Lass in class: Escaping the city for pristine natural splendor

May 27, 2014

In an attempt to make the most of my experience abroad, I decided to spend two weeks after my classes were over to navigate three countries. I got sunburnt, encountered bed bugs, and faced a severe drop in my bank account. Yet I can honestly say that my experience in Rome, Kandersteg and Prague has left me with the most vivid memories of my study-abroad experience.

I’ve enjoyed having the challenge, through this blog, of connecting my experiences with environmental issues or thoughts. It has forced me to connect in different ways to my surroundings. I go out of my way to question and ponder things, even if it is as strange as asking my tour guides about wastewater management (which I actually do, to the embarrassment of my friends).

As I filtered through my memories of my recent side trip, I struggled to pull out what I thought was the most notable issue. Two weeks of activities makes for a lot of material.

In Rome, I was struck with the availability of drinking water. There are spouts everywhere from which an individual can refill a water bottle. I would compare these fontanelles to fire hydrants that serve drinking needs in the hot sun. I even refreshed myself at a drinking fountain (or bubbler, for those confused) that was built into the noted Trevi Fountain.

Water fountain in Rome

In a world in which drinking water is so precious, I found this to be a great attribute of Rome. Especially since large cities struggle with maintaining a clean and unpolluted atmosphere.

Therefore, when I went to Prague, I thought I had found the substance of my blog post. I was going to discuss the availability of drinking water to the public. However, I found that in Prague, beer is cheaper than water and there are no free water fountains. I honestly cannot say how people stay hydrated. This disappointed me; I felt like a major city like Prague failed to provide a crucial need.

I saw a huge river running through the old city and decided to rent a rowboat to explore how the river was utilized.

Photo of Prague by Peyton Sweeney

But my experience with Prague’s main river was tainted with memories of cigarette butts floating next to other bits of litter. Now, I want to make clear that my time in Prague was amazing, fun, and a whirlwind of great restaurants and great people. However, because I have been trained to focus on the environmental issues, I couldn’t help but notice the water pollution.

That’s why when I went to Kandersteg, Switzerland, I really found what I wanted to write. In Europe, you try to visit the major cities: Rome, Paris, Berlin, Prague, Barcelona, etc. In doing so, you tend to forget that Europe is a landmass with mountains and rivers and natural beauty. In the cities, the accomplishments of humanity overshadow the vastness of nature. It becomes normal to forget about vegetation and remember the ground as cement blocks covering miles. You begin to look for amenities like fresh drinking water, instead of expecting them.

Yet, traveling in Switzerland, you immediately realize that human creation just cannot compete with the natural landscape. While in Rome I saw paintings by Rafael in the Vatican, but I was more struck by the natural waterfalls cascading into cerulean pools that I could hear from my room in Switzerland. I’ve spent the past six months traveling and I smiled more upon hiking four hours up a mountain to reach a glacial lake than I did at any other time.

Photo of Swiss Alps by Peyton Sweeney

The beauty of the Swiss Alps was unparalleled. I had been so smitten by Rome’s and Prague’s beauty in the moment that I couldn’t even comprehend something not constructed by man could be as stunning. Suddenly, in Switzerland, my desire to write about water access turned into wanting to write about access to nature: access to clean water, fresh air, and sun not covered with a haze of smog.

In a world in which our population is expanding, the need for living space and resources grows with it. I hope that we can find a solution to keep the cities from encroaching upon such places as the Swiss mountainside. I want to work to make sure I never find empty plastic bags in a pristine glacial lake, like I did floating in pools by the fontanelles and in Prague’s Vitava River.

What we have done in creating cities cannot be undone, but what we as concerned individuals can do is make sure our hectic lives don’t make us forget about the tranquility one can find standing next to a clean river or other untouched spaces. I don’t regret spending time in huge cities during my travels, purchasing and using resources. However, I will suggest to anyone wanting to travel abroad to make time to visit the natural beauty of the areas… and to invite me along.

Photo of student Peyton Sweeney in Swiss Alps

Peyton Sweeney is an English and environmental studies major from Bayside, Wis., who is studying abroad for the spring semester at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She will document her experience on a student blog, Lass in Class.