberals” who’d rather have something handed to them than to work for it, and only dream of a world where hard-working, common sense conservatives ran the country.

Conventional wisdom and popular thought has pitted these groups against each other. Each is the cause for the problems we face in this country, and if only the other thought as they do, the country would be a better place. These two groups exist in separate worlds that will probably never intertwine, making it all too easy to press blame without a second thought. They think they have nothing in common with each other, from the clothes they wear to the morals they teach their children to the politicians they support. But what if their paths were to cross and they were able to break down the barriers of appearance and have a conversation; what would that look like?

 

*****

 

After the harvest of this season’s kale, the hippies decide to celebrate by embarking on a cross-country road trip, starting in the Northwest and ending in Brooklyn, where one of their friends owns a community garden and co-op. They pack their Subaru with the necessities and head off, excited to experience the natural beauty of this country.

After spending a night in Grand Teton National Park, they spend the day driving east with plans to lay their hats wherever they feel is a good spot. As the sun sets and the moon rises, they pull into a small farm town in Nebraska, looking for a place to grab a quick bite to eat. Although complaints are circulating the car about being in a drive-through state that only cares about corn and Corn Huskers football, they see no choice but to stop. To their disappointment, they find no organic foods store, but rather, a local bar and restaurant boasting of having “the best corn on the cob and hamburger in Nebraska”. They walk in and are greeted by stares from a group of rugged looking men sitting at the bar. Out-of-towners aren’t too frequent there, so seeing anyone they didn’t recognize was strange, let alone a group of dread-headed hippies. But not to be evaded by their Midwestern hospitality, the group of travelers is greeted warmly and their order is taken. Both groups sneak condescending looks and muddle sarcastic remarks amongst themselves, bringing themselves closer together and the other farther apart. However, their comments are unthreatening, if not harmless, and both groups mind their own business and go about their separate lives.

That is, until one of the local farmers overhears the hippies talking about a piece of news they read about a corporation that is using GMO’s and its deep pockets to take over the Midwestern farmland, in turn bankrupting the local farmer. He hears the disgust in their voice and strikes up a conversation about how him and his friends at the bar are the ones being directly effected by this. Both groups start talking, and a strange thing starts to happen: they find that they are more similar than different. They both believe that supporting local businesses is better than buying from corporate superstores. They both work on farms and have an appreciation for and connection to the land. They both know where their food comes from and who cultivated it. They talk about how bad the influence of money in Washington has gotten and how the everyday person is being left behind. They both care deeply about their friends, family, and community, and believe it’s their job to look after one anther—because if they don’t, no one will. And finally, they talk about the importance of being a good person and living true to your morals.

The groups end up staying until bar close, leaving the place laughing and poking fun at how ridiculous at each other’s appearances are, as old friends would do. Before heading back to their separate lives, they finish with a handshake and well wishes on their respective journeys. While the famers will still never vote for a Democrat and the hippies will still never vote for a Republican, they feel as if they gained a sense of perspective, and more importantly, a new set of friends.

In a world with a “with us or against us” mentality, demonizing the other has become all too easy. Empathy is seldom considered or employed, partly because we surround ourselves with like minds, and partly because it causes us to reflect on ourselves. We’ve thought one way our whole life and it’s worked just fine; why would we need to empathize with a “dirty hippie” or a “Midwestern farmer”? Because when we do, we find that people are people, and no matter what part of the country—or the world—they come from, and there are certain morals and values that transcend borders and are rooted not in town, state, or nation, but are rooted in human goodness.

The current divide in our nation is deep-rooted and destructive. If we ever wish to heal our wounds, we must decide to embrace the good in one another rather than dwelling on our differences; change doesn’t happen in a presidential debate, it happens in the everyday interactions of regular people who still believe in E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one.

 

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Turning Memories into Blessings

How do we justify the unjustifiable? How do we explain things that are unexplainable? How can we make rational sense of events that are not rooted in ration; things that defy the natural order of life; things that aren’t supposed happen? When a 21-year-old seemingly healthy girl dies of cancer, how do we make sense of it?

Unfortunately, these are questions we’ll never know the answers to. We try and try and try, but we can’t figure it out. We get angry at the world; mad at the universe for taking a life too soon. We feel helpless; a life is taken; yet the world keeps spinning. The sun sets as it did yesterday, and rises as it will tomorrow, and the world carries on with business as usual.

But to the mourning, it’s not business as usual. Our lives as we once saw them cease to exist, our path changed, our minds in disarray. ‘Why’ we scream, why did they take her! Why now? Why so young? Why do the greats go before they are meant to?

Its questions like this that engulf my thoughts during times of mourning. Why do the greats die young? What is the purpose of this? They had such a promising life ahead of them, so much to give to the world, so much joy to spread, and so many smiles to craft. For the answers, many people turn to religious teachings. They find peace in her peace. Contentment in the departure to a better place. A whole and just place, vacant of the imperfections of human existence.

When searching for the unanswerable, I always seem to end up back at the same conclusion: there are some people that are too good for this world. They were needed somewhere else. These people are the ones who seemed to always have it together way better than we did. They had it figured out. They’re the people we would look to in envy of their affect, their understanding of the gifts that they were given and their ability to utilize them. And when they pass, we are lost. We wish they were here with us, because they would know what to say. They would know how to cope. They’d know who to hug and who to make laugh. But unfortunately, they are not.  However, it is in these thoughts that we find strength.

