Last Year, This Year, and New Beginnings

Posted in Academia and Research, Dreams for the Future, Family, Friends, Graduate School, Internships and Work, Love, Miscellaneous on December 22, 2010 by aprilpalo

Wow – it’s been one hell of a year!

I haven’t posted on this blog in a long time. I’m not sure why; a combination of restlessness and busy-ness, maybe. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come back, but here I am! As Sam Seaborn said to CJ Craig, “Let’s move past the fact that you’re a little late to the party and just embrace the fact that you showed up at all.” 😛

2010: Ireland, summer, and fall

At the beginning of 2010, I left for the city of Dublin in the Republic of Ireland. What followed was one of the most extraordinary, challenging, amazing, inspiring, and fun experiences of my life. It’s hard to pin down the best part…

  • Going shopping for books at Dubray’s Bookstore on Grafton Street?
  • Hitting up the weekly farmer’s outdoor market in Temple Bar?
  • Seeing a play at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin’s Chinatown district?
  • Touring the Guinness Factory – two Americans and an Australian, no less?
  • Speaking of Australians, making awesome dinner parties every week with half the Commonwealth?
  • Classes on Irish history, folklore, and religion?
  • Working in the National Archives in the department of Irish Folklore?
  • Exploring the seaside town of Howth, climbing around a centuries-old abbey, and bringing home a fresh salmon?
  • Checking out the cute, funky, fun town of Malahide, in which the local castle was less fun than the awesome town?
  • Hiking around the ancient monastic site in Glendalough and taking pictures in front of a pristine mountain lake?
  • Kayaking and mountain biking in Killarney National Park?
  • Staying in a hostel/bar in Cork, including drinking with the local Irish kids?
  • Biking around Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland?
  • Hanging around Galway, sampling the local Italian fare and fish-n-chips?
  • Wading in the Mediterranean off the coast of Barcelona while eating an ice cream cone?
  • Climbing to the tops of Barcelona cathedrals?
  • Sharing a huge frying pan of paella in Spain?
  • Seeing the Sistine Chapel?
  • Seeing La Pieta?
  • Wandering around the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica?
  • The best spinach and tomato pizza we’ve ever had, from a street vendor in a backstreet in Rome?
  • The Coliseum?
  • That time we found that amazing little restaurant just off the Piazza Navona on a glittery, rainy night?
  • That amazing hostel room with the insane blue bathroom and huge linen curtains?
  • Napping in front of the Notre Dame with the pigeons?
  • French Onion soup in an amazing little cafe not far from the Notre Dame?
  • Exploring Montmartre and checking out the hippies?
  • Pigalle subway station?
  • The Champs Elyseees and that awesome McDonalds? (Yeah, we went to a McDonalds in Paris…)
  • The view from the Sacre Couer?

Well, looking at all that, it’s really impossible to say! But after a whirlwind adventure around Ireland and Europe, we were happy to be back and settled into familiar territory in the Midwest.

In Summer 2010 I started working for the Interfaith Youth Leadership Coalition, doing youth programming and funding/development work. Chris started working full-time as a tech support and networks intern for Wells Fargo in downtown Minneapolis. We couldn’t have been luckier!

Our luck only continued.

Fall 2010 was an amazing semester for me. I completed a full courseload with some of the most challenging classes I’ve ever had, including classical Greek; I kept my research afloat and applied to the National Conference of Undergraduate Research; I had an AMAZING start to my interfaith social justice campaign; I enjoyed a great semester facilitating weekly Multifaith Alliance sessions; and I got to participate in some great reading and reflection with the Mahle program. Meanwhile, Chris made an excellent professional choice and stayed on fulltime with Wells Fargo. He is currently building transfer applications to computer science continuing education programs, where he will be finishing up his degree with WAY better credentials and industry standards.

2011: New beginnings…

In January I’m going to be taking a J-Term course, then I’m going to be completing a full courseload and my degree in one fell swoop. With any luck, I’ll be completing my senior honors thesis, presenting in Ithaca, New York, and defending my thesis before a defense committee. Plus, I’ll be wrapping up the Better Together campaign by holding monthly interfaith meals and volunteering/donations for free-case refugee resettlement in Minnesota. I’ll be finishing up my fourth year as a student leader with Multifaith Alliance [:(] And I’ll participate in the Mahle lecturer programming with Sara Miles!

By May, I’m going to graduate from Hamline, and just a month later, we’ll be getting married at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival grounds in Shakopee, Minnesota. Our wedding is going to be a beautiful little afternoon affair, full of blues and yellows, whimsy, and fun! We’re going to have some great clothes, yummy food, and the best friends and family anyone could ask for!

We’re planning a honeymoon road trip around the country (Australia and New Zealand just wasn’t in the budget, I’m afraid). Afterwards, we’ll be closing up shop, packing all of our belongings into a U-Haul, and moving to one of three cities: New York, Boston, or Chicago. In September I’ll be starting a master’s program at a theological seminary or divinity school, and Chris will be starting the last two years of his computer science degree. We’ll share a cute apartment, our cat, and — God willing — a family.

New beginnings…

I am unbelievably fortunate. By birth, circumstance, choice, and hard work, I have a whole host of assets that I can barely even comprehend. I’m a young, able-bodied woman, successful in my career, with a great home, a wonderful family, and a close-knit circle of friends. I’ve got the best partner in the world — who else gets to spend every day with their best friend, and always find something new to enjoy? I’ve had a goddamn amazing year and look forward to only more and better!

But like everyone, I’ve had some struggles. Balance and mindfulness are particular concerns for me. I’m a natural workaholic and often get so wrapped up in what I’m doing that I do not focus on my home, family, and friends.

I’ve worked hard to change that over the past year, and in the process, I have identified some core values/nourishments I want to shore up. In particular, I feel most dedicated to and most nourished by my relationship with God/religion, my relationship with my mind and body, and my relationship with my partner/family/friends.

