Antigone Delton | Paris, France | Post 5

Here we are: my last post of the semester, and, at the time of writing, exactly four weeks until I leave Paris and head back to the USA. The country I left in May 2016 is not the same one I will be returning to in December. Being a dual citizen, a skeptic of the static conception of nationality, and a relatively critical thinker who is mildly politically informed, it’s never been easy for me to fully embrace the designation “American.” The more time I spend abroad, however, the more I’ve come to realize that the United States is truly home. I find myself missing and even identifying with elements of American life I thought I could do without, such as the relative lack of social mores when it comes to dress (e.g. widespread acceptance of sweatpants in public), and our preoccupation with hyper-efficiency. This nostalgic appreciation of what I had just started to call “my country” came to a halt all at once on November 9. Now, I’d rather no one here know where I’m from.

At the watch party I attended election night, the rooms were packed with smiling Americans and non-Americans alike, hot dogs in hand, posing with a drunkenly defaced cut-out of Donald Trump and erupting in spontaneous fits of joy over our first woman president as CNN streamed live on a massive TV screen. I went to sleep around 4 a.m., just before they started announcing the swing states, thinking there was no harm in leaving early since we all knew the result anyway. Then I woke up.

The day after the elections can only be described as surreal. Paris went about its business as usual, the only acknowledgement of disaster away from the TV screens coming from nature: an unrelenting rain from a dark gray sky. I wanted to grab every person who sped by me on the street by the shoulders and shake them and ask if they knew what had happened, what is at stake for my country, what is at stake for the entire world order, and how can they just continue their tunnel-visioned, headphone-bound walk to work like this? Aside from mourning compatriots, Trump’s election as a topic of conversation in the following days usually surfaced in jest, with condolences, or in comparison to the far-right’s similar ascent in France, where Marine Le Pen’s success is feared in upcoming presidential elections. Still now, I’m not sure what to say when a French person asks me “my thoughts” on the election. It’s hard enough to translate such shock, anger and anxiety into English.

The day after the elections, American photographer Andres Serrano closed his talk at the Mona Bismarck American Center, where I'm a volunteer, with his photo of Donald Trump from his series America.

The day after the elections, American photographer Andres Serrano closed his talk at the Mona Bismarck American Center, where I’m a volunteer, with his photo of Donald Trump from his series America.

Thus la vie quotidienne continues an ocean away from the political catastrophe unfolding in the U.S., a distance at once a welcome buffer and a frustrating barrier. Facilitating this exercise in mental compartmentalization, I’ve been lucky to travel a bit more around Europe before my time here is over. In November, a 45-euro roundtrip ticket on Ryanair and a 3.5-hour ride on the TGV (train à grande vitesse, or high-speed train) took me to visit family in Thessaloniki, Greece and Frankfurt, Germany, respectively. Time-space compression continues to astound me.

Sunset on the Mediterranean in Thessaloniki, Greece

Sunset on the Mediterranean in Thessaloniki, Greece

View of the Rhine river valley from Niederwald park in Germany

View of the Rhine river valley from Niederwald park in Germany

It feels silly to make concluding remarks on my semester in Paris when I still have a month left to savor in this city full of possibility and self-discovery. However, there are little reminders here and there that I am, consciously or unconsciously, political devastation or not, at least somewhat ready to go home. For example: the alarmingly potent wave of nostalgia upon finding a twig-like object in my beef bourguignon at the Parisian student cafeteria which fondly reminded me of similar flora I often encounter in my frozen berries at the deece. I couldn’t hold back a smile, and captured the moment for posterity on my phone while my fellow international student diners looked on in horror. Additionally, the visceral urge I’ve had to make my host parents a pumpkin pie in honor of Thanksgiving this week, a holiday barely commemorated by my family at home, and the ensuing search throughout all Paris for canned pumpkin. And this afternoon, as I sat facing the back of the 21 bus and watched out the rear window as the Rue de Rivoli extended farther and farther into the gray, haussmannien distance in front of me, I remained unfazed by the Louvre and fixated only on my film paper due next week. Finals are finals, even in Paris.

Encountered on a walk through la Butte-aux-Cailles, a less-trodden neighborhood of Paris

Encountered on a walk through la Butte-aux-Cailles, a less-trodden neighborhood of Paris

The list of things I’ll miss about Paris is too long to even begin. It will become even longer once I’m back in the U.S. and complaining once again about how everyone drives SUVs and no one makes time for the theater. Reflecting on an experience is difficult when you are still in its midst, and my feelings about this city and about France are certainly conflicting. But regardless of the ambivalence, of the lowest of lows and highest of highs, of the times when I felt the most alone in a city of millions and the times when I felt the most unexplainably grateful just to breathe the air, I’m happy I came. Calling Paris home has been my dream for as long as I can remember, and now, albeit for only four months, the dream has been lived.

The view I'll miss the most

The view I’ll miss the most

Caleb Zachary | Amsterdam, The Netherlands | Post 5

In the Netherlands, December 5th is a much more important date than the 25th. That’s because the 5th is Sinterklaasdag (Sinterklaas Day), which is more widely celebrated here than Christmas. According to lore, Sinterklaas is a royal-looking elderly fellow with a huge white beard, dressed in red and white. He carries a large staff and rides around on horseback, always leaving Spain and arriving in the Netherlands in early November. The traditional story is he freed a Moroccan slave named Piet, who travels with him as a helper, listening at windows and keyholes to see which children have been good as well as slipping down the chimney to deliver presents. This role is generally performed by a host of men and women dressed in colorful pageantry and blackface, in plural known as Zwarte Pieten.

Upon arriving in Amsterdam, the program I’m with gave a briefing on cultural conflicts American students might encounter here, and then again in mid-October they sent out an email regarding Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Despite these notices, I don’t interact with many young children here and heard very little about Sinterklaasdag in the weeks leading up to it. The only other news was emailed notifications about coming anti-Zwarte Piet protests in Utrecht, Rotterdam, and the Hague—part of the annual cycle of public outcry against the celebration of a figure in blackface. The anti-Piet protests first gained major media traction about a decade ago, and every year since there has been a continuous conflict about the role and depiction of Zwarte Piet. The first changes to be made were to remove the gold hoop earrings and bright red lipstick that were traditionally part of the costume, though most Pieten still wear afro-like wigs. There has been a movement toward making the Pieten different colors, and a variety of rainbow faces have replaced the standard black face paint in recent Sinterklaas celebrations. This year, one of the main Sinterklaas specials on television opted to use a smear of charcoal instead of complete blackface, which was considered a major step.

