Where Did You Go, Austria?

Where Did You Go, Austria?

In the last few decades, there’s been a lot of noise about the US’s decline as a world superpower. According to a lot of studies, we aren’t really #1 in anything anymore, except for the average cost of healthcare. And while I may not be a political science major, and I tend to look on the bright side of life instead of obsessing about such large-scale issues, I would like to say: yeah, our membership in the Big Important Countries Club might be coming to an end.

For those people who think that such a dramatic decline would be impossible: may I direct your attention to a tiny country in Europe called Austria.

Size Comparison

In my experience, most people don’t think of Austria very quickly when they talk about Europe. It’s fairly small and doesn’t have the international fame of the larger countries like Germany, France, Spain, and the UK; when I told people about my study abroad plans, quite a few people barely knew where Austria was or thought I was going to Australia for a semester.

Even compared to other European countries, Austria is pretty small at 32,000 square miles and a population 8.7 million people; Germany is about 138,000 square miles with 82.6 million people.

For further comparison, my home state of Colorado is 104,000 square miles and has a population of 5.5 million people! The map on the right shows Europe, with Colorado overlaid for a scale comparison.

dissolution_of_austria-hungaryAnd yet, Austria had one of the largest empires in Europe only a century ago. I like numbers a lot, so let me lay some important ones out here: the Habsburg Monarchy, as it was nicknamed, ruled largely uninterrupted from 1521-1918. In the 1800s, when the name “Austrian Empire” was officially used, it had the third largest population out of any empire in the world, after Russia and France, and the second largest geographic empire after Russia.

So what happened? How did one of the largest and most powerful empires in the world shrink to a background country the size of Pennsylvania?

Well, there was that little event called World War I. Even though we mostly study Germany’s involvement and how it led to World War II, it was the assassination of the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire that instigated the war. (For my favorite comedic 2-minute refresher on the causes of WWI, watch this video: Frightful First World War Causes of WW1) As a result, the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1919 dissolved the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

And in the century since then, Austria has largely faded from the geographic and political scene. It’s often only mentioned in passing–usually in the context of the aforementioned assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Maria Theresa’s reformations in the 17o0s, or The Sound of Music. That’s a far cry from being one of the most powerful and important countries in all of Europe.

Yes, WWI caused an unprecedented amount of political upheaval in a very short amount of time. No, I’m not saying that the US will be dissolved into 50 independent states in a similarly short amount of time. But Austria really did lose that Big Important Countries Club membership card; what’s to say that the US won’t as well?

Australia – Thoughts on Travel

Well, I’ve been here for three weeks minus a few hours. I’ve probably done as more traveling in that time than I’ll get to for another month now that classes have started. Monash University has an amazing exchange/international student support team, and they set up some awesome trips for us. I’ve been into Melbourne’s city center several times now, and I’ve ridden an elevator to the 88th floor of the tallest building there and taken pictures of the city at night. It was more like flying low in an airplane than sitting in a building.

I’ve visited the largest shopping mall in Australia (just a 20 minute bus ride from my apartment on campus). I’ve fed kangaroos, wallabies, emus, cassowaries, and even geese and some kind of pheasant-esque bird by hand. I’ve watched penguins come out of the ocean to nest for the night and I’ve taken selfies with a koala.

I’ve also been chewed out by a customs officer, gotten thoroughly lost navigating the bus system at least three different times (twice in the first week), and lost my keys and wallet at least a dozen times each in the first few days of jetlag-induced haze (luckily always in my bag or my room). I’ve hiked through mildly sketchy neighborhoods alone trying to find the post office, and I’ve found myself carrying heavy grocery bags back to my apartment on foot after getting off the last bus at the wrong stop (just in case it sounded like I was having too much fun petting marsupials).