So, this next year, I’m going to be embarking on a 12-month long “happiness project”! My happiness project will formalize these three values through 6 months’ worth of fun projects to enjoy every month, then spend 6 months developing these projects to fulfillment! Deep cleaning the apartment, scrapbooking, knitting, perfecting my bread recipe, getting back into yoga again — all of these are examples of some small projects I’ll be developing over the year. I can’t wait! I can post more on this later, I think.

Anyway, 2010 and 2011 have been amazing, and I can’t wait for the journey. Happy holidays to all!


Phillip Pullman, “His Dark Materials”

Posted in Miscellaneous, Multifaith Alliance and Interfaith Activism on April 29, 2010 by aprilpalo

“Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
OF neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked awhile,
Pondering his voyage…”

– John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II

So begins Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The books of the trilogy – Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass – compose some one thousand pages. The epic fantasy narrative takes the reader through many different worlds and characters. Textures, colors, shapes, and moments that make up HDM provide a highly sensual experience as one reads. At the same time, the intellectually and philosophically challenging material requires you to engage fully and spiritually with the text.

What’s it about?

[Spoilers ahead. Also, please read the comments to follow the evolution of this post.]

Rather than laying out the tale as it progresses, I want to reflect on the story as a whole.

Simply put, the overarching theme of the tale is “Dust”. In every parallel universe, Dust is the perfect confluence of matter and spirit; it is beautiful and anonymous, emotive and omnipresent. Dust exists in every world, and came into being when the first creatures became cognizant of themselves. Thus, Dust is most attracted to the moment when “innocence becomes experience”; it avoids children whose souls have not yet become fully formed, and is instead drawn most to adults.

Underneath the scope of Dust, the whole trilogy is concerned with a deep, deep conflict. On one hand, the Authority (God) has long boasted that he is the creator of all things. Subservient to his will, authoritarian and dogmatic churches control the world. In an Oxford parallel to ours, one such example is the Papacy; in the tale, it has now become a complex web of church-driven governmental agencies and offices (“the Magisterium”).

Underneath the Magisterium, a secret and covert agency (“the General Oblation Board”) seeks to control the mystery of Dust. Because Dust does not settle on children, the GOB severs children from their souls, and therefore prohibits Dust from being involved in their lives. This creates soulless, mindless, empty, obedient slaves. Directly responsible and keenly interested in this process, Mrs Coulter is the nemesis of the tale.

On the other hand, Lord Asriel is a rebellious, imaginative, innovative explorer. As a rebel and experimental theologian, he works for no one. As the tale begins, his mission becomes clear: he wants to break out of his own world, destabilize the Authority and the churches below it, and establish a new “republic of heaven” freed from dogmatic slavery. His relationship with Dust is mysterious, but it seems that he wants to simultaneously protect Dust and use it to his own advantage.

Caught in between these two opposing forces, Lyra (of the parallel Oxford) is the daughter of Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel. Through complex circumstances, she becomes the possessor of a magical golden compass, a mysterious dial that tells her the truth through intense meditative engagement. As her ally, she becomes friends with Will, a troubled and passionate young man from our own world. Through equally complex circumstances, he comes into possession of the Subtle Knife, a knife that can cut a window into any of the millions of parallel universes.

Using these two tools, Lyra and Will must race to stop the Authority, end the dogmatic rule of the Magisterium, eliminate the GOB and save children’s souls. Above all, they must protect the Dust and restore the worlds it enriches. With the help of polar bears, witches, a Texan zeppelin operator, ghosts, harpies, gay angels, and Lilliputian spies, the pair zip through multiple universes and survive countless harrowing adventures.

In the end, Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel both fail in their respective missions, but the Dust and all the worlds are able to be restored to a safe, vibrant, protected future.

That’s the set-up for the book. I laid it all out up front because I wanted to lay some solid groundwork for discussing themes of the text.

What did I think of it?

As far as a fantasy narrative is concerned, HDM is incredible. It’s fast, dramatic, beautiful, vibrant, and colorful. The characters and emotional themes are engaging and well-developed. Love, courage, life, sex, death, environmentalism, post-colonialism… all of these themes and more race across the pages and into the heart as one reads. I could barely turn the pages fast enough to keep up with my desire to continue the tale, and when it was finished, I was very sad to see it completed.

No, it is not as a literary piece that I’d like to discuss HDM. Instead, I am interested in the philosophical and theological picture that emerges.

On the one hand, there are definite things I love about the tale:

1. Dust. Dust is a beautiful, mythical, ingenious concept. It fits beautifully with how I feel about the way the universe works. I have always believed in some kind of universal undercurrent that eddies and flows about our lives, connecting and withdrawing from everyone and everything at once. Pullman’s depiction and emphasis on Dust is a masterstroke.

2. Pullman’s anti-dogmatic vision. The crusade to save Dust and restore the natural order of the world requires the rejection of corrupt, abusive power structures in church and government. I totally agree with Pullman’s views in this regard. I am especially in favor of his views on a “republic of heaven”. Ultimately, there can’t be one, because goodness and light is inside all of us! Spiritual truth is, simply, wherever we are!

3. Pullman’s vision of hell and heaven. Now, he never comes right out and states his vision. (It is a fantasy story after all, not a metaphysical treatise.) However, a certain vision of hell and heaven does emerge in the tale, and this is my interpretation of it. Simply put, hell is what happens when you did not love life enough. If you cannot provide a personal story full of love and passion and joy, you will not be able to pay your way to heaven. But if you can, you can travel and climb your way up to the light – and when you reach it, your soul becomes selfless and one with every atom in the universe. With a transcendent joy, you come out into the light of a beautiful pasture of trees and clouds, and immediately you become one with every dewdrop, sunbeam, leaf, sigh, tree, kiss, and moment in this universe. I think that’s beautiful.

So, there’s this deep metaphysical groove. Dust, freedom and spiritual truth for all, hell and heaven as the natural consequences of love and connectedness… it is an incredibly touching, valuable, beautiful thing.

But there are certain things I don’t like, and certain cultural and theological views that remove a lot of the joy from it for me.

