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Max Lawson ’19: Spain, Netherlands, France

Max Lawson ’19 — Thanks to the generosity of the Givens family, I was able to travel extensively within Spain, and even take excursions to the Netherlands and France in order to gain a richer and more profound understanding of the art, culture, history, and people of Europe.  With my first trip, I was able to go to Amsterdam with a group of friends I had only made a week beforehand.  It seemed crazy… getting on a plane with people who were basically strangers to go to another country that was even farther away from home than we already were. After landing on the tarmac and taking a bus from Eindhoven to Amsterdam, it was obvious that we had made the right decision.  Amsterdam, known for its tulips and otheramenities, was unlike any city I have ever visited before.  The bustling crowds (although friendly), buildings, and cobbled streets reminded me of the fast-paced streets of New York, but with Baroque architecture, all of which seemed to have been frozen in time.  It was as if an entire society had taken a time machine, but kept the amenities of the 21stcentury.  As we explored the city, we knew that museums would be necessary if we were to truly enjoy what the city had to offer.  The Anne Frank Museum, whose tickets were notorious for being sold out, was first on our list.  To our surprise and fortune, we were able to get tickets two days in advance, and were shuffling through the historic hideout in no time. While maneuvering around the house, the laughter and conversation that usually followed our group was subdued to a quiet lull, as our minds and ears were engrossed with the stories and accounts provided by the audio tour.  As we continued through the house, the tour only got more and more serial.  I was standing in the same rooms, touching the same walls, and walking across the same floors that the Franks had so many years ago.  The chills were unstoppable.  Following the Anne Frank Museum, we made our way to the Van Gogh museum, where we received an in-depth look into the mind and personal life of Vincent Van Gogh. While I was familiar with his more famous paintings such as, Starry Night, Van Gogh self-portrait, andCafé Terrace at Night, my appreciation for his lesser-known works grew as my knowledge of them did.  One of the most celebrated painters in history was an anomaly in his day, and, as a result, his feelings were translated into his paintings through the changes in his artistic style and the colors that represented them.

Following our trip to Amsterdam, the same group of friends took a trip to Madrid for the weekend, eager to see what Spain’s capital city had to offer. Immediately, we were astounded by the change in scenery when compared to Valencia.  Valencia has an older style of architecture, with certain streets and neighborhoods evolving into more modern utopias.  However, Madrid had the same hustle and bustle of many of the cities in the United States.  Hand-laid brick streets were replaced with concrete or asphalt, as cars whirred around corners.  While Madrid seemed to have evolved, the Prado Museum maintained many of the historic relics on which society was built.  Paintings of royal figures such as Philip II, Isabella Clara Eugenia, and Charles IV (whose girlfriends seemed to change as regularly as the days, and, as a result, forced Goya to paint the women alongside him with their heads turned) lined the seemingly endless corridors through which we meandered.  Of course, we got lost, but we were okay with that.  While the Prado Museum maintained a respectful and appreciate relationship to the Spain of old, the Reina Sofia seemed to have paralleled Madrid’s advanced architecture and lifestyle.  As we did in the Prado, our group perused through the different art galleries presented within the Reina Sofia.  When I heard that the Reina Sofia was the more modern of the two storied museums in Madrid, I anticipated strange, abstract pieces that didn’t make sense. Part of me was right.  Some of the pieces were…out there, to say the least. However, it was still interesting to hear the different guides give us the backgrounds on some of the pieces, even if you did have to “squint” your mind in order to see the connections. Once we were free of the dark rooms, flashing lights, and ominous noises of the modern art exhibits, we made our way to arguably the most famous painting ever, La Guernica.  Pablo Picasso’s representation of the Spanish Civil War is both immense and disturbing, both of which I’m sure he aimed to show.  The immensity, partly due to its size (nearly 11 feet tall and 25 feet wide), was complemented with the graphic depictions of the atrocities that occurred in one of Spain’s darkest periods.

