Poetry And Music Are Not Dead

Lay Me Downby Sam Smith, James Napier, and Elvin Smith

(1)   Yes,

(2)   I do,

(3)   I believe

(4)   That one day I will be

(5)   Where I was,

(6)   Right there,

(7)   Right next to you.

(8)   And it’s hard

(9)   The days just seem so dark

(10) The moon,

(11) And the stars,

(12) Are nothing without you.

(13) Your touch,

(14) Your skin,

(15) Where do I begin,

(16) No words

(17) Can explain

(18) The ways

(19) I’m missing you.

(20) Deny

(21) This emptiness, this hole I have inside

(22) These tears

(23) They tell their own story

(24) You told me not to cry when you were gone

(25) But the feeling’s overwhelming, it’s much too strong

Chorus

(26) Can I lay by your side?

(27) Next to you, you.

(28) And make sure you’re alright.

(29) I’ll take care of you

(30) And I don’t want to be here if I can’t be with you tonight.

(31) I’m reaching out to you.

(32) Can you hear my call?

(33) The hurt that I’ve been through…

(34) I’m missing you,

(35) I’m missing you like crazy.

(Chorus)

(36) Lay me down tonight.

(37) Lay me by your side. (both lines, x2)

(38) Can I lay by your side?

(39) Next to you, you.

This song is a profound poem about love, life, and loss. I didn’t truly appreciate this song until recently. Nevertheless, I’m moved by this song and I want to share my thoughts; I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, which, to me, means that the need to get my thoughts down is too great to ignore.

To begin, this song is clearly about the singer’s loss of love. We don’t initially know what that loss entails: did they leave them[1]? Move away? Move on? We eventually find out that they’ve passed on, tellingly in the chorus. Up to the pre-chorus (lines 24-25) we only know that they’ve left; however, the chorus implies a permanent separation: death. Lines 26-27 are the singer pleading to crawl into the coffin with their lover. The depthless sadness that would invoke this desire is staggering; it is not a whimpering thought but a wail, reflected in the long, suspended high G throughout most of the solo of line 26. This particular musical line is smooth, composed mainly of half notes, mirroring the constancy of both sorrowful wailing and of a mind infatuated, entrapped by their lost love.

These competing emotions of sadness and love are evident throughout the song. In just the first two verses and pre-chorus: lines 8-12 reveal the singer’s pain in living without their lover; lines 13-14 recall fond physical attributes; lines 16-19 demonstrate devastating loss in the inability to physically speak and the inability to understand the grief with language; lines 20-23 both utilize metaphors and similes of lost love; and lines 24-25 show intense grief, the abandonment of control. Importantly, the intense imagery is both physically real- the feeling and visuals of tears streaming down your face- and metaphorical- an empty hole where their lover once was. This captures the complex nature of love and loss as both intensely real but unable to be fully understood or described by simple words.

Furthermore, it is not a sexual love: it is deeply intimate. The singer does not want to passionately embrace their love, but, simply, make sure their lover is alright (line 28). This timeless, gentle concern for their lover’s wellbeing, whether in a sense of heaven or hell or in the sense of bodily decomposition, reveals a form of love beyond physical lust. The singer, even in their lover’s death, wants only to take care of them (line 29). This is such a simple thought that reflects, in reality, a much more complex idea: caring for a dying person involves immense physical and emotional labor. However, having gone through the process once, the singer’s ultimate torture comes from not being able to care for their lover once more; they would rather face being belabored by the physical demands of death and the emotional demands of knowing that your lover is going to die than actually be without them.

Listeners can also understand the temporality and ephemerality of the love through the song’s intense imagery. As mentioned, the lover’s temporality is cemented in their skin and touch and comparison to decidedly ‘real’ objects of the moon and stars. However, the skin and touch are now gone, and the moon and stars are present but unreachable, alluding both to the timelessness and ephemerality of love. To overcome this sense of physical loss, the singer implores to lay with their lover in their coffin, right by their side where they had promised in the marriage vows to be in life and, perhaps, in death. Of course, this cannot be. The very real line between the living and the dead precludes the singer from ever seeing their lover’s body again, leaving only fleeting, fading memories.

Furthermore, line 31 shows that the singer is reaching out to his deceased love, both literally in the desire to lay in the coffin and figuratively in singing a song of remembrance. Blurring the lines of temporality and ephemerality further, he asks the non-rhetorical question “Can you hear my call?” Of course, in this case there is no response. Also, his literal tears implied in lines 24-25 reflect the tangible effects of intangible feelings of sorrow. Tears eventually dry, blurring and delineating reality and memory, temporality and ephemerality.

Let us now return to the framework of death. The very first few lines of the song is not sung “Yes, I do, I believe” but with distinct pauses: “Yes. I do. I believe.” The music pauses after each of these lines, giving the lyrics additional function. Viewed as separate thoughts, they become clear: the lover agreeing to a marriage proposal, and the iconic agreement in the marriage ceremony. The irony is that during life, the love is presumed to last forever; during death, however, the love is seen as forever lost. It is also interesting that we piece together their life and death retroactively, only seeing the first lines as moments of life after figuring out that the singer’s lover has died. The lyricist is playing with time, emphasizing both its temporal linearity in our ability to understand the added meaning of the line and the inevitable degradation of our memories, the inevitable degradation of the past.

The lyricist brilliantly incorporates these key moments of their love- temporal time capsules of a time and place- into a longer sentence that questions when the singer will rejoin their lover. This playfully inverts the idea that love is timeless and forever by making the exemplars of love- proposal and marriage- finite and questioning at what single moment they will be rejoined. There is hope in this thought, however, and this positivity is reflected at the beginning of all three verses. The latter half of all the verses and the rest of the song is not as positive, though; this fighting of positivity and negativity ends after the 3rd verse, only halfway through the song.

It is at this point that the song shifts dramatically starting at line 36. The background switches to a jaunty, sharp, staccato march, very different from the soft and flowing verses or the imploring, sorrowful chorus. The march- reminiscent of a march of soldiers rushing toward their swift demise, of the Trail of Tears or the walk to the guillotine, of a beginning and ending point- is the background of the singer’s suicide attempt. They no longer ask to lay by their lover’s side, they utter an imperative, a command: lay me down tonight. The two imperatives repeat, perhaps their mustering of courage or their two attempts.

