Silas Helm


Seven Days, Four Countries

I’ve had the immense privilege of visiting four countries in seven days. This past weekend I visited Belfast in Northern Ireland. From there I went back to London for a few days before making the trek to Prague and then Vienna.

For those of you that don’t know, Northern Ireland is a part of the UK while Ireland is not. While both are members of the European Union, the difference between Northern Ireland and Ireland is substantial. The two countries share a border, yet their differences of viewpoints create strong tensions within both societies. Belfast, where I visited with CIEE (my study abroad program) is currently coping with the repercussions of serious terrorist actions within the country. Put simply, the riots and fighting within Northern Ireland stem from two main people groups: the Catholics and the Protestants. It has been difficult for me to get a holistic understanding of the nature of the fighting as both groups stem from a mutual understanding of Christianity and hold Christ at their core. Yet, it is not the religious differences that create war, it’s their allegiance to the Queen (or lack thereof).

Ireland has disconnected itself from Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom because of their disinterest in the monarchy. In the north, tensions have created immeasurable damage because the Catholics and Protestants have different values. One group wants to follow “southern” Ireland and disassociate with the crown while the other flies the Union Jack with pride. The power struggle, religious animosity, and overall violence have created a web of issues. From this complex situation has come a 40-foot wall that divides the city, serious laws to protect citizens during parades and religious holidays, and a lot of banned words. For example, while visiting Belfast, we weren’t allowed to talk about St. Patrick’s Day. This holiday can be traced back to Catholicism and thus is a touchy subject.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to emphasize the magnetic repulsion between both sides. Even the airport we flew in to, George Best Belfast City Airport, is named after a famous soccer player. He seemed to be the only viable candidate, as most others favored one side or the other.

It was sad for me to see the violence within the city. In reflection papers I’ve done for class since visiting Belfast I’ve used the word “gray” a lot. The city’s tragedies were tangible as we walked through the streets. The buildings were gray, the streets were gray, the sky was gray, the air felt gray, the people we walked past seemed weighed down by the shadows of religious tensions. To be honest, it was really unsettling.

Thankfully, we spent one day outside of the city. Taking an hour and a half bus ride, we ended up at Giant’s Causeway- the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Green mountains rose from the sides of rolling hills. The water seemed filled with blue gems, which crashed on the land spraying the black sand beaches. It was Giant’s Causeway that I felt the smallest but also the most inspired. At one point we crossed a rope bridge. Standing in-between two landmasses, I stared at the landscape and spun in awe. I was honestly overwhelmed by the grandeur of creation. My friends and I spent much of the afternoon climbing up and down the mountains, doing our best to take it all in.

I’ll never forget the grass. At some points the land would bubble up, creating 4-foot wide “land-warts” (which, by the way, is probably the grossest phrase I’ve ever made). The land-warts were spaced just far enough apart that you could jump from one to the next with relative ease. Somehow, the inside of these bubbles was springy. I had a lot of fun hopping down the mountains, springing from one wart to the next…laughing the whole way.

Overall, Belfast was a great trip. I’m glad I went; not only was my time restful, but it was also thought provoking. Splitting time between tragedy and awe-inspiring beauty created a lot of questions. The main question I’ve begun to tackle revolves around the recognition that it is easier to shut out unappealing things. Specifically, I think this relates to Chicago. In what ways do I deny realities within Chicago because they are painful? My hometown is filled with immeasurable violence that I have read about but don’t take time to intimately understand. It’s much easier for me to take a bike ride on the lake path than to question race and economic status’ role within the framework of society. In my reflection for class, I tried to correlate Giant’s Causeway with my current understanding of Chicago. The city is breath taking. It is where I feel the most creative energy. Life springs to full-engagement when I surround myself with the hustle, bustle, and liveliness of Chicago’s center. Yet, there is another part of Chicago. There is a part of Chicago that looks a lot like Belfast. It’s a part that I need to acknowledge, remember, and try to understand as well. Both Belfast and Giant’s Causeway are parts of Northern Ireland. In the same way, both beauty and pain reside within Chicago. I need that reminder.

