To Build A Home
Hannah Thigpen

I sent a message home to my companion and confidante: “I am luckier today than I’ve ever been.” I wrote these words last night, Saturday, May 27th. At first, this simple idea did not seem emphatic enough for my reflection. It did not seem to encompass the accelerating expansion of my gratitude, my awe. To say I was “lucky” felt reductive. “Blessed” felt worn out and abstracting, though. “Happy,” too, stayed on the shelf for another day. I came back to “luckier today than ever” to imply that external forces stepped into my life and offered me this chance. That is the thread connecting my experience to our topics of study here in Vienna.
We traveled from Praterstern to the Schönbrunn stop by the red and green lines on my fraying, too lime, too touristy U-Bahn map. Before this trip, I had never left the United States. I kept my passport tucked in the back-left corner of my sock drawer from the day it arrived in the mail, so I had certainly never visited a European palace. The goliath of Schönbrunn was an unparalleled image for me, the fortification a representation of wealth the likes of which I had only imagined with fantasy books.
We bought reduced tickets for the Grand tour and wandered through the apartments that were once home to Hapsburg royalty. The Rococo interior dominated my notice, given the gilded everything, the endless detail, the indulgent swirls. Nothing inside seemed as grand to me, however, as the gardens we walked through after the tour. We wove up the hillside and looked out at each double back. The palace somehow seemed *bigger *with distance. The flower beds formed the curlicues now, the yellow flowers the new gold. We ascended to the peak of the hill to witness the glorious vista.
I cannot help but interrupt the narrative and address its dripping extravagance. I hesitate to continue with so many details, colors, or adjectives, because this is not a travel brochure. That being so, my reflection is meant to address what has moved me here in Vienna. The details lend themselves to my disbelief and my feeling apart from what I saw at Schönbrunn. Perhaps every newcomer to the city feels similarly when experiencing the unfamiliar history, cultural gravity, and obvious wealth. I recognized Saturday, however, that it is my privilege to experience awe in the face of the Viennese luxury.
Europe is completely new to me. I am an ignorant American tourist in a beautiful, forgiving new land. It is not so for the asylum seekers and refugees who lost more than a home in coming here. I feel conspicuously, copiously different and out of my depth. I, however, get to move about this city as an accepted “other.” I am here only by the approval and help of others. Those external forces, again. The luck. Perhaps those that have migrated from danger to safety here acknowledge the work of external forces in their arrival, too, notwithstanding their own determination and resilience. But while I get to feel thankful and lucky, I wonder if I will ever understand even a fraction of asylum seekers and refugees’ fear. I know from* badluck Aleppo* alone that I will never understand the pain some carry with them.
I have developed through our lectures, museum visits, and follow-up discussions an introduction to a new kind of empathy associated with migration. We, the Davidson group, have built empathy through facts and numbers. We built empathy with exposure to graphic personal narratives and in sharing food and games with refugees. We built empathy by delving into the chasm of cost that tore open when humans chose apathy 80 years ago.
I built a structure to house my empathy when I laid in the grass at Schönbrunn. I wrote to my companion, “It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Full stop. We looked back on the palace and the entire city, all of Wien. We laid there on the hill for a while and I felt a unique, ephemeral kind of satisfaction that could only originate from that spot on the hill.” That satisfaction was my foundation. Its newness formed the walls. I added the door for my mental empathy structure when I realized that I found comfort in not belonging. I dwelled in the newness of that.
I was a student from across the ocean. Just a person. I had no claim in my making it to that beautiful spot other than studying enough in school to get to Davidson. I needed a distribution requirement and landed in the class with Professor Ceka. His work with Dr. Ellis brought the trip to life. The grant funded my travel. I was born to parents that would pay for my food while away from home. I wandered to Schönbrunn with people kind and insightful enough to suggest that we visit.
I felt deeply contented in these gifts. Then I remembered that there are strangers to this city like me wandering around, struggling with new languages, witnessing new things, and helped by the kindness of others, perhaps. I lowered the roof onto my empathy structure, finishing it, calling it home, by realizing some of the similarities in my experience with that of the other travelers.
I also built empathy by working to recognize the weight of the differences in our experience. That weight is my reminder to not forget about migrants when I fly away from here. We have learned more than I thought possible in six days, but above all else, I think we have learned how to build that house. Let our empathy provide shelter.
p.c. Emma Cardwell