A Travellerspoint blog

Choose Your Own Adventure Pt. 2

Well, there we were… surrounded by hoards of walking zombies and pinned into the corner with Rick and Darryl… Oh shoot, wait, no that was just my dream about the Walking Dead the other night. However, there is something to be said about that. As time ticks forward, it seems like my dreams are slowly becoming reality - not by any amount of sitting around, but by difficult, unrelenting, exhaustingly hard work. My dream to become an astronaut is beginning to rise to the surface of reality. I’m writing this on the first day of summer, just three days after I found out that I had been offered an internship - an internship at NASA Ames. I’m here to tell you that hard work pays off. Most of the time it doesn’t seem that way. You put in and you might get nothing out after a day, or a week, or after several months, or maybe even after a year. But if you work long enough and refuse to give up, you will be rewarded in the end.

Let’s hop in our most excellent time traveling phone booth and go back 9 months. I had walked off the bus from Field Training a person anew. I felt like the world was mine for the taking and anything was possible. This fresh wave of optimism and bravado was certainly welcoming and gave me fuel for the first month or two of the Fall Semester. I had one goal in mind for junior year – secure an internship for this upcoming summer. With my previous two summers filled with studying abroad, I wanted to mix this one up and actually get some substantial stuff onto my resume. More than that, I wanted to build industry ties and technical experience that would help me in the hunt to become an astronaut. After all, I had already accomplished many of the other major milestones: received my pilot’s license, minoring in Russian and majoring in Aerospace, participated in various research labs, and gunning for a pilot’s slot within the Air Force. The next thing for me was to work somewhere where I could take my classroom knowledge and apply it to the real world.

I walked into that career fair with a confidence I had not known before and a resume that I presumed to be stellar (more on that later). Talking with person after person for 4 hours can get pretty monotonous, especially if you’re as introverted as I am. By the end of it, my best efforts yielded me two leads to follow – an interview with Rolls Royce later that week and a rejection from JPL (but the name of a guy at NASA Ames to reach out to!). The interview came and went with many things that I could have improved upon. I showed up in my military uniform (it was a Tuesday), talked about my time at Field Training pretty much the entire interview instead of mixing up topics, and totally botched the “end-of-interview” dance that occurs. I walked out of that interview with many doubts in my mind. It was like I already knew that the verdict on it was a solid “no”. The other lead was to reach out to someone at NASA Ames in their aerothermodynamics branch (big word meaning hot air). I did so and was promptly told, “reach out to us in the Spring, we aren’t hiring now.” The month of September came and went just like the Career Fair. However, I’ll remember September more for some of the other things I was able to do, like going to the Lantern Festival, driving a literal whale of a minivan up I-85 to the International Food Festival in Marietta, or watching some seriously cool sunrises. None of that would have been possible without the company of my fantastic girlfriend.


October came and went in a blur. From trips to the botanical gardens, Georgia Aquarium, and even a flight over the North Georgia mountains, every weekend was filled with something exciting. The internship hunt slowed down for a while as tests picked up, but I remained hopeful that something would arise from the career fair. This false sense of security would ride along with me for many months and grant my conscience a reprieve from worrying. It would cause me to sit and wait and eventually lead to the coming storm.


November was a similar experience, but this time about ten degrees colder. Now, instead of being able to wear a t-shirt outside, I had to put on a long-sleeve (gotta love the Atlanta weather)! From going to Semi-Formal at Piedmont Park to an insane seventy-two hours of working on a Jet and Rocket Propulsion project that I had three months to do, it all seemed to flash by. Kids, when a professor gives you three months to do a project, do NOT wait to work on it until the week it’s due. We did not sleep or leave the study area for the better part of three days. The lot of us crawled out of that room dazed, tired, and full of anxiety. I’d heard horror stories from other group projects, but this was one I had to live through on my own. I had vowed that I would never need to pull an all-nighter in college…well now I can vow that I never want to pull an all-nighter again. In terms of the internship hunt, I continued to ride that false sense of security. Instead of reaching out to people and cultivating my connections, I sat in comfort with the expectation that something would naturally turn up. Meanwhile, friends around me were landing jobs, getting interviews, or at least making more headway than I was.

When December hit, I could hardly believe that the semester was already over. The classes I had taken were the highlight of all the classes I had taken up to now. I will never forget my time in Vehicle Performance and the standing ovation we all gave our teacher at the end, or the thrilling stories my Russian culture teacher would weave throughout lectures that kept us on the edge of our seats. Overall, this semester was my favorite by a long shot. It was full of new experiences, incredible classes, and best of all, someone to share it with.

I was back at it again in January with fresh optimism from the break and a renewed vigor to seek out an internship. I attended as many info sessions as I could during the Spring career fair and tried to get my name out there to more companies. I made a major decision to end my time at the Combustion Lab and make it my last semester there. Although the work was fascinating, I wanted to do something with vehicle performance and had heard about another professor who was researching electric aircraft from my roommate. It was a very difficult day to walk into the Combustion Lab and tell the people I had been working with the past year and a half that this would be the end. (For those that don’t know, I’m pretty bad at ending things). On the PLUS side, I was promoted to be a PLUS Mentor, which meant a promotion and a pay raise as a tutor (see what I did there?). I also got to do another flight up to Chattanooga and even a food flight over to Gwinnett County Airport for some $100 burgers and an evening with an Elvis impersonator.


February rolled around and brought some exciting news. Gulfstream indicated that my resume had been passed higher up in the chain for review and I was contacted by two people at GTRI for interviews. Once again, my false sense of security was stoked. I kept thinking to myself, “This is it. This is finally it. After all the waiting you are finally going to snag one of them internships.” Nothing turned up from either of them. Weeks went by and I received no responses. Meanwhile, in the realm of classes, the intensity began to turn up and midterm season began. I got stretched thin between obligations and picked up meditation practice again to help cope with it all. The end of February brought an exciting surprise, however. For several weeks we had been waiting on pins and needles to find out if we got pilot slots. In a class of 21 of us, 9 of us wanted to be pilots, which is pretty crazy. Of those 9, 7 of us were selected to become pilots….including yours truly! The people who had been selected were called up one by one and their new job was announced to the entire detachment. In that single instance, I was awash with excitement, fear, nervousness, and plenty of other emotions that brought me back to my time as a smelly sophomore in High School. The relief I felt when they called my name and the fact that I got a pilot slot was an amazing moment that I hope I can cherish for a long time. For two and a half years, I had been telling people that, “I am ~hopefully~ going to get a pilot slot within Air Force ROTC.” Now, I could actually tell them that I had been selected! The rest of the day we bounced around like kids in a candy store as we tried on flight suits and ordered some Ray-Bans. That was a great way to round out February.