I’ve had some wild experiences here (in many senses of the word) in just the first few weeks, but I’m afraid things are going to slow down now that classes have started. The fantastic orientation trips to sanctuaries and penguin islands are over, and school work is starting to pile up. I started off my semester by reading about half of what was assigned because I wasn’t ready to quit going out with friends and watching movies late into the night. I’m honestly a bit anxious about whether I’ll be able to make myself do school work when there are so many awesome opportunities to go do other things coming up all the time. So far, I’ve been doing the bare minimum in my classes so I can keep doing other “Australia” things, as I keep calling them. There is so much I want to see, it’s really difficult to keep in mind that schoolwork is something I’m required to do in order to stay here…

When I’m not wrestling with unwanted homework, I’m finding that traveling in Australia is like traveling in the US in some ways that are unfortunate for the American student abroad. Mainly in that there is minimal public transport between major cities, and getting around the country as a whole is a massive pain without a car (especially since Australia is about as big as the US mainland). I’m discovering that I can take (fairly expensive) bus tours around Victoria (the state/territory I’m in), but if I want to go anywhere else I basically have to fly there and then either use public transit or pay for more bus tours. I suppose my hopes for easy transportation across the country were just set a bit too high after visiting Italy and its fantastic train system. I think I made another miscalculation in how much time I left for myself to travel after term. In Italy, I was disappointed that I didn’t give myself a few more days to see a few more cities, so I planned my Australia trip to leave a couple extra weeks after the term ends to travel. I should have left an extra month or two. There is just too much to see. The Gold Coast alone can take a month if you really want to enjoy the experience, and I hoped to spend some time in Tasmania and New Zealand too, not to mention the smaller trips around Victoria that I hoped to make. I’m beginning to realize that there will never be enough time to see everything in any country I visit – heck, I live in the US, and I’ve seen almost none of the major landmarks there. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to try. At this point I think I’ll be dragging my suitcases into the airport to go home with my nose stuck in a travel guide for some part of Australia I didn’t get around to visiting in time. But still, we’ll see what I get around to, and worst case scenario I’ll just have to find a way to come back here. It’s only halfway around the world, right?

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Viva San Fermín

The matador bends his knees slightly as he slowly raises his sword. He stands in the center of the plaza, a thousand drunken fools looking down at him. The bull is directly in front of him, huffing in all the air his massive body can hold to keep up with the blood flowing out from between his shoulder blades. They’ve been dancing for quite a while now, spinning and spinning by nothing but the flash of a red cape. And for these few glorious seconds, the drums stop pounding, the bottles of sangria stop swinging, and the whole arena is watching the two lovers.

This is how Pamplona was the few quiet days before San Fermín officially began. The whole city was preparing for the blow. We sat at a restaurant and watched bus after bus unload visitors, all coming to town for the fiesta. The local restaurant owners rented out their spaces, the families packed their bags and headed out for a week-long vacation, and then there was me – caught somewhere in between a local and a visitor. Sure, with some patchy Spanish I could tell you how to find the cathedral, where the bulls ran, where Hemingway stayed…but I was just pretending. And I loved every second.

San Fermín officially begins on July 6th, and this year that was a Thursday. I was to meet my friend Laura at the entrance of the pool at 9:30 am, and I was to not be late…oh geez. So at 9:30, I am jogging to the bus station, a little worried about time because I didn’t have my phone, and there is a bus outside of the pool so I get on. After the bus pulls away, I realize Laura and her friends are not on it, so at the next bus stop I get off and jog back to the pool. She’s not there, so I jog through Zizur, trying to find a bus station on the other side where maybe she will be, and at all costs not miss the bus on its loop around the neighborhood. The bus and I find the station at the same time, so I load on to the crowded bus, sure she must be somewhere on it. The bus starts to move, and we are on our way downtown. I felt pretty good, I didn’t miss the bus or anything – but then I see Laura. She is waiting at the last bus station out of Zizur. She’s alone and the bus doesn’t stop. I felt so insanely bad. I couldn’t believe she had waited for me. So we unload in Pamplona, and I run into some other girls I know. They say Laura will be on the next bus, and so I waited there…for an hour. It turns out later that she had gotten off at a different bus stop than me.