In Jewish tradition, when mourning we say “zekher tzadik livrakha”, which translates to “may the memory of the righteous forever be a blessing”. In this I find comfort and strength. For the people who are too good for this world, their memory will forever be a blessing, a point of guidance as we try to make sense of everything. We can reflect on their lives and strive to live as they did. Maybe the reason they were taken from us too soon is to provide moral guidance; a lesson of some sorts; an anecdote to remember; an ideal to strive for. The best way to honor the late is to celebrate in the beauty of their spirit and everything it has given us. The good memories we had. The principles they stood for. The life they were living.

Corey was the kind of girl who always seems to say the thing that we all wanted to say but were too scared to say. She would never hesitate to say what you needed to hear, even when you didn’t want to hear it. She was kind to everyone and incredibly loyal to her friends. She was the one of the few girls I knew that could hang with the boys. Her down-to-earth affect put you at ease, and after an hour of conversation you felt like you knew her your whole life. Everyone needs to have a friend like Corey. One that goes beyond what is required of a friend. A friend that makes you better just by gracing you with their presence. We should honor her by being this friend to someone else. Her spirit will live in the comfort and companionship we find with each other.

Zekher tzadik livrakha, Corey, your memory will forever be a blessing.

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The Societal Effect of an Undervalued Liberal Arts Education

“You’re a political science and sociology major? Good luck getting a job!”

There is a persisting sentiment of condescension towards the liberal arts on college campuses across the nation. With a globalized economy that is deeply cemented in the advent and advancement of digital technology, the perception of a liberal arts education that of an antiquated, obscure subsection of academia which houses the crazies who are more concerned with theoretical impracticalities than tangible ‘real world’ issues. Areas of study based in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) subjects are considered to be far more valuable and appealing to potential employers and the public than those based in the social sciences. And this trend is not completely without merit—to thrive in this economy we must have people who are dedicated to math and the physical sciences that will further the pursuit of efficiency and a better connected world. Further, people educated in business, STEM, and medicine can create solutions to tangible, specific complex problems that our world is facing better than someone educated in the social sciences. Notwithstanding, the lack of legitimacy that is awarded to the social science disciplines has the potential to be disastrous to the future of our society. To put it more acutely—there is greater utility in a liberal arts education than anyone wants to admit.

What separates a liberal arts education from the subjects mentions in the former is that their focus lies chiefly within the specialized skills associated with the subject (coding, accounting, physical therapy, mechanical engineering, etc..) while the focus of a liberal arts education lies almost exclusively within the approach to the acquisition of knowledge and worldly understanding. This is not to say that the liberal arts don’t teach specific skills; I have learned about the inner working of campaign finance, the process of public opinion polling, the causation of social stratification, and the empirical effect of public policies put into action. However, what I have derived as being most valuable about my education is that I have a true understanding of how to approach knowledge and ideas to find what is important and translate that to a practical use. Why do I find this so crucial? Because without it, we are too easily susceptible to influences that are adverse to the interests of ourselves and the interests to our society as a whole. We lack the ability to decipher the merits and pitfalls of ideas and are vulnerable to malicious intellectual, societal, and political takeover. No example seems more poignant than our current domestic and international political climate.

It is no secret that many political establishments around the globe are experiencing extraordinary, normative beliefs-changing turbulence. The frightening increase in the frequency of terror attacks around the globe from a more complex and decentralized terrorism system, the international migrant and domestic immigration question, the dereliction of nations from super-national governing bodies, and the splintering partisanship along with the redefinition of ideological lines have all been contributing factors to the rise in anger and dissatisfaction of the average citizen in America and abroad. And instead of working to unite the public and approach our problems with a pragmatic solution, we have leaders that are stoking our fears through the blatant and conscious distribution of misinformation that only compounds our problems, not alleviates them. How is this beneficial to the betterment of our society? What goal is this accomplishing? If a certain faction blocks a congressional bill that would objectively good for our nation for the sole reason of political affiliation, what is intended outcome or purpose? Congrats, you won! Your reward? A polarized political climate, populist anger, horrible job approval rates, widespread distrust due to widespread lies, and more work for you. Why would someone not only prefer, but also actively work to create a system like this? It seems so incredibly counterintuitive and unappealing that I have a hard time coming to grasps with this reality.

However, a large piece of a liberal arts education is taking an objective look at an issue, identifying the root of the problem, understanding the historical factors that helped create the problem, and figuring out a way to efficiently solve it while providing clear lessons and chronology for those who might an encounter similar problems in the future. Due to the foregoing, I am not ignorant to reasons we are here. I attribute my, and many others, existential recognition of this problem to a liberal arts education. During my tenure, I was taught not to blindly believe what is preached without diligently dissecting the merits of the point. I was taught how to understand psychological and conscious biases and guard myself against their influences. I was taught to view politics and society not as a closed room that fully encompasses every possible idea that can be thought of, but rather as an open field that encourages merited discourse as a tool of social advancement.