The song, staying true to its blurring of life and death, of reality and memory, of temporality and ephemerality, does not tell us if the singer lives or dies. The march ends, and the song quickly after it, perhaps signaling the few moments before poison or a noose ends the singer’s life. Or perhaps line 38 implies a failed attempt: the singer no longer commands to be by their lover’s side, but once again in the throes of sorrow pleads for, but does not, cannot bring themselves to initiate, death.

I believe that the attempt is successful. Beyond being the title of the song, the song’s positivity in the former half of the verses reflects the emotional rollercoaster of fond memories being overcome by grief and transitioning to trying to kill yourself. It also reflects the greater structure of positivity in the song: the hopeful beginning is replaced by the brisk bridge and ends in sorrow, representing the fondness being replaced by death. The starting point of both lines of positivity is the ephemeral, memories; however, the ending of both is temporal, suicide. This alludes to the singer’s death just as the song itself never explicitly mentions or describes the lover’s death. This is an existential position, however: if only life can be described, what is death? The existentialism further reinforces the idea of the suicide as successful, because if life is meaningless then so is its end.

This poem reflects the tragedy of both the realness and inevitable degradation of memory; the blurring of real temporality and fleeting ephemerality; the cyclicality of time and retroactive building of meaning and importance; and concurrent intensity of love and loss. Modern music often lacks this depth; however, Lay Me Down is a refreshing, if tragic, reminder not only that music can be meaningful but that life and loss are meaningful as well.

[1] Please note, I use the third person neutral pronoun purposefully to preserve the neutrality of the song itself (i.e. it’s gender-neutral language). I believe that this was purposeful to make any audience able to empathize with its meaning.

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Liberal Nonsense: Voluntary Childlessness

Going to college in liberal Ann Arbor, I am barraged on all sides by leftist propaganda on a daily basis. From women wanting more than just the vote, to the gays wanting to buy a wedding cake, to having it be okay for illegal aliens to take over our country one job at a time, I’ve been the victim of ideological indoctrination since I first stepped on campus. (My only release was Econ 101. Keynes calms me.) I expected to be weathered down by all this nonsense, however I was truly blindsided with one particular idea: the notion that a couple could choose not to have children, to choose to be childfree. This blasphemous bastardization of God’s plan incited within me a righteous rage, and I am taking it upon myself to beat down this idea once and for all and take you down the road most travelled by to reach happiness.

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To begin, I’d like to outline how and why we have children. Not the mechanics, save that for the honeymoon suite. No, I want to talk about what makes our society pronatalist, which means that we favor those with children over those without. It starts off with biology: even though our world and society is overpopulated and we’re quickly stripping the Earth of Her natural resources at an untenable rate and we’ve medically advanced beyond the need to mate to ensure species survival, as mammals we are biologically inclined to mate anyways. Even more important, though, is that God has said so. Starting with Genesis 1-2, the only reason Adam needed Eve (and thus man woman) is to not be “lonely,” and thus to make more humans by procreating; otherwise, what real purpose does Woman hold? We see more evidence in Genesis 1:28 (Be fruitful and multiply) and Matthew 10:14 (He [Jesus] said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these”). Pope Francis himself said that’s couples without children are selfish, which as we all know means it must be true due to the concept of papal infallibility explained and doctrinally established at Vatican I. The Church has made clear that marriage is for child-rearing, so it’s time to put down that martini and buy some oysters and chocolate.

Just for the sake of argument, I will continue to dispel this myth for those who have strayed from the Faith by asking a simple question: if you don’t have children, what will your life be like when you grow old? Your bloodline will end with you so you’ll be lonely (remember Adam!), unsupported physically, financially, and emotionally, and you’ll end up regretting your decision, I just know you will. Our elders have for years said how much of a blessing it is to have a child, we must take their wisdom and guidance with faith and trust that they know what’s best for you and your individual circumstances with this simple, overarching platitude. And forget the research that says that childfree people are not lonely and that they build support systems throughout their lives (not excluding financial support in the form of Social Security). The people imparting this piece of wisdom all have children and are of every race, religion, and class, so clearly they are representative of the whole elderly population including the (growing) childfree minority. Their opinion applies to the vast majority of people who do want kids, so it definitely applies to you, too.

And if their opinion doesn’t convince you, let’s consider something totally unbiased and in whose eyes everyone is equal: The Law. We engineered our laws to give tax credits to parents with children. So what if you’re caring for sick loved ones? Having children is more important, as seen by the stigma behind birth control but the simultaneous push away from state-sponsored neonatal care or childcare. I said having children, not raising them to succeed. And it’s not like financial support to working class parents in the form of nutrition education or daycare would automatically make people better parents, it would just allow people to leech off the system, to smear our family values (again, not extending to support once the baby is born; the tax credit takes care of that) in our face. I like to use the words of the great George Orwell to describe the Law’s impartiality, “[a]ll animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” (It’s the American babies that are more equal.)

The unprejudiced Law also extends to the workplace in that America doesn’t intrude on citizens’ personal time, including by refusing to enshrine family leave. In this way, childfree and parenting couples are treated the same! If a mother really needs some time off, she can follow the lead of the middle-class professionals and bargain with her employer. This keeps the government out of personal affairs, even if one or two parents must unfortunately make tough decisions, and so childfree people can’t complain that their peers get time off when they simply have to go against social protocol and ask for it even if they don’t have parental duties to fulfill while on their parental leave. Also, as a Fortune article points out, at work childfree couples do nothing but complain that (a) they are treated worse than their parenting peers because personal time is treated as parenting time, and (b) they are perceived as having more free time and therefore can be asked to work less desirable hours, devaluing their time out of work under that of parents. However, which is more important: raising a child or making it to your book club? To me, the answer is clear. These are just common-sense examples; after all, why do they need the tax credits if not to support kids? And what would they do with the extra vacation time and money?