On November 6th I was playing cards in a friend’s room, when we noticed there was a crowd of children outside with lanterns, running from one apartment building to the next. For several hours, small children trick-or-treated from tables that had been set up on a route, picking up small gingerbread cookies (kruidnoten) that are traditional Dutch holiday treats—something we hadn’t seen the previous weekend of Halloween. This was the intocht van sinterklaas, a celebration of Sinterklaas’s arrival in the Netherlands. He wouldn’t be arriving in Amsterdam until five days later, since he arrives by boat in a designated coastal town and generally takes the train throughout the country.

On November 11th, several American friends and I biked to Dam Square, where the Sinterklaas celebration was taking place. We were all fairly nervous about what we were going to see after months of being prepped for it. In front of the Royal Palace was a tall tower structure spewing fog, meant to represent the chimney that Zwarte Piet would climb down. Two Pieten swung around the top of the tower, watching over and calling out to the crowd below. The parade route snaked around the square, and the metal rails constraining the crowd were bending inward with the weight of children standing on them, reaching out for the kruidnoten and sweets that the Pieten were handing out. The smaller children rode on shoulders so they could see and wave at the performers passing by. There was a stronger police presence than I’ve seen anywhere in Amsterdam before, watching from raised platforms and wandering through the crowd. Though I was tense already from the uncomfortable situation we were walking into, the police were laughing and joking with the crowd, obviously there to enjoy the show as well.


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On a stage under the palace were two young hosts introducing the various carts of Pieten that went by, most pulled by horses or tractors. The hosts seemed to be some kind of media personality, but since their Dutch was fast and punctuated with frequent outbursts of singing, we had no idea who they were. When we first arrived, the parade had seemed to just be starting, but by the time we walked into the centre of the square there were Pieten everywhere — hanging off of the buildings around us, walking through the crowd on stilts, biking and skipping through the parade route and leaning off the side of floats. They were of all ages, but seemed to be exclusively Caucasian. The crowd too seemed primarily white, but there were also a number of non-white children calling out to the children as their parents stood by, some dressed in costume. The Pieten, following the new standard, were dusted with charcoal rather than fully painted, but some seemed to have tried to cover their whole faces anyway. It was deeply unsettling to watch the casualness of this mummery, and the way in which children had their cheeks liberally daubed with charcoal. Despite the clear enjoyment of the crowd, the whole experience was disturbing to me, as someone who has been taught that this kind of celebration was antiquated and inherently racist.

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Right before Sinterklaas’s white steed trotted onto the square, the first group of protestors appeared in the middle of the crowd. There were only about twelve at first, mostly black and Dutch quietly holding signs and videotaping the crowd. After some time they were joined by a number of other people, seemingly to have come right out of the crowd—but the group was still no more than twenty-five, but more racially mixed than before. The police had moved directly into the crowd at this point, circling the protestors in pairs while a captain stood next to them, looking outward into the crowd. As Sinterklaas appeared in the square the whole crowd moved toward the palace and the protestors were lost in the swell as children began to scream. Sinterklaas, like a celebrity greeting his fans, waved and leaned down to pat the heads of children along the way. He trotted off the route behind the stage and appeared a couple moments later, carried by several Pieten into a throne onstage. A series of holiday songs were sung, that everyone around us seemed to know, and the event dragged to an end. Done with the spectacle, my friends and I retreated to our bikes and made our way out of the dispersing crowd, in disbelief of what we had just witnessed.

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Claire Harper | New Delhi, India | Post 5

Hello, everyone!

I feel like I have to address the election, as it was quite a surreal experience hearing the news from so far away.

The election results started coming in as we were having breakfast. We all sat around the table in our guest house in Varanasi messaging friends and family. We had an event scheduled right after breakfast—a retired professor was going to walk us around our little section of Varanasi and talk about all the religious sights and the Ganges. We all left with phones in hand and mounting anxiety. We walked around in a daze; we tried to be respectful of the professor, but I don’t think anyone heard a word he said. I watched holy men with long hair and beards and painted faces paying their respects in various places of worship, stepped around cows in narrow alleys, and spotted a pile of little puppies sleeping near a temple. I looked around at the faces of the girls. Everyone was on the verge of tears. This wasn’t how we thought the world worked. Our—perhaps naive and untested—hopes and beliefs were being shaken in ways we weren’t prepared for.

The view from our guest house of the Ganges in Varanasi.

The view from our guest house of the Ganges in Varanasi

Yet, out of all of this bad came a little good. We all found that our little family was strong enough to support each other. Classes were canceled for the rest of the day and we all got apple pie and ice cream for lunch at a little restaurant that appears unremarkable but somehow serves the best pie, pizza and pasta ever. Some of us turned off our phones, not wanting to have to process the initial shock all over again when our family and friends woke up back home. I sat out on the balcony looking out over the smoggy view of the river with two of the other girls. Our future seemed so much more immediate than ever before. We talked about becoming teachers, working for the Peace Corps, and how we needed to have done something about climate change a long time ago. How there are consequences of this election we cannot begin to understand.

I’m sure I will have to process the events all over again when I am in the U.S. again. Yet, it is a topic of conversation even all the way across the world. I was walking out of a temple in Bodh Gaya the other day, and a man, who I assumed was from the area, asked us where we were from and what we were doing in India. He asked how things were in the U.S. now that Trump was there “even though everyone wanted Clinton.” We said things were not good; he replied, “Yes, very bad.” We didn’t say much else, but the general sentiment was clear even across the language barrier.

