I strongly believe that music is the language of the universe. It is something that transcends ages, cultures, races, countries, genders… it transcends all different kinds of people. Regardless of the language you speak or the place you come from, and regardless of the way you personally see the world, music is something universal; it brings people together in an instant. This is a beautiful thing.
I believe that being in foreign countries where there are apparent language barriers has made this even more clear to me. In places where we cannot fully understand the people around us, there are some things that are constant, and music is one of them.
You do not have to speak the same language as another person to appreciate music together; you do not have to be from the same place to stop and listen to a street performer. Music is for everyone.
This blog falls in the Rome category, but really could fall in every other single category, considering the way that music permeated our experiences through the entire 26 day period of us being in Europe.
I wanted to highlight some of the most beautiful, music-filled moments on CR that brought me closer to the people around me and closer to the cultures we were immersed in. Where do I even begin?
Our First Night at Clärchens Ballroom:
The night that everyone made it to Berlin, we ate dinner at an authentic German restaurant that dually functioned as a swing dancing hall. While we were eating, I saw that there were lessons taking place and after dinner we all tried to join in. Much to our dismay, we were told we were not allowed to join the lesson. Miraculously, Dr. P worked some magic and we were granted permission on the dance floor. We tore that thing up! Some very kind Austrian girls taught us all how to properly swing dance, and in return, we taught a bunch of people the footloose dance we all do at TCU. Claire O’Connor even danced with someone’s baby! Although it was difficult to understand the people around us, we were still able to teach them the joy of Footloose, and they were able to share with us the fun of swing dancing as well. The music was blaring and everyone was having a blast. It was the greatest first night in Europe that I could have ever asked for!
The song “Danke Schöen”:
This song, sung by Wayne Newton and made even more famous by the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, literally means “thank you very much” in German. This iconic classic narrated many of our experiences in Europe. From blasting it on the night train, hearing it in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when we watched that movie in Munich (as Brent quoted the entire thing), to singing it in the shower, and to continuing to sing it with Sarah Covell in Italy, the song holds a very special place in my heart.
El Gordo Loco:
One cold, rainy night, May 20th to be exact, I participated in the greatest dance party of my entire life at a Mexican restaurant in the middle of Munich. We danced for what felt like two hours, including Dr. P and Beatriz, who flexed on all of us to the songs “Rapper’s Delight” and “Despacito.” I know that all of us will never forget this moment; it was a pivotal bonding experience for everyone on Cultural Routes. The music and our incredible dance moves (shoutout to Lauren and her tornado dance move) brought us all together. Out of this dance party came CR’s love for the songs “Vamos a la playa”, “Closing Time”, and “Mr. Brightside”, but also a strengthened sense of friendship and camaraderie.
I have never heard something more magical in my entire life. Our first night in Interlaken, we ate at an authentic swiss fondue place (delicious). I ate with Gabby, Kevin, and Claire, and halfway through the dinner, a large group of people walked in and sat down at the long table on the other side of our little private room. They all had on outfits that looked a bit like lederhosen with a Swiss flare. Claire and I pondered who they were. We both knew what was coming – Claire got up and asked what their group was, and they were YODELERS! (Claire, I love you for asking)
When Claire came back to our table to report the news, we all eagerly asked if they were going to sing a song. Claire replied that they would maybe sing later, and they DID! It was 10 minutes of pure bliss and beauty. I have never heard something more special in my entire life, and it was opposite to the traditional yodeling I was expecting. It was a beautiful blend of carefully synchronized voices; a lovely series of harmonies. It brought tears to my eyes. After dinner, we were outside talking and realized that the group was singing again, and so we all hurried back in to hear them continue singing. I will never forget this moment! I recorded it on my voice memos, and I feel like I have gone back to listen to the recording 100 times. Every time that I do, I feel as if I am back inside of the restaurant, back in Switzerland surrounded by the culture, and back with the best people ever.
Fast forward to the next morning, and I find myself on a little plane flying high into the atmosphere so that I can soon after hurl myself out of it as a recreational sport. Needless to say, the half of CR on the plane was freaking out, and it was requested that I sing some tunes to calm everyone down. Space Oddity, Bohemian Rhapsody, and requested by my Swiss-American skydiving partner, the National Anthem. Although this all sounds so silly, I often forget the calming quality that music has on myself and other people, and there is nothing better than hearing a group of people sing a long with you even if they don’t speak your language. It was a moment of sheer terror but also a moment of faith and unity for those on the plane.