Following my trip to Madrid, my mom and I worked our way up into Catalonia’s crown jewel, Barcelona.  Being a FC Barcelona fan ever since I could remember, I couldn’t wait to see what my favorite team’s city had to offer.  Similar to Madrid, parts of Barcelona were very modern; however, we stayed in a part of Barcelona known for its rich history of art and architecture, the Gothic Quarter.  Walking up and down the winding roads in the Gothic Quarter, vendors attended to their stores, selling handmade leather goods and jewelry, a friendly reminder of the days of old.  While browsing the wares at a local shoe store, I was politely informed by the owner that everything I saw were only samples; I would have to get my foot measured in order to have myshoe made.  This attention to authenticity and quality was apparent throughout the rest of the city.  Once we had finished roving through the not-so-commercial commercial sector, we made our way to the Sagrada Familia.  Perhaps Gaudí’s most famous project, it first opened in 1882, and has yet to be finished. While its astonishing visual presence, both in stature (standing at 566 feet) and content were obvious sights to be had, its history was even more intriguing.  When first learning about the Sagrada Família, I had always heard Gaudí’s named attached to it.  However, upon arriving, I learned that Gaudí had actually inherited the project from another architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, whose name is often overshadowed by Gaudí’s.  What was even more surprising to me was that Gaudí had only received his first offical commission five years prior to taking over the Sagrada Família.  On top of that, Gaudí was said to be “inconsistent” when studying architecure! After oogleing at the Sagrada Família, we made our way to the Picasso Museum, which houses a myriad of the artist’s works throughout his life.  What was most intersting to me was watching Picasso’s styles change throughout his life, varying from abstract figures composed of a few lines and limited colors, to incredibely detailed portraits of himself, his friends, and family members.

The last trip of my semester abroad was spent in Paris, a city whose name alone inspires hopelessly romantic dreams and visions in the heads of travelers worldwide. Like most of Europe, I found myself wandering the streets aimlessly, but enjoying every second of it.  In the day and a half that I spent in Paris, I was able to see some of the city’s most famous sites, such as the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, and the Notre Dame cathedral.  In the same aimless fashion that I roamed the streets of Europe, I immersed myself in the various exhibits of the Louvre, losing track of time and reality in the process.  Of course, I had to see Mona Lisa.  I had heard from others that it was smaller than expected, but it really wastiny.  As a result, the people-watching around it was almost as great seeing the painting with my own eyes.  Traveling further into the labyrinth that is the Louvre, I began to lose track of time.  The museum seemed endless, and I knew that I had to soak in every moment, every piece, and every feeling that I experienced.  In doing so, I hadn’t realized time had passed so quickly, and it was only after my friend Emily told me that we had to leave or else we wouldn’t be able to see the rest of what Paris has to offer!

After breaking free from the Louvre’s illustrious grasp, I was able to see the Arc de Triomphe, a breathtaking monument that Napoleon dedicated to The Grande Armee after conquering most of Europe.  The structure served as a celebration for those who gave their lives for their country, and serves as a constant reminder of the price some individuals paid in order to give the French their current state.  After perusing along the Seine River, we arrived at the Notre Dame cathedral.  Once inside, we were amazed by the stained-glass sunlight that bathed the walls and floors in a multi-technicolor pallet of reds, blues, and greens.

This may sound nuanced, and even elementary, but studying abroad truly opened my eyes as to how bigthe world really is.  Or, maybe I realized how small I was.  While Earth may be 24, 901 miles in circumference, which, granted, is really big, I realized while traveling how there are billions of people all around the world, just like me, whom I’ve never met.  These people, young and old, have lived experiences completely unknown to me, and I was lucky enough to share brief moments in time and space with them.  I think of James, the young Irishman I met outside of our hostel in Amsterdam, who was kind enough to let us know that we might want to move out of the doorway, as his friends were all trying to wrestle another friend of theirs into the hostel (it was his birthday, and he may have over celebrated).  I think of Mahmoud, a Moroccan immigrant living in Granada, and our conversation regarding the history of the Alhambra, and the intersection of Moroccan and Spanish culture.  He worked as a lawyer, and I was thankful for the advice he gave me as someone pursuing a career in law.  Of course, I appreciated the big things, too, like somberly walking through the Anne Frank museum, being reminded that the atrocities in the Holocaust were very real, and not just something we read in history books or autobiographies. An event that, for all of my life, has been out of sight and out of mind, had truly come to fruition in my mind.

Above all, the most valuable things I took away from study abroad are the little things, the intangible idiosyncrasies that we often take for granted: memories, laughter amongst friends, the smell of the burning Fallas, the taste of a perfectly-cooked croquet, and the hugs from a host mother.