Antigone Delton | Paris, France | Post 2

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.

View of the Rive Droite (Right Bank) through the clock face at the Musée d'Orsay

View of the Rive Droite (Right Bank) through the clock face at the Musée d’Orsay

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 Louvre seen through I.M. Pei's glass pyramid

The Louvre seen through I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid

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.

From one most Instagramable campus to another -- inside the Sorbonne's Latin Quarter building

From one most Instagramable campus to another—inside the Sorbonne’s Latin Quarter building

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.

Mid-promenade at the Jardin du Luxembourg

Mid-promenade at the Jardin du Luxembourg

John Ammondson | Vietnam | Post 2

When I heard that I had a window seat for my 14-hour flight from San Francisco to Taipei on my way to Vietnam, I could barely contain my excitement. I was going to get to see the sun reflect off the beautiful Pacific Ocean as I left the continent for the first time, maybe even spot Hawaii! My excitement wasn’t dimmed by darkness as we left San Francisco; the moon was beautiful, and a 14-hour flight would surely involve some sunlight and stunning vistas. However, as I watched the little plane animation on my seat-back television, I was confronted by the unfortunate reality that we would remain blanketed in darkness all the way across the Pacific as the earth turned, and the only vista I enjoyed was the warning light on the edge of our airplane’s wing. One thing I have learned abroad so far is that time zones (and time) are complete witchcraft; we left San Francisco at 1 a.m. Monday morning, and landed in Taipei at around 6 a.m. Tuesday morning. Thinking about it now, I still don’t really understand how that happened, so if you understand please let me know. Anyways, after playing some card games and hanging out with a ridiculously cute young child in the airport in Taipei, we landed in Hanoi at 11:30 a.m.

View of hanoi and surrounding mountains from the window seat

View of Hanoi and surrounding mountains from the window seat

The first thing I noticed about Vietnam out of the airplane window was how spectacularly green and beautiful it is; the first thing I noticed upon stepping out of the airport was how oppressively humid it is. The rainy season is approaching, and I immediately regretted my choice of dark blue jeans. Another distinctive feature of Vietnam that stood out much more upon making it to solid ground was the sheer number of motorbikes, and the almost admirable abandon with which everyone speeds around. Traffic laws in Hanoi appeared to be almost nonexistent and certainly weren’t observed by the vast majority of people there. Despite this chaos, I didn’t observe a single accident (although I did observe enough close calls to begin developing heart problems). In fact, I found myself wondering whether such a system would work in the U.S.; being forced to avoid death by motorbike at all times certainly keeps pedestrians and motorists alike off their phones! The next day we took a tour of the city, and visited a number of notable sites in Hanoi. The old literary temple retains stone carvings of the names of everyone who has ever passed the civil service exam in Hanoi, dating back to when the temple was built in 1076 AD.

Literary temple courtyard

Literary temple courtyard

After asserting ourselves as tourists by taking approximately two to three billion pictures of the immaculate landscaping and ornate roofs, we headed to an idyllic pagoda on an island that stretched out onto a wide lake before watching an impressive water puppet show.

Trấn Quốc Pagoda, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi

Trấn Quốc Pagoda, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi

The rest of the week flew by in a blur of classes (bet you thought I forgot about those), guest lectures, close calls with motorbikes and delicious, wonderful, incredible Vietnamese food. Recalling the heavenly pho I ate for 35,000 Vietnamese dong (~$1.50) makes me even more reluctant to return to the Deece (reluctance surrounding the Deece is likely going to be a continued theme of this column). We also had lots of fried rice, banh mi and bruschetta from the “Irish” restaurant next to our hotel, which was surprisingly delicious!

On the weekend, we took a bus to Ha Long Bay, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with breathtaking islands that show the geological history of the region. Even the bus ride to the bay was a highlight; I spent four hours both ways just staring out the window at the fields and greenery. Once we got to the bay, we boarded a tour boat and started out into the bay. The view took all of our breaths away; it was a sunny day and the islands floated by with an otherworldly feel. We kayaked, hiked, swam and ate great food on our boat, where we slept overnight surrounded by islands and other boats; seeing all of the other boats lit up at night was just one of the many beautiful sights in the bay.

Sunset in Ha Long Bay

Sunset in Ha Long Bay

Sunrise in Ha Long Bay

Sunrise in Ha Long Bay

To complicate our conception of this paradise, however, we had a lecture about environmental degradation in Ha Long Bay, caused by pollution from floating villages and the type of boats we were on as well as runoff from a coal plant 20 km away. I’m very thankful that my program has pushed us towards being more mindful visitors than we otherwise might be if we were simply tourists, both at Ha Long Bay and at other sites.

After returning to Hanoi, we had a few more days of classes/guest lectures/food before boarding a short flight to Hoi An, on the central coast of Vietnam. Though we spent more time waiting in the terminal than actually flying, I was thankful not to have to endure another long bus ride. Hoi An represented a big change for our group; we were experiencing homestays for the first time after three weeks of hostel/hotel living in San Francisco and Hanoi. My host father doesn’t speak much English, but he and his wife are so kind and sweet; many of their children and grandchildren are also in and around the house, and we’ve been able to get to know them as well. Hoi An is slightly slower-paced than Hanoi, and our group is navigating around by bike, which is both fun and slightly stressful.