So here I am, alone, in a crowd of one million people, hopelessly searching the crowds for a familiar face. But the clock is ticking, and the streets are getting tighter and tighter – so I head to the heart of the Chupinazo in front of the town hall. The streets were so crowded that even the Plaza de Castillo, where people just watch the Chupinazo on a projector was full of people. However, I had an advantage. I was alone, with no tailing friends or even a bottle bumping against people, just me. I wove my way through the crowds, following behind the broad-shouldered German or slipping alongside the edges of buildings. Soon I look up and I’m in the middle of the madness. We sing, we jump, we drink (or if you’re me you just get sangria squirted in your eyes) – and at twelve o’clock we untie the red bandanas from our wrist and raise them to the sky. We go on like this for a while, all the while swaying as one massive crowd. One second I was falling into the arms of an Australian man, the next I was pressed so tightly against someone who only spoke French. Hemingway was right – the fiesta didn’t just start, it exploded.
I followed my Chupinazo star-crossed lover out of the crowd and we went walking through the streets – taking in the fiesta. Men poured buckets of water from the balconies on to the eager crowd, and the parades began.

A shower and change of clothes later, I went back out to the fiesta. After the typical Heath struggle to find her friends – I found them in the Plaza de Castillo. There was a group playing music in the gazebo and we all jumped in to dance. Day was turning to night, bodies were moving freer, and we all spun around to the tune of the happy flute. The best part was the little girls dressed in their red and white – nothing but their curls and shoulders bouncing up and down as they tried to copy the flick of their mothers’ feet. Eventually, we fell out of the crowd and headed to buy bocadillas (my favorite is the tortilla patata – so so good). We sat in the grass waiting for the fireworks and told bilingual jokes – seeing if the other could understand. They asked me how the fireworks compared to the ones on the Fourth of July.

At night, we danced until the bulls ran through the streets. Every day of the fiesta ends or finishes (depending on your age/tolerance) with the encierro. At about 5 am, everyone heads to mark their spot. You can either watch in the street or the Plaza de Torros where they have somewhat of a show following the encierro. The first morning, I went here with my friends where we watched the arena fill with men, shortly followed by six massive bulls. They corral the bulls, and then release smaller bulls with dull horns to toss some guys around in the dirt. The crowd cheers for the bull, and the locals yell at the occasional guy that tries to conquer the bull – pulling its head to the ground or yanking on its tail. That’s the special part about San Fermín that I think a lot of people don’t see. Yes, they kill the bull, but they also highly respect them. The matadors spend years in the Basque countryside, working with the bulls and learning how to turn what otherwise would be a slab of meat into the art of bullfighting. We catch the bus and head back to Zizur to dream about the next day of San Fermín.

The fiesta continues like this for six more nights and seven more days. Each day I fall more and more in love with San Fermín and the city of Pamplona. Somewhere along the way, my friend Sophia from Barcelona joins the fiesta, a gypsy steals my phone on Calle de San Nicolás, and I lose my friends from 3 am to 4 am. Every day we go to run with the Toro de Fuego, a bull with fireworks attached at the top chasing kids down the street, we watch the fuegos artificiales at the park, and my white clothes get more brown/purple every day.

On Friday, July 14th the fiesta is coming to an end. My friends and I spend the last encierro watching from the street. We see the men warming up and bouncing on their toes, waiting for the bulls. At 7:58 am they chant to the statue of San Fermín in the wall with their rolled-up newspapers, “Viva San Fermín…¡Viva! Gora San Fermin…¡Gora!” Then, at 8 am, a firework symbols the unleashing of the bulls – and wow… they are massive. They trample towards the already moving crowd, bowing their heads to the ground and raising their horns to sky. We hop in the street behind them, crowding into a bar to watch the injuries that follow. A couple of concussions, the occasional gore…my friends and I laugh over the fact that most of the injured are Americans as we head to get churros. They also laugh at my inability to roll my r’s without sounding French, while I am trying over and over again to say “churro” or “perro” correctly. The churros were amazing by the way – served hot with rich, melted chocolate to dip them in.