Sunday night our plane landed back in London-town. It’s funny because I start to miss London when I’m away from it. They say distance makes the heart grow fonder. This has definitely been true for me. London’s size allows for unending adventures. I find it so appealing to know that I could do something new every day from now until May!

I relished in the joys of being in London for three days before packing up for a new trip. Wednesday night I took a train, to a bus, to the airport- eventually ending up in Prague. Before this semester I didn’t have much interest in visiting Prague. In my mind, there are more notable cities in Europe. Thanks to my friend Debbie (who is studying abroad in Prague), I’ve been enlightened. Praha may be an underdog in worldwide familiarity, but it packs a strong punch. The buildings here are colorful, revealing regeneration as a post-Communist society. The roofs are uniformly tiled with red-orange shingles. The prices here are cheap…and hard to convert to USD.

Prague is a small city. I finished most of the tourist things in a matter of hours. A highlight was climbing to the top of the Astronomical Clock (I’ve made a new goal of finding the highest place in each city and admiring the bird’s eye view). I could’ve stared at the city from the top of the clock for hours. It was fun to notice little details: women hanging their laundry on the roof to dry, friends meandering through the market and stopping at stands along the way, the symmetry of street lights lining the roads.

My favorite thing about Prague is probably the trdelniks. Imagine dough brushed with butter and sugar, placed on a metal cone. At the end of the cone is a rod that is connected to an ingenious contraption, which spins the dough over a fire until it’s evenly cooked. Once golden brown, the workers lather the inside of the trdelnik with chocolate, fill it with strawberries and top it off with some ice cream. It was a dream come true-delnik. 

Saturday morning Debbie and I woke up at 3:30 am. Deliriously, we got ready and made it to our 5:30 bus. Getting ready mainly meant packing 8 PB&J sandwiches to curb our spending. Vienna is surprisingly close to Prague. The two of us spent the day wandering the city, traveling through unknown streets. It was fun to spend time in a city without any preconceived plans. Thankfully, Vienna is small enough to explore without much planning. One thing I was struck by was how regal the architecture was. The buildings were royal white and decorated with intricate ornamentation. We stopped to admire many buildings, most of which we knew nothing about. Halfway through the day we stopped in a coffee shop. Struggling with traveler’s fatigue, I practically crawled inside. Debbie and I spent a long while just sitting in the café. After feeling sufficiently recharged, we ventured to a Palm and Butterfly house. It was nice to feel the warmth of the room. I kept my coat on because I forgot what it feels like to overheat. Also, I learned that if you watch butterflies long enough you start to realize they are a lot like bats. Once this correlation was made, I was no longer interested in staying in the room.

Out of sheer obligation, I tried a wiener schnitzel. Imagine one large chicken nugget. Except, instead of tender chicken, imagine tough beef. I’m glad I tried it. I’m also glad I won’t have to try it again. Vienna hotdogs, on the other hand, were unreal. America could take some notes on meat production and preparation- these were no Oscar Mayer wieners.

We ended our time by taking a trip on Vienna’s Big Ferris Wheel. Located at Vienna’s year-round carnival. Debbie and I both walked around, enjoying the rides from afar. Turns out watching rides is almost as exciting as participating in them. It’s the poor man’s way to have fun. Neither of us had enough money to actually ride any of the rides- c’est la vie! Making it back to the bus stop just in time, we finished the last of our PB&Js and boarded the bus back to Praha.

My time abroad has been filled with surprises. I have learned a lot from vising new cities. In one word, it has all been such an adventure. I’m excited to keep growing, experiencing new things, and learning more about myself. I’m also excited to enjoy a few weeks in London before heading out on a big 12-day trip!

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Silas Helm