Another incredible aspect of Vietnam has been the sheer volume of cute dogs present everywhere! It seemed as though every time I was having a bad day (and also when I wasn’t) a fluffy puppy would appear from nowhere like a gift from the heavens. I saw a gorgeous husky puppy next to the old lake in Hanoi and a dog riding a motorbike (accompanied by its human) with its paws on the handlebars. In Hoi An, I ran off of our tour bus to say hi to some Dalmatians, and at the market yesterday I saw a puppy that almost stopped my heart.

img_4092 img_4089 img_4094

Laying on my homestay bed, I’m pretty thankful for how eye-opening and memorable my abroad experience has been so far; it’s been such a breath of fresh air to see so many new places and learn so many new things. I will admit there are parts of Vassar I miss, like fall leaves and friends. That being said, I remain unbelievably excited for the rest of my time abroad, and I’ll update again soon!

Claire Harper | New Delhi, India | Post 2

Hello everyone!

A few weeks ago we left New Delhi and started the next leg of our journey. We woke at 5 a.m. to catch the train to Mussoorie. The train was lovely, but once we got off it was stiflingly hot and crowded and smelled of car fumes. We took a wild ride up to 7,000 feet—I was exhausted afterwards from being so tense as we curved around cliffs and honking cars up and up narrow roads. Then we reached heaven.

La Villa Bethany is one of the most magical places I have ever been, a little guest house that seems to rest in the clouds amidst green trees and wild dahlias. The mother who runs the inn was very kind and served us a large breakfast and dinner every day. For dinner she cooked food from different parts of India so we could experience those places even if we weren’t traveling there. The flavors and ingredients of Southern India, for example, are very different than those of Northern India. I have had quite a few vegetables and flavors I never knew existed. She told us about the ingredients and the preparation, which give you clues to where the places are—coastal or inland—and what kind of weather they have, depending on how much hot cooking is involved in the meal. We tried to cook lunch the other day as a group, but it was hard to organize everyone in the small kitchen. I have a new appreciation for how much good food comes out of that tiny kitchen. Sunita is also pretty good at western food as well—we had killer veggie lasagne yesterday.

The view as you walk down the hill from the inn to town in Landour, Missoorie

The view as you walk down the hill from the inn to town in Landour, Missoorie

There was a girl in fourth grade and a one-year-old little boy whose nickname is the word for a round Indian sweet. There were three big, fluffy, friendly dogs. For lunch we got to explore the various restaurants and shops nearby and walk on trails in the woods with monkeys perched up in the trees watching as we passed.

The view as you walk down the hill from the inn to town in Landour, Missoorie

The view as you walk down the hill from the inn to town in Landour, Missoorie

We have had some amazing guest lecturers. We met Steve Alter, who is an expert at the pilgrimage trails around the Himalayas; he studies the sacred space in nature from an atheist perspective. He said, “doubt is as strong a motivation as faith.” We also met his brother Joseph Alter, who is one of the world’s leading experts on the history and ethnography of yoga. It was like meeting a celebrity because I read some of his books and articles this summer for my research. Interestingly, he said that there hasn’t been much research on women in yoga, so it’s is exciting that I’m doing something kind of new. Our other guest lecturer was an elderly lady named Zerina Bhatty, who was instrumental in the beginning of the feminist movement in India.

About a week ago now we returned for Delhi to a day; it was amazing how much more comfortable I felt there after being in India for just a little while. Then we were on the road again to Jaipur, which is nicknamed the Pink City because Old Jaipur is composed of coral colored buildings.  

On Sunday we were picked up from the hotel by our host families. I have a host mom, dad, 17-year-old sister and 14-year-old brother. I am also staying with another girl from the program. Her name is Floor, and she’s from the Netherlands. She is a good positive person to have around, which is nice because we are sharing a bed for the next five weeks. Our host mom is very sweet. Her name is Meenakshi Sharma and she is a tailor, so she offered to sew us shirts if we buy fabric. Our sister is an amazing artist; she said we could invite the other girls over for a hena party. I am trying to use my Hindi as best I can, but our parents also want to practice their English.

There are two other American girls from a gap year program staying with us for a few days. Yesterday we were sitting around the dining room table with our host sister eating dahl, rice, roti and curried vegetables talking about where else in the world we want to travel. For a second I forgot to appreciate how amazing the interaction was—all of us young women randomly finding ourselves at one table at one time at one family’s apartment in one city far from home in India. After dinner we walked down the street to Ganesh Temple. I can still feel the dirty marble under my feet as we walked in a line through the temple and back out again. It was an interesting view into how religion functions in habit and life, but it held no deeper meaning for me because I don’t have the faith to see any deeper dimension.

