Many people on my program have been saying that they can’t believe our time in Vietnam is almost over and that we’re headed to Morocco in less than a week. Although time does fly when you’re having fun, my Vietnam experience has been so jam-packed with different activities and places that I also sometimes feel like a whole semester has passed already! One of the most important parts of my time in Hoi An has been my homestay. I had just moved in with one other student from my program at the end of my last blog post. The homestay has definitely been a change for me; I’ve never lived in someone else’s house for more than a few days at a time before, and I’ve always known some member(s) of the family I was with. There’s also the language barrier to contend with, since my host father and mother don’t speak much English. However, their extended family all lives in the area and are always in and around the house to translate/talk to, and we felt totally welcomed by everyone. Also, the home-cooked Vietnamese food every morning and night has been pretty awesome, and it’s been cool to eat in a more communal style.
The best part of Hoi An has for sure been biking. Since our homestays are spread across the town, pretty far away from our classroom and the old quarter, we all have bikes to make getting around easier. I wrote earlier about the craziness of traffic in Vietnam, what with the huge number of motorbikes and disregard of traffic laws, but it’s another thing entirely to be thrown into the mix yourself. Although Hoi An is smaller and slightly slower-paced than Hanoi, it’s still pretty hectic, and we have all had to become adept at biking in a busy urban environment. That being said, the independence that comes with having a bike has been totally worth it. My favorite bike-accessible spot in Hoi An has definitely been the rice paddies; there’s a path that weaves right through the paddies and shrimp farms, with palm trees on either side for most of the way. There are water buffalo everywhere, and it’s just a pretty beautiful and peaceful scene in general. I don’t know what it is with Vietnam in particular, but there have been some pretty spectacular clouds and skies the whole time we’ve been here.
The first week of our stay in Hoi An was fairly uneventful overall. A lot of our time was spent exploring the historic Old Quarter of the city, which contains a ton of well-preserved buildings from the 17th century, as well as a staggering number of tailors and clothes shops. The local market had a variety of restaurants serving fresh, delicious Vietnamese food for low prices, so I had a lot of meals there, as well as a lot of croissants at a smoothie place called Cocobox. We had class in a government building near the center of Hoi An, at the offices of an agency assigned to protect the marine area around the Cham Islands, which are right off the coast. Although there wasn’t much danger with this specific agency, we were still reminded to be conscious of what we were talking about and avoid certain topics, which is a big cognitive switch coming from America. A lot of our guest lecturers talked about hydropower in Vietnam, leading up to our visit to a hydropower dam in the mountains called A Vuong 1. On Wednesday morning of our first week there (September 28), our whole group packed into four vans and drove three hours to the hydropower dam through some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery I have ever seen. After a presentation on the history of the plant, we put our hard hats on and took a tour of the facility, which was certainly interesting.
That afternoon, we visited a resettled indigenous community that had been displaced by the same hydropower plant. The dam that was built to store water and regulate flow for the plant flooded a considerable amount of land to create a reservoir, including the land previously inhabited by the villagers. It was a very eye-opening experience to spend time with the people there; their lives and livelihoods had been turned upside down by the relocation, and the government still didn’t give them enough support in terms of food supplies and land allocations. After sharing some candy with the kids from the village, we concluded our visit and drove to our hotel in Hue, another city on the central coast. One thing to note from the drive to Hue was our rest stop. I’ve been searching for Ritz Bits (tiny cheese crackers) since the airport in San Francisco, but haven’t been able to find any in Vietnam. This rest stop had the Vietnamese equivalent, which was pretty incredible, as well as calming lake views.
Staying in a hotel was definitely a nice change of locale, especially considering the AC, queen beds and hotel spa. The personal highlight of my hotel stay was definitely continental breakfast, which included omelettes, fresh bread and fruit, great coffee, and bananas wrapped in crepes and drizzled with chocolate. I love breakfast and have been missing some of the classic American staples, so this was a very happy occurrence. On Thursday morning, we took a tour of Hue, including a visit to the tomb of an ancient emperor and a walking tour of the imperial palace. Our tour guide was super friendly and very knowledgeable, and both the tomb and palace were beautifully decorated and well-preserved.
Thursday afternoon and evening were occupied by a visit to a fishing village in a lagoon north of the city. We took a motorboat ride out on the lagoon and saw the local fishing techniques, and also got the chance to go clamming in shallow water. I wasn’t particularly adept at picking the clams up with my feet, but I was able to cheat the system due to having super long arms. I sat on the roof of the boat on the ride back and enjoyed yet another gorgeous sunset, then had dinner with the fishing families (with the meal including some of the clams we had caught). After one last dip in the hotel hot tub and one more glorious breakfast, we piled into a bus Saturday morning to get back to Hoi An. The next day I biked to the beach with some friends and enjoyed some waves with perfect ocean temperature while trying to avoid sunburn. Later in the week, our whole group took a trip out to the aforementioned Cham Islands; after a rapid and bumpy ride by speedboat, we walked around the island and took in the views before heading to the beach. A few of us rented snorkeling gear to explore the shallow reefs right off the beach and saw a ton of coral, crazy patterned fish and some sea stars. We were also caught right in the middle of a school of small flying fish, which was definitely an unforgettable experience.