Anyway, life goes on. We had a wonderful day in Bodh Gaya.  It was the first place we had been that wasn’t a bustling city, and I loved being able to walk around more easily. There were lots of baby chicks and baby goats. The goats all got sweaters because they get cold, which doesn’t seem fair to the dogs and cows who don’t get any clothing. I was very proud of myself for waking up at 5:45 a.m. to walk to meditate. Three other girls and I walked to the Root Institute, which is a ashram-like place/dharma center. I was surprised to find myself in a situation that felt very much like home—sitting in a room full of white people who have come to discover themselves through the wisdom of the Buddha. I am still trying to find where I fit into this stereotype. I guess I should be grateful that people of all backgrounds and ethnicities are united under one religion, but it did seem a little funny to come all the way to India to meditate with people who looked just like me. We walked back through the crisp morning, passing children in little uniforms on their way to school and monks with wool hats riding their bikes to the temple.

A mom and baby goat in Bodh Gaya

A mom and baby goat in Bodh Gaya

After a breakfast we all went to the Mahabodhi temple. I like Buddhist temples much more than the Hindu sites we have been to. Everything feels very calm, and there are beautiful flowers everywhere left as offerings. There were many people on pilgrimages from Tibet and Nepal. On our way back from the temple we helped one of the girls in our group conduct some interviews for her thesis. I talked to a shopkeeper selling jewelry about how the tourist industry has affected her business. She is from Ladakh and comes only for the winter months to sell jewelry near the temple. The prices for housing, food and transportation have gone up exponentially since she started coming six years ago, because the temple is now declared a world heritage site.

We went back to the Root Institute for a tour. A woman from Russia who volunteers at the institute gave us a tour of the health clinic where free care is provided for the local people. Women are educated on how to take care of their babies, teenagers are taught about hygiene and reproductive health, and doctors are sent into the villages to help in any way they can. We then got a tour of the school where children ages 5-13 receive a well rounded education. We didn’t get to meet any of the children, though, as their school day was already over.

We then took an overnight train back to Delhi. It was quite an experience sleeping in a little bunk high up near the ceiling as we traveled across India all night. I am enjoying the last couple weeks with these girls who I have come to mean so much to me, as we have been through a lot together. The people I’ve met through this experience mean the most to me—the people that have been randomly brought into my life from near and far.

Love,

Claire

John Ammondson | Agadir and Marrakech, Morocco | Post 6

Well, it’s certainly been an eventful two weeks since the last time I wrote! As planned, our group ventured on Sunday the 6th from Marrakech to Agadir, a beach town on the coast of Morocco. While driving around trying to find our hotel, I joked that we should stay at a pizzeria I could see out the window; our van promptly turned left into the parking lot of the pizzeria, which was in fact the restaurant section of our hotel. Our stay in Agadir was very relaxing and enjoyable (at least until election night); I got the chance to play more soccer on the beach with our bus drivers, program staff and fellow students while the sun set, which was definitely an unforgettable memory. We visited a fruit packaging plant to see how fruits are prepared for export to Europe; though this doesn’t necessarily sound that interesting, it was super cool to see all of the machinery for shorting and I’ve never seen so many tomatoes in my entire life. Agadir is also home to a collective/collaborative space for youth called the CONNECT institute, and our group joined the college-age youth there for an afternoon of hanging out and talking about our studies, followed by an open mic session. The one member of our group who can actually sing had taken the afternoon off, so we were thoroughly outshone by our superbly talented Moroccan counterparts, but it was a ton of fun nonetheless.

Beautiful skies on the way to Agadir

Beautiful skies on the way to Agadir

Funnily enough, the most defining aspect of our Agadir visit was certainly the U.S. elections. Due to the time difference, the election results were due to come in starting at 12 A.M. Morocco time on the 9th, and the election was predicted to be called around 5 or 6 A.M. A decent portion of my abroad group decided to stay up and watch CNN’s coverage online, equipped with fries, mentos, water and not nearly enough coffee. Needless to say, it was not a particularly enjoyable night for us. I slept for an hour on the floor when I grew tired of swing states turning red, and awoke to a group stunned by disbelief and slowly beginning to accept the likely result of the election. At 6 A.M., our professor and some students, myself included, walked to the beach to watch the sun rise. As we stuck our toes in the sand and tried to comprehend what a Trump presidency would mean for our loved ones back home and climate change (the focus of my abroad program), the sun’s light was mostly diffused behind clouds and we were pestered by a stray dog; go figure. The election results presented me with the biggest challenge of my abroad program so far, because I felt as though I couldn’t be present as a source of love and support for the people I care about at Vassar and at home. In a very weird way, the fears for the future that came along with the election results made me feel even more connected to my country and the people there. However, I couldn’t be more thankful for the mutual support of my abroad group, students and staff alike; though the election made me really miss being in my communities in the US, it also made me appreciate more deeply my community abroad.

Sunset in Marrakech

Sunset in Marrakech

After returning to Marrakech, we had the opportunity to visit COP 22 for a few days. COP stands for Conference of Parties, and it is the international forum for climate change negotiations; the 22nd iteration was being held in Marrakech at the same time we were staying there. Though we of course had no stake in the negotiations, we were able to attend a bunch of fascinating lectures and discussions and see different people’s ideas for combating and dealing with climate change. I also visited the main square in Marrakech, which was an almost overwhelming whirlwind of activity. After grabbing an incredibly delicious and cheap burrito, I ventured further into the maze of shops off of the square to try and find some final souvenirs to remember my time in Morocco!

March for climate change action at COP 22

March for climate change action at COP 22

Shops near the center of Marrakech

Shops near the center of Marrakech

Sunset on the bus to Casablanca

Sunset on the bus to Casablanca

After packing our bags at our hotel in Marrakech (turns out it was a German hotel that we got rooms at because all of the other hotels were booked solid), we drove up to Casablanca to complete our circular tour of the country. Most of our time in Casablanca was spent debriefing and saying goodbye to the Morocco country staff, which was actually really sad because we had grown so close over the past month. The next country on our list was Bolivia, but we flew to Madrid from Casablanca since there are no flights directly from Morocco to Bolivia. We had a one-day layover in Madrid before our flight left for La Paz, but were confined to our hotel due to the lack of support staff in Spain. It was certainly a bummer to not be able to explore Madrid, but our hotel was absolutely massive (the largest in Europe apparently) so we had plenty to keep ourselves occupied with, along with a ton of work due before our flight. The next day we finally boarded our plane to Bogota, Colombia, with a connecting flight to La Paz in Bolivia, which is one of the highest cities in the world elevation-wise. I watched four movies on the first leg and slept on the second leg, and our group finally staggered into our hotel in La Paz at 4 in the morning and fell straight to bed. I woke the next morning to discover that our hotel had pancakes, which certainly made for a great start to the day! Though the last couple weeks have been a crazy time, I’m looking forward to the last month of my abroad experience in Bolivia, which is probably the most visually arresting place we’ve been so far. The next blog post will be my last, so definitely check in for pictures of Lake Titicaca and the Andes mountains as well as some reminiscing and reflecting on this wild ride.

