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Europe Transformed Me

By Liz Armstrong

Emily Esfahani Smith discusses the four pillars of meaning in her book The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness. These pillars include belonging, purpose, story-telling, and transcendence. I was able to participate in a two-week long study abroad in France and England, mostly spending time in Paris and London. During this time, I had experiences that exemplified each of these pillars, which upon my return, I discovered had given me a deeper sense of not only meaning, but happiness. The trip to London and Paris taught me how to live.

Beginning with belonging, Smith writes: “We all need to feel understood, recognized, and affirmed by our friends, family members, and romantic partners. We all need to give and receive affection. We all need to find our tribe. In other words, we all need to feel that we belong,” (page 49). I experienced belonging in Paris, France, under the eiffel tower when we celebrated Laurel’s 22nd birthday. A group of about 10 of us stopped by a bakery outside of our hotel. Some of us had purchased cheese at a grocery store earlier that day. I picked up raspberry tarts to share. Aspen had about four baguettes tucked under her arm. Another girl stored a container of olives and salami in her bag, while Laurel carried a bottle of wine. Savannah contributed another bottle of wine, this one merlot. Together, we navigated the metro and spread Sierra’s blanket out (the one she had recently purchased in Greece, she informed us) in front of the eiffel tour. It was too small for all of us, so I sat on my tote bag.

We were sweating from the long walk. The only place we could find in the shade was next to a dumpster. A homeless man kept walking next to us, and I could tell some of the girls were uncomfortable. We were exhausted from almost two weeks of exploring two massive cities. But Laurel was beaming. We shared olives, cheese, and tarts and took turns tearing hunks of bread off of the baguettes. Laurel snapped photos of the eiffel tour, shouting, “This is the best birthday ever!” as a whirlwind of dust dirtied our cups of wine and stuck in our hair and eyes and ears.

This wasn’t a planned activity. None of us had to be there. But after a few days, we came together to celebrate Laurel and our friendship. Some of us knew each other before the trip, the majority of us did not. I had never hung out with the group outside of school, but here I was, feeling like a part of a tight-knit group of friends, celebrating Laurel’s 22nd birthday, and devouring my raspberry tart while Aspen ate hers next to me. If that isn’t the epitome of “belonging,” I don’t know what is.

Smith explained on page 61 that “research has found that people naturally grow to like others whom they see regularly,” but I found myself drifting from group to group throughout the study abroad. I was building new friendships almost every day, and every single person made me feel as though I belonged.

I experienced purpose at The Louvre in Paris, France. Smith explains how Zookeepers find fulfillment at their job. “Zookeepers, the researchers found, are willing to sacrifice pay, time, comfort, and status because they believe they have a duty to use their gifts to help,” (page 77). The life of an artist is not easy. The term “suffering artist,” has come about for a reason. However, the artists whose work is featured in The Louvre (whether they knew it would end up on display or not) have most likely found an immense sense of purpose both through the journey of creating art and the result their art has had on people.

In an article by Dr. Virginia B. Spivey, the creation of the art piece “Dancing at the Louvre,” by Faith Ringgold is told. “Drawing on her own struggle for recognition in an art world dominated by European traditions and male artists, Ringgold uses this narrative format to literally rewrite the past by weaving together histories of modern art, African-American culture, and personal biography,” (Spivey). Ringgold had found purpose through the creation of her art series, inspired by her struggle as an African-American female artist.

Being at The Louvre made me think of the art I wanted to create. Of the stories I wanted to tell. I find purpose in my own storytelling. Although I find the idea of creating a novel or memoir overwhelming, it is something I would find immense purpose in doing. Being amongst such breathtaking art made me realize that remarkable feats have been done by many people, and that I am capable of telling my story and finding purpose through art, too.

I experienced the pillar of storytelling watching the play Les Miserables in London, England. Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most famous play, and so of course it was something I won’t forget. It allowed me to transport myself back through history and see it with my own eyes . . . but Les Miserables was an entirely different experience.

It was like consuming all of the beauty of art at once. The set design, costumes, backdrop, and projections allowed me to experience something similar to what I would feel standing in front of Monet’s work in the Musee de Orangerie in Paris, France. I could appreciate the beauty. The music, though, was almost a transcendent experience. The way that a story can be told through music is entirely breathtaking and surreal, and the soundtrack of Les Miserables is the perfect example of the result of such music.