March was an exciting month because it contains the single best day out of the entire year, my birthday! My friends surprised me with dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant and an evening of good company. I also got to go to the Dekalb Farmer’s Market for the first time since I had made my return to Atlanta 3 years ago! I love going to farmer’s markets, because they are a wonderful blend of new things to try, reasonable prices, and the best thing in the world – food. I was even able to pick out my own birthday cake: a decadent 3-layer German chocolate cake that was delicious just to look at. After my birthday, March seemed to slog on because of our ten straight weeks without a day off. In addition, the last 3 weeks had been filled with tests and projects that were wearing down my drive to keep going. I crawled across the finish line to get to Spring Break, feeling as if I’d given everything I could just to get to that point. Over Spring Break, I reached out to the people at NASA Ames once more, but was simply told that “my resume had been taken into account and was on file.” I was beginning to feel disheartened by the fact that no one from the Spring or Fall career fair had rung me up. While others around me were getting their notices, it seemed like I was being left in the dust. Despite feeling this way, I applied to several more companies online and began to get in touch with some of my contacts. Finally, finally, I was beginning to take the hint that I would have to take the battle to the front lines and couldn’t remain passive anymore. Unfortunately, this sense of urgency was coming late in the game, perhaps too late.

With the beginning of April, I knew that this was my last shot at making it. If I wanted an internship, I would need to do everything in my power to make it happen. After hearing a guest lecturer one evening, I connected with him and asked for advice. What he told me was pretty startling – my resume was seriously bad and needed a lot of work. After months and months of sending this bad boy out, I was taken aback that I had missed something as obvious as that. Showing it to some of my other friends, they all agreed that it was hot garbage and needed serious work. In the span of five days and with many different helpers, it transformed from hot garbage into something much more “eye catching”. In addition to the resume facelift, I began to go through my rolodex (contact list for those of you too young) and asking for internship opportunities from anyone that might be in the know. This went on for week after week with the countdown clock ticking ever closer. No matter what happened, I needed to have something figured out by the end of finals week. Some leads seemed promising, while other doors closed on me instantly. Every professor I went to said the same thing: “If you had come to me 2 months ago, maaayybee I could have helped you out.” I was truly going the distance this time, working late in the night (okay, 10pm) to chase down any position I might be available to find. People told me I was doing everything I could, that I was doing it right, but for me it wasn’t right until I had landed a position somewhere. The thought of doing nothing for an entire summer scared me. I like to keep myself busy and productive and, above all, wanted to make my summer meaningful. As finals got closer, I was filled with a sense of dread that nothing might come from all my efforts.

Right before finals week began, I marched into the new Chair of the Aerospace Department’s office and made it very clear that I was willing to work anywhere and for anything this summer, I just didn’t want to do nothing. A friendly guy, he told me that he would reach out to some of his contacts and let me know. Two days later he reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in being a member of his research team for the summer. It wasn’t a bad gig by any means and would be a great opportunity to build inroads for grad school, so I was happy with that option. However, there was still something at the back of my mind that felt like I had failed. This wasn’t a true internship like so many of my friends would be doing. It almost felt like a second hand option that I only got because I failed. When I finally came to grips that nothing would be coming, that I would be relegated to living in Atlanta for the summer, I tried to make my peace with it in my mind.

I struggled with this settlement for five days before something popped into my inbox right before I was about to head home. It was an email from NASA Ames. It was an email from the same people I had reached out to in March and earlier on in September. They were asking if I would like to be an intern at their center working on CFD simulations for the Orion Heat Shield (ie. something going into space). As fast as I could, I replied back with something along the lines of “YES, please sign me up!” Working at NASA was a dream opportunity that I thought had also slipped away from me. Dozens of people around me were getting picked up by NASA, but my offer inbox still sat empty. Getting this email was the last thing I expected to see. I thought that this might be a joke and that they would email me back saying, “Actually, sorry, we had someone who replied back faster than you that we’re going with instead.” For two days, I sat waiting for a reply that confirmed what I desperately hoped to be true. Sitting in the Baltimore airport on my way back home, I finally got this confirmation.

I look back at the last 8 months and think through everything I did wrong (Answer: so so much). I’m trying to deconstruct it all so that I can take something away from it and improve on my next go-around. After all, isn’t the whole point of life to learn from your mistakes? Along the way, I made the mistake of being too passive. I believed that an internship would fall into my lap and that I had impressive enough credentials that it would happen on its own. Until April kicked me into high gear, until I received critical feedback about my resume, until I began to take the hunt seriously, I was not worthy of getting an internship. I can’t even begin to wonder what stroke of luck had my previous emails surface into their hiring inboxes at NASA Ames. It’s like all the work I did in April was a debt to pay, with this as my reward.

The biggest thing I’ve taken away is that you need to possess a drive to never give up. If you take the idea of giving up off the table, then you will ensure that you put forth your best effort. I certainly didn’t give up, even though I had every reason to along the way. It was the end of finals week and I had nothing to show in terms of an internship after 8 long months of hunting. Whatever you might be doing, whether it’s taking a class, learning a skill, or searching for a job, you need to maintain that passion to keep going even when the going gets rough. I had to keep telling myself, “I didn’t come this far to only come this far.” I wanted to go further than I had ever before. Life’s struggles are the best teacher and something that everyone has to experience on their own to truly understand. I’m certainly not done with my struggles, but if anything, I’m better equipped for the future. Those of you reading this, if you take anything home from it, please remember that you should never give up, never surrender. Your hard work will pay off in the end.


Posted by oklempay 17:48 Archived in USA Tagged fall school nasa research classes hunt semester internship chattanooga intern vehicle_performance Comments (1)

Choose Your Own Adventure


Coming back from France, I felt tears well up on my sweat-soaked face (I’d been traveling all day, okay?) when I saw the flag for the first time. It was such a relief to be back home: back in a place where everyone speaks the same language as you and there is such a thing as 24/7 service.

I took full advantage of my temporary respite by catching up on episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, spending time with my family, and hanging out at our camp up on the lake. I did a fair bit of worrying for Field Training, too, which kept haunting me in my dreams.


Fast forward two weeks now….and ta da, I’m done!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (That deserves about a hundred more exclamations) I’ve made it through the gauntlet and feel as if I’ve come out a different person. At first, I didn’t think that 14 days was a long enough time to fully evaluate someone and train them appropriately. However, those were the longest 14 days of my life. The entire time, you are in what is called a “locked on” environment, where you can’t speak unless spoken to, you march everywhere, and you can’t move a muscle in formation unless you want to have the full wrath of a CTA (Cadet Training Assistant) come down on you. From the get-go, TD-0, it was like clothes being put on tumble in a dryer. The first two days are shock and awe moments where it seems like no amount of training could prepare you for how strenuous they would be. Most people complain about eight hour work days, but our work days were approximately fifteen hours. From the moment you woke up at 4:00am, you would be in a constant rush of completing tasks until you would be allowed to go to bed at 8:00pm each night. Even our food breaks at the dining facility were tightly monitored! We would have to sit at attention and could not look around or talk. Everything about our lives was tightly controlled, and we were puppets that were yanked along throughout the day.