Sending light and love,

Claire

 

 

Kayla Miron | Prague, Czech Republic | Post 1

“It’s not much farther,” Nina promises me as we climb another centuries-old cobbled hill. Thirty minutes later my hands have begun to blister from my unforgiving Czech crutches. Nina is a Prague native and student at a local university, and she doesn’t notice the sweat beading on my forehead as she rants and rails about her “almost boyfriend.” I should have listened when my program director told us how much the Czech love to walk. We’re now on our way to the metro after a night in one of the hippest Prague clubs—the outdoor Club Stalin. Nina agreed to leave early with me so that my slow pace caused by a newly sprained ankle wouldn’t make me miss the last train. The other students in my SIT Czech Republic: Arts and Social Change program are still perched on the wall at Club Stalin where the namesake of the establishment—a giant statue glorifying Stalin—once stood. Now a giant metronome and dozens of international hipsters define the landmark.

The Metronome

The metronome at Club Stalin erected to replace the Stalin monument

Nina and I finally arrive at the station, and she sees me onto my train with a kiss on each cheek and a “ciao” called into my hair. Back in the hotel I’m staying in until I’m assigned my host family, I lay in bed and will myself not to cry. My program director assured the nine students on my program that after the initial honeymoon phase, we would all disintegrate, when the new would no longer seemed magical and the uncertain manageable. I was thrown into my disintegration phase barely after arriving when I tumbled down a set of old Czech stairs onto a jet lagged ankle not ready to “hit the ground running,” as it were. After several days of limping through the sites of famous Czech revolutions, my ankle resembled an overripe plum and my program’s assistant took me to the hospital for the most surreal night I’ve ever experienced.

The large institutions in Prague are leftover from the recent socialist era, and in these places Kafka is not an author but a way of life. A vestigial socialist ideal is that institutions should have emotional distance and no face. None of the patients I see in the emergency department of FN Motol hospital have gowns or ID bracelets, much less the anti-slip socks that American hospitals give away like lawsuit-avoidant lollipops. After being processed by the foreign patients department, I am given a number and told to wait until I see it appear on the LED screen in the waiting room. Imagine a Soviet DMV.

After wandering through the hospital’s dark basement to find the X-ray room I am guided past rows of filing cabinets onto a cold metal table. I am not given a protective lead gown or told what is happening as the technician takes a rapid fire series of images. I limp back upstairs to wait for the LED screen to call me back into the “traumatologie” section of the emergency department.

The X-ray room at the FN Motol hospital

The X-ray room at the FN Motol hospital

Four hours later I am set free, bewildered and lonely. I take with me a large ankle brace, the smallest healthcare bill I’ve ever had (equivalent to less than $150 USD! Total! Including X-rays!) and remarkably painful crutches. The open-cuff forearm crutches favored by Czech hospitals require (much!) more upper body strength than the American underarm crutches and have a special piece of plastic whose main purpose seems to be bruising the wearer’s elbows. Over the next week my shoulders will grow strong and stable and my hands and elbows calloused, but I don’t know that yet. I know how much I want to fly home to my parents and my dogs, and I know how insignificant I felt as nurses barked at me in Czech. In that moment I don’t know yet that these same crutches will help me transition from disintegration to the next phase—adjustment.

On the nights when I can’t bear to walk to the pub with my group, I’ll be surrounded by caring host parents and five amazing host siblings ranging in age from seven to 22. We’ll talk about everything from feminist computer programing to Soviet cartoons, all while eating endless cakes. My littlest host sister will jump around the flat on my crutches giggling and will hug me after doing so. Every day I’ll leave early for school—careful to insure that my slow gait won’t make me miss a minute of my phenomenal classes—and feel extra independent for navigating my commute on glorified canes.

The view from Kayla's bedroom window

The view from Kayla’s bedroom window

Four days after my visit to the hospital as I come home from Club Stalin I still don’t know that these crutches will be present at all my important moments settling into Prague. My hotel room spinning from exhaustion, frustration, and ubiquitous Czech beer (it really is cheaper than water here), I mourn the abroad experience I thought I was getting. If you replayed the moment when I sprained my ankle and listened really closely, you could probably hear the universe laughing at my meticulous preparation and research. Before leaving North Carolina I’d read articles and blog posts, Kafka and Capek, searched “Prague” on Instagram, and queried everyone I know who’d ever studied here. Next to none of the things I’d expected have come true so far and at times I want to give up, but I can already feel myself falling in love with trams and Czech cinema, with omnipresent solar panels and Czech sarcasm. I was abruptly thrown out of my dream of Prague, but the real place is more interesting. I’ve now been in Prague for almost two weeks and the only thing I can say with certainty is that I have no idea what I’ve gotten myself into—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A detail from the John Lennon wall

A detail from the John Lennon wall

"Enjoying the best cake in the universe at the cafe below my school that also houses rabbits, cats, and cute baristas willing to help with one’s Czech homework."

“Enjoying the best cake in the universe at the cafe below my school that also houses rabbits, cats, and cute baristas willing to help with one’s Czech homework.”

Katie Hoots | Rome, Italy | Post 1

It had been over a year since I had last seen the Tiber river. To me, the Tiber felt like the only immutable aspect of the ancient city. Its water flows through Rome today just as it did in ancient times. In the Aeneid, Virgil describes its deep blue, watery depths while his contemporary, Horace, describes a yellowish, raging Tiber, cutting the Roman landscape.

Passing by the ancient river on my way to get coffee or meet for class, I imagine that I am seeing through the eyes of Horace or Virgil, and that the essence of the late Roman republic bleeds through my experience in their lasting written words. I think about how many aspects of the ancient Romans themselves bleed into the urban, social and cultural present of the Western world.