I have been lucky enough to have been taught this in my undergraduate education; unfortunately, the majority of the general public has not had the same opportunity  to share in my prerogative. To no fault of his or her own, many people have either not had the privilege to obtain a formal education, or chosen to focus on a different subject where this thought process is not an integral part of the curriculum. As a result, there is a serious void of constructive public discourse, deep scrutiny of groupthink mentality, factual accountability for our public figures, and the perceived value of compromise. What is most disheartening about all of this is that, as a public, we are generally cognizant that these issues exist. Congressional approval ratings are under or around 10%, a majority of the population think this country is headed in the wrong direction, and there is deep mistrust of our political system. The issue doesn’t lie within our ability to recognize, it lies within views on how to solve it. And so, we march forward with utter confidence, drowning ourselves in the white noise of party politics, meritless arguments, and the inability or will to take a scientific approach to something we don’t conventionally consider science; our well being.

There is, however, a way to solve our unique predicament.  (1) As a society we must embrace- or at the very least acknowledge- the importance of a population educated in the liberal arts and social sciences. This doesn’t mean diminishing the importance of other field; that would be contradictive to the core principals of a liberal education.  Rather, extent that same importance to liberal arts subjects as well.  Instead of streamlining young students into fields that earn the highest salary, expose them equally to the world of social sciences through a more diversely focused educational curriculum that demonstrates the legitimate societal value of all academic subjects.  (2) We have to normalize the value of a liberal arts education and the importance of the social sciences. Once it becomes normalized, the market, which serves as a tangible and monetary reflection of our values, will reward the new generations of social scientists with higher overall income and more visible merit recognition. One of the biggest discouraging factors for students interested in the social sciences is their legitimate fear of unemployment after graduation. Once we understand the intangible value, we can start assigning tangible value. (3) When our liberally-educated social science students matriculate into the economy, we must put their education to good use by imparting it’s important lessons on the public. That involves curbing the trend of telling people what to think about certain issues, and replacing it with an education of the philosophical ways and methods of thinking, then presenting them with the facts of a current issue, which they now have to tools to dissect.  Once our public internalizes this new way of thinking, we can engage in productive public discourse, champion truthful and beneficial governing practices, and start well on our way to living in a better world.

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The Disillusion of Modern American Exceptionalism

I want to start off this essay by admitting that I am both vastly under qualified and justly qualified to write on this topic. I am 21-year-old undergraduate college student that holds no education further than a few upper level political science classes, some months traveling abroad and reading done on my own. Hell- I wasn’t even old enough to vote in the last Presidential election. However, I, and many others hold a qualification that gives me not only a right, but an obligation to write on this: I am voting American. It is the duty of every American voter to understand the challenges that face our nation and aid in finding a solution. If we see a serious problem in our government, we have the power to make the necessary changes. Our nation is currently experiencing crippling gridlock and divide that has realigned the electorate’s goal from working towards ever-constant improvement of the once greatest Nation in the world, to the disillusioned civil war between two parties who’d rather die of starvation than share the kitchen. This is not the American way. We are living in a country that has internalized a misguided concept of American exceptionalism that is counter-intuitive to very ideal it represents. This essay will work to identify the problems with the current practice of our pseudo-exceptionalism and try to identify a pragmatic solution that can be embraced by all Americans and bring us back to the country we know it can be.

The concept of American exceptionalism is the belief that America is the best country in the world and that our values are the most noble; so much so that we must work to spread them to every corner of the world. This belief has been present in our country since our inception. Early settlers attempted to westernize the Native Americans and rid them of their ‘savage’ ways. Americans pioneers felt is was their manifest destiny to extend the reaches of the nation from sea to shining sea. The United states has engaged in almost every major conflict overseas because we feel that it is our duty fight against powers that threaten the American way, even if they it has no direct effect on domestic life. Because of this, we have grown to the world power that we are today. However, this ideal is by no means negative. America has fought for freedom for countries controlled by strict dictators, been at the forefront of revolutionary technological advances, and have created a nation that truly believes in and promotes the opportunity for success. In that sense, American exceptionalism isn’t a belief, but a truth and a force for good. We were proud of our accomplishments, but never settled for the status quo. We believed in our leaders and knew that they were looking out for the interests of the people, not themselves or their party. Americans had a jovial opulence that radiated from the beaches of California to the skyscrapers of New York. Unfortunately, this is not the American exceptionalism we have come to know today. Fearful of attacks and slander, we have come to know a brand of American exceptionalism where we are incapable of admitting our own fallibility in order to preserve our party’s image and take down the other. If we cannot admit our own mistakes, how can we expect to make substantive change in a broken system?

If you look at the infrastructure of any successful company or team, you will find a constant principle: self-evaluation and constant improvement. Companies are always looking for ways to improve on their past performances through a process of reflection. Silicon Valley, the mecca of technological innovation and progress, takes great pride in the process of trial and error. The more you fail, the more opportunity you have for success. If an idea doesn’t work, you acknowledge its shortcomings and make the necessary changes it needs to be a success. Admittance of failure isn’t shamed, but rather celebrated because there is an understanding that failing and self-evaluation is part of the process. Similarly, if a previously dominant sports team is in a slump, do they continue in their ways? No. They identify what they are doing wrong and make the necessary changes to get on their track of previous success. Knowing this, why does our nations leadership seem to ignore this process?