As you can see, America is set up to be proudly family-oriented, and I intend to keep it that way. It’s not that I don’t care about your reasons to not have children (not wanting to pass on defective genes, believing you can make a greater benefit to the world through your work, simply not wanting to, etc.), it’s just normal to come home to your white picket fence, your two kids and dog begging for your attention, and your wife doting on your every need. The most common argument is that you want freedom to not be tied down by children, but consider how children bless the rest of your life: you adjust your whole daily schedule to center around your child, allot time and give up sleep to care for him or her when they’re still an infant, and are legally obligated to spend your hard-earned money on that little angel for the next 18+ years. You develop this incredible bond through necessity, and this inevitably transforms to love.

And it’s even a boon in the workplace! As Charlie Chapin correctly points out in a Buzzfeed article entitled How Dads Balance Work and Family, “When men have children, it’s looked at as a stabilizing influence in the workplace. When women have kids, lots of employers act threatened as if the very same process can unmake women in the workforce. This double standard pretends that men don’t care about kids, and women have no career goals.”

Dads benefit at work, so in the long run this stabilization will in turn set him up to move up the corporate ladder and advance his career, and his wife’s job of being a mother will advance with him! Men’s work is also put on the forefront because paternity leave is “[n]ot really an option for [us] as guys.” Work is prioritized, helping him support his family, and our current social norms make it simultaneously difficult for women to work more and men to work less, so the structure of the nuclear family is safe and sound. Finally, fatherhood is just part of any legitimate vision of adulthood. Shawn Bean’s Parenting.com article “Why Men Don’t Want to be Dads” notes that while mothers look at childrearing with anticipation and joy, fathers tend to see it as just another part of adulthood because we’ve socially conditioned them out of parenting with the aforementioned forces keeping them at work, “[y]ou can’t aspire to something you know nothing about. Which is why young guys view fatherhood as just another grown-up duty like changing the oil or building a patio.” So it’s time to step up to the plate and begin your bildungsroman by bringing an irreversible and life-altering decision to fruition, or should I say fertilization, and start that family. Because God says so.

However, it takes two to tango, so it’s not fair to totally exclude women from the conversation. To recap what I’ve already intimated about women, having children pushes you out of the workplace and assumes you want a two-decade hold on your career goals. And this makes sense. You have to have kids early because once you hit thirty you’re a ticking time bomb ready to implode at any minute, and if you do wait too long, you become an esteemed—for lack of a better term—“old maid.” Condoleezza Rice and Helen Mirren are examples of such women tragically aging out of the opportunity for motherhood. Besides, what would you be without kids? You’d be (a) the crazy cat lady down the road, or, even worse, (b) the career-driven feminazi neglecting her maternal duty. You’d be stepping into men’s roles, and by doing that you’re either too womanly and not a strong enough leader, or you overshoot and become a pushy bitch. Just look at the current fad of a female “leader,” Hillary Clinton. Do you want to be the next Hillary Clinton?

Besides, it’s not fair if you don’t have kids. Other women want them, but are unable and sometimes unwilling to adopt. If you’re a woman, you should support other women. Gloria Steinem has said as much. And in this case supporting other women means not gloating in the face of their agony and having a child in their honor. Do it for them, and for your mother who wants grandchildren, and for your husband who wants to be a Little League coach. You don’t have to do it for yourself, your motherly instincts will kick in and you’ll love him as soon as he’s born regardless of whether you can realistically afford children. And then you’ll realize that your elders’ truisms were correct all along and you can become the wise, happy sage questioning others’ personal choices and instilling the truth upon your own child’s fresh, thirsty mind. The cycle will continue, and God-willing he will never face the same obstacle in his path toward happiness that you did, either through correct parenting when facing the option or by the crazy idea never occurring to him in the first place. All your elders and I want is for you to be happy and not regret your life when you get old. And after all, mother knows best.

Italy: Venice and Beyond

The final city on our Italian tour was the renowned city of Venice. As its reputation foretold, Venice’s unique beauty lay in its canals weaving in and out of the island neighborhoods. Boats carrying restaurant supplies navigated the brackish waters at dawn, and from early morning to dusk gondoliers gently took tourists on a smooth, relaxed voyage through the city. There were quaint patios hidden throughout the city- quiet refuges from prying eyes- and through the many, many winding alleys you could find private yards sheltered from the hustle and bustle of the tourists’ travels. Its walls shot to the sky, higher than either Rome or Florence, and the streets formed a narrow maze connecting the wide courtyards, a regular Knossos on the Italian peninsula.

I had heard that Venice was smelly, but it was actually very clean; if there was any filth, we would’ve smelled it from a mile away due to the hot summer sun. It’s only downfall was that it was very touristy. The city, just as Rome and Florence, basically relies on tourism to stay afloat (pun intended), so it was even more crowded than the other two cities. We got lucky enough to have an Airbnb in the residential area, so we stayed away from the crowds unless we went to the main sites. However, it was from this that we saw the true face of Venice.

Venice is just like any other city during the day. It was alive and active, even if it was well over 1500 years old. However, the city morphed at night. As the lampposts grew further apart, shadows ascended toward the sky and the buildings closed in from both sides. The twisting maze and murky waters take on a sinister character, and shifting shadows quickly inspired thoughts of Jack the Ripper. We only saw one woman on our way back to our apartment, moving quickly with her head down. Other than that, we only heard the waters calmly lapping against the stone and only saw the occasional glimmer of moonlight bounce off the subdued waves. It was probably one of the creepiest cities I’ve ever seen at night.

Luckily, our tour was during the day. There not much to do in Venice besides take pictures of the canals, ride the gondola, and take the one tour, so of course that is what we did. And eat. We’re still in Italy, after all. I got grilled cuttlefish and my mom got cuttlefish in an ink sauce. Once I pointed out it was ink she couldn’t stomach it, and mine wasn’t so good either. I’ve decided I just can’t handle the rubbery consistency of octopus, eel, or cuttlefish. Oh well, I can now say that I’ve tried cuttlefish.

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A shop devoted to cats!!!