1. Pullman is anti-Catholic at best and anti-Christian at worst. I know that’s a pretty strong thing to say. But Pullman’s key focus is essentially that “the Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake” (as one of the characters puts it.) He places God in the exact same blame as the authoritarian and dogmatic churches of this world. He actually depicts the death and uselessness of God in conjunction with the collapse of the Christian churches of the tale. He uses the medieval doctrine of original sin – a late Christian concept and arguably irrelevant to many Christians today – as the weapon of the Authority, the Magisterium, and the GOB. If priests and nuns are shown, they are either abusive or outright murderers. It is a vehemently anti-Catholic and possibly anti-Christian tale, without question.

2. Simplistic view. Even the anti-Catholic sentiment I wouldn’t mind so much, as long as he held an equally zero-tolerance policy towards all other religious traditions as well. (If he did, then HDM would become a unique metaphysical and spiritual approach to a non-theist worldview, a la What Dreams May Come, which would actually be pretty cool.)

But he doesn’t do that. On the contrary, other religious traditions and cultures are only brought in as direct support for his anti-Christian message. Vaguely Inuit shamans, vaguely Tibetan Buddhist tulkus, vaguely Jewish Biblical characters, and vaguely Romany nomadic communities are all brought in as support for “the good guys” in the tale. None of these religious and cultural traditions are explored in any depth; they are simply marshalled as exotic and otherworldly alternatives to authoritarian dogma. It is a very one-sided, very stereotypical view of indigenous, Buddhist, Jewish, or Romany communities. And those are just the few I can remember off the top of my head!

Concluding thoughts?

I obviously don’t know this for sure, and I’m clearly only speculating here. But ultimately, Pullman seems like the sort of person that came to hate Christianity and therefore became an atheist. In that context, anything non-Christian may be marshalled as support for a non-theist message.

It especially sucks because his whole metaphysical worldview is so cool, and so inspiring, and so beautiful – but he doesn’t let Christianity come to the table to enjoy it. I feel like if he’d done any reading or research into the early Christian community and the original message of Christ, he would recognize that God and Christ would support him!

But of course, this would require separating God and Christ from the contemporary Catholic church, which seems to be something Pullman is incapable of doing. I guess that’s the biggest shame of all. Authoritarian and dogmatic churches have robbed the Christian tradition of its ability to be seen as loving, progressive, and open-minded.

As far as an epic fantasy narrative, it’s a fantastic read and an incredibly enjoyable thrill ride. Hell, even the symbolism and mythology is highly compelling and addictive. Even as a non-theist philosophical worldview, it’s raw and beautiful and inspiring. But if you’re looking for respect or appreciation for different religious traditions, especially Christianity, please leave His Dark Materials on the shelf.

Some Pictures and a Few Thoughts

Posted in Study Abroad: The Great Adventure on April 21, 2010 by aprilpalo

It’s hard to believe this semester has whizzed by so quickly! This week is our last full week of class, next week is revision, and then we’re actually having final exams. I feel like we just got here, but then I remember how far back my first lectures were…

Galway: The view from our bed and breakfast

What’s more, we’ve only got six more sightseeing destinations left – Malahide, Kildare, Powerscourt, maybe London, the Book of Kells, and Phoenix Park – and then we’re on a plane back to the Twin Cities. It seems like we’ve barely done anything, but then I remember that we’ve already seen the Dublin Wax Museum, the National Museum, the National Library, the Guinness Factory, Howth, Galway, the Aran Islands, Cork, Killarney, Blarney Castle, Girona, Barcelona, Ciampino, Rome, Beauvais, and Paris. What an adventure!

Inis Mor: After a bike ride around the largest Aran Island

Since my recent shift in perspective and my new found appreciation for my experiences here (not just at UCD and Dublin, but Ireland and Europe generally), I’ve come to really value these last few weeks abroad. I guess the big question on my mind is: Am I ready to go home?

Cork city

The answer to that is a tough one. On the one hand, I feel like we just got here and there’s so much left to see (especially as I’ve come to really enjoy myself recently). On the other hand, Summer 2010 and the 2010 – 2011 school year is going to be some of the best times of my life!


Just in the last few weeks and days – literally! – we’ve finalized plans for some awesome upcoming stuff:

1. Our new home! We’ve seen the place, submitted our application, provided financial documents, forwarded loan applications, and – just yesterday – we delivered the signed lease and security deposit. This adorable little Highland Park studio is going to be ours!

2. Summer collab research! After a lengthy application process and some much-respected competition, I’ve found myself the honored winner of a position with the 2010 summer collaborative research program. My project – “Crosses of Straw and Stone: Saint Brigid and Narratives of Irish Catholic Observancy and Heritage” – is incredible, and I am overyjoyed to get the chance to explore it in a challenging, supportive environment.

3. Summer internship! I am officially going to be a summer intern at the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches! I will be working with the Interfaith Youth Leadership Coalition (of the Twin Cities) and with the Saint Paul Interfaith Network. I’ll be working on everything from developing media packages for training youth groups to developing networking and funding/program sustainability. I’m thrilled and couldn’t be more excited!

4. Fall 2o1o! I’ve just completed my FAFSA and registered for courses this week, so I can actually go to Hamline again this year! I’m signed up for two core classes – “The Gospels” at Hamline, and “Elementary Greek I” at Macalester. Plus, I’m going to be getting credit for my departmental senior honors thesis, which will be a year-long endeavor (culminating in a major defense and NCUR appearance in the spring). On top of that, I’ll be initiating my senior year completion of my major with the “Religion Senior Colloquium”, and last but not least, I’ll be wrapping up my study abroad experience with “Crossing Borders II”. All told, it will be fifteen credits and an absolutely perfect schedule, which will make just enough time for…

5. IFYC Fellows Alliance! Just last night, I completed my phone interview with IFYC’s offices in Chicago for a position with the program. I’ll find out in May if I’ve been accepted to join this exciting and really inspiring team. Fellows Alliance is essentially a year-long interfaith leadership training program. Fellows are equipped with grassroots programming skills and financial support, in order to pull off major interfaith community service projects and get the movement going everywhere in the country! I’m very much hoping I can be involved, and I’m really looking forward to the possibility of working with the program.