I was thrown in there with sixteen other people in the same group as me. We were called Romeo Flight and were a part of Squadron 6. Field Training is an interesting lab experiment, because some groups work much better than others and it’s all a luck of the draw. With these sixteen complete strangers, I ended up making sixteen new friends. We ate together, slept together, sweat together, and became so close that we knew everything and yet nothing about each other. I didn’t know most of their first names, where they were from, what they liked to eat, or anything personal. What I did get to learn however, was who was a fast learner, who had hidden confidence under a quiet shell, who would go on to mentor the flight, who would help everyone at every opportunity, and who would back down in the face of adversity. I was able to see what kind of person my flightmates were, without being distracted by the fluff of everything else about them. Like a rock worn down by the ocean, I was able to see each person for who they truly were. We knew so much and yet so little about each other.

The first half of our training took place at Maxwell Air Force Base, where we went to instructional classes during the day and covered topics like integrated base defense, compass navigation, radio techniques, map reading, operations in urban terrain, IED/UXO removal, and much more. Then, the second half of our training was a flood of scenarios that tested how well we understood the concepts from days prior. The scenarios ranged in difficulty and scope, some being comprised of eight people, where others were up to forty-eight people. They even put me in charge of one scenario where I was responsible for all forty-eight people in my squadron. Although I didn’t finish the mission in the allotted time, if I had had two more minutes I could have completed it. I spent almost the entire mission shouting into the radio to “MOVE UP, MOVE UP.”

At the end of every night, we would sing the Air Force Song as a Squadron and go to bed as the last note of “Taps” played. It was a somber and reflective moment that made us all think back on the day. As our Squadron Training Officer used to tell us every night, we should reflect on how we had sharpened our skills for the day and how we can continue to give 110% of our effort. She firmly believed that it is people who are the weapons. The planes, tanks, bombs: those are all just tools. She would say, “These are the tools, we are the weapons.” Thinking back, I would agree with her. Without dedicated, motivated, trained professionals, the military of the United States would be nowhere near as fearsome as what it currently is.

There were several moments during Field Training where I had to step back out of my body and take a look at things from afar. I couldn’t believe I was twenty feet up on a rope net or half-buried crawling under a log, but somehow, I was pushing my body through the pain of it all and making it happen. The entire process made me reflect on how much I want to be an officer: how much I want a chance to serve my country. If you weren’t giving your full effort there, it was quite noticeable. I call this article “Choose Your Own Adventure”, because I believe that you are the master of your own fate. Many people go through life deciding to take the easy route out. Whenever faced with a tough decision, they decide to go the path of least resistance. If you think this might be you, then let me tell you that you are living life wrong. The only way to get better, to have growth, is to put yourself into new scenarios that make you uncomfortable. As one of my heroes, David Goggins, likes to say, “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” If you are comfortable, it means you are complacent. Many people never realize their true potential because they give excuses like, “oh, I could never do that” or “it’s too hard.” The adventure I’ve decided to take has gotten progressively harder with every turn I take, but I like it that way. With each new challenge I face, I feel like I get better at handling large workloads, managing my time, and maintaining a positive outlook on situations. I could have given up and thrown in the towel long ago, but I am determined to see it through until I reach my end goal. I have faced numerous setbacks along my journey, but I’ve learned from them and moved on. Barring the sky falling down, there is nothing that can get in the way of me reaching my dream of becoming an astronaut.

Life is too short to live in complacency. If you live making easy decisions, then you will never do anything impactful. Time is the most valuable resource we have, so I urge everyone I can: take a look at your own adventure and look at the options ahead of you. Do not be afraid to take the hardest path, because it can bear the sweetest fruits if you see it through to the end.

“Copy All”
- In honor of Major Laubenthal


Posted by oklempay 19:25 Archived in USA Tagged usa mission cta romeo maxwell scenario field_training goggins laubenthal Comments (0)

A Last Hurrah Pt. 2


Let’s see, where did I leave off? Oh, right! So, there I was teamed up with Peter Parker, and we were about to fight…. wait, wrong story. It was the next day (Sunday by now) and this time I slept in to the late hour of 6:45am! I guess walking fifteen plus miles in a day kinda does that to you. I did the similar routine: stagger into the shower to get some hot water on me, put on an assortment of clothes that may or may not have already been worn the day prior, and snack on some grocery store food in the living room while I read my book. The others got up around 8:00am, which gave me plenty of time to lounge around.

Today, we would be doing one of my favorite things: splitting up and going in different directions! (There’s a backstory behind that, I promise) While some people wanted to go visit The Hague, which is famous for its importance with the European Union, I would stay behind in Brussels with my friend and go see some museums. Later, everyone would meet up in Antwerp for the afternoon to explore. That’s the beauty of having the Eurrail pass and a free weekend.

The two museums that we would be checking out were the Museum of Modern Instruments and the Toy Museum. I was particularly excited for our second stop, because c’mon, you’re never too old to love toys. I had even read that there was an interactive section of it where you could play with some! Now, I know what you’re already saying and I totally agree: no, it wouldn’t be weird at all for a 20-year-old to go play with toys in a museum obviously meant for kids. As my friend is a music connoisseur (he loves going to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and is in chamber choir), he was more excited for the Modern Instruments Museum.

During the walk there, we stopped for breakfast and ate some Belgian waffles while we took in the view of downtown. You could even make out the location of the world fair in Brussles a couple miles in the distance. It was marked by a giant structure in the shape of FCC Iron (a certain cell structure that I learned about in MSE). The museum opened at 10am, so we walked for another twenty minutes and got there right as they were unlocking the doors. Going inside, we tried to get the student discount, but they would only give it to students studying arts and music (for once it was a bad thing to study engineering!). The museum was comprised of 4 floors, complete with a library, music hall, and a gift shop. We worked our way up to the top and then back down to the basement. There were instruments of every persuasion bathed in light behind imposing glass walls. Unfortunately, all of the inscriptions were in French or Flemish, so we had to make up our own stories for each instrument. Some were so funky that we couldn’t even figure out how they might be played. Others were a Frankenstein of three or more instruments combined into one. The belle of the ball was a massive machine housed in the basement. It was an entire band put into one: the equivalent of an 18th century juke box. Large rolls with grooves on them could be loaded into the machine and then a crank would power it all. The grooves were essential, as they would make certain instruments on the machine start playing. It was quite impressive and easily our favorite instrument of the lot.



We spent an hour and a half inside the first museum before beginning the walk to the Toy Museum. It was only a half an hour away, and the walk took us through a neighborhood that we hadn’t yet seen. When we arrived, we were met by the owner, who was just beginning to close shop. Unfortunately, he said that the place was closed for renovations over the next couple of days! We were both pretty sad when we heard this, but decided that we would just get into Antwerp a little earlier than expected. Ducking through pockets of shade, we made the short walk to the train station through a park and hopped the next train. All in all, we had a relaxing morning in Brussels together. One of the nice things about using the entire weekend to travel is being able to sightsee at a pace that’s a little slower than usual (which is to say, maximum overdrive).