I’ll be sad to leave my homestay in Hoi An, but I’m also very, very excited to head to Morocco in a few days. Though it will be tough in some ways to adapt to another country and culture, I’m really looking forward to cooler and drier temperatures, as well as new cities and the desert! Check back soon and I’ll let you know if I survived yet another time zone change.
At age nine I once crawled into my mother’s bed crying because I didn’t know what I was the best at. Everyone else had their thing, I said. My brothers made movies. My cousins made music. She told me that I was a dancer; I told her that the other kids were better. She told me I was an artist; I disagreed. Eventually she told me that my thing, the thing I was best at, was that I could put feelings into words. This moment of childhood insecurity has come to have profound significance in my adult life. A knack for “putting feelings into words” spurred me through student fellowdom and the declaration of an English major. Now traveling abroad for the first time, and in possession of more adventure stories than I’ve ever had before, I’m numb to the emotional cliches that are supposed to be enveloping me. Am I at a loss for feelings or a loss for words?
Walking down the streets in the Czech village of Úterý it can seem time has stopped. Moss swallows buildings that don’t resemble the Epcot that Prague can often feel like. No tourists swarm the cobbled streets that once held Nazis, reminding you how much time has passed. I arrive in Úterý, which is also the Czech word for Tuesday, on a Friday afternoon with two other women from my program, Maura and Grace, all of us with backpacks full of clothes we soon learn will be inadequate, and preconceived notions about village life that we soon see twisted. The other six students on our program are divided between two other villages also in the Czech Sudetenland. We’ll all reunite in the UNESCO world heritage site of Cesky Krumlov in Southern Czech Republic after six days in these villages for a two-day debrief before we return to Prague.
Studying so far from home it can seem like we’ve stopped, too. In my creative writing class I’ve had the worst writer’s block of my life. I should be overrun with inspiration in a city famed for being the most romantic in the world, but all of my writing has been empty. My professor, a bestselling and award-winning Czech novelist, journalist and playwright, sees through the pretty nonsense that I’ve been passing off as works of fiction. Every critique she gives cuts to the heart of a piece’s failure, expressing its shortcomings in a way that’s both poetic and shrewd. In one meeting she tells me and the two other students in the class to “edit out the little bullshits,” giving me new words to live by. My classmates and I eat soup after one session and talk about how numb we’ve been. I adore my program; the students, homestay, and phenomenal professors, and Prague might be the most magical place I’ve ever been, but sometimes I feel like I’m watching myself make these amazing connections and live these adventures. Aren’t I supposed to have registered where I am by now?
Midway through my stay in Úterý I regain feeling. My program-mates and I collectively realize that all the people and places we love back home are existing and changing without us, that the emotional baggage that we had hoped couldn’t fit in our planes’ overhead compartments followed us anyway. Grace, Maura and I traverse an emotional rollercoaster together. Midway through our stay Grace and I accidentally eat cat food for breakfast. Fishy residue on our teeth we embark on adventures in the village; visiting schools and a Roma community center, making art and exploring cobbled streets older than the oldest pebble in the US. We learn about the vibrant contemporary life here and meet the artists and activists making it happen.
That evening, back in the house where we’re staying, I remember the cat food. I buckle over in giggles for a small eternity. Grace and I have to hold each other up we’re so breathless from manic laughter. Minutes later, we see the Milky Way for the first time. Maura, Grace and I stand in the garden, mouths agape. We can see the galaxy from Úterý. In a town with a population of 442, we have access to an entire star system. There’s something poetic about that. Maybe you can tell me what it is. Sitting under these stars we talk about our lives: our pasts, our families, our feelings, and our hopes for the future. We are every cliche about star-gazing for self-discovery. We all get teary-eyed unpacking the feelings we have tried to ignore. Úterý isn’t frozen and neither are we.
My abroad motto has become “experience it now, think about it later.” I can already feel myself changing here, and for my creative writing teacher I miss the girl back home who is so good at putting feelings into words. I want to write a story for class that explains how delicious Prague rain is and how much more I feel like I belong here in the cold rain of fall rather than the warm sunshine of late summer. I want to explain that when I walk down the street here I wish I was wearing purple lipstick so that I could leave a tangible mark of my adoration on every stone gargoyle, and that the incredible access my program has to revolutionaries, artists and academics who have profoundly mattered to Prague makes me terrified of how quickly the semester is unfolding. I want to explain how it feels to form inside jokes with my host brothers and to make up stories every night with my host sister—how it feels to cultivate a new family here. I encounter overt racism and public masturbators in the Czech Republic and still I don’t want to leave. I hear “Fools Rush In” as a backdrop to my day-to-day life and I’m silly and cliche and trying so hard to edit out all the little bullshits. Is there a word for that?