6. Mahle Scholars! The Mahle program is funded through a donation to Hamline, and incorporates a year-long educational reflection process into long-term community service programming. The application period ended on the 16th, so I should hear back about this one in May as well. I’m feeling tentatively optimistic, but I’m putting my faith in the selection committee. If God’s good graces allow me to be accepted into both the Fellows Alliance and the Mahle program, I could combine the funding into a huge, singular, incredibly well-supported capstone event! Here’s hoping… we’ll just have to see how it goes!

Blarney Castle

After the fall semester, Spring 2010 will entail completing my degree, completing my thesis, and getting married. Then the Winebrenner-Palo family will be moving to a new home. Where will that be? I’m not sure… Chicago? Maybe New York? Mystery and an exciting future lies ahead!

For now, I’m focusing on finishing up my study abroad experiences here in Ireland with flying colors and a better attitude than ever. Next time I write will probably be one of the last times – maybe even my farewell note!

Until then, be well 🙂

The Burren

Gratitude and Wonders Upon Turning 21

Posted in Study Abroad: The Great Adventure on April 12, 2010 by aprilpalo

Hello, everyone!

Admittedly, I have barely journaled at all since returning from Europe some weeks ago. Fortunately, this is not due to a depressed lack of motivation, but instead because my mind and heart have felt more stirred and alive than ever!

I feel like I’m finally developing a beautifully well-rounded, passionate, creative existence. I want to share some thoughts on this with you!

Ireland: As a result of early stresses and problems, I spent much of our first weeks and months in Ireland feeling so let down, so disappointed, and so frustrated. I wasted a lot of time on jealousy and regret. Since coming back I’ve realized what a loss that’s been, and so I’ve thrown myself more than ever into breathtaking new travel plans and experiences!

Already, we’ve visited the beautiful sixth century monastic settlement of Glendalough, the gorgeous coastal city of Galway, the green and rocky island of Inis Mor, the cute little city of Cork, and we’ve even gone kayaking and moutain biking in Killarney!

I’m going to blog more about these later – especially Galway/Inis Mor and Cork/Killarney – but for now, I just want to express that I’ve finally, finally fallen in love with Ireland, and I’m so thankful I get the chance to experience it while I can.

Life Perspective: I remember, when I first got back from Paris, I wondered how to translate my flexible, enjoyable, carefree backpacker’s life into my ordinary, hard-working, productive student’s life. Since then, I’ve come to realize the importance of taking time for my own personal fulfillment and hobbies.

Stealing a few moments to talk, relax, walk, and read for fun has made me a happier person and a better, more loving friend and partner. Sometimes it does require a delicate shifting of priorities; sometimes it does necessitate moving a little more swiftly over homework assignments. But the benefits of slowly savoring a book by Patrick Kavanagh over a cup of hot chocolate in a Galway coffeeshop, toes touching Chris’ under the table, is simply irreplaceable and uniquely inspiring. I can afford to buckle down on my efficiency if it means I can come to love and cherish my soul in this way.

Speaking of souls: Maybe it’s the recent joy and observance of Holy Week in Ireland, but every day I feel closer to God, and more receptive to the message and grace of a practicing way of life. I can’t call myself a Christian – I’m not one yet and I don’t know if I would be – but I’m growing, and it’s a powerful journey.

I’ve never felt more alive before, and every day I feel a little bit more enveloped in love. The details of my specific theological viewpoints are still present, of course, but they seem to be taking a backseat to the overall importance of a loving, guided, joyous, community way of life. I’m looking forward to cultivating this further!

Nourishment and fitness: Food, health, and home goals have been so much fun! Chris and I have been fully self-catering for the last few weeks, and I’ve never had more fun with grocery shopping and meals! Planning and carefully selecting meals for the week creates a better, more responsible grocery trip and a connected, less wasteful week. It’s been a blast to pick out dishes and ingredients, cooking often and wasting less. We’re saving a lot of money too!

I’ve also taken up yoga and pilates, and I’ve begun to get serious about walking and/or running every morning. I feel too wonderful to pass up the opportunity to improve my body, my health, my fitness, my shape, and my continued wellbeing and happiness. I’m being given a gift with this life, and I can’t waste it!

As far as home is concerned, we’re beginning the first steps of a long journey towards our dream: living in a fully self-sustaining farm/cottage. That means we’re starting to learn some skills and habits now! Our first goal is to use (and dispose of) way less plastic. I’m really excited to learn!

Summer awesome: Lastly, I’ve gotten some really good news in the past few weeks! First things first, Chris and I have officially nailed down an adorable little studio apartment in the Highland Park area, right next door to Ellen and Adam and Mikayla!

Second, my internship is going to be absolutely awesome – I’m going to be working for Saint Paul Area Council of Churches, the Interfaith Youth Leadership Committee, and the Saint Paul Interfaith Network! Mostly I’m going to be working on developing training packages for area religious communities and working on funding/development for interfaith non-profits. Amazing!!

And best, best, best, best, best, BEST of all – I won a position with the 2010 summer collaborative research program! I am going to be spending all summer doing the legwork and drafting my senior honors’ thesis: “Crosses of Straw and Stone: Brigid and Cultural Narratives of Irish Catholic Observance and Heritage”. It’s going to be SO exciting and such an amazing, learning, growing, awesome time! This summer is going to be great!

So, thank you, life. Thank you, universe. Thank you, love. Thank you God, whatever you may be. I love everything and I am so, so, so grateful to be alive for these twenty-one beautiful years!

Up next, I’m going to be putting up some posts and pictures about our recent adventures in Glendalough, Galway, and Cork. Between working really hard on homework this week and going to the Guinness Factory this weekend, it might be a little while in coming, so please be patient! Thanks!

Europe 2010 Trip: “We’ll Figure It Out” (Rome)

Posted in Study Abroad: The Great Adventure on March 24, 2010 by aprilpalo


I wrote this section of the journal while waiting for our flight to take off for Beauvais, France. It was about 7:00 am and an early morning sunrise crept up over the Italian hillside outside the airport. We’d just completed the second leg of our whirlwind European adventure: four days in Rome, Italy!