The ride to Antwerp was uneventful and took us about an hour. When we got in it was almost noon, which meant one of the three best times of the day: lunchtime. Leaving the station, we made our way down a large promenade with three story buildings on each side. This area was clearly made for tourists like ourselves. The shops were filled with fancy designer apparel and the wide road was blocked off from cars. We followed its winding mile-long route past bakeries and restaurants of all sizes until we were deposited in a large open-air square with rows of tents filling the area. I had found a highly rated Portuguese restaurant to eat at, but when got there it was closed! That was the third time TripAdvisor had failed me. With our hungry stomachs, we didn’t waste time looking for places and settled on the first one we saw across the street. It sold home on a plate. That is to say, it boasted its classic American hamburgers and was in the theme of Manhattan from the 1920’s. Satisfied and with stomachs full, we waddled out of there and over to the market. It seemed like the featured product was cloth, because the vendors sold cloth in all forms: rugs, blankets, scarfs, curtains, and of course, straight up plain. Some of the rugs were beautiful, but most definitely would not have fit within our suitcases.


After our market excursion, we followed our natural instincts, which told us to go towards the biggest thing in the sky. Towering over the surrounding buildings was a steeple that pierced the sky. Directly adjacent to it was our next stop: the office of tourism. Despite suffering the humiliation of becoming a “tourist” (eegads), they did give us some great maps specifically made for young people and some helpful advice. We set out from there and made our way to the water. Along the way, we passed through a square with an intricate fountain that stole the attention from everything else. With the heat of the day, I had my friend hold my belongings while I took a quick bath in the fountains spray. Then we walked over to the wide canal and followed a path along the water for a mile or so. There was a covered boathouse that featured boats from every era there, but not much else to see besides that. We backtracked through the confusing streets of the city, which made no sense at all in terms of direction. It was quite easy to get lost here, and with my phone battery below 50%, we had to resort to our good ol’ fashioned maps that we had picked up to make our way back to the fountain. (Now we really WERE tourists). Once we did get there, we poked our noses inside the church that cornered the square, but turned away when we saw there was a fee to walk around. After that disappointing find, we went back to the main street we had initially started on. The others were expecting to get in around 4:30pm, and as it was only 2pm, we still had a good chunk of time to kill. We went into one of the bakeries that had caught my eye earlier and camped out there for an hour. A comfy booth, strong air conditioning, and a free bathroom was a great deal for suffering through having to eat a chocolate croissant. While there, I finished up my book on Hiroshima (finally!) and ended up napping for a bit. I suppose the heat had finally gotten to me. My friend enjoyed the time off his feet as much as I did.

The hour passed and we were back at it again on the streets. Not far from us was a large green rectangle on the map that we figured must be a park (and maybe because it was labelled “park”). We took the fifteen-minute walk down to Southern Antwerp and were met by signs advertising a music festival. Going some ways into the park, we began to hear the notes of a band drift through the trees towards us. Rounding a corner and passing through a grove of trees, the scene opened up to feature a large stage with groups of people clustered around it in the grass. It was a concert intended for younger audiences, so this wasn’t any death metal or anything. It was more of classic rock kind of sound.



Moving on past the stage, we made our way to the far end of the park. Out here were rows of tables in what essentially surmounted to being a large garage sale. Boxes of old records sat on the ground and clothes that hadn’t seen wear in decades hung from racks. In the spirit of it all, I even picked up some free dishes from one vendor, but would ditch them later on once I realized them for what they truly were: grimy, old, dirty, dishes. It was getting near 4pm now, so we began to make our way from Southern Antwerp back to the train station. We traveled through a highly Jewish section of town and followed the rails back to the central station. We got lost for a short while and had to backtrack a couple of times to make sure we were going the right way. The entrance to the station was directly adjacent to a zoo, which the other half of our group would be joining us for when they got in. Sitting on the steps outside the zoo, we listened to a group of older musicians strumming away on their instruments. For the second time that day, we enjoyed the peace of the moment and took it all in.


We saw the others approaching just after 4:30pm and went up to meet them. Everyone wanted to see the zoo, but I said that I would stay behind and explore Antwerp some more (plus, tickets were a bit expensive). Before they went inside, we agreed to meet at the same spot at 5:30pm. I set out from the central station and moved towards what looked like “Little China” of Antwerp. This was made evident by a giant Chinese gate framing the entrance to the neighborhood. I followed the street down past some sketchy looking stores and eventually found a grocery store where I could buy some snacks to hold me over until dinner. Moving through Northern Antwerp, I stumbled upon a college campus. Although I tried to get inside its walls to check out the library and see some of its buildings, all of the doors were locked. I continued on and made my way back to the fountain where I had had my bath. There were still several streets that we hadn’t seen in this area, so I spent some time shopping for gifts and finding dessert shops that seemed to get increasingly better looking the hungrier I got. The hour went by pretty fast after this. When I got back to the zoo, I showed up just as my friends were exiting. We regrouped and swapped stories about our adventures for the past hour and began to brainstorm dinner ideas.

Remember how I had been longing for ribs over the past couple of weeks? Well, it looked like my wish was going to come true tonight! Down near my bathing fountain (that’s just what I’ll call it now), was a place that claimed to have the “best ribs in Belgium.” More importantly, they boasted that it was all you can eat, which I took as a direct challenge. We took the mile walk there and showed up shortly after 6pm. The place wasn’t very crowded and was yet again decorated with a 1920’s interior. The interior was extremely dark, but as your eyes adjusted, the walls began to reassemble into fascinating pictures and bookshelves with dusty old tomes that made the place innately fascinating. The service was slow, but we didn’t much mind the long wait. We were all pretty tired after having walked 11 or so miles already. The ribs were good, but….. they just weren’t great. I’m probably spoiled from my Dad’s ribs and eating at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack, but these weren’t the best ever. They had a sweet quality to them that was unusual for me and there was a good amount of fat on them. Overall, though, after not having had ribs for the better part of four months, these still tasted delicious and a little fat didn’t stop me from cleaning my plate. We got out of there at 8pm, which gave us just enough time to go back to the water and see the sun going down over the river as we stood on the pier. The entire evening was a nice last hurrah, as I anticipated this to be my last weekend traveling. The subsequent weekends I would be bombarded with tests and getting ready for Field Training (bleh).


Once the sun started to set, we began to go back down main street towards the central station. We were able to catch the 8:40pm train to Brussels, which got us in at 9:45pm. Then, becoming natural pros at it by now, we trudged the mile uphill to our Airbnb in record time. We all promptly fell asleep at 10:30pm and got ready for tomorrow’s adventure.