The last night of San Fermín is a bittersweet time. We are all happy – it is a Friday night, the firework show was good, and the town is still bustling. However, we know the end is coming and no one wants the fiesta to end. The lovers of San Fermín head to the Ayuntamiento for the Pobre de Mí celebration. The gypsies sell wax candles for a euro and we group together in front of the stage. The crowd sways, the candles are lit, and we sing, “Pobre de Mí, Pobre de Mí, que se han acabado las fiestas, de San Fermín” (Poor me, poor me, for the fiesta of San Fermín has come to a close). Then at midnight, the fiesta is over with a firework, and we move our red bandanas from our necks back to our wrists. The aficionados are crying.

Viva San Fermín. Gora San Fermin
.

Italia

When I boarded my plane a month ago to come to Italy, I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been abroad before, and I didn’t really know any of the people with whom I would be traveling. It was a little frightening, but I knew I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in front of me, and I was ready to go. The past few weeks have been some of the most exciting of my life, just as I had hoped they would be. The JTI July students are an amazing group, and I was really lucky to get to spend a month abroad with them. OU has built an amazing program in Arezzo, largely because of the hard work of Kirk and Charlotte Duclaux, and I am very grateful for it. The monastery here is one of the best places I have ever seen, and living here has been so much fun. I have to confess that I didn’t think I would learn much here in just a month, at least academically. I was here for the experience of being abroad, living in a new culture. I was wrong. While I have learned a lot from living among the Italians, I also learned so much from my classes. Kirk’s art history class was a phenomenal experience. I have always loved art history, so I thought I would know most of our material, but at least once per lecture, Kirk would absolutely floor me with a new revelation. Similarly, Dr. Griswold’s class was far more enlightening than I expected. In two short weeks Dr. Griswold led us on a magnificent crash course of humanist ideology, and it’s something that I know will stay with me forever.

My phone camera is not the best, but here are a few of my favorite pictures from Italy:img_1418img_1492img_1618img_1546img_1593

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Tips

I kind of already did a kind of “what to bring post”, but I guess this is more of a “what to know” when traveling abroad. Besides the obvious things like copying your documents, have extra cash, etc. that Education Abroad covers really well, these are my super quick, probably super well-known, travel/study abroad tips:

My first is figure out a way to have a three-day weekend… or more when you are figuring out your schedule at the beginning of the year. It can be harder than you think, and I actually ended up not taking one of the classes I originally planned to just to get that three-day weekend. Honestly though, you are studying abroad and this is probably the biggest chance you’ll get to travel which I personally found more important than taking fluid mechanics on time. Because I ended up having way more time, I got to do a lot more traveling than I thought I would.

Going on with traveling, you probably all know about skyscanner, but if you don’t, you really need to! I booked almost all my flights through this website, and I honestly still use it for domestic flights now. It searches all of the typical search engines, and a couple of not so common ones. I actually booked my flight on a less known website that skyscanner showed me, and I think I saved a couple of hundred dollars that way! Long story short, this is a great travel tool.

Although flying is really cheap in Europe the absolute cheapest way is to travel by bus (if you aren’t doing the eurorail thing). I went on a trip from Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia and the total bus cost was just at 61 euros. I would always use GoEuro for bus purchasing, and it was always the best deal I could find.

In Spain, and probably other countries too, they have Erasmus groups that put on trips and activities every week. Their trips are usually well organized and you can get to know other people that way from all over the world. Pricewise they are pretty reasonable as well. They have big trips to Portugal, Morocco, and Ibiza so of course it would be cheaper if you plan a trip to go there yourself and do all of the work, but I think it is usually a pretty good deal, especially for the day trips. My favorite was paddle boarding in Javea.

More general tips are always start early, and don’t be afraid to ask people around you. These are definitely common sense things, but for me in some situations, I think I needed a reminder. For the starting early, I am mainly referring to flights and in cities you are not familiar with. In Paris, there was a point where my friend and I were actually running down a street to try and catch a flight because some of the transportation system that day wasn’t running (we ended up making it). And most of the time the people around you are more than willing to help if you just ask. I am still thankful for a girl named Flor who helped my friend and I through the subway system in Paris. There were plenty other Flors in my experience abroad because I learned to just ask.

We made it!

North vs. South

These two cardinal directions of England vary greatly. In the South, there is London, and copious amounts of pretty, light stoned buildings throughout the various cities and towns. In the north, there are cities that hold their industrial revolution history dear. Manchester, Leeds, and many other cities are grand, dark, and imposing buildings. Not as easy to look at as the south.

