Study Abroad: Redefined, A Semester in Austria
Experiential learning can be simple: walking, sometimes aimlessly, in whichever direction you are pulled.
By Chloe Bell, Beloit College
One of the reasons I chose to go to Vienna was because of its history. The fascinating twists and turns of a Roman city, morphing through time into a musical heaven, and then into an influential United Nations center caught my interest and I knew I had to spend some time there. But, I learned something . Experiential learning is not just about going to museums and to specific buildings or places of worship, but something so much simpler: walking, sometimes aimlessly, in whichever direction you are pulled. The best realizations and discoveries lie in places we would never expect.
My roommate and I were walking through the 1st district and the center of the city, where barely any motor vehicles are allowed and pedestrians have mostly free rein down every street, to find a movie theater. We scoured the winding roads (I took direction from my roommate, Maria, who only knew the streets by their first letter, go figure) and finally came upon a theater on a side street. We went to buy tickets only to realize that it was 5:16, literally 1 minute after the film was to start, and were only able to buy tickets to the next showing at 6pm. At this point we finally realized that punctuality is of the utmost importance in Austria.
With this 45 minute “gift” we decided to wander. And what a gift it was. No sarcasm. Wandering through side streets we were tossed into another world. Only minutes away from one of the most touristy places in Vienna, people live lavishly in beautiful old buildings decorated with statues with gold inlays. The buildings were from the 18th and 19th centuries and had an air of that historic regality any student studying abroad in Europe only dreams of experiencing.
As we were enthralled by such elegant and breathtaking sights, we hardly noticed we had entered a square surrounded by these beautiful buildings. It was rather small and almost deserted, save for a mother and four small children giggling and throwing snowballs on the far end. A large statue stood in the center of the square and caught my eye immediately. The
18th century man stood prominently with his accessory cane in his right hand and his left resting on his well-fed stomach. I was enthralled by his face and eyes, staring off into the distance with a firm clasp of his lips. After studying him for a moment, I turned around to see where his gaze would lead. Following his sight-line, I walked away from him and towards a building encompassing the square. It seemed tucked away, almost hidden, but had writing on its outside wall. I crept close to see what it was and was shocked to discover, “Museum Judenplatz” in black letters on the front. The square’s eerie feeling became even more recognizable as I realized the significance this place must hold. The faint, echoing sound of small children chasing one another and squealing seemed like an auditory reflection upon the past; like a glimpse into the innocence of Austrian Jews extracted and massacred not so long ago. Suddenly, the scenery changed into a grungy haze of hate, misunderstanding, and reminiscence. I stood there staring at the building and slowly turned myself around to see the whole square from that angle. I stood there for a good 5 minutes just soaking everything in, only closing my eyes for a second to breathe in and out.
The whole experience was eye-opening for me. With my camera solidly in my backpack, I looked around at this tiny world and kept my eyes open to experience the moment in an entirely different way than I had since I arrived. While I wanted to document all of my travels, this moment taught me to take a step back; to get lost; to discover something about the city without the constant need to push that tiny button on my camera. I took a chance going down that tiny backstreet and I will never regret it. I will forever remember that moment and I will always remind myself that it doesn’t matter what you prove to others or what you believe you should get out of such an experience. I felt as though I truly immersed myself, not necessarily in the everyday culture, but something so much more personally significant: history. Sure, I will research what the Judenplatz truly is and what it means, but no book or historian or professor will ever be able to replace what I felt. As much as I love learning from books and wonderful professors and role models, simply being there and opening myself to such a moving moment reminded me why I love history and showed me an entirely new way to expand my passion and knowledge.
My lesson: never underestimate an opportunity, because it may be one of the most important moments in your life.