Through rain or shine, our group of thirty classical linguists, historians, artists and archaeologists treads through contemporary Rome, uncovering the history of the ancient city. One of the most amazing parts of our experiences with the past has been the people in the present that help it come alive. Not only from the wealth of knowledge from a group of passionate professors, but also from an inspired, quirky group of beautiful individuals have I fallen one step further in love with the city of Rome and its rich, rich past.

Just today, we woke up for a 7 a.m. breakfast, took a bus into the heart of the city and walked for four hours in pouring rain to learn about the evolution of Roman temples from the Etruscans to the late Roman emperors. Soaked, exhausted and overloaded with information, my colleagues and I wandered into a restaurant in the Campo di Fiori. Sipping our sweet, chocolatey cappuccinos, we reminisced over the beauty of ancient theaters, forums and temples that we had just seen, still in awe at the remains of the Theatre of Pompey just down the block. Over our conversations and cappuccinos, we became reenergized and ready to see and do and learn as much as we possible could—despite our drenched and tired states. I was and continue to be overwhelmed with a deep sense of pride for our shared fascination and curiosity with the ancient city and its people.

My own life experiences have already been heavily influenced by the people I have met as a result of my classical studies. In middle school, I met my three best friends in Latin class, with whom I still remain close to this day. Today, I find myself surrounded by a comparable group of awesome individuals. We get to struggle, nerd out and translate together, building relationships through a shared love of marginalized majors and obsession with dead people.

I look out onto the Tiber and I realize that it is rather mutable. It’s not the same Tiber that Horace and Virgil saw. Ancient bridges have fallen, earthquakes have trembled, and people have fought, spilling blood and history into its raging blue and yellow depths. And yet, here we are, studying the culture and history and landscape of those peoples, bringing the ancient past into our present.

The group walking along the Tiber

The group walking along the Tiber

I love how spatiotemporally distant people and places can influence our understanding of the people and places in our own lives. For me, breaking down the barriers of the past to uncover the lives of ancient peoples also uncovers the humanity and truth of contemporary peoples—we are all so alike in so many different ways. I have already learned that close bonds and shared memories, not blood, makes family; I have learned that language barriers can be overcome with enthusiasm, love and lots of smiles; and I have become confident that embarking on this demanding, challenging and uprooting journey was not only the right one, but will change my life and my thinking for the best.

Katie standing in front of Florence

Florence

Katie Nordstrom | Clifden, Ireland | Post 1

Hi! My name is Katie Nordstrom, and this fall semester I am participating in an Irish teaching internship. Jake Butter ’18 (another Vassar student) and I are living in a two-bedroom apartment above a gas station, which is common in Europe, in a very small, touristy town (population 2,609) in Western Ireland called Clifden. I am currently experiencing two firsts: Living in a country other than the United States as well as living in an apartment where I have to cook and clean. Fortunately, I still don’t have to do the scariest thing about being and adult, which is paying rent (thanks Mom and Dad). So, Jake and I are trying to figure it out. While we sometimes blending in seamlessly, sometimes we might as well have “AMERICAN” tattooed across our foreheads.

Main Street in Clifden

Main Street in Clifden

Clifden Landscape

Clifden Landscape

For our first weekend in Ireland, we decided to explore the countryside and visit the acclaimed Cliffs of Moher after our Friday class, which takes place in the city of Galway about and hour and a half from Clifden. We started out from our apartment to catch the 9:00 a.m. bus from the station outside the public library. The bus pulled up, and we took out our phones, flashing our electronic tickets to the driver as we climbed on board and made our way to the seats.  We looked just like locals.

We made it to Galway, attended our class at NUIG, and ventured into the city looking for something to eat and a hostel for the night. This would have been an easier task if it hadn’t been pouring rain and we had data available on our phones. The scene turned into the two of us stumbling into random hostels sopping wet to inquire about a room for the night. We tried three different places before a very nice man took pity on us and called around. Success! There was a B&B down the road with two open beds. Everything worked out fine, but we learned the valuable lesson that it is important to make arrangements ahead of time. We secured our things in the room and paid for the night. Finally, it was time to eat! I had the famous seafood chowder of Western Ireland, and Jake had a delicious-looking pulled pork sandwich.

The hostel in

The hostel in Galway

After we ate, it was time to run an errand to the computer store (my computer decided that it no longer wanted to turn on three days after arriving in Ireland…Woo hoo!). We looked up directions using the restaurant’s Wi-Fi and proceeded to mark the route down on our physical, paper map (apparently these still exist?). The sky had cleared up and things were looking good. We even made it to the store without getting lost one time! I dropped of my computer and we started the trek back.

Jake reading the map

Jake reading the map

Unfortunately, it started raining, and we were walking against the wind, which forced us to hold our hoods over our heads and face the ground as we walked. One second I was having a conversation with Jake (probably complaining about the rain), and the next I am suddenly on the ground with my glasses knocked off my face. I looked up and realized that I had rammed my head into a window that was propped open. I felt something trickle down the side of my face, now aware that I had cracked my head open. The closest store we could find with a bathroom was TK Maxx (T.J. Maxx in the U.S.). After I cleaned up, took an aspirin and sat down for a bit, we ventured back into the city. I had to carry tissues with me because the cut was connected to my eyebrow muscles, meaning that every time I smiled or laughed my head would start bleeding again!

