Wednesday, April 21, 2010

This one's for Bernard

(This is a blog I wrote for a travel organization while studying abroad in Florence, Italy. It's about Interlaken, a small town in southern Switzerland. It was nostalgic for me to read again! Enjoy.)

We were well under the spell of the Swiss before the end of our first day here in Interlaken. This is probably due to Bernard (well, we think that’s its name), the massive St. Bernard that mosies around the halls and lounge of the Funny Farm hostel. It (sorry, I don’t mean to be impersonal, but I never figured out the gender of the dog. I love it just the same, though). Bernard really became quite a memorable figure to those traveling in and out of the hostel throughout the weekend.

Bernard is not the only charmer in this Swiss town, however. The ground and rooftops are laden with snow, and Christmas decorations still abound. The gingerbread-esque style of so many of the buildings and houses in town might lead one to think that they had stumbled upon Santa’s workshop.
While Interlaken is nowhere near the North Pole (yes, for those of you who doubt, it does exist), magic still abounds in this quaint Alp-encircled town. Extreme sports seem to be the big pull here, fitting since the surroundings are just that: extremely large, extremely daunting/daring (depending on what your mood is reading that day), and extremely beautiful. Sky-diving is a rather popular endeavor, just watch out for the prices; while canyon-jumping and paragliding may not reach sky-diving on the Richter scale of “extremeness,” they are nice substitutes that go a lot easier on the pockets. Skiing and snowboarding are obvious musts if you have a love for either sport (I mean, these are the Alps, for cryin’ out loud), but for those of us study-abroad students who are on the type of budget that begs you to question “wait, do I really need dinner tonight?,” night-sledding is the activity for you (us).

At about 90 francs (that’s roughly 65 euros), you get a full night of sledding, as well as an included fondue dinner. Hello Swiss food! The fondue was good, but go easy on it. I found myself feeling a little bit queasy after eating my weight in melted cheese and then riding in a bumpy van for 25 minutes. Don’t let that dairy get ya!
For those of you with the difficult stomachs and worrisome minds, don’t fret. Below the black diamonds and parachute-requiring frenzy lies a town full of culture and personality and…Swiss chocolate. It’s not even that good….
Ok I’m lying. The chocolate is amazing. It would be finger licking good, but Switzerland is too cold for chocolate to melt on to your fingers, so its just good. Period.
One of my personal finds was a store called “Woodpecker.” My friends and I were drawn in to the store for two reasons: one, there were a lot of machete-looking knives in the window and two, sitting in the window was what I thought was a stuffed cat, until it blinked and ran away from me.
So, naturally, we go in to the store only to find a little room filled front to back, top to bottom with hand-carved wooden gadgets, ornaments, Swiss paraphernalia, and kitchen-ware, all (or most) done by the smiling parental faces behind the counter. It was honestly breath-takingly beautiful. It was an image that the likes of Tolkien could have written, almost as if we had stumbled upon an Elfin souvenir shop, made and crafted with the precision of only the most adept and patient hands. When I asked the kind woman assisting us how much she was offering her cat for, she replied in the slight German accents that most people in the town share, “Oh, honey, you could buy him, but he’d just come running back to me.”
Walking around Interlaken is entertaining, especially for those architecturally-minded, but once our shivering bodies had had enough exposure to the winter air, we found our way in to a small little pub and ordered some meat and goulash soup. I would recommend this to ANYONE here. As I was eating it, I kept imagining myself as a child here, coming home for dinner after…ice skating practice? (sorry, I’m just not sure what Swiss children tend to do for fun..) to find my mother waiting with a hearty soup of this sort. It warms your every inch. It’s so cool to see how food adapts to the region and climate of which it is a part. There were no gelaterias. Anywhere.
Note to the fearless! And the fearful (come on, you’re in Switzerland!): GO NIGHT SLEDDING. Ok, yes, there is a substantial risk of flying off of a snow ridge, and you will crash and fall off of your sled more than five times. However, it’s an experience that cannot be missed. I knew we were in for a very interesting experience when our tour guide (who was a native Interlaken citizen, as well as a Viggo Mortensen look-alike) laughed in our faces when we asked if the slope for night sledding would be well lit. How American of us, I suppose. Basically, you sit on a tiny plastic sled, with your feet out in front of you, and fly down the sound of a mountain at pretty impressive speeds for the size and make of your sled, I thought. Using your feet to both steer and brake, you let yourself go and hope to the high heavens that you manage a bit of coordination and luck.
Night life in Interlaken, for those of you traveling and staying in a hostel, mainly consists of two spots: the bar below the Funny Farm hostel itself, and the underground night club at Balmers, the adorable little hostel right down the street. Heck, why not just hostel-hop and do both every night?

