Disclaimer: this is a ridiculously long post.
When I first joined Peace Corps I had this big idea that I would spend my full two years here. I thought it would be better to use my vacation days within country. I came here partially to isolate myself from Western thought and also to get to know a country other than my own in a personal way, so it made sense to stay. But living on an island can drive a person to near-insanity at times, and I thought it best for my mental health and the physical safety of my students to get away for a while. My friend Toby was planning to go home to York for a few weeks over his birthday and invited me along. At first I declined, offering every type of reason except a good one. I needed a break, I was just too stubborn to admit it. But when he found a buy-one-get-one-free ticket to Germany I had to jump on board.
This vacation started out unintentionally. I had planned an art camp for my students with two other volunteers to take place during the summer. Sadly, I was shipped to Dakar during the exact week that art camp was taking place for a few medical consultations and had to miss it. But this journey extended my vacation to a full month traveling outside of Cape Verde, and it was pretty amazing. Since I don’t speak French or Wolof, while I was in Dakar I had to wait for volunteers to come to the medical hut when they had time and tag along with them. So some days were spent restlessly pacing around, hoping for someone to show up (but enjoying turkey and French bread and varieties of cheese, all of which I’ve been denied for such a long time now). But there were a few days I was able to go explore.
I made fast friends with a few of the volunteers, one of whom was beginning his third year and moving from a rural site to Dakar. He had never been to Ngor Island, which is a small island used for its beaches just off the coast of the beach near the Peace Corps medical hut. We were able to go there one day, crammed onto a boat with a hundred other people for a smooth ten minute ride. I was happy to just walk around and stretch my legs a little bit. We circled the island, and I was able to try touba, a spicy coffee that tastes like it has ginger in it, before we sat down for a drink before heading back.
Another day we went to the port with the intention of getting details on tickets to Goree island, a former slave island. But we were sidetracked. We saw a long, narrow sea wall jutting out into the ocean in a winding S-curve and were too curious to leave it be. It’s used these days for fishermen, and it was used back in the day for coastal defense. Parts of it were difficult to traverse. Rock had been eroded over time, and parts of it were washed away completely. Other sections were coated in slippery algae, and there was one part that had an ancient cannon blocking the way. But it was amazing, and spontaneous, which made my day.
After Dakar, I had one day in Praia before Toby and I went to Sal for our flight to Germany. I hadn’t been certain how long I’d be held in Dakar, and it was a relief to touch ground back in Cape Verde in time to go on the trip we’d been planning. Two days later we arrived in Stuttgart to start the three weeks we’d stay in Europe.
We stayed two nights in Stuttgart, accommodating our excitement to try every type of food and drink every type of beer that we could get our hands on. We made it to a museum and I felt months of stress begin to chip away. The second morning there we woke up, packed our bags, and took a long walk to the place we’d begin hitchhiking. Along the way we found that there was one thing we’d both missed terribly but never really noticed: grass. Seriously, all I wanted to do was sit in the grass and roll around in flowers. It was probably an odd sight to people walking by, but we had to give in a few times.
After Stuttgart we went to Karlsruhe, which was interesting because there's a theory that this is the city whose layout Washington DC is based on. Capitol Hill is the equivalent of the Town Hall of Karlsruhe: an epicenter with ring streets expanding outward from it. So that was strangely familiar. But we were struck upon arrival by an increasing number of people in costume. We passed pirates, barmaids, peasant boys, all mixed in with people just going about their evening. We had no idea what was going on until we reached the main park, which was hosting a giant medieval festival. Getting rides to our destination proved to be a long process that day (we got numerous rides along the way, some incredible people, including a family who rearranged their car and children to make room for us) and we didn’t have much time once we got there. So the next day we were off.
The next stop was Saarbrucken. We stayed there one night and spent a full day exploring, but the highlight was dinner. I’d been set on sushi from the beginning, and I found a great restaurant in the city. Spicy tuna rolls and five little bottles of warm sake later I was the happiest girl in the world. But again, we had a target in mind and had to be on our way. At this point we were on the border of France and planned to make it to Metz.
This was the best hitch of the trip. We met a fantastic couple who went out of their way to befriend us. They took us to our destination, and then we all went to the extension of the Pompidou center that had just been completed.
We had some drinks after in the shadow of a beautiful cathedral, and exchanged contact information before begrudgingly saying our goodbyes. It was one of the more staggering experiences of my life to date. Metz, as though it knew it was following a star performance, didn’t disappoint in the slightest. Everything came together, stars aligned, and the meaning of life was clear. I can’t say why, really. It was just one of those places that meant something to me immediately. We had some wine-induced conversations (debates? Fights? Who’s to say) about modern art, explored parks, and let ourselves get lost in the newness of it all.
After Metz, we made our way to Reims. My favorite part of Reims was the process of getting to Reims. It was far more difficult to get rides in France than it was in Germany, and we’d been on the side of a road for three hours before getting a ride to a gas station a few exits up. This was good timing as we were able to eat and shield ourselves from the rain that had been showing signs of opening up on us for an hour or so. As we were waiting at this gas station, a Mack truck whistled to a stop in front of us. A young guy leaned out the door of the driver’s side and said this was a bad place to wait, but he could take us a few exits up.