The evening went well, considering. We had dinner and got a good night’s sleep in the B&B, making sure to get up early in order catch the first bus to the Cliffs of Moher. It was about a two hour drive, and the scenery was gorgeous, with rolling green hills on one side and the powerful ocean on the other. We knew that we were getting close when I misunderstood the bus driver and confidently insisted that Jake and I get off the bus. However, I was wrong, and we still had a 3.5-mile uphill journey to the Cliffs. This mistake turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it was the single most beautiful walk of my life. The sun was shining with a nice ocean breeze as the cliffs appeared slowly and elegantly. I whole-heartedly recommend that everyone go see the Cliff’s of Moher. It is one of those formations that look gorgeous in pictures but are literally breathtaking in person.

View during the hike

View during the hike

Katie on the hike

Katie on the hike

Katie in front of the Cliffs

Katie in front of the Cliffs of Moher

Katie and Jake after their hike

Katie and Jake after their hike

Once we got to the top, we were exhausted and ready to get on the bus back. I was sleeping and Jake was reading when the bus suddenly stopped. A bus in front of ours had broken down diagonally across the center of the road, making it so that no one could pass in either direction. Eventually, a mechanic arrived and moved the bus, but we had lost two hours sitting in the road, causing us to miss our connecting bus in Galway by five minutes! That was the last bus to Clifden of the night. Thankfully, we were able to rent out the same beds for another night and leave bright and early the next morning on the first bus. We had survived our first travel experience in a foreign country! There were bumps, some caused by our inexperience, others by fate, both making it an adventure I will never forget.

Anna Abrams | Yaoundé, Cameroon | Post 1

As I packed up my suitcase for my semester in Cameroon, I tried to picture what it would be like there. I struggled to imagine what my host family would be like, how the food would taste, or even how I would adjust to a different climate. Now it’s been almost three weeks, and everything here is already starting to feel pretty routine.

There are numerous stories I could share in this post, such as the man that tried to buy me while we were buying cloth from him, the chicken my host mom made me deplume after she killed it in our kitchen sink or when I saw my host sister Graciela take her first steps by herself. However, for this post I’m going to focus on one day that I still can’t believe happened. I arrived in Yaoundé the evening of August 29, and on August 31, SIT sent us off on “the drop off.”

Plucking feathers off the freshly killed chicken

Plucking feathers off the freshly killed chicken

 

My host sister, Graciela, and host brother, Nolan.

Anna’s host sister, Graciela, and host brother, Nolan.

We were sitting at lunch, still in the awkward phases of getting to know each other, when our academic director announced that we would be heading into town that afternoon for a scavenger hunt. I assumed that they would drop us off together to walk around the city for the first time since we’re only a group of eight Americans. Unfortunately, I was wrong. We were given a partner and a list of things to find in the city. We were also given 3,000 francs, which is $6.00, to take taxis around the city. They told us the name of where we were staying and some quick instructions on how to hail a cab and how much to pay. Their advice on how to find our way around without cell phone data or a map was just to talk to people. I had never even seen a map of the city. It would be an understatement to say I was a little nervous.

At this point we had no phones and no money other than the $6 for the two of us. They advised us to leave all valuables in our room because people pickpocket a lot and cut purse and bag straps to steal your stuff. I left my phone and money, and kept a certified copy of my passport and my $3. I then climbed in a cab with my partner and we were off. Each cab was given a location to drop their students off so that we wouldn’t be in the same place as any of the other SIT students.

My stomach was knotted as the driver drove through the city. My partner Casey and I desperately tried to make sense of where we were going, but there were no road signs, traffic lights, roundabouts or any other easy landmarks anywhere. We twisted and turned through the city. I had no idea how we would be able to navigate a city of 2.5 million people. Luckily, our drop-off location was the Université de Yaoundé 1, which was actually one of the places on our list! We went off and talked to some students about what they were studying, and checked off the first item on our list.

The packed markets downtown.

The packed markets downtown

Next we had to hail a taxi. Casey and I stepped out timidly into the road and stuck out our hand, hoping it would go well. It’s intimidating getting a taxi because the roads here are crazy. While there may be lines painted on the road that make you think there are separate driving lanes, no one drives in two clear lanes. People do U-turns and pass each other whenever they need to. The other day, I actually saw a taxi zoom backwards down a normal road, somehow not hitting anyone.

Looking out at all the taxis and cars

Looking out at all the taxis and cars

There are no sidewalks, and taxis drive so close to you that I’ve had to jump out of the way multiple times so my toes wouldn’t be run over. The way to get a taxi is also very different. In Cameroon, not every taxi will pick you up. You stand in lines on the side of the road, and taxis drive by and you call out where you’re going. If they can take you, they beep their horn and you climb in. So you have to know what side of the street to stand on, and you have to be ready to quickly shout out where you’re going.