To be clear, when referring to this idea of self-evaluation, I do not include critiques from the individual on the nation by placing sole blame on the beliefs of the opposite party. This isn’t evaluation for the sake of progress, instead it is critiques aimed at questioning the competency of the individual. That is not to say that we cannot make legitimate critiques on the decisions of our leaders who the rightful fault is owed–in fact that is encouraged. The issue comes when we forego facts and place all blame on the opposition, so much so it blinds our ability credit them with legitimate successes that they experience. The unfortunate reality is that our leaders in our political system seldom admit personal wrongdoings for issues facing our nation; “it is never our own fault, but rather the fault of someone else”. If there is an issue in our country, it is because of the decisions that come from the other side of the aisle. Much of this can be equated to the two-party system and the inescapable reality that politicians must have public support for get reelected so they can maintain their employment. Our political system has become so partisan and our political rhetoric is so outwardly focused that the only way to survive is to assimilate to this faulty style of governance. Republicans outwardly assign all problems in our country to the decisions of President Obama without the willingness to congratulate his legitimate successes or even exercise the idea that policies implemented by a president take decades to fully manifest, and maybe some of the issues we are currently experiencing could have been the result of past leadership. Similarly, Democrats hold on to their lofty, ideologically driven policies without the ability to acknowledge the economical impractically of implementing such policies, and then blame the republicans when they fail. As a result, critiquing the decisions of our nation is perceived not as an attempt to improve on an already great system, but rather an attack on the American way and a faulting love and belief in our values. Our politicians are unable to admit fault without experiencing detrimental backlash to their public image and career as a whole. This brand of misguided American exceptionalism not only hinders our ability to soar to the great heights our country is capable of, but is harmful to the very principle it is seemingly trying to protect. How can we expect to grow, as a nation if we cannot do honest, public self-evaluations where we admit we are our judgment could’ve been better and look to the every American for new ideas without being ridiculed for our mistakes? We should be valuing are politicians as we do CEO’s inventors, musicians and athletes on their ability to learn from their mistakes and grow from them, not cutting them down for it.

So how do we change this system that we are currently stuck in? The first step may seem trivial and insignificant, but I believe it lies within the ability to empathize with people of dissenting opinions. It is no secret that our two political parties have different theories on successful governance. These theories reflect the inherent values they find important in a society they wish to live in. And while these theories and values may differ, each has the same goal: shaping a nation that provides its citizens with the rights and opportunities that are universal to mankind. Contrary to common rhetoric, it is ignorant to believe that either party has the goal of ruining this country with their policies; each believes that what they are doing is the right way to achieve the common goal and to believe otherwise is ignorant. However, for better or for worse, the reality is that we have a system that requires cooperation and compromise across the aisle. Therefore, we must employ empathy if we wish to make substantial change to our broken system. Sun Tzu famously said “to defeat your enemy, you must become your enemy”. It is not my intention to lay claim that the ‘other’ party is the enemy (though that statement wouldn’t be far off in the eyes of the public) but rather to apply this point to policy making. It is imperative to understand why someone believes what he or she does before fully discounting his or her claim. As mentioned before, everyone has a the same goal they’re working towards, so by understanding why someone believes what they do and acknowledging the validity of their intent, we can hold a rationally driven debate on the merits of each opinion and work to find some middle ground that accomplished the common goal. Not only does this practice make debates more efficient, but also it humanized the competitor and fosters productive relationships that can pay dividends in the future. This idea of empathy may seem insignificant and trivial in comparison to other issues facing our nation, but it undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

If, as a nation, we collectively decide to embrace this paradigm shift–applaud our leaders when they admit wrongdoing, reward empathetic debate and condemn crippling partisanship, we can start on the path that leads us back to true embodiment of our previously practiced American exceptionalist ways.

 

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A City Built for its People

 

For the last four months, I have had the privilege to call the City of Dubrovnik my home. But just calling Dubrovnik ‘home’ would be doing it an injustice. It has been the catalyst for adventure, exploration, learning, triumph, failure, happiness, grievance, and love. It was a familiar friend, a distant stranger, a troublemaker, and a peace bringer. More than anything, this city was my home base for the greatest four months of my life. While there isn’t much I can do to repay it for what it has provided for me, the one thing I can do is try to scribe my thoughts on it and share it with others. So here goes nothing.

Every city has a ‘feel’ to it. Whether it’s the pride of its past, the unique architecture, or the people who walk the streets, the cleverly placed piles of stone, metal, and concrete have a way of personification that is unique unto it. Anyone who has stepped foot inside the ancient walls of Dubrovnik knows exactly what I’m talking about. You can’t explain what it is, but this city feels different from any other. Its more than just the aesthetics of its layout, more than just the unique natural beauty that houses it, more than just the resilient nature of its past. Above everything else, this is a city built for its people.