The tour that we took brought us to St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, the Doge being the chief political leader during Venice’s Republic days. To be honest, there’s only so many churches you can see before their stories start blending together, so all I can remember is that it’s dedicated to St. Mark because he was neither Roman nor Byzantine in origin, because they were trying to assert their independence from these two great superpowers. Oh, and the ceiling is completely glass mosaic and the gold glass is filled with 24 carat gold. It was the first and most important church built in Venice, so of course they took out all the stops. The Doge’s Palace was just as beautiful as the Basilica. However, again, you can only go to so many palaces before it becomes less interesting. It was beautiful, however it’s nothing compared to Rome, so the pictures are sparse.

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Venice was beautiful but brief, and we spent the final two days back in Rome. We saw two more attractions, the Holy Steps and the Pantheon. The Holy Steps are the stairs that Jesus walked up to get to Pontius Pilate. Worshippers are instructed to ascend the steps on their knees, and to say the Nicene Creed, an Our Father, a Glory be, and a Hail Mary, along with a prayer for the Pope. It was moving, even for someone who doesn’t go to Church every week.

The Pantheon was a bit of a letdown because I confused ‘Pantheon’ with ‘Parthenon’. I was expecting a magnificent building on top of a hill that I studied in school, so when we arrived and saw a comparatively rather small temple, I was confused. It is still an architectural marvel—it has the largest unreinforced dome in the world—but it was no Parthenon. In its own way, however, it was beautiful. The name comes from Greek roots- “pan” meaning ‘all’, and “theos” meaning ‘god’, so it was a temple built to worship all Roman gods. The temple, converted to a church in 609, receives light solely from the oculus at the top of the temple, which forms a moving circle of sunlight as the day progresses. It is one of the only pieces of Roman architecture to escape the barbarian raids unscathed, which I find ironic as perhaps it truly was respecting all gods, Roman, barbarian, and Christian. For its historical value it’s worth a visit, however otherwise it’s pretty small and holds less history than the rest of Rome. Though in all fairness comparing anything to ‘the rest of Rome’ will leave a bit desired.

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Our final night we spent in Italy we ate at a local hangout. It was really cute (just look at that menu cover!) and when we said we were sent by our Airbnb host they offered to bring out a buffet of classical Roman dishes, which of course we accepted. Sadly, it wasn’t nearly as good as the night before, and we got the additional perk of hearing the obnoxious horns and occasional burst of yells from the Italy vs. Germany soccer game. Definitely not what I would consider a relaxed ambiance, but what can you do?

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Overall, our trip through Italy was a wonderful experience. If I was to do it again, I would go to Venice first, then Rome, then Florence, because Venice was pretty but didn’t have as much to do, Rome was energetic and jam-packed with tours and monuments, and Florence was more relaxed but still had plenty of attractions to keep you occupied. And it was just my favorite. Italy used to be the center of the world: from ancient Rome to the Italian city-states to the Vatican, its rich history and beautiful landscapes are the perfect backdrop to its incredible food and beautiful cities. Whether you’re an adventurer, a foodie, or a history buff, Italy has something for everyone, and I highly recommend considering it if you decide to travel to Europe. I will never forget my wonderful trip (and this blog will certainly help refresh my horrible memory!) and I hope one day to come back and visit more of Italy and Europe. Well, let me re-phrase: if the fates allow (and they do with The Pig!), I will one day come back and visit more of Italy and Europe. But until then, arrivederci, Italia!

Italy: Florence

As we left Rome with a heavy heart, we didn’t know the magical wonder that awaited us in Florence. We took a 90-minute train ride to get there, and I have to say I am in love with the idea of train hopping through Europe. I know it isn’t quite the glamorous experience from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, however it’s still such a romantic notion to revisit railway travel and live as if globalization and terrorism hadn’t left the world unsafe and ripe for exploration.

As we arrived, I didn’t know what to expect of Florence, especially when compared with Rome. However, it exceeded my wildest dreams. Florence is a down-to-earth Italian city. If Rome is the youngest child- brash, hedonistic, too gaudy for its own good- Florence is the second eldest- easygoing and fun but just a shade darker, a little more serious. Florence is more world-weary, more experienced, and thus more mysterious and sexy. I thoroughly enjoyed Florence because I felt like I could actually live there. It was more reserved than Rome and it had a better nightlife. I need to visit again.

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Florence, or in Italian the beautiful Firenze, has its own rich history apart from Rome. While Rome is known for its part in unifying all of Italy under the Republic and Empire, Florentine history is characterized by its time as a city-state. The action begins with the Medici family. The Medicis essentially controlled the city from behind the scenes, using their patronage and status as official Pope bankers to influence and buy off senators, as Florence was technically a democracy. After the Siege of Florence, the Medicis became official dukes (a rarity considering they did not come from noble blood), and from there the Medicis ruled for two centuries, with monuments and museums to display their power and grandeur. The greatest reason that art flourished during the Renaissance is because of rich patrons like the Medicis. They, personally, had three reasons for donating: (a) art was a status symbol, (b) it was a very public symbol of their generosity and wealth, and (c) it was an ‘indulgence’ of sorts, a way of buying their way into Heaven to atone for their sin of being bankers. All of their wealth and patronage paid off in their lasting legacy, the Uffizi Gallery.

The Uffizi used to be the offices of the Medicis. They devoted part of it, the galleria, or in Italian ‘long hall,’ to their art, which is where the word ‘gallery’ comes from. Thus, the Uffizi became the first art museum in the world. The museum follows the course of art history by bringing you first through Middle Ages art for comparison and then to the bulk of the museum, Renaissance art. The biggest difference between the two is that Middle Ages art was made almost strictly for churches and did not employ perspective. Renaissance art thus became more realistic, and it is still used as an artistic benchmark to this day. The museum features a few famous artists like Botticelli, some of Leonardo da Vinci’s pieces, and Rafael. It is beautiful, and even if you don’t hire a tour guide like we did, you will still recognize many pieces and learn a lot.

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After the Uffizi we went to the highest rated pizzeria in Florence. I have to admit I prefer deep dish, or at least a puffier crust. However, it was still to die for. Italians do know their pizza.