Starting from the south, London is in a league of its own. As a major port in its own right, along with being the centre of commerce for the English, it contains every type of architecture in England. However, traveling outside of London shows a different part of England. Bath, for example, is a stunning city. With magnificent whitish/yellowish stone buildings, the light shines off the buildings in a way that makes ones jaw drop. The south feels wealthier, and less working class than the north, and as a result is more expensive.

In the north, using Manchester as an example, is not a pretty city. Sure, there has been recent remodeling of the city, which has led to it becoming a popular place for people to go clubbing, but it is not a pretty city. Manchester is proud of its heritage, and lets it show. The buildings, as I mentioned earlier are darker, and many used to be large factories. Things are cheaper, the people are generally more working class, and also, people are generally more friendly.

Both parts of England are amazing to visit, and I recommend going to see both. If there are any questions in regards to England, or this post, please feel free to comment, and I will answer back.

To view my pictures from England, please check my Instagram.

Ben_Levenson_

 

London Calling

For the past two months I have lived in London. Not only was I in London, but I had my flat located within Kensington; the most affluent area in all of London. Ever morning, I would get up, get ready to head out for the day, and be greeted by Aston Martins, Ferraris, and every other kind of fancy car in the world. Eating out was expensive, and even simple British luxuries, like a good pint of beer generally exceeded five pounds. Until I got out of the surrounding area, I didn’t see much colour on people either… As London is one of the most diverse places in the world, I wondered if I was living in the least London-y place in London.

During my time in London, I was interning as well. I worked with Karen Buck, the Member of Parliament from Westminster North. Our constituency office was located in a Middle Eastern hotspot of London. There were Middle Eastern restaurants all over the place, people spoke Arabic to one another, and there was not abundant wealth. Essentially, this was the London I was expecting more. But after reflection, I realised how stupid I was being to want one part of London more than another.

London is a diverse, cosmopolitan city. There will be pockets of wealth, and pockets of poverty. White faces, and those who aren’t white. Expensive parts, and less expensive places. (London will never be cheap.) I enjoyed myself, and cannot wait to come back soon.

Australia – First Thoughts

I’ve been “down under” for just over three days now, and I’ve spent what seems like every minute of that time racing from one thing to the next – shopping, orientation, campus resident events, trips with other exchange students – the list goes on. But what keeps striking me on my second journey abroad is the same thing that bothered me during my previous foreign venture: the very idea of being abroad, in another country, on another continent, in entirely new territory, seems completely surreal.
In Italy we stayed in ancient city centers, where the buildings were often more than ten times older than America, and yet the idea that I’d flown over a thousand miles across an ocean and landed in a foreign land seemed far too huge a concept to really process. I find myself facing the same thoughts here. I’m not just on a new continent, I’m on the complete opposite side of the world, in the southern and eastern hemispheres, where everything from the land and waters to the stars is entirely new to me. It’s not like you fly slowly in from the outer atmosphere so that you can see yourself slowly approaching the “Australia shape” you see on Google maps, zooming in slowly until you can see the dot that will be your new home city, and then further in to see your campus and apartment. Instead, you fly in the dark over the ocean for hours and hours, until you finally pass out from exhaustion. And when you wake up, maybe you’re still over water, but more than likely you’re over land. Then, you continue over landscape you can’t quite see in the dark until the plane lands. You eventually walk out of the airport into this new land, but the differences are relatively subtle.
The gas stations are different, but not too different. Odd companies like United and Woolworths appear, but so do BPs, so you could just be in another part of the United States. An increased concentration of Asian restaurants and shops can also be accounted for by assuming a densely populated coastal area of the US. The cars drive on the left side of the road here, and to compensate for this the driver’s side of the car is on the right, but unless you’re paying attention it’s easy to overlook this difference. Buildings are a bit different too. It takes a bit longer to figure out the difference, but advertising is apparently done differently in Australia. External walls often sport more ads, web addresses, sale posters, and other additions than they do on average in the US, but again not so much that it couldn’t just be an unfamiliar American city.
To me, more than the things I’ve listed so far, the flora and fauna remind me that I’m not in the US. The birds here are much larger on average, and more boldly colored. Lorikeets, which I’ve only ever seen in the big netted enclosure at the OKC zoo, fly around campus freely. Big, round, black birds with long, skinny necks pick through the grass on the commons. Massive ravens caw loudly from the trees along the sidewalks. And a variety of birds – magpies, water birds that look like thin, long necked ducks, and others – have bold, black and white coloring that stands out strongly to me compared to the browns of most US birds. And the plants and trees, while more subtle, still indicate that things are not what I grew up with.
Deeper exploration of the area shows a few more differences – odd brands in stores, and staples of American cuisine, such as “normal” bacon and Kraft Mac n Cheese are nowhere to be found, and in their place are things like Tim Tams and Vegemite. But still, it’s hard for processed beer leftovers to really translate the magnitude of my presence in this place. It’s slowly beginning to make sense to me, as I make trips into Melbourne, interact with locals, and talk to the friends I’ve made here in the last few days. The more differences I find, the harder it is for my brain to try to brush them off as minor differences. My time in Italy was enough to accept where I was, but not enough to really appreciate it. Hopefully my semester here will be enough to fully realize exactly where I am, and how far I’ve come. But if nothing else, my few travels abroad have highlighted to me just how huge and diverse the US is, that I can travel thousands of miles to foreign lands and still find ways to half think I’m still in the US.