It was like listening to your favorite song, watching your favorite movie, and studying your favorite painting all at once, and I suppose that is the power of a play. But the themes of the play made me reflect on what is really meaningful in my life . . . forgiveness, love, justice, heartbreak, grief . . . these are all such human emotions that encapsulate what it really means to have lived and learned, which are all major themes that are illustrated through storytelling. When the curtain closes and you are left with tears running down your face, that is when you know something has impacted you irrevocably, and that is the result that such storytelling had on me.

I experienced transcendence in Chartres, France, at the Cathedrale de Notre Dame. “You might expect the insignificance we feel in the face of this knowledge to highlight the absurdity and meaninglessness of our lives. But in fact it does the opposite. The abject humility we experience when we realize we are nothing but tiny flecks in a vast and incomprehensible universe paradoxically fills us with a deep and powerful sense of meaning,” Smith writes (p. 131).

I experienced perhaps one of the strongest feelings of transcendence I have ever had within the walls of the Cathedrale Notre Dame in Chartres, France. During WWII, the cathedral was minutes away from being bombed by US troops, having received word that Nazis may have been occupying the church. Colonel Welborn B. Griffith, however, refused these orders, taking initiative to search the cathedral. Finding no German soldiers, the Texan saved the cathedral (and Mary’s veil), over 770 years old. Hearing this story, how the gut instinct of one man saved such a beautiful place in which millions of people have been able to worship (and experience their own feelings of transcendence), was inspiring and touching, reminding me of how both small and significant my presence in this world is.

I found myself crying as our tour guide told the story of the donors of one of the stained glass windows. Each window told a story from the bible, and many of the windows showed the symbol of what donor was responsible for the presence of that window. One window we stood in front of told the story of the Prodigal Son, a man who made terrible choices with money and women and wine, but who ultimately returned to his father who received his struggling son with unhesitatingly open arms. This story is supposed to represent God’s unfailing love for us. Even more touching than this story was learning who the donors of the window were. Prostitutes (who had wanted a window in several cathedrals but had been rejected) had been able to contribute to the cathedral, even though many would say their profession doesn’t align with “God’s will.” They had chosen this bible story to represent their window. This was an extremely transcendental experience for me, reminding me of how powerful and merciful God’s love is for each and every one of us, no matter how others perceive us.

These are just a few of the experiences that not only showed me “the power of meaning” but changed my outlook on life, attitude, and happiness. Since the trip, I have found myself attributing certain experiences to specific pillars of meaning, showing that this course and study abroad altered my way of thinking to become more positive and productive, teaching me to not only appreciate life more, but enjoy it as well, while being reminded to contribute to those around me simultaneously.

I expected to enjoy the trip. Every 21-year-old girl wants to go to Europe. Mamma Mia and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Emily in Paris have simply ingrained in my brain the idea that spending two weeks in Europe would be the most fun I had– and would ever have– in my life. I would fall in love with a tall London boy (yes, that’s a Taylor Swift reference from her Lover album), wear red lipstick, and drink expensive glasses of wine. No need to mention I hated wine. I would eat cheese on the balcony of our hotel and stare at paintings in The Louvre and wear flowing dresses that would look excellent in the Instagram pictures I planned to post. So yes, of course I leapt at the opportunity to go to London and Paris for two weeks. Dr. Dubrasky had pulled me aside after one of my poetry classes and told me about the trip. It sounded too good to be true. It was paid for? It was completely planned out? London? Paris? Yes. I was going. And so my dad bought me a brand new, shiny black suitcase and dropped me off at the airport after we shared a sandwich at Kneaders in Salt Lake City. I had my passport and plane ticket and itinerary in hand, and I was going to reread Emily Esfahani Smith’s The Power of Meaning on the plane. I was so ready for my very own Mamma Mia experience.

But as I stood in line at the airport to check my bag, I realized with a startling realization that I was simply dreading the trip. I’d told all of my family and friends, and they’d replied with, “Oh you are so lucky,” and “I bet you can’t wait.” And I’d told them I was so excited I could hardly stand it. But the truth was, I was terrified. The past two years, I was dealing with almost crippling anxiety and depression. I was maintaining my high grades in school, but I’d become a shell of my usually extroverted, social, happy self. I hung out with my few friends maybe once a week, otherwise I stayed at home with my puppy and read my books and did my homework and wrote articles for work.