Go ahead, hop in a time machine and go back to any point in Dubrovnik’s history, no matter where you land, you’ll get that same feeling. This city was, through and through, built for its patrons. The walls were constructed high and strong to deter conquerors and protect its citizens. The alleyways, zigzagging intermittently up, down, and through the city, provide endless exploration and discovery. Travel back to the era of world empires; through clever diplomacy practices, the city of seven flags remained sovereign and free. Walk down a street scattered with boutiques and shops and smell the culinary excellence wafting from its nooks and crannies. Grab a beer at one of the many watering holes and indulge in conversations with the amazed tourist and the appreciative locals. Withstanding the testament of time, this city has stayed deeply rooted in the protection and well-being of the people who call it home.

While the walls are no longer used to keep out ambitious conquerors, instead they’re used to capture magnificent panoramic views of the city and the Adriatic. Fort Lovrijenac once stood guard day and night keeping a watchful eye on the horizon, now stands tall offering a peaceful spot for sightseers and Game of Thrones buffs alike to enjoy a sunny day. From its inception to present day, Dubrovnik sits at the foot of Mt. Srd looking, as my good friend Alex Costa put it, like a sandcastle constructed by God himself, built for the enjoyment and protection of its patrons.

This city is built for its people, and in return, the people gain strength, resilience, and pride from and for their city. Dubrovnikin’s (-ites? -ovs?, I’m not sure) are different unto mainland Croatians. They have a different culture, a different dialect, and a different history, and different pride than the rest of Croatia. This pride is based in its city; the winding alleyways, cobble-stoned streets, and tall walls that were built for them. The city of seven flags flies the Flag of St. Blaise the highest, the Patron saint who watches over its people. The people walk tall down the center of Stradun with their chest held high for they, are who this city is built for. And after 4 moths of living in Dubrovnik, I have had the pleasure to share in this pride.

Hvala, Dubrovnik, a piece of my heart will always reside somewhere in your walls.  You have given me more than you will ever know.

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The Prerogative of Uncertainty

If you were given the opportunity to learn about all of life’s unanswerable secrets: the legitimacy of a higher power or the so-called ‘correct’ religion, every conspiracy theory known to man, what happens after death, women, the meaning and purpose of life itself, ETC… would you take it?

I was presented with this question the other day, and it has been on my mind ever since. On one hand, answering yes would provide you with the ability to achieve complete fulfillment in life. Our entire lives are spent searching for the answers that are unattainable, and getting these answers would provide you with ultimate closure. However, you run the risk of vacating purpose and drive for the remainder of your life. On the other hand, answering no would allow you to continue your pursuit for answers, allowing you to form your own answers to life’s question, ultimately providing real meaning and purpose. However, these questions are basically unsolvable, exposing you to the very real possibility of the absence of true closure.

If you were to ask me this question a decade ago, I would have answered yes without hesitation. I used to lay awake at night mulling over these questions, desperately looking for an answer that wasn’t there. But now, my answer is the complete opposite. This is because, through my 20 short years of life experience, I’ve come to understand that uncertainty is our prerogative.

For the last three and a half months, I’ve had the opportunity to take uncertainty head-on. No amount of blogs, books, videos, or personal accounts can prepare you to live in a foreign country. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) articulates it perfectly to Will Hunting (Matt Damon) in Good Will Hunting when he exclaimed “So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel”. We may think we know everything there is to the world, but until you walk the smooth stone streets of Dubrovnik, climb to the top of the Bran Castle in Romania, or have a conversation with a Yugoslavian War Veteran, we cannot fully come to understand the magnitude of the human experience.

It is this uncertainty that drives my ambition. If I were to be certain of what the world has to offer, I would have no need to get out and explore, to meet new people, to learn new information, or enjoy what life has to offer. Why would I want to have someone tell me the answers when I can get out and discover them for myself? Humans have been given a gift of thought and wonder, and to gain all the answers is to waste the unique gift that no other species has.

With three weeks left in Dubrovnik, the question of dealing with life’s uncertainties linger in my mind. I, as many others my age, am at a pivotal crossroad in my life. Summer is fast approaching, and before I know it I will be starting my internship, completing my undergraduate degree, and continuing on into the real world. Now, more than ever before, my future is filled with the uncertainties that come with the real world and the question is how do I tackle them? For me, the answer is simple.  Just as I always have: head-on without the thought of hesitation. If there’s anything that I’ve learned over this last three and a half months, it’s to learn to love, embrace, and strive to solve the unanswerable question that life has to offer, for it is this that you find life’s meaning.

-MB

The Value of Taking the Road Less Traveled

Throughout my life I always seem to take the road less traveled.  Do things that are different than the norm.  I attended hippy circus camp as a kid, played lacrosse when my school didn’t offer the sport, attend a small, relatively unknown university 3000 miles from home, and study abroad in Croatia instead of a more popular destination.  I’m not consciously choosing to do things different, these options have just always held greater appeal to me.  Maybe growing up as a left-handed Jewish Redhead poised me to make these decisions, but regardless of the reasons why, I have always gravitated towards doing things a bit different than others.  I had never really seen the value in this until I embarked on my spring break trip a couple weeks ago.