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But What About My Visa?

But What About My Visa?

When I was looking into the different German-speaking countries that offered semester study abroad programs through OU, one of the aspects about Austria that appealed to me was that it was a more unusual choice. Even compared to other European countries, Austria is pretty small at 32,000 square miles and a population 8.7 million people; Germany is about 138,000 square miles with 82.6 million people. For further comparison, my home state of Colorado is 104,000 square miles and has a population of 5.5 million people!

Size Comparison(The map shows Europe, with Colorado overlaid for a scale comparison.)

In my experience, most people don’t think of Austria very quickly when they talk about Europe. It’s fairly small and doesn’t have the international fame of the larger countries like Germany, France, Spain, and the UK (which I find ironic, given that it had one of the largest empires in Europe only a century ago). This made it feel more unique and off-the-beaten-path as a study abroad destination, while still allowing me to study in German for a semester.

However, something I never considered was that visiting such a small country might have some drawbacks on the administration side of study abroad. In order to live in Austria for five months, I needed to apply for a visa–no problem, right? Fill out some forms, hand over some cash, and I’d be good to go.

Except that for a visa to Austria, those forms include a fingerprint scan, and therefore the application must be conducted in person at an Austrian embassy or consulate. And since Austria is so small, there are only three such locations in the United States: in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. A visit to one of these cities on such short notice would have been way too expensive and impossible to fit into my school schedule, and a bit of research showed me that I couldn’t apply for a visa once I was in Vienna or Graz, so I started to panic.

Luckily, my Education Abroad counselor informed me of one other option: students from the US and Canada can enter Austria without a visa, and then within their first 90 days in the country, visit an Austrian embassy in either Slovenia or Germany to apply in person for a visa. So in order to stay for a full semester in Graz, I had to take a weekend trip outside of the country to Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia!

This ended up being a really fun adventure, since Graz’s branch of the Erasmus Student Network (an organization that arranges fun activities and local student “buddies” for study abroad students all over Europe) put together a trip for everyone who needed to go through this rather convoluted application process. We piled into a tour bus to drive to Ljubljana, where we handed in our paperwork and did the fingerprint scan, and then continued on to Trieste, a coastal town in Italy. Altogether, it only took us three hours of driving, yet by lunchtime we had already spent time in three separate countries!

Although there were some unexpected complications in choosing Austria for my semester abroad, I am so glad that I found a program to suit my unique sense of adventure! Obstacles like applying for a visa actually turned into wonderful opportunities with plenty of support both from the OU Education Abroad counselors and local groups like ESN. Don’t let administrative details dissuade you from finding a study abroad program that fits your interests!