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It was so good

After that, it was more chill. My brothers and dad wanted to go back and nap, so my mother and I hit the town, and we just wandered. Wandering is an art: you have to let your heart lead you, not your mind. The best way to improve your wandering is to not think about it, because once you think about it you can no longer see the small interactions, you can no longer listen to the incomprehensible yet beautiful, lilting Italian, you can no longer feel the city’s pulse. Wandering has no timeline and no itinerary; it’s a chance to give your mind and heart a break. Even if we just walked along our street and surveyed the street vendors’ wares, we experienced the city in a way we never would have on a walking tour or a schedule. It was wonderful.

The next day was a long one. We traveled through the beautiful Tuscan countryside and visited the tourist’s obligatory Leaning Tower of Pisa. The driver was the classic Italian driver, and I felt violently sick for most of the trip. Oh well. We got a few cool pictures out of it.

Afterwards we went on two wine tours, and they were really fun. On the first one we had wonderful wine and wonderful food, including the lightest cheesecake I have ever eaten in my life. NYC was put to shame. On the second one, we had pure balsamic vinegar composed of two ingredients: grape juice and white vinegar. I absolutely despise vinegar, to the point that I gag if I can smell it across the room. Even if it’s one ingredient among many, I can usually taste it, and I’ll refuse to eat it. However, this was really good vinegar. His vinegar takes 30+ years to ferment, and it was absolutely divine. That evening we met up with our family friends from before for dinner, and after that I hit the town with my fabulous roommate this upcoming year, Eliana, and her friend Corina, who were both in Italy for a summer opera workshop. Just like eating sushi in Rome, I felt weird going to an Irish pub in Florence; however, it was a really fun time and we met students from Tulsa and San Francisco. I wish we had more time together, however I had an early tour the next day so I had to bid them adieu until September. I count down the days.

Our final day in Florence was another long one and we went on a relatively uninspiring tour to see The David and Il Duomo. The tour guide was born and raised in Italy, and she spoke good but slightly broken English, and even beyond that she did not keep our attention as our other tour guides had. I didn’t learn much from her. However, I have some really cool pictures!

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The final unintentional attraction was a bronze pig hidden away next to a market. We’d passed by the market many times before, however we hadn’t noticed it until said tour guide made it a meeting spot on a gelato stop. This pig has a story. It’s said that if you rub the nose of the pig and slide a coin down its tongue into the grate below that you’re destined to return to Florence. Many went before me with varying returns on investment. On my turn, I put the coin deep in its throat and slid it down its mouth, bouncing a few times before entering the providential drain. I am now fated to return to the wonderful Firenze, and while I have a lot more of the world to see, I can’t wait to fulfill this prophecy.

Italy: Rome

I sleepily awoke in a plush, foreign bed. Rays of golden light pierced through the vines blanketing the window and a haunting, pleading music floated through the slats of the moss-green, ragged doors to the terrace outside. As I walked out into the sunshine, giant seagulls cawed above and down below in the twisting cobblestone alley cars and motorbikes whirred past both locals and foreigners as they went about their day in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I was finally in Rome.

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Rome is a city grand in both history and beauty. Ancient piecemeal urban planning left room for foot travel with the occasional ass-drawn buggy, so the tiny streets could only accommodate so many motorized vehicles. Present-day traffic manifests this, and small taxis zip by pedestrians, buildings, and other vehicles with surgical precision and chariot speeds which left me reflexively flinching as our taxi avoided obstacles by inches. Also, at its heyday 2000 years ago, Rome was home to a remarkable one million people, resulting in an organic cityscape grown from the floor up with shops and restaurants at ground-level and cramped apartments towering above. I doubt this arrangement has changed much.

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Average Roman side street (so basically everything)

Along with the chaotically beautiful urban plan itself, Rome draws its character from its historical journey. Rooted in its culture is religion and food. Reflecting this is the flood of churches stretching from Medieval to modern-day situated on every other corner and the delicious restaurants everywhere in between. Palaces, fountains, and other signifiers of wealth and prestige dot the landscape and confirm that bigger really is better, and everywhere ancient ruins, glinting domes, or magnificent crosses lay on the far reaches of the sun-soaked Italian horizon. All of the architecture along with the merchants, pilgrims, Crusaders, and Saracens alike help write Rome’s wonderful story dating from the 7th century BC, and while school had taught me a little and my curiosity had taught me a little more, with my lectures as the figurative and the writhing streets as the literal background, my own journey through history was about to begin.

 

Our sojourn through Rome began unscripted. After a heavy Italian dinner and some sleep (for me, after over 24 hours awake), we had one day to ourselves, and so we began with a (what we believed to be was) a classic Italian breakfast.

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Add in some bread, and this is what we had practically every morning

The food here lives up to its fame, so I ate a lot, and often. In case you didn’t know, calories don’t count in Italy, especially when you have two more months until classes begin. I’m merely taking advantage of this cosmic loophole.

Our first stop was the famed Trevi fountain, found in many a movie. As we were to find out, it was classically Roman in that it was bigger and more beautiful than the pictures let on. We headed out past the large crowds to a small church in the same square and we were again amazed by just how beautiful it was. This is worthy of fame by itself…what must the legitimately famous churches be like? We had a light lunch of a personal pizza bigger than your face or a dish of heaping pasta, two appetizers, and a liter of beer before heading out to a museum.

This was a much quieter attraction than the Trevi fountain or the further attractions we were to see, even though it was just as beautiful as the rest. It was a personal palace of some Senator or another, and though it was not on The List of Roman attractions, it was nice to find the eye of the hurricane. Besides, there were a few fun paintings.

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Later that night (and I mean later: restaurants generally open for dinner at 8) we went to a highly-recommended restaurant near our house and we saw a young woman giving her signature to other diners. Just as the Trevi fountain is found in many a film, the entire city of Rome is picturesque by its very nature, so in some studio, somewhere, we’re in the blooper clip of a future Italian movie. We think that is where our celebrity is from, but that is still to be determined.

The next day began the real tours, beginning with Palatine Hill. The Palatine Hill is the Roman equivalent of the White House. It lays atop the Seven Hills of Rome and surveys the Roman Forum and the Circus Maximus, fitting and prophetic symbols for the Republic’s eventual end. Furthermore, the entire structure is beautiful and impressive, both in grandeur and in technological prowess. Digital recreations of the buildings demonstrate rooms intentionally meant to seem to be stretching to the Heavens, and the fact that it still stands is testament to its much stronger brick technology. Overall, it is simply stunning, and a wonderful visual representation of the strength and greatness of the lost Empire.