On our last morning in Rio Maggiore, I decided to go into town to eat breakfast but then after to spend some time by myself to quietly reflect and take in the lovely town one last time. After my meal, I got up to purchase a water bottle (lost my Nalgene in Munich #classic), and while I was waiting, I noticed a large group of older folks conversing loudly in Italian, laughing, and having a wonderful time at the tables inside. All of the sudden, the song “La Vie en Rose” by Edith Piaf came on the speaker and the entire group of Italians began to laugh and sing it together. At first glance this may sound like a simple moment, but for me, I felt like the song “La Vie en Rose” followed me all through Europe. I heard it Germany, I heard it in Switzerland, and now I was hearing it in Italy. Without a care in the world and with immense passion, the group playfully belted out the song, and it made me want to cry (in the best way possible, because WOW – just another one of those moments where being in Europe felt like a total dream) and also made me smile the biggest smile yet, because they were so goofy and fun. There was a sense of community and love among all of the people, and this moment simply reminded me of the beautiful way music unites people. The song “La Vie en Rose” is nostalgic and gorgeous, and the title roughly translates to “seeing life in pink” as in seeing life in pink and rosy hues when one falls in love. All I could of think in this moment was how I much I was in LOVE with being alive. Life is a beautiful thing. La vie est belle. Je vois la vie en rose!
Florence Guitar Player:
After dinner in Florence one evening, we walked to the Piazza degli Uffizi to sit down and listen to a beautiful acoustic guitar player. Dr. Pitcock explained to all of us that the guitarist had been coming to the same spot for years. I sat down on the steps, closed my eyes, and took it all in. His ability to play was incredible. All the people around were appreciative of his beautiful art. It was surreal. As we were just leaving, the guitarist began to play the song “Hallelujah” and a group of us stopped and swayed to the music together. To our right, a woman stood up with her hands in the air and her eyes closed because she was just feeling the music. It was such a special moment to see CR draw so close together and bond through the music but also a special moment to see the way that all the strangers around us were doing the same. There were couples holding hands, mothers and daughters, and friends in silence all simply enjoying the music in the presence of each other. Strangers and friends alike shared the camaraderie of experiencing the gorgeous melodies. It was music that brought us together and all the people around us together in this moment.
Gondola in Venice:
We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take a day trip out to Venice during our time in Florence to explore the lovely place. Looking back on Cultural Routes, I realize that a recurring theme was people asking me to sing in public places (mainly Cooper). I always get bashful and nervous to do this (weirdly enough because I am a theatre major) but as I reflect on the whole experience, I am super grateful for the people on Cultural Routes who always encouraged to share my gifts with such love and support and excitement. I used to not like to sing for people because I always felt like it was show-offy or obnoxious, but something I learned on CR was that we are really truly meant to share our gifts with each other. Everyone on Cultural Routes is gifted in their own special way, and there is no pride or shame in being yourself and sharing what you were born to share and being who you were meant to be. For Brent, it may be sharing his wild depth of knowledge on history and the world. For Kevin, it may be his ability to lighten up any situation literally ever with his easy-going personality (“You see this castle on our right here, yeah it’s got a lot of rocks”). For Kynnedi, it may be her terrific capacity to continuously get to know the people around her by asking the greatest questions and listening with the greatest ear. For Claire, it may be the way that she can make friends with any stranger on the entire planet with confidence and a sincere warmth in her heart. For Taylor, it may be her wise and thoughtful leadership abilities that kept all of us in check when we were being major dinguses. For me, I think one of my gifts that I was born to share is my ability to sing and bring people together through music. I could go on to talk about every single person on Cultural Routes, but the bottom line is, we were all born with unique individual qualities that make us who we are, and we were all born to express ourselves in a free, honest way. Surround yourself with people who encourage you to do so! CR, thank you for being those people.