Studying abroad in Clifden during the fall semester involves an extra perk: The Clifden Arts Festival! The little town becomes transformed as the population doubles due to the influx of tourists. Regular school curriculum gets pushed aside by opportunities to meet with world-renowned poets, musicians, and artists. It is honestly refreshing how much the educational system here values the arts. This year was the 39th anniversary of the festival, which was actually started by my internship director, Brenda Flynn. Due to our status as students and our connections with the school system, Jake and I were generously allowed free admittance to every performance. We went to an incredible concert by the Kilfenori Band, which is one of the oldest Céilí bands in Ireland. Legend has it that Michael Jackson spent at lot of time with this band during his time in Ireland and used their music as inspiration for his iconic song “Smooth Criminal.” The concert ended with a surprise performance by one of the best flutists in the world, Sir James Galway, nicknamed, “The Man With the Golden Flute.” We also attended a one-man performance of Beowulf and another one-man performance depicting the life of the Irish Antarctic explored, Tom Crean. My knowledge, as well as appreciation, for the Irish culture grew exponentially throughout this magical week from the many poetry readings, concerts, galleries and plays I attended.
While I thoroughly enjoyed all of the professional performances I attended in the evenings, I think that I enjoyed Arts Week in the primary school even more. A musician came to teach the kids about the history behind traditional Irish music. He told stories of household gatherings where people would use things such as spoons and pots and pans to make a beat. He then introduced a variety of percussion instruments and explained the origin of each. I was very impressed with how attentively the students listened to his stories. Next, it was our turn to make some music. Fortunately, I got to join in! I am working with second class, which means they are seven or eight years old and were very excited about becoming musicians. The students were split up, and each group was given a different instrument. He taught a different beat/sound to each of the groups of students, and then had us all come together. For the beginning of the song we would follow his beat, and then he went into the solos where each of the different instruments got to show off the beat they had previously practiced. We finished the song with a “grand finale” where everyone just went crazy making as much noise as they could. It was fantastic to see the kids appreciate music and the culture connected with each of the different types of instruments.
Another exciting event from Arts Week was getting to milk a cow and then turn that milk into butter! A father of one of the students in my class brought his cow to school one day. Imagine that! There was a pen set up in the corner of the school where the cow was calmly eating potato peels. The farmer demonstrated how to milk a cow, and then patiently let each student of our class have a try. I got to milk a cow! It is definitely more difficult than it looks. He took the milk we had collected home where he strained and refrigerated it. Each day he would take the cream off of the top of the milk and put in into a separate container. After three days, he came back with the cream he had collected in a butter churn. Again, he gave all of the students a chance to turn the handle and churn the cream. Everyone was buzzing about who would get the “magical turn” when the cream would get think enough to be considered butter. I did get a chance to use the butter churn, but I unfortunately did not have the magical touch. Actually, no one did because he had to keep it churning for a while after the last student had gone until it eventually became butter. Only cream turns into butter. So, the milk that was originally mixed into the cream stays a liquid, and this is what we call buttermilk, which is used a lot in baking. He scooped the butter out of the jar and molded it into a rectangular prism using special paddles. Fresh butter is very soft, so it needs to be placed in the refrigerator for a period of time before it becomes the consistency we expect from store-bought butter. Also, the fresh butter obviously doesn’t have any salt in it yet, so it has a different taste. People started salting their butter for preservation since unrefrigerated butter turns rotten pretty quickly.
Arts week was a wonderful adventure filled with many once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I appreciate all of the artists who came to share their passions as well as the teachers and committee members who put so much work into making it a smashing success!
I’ve almost been in Jolly old England for a month and yet it feels like an eternity. That’s the thing about big cities. You spend a week or so in one and then consider yourself a native.
For various obvious reasons, I’m not quite a Londoner, and one of those is this American accent that seems to follow me everywhere. In nearly every conversation I have at a café or a tube station, it takes the other person a few seconds and a head tilt to respond. Being an American comes with a set of assumed opinions. Everything in America is bigger, sugarier, and unhealthier. And to many Brits, that’s a point of jealousy. The candy tastes better and there’s more of it for less.
The other big topic that comes up with being an American abroad is the Presidential election. Just the other day I was talking to a falafel maker and, before I could even put my order in, he brings up Trump and the joke he is. Everyone it seems is invested in this election, not just us Americans. It’s going to be fascinating voting in another country.
Luckily, my classes at BADA allow me to take a break from the world of politics. As my week starts, my the day starts at 7 a.m. and I’ll get back to my flat at 7 p.m. Within this month, I’ve had to learn heaps of scenes and monologues. By the end, I’ll probably be able to recite a whole Shakespeare play.