Kayla Miron | Prague, Czech Republic | Post 4

Snow is not only one of my absolute favorite things, it’s my middle name. It’s my mom’s middle name, too, and the middle name I’ve always wanted to give to any future daughter I might have. Whenever it snows it feels a little bit like it’s a present just for me. It’s not just snowing—it’s Kayla Snowing. Every night this week Prague has been dusted with snow. Four days ago was the holiday celebrating the first snow, and on that day the whole city woke up to a powdered sugar coating. This is supposed to be lucky. This morning most of the snow has given way to leaves crunchy with ice and surfaces hardened with cold glass. As I walked from my apartment to my bus stop today I saw that in the remnants of the snow, my present, my favorite thing, someone had drawn a swastika.

Later this week the Czech Republic and Slovakia will both celebrate Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day. It commemorates the 1939 student protests against the then-incoming Nazi regime. After this day of protest, the Nazis executed nine students and closed all Czechoslovak universities for several years. Hitler would later consider the extermination of Czech Jews one of his biggest “successes”—next to no Jews survived here.

The U.S. election was called at about 7 a.m. Czech time. I had been awake for a full day at that point and had been home for about three hours after the smell of cigarettes and the cheers of people playing election drinking games had become too much to handle in the bar where I was watching the election outcome look more and more dire. My friends and I had sat in a circle sipping wine and writing poetry until we couldn’t anymore. As soon as the result was called, my friend Amy and I bolted from our houses. We sat in a cafe known for funky decor and good espresso and our new political reality started to sink in. Over plates of omelettes we both start to cry. Overcome with fear and desperation, we begin to sob into delicately prepared eggs and lattes with milk hearts drawn on top. Our waiter comes by to worriedly ask if the food is okay.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the 1939 student demonstrations, thousands of students took to the streets in Prague to protest the Communist regime that was then oppressing millions across Eastern Europe. This day of protest kicked off the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia—the peaceful overthrow of Communism. Students and artists together brought democracy to the country. There is now a plaque where the students started their march. In Czech it reads, “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

The guiding paradigm of my program is that art can change the world, that it already has. Being abroad watching the results of the election unfurl in all their violent white supremacist, bigoted horror has filled me, and most students here that I’ve talked to, with a clammy sense of heartbroken impotence. This weekend some of the students on this program took to one of the most tourist-ridden spots in Prague to put into practice what we’ve been learning about art for healing and social change. We spent all day at the John Lennon Peace Wall creating a mural whose message was maybe to the world, maybe to those hurting, maybe to ourselves. As we painted, countless strangers from around the world came to help us, to tell us how they were feeling, or to light candles. At the beginning of the day we felt silly, irrelevant and caught in a tourist trap. By the end we felt a little more whole. Our art wasn’t going to make anyone safer or cause policy action, but it reminded us that there is an international community grieving and fighting with us. We’re just getting started and we really are stronger together.

Painting on the Lennon Wall

Painting on the Lennon Wall

Lighting candles in front of the mural

Lighting candles in front of 0ur mural

The finished mural

Our finished mural

Two days after the election my Czech teacher told me how terrified she is. She remarked that for those who grew up under Czechoslovak Communism, the U.S. was the great white hope that democracy can work. Now she’s not so sure. Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day in recent years has once again held student protests. This year the protests will be against the Czech president, who many Czechs have compared to Trump for his racism and xenophobia, and against the unwillingness of the Czech government to accept Syrian refugees. These causes are rooted in the same white supremacy and hatred that burns in the U.S., that incited Brexit, and that festers in Germany and France.

The week that will hold the 2017 U.S. presidential inauguration is called Jan Palach’s Week here. On this week in 1969, right after the Soviet takeover of Czecoslovakia, Palach, then a student in Prague, lit himself on fire in public after his other attempts at drawing attention from the regime failed. He was hospitalized and died a few days later. His funeral served as a widescale protest against the censorship and oppression of the regime. In the following days another student followed suit and lit himself on fire. He died immediately. These protestors have become a symbol of revolution, specifically student revolution, in the Czech Republic. They’re called torches.

As he walked to the spot where he would self-immolate, Palach dropped a series of letters in post boxes that would be opened in the coming days. In his letter to the Union of Czechoslovak Writers he wrote, “Given the fact that our nations are on the verge of desperation and resignation, we have decided to express our protest and stir the sleeping conscience of the nation.”

From my momentary haven from American politics in Prague I get near-constant updates on the dancing of the fires back home and I’m reminded that we’re living a story that has been told before.

A famous line from my favorite Czech film (Daisies) that my friends and I have taken to reciting to each other

A famous line from my favorite Czech film (Daisies) that my friends and I have taken to reciting to each other

Katie Nordstrom | Clifden, Ireland | Post 4

During October break I traveled to the United Kingdom. My journey started in Edinburgh, Scotland where I stayed for four days and then took a train down to London. Traveling to Ireland for JYA was the first time I had ever left the United States, and my trip to the UK was my first solo international excursion. While in Scotland, I spent time visiting a friend currently studying at the University of Edinburgh. My JYA experience doesn’t involve much time at a university, and it was refreshing to be around students my age. I even attended a lecture for one of my friends’ anthropology classes on the topic of consumption. As a Vassar student, it was my first time in a giant lecture hall, and it gave me a deep appreciation of my privilege to attend a school such as Vassar where class sizes rarely get over 25 students. We also hiked the iconic Arthur’s Seat, which is a mountain situated just outside of Edinburgh that gives an absolutely gorgeous view of the city. We spent a lot of time eating delicious food (particularly chili nachos) and chatting in coffee shops. This break happened to be over Halloween, so I also got to experience how college kids do Halloween in Scotland! Spoiler, it is the exactly the same as the United States with costumes, candy, music and alcohol. I really enjoyed my time in Edinburgh. It really is a breathtaking city with its historic, elaborate styles of the buildings creating an elegant skyline significantly different than New York’s.

