I went to Downton Abbey yesterday. Yes, the real one. It exists, and it’s called Highclere Castle. For those of you unfamiliar with the TV show, Downton Abbey is set in an aristocratic English country home, and it looks as beautiful in reality as it does onscreen. I’ve had my heart set on taking a trip out to the castle since last year, and I was finally able to make the journey for one of their limited spring opening days. I was the first visitor to arrive on the estate (perks of being a morning person) and had plenty of time to wander and take photos before hordes of other tourists arrived to crowd my pictures. I even made an unexpected friend in one of the parking attendants.
I spent the entire day at Highclere, and as I stood next to a meadow (yes, an actual meadow) watching newborn lambs (yes, 48-hour old lambs) frolic around in the sunshine among the daffodils (I swear I’m not making this up), I thought, this is what being alive is all about. It was one of those perfect, warm days at the beginning of spring, and I got to spend it walking around a serene English countryside estate with nowhere to be and no one to please but myself. That, my friends, is as good as it gets. If I could adequately describe how naturally beautiful it was, you would agree (my parking attendant friend definitely did).
I also thought, “Oh man. I am not ready to go home.” I want to stay here with the lambs forever and ever. Perhaps I could become a sheep herder and never have to leave. Sounds realistic. But seriously, do I have to go home yet? I’m not done exploring.
Fortunately, the end of my semester here doesn’t mean an immediate end to all the fun. I have a month of travel to look forward to, and I’ll be visiting five countries in just under five weeks. When I think about this, though, I’ll admit that I feel a little guilty. Sometimes I think of all the people I know who would love to travel and wonder why I’m lucky enough to be doing it. I always try to make a conscious, daily effort to acknowledge my privileges and be thankful for the people who encourage me. In moments when I am acutely aware of my privilege, though, it can be challenging to feel something other than guilt. And I don’t think guilt is productive. So, this is what I aim for: an attitude of gratitude. (Yes, I just threw in a corny rhyme.)
Why do I get to travel and do all of this “fun stuff” while so many other deserving people are at home? There are countless reasons. Some are small---I studied well in high school and earned scholarships. Some are big---my parents have always fostered my independence. And some are large-scale/systemic/hard-to-think-about---I was born a middle-class, able-bodied American who immediately has more opportunities than most citizens of the world. Again, it can be challenging to think about some of this. And it’s even more challenging not to simply revert to guilt, denial, and disregard. Instead, I choose gratitude. As often as possible. This means saying thank you to everyone, refusing to become a student who is too cool for school, and remembering that traveling, while it can certainly be challenging, provides innumerable opportunities to learn. And connect with new places. And new people, like the old parking attendant at Highclere Castle. When I do come home, I will be all the more grateful for the people who will be there to welcome me. Express gratitude. That, my friends, is also what being alive is all about.
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<p>I am Jane from Janesville, Wisconsin. I study communications and French at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, but I like to spend as much time as possible studying abroad. One day, you'll probably find me living in Paris. If you can't find me there, you must not have searched all the boulangeries.</p>