The benefit of learning all of this is that I’m able to try roles I might not otherwise get the opportunity to. One of the great roles any classical actor sets their eyes on is Hamlet. Regardless of your opinion on his misogyny and mopiness, he’s a difficult character that provides a challenge for an actor. I’m currently working on the ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ scene, and it’s probably one of the hardest I’ve ever confronted. But the payoff’s been great, with the challenging words feeling very fulfilling. It’s stretching my emotional capacity and shaping a new way of how I approach scenes.
Besides just attending classes, we’ve seen our fair share of shows, about one each week. We saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. This is a play that’s a classic tragedy, yet their ensemble burst into a musical number. I shuddered the whole time.
We also saw Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht at the National Theatre, with Rory Kinnear starring as Captain Macheath. He is quite a talent and it was impressive. The set fell apart and in a Buster Keaton-esque moment, a sheet fell right on top of him, Kinnear breaking through and scaring the audience in the process.
The following week, we took a day trip up to Stratford, home of the Bard himself. I’d been once before a few years ago, but it was with my dad and he made us wear these weird hiking backpacks which was just awkward. This trip didn’t involve that. Instead, I walked around with one of my roommates as we explored the banks of the Avon river, including the church where Shakespeare’s buried.
Seeing his grave inside, I took a long moment of silence to reflect on who was in front of me. Before me lay the man whom Western civilization revolves around, giving us some of the greatest texts to bear witness upon. He’s also one of the reasons Sparknotes is so popular. It was quite a powerful moment. It was a nice moment of the day, before we saw a three-hour production of King Lear that caused at least 60% of the audience to fall asleep. The one souvenir I got from the trip was a book of Shakespeare characters imagined as cats, aptly named Shakespeare Cats. It was quite a day.
Besides shows for the program, I’ve also gone to see shows on my own. Tickets can be really cheap and any show gives you something to learn from, be it good or bad. Independently, I’ve seen 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips at the Globe (standing as a Groundling again), The Play That Goes Wrong, which was right in so many hilarious ways, and Yerma.
There was quite a journey in getting to see Yerma at the Young Vic with Billie Piper. Tickets were sold out and it was closing with only a few days left. The great opportunity for the Young Vic is the returns line. I had a few friends that waited and got in, so my chances of waiting were very hopeful. The first day, I got there at 5 p.m., with the show to open at 7:30 p.m. Sadly, I didn’t get in, with four people in front of me. I did, however, get to see Timothy Dalton, who was probably there to see her Penny Dreadful co-star, and Matt Smith from Doctor Who. I tried again the next day to no luck.
The third day I showed up, Friday, was the day before it closed, and we were doing the Stratford trip that day, so this was my last chance. I got to the theater at 1:30 and waited until 7:30 to get in. Nerves were high the entire time, and I probably waited a total of 12 hours for a return ticket over the three days. That day, the gods were in my favor because, with 10 minutes before the curtain was to go up, I got a ticket. I also saw Geoffrey Rush and Liv Tyler at the show, which wasn’t bad.
The show itself was astounding. The language was quick and it reached an emotional catharsis I’d never thought possible. One scene takes place in the rain, and they managed to make it rain onstage. Billie Piper’s performance shook me. For the last half hour my mouth was open, amazed at the sheer beauty and madness of what I was witnessing. For the time I gave and the high expectation I had, this surpassed it in every way. I laughed, I cried, and it was better than Cats could ever be, with or without the rap song. I left the theater only able to say “My god.” from the utter brilliance of this performance. I’ve spoken enough now I think, but the saga of Yerma was worth it wholeheartedly, and I hope to see and make theatre like it in the future.
If only the walls could talk…
In the famous museum of Cairo and the ancient temples along the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, not to mention all the other archeological oases, I can only imagine the millions of stories the walls could share. Yet, the tale they would tell today would undoubtedly be the lack of people appreciating the wall’s history.
Within my first minutes in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, I looked at some of the earliest samples of writing in human history, I gazed upon towering statues on either side of me, and I stared at the exquisitely-preserved Narmer Palette in front of me. Soon afterwards my professor drew my attention to one of the most beautiful, powerful and kingly statues in existence. As I walked through the chronology of exhibits on the ground floor listening to my professor talk about the depth of the history, I felt entirely captivated. The museum houses wall-to-wall history with barely enough spaces for people to walk between the artifacts. Within the two floors rest over 120,000 artifacts ranching from the pre-dynastic time period of ancient Egypt to the new kingdom of the pharaonic era and beyond. Yet, there were barely enough people to fill one small classroom, let alone an entire museum. While the museum provided a fleeting refreshment from the crowded atmosphere, hectic streets and growing population of Cairo, it also showcased the distinct absence of tourism.