Amazing chili nachos from The Auld House

Amazing chili nachos from The Auld House

Edinburgh from the top of Arthur's Seat

Edinburgh from the top of Arthur’s Seat

Halloween-ready students at the University of Edinburgh

Halloween-ready students at the University of Edinburgh

The train ride from Edinburgh to London is about four hours, which gave me a great opportunity to see the countryside of the UK.  I was very nervous about my stay in London because I am not really a city girl, and I was staying all by myself. I went to find my hostel right after I got off the train in order to drop off my luggage and get a bearing of my surroundings. This was the first of many tube rides (the name of London’s subway system). I spent my first afternoon in London just wandering around and taking in the buzz of the city.  For dinner I found a wonderful Italian spot, and keeping with the theme had some delicious gelato for dessert. When I got back, I met my roommates and found out that one of them was actually from Poughkeepsie! Two girls were from Australia, two were from Chicago, and the last one was from France. We stayed up all night talking about our different countries and our favorite things about London. It was probably one of my favorite experiences of my entire study abroad adventure so far.

Train ride from Edinburgh to London

Train ride from Edinburgh to London

Street in London

Street in London

The next day I got up early and took a long stroll through Hyde Park. The stroll ended up being extra long because I got lost on the way back to my hostel. I visited the London Science Museum, which was incredibly interesting, but I particularly enjoyed the exhibit on medical advancements made during World War I. It was this time period where breakthroughs with X-rays, burn treatment and post-traumatic stress disorder (called shellshock at the time) were made. Next, I went to explore the famous landmarks of London such as Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace. I had seen pictures of these places many times and was not expecting to be surprised by their appearances, but I was flabbergasted about the intricacy of these buildings, especially Big Ben. The sides of the tower had beautiful designs lined in gold, and I just stood staring at the building trying to imagine how it was physically built. That evening I went to the famous Angel Comedy Club located in the Islington area of London. They have shows every night of the week at 8:00 p.m., but to get a seat you have to show up and hour early. As a protest against the ever-rising cost of living in London, their slogan is “Always funny, always free”, and the room was packed for the cheap entertainment. There were stand-up comics from England, Ireland, Italy and Spain. It was awesome to see the variety, and all of the jokes were hilarious. Go to Angel Comedy; ten out of ten would recommend to a friend.

Pond in Hyde Park

Pond in Hyde Park

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

Big Ben and The London Eye

Big Ben and The London Eye

For lunch on my last day, I met up with a friend from Vassar who is studying in London this semester. We met up at the famous Breakfast Café where, apparently, sometimes the mayor hides in the fridge at this restaurant and jumps out to scare the customers. Unfortunately, we did not get to meet the mayor. I didn’t do anything else stereotypically touristy for the rest of the day. I just walked around and tried to soak up as much of the city as I could. I really loved London and hopefully will come back to visit many, many times.

Matt Stein | London, England | Post 4

Election night hurt. I’m sorry that that’s the first thing I’m writing about, but it’s consuming the world I live in, both here in London and back home. Because of the time differences, it wasn’t until 5 a.m. that I fully knew the results. I pulled an all-nighter because originally I’d anticipated celebrating Clinton’s win, only to slowly watch it whither away in a tumult of fear and dread. Being a straight white male, there’s little I have to be afraid of, but for the many of my friends, who Trump’s angry rhetoric was attacking, this is a nightmare. One of my best friends identifies as agender and couldn’t even leave their room on Wednesday, their birthday too. It hurt to see them hurt but also that I wasn’t there to help them through. Now more than ever, we need to be there for each other. No matter the distance, say to someone you’re there and it’s alright.

To get our minds off of the election, we had our mid-semester break the week before. I traveled to Bruges, Paris and Barcelona. Bruges was a magical Christmas village with several chocolate stores and waffle shops on each street. It was sheer beauty, a city preserved in the 15th century. My B&B overlooked the canals, so I could enjoy breakfast and see the ducks float in the water. Brick streets were all over, reminiscent of the ones I grew up with in the suburbs of Chicago.

This was the view from my hotel in Bruges.

This was the view from my hotel in Bruges.

The streets in Bruges were a fantastic place to get lost in.

The streets in Bruges were a fantastic place to get lost in.

The one downside was my sudden realization that they spoke Flemish, essentially Dutch, in northern Belgium. Way back in high school, I took French and learned about the differing French-speaking nations. There was France, obviously, Senegal and Belgium. What I didn’t take away from that day was that Belgium speaks French, as well as German and Dutch, depending on the region. I was in the Dutch region, much to my confusion. Luckily, most people spoke English, and I got by with few altercations. Among the great places I visited, there was the belfry, and all the 366 steps that came with it, the Church of Christ’s Blood (which was quite creepy), and the Groeningemuseum, which had a great amount of Jan Van Eyck paintings. It was also a fairly cheap trip. In 2.5 days, I spent around 50 euros, not including the hotel, to see all the museums and eat good meals.

I stumbled across Minnewater, a famous lake, before leaving Bruges.

I stumbled across Minnewater, a famous lake, before leaving Bruges.

My next stop was Paris. I took a train to Brussels and then from there to Gare du Nord Station in Paris. Let me just say, I love trains. During the trip between Brussels and Paris, I got the chance to see the sun set over the hills, creating a purple-orange hue over the countryside. It was beautiful. Simply beautiful.

In Paris, I went museum-hopping. First, the Musee D’Orsay. This is probably my favorite museum in Europe, not just because of my personal preference for Impressionist paintings, but because it used to be a train station. There’s even a giant clock you can look through to see the Seine. Later that night, I decided to see some French theatre. The production was Dom Juan by Moliere at The Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe. Even though I was relying on the little French I remembered from high school, this show, despite being dialogue-heavy, didn’t require that. The characters were so animated and distinct that it was clear to understand what they’re saying. It was bizarre though, as an understatement. The set fell apart at least three times, a scoreboard marked each time the word ‘ciel’ was said (68 times), and then one character went nude and sang ‘Sexual Healing’ by Marvin Gaye, eventually floating away to Hell. It was a show. Quite a show.