We finally got a cab that would take us, and he zoomed off, picking up three more people on the way. All six of us were squished in a five-person car, of course with no one wearing seat belts. I’ve never yearned for a seatbelt as much as I do in these taxis. I’m still surprised to this day that I haven’t seen more car or motorcycle accidents, especially since everyone takes taxis. Even if you’re going a short distance, people will take a taxi. At least 80% of the cars on the road are yellow taxis, most of them falling apart, and many with broken bumpers. One taxi we were in almost rear-ended someone and then proceeded to drive over the curb to go around them.

The side of the road in Yaoundé

The side of the road in Yaoundé

 

The next few stops were fairly easy. After asking directions, we wandered through the packed streets, checking off items on our list. We hailed another taxi to take us to Bastos to find a restaurant, bank and bakery. After completing our list, we still had enough time to get a drink and then walk around and look at the people selling papayas, pineapples and giant avocados. We made it back with plenty of time and even a little money left over. It was a challenging day at first, but it ended up being so much fun. As much as Yaoundé is intimidating, I definitely felt that I could begin to master the crazy packed streets. It’s still funny to think about the fact that we were given $6 and dropped off in a huge city we didn’t know, though at the time, there was nothing amusing about the situation. Now I’ve taken multiple taxis, and slowly but surely, I’m finding another home over 5,000 miles away from Vassar.

 

Me and three of the American students, plus one of our Cameroonian students!

Anna and three of the American students, plus one of the Cameroonian students!

 

P.S. The pictures included were not taken on that day since I didn’t have my phone with me. I have since taken some photos from inside taxis, but I definitely don’t take my phone out in public.

John Ammondson | San Francisco, California | Post 1

Reading through the adventures of my fellow JYA writers, I must confess I am pretty jealous of them, for actually being abroad! My program, which compares climate change issues in multiple countries around the world, has begun, but I have yet to leave the country. Before heading off to Vietnam, Morocco and Bolivia (in that order), we have two weeks of orientation in the lovely and currently quite cloudy city of San Francisco, California. Despite not actually being “abroad” yet, I’ve had a thoroughly wonderful and invigorating experience thus far.

My program (IHP Climate Change: The Politics of Food, Water, and Energy) began last Monday, August 29, but I had the opportunity to come out to San Francisco a few days early and see more of what the Bay Area has to offer. The highlight of those few days would have to be hiking Mount Tamalpais, which stands a mighty 2,572 feet tall. Though this may not seem particularly high compared to well-known peaks in other parts of the country, Mount Tam provides stunning views of Marin County and the city of San Francisco, and on a clear day you can see all the way across the bay to Berkeley, Oakland, and beyond.

Mount Tam

Mount Tamalpais

My fellow classmates and I (24 in total) are currently staying in a hostel in downtown San Francisco. I’ve never shared a room with five other people before, but it’s actually easier than you might think! Talking to some of the other hostel residents, a large percentage of whom are Europeans traveling in the US, has definitely been a highlight. San Francisco is a fascinating and beautiful city, but inequality is seen more sharply here than almost all other places I’ve been. There are shiny new apartment buildings and skyscrapers going up all over the place, driven by a rapidly expanding tech industry, but this expansion and skyrocketing rents are forcing long-term residents out of their homes and onto the streets. We have also had site visits in other parts of the Bay Area that painted this picture of inequality more vividly, including a tour of depressed areas in Richmond and Oakland. Even though I haven’t left the country yet, these experiences have been invaluable already in broadening my perspective.

On a slightly different note, the food in San Francisco has been some of the best I have ever had. My program provides a stipend for lunch and dinner most days, and I don’t even want to think about transitioning back to Deece food come January. Though this isn’t going to be a food blog, I’ve been so blown away I feel I have to share some short descriptions of my top five meals thus far.

5. Nob Hill Cafe. This Italian restaurant was about 15 minutes away from the hostel, slightly removed from the hustle and bustle of downtown. I had chicken parmesan with penne (because I have a longstanding problem with ordering anything but chicken parmesan when it’s on the menu), which was fantastic, and the garlic bread with pesto was also delicious.

4. Tacorea. I went to this Mexican/Korean fusion spot on my first day in SF and had a loaded breakfast burrito with spicy chorizo, egg and perfectly crispy tater tots. Adventurous burrito ingredients can always go either way, but Tacorea definitely nailed it.

3. The Perennial. The Perennial is a restaurant committed to progressive food systems and farming techniques (such as aquaponics and carbon farming) that was recommended to my classmates and I by our faculty. Their ethical food sourcing and sustainability efforts are commendable, and the food itself was also superb. Although my entree (rainbow trout) was tasty, the real highlight for me was my appetizer, cherry tomato toast with butter and pesto. I’ve never had sweeter tomatoes, and the toast (baked with a perennial and sustainable grain called Kernza) was perfectly crunchy.

2. Taqueria Cancun. I could have constructed a top five list of burritos alone, and Taqueria Cancun definitely deserves the highest spot amongst them. I had the super burrito (which includes pretty much all of the delicious ingredients available) with carne asada; although adventure and creativity are always admirable, Taqueria Cancun’s more “typical” burrito was perfect and came with delicious guacamole and chips.

