One of the reasons I chose to come 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 here. But, I have learned something in the past two weeks. 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 theatre where we were going to see Django Unchained. We wanted desperately to see the film and to wind down from the intense week of German classes. We scoured the winding roads (I took direction from my roommate, Maria, who only knew the streets by their first letter) and finally came upon a theatre on a side street. Walking into the lobby 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. We have finally begun to realize that punctuality is of the utmost importance in Austria, although we have heard it is even stricter in Germany.
With a 45 minute “gift” we decided to wander. And what a gift it was. No sarcasm. Wandering through side streets we saw buildings and courtyards I never expected to see in this part of town. 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 dates above the main doors stemmed from the 18th to the 19th century and had an air of that historic regality a 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, or Platz, as they call it in German, surrounded by these beautiful buildings. It was rather small and almost deserted, save for a mother and four small children giggling 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. Although I had no idea who he was, 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 from the rest of the square, 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. I pictured tiny children laughing and playing in this square, most likely a residential area back then as well, and the sudden change in scenery to 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 it all in.
I don’t know the story or the significance of Judenplatz, but I vowed to go back to experience the square once more and visit the museum during daytime hours. 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 want to document 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 your 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. I want to thank my professors, family, and friends for being inspirations to me every day and for giving me the tools to take this journey. and for helping me to grow and take valuable chances. My lesson: never underestimate an opportunity, because it may be one of the most important moments in your life.