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What we all carry: Beauty and tragedy

By Jenny Henderson, For The Miami Student

The Tuesday travel column features a different writer each week, reflecting on their experiences abroad. This week, senior Jenny Henderson takes us inside one of the moments that changed her while studying abroad and travelling around Europe.

So, you're shivering at the train station, waiting for your next adventure or to go back to your tiny room in the house of the old Italian couple you've been living with for the past few months. When you get home, some six hours later, you'll promptly devour takeout falafel, take a shower and sleep.

But for now, you're just waiting. You're waiting in varying degrees of dirty, broke, hungover and exhausted. This feeling has become your standard and yet, strangely, you're the most complete you've ever been.

Last spring, I studied abroad through Miami's Luxembourg program. Looking back, I am so lucky. It's unbelievable to see all I've seen.

Sixteen countries. Beautiful sights from a Mykonos sunset to Monet's "Nypmheas" in Paris, his water lilies. And of course, horrifying sights, too. From the Dachau work camp to the unrelenting harassment from men in the streets.

Even though I was constantly shelling out Euros (and Czech Korunas, Danish Krones, Swiss Francs and English Pounds), travel made me richer, as the saying goes.

You start to be critical of everything, but not judgmental. Each city forces you to reconceive your idea of self and how you move through your community. I'm a big believer in the idea that we carry pieces of everywhere we've been with us. I use the term "where we've been" loosely.

These little talismans - cities and houses and states of mind and people - are irrevocably part of us. I may have only stayed in most cities for two days, but I can pinpoint exactly how I felt in each one. It's an insane gift to keep on experiencing -- to go on living and mapping out your experiences onto your life and to connect the constellations of "where you've been."

As a culture, we glamorize travel as freedom, as not caring, as a magical universe where "anything can happen." And I do have some unbelievable memories and wild stories, but my journeys were also plagued by expense, indecision, logistics and exhaustion.

Our experiences and our points of reference are never easily defined.

How free are you really when you're counting out 10 cent Euro coins, trying desperately to figure out if you can afford a cup of coffee? How wild is your night when the entire city and its trains have a midnight curfew? Freedom and wildness are always loaded, and after awhile, I couldn't help but wonder if I could have those things without the messy intricacies.

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And then, I went to Ireland.

The Cliffs of Moher were the most naturally beautiful thing I've seen. In Europe - and everywhere - there's a sort of beauty tinged with gruesomeness. So many gorgeous sights have a secret current of ugliness, a dark history or complicated implications.

The Colosseum, for example, is undoubtedly awe-inspiring, but twisted. People battled to the death there for sport. In all my traveling, I became fearful that there couldn't be depth without some layer of tragedy.

There is catastrophe at Moher -- people have fallen off those cliffs and died at the shore, between the green isle and the big blue sea. And I remember my own state of mind there - I went to the Cliffs of Moher the morning after my roughest night of the semester. I went there, feeling totally despondent, and stumbled onto sanctuary.

Perched on the rocks, all that Irish folklore made sense. I saw everything as cinematic and in perfect clarity. The cliffs, for me, were free from the ugliness I had accepted as fact. It was a reminder that purity and beauty persists.

In Europe, I was harassed; both literally and sometimes, it felt, by life itself. But there were those reminders.

There were times I felt so incredibly alive I could barely stand it. Seeing so many gorgeous sights, so many cities lit up in the dark, so many vibrant murals and food markets, so many blue seas - it restored me. I now carry with me the reminder that within great beauty there exists so many other things: coldness, color, loneliness, community, a piece of myself.

Even at my worst, I felt real. The reality of life - the hard parts that don't go away - are a condition of humanity. But, I would argue, so is sanctuary. So are those heart-expanding, Cliff-of-Moher moments. We have to seek them and we have to let ourselves feel both.

So, you're shivering at the train station; dirty, broke, hungover, exhausted, and the most alive you've ever been. I wouldn't have it any other way.