The iconic view from the Musee d'Orsay is always moving to see.

The iconic view from the Musee d’Orsay is always moving to see.

In the middle of the night, I had a shock. The Cubs finally won. There’s little to say but nevertheless, it was an emotional experience to hear about from my family at five in the morning. My brother had the chance to go to Game 4 at Wrigley Field and, while I get the benefit of traveling around Europe, I’m still jealous of him for that.

The next day in Paris, I went to the Louvre, checking out the greatest hits of classical art: Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, The Coronation of Napoleon, Winged Victory, The Raft of the Medusa and Liberty Leading the People. Art history students should recognize these names. Later, I walked around the Tuileries, a beautiful place to get lost in. The last museum of the day was L’Orangerie, conveniently located in the Tuileries. I’ve been to Paris and the other museums before, but it’s so easy to forget this one. This time, I’m glad I didn’t. I adore Monet. I’ve been to Giverny and dressed up as him once for my French class. This museum has Nymphéas, better known as Water Lilies. The painting is quite colossal, stretching all around two separate rooms in an oval shape. I could sit there for days and take in all the wonder and brilliance of it. Sadly, I didn’t. Instead, I got dinner next to the Sorbonne and visited Shakespeare and Company, one of the best bookstores in the world. While their collection isn’t too broad, the history behind this bookstore tantalizes any literary buff. This is the location of Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein (no relation), Nïn, the hub of the Lost Generation. They also have a larger poetry collection than I’ve ever seen.

Inside L'Orangerie, Monet's Waterlilies draped two rooms in their natural beauty.

Inside L’Orangerie, Monet’s Waterlilies draped two rooms in their natural beauty.

Shakespeare & Co. is a must-see bookstore in Paris, for its history and location near Notre Dame.

Shakespeare & Co. is a must-see bookstore in Paris for its history and location near Notre Dame.

The next day, I took a train from Paris to Barcelona. It was six hours and worth each second. Starting off in the French countryside, it slowly transitioned to golden fields of crops and mustard seeds, then to hedgerows and forestry, then sandy beaches and beautiful oceans, forming into the cascading mountains of the Pyrenees, finally settling into the grassy slopes of Catalonia. For a second, I thought I was somewhere in South America. The city itself was like a tropical Paris. I stayed on La Rambla, the famous street, for its history and pickpockets. When I got there, it was evening, so I walked around, ate some tapas and delighted myself in some Catalonian wine. The next day, I took a tour of the Gothic quarter. I passed grand Cathedrals and remnants of the Spanish Civil War. I also saw the brilliant architecture of Antoni Gaudi. He made this city his. The magnum opus on which he spent the last 20 years is the Sagrada Família, which is still in construction over 100 years after his death. It’s breathtaking. Simply breathtaking. So colossal in height and design.

Near La Rambla, Barcelona's streets hold many sights and wonders to discover.

Near La Rambla, Barcelona’s streets hold many sights and wonders to discover.

Gaudi's Sagrada Familia has been over 100 years in the making.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia has been over 100 years in the making.

As soon as I stepped inside the Sagrada Familia, it took my breath away.

As soon as I stepped inside the Sagrada Familia, it took my breath away.

The next day, I visited the Picasso Museum, indulging in his bent shapes and cloud-like pigeons. I liked it, especially his Blue Period. I also attempted to see some theatre in Barcelona, which doesn’t have much to offer. They are big on music and dance, however. In the end, I saw a musical version of Scaramouche. In short, I don’t think they got the rights for Les Mis and instead got this one. It’s essentially Disney does the French Revolution. I wasn’t a fan. The next day, I left still in good spirits back to London, the end of a necessary break, into rehearsals for my show, Macbeth. I’ll be playing the Porter and the ukulele, so we’ll see how that goes.

Jennifer Williams | Cairo, Egypt | Post 4

Trigger warning: sexual assault

7:18 a.m. EET November 9, 2016. A moment in time I will never forget. The moment I realized that he had won the election. I may be in Egypt at the moment, but I was every bit a part of the election. I slept an hour, maybe two that night. The time difference did not stop me. I sat on the couch in my apartment and let the waves of emotion crash over me as I received updates on my phone. Nothing I could have ever done would have prepared me for the tsunami that has been the past few days.

My body has been exploited once again. This time by words, not by tangible hands. His words justified the actions of my, and every other person’s, assaulter. I still feel the sickly touch of the boy who trespassed on my body. For the past four years, his hands have remained ghosts that patrol my body and dictate every other touch. They cemented a home in my being. The ghosts armed themselves with the arguments of some close to me. They took refuge in the culture that had blamed me—I had flirted with him and I had not uttered the word “no.” It was as if for years ice enshrouded my body, just as the day it first happened when I stood incapable of escaping a state of paralysis. It has been a long journey working through the consequences, and not a journey that has witnessed much success. It has only been in the last calendar year that I have fully begun to process and work through my demons. And here come the words once again. They assail my body. Except this time they are not a product of a community that lacked a full understanding of the language of consent. No, this time they come from my country. They come from the mouth of the man who will control our country and impact the world. They come from all those who directly or indirectly contributed to the rise of this racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic and deplorable president-elect we have now.

The results of the election are no longer about a simple difference of political opinion for me and so many others. The results feel personal in a way I have never experienced. Trump’s words and Trump’s actions have pushed me to open up about my experience with sexual assault. Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women was not shocking (something frightening on its own), and his excuse that it was “locker room talk” has dangerous repercussions. “Locker room talk” leads to “boys being boys” leads to the justification of sexual assault. It makes the physical, physiological and emotional trauma that too many women have to fight through a natural side effect of male behavior. Furthermore, in electing him, we have showed the brave twelve women who stepped forward accusing Trump of sexual assault that their words carry no weight. He was still elected. We silenced the impact of these women who chose a global audience to face their demons. He is our president-elect. We set the precedent that not only is sexual assault a natural occurrence, but also speaking out about it is useless. People often question assault victims why they don’t speak out. To those people, you have your answer. Women spoke out, and he was elected.