“Oddly enough,” I wrote, “Rome was something of a mixed bag. Coming fresh from Barcelona, it’s possible that our judgment was a little skewed. Either way, we discovered a definite mix of pros and cons about Italy’s ‘Eternal City’.

“Rome is rather tough. An overstressed infrastructure, aided and abetted by Italian tax evasion, makes Rome’s sanitation and road services groan under the weight of citizens and tourists. Even priceless world heritage sites like the Colosseum appear depressed and delapidated. Garbage collects on every street corner, and every bus and train is pockmarked with graffiti. The homeless are an unforgettable feature of the landscape.

“Perhaps worst and most troubling of all are Rome’s itinerant pushers of goods, flowers, toys, scarves, et cetera. They are persistent and rude, thrusting items into your face at every turn. Sometimes they even hand it to you outright, showering you with compliments and praise, telling you it’s free… and then when you turn to go, they hold out their palm and demand “a little something”.  Ordinarily I would feel bad for people forced to make a living in such a fashion, but their utter rudeness and corrupt methods made me really uncomfortable. What with all these aspects of the Roman terrain, it can be a really difficult city for North Americans to deal with.

“But Rome wasn’t all bad! In fact, we had some of the best times of the whole trip in this ancient, crowded Italian city. Our hostel was clean, spacious, full of friendly and multilingual staff, and complete with perks like free computer use, free wifi, free breakfast, and a free nightly pasta and wine dinner! Our room was huge and enjoyed a big shuttered window; the bathroom was gorgeous glittering blue tile, and the sun shone through a tiny garden courtyard window!

“Easily the most fascinating part of the trip for me was the history. In Barcelona, our exposure to history was primarily the 1900s – 1930s bourgeois art/architecture/philosophy revolution – Picasso, Dali, Gaudi, and so forth. It was hugely interesting, of course, but Rome opened up so many more opportunities for learning! The Roman empire was one of the greatest civilizations of the human age. Christian Rome is worth the trip alone. And Italy played an irreversible role in World War II and the development of fascism – this all in one city!

“One thing that really stuck out to me is the interconnectedness of different historical legacies and traditions. The Egyptians enslaved the Jews and formulated the basis for the offshoot of Christianity. The Christian tradition was codified in Greek and Greek copies became famed Roman prizes. The Romans sacked Jerusalem, used the booty to build the Colosseum, and persecuted Christian martyrs in the arena; years later, Christian popes consecrated the location and keep Roman artifacts in the Vatican Museum. Pictures on walls detail the rise and expansion of the Empire as far west as the Celtic and Roman British islands of Britannia, while the split and decline of the empire provided the necessary weak point for the growth of Islamic conversion and settlement. The connections are mind-blowing, and in Rome, they can be found around every cobblestoned street corner.

“Speaking of street corners, it would be good to provide a little recap of the trip and our walking/metro tour of Rome. Let’s go, shall we?

Day 1

“First, we had an absolute bitch of a time getting to Rome at all. We woke up an hour late and didn’t realize it until we’d missed our shuttle bus and were standing in the dark, empty ticket station, wondering why the 5:00 am bus wasn’t listed. But ultimately we were able to get there, take a shuttle bus from Ciampino, and grab a train at the Anagnina metro station. From there, we rode the subway to the Termini station (the main thoroughfare for subways, buses, trains, and airport shuttles) before walking down Via Gaeta to our hostel.

“Next, we walked down to Piazza Reppublica and enjoyed our first sight of Roman piazzas. Piazzas are central parks and squares situated between ordinary roads, and they are the center of daily Roman urban life and tourism.

Piazza Reppublica

“Grabbing a thick, hot, crunchy square of pizza from a tiny pizzeria, complete with whole spinach leaves and quartered romato slices, we headed down some steps and explored Colonna Traiana, the Monumento a Vittorio Emmanuel II, and part of the Fori Imperiali.

“The Monument was pretty awesome. A huge white palace serves as the monument for the first king and father of modern-day Italy, the ceremonial resting place for Italy’s unknown soldier, and the location of museum exhibits on Italian military history. The Fori Imperiali is a road stretching the length of the Roman forum and ending at the Colosseum (where we excitedly snapped some pictures)!

View of the Colonna, with the Monumento in the background

Statue on the Monumento

View from the Fori Imperiali

Chris and the Colosseum

Me and the Colosseum

“Next, we looped around the exterior of the Colosseum and headed up Via Cavour past Santa Maria Maggiore – a huge cathedral with a fountain and obselisk in front – before heading back home for a little rest.

Day 2

“In the morning, we hopped on the metro and zipped straight over to Ottaviano station. Walking down the street a few blocks, we finally arrived at the destination I’d been waiting for the whole trip – St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museum, and Vatican City herself. Vatican City is one of three sovereign states in Roman city limits and is home to the Pope and the upper echelon of the Catholic hierarchy.

“There was a long line at the Basilica, but with the statues, the obelisk, the fountain, the fluttering pigeons, and the whispering cloaks of passing priests and nuns, we had more than enough to keep our attention!

“We started by heading up the 551 increasingly steep steps to the very top of the dome of the Basilica, where we circled the dome and enjoyed utterly spectacular views of the entire Roman landscape. Next, we journeyed back down and through the huge, ornate, fantastically painted chapel. Ceilings, arches, frescos, paintings, and statues towered high above our heads in that holy place, and candles flickered even against the sunshine.

Michelangelo's "La Pieta"

“Ducking out for a bit of lunch, we got scammed at a snack bar and paid 32 euro for reheated Americanized Italian. It was a waste of money and time, we learned at that point to avoid the flashy tourist trap restaurants. 😦 Then we headed over to the Vatican Museum!