We had reached Monday, the last day of our travel. The day’s roster included visiting the site of the 1958 World Fair. We had read that there were various attractions clustered inside the park, and a large monument of a BCC iron cell structure that presided over the entire area. Cleaning up the apartment was a bit like cleaning up a war zone: pillows lay askew on the floor, clothes were found in all corners, and trash had to be collected from every room. It’s not that we were messy people, we just settled in over the past few days and marked the place as ours. We departed at 9:00am and walked a mile and a half to the appropriate subway station that would take us to the World Fair. The subway ride was an uneventful forty-five minutes to reach our destination. One cool thing I will note: the train would go up and down and take curves that made it feel like it was on a roller coaster track, so that added an element of excitement for riders.

When we got off at our destination, the place looked like a ghost town. Closed signs hung in every window and only a few other people milled around the empty parking lot. It turns out almost everything opened at 10am, and it being a weekday, there weren’t many families coming to “kiddie fun land”. In the meanwhile, we searched the attractions up on TripAdvisor and decided that for the cost of them, the only one worth seeing was the “Mini Europe” exhibit. It was essentially walk-through exhibit that had a mini-building from every European Union country on its path.



Compared to, say, climbing the Eiffel Tower, this was definitely a much more lackluster attraction. Despite it all, I scrounged out the 15 or so overpriced euros for it and made the most of my time walking through. Upon walking in, I was assaulted by a giant, orange, turtle who tried to take a picture with me. It was pretty unnerving, but I mostly felt bad for whatever poor sap had to don a turtle costume every morning and have to hug tourists. I’m not biased or anything, but the coolest parts of the exhibit were those from Latvia and Lithuania. For Latvia, they had a mini monument of the statue known as the “Freedom Monument”, which I used to walk past every day on my way to school last summer. For Lithuania, they had a mini “Vilnius University”, which is where I took my classes for the other half of the summer! I even tried to find my exact classroom to see if they had a mini-me sitting in a chair in a classroom. The rest of it was a solid 2 out of 10 in terms of excitement, but we moved through it fast enough that it was bearable. In the distance, we were able to see the “Atominium”, which is a monument based on the BCC Iron Cell Structure (thank you, MSE, for teaching me that). After an hour and a half of it, we finally determined that we had paid our time for the cost of entrance and moved on out. We weren’t willing to spend any more money, and the Atominium was a bit of a walk away, so we went back to the subway and to the heart of Brussels once again.

With our extra time, we picked up breakfast and scouted out the local area for any promising chocolate stores. We happened across a very high-end place that I snagged a few free samples from. Luckily, I was able to duck out before the guilt dragged me down and I bought something. Spending an hour in the square, we enjoyed our final moments in Belgium before heading back to the central train station. As a nice send off, there was a pepsi vendor giving away free samples to us before we got on our train. The ride back was 4 hours of peace and quiet. I had gotten a jump on my Def Bods homework, so it wasn’t looming over my head like it was for some other people.

Overall, I met some great people and made new friends. Originally, I didn’t think Belgium had much to offer, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Belgium has a very classical European style that you see in postcards and the like. The people there are friendly and proud of their culture. Moreso, they excel at chocolate-making, waffles, and beer, so what more could you ask for, really? Everything from the people I traveled with, to the food, to the winning of the world-cup game made for an excellent adventure. For anyone thinking about visiting Belgium, it is certainly worth a 3 or 4-day visit.

Posted by oklempay 18:16 Archived in Belgium Tagged antwerp museum waffle instruments brussels ribs toy_museum world_fair bcc atominium Comments (0)

A Last Hurrah


It’s time to go back! Back to the future! Yeah, so little secret: I’m not actually writing this right after traveling. Full disclosure, I’m actually writing this two weeks after taking my trip. Between various shows on Netflix and working out (and school too, I suppose) I kind of put this on the backburner. However, I’m making up for the delay by getting this done now once and for all.

It’s actually the weekend before finals here. I have my Stats final on Monday and my Thermo final on Tuesday morning, which is when I’m supposed to be heading out. It’ll be tight fitting in that test Tuesday morning, but hopefully it’ll all work out (and if it doesn’t, I shall be royally screwed). If all goes according to plan, by 8:30pm on Tuesday, I will be standing firmly on American soil once again. The past two weeks I’ve been swamped with a test every week and numerous homework assignments. By now, I’m in the mode where it’s normal to have a test every week, which is quite scary to deal with it. However, I think I’ve been able to slay these tests better than Buffy with a vampire. In fact, I scored high enough on my last MSE test that I was able to skip out on the final! On the last day of class, our teacher gave us our scores and said: “Any of you who have an A, you can go.” Who’d a thunk! The class I thought would be my downfall turned out to be the one I could skip out on in the end. Now, only two more stand in my way…

School aside, let’s hop in the time-travelling phone booth with Bill and Ted to revisit my most excellent adventure to Belgium. I took this trip with several new people I’d met in the program. There were five of us overall: a perfect size for a travel group. I would argue that four is the lower limit for a good group and seven the upper. Our late-evening MSE class was cancelled, so we left at noon on Friday with the intention of coming back Monday afternoon (no I wasn’t skipping, there were no classes Monday). Our Airbnb was located in Brussels, which would be our forward operating base for the weekend. Brussels is centrally located in Belgium, so it would be a short ride to the various cities we planned on seeing. All in all, it was gearing up to be a fun trip.

I had to take my Thermo quiz immediately before we headed out, which left my insides churning in a mix of adrenaline and pure fear as we saddled up with our bags and got on the bus to the train station. I got acquainted with the rest of my travel companions on the bus ride there: some new and some already familiar to me. Our train left at 1pm and would take us about four hours to get to Brussels. During this time, I continued reading a book I’d picked up about the survivors of Hiroshima, as well as finishing up the last few episodes of “Stranger Things”. With it being the middle of the day, I wasn’t scared to watch it. In the midst of our ride, we happened upon another girl from GTL, who was making her way to Amsterdam. She was very friendly and helped us pass the time by finding someone new to talk to. Before we knew it, our train was pulling into the main station and we were parting ways.

We had been told that our Airbnb was a fifteen-minute walk from the train station, which doesn’t sound that bad on paper. However, this was a fifteen-minute walk *uphill*. (Yes, I did have to walk uphill both ways in the snow and the rain). This hill wasn’t that small either: it was the largest hill in Brussels! We so happened to be inhabiting its highest peak. Weighed down with our bags and weary from the travel thus far, the satisfaction was so sweet when we piled into our temporary abode and tossed our bags in a heap on the ground. Before she headed out, our host was excited to offer any assistance we might need in finding suitable dinner places or places that served beverages of a certain alcoholic persuasion. We turned down her suggestions on the bars, but did eventually make our way to the city center. She said it would contain the most options for us.

Without our bags, the walk felt much lighter and enjoyable. The big Brazil versus Belgium football match was tonight. Having never won the World Cup, Belgium was the underdog that no one had expected to come this far. If they won tonight, they would be moving on to the semi-finals. Our apartment was situated in a heavily Brazilian neighborhood, as evidenced by the multiplicity of flags hanging from every conceivable nook and cranny. In the hours leading up to the game, everyone was out doing their own version of tail-gating: some had coolers, others chairs set up outside of bars with televisions, and almost everyone with a beer in hand. We passed by several groups of kids playing pickup games out on the sidewalk. Between 6 and 8pm, the entire city would be watching in nervous anticipation for their respective teams.