I witnessed the same story unfold before my eyes on my trip to Luxor and Aswan. For the recent holiday, Eid al-Adha, the International Students and Study Abroad (ISSA) office hosted a subsidized five-day Nile Cruise. I, in addition to the other international students who accompanied me, was afforded a luxurious experience with only the oppressively hot weather to limit full-unabashed enjoyment. Sitting on the top deck on the cruise ship, we could look at a complete 360-degree view of the Nile without the obstruction of too many ships. More often than not, I was able to look out at the closes and reaches of the Nile valley where the desert meets the river and then opens to an area of cultivatable land. Not even at the towering temples of Karnak, Luxor, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Philae did there seem to be an excessive human presence. Wandering through the infamous Valley of the Kings, our tour guide explained he could not accompany us inside the tombs—tourism laws restricted him from imparting his wealth of knowledge to us. In the past these laws had been designed to ease the passage through the tombs, as people used to often stop and listen to the various tour guides explain the frames of hieroglyphics, the properties and stories of the various Gods represented, the specific examples of vandalism and the general history depicted on the sandstone masterpieces. However, as we walked through the three tombs allotted on our ticket, I remember thinking that the tour guide would not have caused a major disruption of the space. Even going into Tutankhamen’s small but beautiful tomb, we did not have to wait in any lines. All throughout our trip, we enjoyed the examples of history without any test on our patience caused by crowds. We had the space to stare up at the grand temple walls and imagine what they would say (apart from their probable comments on the evident lack visitors).
At almost every historical site, there was a small market leading up to the entrance where desperate shopkeepers would stand in front of the path attempting to say anything to entice us into their shops. Almost all of us walked past them trying not to make eye contact, so as not to encourage any more invasive techniques of persuasion. In Edfu, a site known for the many shopkeepers, I heard a man call out once, “How can we help you spend your money?” I smiled without thinking, but kept my head down. With my capitalistic ideas that I must search for the lowest price on commodities, I avoided buying anything. We knew going in that people would try to overcharge us as foreigners, and every day our tour guide would reiterate this point. Not considering the tourism crisis, I merely felt mild annoyance at the shopkeepers in my path.
Now, more acquainted with the impact of job losses on unemployment and the growth of the informal sector, my actions seem an attempt to preserve my privilege. For one thing, as an American, the exchange rate is heavily in my favor. For another, Egypt has lost nearly half of the percentage contribution to total billion USD revenue from tourism since its peak in 2010. It would not be a great inconvenience for me to buy souvenirs costing maybe the equivalent of 10 cents each for family members and friends back home, so why did I not buy anything? Why did it seem at the time necessary not to spend any of my money? It is true that I cannot afford to frivolously throw dollars at items I do not need, but I cannot help but feeling that I purposely avoided extra contribution to the tourism revenue, especially considering my immense enjoyment of the ancient historical monuments. When I consider this dilemma and my role in it, my mind feels pulled in countless different directions. One the one hand, I have been taught my whole life to spend my money with caution. On the other hand, the detrimental effects of the tourism crisis are felt everywhere and are inescapable to notice. As I have some means to contribute to the Egyptian economy, should I be focused with tunnel-vision precision on my budget as a student or should I not attempt to haggle with my fruit man and spend the extra 50 cents each time I crave mangos? I wonder what the ancient walls would say, as they have experienced various economic crises in the past and encountered people with all levels of socio-economic power. Oh, if only the walls could talk…
After two weeks visiting my home in Saigon, Vietnam, one day before my departure for Beijing I had to admit that I was not ready, and even scared. Having spent a summer in Shanghai right before my exchange at Yuanpei College, Peking University (PKU), I thought I wouldn’t feel too nervous, as I was confident that I already knew how most things in China work, from traveling on public transportation, to ordering food in a restaurant, to asking for directions and even having small talks with the locals. However, it came to my realization that whereas everything was already taken care of when I arrived in Shanghai by the staff at summer program, this time in Beijing I had nothing but the landline of my guarantor in China. Being the only student in the entire program, I found out later that I was also to be on my own for the whole semester to come. When I finally got to the campus of PKU, it was already dark. I discovered the program had not prepared me accommodation, so I decided to rent a hotel room and spend the night there. The next day I ventured into the campus looking for my guarantor and finally met her for the first time. She gave me a list of buildings and people I needed to contact for accommodation, beddings, internet, campus card, etc. It was a bit tiring navigating around the huge campus and handling administration on my own, but I convince myself that dealing with everything in Chinese is actually a good way of learning and overall a refreshing experience, so I did not feel too bad about it.
Before the trip, I heard people talking about how bad the air quality in Beijing can get, but I never imagined it could actually affect my health. I got a bad sinus infection within the first week. I had to purchase a Chinese medical insurance and go to a public hospital within walking distance. Luckily class hadn’t started yet, so I had plenty of time to rest and recover. The PM 2.5 index number is what Chinese people refer to when they want to check the air quality. The higher the number is, the more harmful the air is going to be to your respiratory system. Whereas any number lower than 100 would be considered fine, I encountered days when it was over 180, and apparently it may reach 300 when the winter comes.