The next tour spot was the famed Coliseum. As everyone knows, the Coliseum was the entertainment center of the city. Think of a much bloodier Broadway and Big House rolled into one. It was the largest such coliseum in the Empire and in its first season it is said that 5,000 people and 9,000 animals lost their lives. The entire structure was elaborate. The basement held slave-operated elevators that shuttled gladiators, actors, or animals to their act, sometimes their final one. The closest and best seats were allotted to the Emperor, the Senators, the priesthood, and the Vestal Virgins to indicate their high status, and a series of defenses including nets, spinning blocks, and, finally, soldiers peering through arrow slits, protected the important patrons from stray spears or crazed animals. The upper levels of the Coliseum were open to free citizens, and it held as many as 80,000 people, according to archaeologists’ estimates. As they say, the Republic fell to the Empire when the Roman citizens only cared about bread and circuses, and the Coliseum definitely represents the latter. Our day ended with sushi in Italy. Nontraditional, yes, but delicious nonetheless.

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Our final day in Rome consisted of a tour of Vatican City. Vatican City, even though it’s the smallest country in the world, is still one of the most important as it is the religious and political headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. The always-reliable Wikipedia claims there are over 1 ¼ billion Catholics in the world, an astounding 17% of our global population. If you add all non-Catholic Christians to that number, Christianity is the world’s largest religion by a whopping 600 million people, over the next most prominent, Islam. That makes the Vatican rather important and, by extension, wealthy, and its history shows it.

Vatican City (which includes The Vatican and the Vatican Bank) is worth a (conservatively) estimated $10 billion. By my calculations and using the most recent figures, that means that if the country was as big as the US, it would be 1809.37 times as wealthy! I don’t know how they calculate the countries’ values, however the Pope is certainly not strapped for cash.

The Vatican Museums house some of the most recognizable artwork in the history of the world. From the Pythian Apollo to Laocoön and His Sons to The School of Athens, the Vatican artwork includes the originals of many priceless classical Roman pieces, along with some more modern pieces. However, we all know no one’s coming to the Vatican to see some charcoal lines resembling Mary and Jesus.

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Part of the Museums is the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed in the sacred space. However, it is truly a sight to behold. Everyone knows that the center ceiling fresco is of God reaching fervently to a reclining, passive Adam. However, the rest of the ceiling is covered with frescoes, too, and even the walls are painted (though they’re designed to look like curtains. Nothing interesting there). As with all of Rome, pictures do not do it justice, so if you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend waiting in the massively congested and sweaty crowds to reach the fabulous masterpiece.

Our final stop in Rome was again in Vatican City: St. Peter’s Basilica. Its namesake- St. Peter- was the first Pope of the Church and one of Jesus’ 12 Apostles. The high altar, where only the Pope can hold a religious service, is said to be placed directly over the burial place of Peter after his crucifixion, and later archaeological evidence confirms that an important man was in fact buried at that exact spot (traces of gold suggest the corpse was buried with a gold cloth). It is the largest Church in all of Catholicism and second in floor space only to the Mormon Conference Center, and it is tradition that no building in Rome may be built taller than its highest point. Just as the rest of Rome was bigger than I thought, this Church is massive. Its size is impossible to describe in words, which I guess is the point. It is beautiful, intricate, and ornate, and it holds the tombs of many previous Popes and holy people. (It even has a preserved Pope in a glass coffin!) Another cool feature was that we were able to walk through the Holy Door. The Holy Door is usually only opened every 25 years on Jubilee years, the last one being opened in 2000. However, Pope Francis opened the Door December 8th and thus began the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, markedly 50 years to the day after the closing of Vatican II.

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We rounded out our time in Rome as we began: eating. Some family friends were visiting Italy at the exact time as us, and we had a fun dinner in a quaint, rustic Italian bar. The booze and the chatter was free-flowing, and we spent many hours with each other as Italy would have wanted: eating, but most importantly eating together. We finished with a free round of limoncello and a picture, and our time in Rome (at least until I return) had come to an end.

5 Reasons I’m Majoring in Women’s Studies

The first major that I chose at Michigan was Women’s Studies. Many people are surprised when I tell them, because in the minds of many, the major ‘Women’s Studies’ often conjures images of man-hating lesbians, students seeking an easy A, or hippies sitting in a circle discussing their feelings all day. However, this just isn’t the whole picture, especially in this day and age. In it’s very basic and cursory function, Women’s Studies seeks to discover who holds the power and, when appropriate, how to change it. In more direct terms, feminism and Women’s Studies have found an institutionalized, gendered power structure in society and its scholars are trying to correct the sociopolitical and economic inequalities between men and women. The field has advanced beyond gender and, using Columbia and UCLA Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, Women’s Studies now uses the lenses of race, class, sexuality, ability, nationality, religion, and many other social categories to better analyze our world. As any social science, that is the purpose of Women’s Studies: to understand humanity using a particular methodology, in this case a feminist one. Below I articulate 5 reasons why I—a male in both gender and sex at the University of Michigan—chose to study Women’s Studies.

1) The name is misleading, as “women’s issues” are also men’s issues

Oftentimes people associate Women’s Studies and feminism with whiny millenials complaining about trigger warnings and safe spaces. Pushing those controversial subjects aside (for now), they are also associated with issues universally seen as problematic: sexual assault, domestic violence, our racially biased justice system, sexual harassment, the wage gap, the feminization of poverty, women’s healthcare, etc. However, these issues also directly affect men. Look at sexual assault: 99% of reported assailants are men, and most of these men knew their victim. This is seen as a women’s issue because women are the main targets (and yes, these are planned crimes), but men are the ones committing the crime! This is a men’s issue, because men are perpetrating the problem. You can continue on: men are victims of non-lethal domestic violence more than women, men of color are overrepresented in jails, the wage gap and gender inequality in general hurts everyone. We can also go over issues that disproportionately affect men, like the waning but still present societal pressures in favor of being the household’s breadwinner, the toxic suppression of feelings as part of masculinity, and the disproportionate loss of children in custody battles.