When we got to the city center, the entire scene was one hot mess of people. There were people walking around in medieval costumes, while others sported soccer jerseys. We heard music and found a town square with bleachers set up around the perimeter. In the center were various groups performing traditional Belgian dances. I desperately wanted to run out there and show off my moves, but I was talked out of it by my friends. After investigating the square, we went window-shopping in the neighborhood for a suitable dinner place. We eventually settled on what Belgium is most known for: its Italian pizza. Although we had wanted to find something more traditional, this place fit all our criteria (it was cheap) and was right next to us.


Following dinner, we took a more circuitous route to get back to our Airbnb. We headed up the other big hill that Brussels is built on and got a great view of the sunset. Then we passed through a park smothered in a purple haze, which would have made Jimi Hendrix happy. I was able to get my first Belgian waffle! It was a tasty fried treat that held up its reputation. Continuing with our meandering, we found a statue of a little cherub peeing. I’m not sure why it’s such a famous fountain, but there were numerous chocolate shops around us that sold recreations of this effigy in an edible form.


Brussels is a traditional European city, with everything one would expect to find. It didn’t have many major attractions like, say, Paris, but it did have spirit. We witnessed a bit of this spirit towards the end of the soccer match. With ten minutes left, every television screen in the city had mobs of people standing around it. The closest we could get to one was within thirty feet. However, we all knew the outcome of the match when a loud roar ripped through the city and the blowhorns started. Cars around us let loose with their horns and the Belgian flag was waved out of windows. You think people take American football seriously, these wackos take it to a whole new level here in Europe. By now it was 8:30pm and it would take us about forty-five minutes to get back to our apartment. We worked our way through the masses and saw some pretty ludicrous things. Drivers on mopeds were standing on their seats as they rode, large groups of people were dancing in the dark in the middle of the street, and several everyday minivans were converted into party buses, with way more than the legal amount of people hanging out of them and blasting tunes. Understandably, this was a big deal for Belgium.


When we got close to our place, we passed through the Brazilian neighborhoods once more. In stark contrast to the partying Belgians, the air was saturated with sadness. The place looked worse than a teenager after a breakup. You could sense that the people were not expecting to end up on the losing side. It was around 10pm when we finally stepped into our room and collapsed on the couch. We worked out the game plan for the next day and promptly went to bed after our exciting first day. Even though we had only been in the city since 4pm, it felt like we had done a whole day’s worth of things. By the end of it, we had walked over nine miles!

Exhausted from yesterday, I staggered out of bed as quietly as I could at 6am. Although the others wouldn’t be up for another two hours, I find it hard to lie in bed after 6:30am. Instead, I went into the living room and continued to read my book. When they did start to stir, I began to get my supplies ready for the day. Heading out at 8:30am, the day’s itinerary was to see the two cities of Ghent and Bruges. Only a half hour by train, it was a quick ride over to our first stop for the day: Ghent.


Ghent is a famous port city of Belgium: acting as an intermediary for traders between countries like France and the Netherlands. Due its strategic significance, thankfully it missed out on the destruction that the Nazis wrought on other cities across Belgium. That morning, I had found a free walking tour service for Ghent, so we decided that it would be the best way to get acquainted with the city. Our tour guide was a woman in her early forties, with a perky personality and a strong passion for the people of Ghent. She continually talked about their adaptability and innovative approaches to making things work. For example, she led us into a Marriott hotel that had an unassuming exterior. With the original brick façade of a building from the 1500’s, we had to squeeze through the entrance to make it inside. However, upon walking in, the space expanded like entering into Diagon Alley. There was a beautiful glass ceiling that made the place look like an atrium. It was truly a marvel in architecture to have such a large interior hidden behind the tiny front door. She said that it had to keep the original exterior, because it was part of the main street of Ghent and therefore had to maintain its historical look. Back in its day, the original building was also a hotel for salty sailors looking to find a bed and a woman for the night. Its patrons are a tad more refined nowadays, but its cool that it retains its original function even after all these years.



Aside from magically expanding hotels, she showed us a square where three lampposts sit. Every time a baby is born at a hospital in Ghent, the doctors give the mother a button to press that lights up the lamps. Our guide said that the people of Ghent wanted to celebrate new life entering the world after facing several centuries of repression and death as a city. Then, she led us down a graffiti-covered alley that is a “sanctioned graffiti zone” for anyone that wants to let out their inner delinquent. Every week, new paintings spring up over old ones. The Office of Tourism in the city even sells cans of spray paint to interested vandals! Following that, she showed us a famous beer hall with one of the largest selections in Ghent. Apparently, when people started stealing too many glasses from the hall, it became a new rule at the place that you would have to give the waiter your shoe if you wanted to order a beer. The shoe would be put on a pulley-like device and hung from the ceiling until your meal was over. That way, you wouldn’t be able to leave without giving back your glass. It was highly reminiscent of tactics my teachers used in elementary school.

Towards the end of our tour, she began to tell us about the turning point in Ghent’s history: how it transitioned to being one of the most powerful cities in Europe to being tossed aside. It was the Hundred Years’ War between France and England that started the eventual decline. As Ghent was based off of trading and still a province of France at the time, having its two major customers go to war ended up badly for the city. Then, technological advancements in the textile industry saw the city start to fall behind the technology curve. Unable to catch up to or trade with England, the city’s inhabitants started looking elsewhere for work. In the 1500’s, a new hope was born in Ghent (no, not Luke Skywalker): it was Charles V. He would go on to rule the Holy Roman Empire and unite large swathes of Europe. However, instead of elevating the city from its position of poverty, he levied huge taxes against the townspeople and, when they refused to pay, showed up with a full army and forced them to hand everything over (and then some). The people of Ghent came to hate Charles V, who many thought would be the prodigy that would save the city. Since then, Ghent hasn’t been able to bounce back from its slump and possess the power it once had. Despite this, it’s certainly worth a visit and has a series of canals that highlight its history with commerce. We ended the tour around 1pm and made our way back to the train station, where we would continue our adventure on to Bruges.


Getting on the train, we were all starting to feel the pangs of hunger as we rode to Bruges. It was only a half hour ride, but our growling stomachs made it worse. During the ride, I looked up places on my favorite go-to site for restaurants: TripAdvisor. Although the place I found was a half hour walk from the station, there were enough great reviews that it would balance out the extra traveling time. When we got off the train, we were blinded by the hot sun that dominated a cloudless sky. There was little shade to be found in the narrow, stone streets as we walked, and the mixture of heat and hunger made us all pick up the pace. We passed through the center of the town and down to where a large statue of a humpback whale sprang out of a canal. Made out of recycled pieces, it was a sculpture advocating for the cleanup of the oceans. Next to the statue was our final destination, which, unfortunately for us, was closed today. Between Venice and Bruges, I don’t have the best record when it comes to finding restaurants that are open.