I share a room with three other Chinese students. One of them is a Beijing local, one is from Shanxi Province and one is from Korea but has been living in China since he was ten, so his Chinese is flawless. They are all very nice, although they seem to not communicate with me or with each other very much unless there is an issue that involves all of us, such as the use of lights and the assignment of our cleaning duties. There are two bunk beds, an air conditioner and a heater in every room. There is a communal bathroom on every floor. The squat toilets took me a few days to get used to.
There was no orientation, so I had to explore the school by myself. I had to find everything from the classroom buildings and bookstores to the dining options, from the school’s post office to the market where I can get amenities and fruits. Registering for classes was not that bad. The procedures were straightforward, and I got into most of the classes I wanted.
I’m taking three Chinese classes this semester along with a few economics classes, two of which are with the domestic students and taught entirely in Chinese. The teachers give very good lectures in my opinion. But at the same time their demands for the students are also high, so I am expecting a tough semester ahead.
The international student body at PKU is very diverse. I have gotten to know some international friends from South Korea, Thailand, Burma, Hong Kong, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and America.
There are roughly 10 dining halls located throughout the school. This is from 学一食堂 Student’s Dining Hall Number One. The food here is famous for being sumptuous and cheap.
Mid Autumn festival is a huge deal in China. Apparently it is the day of the year when the moon is at its fullest, and the fullness of the moon represents the reunion and bonding of family members. The Chinese government has made this a national holiday, so everyone had a day off. This year Mid Autumn festival was on September 15. One of my roommates went back to his home to celebrate with his family. Two of my other roommates also went out with their friends. I was still suffering from sinus infection, so I chose to stay in. Luckily, I had this little gift from the school.
One weekend, I went to 秀水街市场 (Beijing Silk Market)—a place famous for selling quality silk and brand names, mostly 高仿 (high quality + fake) products. Some of the people I hung out with that day were experienced hagglers. They were able to bring the price of some goods down from 380 yuan to 60 yuan and from 650 to 100 yuan. I did a terrible job and walked away with a pair of shoes for 150 yuan from the original price of 330.
It’s been exciting despite my illness. I can’t wait to explore more of Beijing and the local food in the upcoming months.
The great thing about studying abroad is the new places and people you meet. The bad thing about traveling abroad is that if you don’t know the language, you end up wandering aimlessly for a month trying to figure out basic language skills. For example, try saying “Welche sprachen sprechen Sie?” three times in a row. Despite initial language barriers, I feel somewhat integrated into the German lifestyle.
The last month in Germany has exposed me to new experiences and new friends. Whether it be through traveling to different cities or sitting down in the college servery for dinner, I have definitely made connections that will last a lifetime. It is in this atmosphere that I am very grateful to have celebrated my 20th birthday.
My host family very graciously cooked an authentic Southern German dinner for my birthday. Despite time conflicts (German class ended at 8:45 p.m.), my host sister and I arrived at our host families’ place to enjoy pretzels, sausage, a vast array of cheeses, dumplings, sparkling wine and homemade apple flan all prepared by our host mom’s eldest son. Everything was mind-blowing, especially the homemade flan. Though it had been a month since I had arrived in Germany, this was my first genuine German meal, and I was glad to have shared the experience with them. Over dinner, we discussed school, our lives back in America and the current political elections. Because of our rousing discussion, we both ended up staying for dinner until nearly 12 a.m., but it was totally worth the sleep deprivation the next day.
One great thing about studying abroad in Germany is the limitless possibilities of travel. Germany is centrally located in Europe; therefore, it is relatively easy to plan weekend trips to explore other European cultures. This past weekend, a group of us exchange students visited Prague in the Czech Republic for the first time. Prague is a cultural hub and has contributed to the arts vastly through literature, architecture and music.
Influencing Neruda, Mozart and Kafka, Prague is literal #aesthetic goals. From the astronomical clock (Pražský orloj) to Prague Castle (Pražský hrad), each sight is breathtaking and memorable.
Our first day in Prague centered around Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí). It is here where both Baroque and Gothic architecture can be experienced simultaneously. From the observation deck on top of the Old Clock Tower, one can experience the panoramic view of not just the Old Town Square but the entirety of Prague. Despite being afraid of heights, I willed myself to walk up the stairs and experience firsthand the stunning scenery.
From the Old Town Square, we trekked our way up toward western Prague toward Prague Castle, experiencing the sights and sounds of the bustling city. Prague Castle itself is not just one building but over thirty palaces on the grounds, including the famed Saint Vitus Cathedral. It is in Prague Castle grounds that the empire of Bohemia was housed and where the President of the Czech Republic is based. Its focal point culminates in the large gothic structure of the Saint Vitus Cathedral, the biggest church in the country. It was totally worth the thirty flights of stairs to climb up to this view.
The following day, a group of us decided to an educational tour around the city to learn more about the intricate history of Prague through the centuries. Headed by our tour guide Czech David (there are three Davids in the company and we ended up with the one of Czech origin, hence his self-assigned name), we started out in Old Town Square and visited the Rudolfinum, the Jewish Quarter, the Estates Theatre (Stavovské divadlo), which is the only remaining original structure where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself performed that still stands, Kafka House, and the intersection between Old and New Town Prague.