“The Vatican Museum was, in a word, extraordinary. It’s enormous and full to the brim with artwork, artifacts, mummies, tapestries, maps, busts, and more. By the time we made it even halfway through, we were utterly overwhelmed and overstimulated by constant, ever-present beauty. At the same time, throngs of loud tourists and schoolgroups crowded every hallway and flashbulbs blinded every few seconds. By the time we reached Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel, both of these situations had come to a head: Slack-jawed and awe-struck, we stared in fascinating up at that beautiful, gorgeous, holy, famous place, taking in every leaf and angel and cloud and flower, not knowing where to look first. At the same time, three hundred other tourists crowded around us and jostled our shoulders, using the flash when they weren’t supposed to, and museum security guards waded through the masses shouting “Silence!” and “No photos!” Completely fried and finished, we left and passed swiftly through the rest of this dazzling museum.

Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel

… To be continued! Next up: the Piazza Navona, the Colosseum, the Forum Romano, the Palatine Hill and gardens, Circus Massimo, Ponte Fabricio and the island of Isola and Tiberinia, Area Sacra (and a nearby synagogue), Spagna and the Trinita Dei Monte, San Giovanni Laterano, and more Rome than you can imagine!

Check back soon!

Europe Trip 2010: “We’ll Figure It Out” (Barcelona)

Posted in Uncategorized on March 22, 2010 by aprilpalo

At long last, here is the tale of our Spring Break backpacking trip through Europe! Written in cafes, on planes, and in several different cities, this post chronicles our sights and adventures. Plus, I’m throwing in a few pictures for good measure!


“Barcelona is an amazing city. It’s beautiful, clean, stately, and enjoys a perfect location on the Mediterranean coast. Complete with spacious shopping districts, packed historical quarters, and trendy tourist/nightlife areas, Barcelona has set the bar very, very high for the rest of our European adventure. It’s interesting to note what I love about Barcelona in comparison to Dublin, Chicago, and MSP (the main cities in my life right now). What do I like? What works for my tastes? What do I enjoy?

“However, our trip hasn’t always been so crystal-clear and fun. Here’s what yesterday (8 Mar 2010) was like.

Day 0

5:00 am: Woke up. Cold shower. No heat.
6:30 am: Caught AirCoach to Dublin Airport.
7:30 am: Arrived at Dublin Airport.
8:15 am: Checked in and waiting at our gate.
9:15 am: Boarding delayed.
9:45 am: Flight delayed.
10:00 am: Flight departs for Girona, Spain.
1:00 pm: Flight diverted from Girona due to weather conditions. We land in Reus, Spain.
4:00 pm: After a three hour wait, the first available shuttle bus departs from Reus for Barcelona. Bus ride is estimated to be one hour. We anticipate a smooth trip and are optimistic, especially since we’d called our hostel via payphone to delay arrival time.
8:30 pm: The bus arrives at Sants station in Barcelona. Yes, that’s right – a one hour bus ride became four and a half, through piling snow in Barcelona’s first snowstorm in over five years. While on the bus ride – trying to call our hostel to delay our arrival time again – we learned my phone wouldn’t work. This necessitated a long phone conversation with O2 (the phone company) while stopped on the freeway in a blizzard.
8:45 pm: We take the subway. HostelEurope’s directions were wrong and implied that the hostel was only a few blocks’ walk from the main station. Not so – the hostel was actually located halfway across town near a different station. At night. In a snowstorm. In a country where we don’t speak the language. The line for the taxi was fifty to sixty people long, so we just had to gear up and take the subway regardless.
9:30 pm: We arrive in the area of the hostel. Again, our directions were wrong, so we count on a phone conversation with the hostel operator to show us the way. At last, we find it!
10:30 pm: Seven and a half hours after our anticipated arrival time, we check in, settle into our room, and finally post on Twitter to let our friends and family know we’d arrived safely. Fortunately, the hostel is swanky, clean, well-kept, and run with our age group in mind – warm and bright, with big common areas full of chatty twentysomethings!
11:00 pm: At long, long, long last, we grab our first bite to eat since Reus at a tapas restaurant on a nearby street corner. Despite our trouble, we’re impressed with Barcelona and excited to be here.

First snowstorm in Barcelona in over five years.

“Today (9 Mar) was just as jampacked with events, but just as awesome and fun as yesterday was awful and terrifying. After a cozy sleep, we hopped up, took warm showers, and took off out the door to see the city! Here’s a rundown of our day.

Day 1

1. Walked up Diputacio to Placa de Toros – a stadium with a monument (presumably for bullfighting). Closed, but the building was gorgeous.

2. Walked up Marina to the infamous, world-renowned Temple de La Sagrada Familia. Sagrada Familia is Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi’s most famous and awe-inspiring work. The cathedral towers high above the city streets, pointed spires glistening in the sun. Gaudi designed the whole place at the precise intersection of math/geometry and spirituality/nature. Construction work made the cathedral impossible to enjoy fully (especially as the stairs to the upper level were barricaded), but the building was extraordinary and the museum was awesome. Plus, we got to enjoy empanadas and orange juice at a little local cafe nearby, so that was awesome and delicious!

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

3. We walked over to Passeig de Gracia and turned south onto Barcelona’s major shopping thoroughfare. Dotted with shops, malls, theatres, and museums (two of which we planned to visit the next day), it was nice to walk, enjoy the sunshine, and check out the city on foot.

4. Making a quick stop at Placa de Catalunya, we really enjoyed the fountains, statues, courtyard, pigeons, and beautiful sunshine views of the surrounding city!

Placa de Catalunya

5. At this point, we really hit our stride and the heart of the city. Our next stop was possibly the high point of my day: visiting the Catedral de Barcelona. This 11th century Spanish Catholic cathedral is hushed, ancient, and enormous. It’s capped off with a gorgeous quiet courtyard sanctuary complete with statues, swimming ducks, and a carefully guarded museum. Bust of all, we got to climb to the roof of the cathedral and view the entire expanse of the sprawling Spanish coastal city from above. It was truly a spectacular experience and one of my favorites so far.