The bus ride is about 7-8 hours each way, and the Florence for Fun staff are really a delight to travel with. They are really helpful and organized, but more importantly, they really make an effort to get to know the students that they are traveling with. Definitely make sure you share some quality time, or drinks, with Fabio, the owner of Florence for Fun and overall life of the party. He is full of energy, is full of great tips for traveling, and provides great motivation for keeping your weekend schedule busy and active.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

On Technology

I have an old Jimmy Dean biscuit box that sits on a shelf of my desk, just above my printer and computer. Jimmy Dean, of sausage fame, hasn’t updated its logo design in a while, so it sticks out like a pimple against the bare nude of my walls. When my Southern California friends ask if I found it in a thrift or vintage store, I smile and reply with the shocking knowledge that I have dared to go where no one has gone before: the frozen foods section of a non-organic grocery store.

The box is tattered and no longer smells of greasy discs of low-grade sausage, but it is bursting full with white envelopes, fattened with newspaper clippings from my hometown and hand-written letters from my grandparents back in Maryland.

My grandmother has been making me write in cursive since before I can remember. She told me, “Amy, cursive is faster, easier and even though it’s sometimes harder to read, it’s classy.” At age six, the last thing I thought about was how to be classier, but I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. I still write in cursive to this very day.

My family had decided to bestow the gift of the Web to my Mommom and Poppop (as I call them) for Christmas, hoping to bring them up to (high) speed with the rest of the world. We have sung its praises time and time again, likening it to the technological savior of our age, and we decided it was time for their cyber-messiah to come.

It wasn’t a quick decision to do this. My grandparents have a strong aversion to learning new things. Over time, they have slowly given in to our dogged harping about the wonders of the digital age. We enjoy “decking them out” technologically, like little children enjoy dressing up their pets with doll clothes.

So, the day after receiving their large-screen, large-keyboard laptop, I accompanied my grandfather to the local Verizon store in order to pick up an Internet “card.” Living on an 80-acre farm has prevented cable Internet from reaching their house.

 Poppop marched directly up to the counter.

“This ain’t some serta trick, izit?” he said as he pointed his right ring finger at the first unassuming girl he saw; she recoiled, and drummed her two-inch nails against the keyboard. When my grandfather points at someone, it feels different than a casual point from a friend, probably because of the oversized Masonic Lodge ring that his finger boasts. The contrast between the opulence of the gold-set garnet with the wrinkled skin of his arthritic hand speaks of a magical wisdom he must hold, like something that Dumbledore or Gandalf might wear.

There are two things, and two things only, that my grandparents trust: the Bible, and the Republican Party. This girl at the Verizon store hadn’t proven to be either of those things, so a thorough assessment of her intentions was necessary.

The girl cocked her head to the side as she responded. “Sir, I promise you, Verizon would never try to trick you into buying an Internet card.”

It took a minute, but we (the girl and I) managed to ease his worries and continue on with the process of purchasing the Internet. We might as well have been buying a new house, because it took over an hour and a half, and about 50 questions, before my grandfather was satisfied enough to swipe his Visa and head home.

Over the next two weeks, I spent nearly every morning at my grandparents’ farm. This suited Poppop just fine since he swears that my grandmother only cooks when a grandchild is going to be in the house. “Every other mornin’ all I git is dried-up cereal, Amy-girl. She spoils you rotten.”

The Internet scared the “livin’ daylights” out of my Poppop, a man that had served in the Air Force and then started his own motel, which he owned for 20 years while also maintaining his soybean farm. My Mommom refused to go near it, content with leaving the work to Poppop. “Once I get this thing figured out, Amy,” he would say, “she’s gonna work me ter death tryna get all her nosy information.” Their love is a tenured one.