After we’d been in the cab of the truck for a good fifteen minutes or so, he said he was making a drop at a farm but after that he was heading to Reims, if we wanted to go on this drop with him and then continue on our journey. He was personable and fun, and of course we agreed. We sped along increasingly narrow back roads and came to a tiny town in the middle of acres of farmland, and as he was helping a local farmer unload the freight, we climbed all over the truck and explored the town.
Afterward, we continued on to Reims. Along the way, our new friend started pulling medieval weapons out of various hiding places in the cab (completely innocently, just a quirky guy) to highlight stories he told us about strange things that had happened to him over his years of driving. This popped into my head a little bit later when we were stranded in a ghost town, our friend having reached his 15 hour maximum on driving for the day, and we realized the three of us would be sharing the cab for the night. He was a friendly guy, with a sweet disposition, and he ended up giving us all of the food that he had in his refrigerator (and also gave me a small sheep figurine to remember him by) and we continued on the next day. Definitely a night to remember.
We reached our destination early the next morning. Reims is the capital of the champagne valley in France, and we drank accordingly. The day was spent wandering around. The only big thing here was the Notre-Dame cathedral, the site where the kings of France were once crowned. It had a lot of character, but there had been massive damage done to it in 2010 with the outbreak of a fire, and the dynamic inside has changed with the addition of modern stained glass which now includes pieces ranging from the 13th to 20th century. The variety of style was unlike anything I’d seen in stained glass. The only thing I can say about that night is better summed up through photos:
(tasteful but clearly well-enjoyed)
(where am I?)
After Reims, having woken up with severe champagne headaches, we decided to take a train into Paris. We spent three days there, and it was wonderful. We went to the Musee D’Orsay which quickly made my list of best museums I’ve ever been to. I finally climbed the Eiffel tower, had Mexican food for the first time in forever, my first Cosmopolitan in over a year, walked along the Seine and crossed a few things off our lists. We stayed in a hotel in Montmartre, on the top floor, and the first night I hopped over the guardrail to sit on the narrow rooftop ledge to watch the light show.
I could dedicate a whole post to Paris, but I’ll keep it short and sweet. On the third evening, we made our way to the bus station to catch the overnight bus to London. It was an awful ride and I highly recommend avoiding this situation at all costs. Progress was delayed numerous times and it made sleeping impossible. But we did finally reach London and made our way to Toby’s friend’s apartment. We lazed around (oh my God couches! Couches are so good) and made dinner with his friends that night, but we’d been hearing sirens go by and realized that the riots had broken out in Ealing, which is where we were. We didn’t see anything, but the stories on the news were heartbreaking, and in the middle of the night we could hear helicopters circling around us and turned on the news to hear that residences in the area were being broken in to. When Toby’s friends walked home after dinner, they passed burning cars and found that the apartment building across theirs was on fire.
It was tragic to see what people were capable of, but I have to say it was heartening the following day to step outside and see so many people walking with
brooms and dustpans to clean up the mess that looters had made the night before.
After London we spent a day at Cambridge, where Toby showed me all of his University haunts. Cambridge is beautiful, and it was a really touching way to spend the day. It made me miss JMU, and we sat under a tree eating sandwiches and trading stories about college days. That night we took a train to York, to his family’s house, where we spent the following five days or so. If I could sum this up I would say the following: sleeping in, mashed potatoes, afternoon gin, the family farm, wine, steaks, sausages, fish and chips, haircuts, movie theaters!, mango juice, stained glass, art, Les Mis, bars, bacon, moors, highland cows, washing machines omg, chicken brick, more bacon, asparagus and tea. If I say much more than that we’ll be here for days. Amazing. That is all.
(fish and chips on the moors)
(highland cows are so awesome)
The last stop was Edinburg. Toby’s brother lives there and we made it during the Fringe, which is the annual theater festival that triples Edinburg’s already massive population every year. It was so much fun, and once again it was the type of place that contained too much in too short of time to be able to do it justice here. One thing worth mentioning is that we went to see a show called Showstoppers at the Fringe, which is an improvised musical. The audience would provide examples of Broadway musicals, or specific songs, and also suggest a setting, and the actors would improvise an entire musical incorporating everything on the compiled list. The first night was so hilarious that we went the following night, and it was equally mind blowing.
After this trip we flew back to Stuttgart for a night before coming back to Cape Verde. We’d planned to come back through Boavista to see some friends and settle back into life in-country before going back to our sites. It was a good way to end, and I was able to cross another island off the list.
So a lot happened and changed over the course of this month abroad. I have tentative plans for post-PC life, which I’ll elaborate on as soon as things are set in motion, and I also feel completely regenerated for my second year here. I didn’t realize when I was making the plans, but leaving for a while helped me twofold: I was able to step away from the stresses of my life as a teacher and evaluate and redevelop my plan for the coming year, and I was also able to settle into familiar ambiguity and relax a little bit. I kind of feel as though I’m starting over again, but this time with a good grasp on the language and classroom techniques. It was at once the perfect celebration to the end of my first year of teaching, and an energy boost for the second. We’ll see what the coming year brings.