Israel, Part II: Digging

My team and I found some cool things on this dig. For three weeks, I was assigned to an area near the headquarters of Legio, the home of the Roman VI Ferrata Legion (the “Iron Legion”).

Even though the pieces of pottery (called “sherds,” not “shards”)must remain in the lab or on site, I did find some intangible things that I am allowed to take home with me. Perhaps the most important finding: it’s all about context. There’s no use in finding objects without knowing where they came from. So, here’s a bit of context for what I did for three weeks in Israel.

See the teeny white dot near the trees in the distance? That’s our dig site!

Each day I was woken by a 4 a.m. alarm. In a semi-conscious state I’d get dressed, lace up my boots, apply the first coat of sunscreen, stumble downstairs to the kitchen, flip the switch on the electric kettle, and make a mug of tea with two teabags for extra caffeine. Then outside in the darkness I’d grab a few buckets from pottery washing the previous day to bring back to the dig site and wait with everyone else for the 5 a.m. arrival of the bus. We’d all board the bus and depart for the site, eating granola bars, listening to music, and silently savoring our last few moments of rest before the day began.

When the bus dropped us off in the field south of Megiddo that became so familiar, we’d immediately station ourselves tent posts and work together to raise the tarps that would shield us from the sun later in the day. After waiting a few minutes for adequate light and grabbing pickaxes, hoes, patiches (mini pickaxes), trowels, and a variety of brushes, we’d start to work.

The difficulty of the work varied depending on the contents of our square each day. If we were lucky enough to have some architectural stones in our squares, we’d use light tools to articulate their surfaces to make them nice and clean for the photographs. But most of the work was breaking ground and clearing away as much topsoil, sediment, and rocks as would fit in the buckets and hauling those buckets down to our pile of dirt, either to sift them in search of material culture or to dump them unceremoniously in a growing dirt-mountain.

Breaks came as a relief after hours of work in often-humid air or deceptive breezes that felt refreshing but actually dehydrated us. The first break of the day was breakfast, when we’d sit on grass mats and eat vegetables, eggs, hummus, bread, hazelnut spread, and peanut butter with dirty hands. The next break came closer to the end of the work day at 1 p.m., and often our supervisors would be kind enough to supply us with watermelon and popsicles.

The work, as I have said before, is not easy. I have never experienced such muscle pain before waking up on morning two after learning how to properly pickaxe on day one. Injuries are common. Though I luckily escaped with only one bruised fingernail, two scraped knees from two graceful falls while carrying buckets, and one head wound, I have heard stories about past volunteers losing fingers. And the combination of the heat, humidity, sun, and inhaled dust drained everyone and made early bedtimes a necessity.

Downside to head injury: blood. Upside: free bandana!

I gave up my sole for archaeology.

But despite the challenges, there were things that made the long work days fun. Herds of cows routinely visited before breakfast to keep us company. The more curious of them even hopped the fence to join us. The stunning sunrises, which came slightly after 5 a.m., more than justified our 4 a.m. alarms. And in my area (nicknamed “Lollipop Valley” by the second area, who often complained about how hard their supervisors worked them) we were seldom without good music supplied by one of the students or Dr. Cline.

The cows got too close to our squares, so we had to tell them to moove back.

Sunrises like these were usually accompanied by The Circle of Life from someone’s phone.

We found pottery. Lots of pottery that we’d have to wash back at the kibbutz later in the day. Many of us have experienced haunting dreams about washing pottery sherds. We also found lots of tiles that would have covered the roofs of the buildings in the camp, and bits of glass and shell.

Smiling through the pain

The long days of work made me appreciate things I often take for granted, like air conditioned buses, food, naps, a pool to take a dip into, clean laundry.

I did find some cool material culture on this dig, and I learned about archaeological techniques and skills like taking elevation points, keeping a field notebook, and keeping track of finds.

I would definitely return to Israel for another season to gain more knowledge and archaeological skills, but I’d especially want to come back for the camaraderie. Yes, digging brings people together.  It’s hard to spend a week with someone in a 1.5 meter deep hole brushing dirt off rocks without emerging friends.