I did it! I finally did it! And boy was I nervous about it.
Yesterday, I booked my longest trip ever. Many people perceive me as a well-travelled, cosmopolitan person. Let me tell you, when I have to book a flight costing four figures to the other side of the world, I am like a village girl that has never even entered an airport. The excitement! The anxiety!
The reason for sitting on a plane for 15 hours are my friend Emily and my cousin Kiarmin. Frankly, I am starting to doubt if it was meant for us to go places that take so long to reach and to have friends and family in places that we formerly believed were the end of the world where you’d fall off the earth. But here came study abroad programs and there was no going back – and to be honest, it would be a massive drawback in my personal life not to know these people residing in the Far West.
So I am going to Los Angeles and Vancouver in April. I will be farther away than ever before, currently I feel alternately like a pioneer looking for gold and an astronaut going where no man has gone before. But I am also very excited to return to my third-favorite country, to eat chili with Emily, shop at Dressbarn (the grandma dress store I found last time), learn more about California, and to for the first time see Canada, o Canada, the Sweden of America, just with a better head of government.
In other news: My friend Bianca and I formed a book club last year and had our second meeting last night. We discussed “The Handmaid’s Tale” that was our first book. Well written, but so uncomfortable to read as a woman. Our next book is Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” which I started right away yesterday. So far it’s pretty good!
Whenever I don’t write about things right away, it becomes difficult to capture the impressions afterwards. With work and carnival and life getting on, it feels like it’s been much longer than two weeks since I set foot on German soil again.
But because this trip was so glorious, I will still try to recollect the experience, in pictures at least. Let’s get started with the first of my Throwback Thursdays: USA!
The Isle of Hope and Isle of Tears – that’s what they called Ellis Island where all immigrants were registered between 1892 and 1954. When you visit it today, you are first taken to Liberty Island to see what they saw: the statue, Liberty Enlightening the World. I can only imagine what it must have been like to catch sight of this symbol when coming from oppression, poverty, hunger and persecution and it fills me with awe looking up at Lady Liberty. As we, actually both children of immigrants to our respective countries, walked around Liberty Island in brilliant sunshine, we learned, however, that she’s only been there since 1886 which means “my” emigrants from Sweden, namely Kristina/Utvandrarna, would not even have seen her.
“Freedom means the opportunity to be what you never thought you could be.” Daniel J. Boorstin, quote on a banner next to the ferry to Liberty Island
The next stop is Ellis Island itself. It is both the very well done exhibition at Ellis Island as well as the site itself that teaches the visitor about the history and that makes it possibly to grasp it, at least a little, emotionally, too. There, you get to go into the very registration hall that the immigrants sat in. Just think of all the people who waited there, people who built the United States, whose children shaped American culture. Irving Berlin. Cary Grant. The Trapp Family. They all went through the registration procedure there, proving their health and literacy and showing they had 25 dollars to enter the U.S.. Most people were admitted and many had relatives waiting for them at the gate. The officials, we learned, called it “The Kissing Gate” on the “Isle of Hope”. But some immigrants were rejected and for them Ellis Island became the “Isle of Tears”: in the audio guide, a Russian-American lady told the story of her whole family being granted entry except for their grandma who was sent back to Russia alone. She never saw her again.
I can not overemphasize how great it was to have Emily as a guide. Not only has she lived in the Big Apple for 7 years, she also knows many fun things you would probably miss if TripAdvisor was your source of information. Like when we went to Grand Central Station, which is very grand indeed, Emily put me in one corner and walked to the other side of the part of the building and talked in a normal voice that despite being way too far away for me to be audible, was perfectly clear as if she was standing next to me. The reason were the special tiles that were used in the rounded ceiling that carry sound. Terrific!
She also showed me the very futuristic Oculus, the new commuter station at the World Trade Center. Now I really want to be a New Jersey commuter to enjoy those marble staircases every day. (I have learned, though, that New Yorkers look down on suburban New Jersey.) I will admit that my very first thought coming into the Oculus was not, as the architect intended, that it as a bird being released from a child’s hand, but rather that The Hunger Games were filmed there.
There’s Chinatown, there’s Little Italy and according to me there is even Little Sweden in New York. Well, tiny Sweden.
Last Sunday, Emily and I continued our Church Tourism by attending service at the Swedish Church of New York. I’m kind of ‘collecting’ Swedish Churches abroad and it is so interesting to see how they operate in different countries, what kind of houses they have, how many people go there. The New York church has two pastors which is more than any other church I’ve been to so far has had. They also serve Philadelphia and D.C. though so I guess that makes sense. We were lucky to be there when the Örnsköldsvik youth orchestra was visiting, heightening the musical experience by a lot. So nice!
New York is also home to the Scandinavia House, the Nordic Center in America, the leading center for Nordic culture in the United States, that offers a wide range of programs. I had been reading scholarly research back in grad school about the House. Of course I wanted to assess with my own eyes if I could follow the scholar’s arguments on the architecture. However, our stay there was rather brief as those eyes decided to provide me with only a blurred version of the site and my entire body completely – and rather suddenly – „crapped out“ on me as Emily phrased it, resulting in a breakdown, an opportunity for Emily to show her excellent skills as a nurse, and my confinement to bed for 18 hours. It was awful, I don’t recommend it, especially because I missed out on meeting Emily’s friend who had come to see us. There is much better things to do in NYC than passing out in your hotel room. In the course of these events, we also accidentally left my scarf and favorite cardigan at the Scandinavia House and had to make two trips back to finally retrieve both items – it was almost like getting them new, that’s how glad I was!
“Please tell everyone in Germany that we hate Trump”, a guest at our birthday party begged me. Since I arrived, I haven’t brought up the president with anyone (except maybe Emily) because it feels wrong to visit a place and condescedingly tell the locals how to run their country. But I don’t even have to mention him, he’s the elephant in the room and Americans willingly steer the conversation toward the Trump subject.
Some of them talk about “the situation now” which sounded as if there was a war raging on home territory. Others I witnessed taking a photo of the first amendment and saying “I’ll tweet that to Trump!” I overheard bus drivers discussing which march was happening on the weekend because apparently it’s not a question of whether there are protesters but only which group is protesting this week.
When I went into a little store in Georgetown and the young shop assistant learned I was German, she said, “I probably shouldn’t be asking this, but does the German media report on American politics?” Her tone was embarrassed and it almost felt like I had to console her saying that I know not all Americans are like Trump. “At least there’s Brexit”, she said, “which makes me feel like we’re not the only country in shambles”.
Witnessing public life first hand here has actually made me, to my own surprise, more optimistic about the American people than I was before. Of course, the East Coast and urban areas are generally more liberal and progressive. But let it be known that the majority of Americans voted against Trump.
America is not just a country, America is an idea. Because when it comes down to it, this is about keeping faith with the idea of America. (Bono at UPenn andGeorgetown)