Back to the story, a bunch of CR gals and I were on a gondola in Venice, and I asked the gondola rower if he would sing for us (everyone thought I was crazy, but I am telling you guys it is totally a thing – they will sing for you). Our rower unfortunately told us that singing is not his forte. Soon after, everyone encouraged me to sing! When in Venice! I sang on the gondola “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin, and I was just oh-so-content for so many reasons. For one, that song is so much fun to sing, and for another reason, it reminds me of my Italian grandfather. My Papa taught me that song when I was a little girl so I have known it my entire life. My grandparents visited Venice many times, and I know that Papa would have been proud to have heard me sing his favorite song on the canal. At one point, an elderly woman stuck her head out of her window and shouted “Bella bella!!” as well as a couple who complimented me passing by on another gondola. People were listening on the bridges we passed under and smiling big smiles, and folks were sticking their heads out of their windows along the canal to hear the tunes. Singing is my favorite thing to do in the whole world, and I am just so glad that through it, I got to make people smile, 5,448 miles from home on an entirely different continent.
Gondola on the River Arno:
On our last night in Florence, Dr. Pitcock surprised us with a gondola ride down the River Arno on one of the original gondolas. We went out onto the river around 9 PM. The city lights were shimmering on the water, the air was cool, and water was tranquil. The best part of it all was the people surrounding me. All 18 of us sat on the gondola, as our captain, Fabrizzio rowed us down the river. Fabrizzio was a much older man and could not speak much English at all. However, his warm, friendly smile proved that the language barrier made no difference in our connection to him.
As we continued to float down the River Arno, someone suggested that I sing some songs, since after all, I had just sang on a gondola the same day in Venice (it was a singing-on-gondolas marathon). I proceeded the sing the whole way down the river – all of the Italian classics and all of our favorites, eventually accompanied by the one and only Griffin McPherson for our rendition of “Rivers and Roads” by the Head and the Heart. At one point, everyone sang the song “All of Me” together and as we passed under a bridge, people looked down to listen and even pulled their phones out to record it. As we finished up the last chorus of the song, we passed under another bridge and I looked up to see a couple slow dancing. It all felt like a scene out of movie, or a really good dream that I didn’t want to wake up from.
Dr. Pitcock even sang a few Italian melodies that Fabrizzio delightfully sang with him. Fabrizzio, although he could not speak English, told me with his expressive hands and the word “bella” that I had a beautiful voice. At the end of our adventure, I gave him an awkward hug (he could not hug me back because he was holding the oar in one hand and the rope to the pull the boat back in in the other) but regardless of our language barrier, I appreciated Fabrizzio so much and I was so thankful that we got to share the gift of music together.
The River Arno was an experience of a lifetime. It was deeply impactful for me as well as everyone else aboard the Florentine gondola. I have never in my life seen such a beautiful, cultured city – stunning in both the day and the night and been simultaneously surrounded by the best people I know. There is no one else I would rather belt out John Legend songs with. As Claire put it in a very kind letter she recently mailed me, in that moment of unity we were all singing and “playing the chords of life together.” The gondola was the absolutely perfect way to wrap up our experience in Florence. It is an experience I will never, ever forget.
Man on the Spanish Steps:
On our very first evening in Rome, we visited the Spanish Steps, a location made famous by the movie “Roman Holiday” starring Audrey Hepburn. Cultural Routes was incredible for an infinite amount of reasons, but one of the reasons I loved it so much was because as much as the experience was non-stop with jam-packed days, I felt like there was always time to simply be still and be present and appreciate our surroundings without necessarily doing anything but sitting. Our night on the Spanish steps was an example of this kind of moment. As we sat on the steps and inhaled the cool air of the evening, a man a few feet away was strumming a small guitar and singing all of the classics. His voice was light and simple, and his small guitar’s sound was full-toned as it gently resonated through the space around us. The last song this man played was “Country Roads” by John Denver. As we all clapped for him, he said “Thank you, that is all” and got up to leave. Before he did, I ran over with some euros to tip him but he chuckled and told me that he does not take tips, and began to explain to me and the rest of our group why exactly he was here. It was the most beautiful and heart-wrenching story I ever heard.
The first thing that he said was that he was “just here to sing some songs for my wife” and they had sat in the same spot many years ago and sang the same songs together. He then told us that his wife was now dead – she had died eight months prior to brain cancer. He called himself a pilgrim – he traveled all the way from Florence to get to the same spot on the Spanish steps to sing in honor of his wife. He travelled the great distance because he felt that it was a promise he made to her. In his own words, “Since she cannot do it, I will go the way for her.” It was a pilgrimage – to love her, remember her, and keep her with him. He carries his guitar with him at all times, and sometimes retreats to sing for her in the forest or in the busy streets of the city. Singing for his wife brings him near to her in his grief. “41 years we were together” he told us, and we all held back our tears the best that we could. He departed with the words “Buona sera” and “God bless you all” and “Yes, this is my story.”