After the tour ended, we walked through Prague finding various churches and interesting places, stopping occasionally for gelato and bathroom breaks. Another tourtisty thing to do in Prague is to walk the Charles Bridge. It is here where you can find local vendors selling jewelry, paintings and souvenirs. The Charles Bridge was the original connection between the castle grounds and the rest of Prague. Monarchs of all kinds strode through the cobblestones and the original towers of the stone bridge. To walk through the same path and to experience the same views from thousands of years ago was just one of the highlights of this trip.
If Prague is beautiful during the day, then it is just as breathtaking during the night. After dinner, the group of us decided to stroll through the hills of Prague in the dark. Eventually, we stumbled on the Petrin Lookout Tower (Petřínská rozhledna), which looks very much like the Eiffel Tower. With enough time to spare before closing time, we were able to climb up to the observation deck. At first, the heights really got to me to the point where I headed down because I was too overwhelmed. But seeing as how I paid 65 korunas, I decided to get my money’s worth and climbed up the stairs again, keeping my eyes averted from the ground. And I’m glad I did. I did, however, take the elevator down after experiencing the magnificent panoramic sights.
One thing that is a must in Prague is to taste the local beer (pivo!) as recommended by our tour guide from earlier, Czech David. So we headed to a beer hall near our hostel to experience it for ourselves. Like the non-beer person I am, I was given apple cider as a substitute after telling our waiter that I didn’t like beer despite the fact that I was in a beer hall. He was clearly amused by the group of seven American young women who were clearly not typical customers. But I am told that the beer was good, and the atmosphere was lively and entertaining. Cheers or Na zdravi!
Unfortunately, the weekend ended as quickly as it came and we were soon back on a nine-hour bus back to Germany ready to tackle on another week of classes. Děkuji Praha!
If you were to ask a Dutch person what the most traditionally Dutch dish is, they’ll most likely say stamppot, a farmers’ meal consisting of potatoes and kale or cabbage cooked into a mash, with sliced kielbasa mixed in. The most Dutch you could get is if you used Onux brand sausage, hailed as the most popular throughout the Netherlands (imagine Kraft for meats). However, unless you’re out looking for traditionally Dutch cooking, you won’t encounter stamppot. What you will find, everywhere you go, is kaas. That’s cheese. For those of you who haven’t had it, it’s delicious.
Though the Netherlands produces a number of different cheeses, from edam to limburger, the cheese most popularly eaten throughout the country is gouda. Those three cheeses mentioned are all named after Dutch towns, in which their loyalty to their cheese remains strong. The two varieties are jong or oud (young or old), depending on how mature the cheese is. Young cheese is softer and more mild; older cheese is harder and often more pungent in flavor. In the grocery store, there will be a minimum of three shelves devoted to different goudas, and perhaps one shelf for mozzarella, ricotta, swiss, etc. My roommate and I have been going through different brands of gouda trying to tell the difference, so far with little luck.
Snack cheeses are also a staple of bar food; if you go out for drinks, there’s a good chance you’ll be eating slices of gouda and bitterballen, a deep-fried, bread-crumbed ball of what is essentially gravy. Though delicious, they require some care, as the oily interior remains dangerously hot for a long time.
Though it has a somewhat outsized reputation for being a Dutch delicacy, fresh herring, Hollandse nieuwe haring, is only served between the months of May and July, when the herring is caught in its fattiest state. Gutted and placed in brine as soon as they’re pulled out of the water, the herring can be eaten in a sandwich with onions, but the traditionally Dutch method is holding the fish by the tail, tilting your head back, and dropping the herring down your throat. I can’t say I’ll be terribly sorry to be leaving before herring season comes around.
Much like Indian food in England, the Dutch have taken to the cuisine of their former colony in Indonesia. As ‘Dutch cuisine’ is next to non-existent, Indonesian restaurants are incredibly popular in the Netherlands. Bami goreng are Indonesian stir-fried egg noodles with meat and vegetables, and can be found in almost any neighbourhood in Amsterdam. Sate, skewered meat with peanut sauce, is generally served over pommes frites—a fusion of another dish that the Dutch have taken for their own: french fries. Though known as ‘Belgian fries,’ frites are a popular street food throughout the Netherlands, served with a variety of sauces. ‘Fry sauce’ is mayonnaise, and the mayonnaise served here tastes like tartar sauce. ‘Curry-ketchup’ is far more popular than regular ketchup, which tastes especially vinegar-y. Garlic sauce is a winner; it tastes a bit like creamy aioli.
Though waffles in the Netherlands are not quite comparable to those of their southern neighbour, stroopwafels are delicious and can be found anywhere. Stroop means syrup, and these thin, cookie-sized waffles are coated in syrup, perfect with a cup of tea. At almost every social event someone will whip out a bag of stroopwafels, and they’ll be gone in a matter of seconds.