I think I had grossly underestimated the learning curve of someone who had previously never owned a computer, let alone the Web. The first three days began with me walking into their house, finding my grandfather shaking with anger that he couldn’t get “the stupid Internet to start up. I knew that girl was trickin’ me.” I gently reminded him that his Internet card needed to be plugged in for the process to work. We finally mastered that practice.

The following days consisted of helping Poppop get over his strong hatred of his “mouse pad,” that he found to be ridiculous since it didn’t have a mouse, and writing him step-by-step instructions on actions such as how to get to “Home Page,” and how to send an email to me.  Each action that I wrote directions for took about two pages of tedious instruction. The progress was slow. We ate a lot of bacon to pacify our nerves. We laughed, took Fox News breaks, and he told me stories of his days in the military, how he came to know that Jesus was his Savior, and what made him realize that smoking wasn’t all that cool, before all that “cancer talk” even started.

I remember the excitement I felt of knowing that I was being a part of one of the greatest improvements in their lives. They were learning something from me, for once! I was giving them freedom from the intellectual paralysis that surely comes with retirement and old age. I looked forward to our new cyber-relationship, one that I had given birth to.

Our two weeks drew to a close, and I hopped a plane to return to school. I was satisfied. I nursed to life this virtual existence for my grandparents, and couldn’t wait to reap the benefits through emails and maybe, one day, chatting online, or something of the sort.

I have received about five emails from them. Each one about three sentences total, though there isn’t a period to be found in the entire thing. I’m assuming that I’ll need to tell him over the phone where to look for the punctuation keys. I write back every time, usually with about triple the amount of content. 

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when, after during the second week back at school, I received a letter in the mail, a little brown from traveling, but inked with that familiar cursive that mirrors my own.  My grandparents defended themselves with something like, “Amy-girl, we love our new Internet, but we just think we get our thoughts out better on some paper. Now let us tell you about our home-group Saturday night, and have you read the devotional for today? It’s wonderful it speaks of…”

I now receive about two letters for every email I send them. I hear that Poppop still loves to add Web sites to his Favorites bar, and has grown especially fond of the Drudge Report.

As for me, I’m planning my next trip to the frozen foods aisle. Jimmy Dean has never sounded so good.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What the heck do I begin with?

So I just got home from Red's, right at the intersection of Talbot and Rosecrans. I was there meeting with my journalism cohorts about a certain blunder the school is making that is affecting the lives of over 50 students and faculty. The whipped cream on the top of the hot chocolate I got was intimidating, but I could handle it. By the end of the night, the jargony journalism jokes were getting out of hand. We were drunk on free speech. Geez Amy, get a life. 
Blogging is a scary thing. Especially knowing that I have a repertoire of thoughts, lyrics and memories large enough to fill this cyberspace that I've catapulted myself into. Hey, you gotta start somewhere, right? 
My journalism professor told us that it is important to write everything down right when it happens, or right when we see it because if we wait at all, it becomes unreal. It no longer bears that fresh scent of raw legitimacy. 
I didn't write anything down today.
Does that make what I saw less real? Or does that make what I saw even more real because they were frozen in only those very moments in which life was lived out. 
Theorizing aside, I hope to write things down more. Scratch that, I hope to type things down more. Whether it be essays, memories, local and national events that have affected my heart, or just a picture, painted with words.  Welcome to my world.
I'll leave with my favorite thought that I entertained today. During our house's weekly Bible study, I brought out my copy of "The Cost of Discipleship" by Bonhoeffer. His theological stance on grace never ceases to amaze me, almost to tears. He refers to the way that many of us live our lives as "cheap grace," one that doesn't require us to give any of ourselves to receive it; one that justifies the sin without the justification of repentance; one that we bestow upon ourselves. 
Depressed yet? Don't be. 
Because we can choose to seek out costly grace. This is a grace that requires us to lay down our lives when we receive it. It requires that we lament the sins that we have lived in, and run from them, and THAT is our payment. That is our cost. The most beautiful thought Bonhoeffer presents is that this grace is costly, this grace COSTS because it cost God his own son. Yaweh, our creator, did not deem his son too costly for our little lives. I literally cost something. I have a price tag. 
Now that's something to write about.