A long term abusive relationship had landed me in therapy. I was away from him now, but I thought I was still in love with him at the time, despite the trauma I realized I had experienced those past few years. I’d started having panic attacks. I was on a new anxiety medication that my body hadn’t adjusted to yet. I had frequent migraines that left me throwing up and unable to see. What if I got a migraine in Europe? I would miss out on a day, perhaps days of adventuring. What if I had a panic attack? They were still so new to me, I didn’t know how to manage them. One panic attack resulted in me passing out in Las Vegas, waking up in the emergency room without any friends and family around me. Additionally, I didn’t know any of the girls going on the trip. We’d had a few meetings, but I left the get-to-know-you activities with a nervous rash on my chest and sweat stains. My social anxiety was astronomically through the roof, something my high-school-student-body-president-assembly-running-self thought I’d never experience. Two weeks with people I didn’t know? I almost threw up thinking about it.

But deep down, I knew this trip would be life changing. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Quite frankly, I was feeling a little bit of imposter-syndrome for being invited to attend. That was so much money, someone else’s money, paying for me to have fun. Wasn’t there someone more deserving? Maybe someone who wasn’t so anxious and nervous about going? I was simply too lucky, and that made me feel even more guilty for being nervous. But I went, and boy, am I glad I went.

No, I didn’t fall in love. No, I didn’t wear red lipstick. We walked so much– I’d say we averaged 8 miles a day– that the little makeup I did have on was dripping off of my face while my thighs stuck to the plastic seats on the metro. I didn’t pack any dresses. I wore my dirty white converse 11 out of the 14 days there. I got some pictures, but they weren’t the travel-influencer-quality I wanted. I drank an expensive glass of wine, yes, but I couldn’t finish it. I wasn’t magically a wine-drinker after one sip. I didn’t like the cheese very much after all, even though I’m sure my older brother would’ve finished every meal with a piece for dessert. Yes, I stood in The Louvre and the Museo de’Orangerrie and appreciated the artwork, but the Mona Lisa was much smaller than I expected, and some of the art didn’t make sense to me. Why were there so many naked men? The fact is, I didn’t come back as an entirely new person. London and Paris didn’t transform me, but something miraculous did happen. The trip snapped me out of the 2-year depressive funk I was in.

I didn’t have a panic attack on the trip. For the first time in two years, I didn’t have a migraine for two weeks. I became great friends with the girls on the trip, and all my worries of “they won’t like me,” or “I’ll be a loner,” dissolved after the very first night we all ate fish and chips together in London. Sierra and Aspen and I are currently sitting here together in my house in Cedar City writing our assignments for this class together, still friends even after the trip.

Laurel and I stayed up way too late talking every night in our hotel room, and guess what? For once I wasn’t stressed about getting exactly eight hours of sleep. The days flew by, and I shifted from group to group, once again becoming the confident, bubbly girl I had been. Maybe it was something about being in Europe, but I was having fun. The days were so long, so tiring, and challenging, but I could quite literally feel myself becoming more adaptable, easygoing, and happy. At one point, we had taken the wrong metro and we all sat as a group exhausted and sweating and grumpy, waiting to be home. I was sitting on a bench on my own, legs sprawled out. A little later, I stood and stretched my back. Sydney walked over and began stretching with me and said, “Liz, I love how relaxed you are. Everyone’s pissed off, and you’re just chilling.” The past two years, I’d heard too many times about how “I just needed to relax,” and “stop being so high strung.” I smiled. Europe Liz was a different Liz.

This summer has been hard. I’ve been working on my master’s degree and writing for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. I lost a lot of my friends because they graduated with me in April and left Cedar City, and my family is all in Nevada. Back in Cedar City, I started getting migraines and panic attacks again. I switched to another anxiety medication. I resumed my therapy sessions. I’m not cured. But when the nights start to feel long and hard and overwhelming, I look at the Matisse painting I took in Paris that is now my phone lockscreen, and I am reminded of that feeling I had in Europe. That there is so much to see. There is so much to experience. There are so many new friends to make, so much good food to eat. There’s so much art to observe, plays to attend, people in different countries to meet. Life isn’t just studying day after day as a grad student. It’s perhaps more about the “Europe trips.” The times when we are reminded of the beauty around us. Of the times when we eat baguettes under the Eiffel tower and laugh in the midst of dust storms. When we drink wine we don’t like on the Seine river with new friends we made and cry thinking about going back to Utah. When we eat raspberry tarts and see the Rosetta Stone and sit in silence when the curtain falls after watching Les Miserables for the first time. It’s moments like these that remind us that life is worth living, and 21-year-old me didn’t need to fall in love in Europe and wear red lipstick to realize that. She just needed to stand in front of Claude Monet’s “Water “Lilies” and let the greens and blues and pinks of his artwork wash away her stress and pain– even if it was just for a second or two. All she had to do – and did do – was get on that plane in Salt Lake City, fly to London and Paris, and live a little.


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