Sleeping in the sunshine


View from the roof

6. After the cathedral, we walked down through El Barri Gotic (“The Gothic Quarter”). It really is the old city – original walled streets and houses tucked right up to the coast. Thanks to no traffic and cozy, twisting paths, the Quarter was quiet and romantic. In some ways it reminded me of the Spain I’d imagined, an idealized Spain, a land of tiny apartments and sunshine and fluttering white laundry in the breeze.

The Gothic Quarter

7. Next, we walked along the beachfront marina, enjoying the palm trees and statues (including a giant lobster!) before walking down the boardwalk. The boardwalk led to a very Navy Pier-esque shopping area, conference center, and aquarium – trendy and touristy, and rather too expensive for our tastes. So we zipped back on land and headed off towards the park.

We named him "Lobster Friend"

Palm trees and Barcelona!

8. The park is actually bordered by the grounds of the Zoo and Parliament, and is dotted with trees, statues, and wide dirt paths. Easily the coolest part of the park was a gigantic steps/statue/fountain/pool structure – stairs, columns, splashing water, golden monuments, and statues all glittered in the sunset, and it was really beautiful and picturesque.


9. Finally, we headed up the park towards the Arc de Triomf, Barcelona’s version of the (much larger) Parisian Arc. We finished up our sightseeing for the day by journeying up through the Arc and dallying up the wide pathway. We finished the night by heading back to our a hostel for a much-needed break, rest, and dinner before sleep and Day 2 of Barcelona!

Day 2

1. Started the day at la Casa Batllo – another Gaudi work. Batllo was actually cooler than Sagrada Familia, in our opinion. The place was a lot more homey, natural, detailed, and available for exploration to its fullest extent. The home is a multi-level masterpiece of woodwork, glass, sculpture, and smooth curves – all modeled after water and nautical life! Awesome!

The rooftop!

2. Then we walked up to La Pedrera – yep, you guessed it, another Gaudi! The building is a renovated apartment building and a striking feature of brick, arches, and an amazing rooftop view, affording rich vistas of all the surrounding city.

La Pedrera

3. Next, we passed back through Placa de Catalunya (because it was just so beautiful the first time) and took off on La Rambla. La Rambla is a long, tree-lined tourist shopping lane complete with creepy street performers, flower stalls, and (inexplicably) pets for sale. (?!?) While neither of us were altogether impressed, we enjoyed La Boqueria – the HUGE marketplace! I have never seen a marketplace like this in my life. Meats, cheeses, fish, veggies, fruits, nuits, seafood, spices, desserts, olives, a tapas bar, and a cafe or two made this market a must-see and real treat for foodies like us. We were sorry to go!

La Boqueria

The motherload

4. We walked down the marina waterfront again, but this time we darted off in a different direction: towards the Museu Picasso, a museum dedicated to the works and life of Spanish painter Pablo Picasso. The museum was HARD to find, and we retraced and redoubled our path more than once, but eventually we made it. The museum really showcased the evolution of Picasso’s life and corresponding paintings, and we really enjoyed getting the chance to see it. Plus, on the way there we got to split chocolates from a little chocolate shop nearby a little alley! They looked like buttons! Cute!

5. Unsure of what to do next, we slowed down and let the city take us wherever it wanted us to go. Journeying back over to La Rambla, we enjoyed – no, loved – no, devoured – an enormous hot pan full of absolutely AWESOME paella: rice in a creamy sauce, vegetables, whole shellfish, squid, crab, mollusks, the whole works. Paella is a Spanish food tradition and I was delighted to find it!

6. After dinner, we wandered back down La Rambla and headed down the Barceloneta boardwalk towards the beach. Picking up a couple of gelato cones, we licked our cones and meandered down towards the water. A funny pair we made: ice cream cones and the beach in woolen hats and 38 degree weather! I found a little rock and splashed and played on the sand, nearly getting surprised by a wave in the process!

7. Afterwards, we walked down the whole area, past the occasional rollerblader or sandcastle, and caught a few distant glimpses of glittering Barcelona nightlife. At the end of the night, we caught a final metro subway train back to our hostel for a quick, cozy night’s sleep. That was the end of our Barcelona adventure.

Hopefully these words and photos give some insight into the beauty, fun, tastes, sights, sounds, and experiences of our time in Spain. It was a trip to die for and a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Plus, we brought back some extraordinary pictures, memories, and a souvenir or two, so we’ll always be able to reflect on what an awesome treasure Barcelona was.

Rollercoasters, New Hope, and Sufjan Stevens

Posted in Study Abroad: The Great Adventure on March 5, 2010 by aprilpalo

This new blog post actually happens in two parts. I wrote the first part on March 2 and I wrote the second part today. The first post is rather depressing, but the newest one is a definite improvement (and includes pictures and videos!) Read and enjoy!

2 March 2010

It’s been a long month.

Well, not really. As a matter of fact, I can’t believe it’s March already. I feel like we just got here and already our semester is half over. But at the same time, a lot’s happened. In some ways I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’ve been really up and down these last few weeks and month(s) in Ireland.

Some days I wake up bright and energized. I’m proud to be here, enjoying where I am and what I do. My classes at UCD are inspiring, I’m living in one of the most enriching cities in Europe, I’ve got good friends on both sides of the pond, and the future looks bright.

Other days, I wake up and my only resolve is to get through the day so I can come home and veg out. UCD is a vapid, boring, racist, sexist party school. Dublin is cold and overcast. I feel isolated and alone, and thinking about the future only makes me want to sleep for hours.

There are a lot of reasons for this emotional rollercoaster, I think:

  • I am still adapting to the academic pace and structure at my new school.
  • I am still adjusting to the culture and unfamiliarities of life in Dublin.
  • Simultaneously, I’m making some great friends and also feeling stifled by other Americans.
  • I’m scared of going to Europe.
  • I’m frustrated and unmotivated by summer collaborative research.
  • I pretty much can’t stop thinking about my dream farmhouse cottage and adopting a puppy and having a baby.
  • I want to feel connected to the seasons and my spirituality, but I feel at a dead end.
  • I’m lonely without Chris around all the time, but at the same time, I wish it was easier to separate and enjoy some separate experiences.
  • Authenticity – What is it? Why am I so dead-set on how this experience is supposed to go?