Instead of traveling to more popular Western European destinations like most people do (and there is nothing wrong with this), I decided to spend a week traveling through Serbia and the Transylvania Region of Romania.  I figured that I will have plenty of opportunities in my life to visit more easily accessible Western European spots, but seldom will I have another opportunity to head east and see some truly unique places.  In addition, Lonely Planet had rated Transylvania the #1 region in the world to travel to in 2016, so I felt that this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Unsurprisingly, no one in my program was planning a similar trip, so I was going to be doing this trip solo.  Most people would be disappointed by this, but I was actually glad that I was going to be doing this by myself.  It offered me a sense of freedom; I was only bound by my own ambition.  In preparing for my trip, I made a loose schedule of places I wanted to hit: I knew I wanted to see Belgrade, Serbia and the Bran Castle (home of Dracula) just outside of Brasov, Romania, the rest of my trip was left open to whatever I wanted to see.  I decided I wanted to do the majority of my traveling via train instead of flying because I felt that it would allow me more flexibility and exposure to life and culture in the areas I would be hitting.  So with just a skeleton of an itinerary, a backpack, and a ukulele, I set off on what would become one of the more challenging, intense, and fulfilling weeks on my life.

Almost immediately, I was met with unique challenges that come with travel in non-western countries.  To get to Belgrade, my first destination, I had to take a bus to Bar, Montenegro where I would catch a 12 hour train to Belgrade.  I arrived mid-afternoon in Bar to a bus station where no one spoke english, no wifi, and no ATM.  This seemed to be a persisting theme throughout my trip.  I quickly learned that I need to be prepared with ample money, and a basic knowledge of the language and directions to get to where I will be staying that night.  The next day I got to the Bar train station with 21 Euro in my pocket, expecting that there would be an ATM at the station or the ability to buy a ticket with card.  Wrong and Wrong.  Luckily for me, the train ticket happened to cost exactly 21 Euro.  Additionally, I arrived 20 minutes before the departure time because.. well that’s what you normally do. But because this is the Balkans, 18 of those minutes were spent standing in the back of the line while an old man argued with the teller.  Fighting my inner neurotic Jew, I was able to stay composed and hopped on the train legitimately 30 seconds before it left.

I could spend the rest of this just telling you about all of the situations similar to this that I encountered (being the only American on a decrepit bus that took us through the Serbian backcountry, missing my train in Timisoara, Romania because my phone didn’t adjust to the time difference, arriving in Cluj-Napoca, Romania at 2am without a room booked for the night, having my ukulele almost pried out of my hands by Gypsy kids, losing 2000 dinars at a Belgrade Casino, the list goes on..) but that’s not what this post is really about.  Instead, this post is about that value that comes from getting out of your comfort zone and embracing the challenges that come with dense travel through unfamiliar areas. On this trip I traveled through some of the most naturally beautiful areas I have ever seen.  I hiked the snow-capped Carpathian mountains in Romania, wandered through remote villages of Serbia, rode through the time-absent countryside of Transylvania where shepherds corralled their sheep and farmers carried hay in their horse-drawn carriages.  I visited some truly unique cities that were unlike anything I had experience prior.  I got lost in the graffiti covered back alleys of Belgrade which visually embody the grit and personality of the once Capitol of Yugoslavia, explored Sighisoara, Romania, the last truly medieval city in Europe and the birthplace of Vlad Dracul the Impaler, toured the breathtaking castles of Rasnov and Bran in Transylvania, giving me a glimpse of medieval feudal life.  I met and shared stories travelers from all over the world who live in the alternative universe of the global nomad.  I partied until the sun came up on boathouse nightclubs in Belgrade, drank homemade palinka (Romanian moonshine made from plums) in Cluj, and danced to Romanian pop music covered by the club’s in-house saxophone player.  By getting out and experiencing places that were totally foreign to me, I was able to have experiences that most people in this world will never get to have, and I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity.

Finally, my greatest takeaway from my trip with the realization that no matter what corner of the earth you go to, there are people living just as complex and intricate lives as yourself.  That fact may seem trivial; of course there are people living everywhere with complex lives.  But until you lock eyes with the construction worker in Montenegro, the Shepherd in Transylvania, or the barkeep in Belgrade, it’s hard to really internalize this concept.  There billions of people on earth who experience the same emotions and tribulations as us that we never spend a second thinking of.  And why should we?  They have no effect on anything that goes on in our daily lives.  But by doing so, we gain a sense of humility and compassion it is hard to conceptualize otherwise.  As with the rest of my life, this spring break I took the road less traveled by and I lived to tell the tale.  Hopefully you have the opportunity to do the same.

-MB

Just Listen.