Some of these issues, like the suppression of male feelings and women’s healthcare, do explicitly affect only men or women (and their children!) by definition. But is it not enough that women make up half our population? I refuse to use the “they’re our mothers, sisters, and daughters” argument, because this ties women’s human value to their relationship with men. Why can’t women just be people disproportionately facing problems we can help fix?

One key component of feminism is that those with power can use their privileged status to shine light on the problems of those without privilege, and let those people speak for themselves. This is called being in ally. In practice, this means that men should help women with their issues, and women- balancing childcare with the father and encouraging men to genuinely explore and discuss their emotions and frustrations – can help men. Thus, men benefit from feminism as much as women, and it’s up to men to realize this and do something about it.

2) The field is established but still developing

Part of the reason that Women’s Studies was looked down upon was because of its original teaching pedagogy. As I intimated above, original Women’s Studies courses encouraged students to sit in a circle and figure out why certain social phenomena didn’t sit right with them (literally a circle, because this way the teacher didn’t exude so much authority and the students were able to freely discuss). Thus, the image of the Women’s Studies class as the feelings circle was born. However, that is no longer the case. In all the Women’s Studies courses I’ve taken, I have yet to pour out my feelings in a journal and get an A (wouldn’t that be nice?). Rather, it has been a structured, more traditional curriculum with the bonus of learning about the social discomfort that haunts us to this day instead of the history of disproved scientific thought.

Furthermore, in choosing majors, I considered the Social Theory and Practice major, which started this year in the Residential College. While I’m inspired by the thought of studying burgeoning new social programs, I also want some sense of institution, something that someone can point to and say, “I’ve heard of that before!” Women’s Studies satisfies both of these desires in that it is a legitimate academic field and it is still metamorphosing. The first program only appeared in 1970, and it has diversified and responded to surfacing social issues in the form of gender studies, men’s studies, and LGBTQ studies, to name a few. It is still evolving, as seen by the department’s recent hosting of #BlackLivesMatter founder and activist Alicia Garza, and I think the field’s quick adaptation to our current political environment is cool. It may not have the prestige of a Harvard economics degree, but I find value in a major that reflects the world’s changing needs.

3) It’s very interdisciplinary and easy to curate to your academic desires

Women’s Studies can be viewed as the application of feminist theory to other fields. It has its own courses, sure, however by my cursory count, I found 72 out of 109 courses were cross-listed with other majors. That’s 2/3! What this means is that in studying Women’s Studies (and it is truly a Women’s Studies class, because the classes count for both majors) I am also studying Asian Studies, Anthropology, American Culture, Psychology, Sociology, African and Afro-American Studies, English, History… The list goes on. Thus, Women’s Studies is its own separate discipline, it’s just that this discipline is incredibly broad and crosses over with many others.

Also, just as the Women’s Studies courses at Michigan are interdisciplinary, you can concentrate in courses to fit your needs. There is a new Women’s Studies major called Gender and Health which obviously orients you toward pre-medicine or pre-public health, however by my count there are 10 courses that can be classified as pre-law or pre-public policy (I only know this because that’s how I am concentrating), there are a total of 7 Practicum courses that you can choose as electives if you desire real-world application of feminist principles, and there’s a plethora of courses if you want to look at global social justice issues. The breadth and versatility of Women’s Studies both as a field and at Michigan make it the perfect addition to my political science degree by adding the human element of social justice, all while honing liberal arts skills.

In fact, from the very beginning of feminism, liberal arts skills like strong intra- and interpersonal qualities were crucial in becoming aware of the different forms of oppression people face, and writing and critical thinking were necessary to spread the idea out in the world. These skills are what every liberal arts student learns in the course of their study, however to me it becomes more clear how Women’s Studies teaches this than, say, our Residential College major Drama. Innovation arises at the intersection of many fields, and Women’s Studies is that intersection. And what about the liberal arts in itself? Well, I firmly believe that these transferable skills are necessary for intellectual growth and for the workplace, and Forbes, an Association of American Colleges & Universities study, and a US News piece all agree with me.

4) It’s geared toward social justice

Women’s Studies as an academic field continues feminism’s legacy of driving political, economic, and social change in encouraging (and, as a requisite, demanding) praxis of feminist theory in the real world, which at Michigan is known as the Practicum requirement. Examples of feminist praxis include organizing microfinance so women in developing countries can support themselves, lobbying for better parental leave, and being a more understanding social worker when handling undocumented citizens. Women’s Studies was literally created to study and solve these pressing social issues, and thus make our world a better place through social justice.

Furthermore, there has never been a better time in history to explore this field and support social justice than right now. The ability to examine issues from many difference perspectives is crucial in helping the United Nations eradicate AIDS by 2030, for example, and the recent terrorist attack at the Pulse gay nightclub reminds us that the fight for LGBTQ acceptance is not over even with a marriage license. Women’s Studies puts all of this on the forefront and prepares me to take on the world, whatever I end up doing. Which reminds me…

5) Undergraduate major really doesn’t matter

In the long run, whatever major I choose simply doesn’t matter. I’m going to continue my education anyway, and whether that’s public policy, law, journalism, social work, or something else completely, I don’t have to know right now. Electing a broad array of Women’s Studies will introduce me to these fields and help me decide which one to enter after my undergrad, and besides, to really get into these occupations requires a professional or master’s degree, and since for any of these programs I can choose whatever major I want, why not choose something in which I do well and I truly like? My undergrad major doesn’t tie me down, it’s just the first step in my professional journey.

But what about landing that first job in between the schooling? Is having Women’s Studies on my diploma really going to help? I think so, mostly because I like this stuff and I want to work in it. Any potential employer will only view it as a boon to have the major than to not have it, and if they’re scared away by a guy studying Women’s Studies then I probably wouldn’t fit in at their workplace, anyway. More important than the diploma is how well I do in the courses, the extracurriculars I choose, and that I can show potential future employers that I have some passion for what they do, and I think both sides of the aisle would agree that feminists and Women’s Studies majors have passion. Just as important in what you know is who you know, and that’s more determined by luck and how well I branch out in the coming two years. Thus, what major I choose is just one small piece in the larger pie that’s, well, me, and employers and schools will both realize and weight it accordingly.