Despite this setback, we backtracked to the city center and found a place that sold more traditional Belgian food: hamburgers! Okay, so maybe we got lazy and found a place that had cheap prices again, but I can assure you that it was still delicious. We lounged around in the air-conditioned haven for an hour or so, enjoying the temporary respite. Afterwards, we made our way back to the whale statue and followed the canals. In a way, it felt like the city was trying to copy Venice with how the boats ferried eager tourists around. However, having visited the real thing just two weeks ago, this couldn’t hold a candle to Venice. Heading back into the city center, we walked through an old bell-tower and watched some candy being made in a shop window. Then, following the canals once more, we made our way over to a Convent, where nuns had been living and working for centuries. We stood on the bridge to the Convent and watched ducks come and go in the water as we passed the time talking. Although I looked for her, I didn’t see The Penguin (or Jake and Ellwood for that matter). Finding a park to walk through, we moseyed around for a while as we began to make an indirect path back to the train station. As it was only 5pm, we were trying to figure out what we could do next. We figured that it was too early to go back to Brussels and Bruges was kinda, “been there, done that.” I made a joke that we should hop on the first train leaving and see where it goes, which made one person pipe up that we were only a fifteen-minute ride away from the beach. This proposition piqued all of our interests, and the vote was unanimously in favor of going. That’s how we ended up visiting the beach resort of Belgium, Ostende, on a mere whim.


One thing I’ve loved about this summer is having the freedom to travel wherever I wish. We wanted to go to the beach, so we went to the beach! The train network makes it very convenient to get around without a car, although you do have to put up with the various strikes and missing trains by mere seconds. When we got off at Ostende, we followed the salty breeze and sound of lapping waves to the water’s edge. Even here, in the middle of Belgium, Disney made an appearance. There was a walled off area of the beach with special Disney sculptures that you could pay to see. Although I didn’t care to go, two people in our group (die-hard Disney fans) went inside. The rest of us walked to the edge of a large pier and found some rocks to sit on while we relaxed. There we sat, soaking up the sun and enjoying a break from walking. I whipped out my phone and started surfing through TripAdvisor for the second time that day in the hopes of redemption. Just as I found a suitable place, the other members of our party walked up to us. We all agreed that we were ready for dinner, so we made our way towards a place that had had good reviews for its chicken.

Apparently, the reviews raved about chicken so much because that was the only thing they served! The two options on the menu were half-chicken, or half-chicken with salad. Our waitress gave us a confused look when we asked for a menu, as if we didn’t already know that there was really only one thing to order. The fresh chicken that came out was complemented by a basket of slices of white bread that was put on our table. If I were to look for Jake and Ellwood, this would’ve been the place to find them. Even with the limited menu, my compatriots were pretty happy with the dinner. I had redeemed myself!

When dinner was over, it was starting to near 8:15pm. With an hour’s ride back to Brussels, we decided that it might be a good idea to catch the 8:40 train. We got on board with two minutes to spare and crammed into some seats alongside other families and groups that had come to the beach on this beautiful day. Little kids ran up and down the aisles as beleaguered parents chased after them. An hour later, we were beginning the mile hike up to our resting place. When we finally arrived, our legs were sore from a full day’s adventure. All in all, we had gone over 14 miles!

What I find incredible is that we were able to see three different cities in one day: the power of being able to hop on any train and travel wherever we fancied. We got a good taste of each city (and some chicken) and were able to move on whenever we wanted to. I’ve cherished having this freedom, because I know that in one short week all my freedoms will be sucked away and replaced with a very strict set of guidelines. The thought of Field Training looms over me with every approaching day, but I have to focus on finals and getting home first before I can even begin to get scared about it. I’ll finish up Part 2 another time, but for now, I have Stats to get back to.

‘Til next time, до свидания!

Posted by oklempay 07:38 Archived in Belgium Tagged canals ghent beach waffle disney brussels bruges ostende cherub stranger_things Comments (0)

I'm Not Verdun Yet!


Phew, okay, so I may or may not have spent the past weekend holed up inside my room watching the entirety of “Stranger Things” (Told you I was burnt out from Italy). Let me tell you that it as an incredible show with an awesome soundtrack to boot. Plus, it happens to fit three of my criteria for good shows: sci-fi, 80’s, and action. Shows aside, I made sure to spend some time out in the sun by walking to the park and going on workout runs. This week was pretty exciting, because we had a field trip to Verdun on Tuesday, the 4th of July was Wednesday, and I had my second MSE test that evening as well! I think the test went well, but we’ll have to wait and see from the scores, which should come out any day now. I’ll admit, the 4th of July here was a bit of a letdown: and not just because I had a test on the same day. We were supposed to have a barbecue in the evening, but they had “safety concerns” with the grill, so they ended up ordering McDonalds for everyone instead (*groan*). After I grabbed some free, albeit gross, food from the lounge, my friends and I went over to the local pizza place and ordered a large pizza to wash away the taste from our mouths. In addition to the barbecue fiasco, it seemed like no one here even noticed that it was the Fourth! I felt like I was the only one walking around in red, white, and blue. The entire day, the only music I listened to was country music (which is what we did last year in Lithuania)! This Fourth of July doesn’t rank highly in the twenty I have experienced so far. In short, school continues to go well and I have a thermo quiz to get ready for on Friday. I love my classes (except for Stats) and I’m prepared for it to get harder from here on out.

As I mentioned, we had a school field trip to Verdun on Tuesday! I was excited, because it was a trip that I wouldn’t have to do any planning for and could actually go on without needing to worry about checking in, making trains, or finding things to do. There were a good number of people upset by the “mandatory” nature of the trip. As it is with kids, when you tell them that they have to do something (even if it’s visiting one of the most historic sites of WWI!), they’ll get upset and want to do the opposite. On that Tuesday, there was a huge spike in the number of “sick kids” and many others who outright refused to go so that they could do their own thing. There was a good number of people who used the excuse, “I have more important things to do.” Unfortunately, the faculty that planned the trip assumed that almost everyone would be attending, so the large amount of absences created some complications (and some surprising benefits as you’ll see).

We were organized into four groups, each with its own bus. I had signed up for the special group that would be able to tour what was known as the “Citadelle”, a large underground network of tunnels that the French Army used during both World Wars. While we were doing that, everyone else would have some extra time to spend in the city. Leaving around 8:00am, it took us about an hour to get out to Verdun. Many people used this time to go back to sleep, but I did a bit of reading and studying for my MSE test. When we reached the city, we met our tour guide: a delightful Welsh man in his sixties by the name of Giles. He gave a cheerful introduction and wasted no time in jumping into the history and significance of the city as the bus made its way to our first stop. Along the way, he pointed out several groves of trees to us. These, he said, used to be villages of farmers living on the outskirts of the city. The torrential artillery bombardment reduced almost all of them to ashes and rubble. Now, the only sign that they were ever there are crosses that sit nestled back in the woods and mark where the village centers were. Although there was a layer of grass covering the ground, the lumps of craters were still quite noticeable: reminiscent of some strange moon-scape.