1. Honey Honey Cafe and Crepery. I waited over 45 minutes with friends to order at this popular brunch spot, but I can safely say it was worth the wait. I ordered the chicken pesto savory crepe with potatoes and scrambled eggs on the side, along with a lemon crepe for dessert. The potatoes were fresh and fried just the right amount, and the lemon crepe was sweet (especially with whipped cream!), but the chicken pesto crepe (with tomato, swiss and fresh basil) was the best thing I’ve had in SF. I’ll probably go back this weekend and order the same thing if we’re being honest.

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Appetizer from The Perennial

Experiential learning is a big part of my program, and as a result I’ve had the opportunity to visit a ton of really interesting sites around the San Francisco area. One of my favorite visits was the Presidio area, which is an old military base currently in the middle of a lengthy renovation process. As work on the buildings progresses, the site itself still exists as a public park providing wonderful views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands.

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Presidio

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Fellow Vassar student Elise Chessman ’18 tackles a high ropes course as part of community building.

Abroad-not-abroad has been a wild ride already, and I haven’t even left the country yet. I head to Vietnam late this Sunday night, and I’m sure more eye-opening experiences, tasty food, jet lag and good stories will follow, so stay tuned!

Jennifer Williams | Cairo, Egypt | Post 1

Before I made my new home in Egypt, I consistently received two reactions to my decision to study abroad at the American University in Cairo. One reaction was excitement for the pyramids using ancient Egyptian history as a symbolic feature of the supposed life in Cairo. The second reaction revolved around questions of safety, especially coming from my home community. Growing up in and around San Bernardino, California for almost my entire life before Vassar became an unswerving component when discussing and thinking about my study abroad plans, not to mention any tentative post-grad ideas.

Some of my community members focused on the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx. While this response carried a lighthearted nature, it occasionally showed a lack of understanding of contemporary life in Cairo. It seemed that, in some cases, people were more comfortable with the often-idolized ancient history of Egypt rather than the current culture, traditions and life. Ancient Egyptian history, while fascinating like other historical periods of the world, is not inherently indicative of the present culture in Cairo. The excitement around the pyramids that I intermittently witnessed seemed genuine but rarely overpowered the sense of fear of the Middle East and Egypt in particular.

In a community reeling by a recent massacre in December 2015, I distinctly felt the presence of questions and comments such as :“Are you scared for your safety?” “Look what has happened in San Bernardino. Why do you want to go there?” This is not to say I didn’t receive the same or similar questions from other sources. However, the reactions from my home community members uniquely affected me. Was I scared to go to Cairo? Yes, of course, but not in terms of security. The massacre had challenged my sense of security already. Back at home that December I had felt the pain, the anger and the fear surrounding me. I had witnessed the, at times, discriminatory backlash. I simultaneously felt shaken and responsible. I felt responsible for my community’s reaction; why couldn’t everyone see past their fear and not use a religion, an ethnicity, an identity and other descriptors as a scapegoat? As a student focusing my studies on the Middle East and the Arabic language, I felt some of their pain directed at me; people would commend my educational pursuits as a means to “stop these people,” or berate me for “fraternizing with terrorists.” On some level, I subconsciously felt guilty for pursuing my passion and attempting to eradicate cultural discrimination whilst knowing I was not entirely immune myself. I struggled grappling with my own pain, privilege and necessary areas of improvement concerning my thoughts and actions. These feelings were in part consequences of the reactions I received, and I packed a few of them in my baggage as I left for Egypt.

Thankfully, as a consequence of airplane delays, my flight had to be rerouted and my bags were lost for four days. It was not my intention to wear the same clothes for six days straight, including two days in transit, and smell no less than abhorrent for the international student orientation. However, through the experience I was swept away by the orientation activities and trips. I had no time or capacity to remember the guilt or the focus on the pyramids. Cairo life for me became the sights in the street, the new Arabic phrases, the food, the impact of the religion of Islam on the sense of community and identity and the general bright colors of décor mixed with a desert backdrop.

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While I do not claim to comprehend the lifestyle in Cairo having only lived in certain dimensions of the city for only two weeks, I do not believe that life in Cairo revolves around ancient Egyptian culture. There are some commonalities between the two cultures, such as the importance of the Nile. However, while the pyramids are present, there are no great temples in Cairo comparable to the famous ancient temples found in Luxor. This is partly because they were utilized starting in the Middle Ages as a source of limestone for mortar. Ancient Egyptian civilization therefore exists through some of the prevailing buildings used as an adhesive, metaphorically representing the way ancient Egyptian history can be used as an adhesive for Egyptian culture. One of the International Peer Leaders (IPLs), our guides for orientation and the year, explained how ancient Egypt provides a historical period where Egyptians can feel pride. Yet, when we went as a group trip to the pyramids, we realized that for some of the IPLs it was their first time, even having lived in Cairo for their whole lives. This presents one example of how Cairo life is distanced from the ancient peoples and their distinct culture. This can be true even for foreigners. When I asked one of the German international students his thoughts on the pyramids and the Sphinx he said, “I wasn’t impressed. They seemed rather smaller and more boring than I had imagined.” However, in later conversations he talked about how much he loved the Egyptian culture he had interacted with during our first two weeks. In other words, the limited Cairo culture we have experienced neither revolves around the pyramids, nor is it constantly plagued by security fears.