It has been tough internalizing the results and feeling that my own assaulter is now justified. In the past few days, I have been constantly reliving the experience and the reactions it produced. It has taken me four years to speak about my own experience to people besides those closest to me. I am choosing now. I am choosing this moment, so that Trump and his supporters will know that they cannot silence me. I know that while I am suffering, so are millions of other people. My pain and words do not carry more value than anyone’s. This is a time to grieve for the message we sent to the world and to speak out if that is right for you. We as a country might have sent the message that women, minorities, the LGBTQ community, and many others do not matter, that our bodies and safety are not in our control, that our words have no impact, but I and many others on various mediums are replying that they do. We all matter. We will work together for change. We are not alone in the fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia and general bigotry. Love trumps hate.

I acknowledge my immense privilege as a white person (as well as the guilt that it was my demographic that elected this man). Furthermore, I acknowledge the privilege that I have in being able to vote and impact the election results. In Egypt, and in numerous places across the world, people’s voices do not have a platform to be heard. As I have been crying in almost all of my classes in the past few days, many of my professors and fellow students have grieved with me, likening my reaction to their own in 2012. That has been the majority of the responses I have received in Egypt. For the most part, the locals have the best intentions or are preoccupied with their own devastating economic trauma. I am thankful for my group of close friends that have provided comfort to each other, as we struggle with our own individual issues from the election.

It has been at times lonely being so far removed from America, even though I still feel connected to everything happening. I see my friends post pictures of protesting and read the posts of pain and fear. My spirit is with you all. I am livid. I am devastated. I am petrified. I am determined to fight for change.

Jennifer Pineda | Bremen, Germany | Post 4

jdfhgauAs part of my European Healthcare and Welfare class, we took an excursion to Bremerhaven, a port city in Germany. We had the opportunity to meet with Dr. med. Gábor Keresztury, who is the chief physician of the vascular surgery clinic at Ameos Klinikum St. Joseph Bremerhaven. The topic of our class was the medical profession, so we met with this doctor to shed some light on how he became a doctor and his experiences in the European healthcare system.

This day had been hectic because prior to this specific class, a good majority of us had a biochemistry test. We were going to definitely cut it close with finishing the test and making our trains. Thankfully, our test was cut short to give us enough time. In the 15-20 minutes we had afterwards, we had to quickly grab a bite to eat and make our way to the train stop about an eight minutes’ walk away. As we waited for our train, our professors alerted us that as soon as we made our first stop, we would need to hurry and run down the stairs and make our way to the platform on the furthest side of the train stop. It was definitely a memorable experience, as we just arrived on the right platform a minute before our train to Bremerhaven arrived.

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The hospital staff was very generous in their accommodations for this meeting. They had prepared cookies and small treats along with refreshments, which was a great relief for those who did not have lunch. As we settled in, we first heard from a fellow student who gave a brief description of the medical profession over history in the EU as well as the U.S. We were then introduced to Dr. Keresztury. Hearing Dr. Keresztury’s life story and his responsibilities as chief physician definitely provided valuable insight into how people manage their work and home life. In the case of Dr. Keresztury, he made it clear that his work was the priority. Shockingly, however, he was unapologetic in spending more time at work than with his family. He explained that his family moved whenever his job required him to. This was done at the expense of his ex-wife’s career as a daycare teacher. Though economically this sacrifice is understandable, I felt that his lack of presence in his family life affected his relationship with his children more than he let on and probably resulted in his divorce. For us female pre-med students, we felt as though choosing between career and family would be more difficult. Unfortunately, there was no female doctor present that we could confer with to determine how a woman’s choice would be different in this matter. There was, however, a younger male doctor who explained that he does spend more time with his young children, contrary to Dr. Keresztury’s experience with his own children. This gave us some hope that we wouldn’t have to be barred between choosing starting a family and building a successful career.

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On a lighter note, the town of Bremen in which our university is located hosts a festival very similar to Munich’s Oktoberfest in the last two weeks of October. Known as Freimarkt, this festival/carnival is the most visited in northern Germany and one of the oldest, initially held in 1035. As one exits the Hauptbahnhof, one is greeted by various stalls selling food and drinks along with games. At night it is a sight to behold as each stall illuminates the night. A couple of friends and I visited on the last weekend as a nice little study break from all the midterm stress. If I had any doubt about how tall Germans were, they were completely erased after attempting to walk through crowds and being eye level with a sea of backs. Freimarkt is definitely reminiscent of American carnivals but even better with carts selling steaks and salmon. Fun fact: the roller coaster present at Oktoberfest is also at Freimarkt.

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Though we weren’t able to trick or treat this year, we American students were invited to carve pumpkins, eat candy and play card games at a professor’s residence. To be honest, I had never carved a pumpkin before, so it was fun to explore this tradition for the first time.

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Above are the pumpkins we carved on display outside the guest house on campus. Schrodinger’s cat makes a special appearance.

After nearly a month of waiting, I finally contacted my professor on the status of doing research with his lab group. His group primarily did food analysis, specifically coffee, tea and cocoa research. Having no previous research experience, my academic advisor recommended me to talk with this professor because it provides a good starting point to pinpoint my interests within the research field. Within the week I was assigned a PhD student with whom I would proceed to do research. Her project dealt with tea analysis. On my first day of research, we made origami boxes. On the second day, we grinded tea. On the third day, we sieved tea leaves. It’s been a great experience. 10/10 would recommend.

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Tuesday, November 11 2016 was the first time I ever pulled an all-nighter. The following pictures show what ensued when college students don’t sleep and face the anxiety of what will be the next four years. Also, we had a German test the next day.

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Anna Abrams | Yaoundé, Cameroon | Post 2

Throughout the past two and a half months, I’ve been confronted by many cultural differences in Cameroon that are hard to get used to. One of these is the clear patriarchy in my household and the fact that I’ve never once seen my host dad cook or clean dishes. As frustrating as it is, I also understand how that’s more accepted here. However, there is one difference that continues to baffle me everyday, and that is meal times.

Meals have been such a confusing part of my life with my homestay family that even now I go through a daily struggle to figure out when, what and where I should eat.