So, you see, there are a lot of pots on the stove. None of them are boiling particularly hard, but taken together, it’s a lot to keep an eye on. From UCD to Dublin, from friendships to futures, from spiritual needs to emotional ones… I’m a pretty mixed bag right now, and I can’t quite seem to pull it together.

I wish I could share all the lovely things I’ve seen and done over the past month – because, believe me, some of my experiences have been amazing lifetime memories! But I’m simply not inspired. I don’t have it in me to gush over farmer’s markets and movies, wax museums and romantic dinners, first-time drunkenness and making love, dinner parties and birthday pub crawls, rainbows and snowy miracles. All I seem to want to do is sleep and stress. I’ve got a ton of tasks left to accomplish this upcoming week, but instead I just want to curl up into a ball and fret/tense instead.

It’s a little messed up and I’ll be the first one to admit it. It’s like with all the yo-yo’ing I’ve been doing, my fun experiences become trifling annoyances, and my genuine priorities become distracting stressors. That’s pretty screwed up and I’m not quite sure how to deal with it.

Tonight [2 March] I am going to finish up my dinner, roll up my sleeves, and start pounding out some tasks. I don’t want to do it, but I know that if I don’t, I’ll be letting myself down. Maybe I’ll feel better soon!

At this point, I put away my journal and set to work pulling my life together. Here are my new, most recent thoughts.

5 March 2010

Reading back over what I wrote less than a week ago, I am shocked at how quickly I can change, grow, and improve. Perhaps journaling equipped me with the insight and motivation to better my outlook? I’m not really sure. But since the first entry, I feel like a fresh person – scrubbed clean and raw, awake and present.

During this time, I have been listening to Sufjan Stevens, Death Cab for Cutie, Snow Patrol, Feist, and Postal Service incessantly. I feel like “I Will Possess Your Heart” and “For the Widows In Paradise” have seriously helped pull me where I am right now. It sounds weird, but some songs really do drag you where you need to be. I’d like to share them with you.

… Anyway, UCD still pretty much sucks, but the weather has been beautiful. Blue skies, clear, sunny days, and  the crisp air of new springtime make me feel bright and positive like never before. My classes are going well, and I feel like I’ve finally settled into a successful routine as far as my courses and workload is concerned. Having all my tasks properly organized and feeling confident about my studies makes me feel really good!

I’m feeling better about Dublin, too. I’ve had a great time roaming around the city and getting exposed to some new sights and sounds. I finally feel comfortable here, and I feel like I can navigate my way around pretty competently. I love riding the bus, and use my Rambler pass practically every day. Lounging in the top level of the doubledecker, the sun shining in through the glass windows, rumbling through the narrow streets – there’s nothing quite like it.

I’ve been feeling really loved by all my friends recently, too. Here in Dublin, I know that at any moment, I can call up Matt or Dimity or Kelsey or Damian or Siti, or any of my roommates, and we can all have a dinner party or go out to the pubs. I walk through campus and people recognize me, they call out, they say “Hello!” For the first time, I feel really capable of recognizing just how fortunate I am to have made some good friends here. And then, when I’m home or on my computer, my Gmail Inbox and Facebook is full of dear old friends from Minnesota and Iowa, shooting me a message here and there, writing me an email or two, letting me know they care and they’re interested in my life. It’s an incredibly valuable thing to come home and find emails or chats from some of the people who have become sisters and brothers to me. (Emily, Abbie, Ben, Alex, Guy – I’m lookin’ at you!)

In relationship with Chris, too, things are definitely feeling better. We’re trying this new thing – we call it “Operation Boomerang” – where we spend time separately during the weekdays, but then come together again for the occasional weeknight dinner and weekend trips. It’s really working out well so far – we each get to experience some separate stuff, and when we do get to spend time together, we both appreciate each other a lot more! So, I’m feeling really good about that!

As far as spiritual and emotional needs are concerned, I’ve been able to create a mental shift in my outlook away from present-tense frustration, and towards future possibilities. For example, even though right now I might be frustrated by my inability to figure out a spiritual/religious community, I feel confident that I’ll get there in the future. For another example, even though right now I feel distanced from my dream farmhouse and dream babies, I’m thinking of ways I can change my lifestyle or adopt new skill sets in order to prepare for that future. Does that make sense?

Before, I wasn’t feeling up to discussing the lovely, fun things I was doing. But now, by flipping a mental switch in my head, I feel prepared to share all the really awesome stuff I’ve been experiencing! Rather than writing a whole lot, take a look at these pictures:

Also, I’d mentioned earlier that my genuine priorities had become distracting stressors. I’m proud to say that I feel pretty back on-track now. My big issue was preparing my summer collaborative research application (which had gone totally off the rails), but now I’ve gotten back on the rails, and actually finished a complete first draft! Once that application is submitted, all my main goals – my degree, my scholarship programs, my research opportunities, my extracurricular involvements, my internships, my work experience – will be mere inches away from legitimate completion. That’s a phenomenally empowering feeling.

One last note: I am currently preparing and packing for a whirlwind Spring Break Europe trip. On Monday Chris and I are leaving Dublin for Barcelona, Rome, and Paris. We won’t be back until March 22!

As far as communication goes, we will have Internet access (occasionally), but it will be intermittent, and we will not have cell phones. So, this will be the last you’ll hear from me for nearly another month. I’m sorry about that, but next time, I’ll be prepared with tons of pictures of Spain, Italy, and France!!

For the time being, I’ll leave you with another song that’s helped change my life. Maybe it will change yours, too.

Everything is lost
But I know that you can take it to the Lord
Everything you want
Is it all that you can gather for yourself?
Do you love a lot?
It’s the love that changes gifts to everyone
Illinois is lost
Is it strange that you perpetuate yourself?
You wonder what it costs
It’s the joy that he will carry to the door
Everything is lost
Still I know that you can take it to the Lord
(All that he has given to the world)