            A study abroad experience is- by nature- selfish.  You leave everything at home behind, your friends, family, school extracurriculars, to spend a semester in any city or country you want.  You get to travel to places you’ve always wanted to go, see the sights you’ve always dreamed of seeing, and party whatever night you want.  Very little responsibility is placed on you besides having as much fun as possible (and going to class, of course.  Hi mom).  For me, this is the first time in college where I have felt truly free of responsibility, and I can be as selfish as I want.  And let me tell you, the freedom is quite liberating.
                   However, I do feel that there is one requirement of all study abroad students that is largely ignored.  And that is taking the time to relocate our focus from ourselves and transfer it to the people who live in our city.  Too many times I hear stories of students who go abroad to a large touristy city, only hang out with American Students, go to study abroad bars, eat at fancy restaurants, and never make a local friend or have a truly substantial conversation with someone who embodies the spirit of the city.  Is that really a study abroad experience, or just an elongated vacation in another country where the drinking age is 18?
               Living in Dubrovnik, I have no choice but to get to know the locals.  In a city of 42,000 people where the majority of population congregates in a walled stone maze, you tend to start recognizing the same people.  From the shop owners lobbying for your business, to the bartender who knows your order (shout out to Ivana), to the kid in your class whose family lives down the street from you, etc..,you become apart of this city whether you like it or not.  And being that I am officially a Temporary Resident of Dubrovnik, it’s my duty to dedicate my time to the people and their stories. And boy, do they have stories.
            Only a couple of decades ago, this area was engulfed in one of the most brutal, horrific wars in modern history; the Yugoslavian War.  While on the surface one may not notice the scars of the past, but once you look behind the tourist traps and dive into the annals of Dubrovnik -it’s people- and hear their stories, you gain such a sense of humility and appreciation for this courageous city and it’s resilient citizens.
               While exploring of one Dubrovnik’s parks, I came across a seemingly homeless man sitting by the water.  I struck up casual conversation with him, and some five hours and few sandwiches later, I had learned more about the War and the people who’ve been effected by it than I ever could have sitting in a classroom.  He was one of the most insightful and compassionate people I have met in my two months of being here.  Maybe it was the profound concept of treating him like a human being and listening to what he had to say, or maybe it was just in his nature, but he opened up to me like I’ve never seen a stranger do.  My new friend (who wished to remain nameless) let me write down a few of his stories from fighting in the War and his thoughts of the conflict in general.  I want to share them with you.
    **the following is a rough transcript of what he said, however I did my best to translate his broken English.  I express no personal opinion or bias on the matter.  The italicized and quoted paragraphs are him**
               “I was born in Mostar in 1965. I lived in Mostar and went to school while living with my father up until the start of the War (He is ethnically a Croat who grew up and lived in Bosnia).  Before the war things were very tense. 4 months before that day they were stockpiling weapons and preparing for war.  It was said that the Yugoslavs from Serbia was planning their aggression.  From September-October 1991 there were preparing for war, running drills.  2-3 thousand people in their unit or “quarts”. I was in Mostar from July 1992 and it was peace.  All around Mostar there was war.  From July- April 93 the war in Mostar began between Muslims and Croats.  I was there. I did not want to fight.  I have solution to end this (he spoke of a peace agreement that he created and brought to the government, but he said he was dismissed because of his low rank in the military).  4th April there was an explosion were my house.  There were Yugoslav bases 300 -400 meters from my house.  There was a wall around this area.  The main street in Mostar was 4 meters from the wall.  There was a truck with oil that exploded and made a whole in the wall 50 meters. my house was 300 metes away but the windows blew open.  This explosion ignited the war.  It was early morning and I was asleep.  This happened on the 4th of April.  6th of April war started.  My injury happened the 26th.  On the sixth day (April 6th) it looked like fireworks were going off. Red and green lights created by bomb.  Everyone was shooting.  Shooting was happening at night.  It was wonderful (visually beautiful) to see but still scary.  I couldn’t believe this was happening in Mostar, my hometown.  The Yugoslav army came from the east side.  My unit was 30-40 men.  Our commander told us to retreat to the west side over the river.  I lived in the east, now the muslim side.  I had to cross the Mostar Bridge.  Croatian army have metal explosive devices against tanks under the bridges with barbed wire fences under the bridge, so if anyone came it would explode.  We were on the west side of the bridge shooting towards the east, my home.  I was behind a wall trying to get into a garden wall to get more protections.  While we were doing this, I was shot in the hand and arm.  I lost most of my finger and much movement in my left hand.  It was that moment that the war ended for me.” 
            After he was injured he was flown to Zagreb, The Capitol of Croatia for treatment.  He didn’t speak much more on the subject than that.  I then asked him if there were ethnic tensions prior to the conflict under a united Yugoslavia
                “Before the war, the ethnic groups were held down by the communist government.  They were untied under one communist flag.  It wasn’t important during then.  For me it didn’t matter, but most other people had a dormant national spirit that was held down by Tito (Josip Broz Tito, the former President of Yugoslavia).  It didn’t matter where you were from to me, but there were many people who it did matter. (All percentages are his estimates) About 30 percent were hard nationalists behind close doors.  About 30-40 percent were ambivalent about it, but when fight came they stuck with their side.  They were good people, good neighbors, they weren’t nationalists but the war gave them gave them no choice.  20 percent believed in the Yugoslavian vision saying that a united Yugoslavia was better than separate republics.  There aren’t too many people who believe this now, but there are some people who still believed that the former Yugoslavia was a better way of life.  The problem is that the different groups cannot come together and make agreement.  The people in the middle like a peaceful life and don’t care about the politics. It doesn’t matter what flag they live under.  But what can they do, they have no choice.  I myself have no choice.  I have different opinion (on nationalistic pride and the necessity of war).  In 1991, I was in the position of 5 percent of people.  I don’t believe that Yugoslavia is necessary better, but I know that war was not good.  The tensions are bad that maybe Yugoslavia could be better, but I don’t know.  There are good things now, more freedom.  (Josip) Tito was against the West, against travel. He want to have small (closed) borders, can’t read what you want.  Yugoslavia was joke, all communist government get their views from Engels and Marx.  They said they were for the working class people.  They say that workers and rights, and capitalism give the everyday person no right.  The joke here was the Tito was the leader of the Communist party and put themselves above everyone else.  People could only eat and work.  But yet President Tito was very rich.  He had many villas in every city.  He had many planes, ships, cars, but everyone else was poor “.
        I was truly amazed by his pragmatic approach and foresight.  For such an unassuming man, he was very wise.  His position I believe is similar to many people’s at the time.  Most people did not want the war and didn’t have a hatred for opposing ethnic groups, but they were given no choice.  I could see the sadness in his eyes.  I then asked him about his thoughts on the political future of this region.
          “I think that there will be no more war between the areas.  At least not in my lifetime.  However, a political concern of mine is how can we come to a full resolution.  Living in Bosnia now is a hard thing (he splits his time in Bosnia and Croatia). Croatia is ok to live in because there is more choice, they are a part of the European Union.  There is more tourism. Croatia goes to better times if the EU goes to better times.  Croatia by itself can not grow, it needs the help from others.  Throughout history Croatian have more connection to other parts of the world.  More Croats go to other countries and they are happy to have other people come here.  If Croatia lives alone with closed border, it will fall, there will be political problems.  Here they have too much political partisan and division.  Living in Bosnia is difficult because there is not much infrastructure and lots of corruption.  There is less tourism so less money comes in.  But the people are strong and I believe they will live good lives.”
           After that, I bought us a couple of sandwiches and we talked about some less serious issues: his love of country music and western films, family, friends, and life experience.  We had one final handshake and then we went our separate ways.  I left that conversation with an extreme sense of humility and gratitude.  There I was, a 20-year-old study abroad student from America who is spending a semester doing what many people can only dream of, typing on my Macbook Air, and leaving to go back to my apartment overlooking the city.  And there he was, a middle age man who grew up in a war torn-country, has no real home and very few, if any people who will give him the time of day.  Yet despite all this (not to mention the language barrier) we were able to find a connection and share in the human experience.
          Study Abroad is the time to be selfish.  Get out and see the world, party on a Tuesday night, or eat pizza everyday if you want.  However, amidst all of this, don’t forget to take some time and just listen.
 