Let’s start with a normal day with my Yaounde host family:

Typically I get home around 6:00, and at this point, I never know if anyone has eaten. There’s usually food on the stove because my host mom or host sister cooks a whole meal in the morning before work, and then it sits on the stove all day. So around 7:00 or 7:30 I’ll wander into the kitchen and see what they’ve made. I then put it in the microwave and go eat by myself in the dining room. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m home alone. Everyone is at the house, but we don’t eat together in the way I’m used to. Sometimes we will eat at the same time in the same room, but not at the table together, and there’s no dinner conversation.

Cameroonians have a saying: “On est ensemble.” This means that even if you aren’t physically together, you’re together in spirit.

This was my first night eating with my host family in Yaoundé, before I realized how confusing meal times were. At this first meal we all sat together at the table, talked and had spaghetti with meat sauce. It was so straightforward, and then things got much more confusing.

This was my first night eating with my host family in Yaoundé, before I realized how confusing meal times were. At this first meal we all sat together at the table, talked and had spaghetti with meat sauce. It was so straightforward, and then things got much more confusing.

Sometimes I’ll ask the kids if they’ve eaten, and they say yes. But later when I’m serving myself dinner they’ll tell me they’re hungry and I have no idea what to do. Then the mom comes in and serves them the same meal I’m having. So then they hadn’t eaten? Sometimes she’ll come in and make them something else, like a fried omelette and plantains, and I don’t get why they aren’t eating what I’m eating.

Also I’ve occasionally had an upset stomach, and my host mom was convinced it was because I mixed two traditional foods that apparently don’t go together. Turns out it was just a fungus I got from contaminated water.

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These are plantains we successfully cooked for ourselves at school. We were quite proud that we made them only fried and not deep fried like they usually are. We eat plantains almost everyday here.

Weekends are a whole different ball game. On Saturdays I typically leave the house to do homework somewhere else, so I’m not sure what they do. On Sundays we don’t eat breakfast because we go to sports at 6:30. Then when we get back, we shower and go to church at 11:00, but there’s no food in between 8:30 and 10:30. Thank goodness I brought emergency packets of nuts for those situations.

After church we have lunch, and while we sometimes sit at the same table, the TV is always on and there’s no conversation happening. Then for dinner, I never understand. No one cooks a separate dinner, and so I assume I eat what I had for lunch? But the other day my sister asked if I was hungry, and then was like “you should make yourself dinner then.” So I cooked scrambled eggs and was so confused. Also, sometimes the kids just have bread and yogurt for dinner, like what?

This is a fish we ate for dinner once. We eat a lot of fish, and often I've been confronted with eating the heads and tails of fish. It's such an ordeal picking bones out of fish, and sometimes they look as terrifying as this one did.

This is a fish we ate for dinner once. We eat a lot of fish, and often I’ve been confronted with eating the heads and tails of fish. It’s such an ordeal picking bones out of fish, and sometimes they look as terrifying as this one did.

I’ve cleared up the breakfast situation by proving myself worthy of making my own eggs in the morning. My host mom and sister made some comments the first few times that I ate my eggs without white bread, but now they’ve come around to realizing that I just like my eggs. Not that I don’t like bread, but when tasteless white bread is a complement to every meal, you tend to try and avoid it.

My other friends here also have had similar situations. One time on Sunday, my friend Becky’s host mother made dinner and it was ready at 4:00 P.M., so they ate then. But the whole time Becky was like, what do I do later when I’m hungry?  Another day, she said she wasn’t hungry at 3:00 P.M. for lunch since she ate breakfast at noon, and about 15 minutes later her host mom asked her if she didn’t like her food. Becky felt so bad because she loves the food, but she just wasn’t hungry!

At my friend Lily’s house, she tries to time when she eats so hopefully she’s in the kitchen at the same time as someone else, but she typically eats alone too. At her house, though, there’s always food on the stove, so she can always have a meal. They even have cut up slices of pineapple in her fridge!

This is Lily, Maggie and Becky after we cooked our own meal of couscous and papaya at school. We were so happy because it was a meal time we understood and we had control over what we were eating for once.

This is Lily, Maggie and Becky after we cooked our own meal of couscous and papaya at school. We were so happy because it was a meal time we understood and we had control over what we were eating for once.

That may not seem like a big deal, but having fruit in the house is rare. Turns out Cameroonians don’t eat a lot of fruit unless it’s an orange or banana sold on the side of the road. My host family used to have fruit in the house occasionally, and I’ve now realized it was because I was living with them and SIT told them that Americans like fruit and vegetables. Now that I’ve been there a while, I don’t get any more fruit since they themselves don’t eat it.

My other friend Maggie’s host family is one of the more confusing mealtime situations. They never showed her how to use the kitchen, so she relies completely on her parents to feed her. She doesn’t even know where dishes go or where to find salt.

This is my host family in Batoufam, a rural village we stayed with. Here my whole family ate together, but all our meals were at 8:30PM and we typically had snack at 6PM. Meal times weren't any less confusing here. The food was also so spicy!

This is my host family in Batoufam, a rural village we stayed in. Here my whole family ate together, but all of our meals were at 8:30 P.M., and we typically had snack at 6:00 P.M. Meal times weren’t any less confusing here. The food was also so spicy!

The other morning Maggie finally asked if someone would show her how to use the stove so she could make eggs for herself since she didn’t want her usual white bread and jam. But she was told she couldn’t eat eggs for breakfast during the week. Eggs are explicitly for dinner and weekend breakfasts.

Oh, and people also eat with their hands a lot here. Not as much in Yaoundé, but it’s common in some of the other towns we traveled to. And while you think eating with your hands may be easy, I assure you it’s complicated figuring out how to slurp up mushy starch and a goopy sauce with your fingers. I definitely felt like a five year old learning to finger paint.

This was one of my attempts to eat a traditional meal with my hands. As you can tell I was struggling a lot.

This was one of my attempts to eat a traditional meal with my hands. As you can tell, I was struggling a lot.

Meals are confusing here, and I don’t think I’ll ever quite figure them out. I typically tend to just eat when I’m really hungry, or when people tell me to, and I seem to be getting along okay. It is definitely true that I’ve never eaten sweeter papaya or pineapple than I have here, but I’ve also had to eat food that I had to mentally talk myself through so I could swallow. It’s definitely fascinating getting to know new food, but in no way does that mean that I don’t dream about cheese, multigrain bread, broccoli (and a host of other veggies), and just clean water that comes out of the tap.