As he said his farewells, we were all crying. For all of us, I think it was a mixture of tears of empathy because of the great loss he experienced, but also tears of joy at the beauty of humanity. His story was so heartbreaking and deeply impactful because of the way he loved her so much. This man loved his wife so much, so much that he was willing to travel all the way back to his love’s favorite place on the Spanish Steps to sing in remembrance of her. I cannot fathom losing someone I have been with for 41 years, nor can fathom loving someone with that much heart and depth. It was humble and selfless and raw and real and passionate love. As Claire put it in her recent blog, it was agape love, and how cool was it that he loved her through his music. When he left us with the words, “Yes, this is my story,” I was reminded of the beautiful truth that everyone has a story worth hearing. I am blown away by the way he told us his story through his beautiful music.
Princess Rita and the Villa Aurora:
Dr. Pitcock granted us the opportunity to visit the Villa Aurora, a royal home in the heart of Rome. The Villa Aurora was home to the royal lineage of the Boncompigni Ludovisi family, and today is still home to Princess Rita – an American born princess (from Texas!) and wife to Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi whose ancestors include Pope Gregory XIII and Pope Gregory XV. The beautiful villa is home to Carvaggio’s only fresco and numerous other Renaissance art pieces. It is like walking through both a gorgeous home and richly cultured museum. Princess Rita was so kind to take us through her home to show us all of the incredible art work and history of the Villa Aurora. The Villa Aurora is a hidden gem, but according to history, it is the literal birthplace of opera. Princess Rita explained to us all that up until 1602, singing was always done polyphonically (together) with voices pointing in unison toward God. It wasn’t until 1602 that a leading soprano stepped out of the group to sing a capella in the Aurora Room. The people there to witness her solo were awe-stricken at her abilities. Among the audience was Emilio de Cavalieri, a famous composer, and it was the performance inside of the Villa Aurora that inspired him to write his first ever opera in 1606. So in other words, yes opera was invented here, meaning that solo-singing was basically invented here. What?! Dr. Pitcock informed me before the tour that in prior years, Princess Rita had requested anyone that could sing to sing in the Villa Aurora in the very spot the beautiful soprano singer sang by herself.
I have been singing since before I can even remember – it is what brings me joy and gives me immense purpose. To know that I would have the opportunity to sing in the very spot where opera was invented was equally humbling and overwhelming. Of course, on the tour, Princess Rita asked for me to sing, and I obviously obliged. As nervous as I was, I sang “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. The sound beautifully echoed through the space. I couldn’t even believe it. I was honored and so blown away by the opportunity that I cried afterwards, A LOT, but quietly because Princess Rita was showing us some super cool swords. It is hard to put into words the emotions I was feeling in this very moment, but what I do know is that this was a LIFE HIGHLIGHT. Music means everything to me, and to stand in a place of such importance and sing was overwhelming.
I would like to conclude this lengthy blog with a poem I came across the other day in the book Poems That Make Grown Women Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden. The poem is called “Isn’t that Something?” and was written by Rumi, a poet from the 13th century.
the music happens like this:
Something in His eye grabs hold of a
then I turn and lift a violin in someone else,
and they turn, and this turning continues;
reached you now. Isn’t that
something?Translation by Daniel Ladinsky
The book Poems That Make Grown Women Cry consists of female leaders detailing why their favorite poems stir up emotions and create meaning in their lives. The commentator for Rumi’s poem is Elif Shafak, a notable author. Shafak comments that “It is as if we all carry deep inside our hearts a musical instrument waiting to be heard. The only way to tune them is through Love…Creativity is contagious. When I hear you sing, I am tempted to write a new story; when you ready my story, your soul begins to dance, and so it goes, on and on. The journey is open-ended. Isn’t that something?”
I think Shafak encompasses the power of music and the power of stories and the power of creativity and gifts in this short analysis of her favorite poem. Music is contagious and it is within all of us, just in different ways.
I am so thankful that music ended up playing a role in the CR experience through all the many places we visited, things we saw, and people we met.