When in Paris, look up. Never mind that the fabled flâneurs of yore have been largely replaced by scowling professionals in navy speed-walking at breakneck pace—what lies above the sidewalks is too beautiful to miss. Take in the towering church facades, the French Renaissance grandeur, the monuments at every corner. Watch for the modest shutters on buildings untouched by Haussmann and the endless repetition of wrought-iron balconies framed by columns adorning those which constitute his legacy. This last image is the one I wake up to every morning. I then lean out the window and into the city bustling below to allow the breeze to remind me that I’m not hallucinating, but also because it seems like the appropriate thing to do when in Paris.
We are at week three in the city of lights, love and all things chic, and I am just now beginning to settle into a routine. The past few weeks could be described as overambitious tourist agenda meets freshman orientation meets the world’s greatest bureaucratic nightmare (that is, registration for French university classes). I’ve been immensely lucky, however, to come home each night to a beautiful apartment in the eighth arrondissement (the system of numerically delineated neighborhoods in Paris), just around the corner from the Gare Saint-Lazare and down the street from the grands magasins Galeries Lafayette and Printemps on Boulevard Haussmann. In what can only be explained as ResLife karma compensating for my two years in Raymond House, I’ve been blessed with perfect host parents to match this perfect abode. Lovers of art and good food, they are truly my role models when it comes to la vie parisienne. And as if I wasn’t already feeling at home, my host mother (a restorer of paintings), like my real mother (an artist), has her studio just across the hall from my bedroom.
The repose afforded by my homestay has been invaluable, but fleeting. After a first week of Paris-specific orientation (and free time spent enjoying free entry to every Paris art museum with my student ID), we began classes at Reid Hall and our respective French universities. Reid Hall, where I’m taking a film class, is a charming building owned and operated by Columbia University that houses multiple American study abroad programs, including VWPP. The classrooms are small, the garden rings with lunchtime conviviality, and the professors speak slow and beautiful French and call us by our first names.
The Sorbonne, on the other hand, is terrifying. I’m taking three classes there, but getting to that point was not easy. In fact, I’m still not fully sure if I’m officially signed up for some of my classes, because the registration process involved (after waiting in multiple lines at multiple locations) merely writing my student number and email on several hastily-drawn t-charts. This does not provide the same sense of confirmation as clicking “submit” on Vassar’s online pre-registration months before the start of classes, a process that now seems like a dream. Nor does inscription pedagogique, as this administrative tumult is known, afford the same convenience. For example, when I asked a professor where I could find the hours for registration at the History Department, he told me I’d have to check the door. Said door, it turns out, was located thirty minutes away by metro. I decided that history wasn’t my strong suit anyway.
With registration behind me, I was bright-eyed and, as I always am, looking forward to syllabus week. Unfortunately, none of my classes have a syllabus. None of them seem to have any homework either—when I asked my Art History professor if she would assign or suggest any readings to correspond to the lectures, she said no, “you are adults.” I asked if we’d need to buy the books she had referred to in class as essential. She looked at me, horrified, then promptly realized that I’m American, and said no, “students are poor.” This may be true, but students here are also impeccably well-dressed, armed with fancy pens, slightly brooding (usually with a cigarette), and all already friends with each other. In any case, I have a lot to learn.
Besides the academic trials and tribulations, adjusting to life in Paris has gone relatively smoothly. It’s hard not to fall in love with a lifestyle that ritualizes the lunch hour, a sacred period during which all business seems to adjourn. Any time I see someone between the hours of noon and two, they wish me bon appétit, even if I wasn’t planning on eating yet. There are, of course, the little things. Wearing workout attire (especially shorts) in public, for instance, is generally not done unless you are actively running, but is otherwise a good way to get people to stare at you. Everything here is also smaller: the chairs, the people, a medium coffee to go (roughly the size of a Dixie cup you might find next to a water dispenser). While Paris is a big city like any other, one of the more visible points of difference at the moment is the massive security presence. France’s current state of emergency in response to the recent terrorist attacks is heavily evident. Armed guards, national police and military personnel occupy almost every busy street corner, and security guards inspect your bags at the entrance to nearly every major retail store, museum and public building, including universities. After a while, it’s easy to allow these presences to fade into the background. There is a tension, but it surfaces mainly when you catch sight of the news on a TV screen, when uniformed men with huge guns are checking the windows of every parked car at Sacré-Coeur, or when your train is stopped in the metro after reports of an unattended suitcase at the next station. Those are the moments of unease, but it’s an adjustment like any other.
As I sit by my bedroom window wrapping up this post, the voices of a group of bon viveurs at a café on the street below mingle first with a French rap song emanating from a soirée at someone’s apartment, then with what sounds like a kazoo version of Bizet’s L’Arlesienne. At the end of the latter, the crowd erupts in cheers, then promptly disbands, probably to get the last metro. C’est Paris.