-MB

Surreal.

Rather than ramble about my daily schedule of activities for my trip, I thought I’d try to give you an emotional understanding of my travels.  Anyone can read a guidebook on Dubrovnik that tells you about things to see or places to eat.  However,they can’t tell you what it felt like to see those sights or eat that food.

Easier said than done.

For the last two weeks I’ve been trying to think of a word that accurately verbalizes my experience thus far.  When friends ask me “how is everything?!”, I’m somewhat stumped.  How do I describe the feeling you get walking through the cobblestoned streets of Old Town? The winding alleyways that beckon to be explored? The panoramic views of that crystal-clear Adriatic water?  Talking Croatian politics with the locals at my favorite caffe bar? Climbing to the top of a decrepit castle overlooking the beautifully rugged grey mountains surrounding the Bay of Kotor?  How can I capture the essence of experience and communicate it to eager ears who are expecting grandiose stories of abroad debauchery and existential self-discovery?

These questions have been at the forefront of my mind, giving me a unique feeling of angst.  Not an unwelcome angst, however.  Instead, this angst has provided with a challenge: get out and learn this city and the feeling it gives me. Never waste a moment.  Go out and walk the town instead of catching up on netflix. Make a new friend instead of checking the statuses of hundreds of old ones.  Stay for one more beer instead of calling it an early night.  The more I explore, the more I want to explore.  The more I learn about this city and the surrounding area, the the more I realize I have no clue about this city and it’s surround area.  The more I drink the thirstier I get.

So what word can somewhat accurately describe my experiences thus far?

Surreal.

Everything abut my trip so far has been surreal.  This place can’t be real.  The view from my rooftop terrace? No way.  The medieval stone fortress that is Old Town? Get out of here.  The cannon fire on St. Blaise Day? Stop that.  The price of the sandwiches at the local Bakery? Now you’re really messing with me.

Somehow, Dubrovnik figured out how to fit everything you’d want out of a study abroad experience in one place, and it doesn’t feel real.  Yet, it is, and I couldn’t be happier.  So when asked “How is everything going?!”  my only accurate response is “this place is surreal”.

Even though it’s only been two weeks, I feel like I’ve been living here for years.  Dubrovnik will do that to you.  Maybe it’s the long history of diplomacy that has created a welcoming culture.  Maybe it’t the thousands of years of history that the walls have seen.  Maybe its the people, eager to laugh at my pronunciation of ‘coffee’ in Croatian but appreciative that I made an effort. Maybe its the Wall, built tall and strong to protect what’s so precious on the inside. Whatever it is, I love it and want more.  Never in a foreign land have I felt so at home.  And yet, it’s only been two weeks.  I can only imagine what this next three and half months will feel like.  Only one way to find out, though.

Can you feel it?

-MB