Our first destination was the Ossuary and cemetery of Verdun, which is the largest French cemetery of World War I. In it lie over sixteen-thousand graves. Many of the soldiers buried there were not identifiable, so bear a common name on their grave marking. We took a quick jaunt down among the grave markers before heading up into the main attraction: the Ossuary. Essentially, a giant storehouse of bones, it is a one-of-a-kind building. Its creator, the Bishop of Verdun, wanted to create a place where families of the fallen could go and grieve for their loved ones. It houses the bones of both German and French soldiers who went missing. There are the remains of over 300,000 soldiers inside. Close to ground level, there are glass windows that allow visitors to peer into chambers that contain heaps of bones. It was quite a gruesome site to see. Giles led us inside the Ossuary and gave us more information about how the Bishop travelled across Europe and the United States, raising money for his project. The outside of the building bears the crest of each city that donated money, from Philadelphia to Caen. The main hall of the Ossuary had an ethereal orange glow to it, which made the inside seem like it was on fire. We went up several flights of stairs to the bell tower, where you can look down on the valley that Verdun sits in. From so high up, we had a new perspective on how many graves rest in the cemetery. Arranged in blocks of several hundreds, the rows of graves resembled soldiers marching into battle (which is fitting, considering who lies in the graves).




After an hour and a half of poking around the Ossuary, we were rounded up like sheep and herded onto the bus. Unfortunately for us, some people who were looking out for their friends filled in the names of their absent pals on the attendance sheet (so that they wouldn’t face any repercussions for skipping). The attendance sheet was the only way to get accountability, so with extra names on there, it was impossible to know who was actually there and who wasn’t. We wasted almost forty-five minutes trying to figure it out, before some people fessed up and we were able to get a more accurate number.

We took a quick, twenty-minute bus ride to our next destination, the Douaumont Fort. Sitting up on a hill, this was the main bastion of the French Army. It was immensely fortified and would have been highly formidable had the French not abandoned it before the Battle for Verdun began. The higher ups were worried that German artillery would surely be able to penetrate and destroy it, so days before the battle began, ordered for the evacuation of the place. The only people left inside were older reservist troops who, presumably, were better left on the back lines. What happened next was a hilarious stroke of luck for the Germans: one squad of German soldiers was sent to get close to the Fort and survey its defenses in preparation for a larger assault. What they found instead was a deserted fort lacking all of its armaments (for those had been taken too). One man, Pioneer Sgt. Kunze, volunteered to go inside and check things out. Armed with but a rifle, he made his way through a hole in the wall and found the place to be empty. The sole inhabitants of the Fort were members of an artillery team, whom Kunze promptly locked in a room. That, boys and girls, is how a German soldier single-handedly captured one of France's mightiest forts. The oddest things can arise from war.

Giles led us to the top of the Fort, which is built inside a giant hill. Then, he took us down into the tunnels. Damp and musty, the temperature dropped almost twenty degrees when we walked inside, which sent shivers down my spine. Water dripped from the ceiling and formed dirty puddles on the ground as we walked through the halls. Metal buckets were set up on the ground, which made creepy, “plink, plink”, noises as we moved through the darkness (not a great place to be after watching "Stranger Things"). We were able to see the soldiers’ barracks (forty to a room) and made our way through the maze to a large cannon that sat under a giant, metal shield. In its heyday, the cannon could be raised and lowered in mere seconds, which allowed the French to take potshots with it and move it back into cover before the Germans could fire back. Later on in the battle, when the French eventually reclaimed the Fort (taking significant casualties in doing so), the cannon was a key tool for the French Army. We spent about an hour venturing through the Fort’s creepy interior before making our way to the buses once more. At this point, it was getting close to one of my three favorite times of the day: lunchtime!


The bus made its way back to the city and deposited us at the base of a large hill. We said goodbye to Giles and trekked up to the courtyard of a large, regal, manor. Remember how I said there was a good side to those kids who skipped out on us? It seems like the staff that planned the trip ordered enough food for everyone to eat two or three meals. With so many people missing, they were shoveling out sandwiches and bags of cookies as fast as we could take them. One kid walked out of there with eight baguette-sandwiches in his arms! I should consider myself lucky, too, because I was able to snag ten cookies and ration them out over the following week. All in all, lunch was “free” and the food wasn’t half-bad! I’d call that a win-win type of deal.


Following our surprise buffet, our special group was led down to the “Citadelle”. I was excited to see more tunnels, and having signed up for the special group, I had high expectations for this part of the trip. Unfortunately, it couldn’t have been a bigger let down. Although we did in fact get to see the tunnels, we did so on a Disney-like ride cart that brought us through an incredibly cheesy “living museum”, where screens played out scenes of actors pretending to live in the tunnels. The dialogue of the pretend-story was cringier than a freshman boy asking out a senior girl to prom. On top of that, the tunnels in the Citadelle were far colder than those we went through earlier in the day. It must have been forty degrees in there! By the end of the half-hour ride, I was shaking from the cold (man, I really am a Southerner). I was happy to get outside and into the hot sun, where I met up with some of my friends.


When we were all together again, we walked into the main city center and began our inspection of the various candy stores that lay scattered throughout. We had heard of one in particular where you could get a tour of its production rooms and some free samples, but it was just a smidge too far away to get to in time. Consoling ourselves with some of the cookies from earlier, we camped out in a park and passed the time shooting the breeze and talking. When an hour had elapsed, we made our way back to the safety of the busses. On the ride back, the staff tossed more satchels of food to anyone that didn’t already have their arms bundled with food. The journey home went by quickly, which I used to study for MSE again. Once I got to my dorm, I continued to study my butt off and prepare for the coming storm.


Verdun is a small city, but it’s rich in history. Statues and monuments lay scattered all around us: marking off some major firefight or other event that happened over a hundred years ago. As Giles told us, the people of the area are proud of their history, but also want to move on and present Verdun as something more than a city that got beat up like a punching bag a century ago. Nowadays, they have a variety of festivals and events throughout the year that celebrate other aspects of the city’s history. If we hadn’t taken a school field trip to Verdun, I would likely have gone on my own accord. From the Imperial War Museum in London, to the beaches of Normandy, to the death fields of Auschwitz, and now to the cratered city of Verdun, I’m slowly making my way back through history and to a time where the world stood on the brink of collapse. I’m glad that I get to see sites like these, because they remind me of the horrors of war and everything we stand to lose if there’s no one who stands up to the fight against the tyrants and dictators that live among us. Nowadays, it seems like there are many things people take for granted. We have to memorize a quote by Father Denis Edward O. Brien, who puts it pretty bluntly: “It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protestor to burn the flag.”

Posted by oklempay 10:37 Archived in France Tagged cemetery battle war field_trip verdun ossuary citadelle world_war_i mse Comments (0)

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