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Just as the pyramids are ancient relics of the past, so became my concern for my home community’s reactions. Perhaps my concern was lost in transit, weakened after a transformative summer in Amman, Jordan. Or perhaps life in Cairo removed from vocalized reactions transposed the boundaries of thought and opened the doors to a vastly different experience from anything in my life, including my summer in Amman. Cairo has already started to cement itself as one of my homes, and I look forward to continuing to learn, experience, and adventure without the unnecessary baggage (albeit fortunately with clean clothes and a less pungent smell).

Matt Stein | London, England | Post 1

As I write this, my legs feel dead and I’m emotionally exhausted. Barely a week into my semester long acting program in London, I’ve already played the seven deadly sins with differing voices, imagined I was a raindrop against a windowpane and spoken my feelings to a coconut about a pomegranate I liked. Welcome to the theatre world. Since last Monday, I’ve been attending countless acting classes at the British American Drama Academy (BADA) in London, and I will be doing so until mid-December.

I’m currently staying in Kilburn, which is in Northwest London and has a wide array of cultures. Not every night is pub food and with the drinking age at 18, there’s much to see and drink. I share a flat with seven other BADA students from different colleges, rooming in a triple with two others. One of my flatmates is from Vassar, which can be very reassuring when you’re in a strange country.

My summer was spent in the Northern suburbs of Chicago, occupying my free time with voice and singing lessons and writing courses at Second City. My weekly commute into Old Town via the ‘L’ gave me glimpses of a city I’d always felt comfort in. Growing up, I’d attend Cubs and Sox games and play in Millennium Fountain often. So this transition to London, a city I’d visited once when I was 11, with history on every corner and a pub to match, was overwhelming, to say the least.

For the first time in my life, I’m providing my own food. No meal plan or parent. There’s a great amount of food around me, but with such strenuous days, most of my flatmates and I prefer to stay in. Some of them are cooking stir fry from scratch or using the kettle for tea. Just last night, my dinner consisted of a handful of Coco Pops (British version of Cocoa Krispies), some Ritz Crackers and a Jammy Dodger or two for dessert. As unhealthy as this diet seems, the walk to BADA’s classrooms is a good 50 minutes or so. The walk allows for a nice view of Regent’s Park, a place where a minute can’t pass without a dog approaching you and becoming your best friend. My flatmates and I have talked about taking the bus, but while we still have warmer weather, the walk is enjoyable enough.

If there’s one way to describe London, it’s the weather. You can always assume there’s going to be some rain during the day. It may be just a sprinkling, but there’s always rain. In fact, weather apps only show it’s raining when the rain’s actually going to be severe. I personally don’t mind it, however. While I don’t claim to be a Vassar Sadboy, my musical tastes do fall in line. And there’s no better environment to listen to mopey music than one surrounded by a grey sky, a medium wind and a light bit of rain. I’ve never been cheerier to listening to The Smiths, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, or Sufjan Stevens than now.

In terms of exploring the rest of the city, I have the convenience of living near three tube stops and an Overground station. One of the first days I was here, a couple of my flatmates and I went down to the river Thames to see London burning. The city wasn’t actually on fire, but 350 years ago it was and this was commemorating it with a few boats in flames. We also happened to be near Big Ben and the London Eye, so we, in typical tourist fashion, took some selfies and bought a few souvenirs. The whole time, everyone has been determined to fit into the town as a fellow Londoner. But that night we were tourists. Some of us have added British accents to words as well. I’ve often caught myself in the habit of ending conversations with “Cheers!”

We also took the opportunity of seeing a production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe Theater. As amazing an experience as it seemed, we saw the show as Groundlings. This meant that we got a great view of the stage, in fact we were right in front of it, but we were standing the whole time. Midsummer is usually a rather short play and most productions cut a scene or two, but this production spared no lines. It even added songs and a fair share of dance numbers, causing the show to be three hours long. During intermission, instead of going to the bathroom, I took the time to sit on the ground, sighing in relief, with my feet singing in the background.

The scenic design for The Globe's production of Midsummer was marvelously dazzling, despite having to stand for all three hours.

The scenic design for The Globe’s production of Midsummer was marvelously dazzling, despite having to stand for all three hours.

Despite all of these touristy things, the greatest place we’ve been has been Camden Market. It’s only a ten minute walk from BADA’s offices, so when I get out of classes early, that’s the place to be. With countless shops to explore, they also have really good food. There’s a Gluten-free bakery, a cheap-yet-healthy sushi place, and an exotic candy store. I’m certain I’ll be returning there and I’ve already been three times in my first week. There was one bar there that had a drink called the Pornstar Martini, much better than the Purple Rain I’d had the night before, that tasted like an alcoholic strawberry orange juice. I’m not saying I’ve found my drink of choice, but it’s certainly in the running. There are also rare book stores and vintage clothing booths.

I currently am loving London. I miss my family in Chicago and especially my friends at Vassar. While I was fortunate enough to visit them before I left, distance plays a role. I can’t call a friend at 3 a.m. for help or join them for lunch at the Deece because of the time change. But what I do have are stories to tell when I get back. And, even with only a week, I have many stories to tell already. Cheers!