What it really comes down to is this: is it better to suffer and be average in a more “practical” major like Statistics or to excel in and enjoy Women’s Studies? The answer, in my mind, is Women’s Studies. I’m gaining a bachelor’s degree that’s teaching me how to think, and employers will have to train whoever they choose to hire, anyway. Some fields, like programming, will inevitably choose the Computer Scientist over me who has yet to take any coding classes. But others, like journalism, advocacy, public policy, law, public health. All of these would hopefully prefer the liberal arts major who spent his days learning how to keep an open mind when meeting new people and who worked on the official UMich sexual misconduct policy on the side. They’re looking for the well-rounded student who has a little experience in the field from extracurriculars, good grades, and knows an acquaintance who introduced them to the position. So in the end, Women’s Studies will not make or break me, it’s just something I really like and I’m really good at. And in the end, I’ll fit the bill, because my persistence and hard work will get me there.

South Africa: Day 12 and 13

Little did I know that on my final day I would, again, skip all planned activities and go out and do my own thing. As I said before, the trip was packed with activities from dawn to dusk. They failed to mention until the last few days that pretty much only the concerts were required events, and even if I probably would have preferred to go to our destinations it would have been nice to know that I could have relaxed if I’d chosen to. I don’t regret skipping them: I could have chosen between District 6, an historical region known for documenting the struggles of Colored people (which, again, are people of mixed race lineage), or a wine tasting tour for about $35. I would have gone on the wine tasting tour, but it left at 11 and I was so tired from the rest of the trip I decided to skip it in favor of a short nap. It was a glorious nap.

Afterwards I walked to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a beautiful tourist strip that also functions as a working port. It was a lovely mix of modern and traditional, sporting both an African market and a mall with an H & M and a McDonald’s (we may have walked through the H & M to compare prices; according to sources, they were about the same). They also had an array of food options, from fast food to $50 lunch entrees, and we decided to split it down the middle and go to a restaurant on the lower end of the upper tier price range. The food was delicious. I had a tube calamari appetizer with a lemon butter sauce; the catch of the day, fresh from the harbor; a berry pavlova (though my friend who convinced me to try it told me it was different and inferior than any he has tried before); and a light, fruity bottle of white wine for the table that complemented the seafood, all for a cool $22 per person. We even got lucky and got a little bit of Wifi. It was a relaxing, tasty meal, and we discovered the restaurant was closing 3 days after. I imagine it was bought out by a higher end chain for its prime real estate. Regardless, while unfortunate for the restaurant, I was blessed to have a good meal with good friends on the tail end of our final days in South Africa.

Here my group split: a friend and I found our gifts the day before, and the other two wanted to do some last minute shopping, so they stayed behind while we went back to the hotel searching for a café with Wifi. It was 4 pm on a Sunday and we didn’t have any luck near our hotel so we ventured off to Long St where I had perused the African Market a few days earlier, knowing it was a touristy street. We found out it was not touristy on Sundays. Everything was pretty deserted save for a few shops like the the barber and the rare liquor store, and without other foreigners it was pretty questionable. We started to head back to the hotel when a man approached us and said “I’m not a bad guy.” Well, he was.

We hastened our pace but he kept up, telling us he had a wife and child and he wanted some money to pay for some milk. People had heckled me earlier on the trip so I brushed him off and told him I couldn’t give him any money. That was when his story changed and he intimated he had a knife against his thigh. My blood ran cold. I was in a shady part of town, it was approaching night time, and it was only me and my one friend. My hands immediately became clammy as I reached into my pocket and gave him the only bill I had, a 10-rand bill. He whined that this wasn’t even enough for some bread, and I kept stuttering that I didn’t have any larger bills, pulling out all the change in my pocket and dropping it in his hand. This thankfully appeased him and he left us, literally taking all the money I had. It was only 22 rand, which is less than $2. I was lucky he didn’t ask for any cards or other valuables, and my heart didn’t stop racing until well after we reached the hotel room.

I’ve never been faced by such real danger in my life. Did he actually have a knife? Probably not. But was he a strange man threatening to hurt me in a foreign country? Yes. He was an expert at his insidious craft, because as he trailed behind us my friend called out, “Have a nice day!”, apparently hearing none of the man’s threats; those were saved only for me, even though our ears were inches apart. They always say not to dress too obviously as a tourist. And in all fairness I think it’s more because my red hair and my friend’s fair, Asian complexion make us look perpetually young. Regardless, I will never forget that experience.

I was still in shock by the time the next activity rolled around, this time being mandatory. It was our final group dinner, so the premise was we all had to be together to hear the seniors give speeches. Once we got to the restaurant it was a cool experience. We first had a drumming workshop, where we were taught how Africans learn to play drums. While I’m used to reading notes on a page, they learn to play rhythms by ear. I’m still not very good at it, but the workshop was informative. Then as the meal came out they gave us the option to get our faces painted. I obliged, however I didn’t really like my design. Each of them had a meaning, however they never told us the significance behind them. I can just imagine mine meant “pale ginger.” Once we finished dinner we realized we couldn’t stay in the restaurant for the speeches so we rented a room in the hotel and returned there, spending over 3 hours just listening to people talk. It was a necessary evil. By the time I finished packing it was past 1:30 and I fell into bed, ironically getting my first night of good sleep of the whole trip during our final night there. Our final flights were just as eventful as our flight there, and for that I am grateful.

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Our drumming instructors. And some guy on stilts. Purpose tbd.

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I’m bad at conclusions, so I’ll just say this: South Africa has something for everyone. I drove through a safari, experienced an unparalleled choral cultural exchange, and embraced my basic side and forged my own adventures when my appreciation for tourist sites ran thin. There’s shark-diving, wine tours, and hiking, and they have a unique history both shielded from and informed by Western influence; it just depends where you look. While I would have never chosen South Africa as my next vacation destination, I can now only vow to return and experience more of the beauty, passion, and community I found there. But until that time (and my family trip to Italy coming soon!), I bid you adieu!