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Month: February 2013

Caitlin Cronin | Cardiff, Wales | Post 1

Caitlin Cronin | Cardiff, Wales | Post 1

Wandering in Wales

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Various people have asked if I have culture shock while studying abroad, and I always answer with a resounding no—I was practically British before I even hopped on the plane to Wales. One of the things to which I’ve had to adjust is how different Cardiff University is from Vassar, which really drives home the fact that Vassar is not the real world, but a bubble filled with love and glitter.

Cardiff University has ten times as many students as Vassar does. At Vassar, everyone’s connected by about two degrees of separation (or less)—if you don’t know the guy with the skateboard and the beanie on the Quad, it’s likely that one of your suitemates made out with him at the Mug, your lunch date will invite him to join you for Chili Wednesday in the Retreat, and/or he’ll be in that poli sci class you decided to take next semester. This is not the case at Cardiff—the guy on the skateboard might not even go to your university; he might just be on his way to the city centre, which is a little unsettling but also liberating. As of yet, there’s no sign that having a way bigger student population leads to healthier relationships. It still seems to boil down to a Friends episode. So some things are the same.

Also, I think I’m going into hipster withdrawal. It’s a thing, though you’ve probably never heard of it. I’m going to have to start an infusion of Portlandia if this keeps up, assuming my cavalier jaywalking doesn’t get me hit by a car first. I’ve still not gotten completely used to cars driving on the left side of the road, which I’d better do quickly because I think I’ll be driving over spring break—scary. Being called “Love,” on the other hand, is fantastic and I want to bring it back to the states with me. So if I start calling you “Love” when I return this summer, just accept it.

I have class on only two days a week, which gives me a lot of time to explore castles and eat ridiculously delicious scones with clotted cream, strawberry jam, and English Breakfast tea. Between these shenanigans, eating fish and chips, and drinking Brains (a local beer) while watching rugby games, I’m pretty sure I’m eligible for British citizenship. That’s how that works, right?

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The best place at which I’ve had tea so far was this place called Pettigrew’s, located right next to Cardiff Castle, that resembled a sort of gatehouse. Of course, such images coupled with the word “Pettigrew” drew my mind instantly to Harry Potter. Luckily, the cakes here did not at all match Gatekeeper Hagrid’s rock pastries and squashed birthday cakes. After enjoying scones and finger sandwiches, I had a piece of lemon-drizzle cake that tasted so good, I considered proposing to it to keep it in my life forever. Having to cook all my own food here (no meal plan) means that whenever I go out for a meal, I reach new levels of joy; considering that I’ve always believed myself to be a foodie, that’s saying a lot.

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Besides tea and food, Wales also has castles. I’ve always adored castles and cathedrals, and Wales holds the title of having the most castles per square mile out of any other country.

The first castle I visited was Cardiff Castle, located practically in the middle of the center of Cardiff, Wales’ capital. One of my absolute favorite things about Cardiff is the mix of old and new—the city’s history is so entrenched that you can walk down any random street and see a church that dates back to the 12th century right alongside a pub and a travel agency.

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The coexistence of the modern and medieval is amazing. I thought I’d be a bit perturbed to see a Burger King next to a castle, assuming that it would lessen the monument’s historical impact, but it really just goes to show the dynamic nature of a place like Cardiff. In the states, I don’t think Americans were ever big on castles, and a lot of historic buildings were torn down as bustling cities grew up around them. I’ve decided that I’d rather the castle stand next to a fast food or clothing chain than converted into one.

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Cardiff Castle, once the site of a Roman military fort, has gone through many periods of destruction and reconstruction. The latest period happened in the 1800’s and imbibed the castle Victorian splendor. Each room is thoroughly decorated according to a particular theme, such as time, fairytales, or Welsh history. There’s even a depiction of the Devil located outside the drawing room that is meant to scare the women away from entering the men’s domain. To this, the Vassar girl in me can only say “Puh-lease.”

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The next castle I visited, and probably my favorite castle to date, was in Caerphilly. Caerphilly is a small town located about an hour outside of Cardiff and known for two things: the exquisite cheese and the castle. Right in the middle of the town is a massive castle with an intricate water defense system (aka two moats). Surrounded by water and with a backdrop of impossibly green hills (apparently the grass didn’t get the message that it’s February), this castle is astoundinly gorgeous, yet for the people of the town, seeing it is just an everyday occurrence. I visited the castle on a Wednesday and saw people walking around the grounds carrying briefcases. Obviously on their way to work, they were saying to their cell phones, “Tell my secretary I’m running late, I’m only just now walking past the castle.”

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Clearly, the Welsh use castles as landmarks to tell where they are and give directions, which can lead to some confusion. For example, on the day of the Six Nations Rugby home game, Wales vs. Ireland (side note: Rugby is a huge deal over here), multiple streets in Cardiff were closed off to traffic, full instead of red-and-green painted fans, some wearing hats with dragons or daffodils (Wales’ national animal and flower, respectively). I think I like rugby more than football, but it could just be that I got caught up in the crowd’s tremendous energy. The game itself was a bit frustrating to watch, given that the players have to pass backwards. Although Wales pulled it together in the second half, their comeback began too late and Ireland crushed them. My loyalties in the match were a bit confused—obviously I was in Wales, but I’m also of Irish heritage (one of the players on the Irish team even shares my last name). Amidst the excitement and the unbelievable energy, I was trying to locate some friends at a pub to watch the game. All the pubs were insanely crowded by 9:00 am—four hours before the game started—with people staking early claim to seats. My friend kept saying that she and the rest of my group were at a pub near “the castle”, which is about as helpful as a Vassar student saying that he or she danced with that hipster guy at the Mug last night. Luckily, I found my friends before the game started and had a fantastic time.

The final castle I’ve visited so far in Wales is Castell Coch, which a random football (soccer) fan tried to explain to me is not technically a castle because it is too small. I’m not entirely clear on what he was saying (a thick Welsh accent and several pints of Brains, the Cardiff-made beer of which I am not a fan are not a good combination), but I guess “castell” translates to something along the lines of “castle lite”—all the grandeur with fewer calories.

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Either way, entering Castell Coch feels like walking into a fairytale. After a long trek uphill and through the woods, the castell appears before you with all the classic turrets—I’m pretty sure Snow White uses it as her summer home. The internal courtyard of the castell reminds me of a mix between the Globe Theater in London and a miniature Roman amphitheatre; I was waiting for the lions to come out and spout lines Hamlet (*cough cough* Lion King, pun very much intended).

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The view from the castell looking over the town is also pretty amazing. On a clear day, you can see forever—but we don’t exactly get clear days here in Wales. On an overcast day, however, you can see the River Taff or Cardiff, depending on in which direction you look.

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Because I only have two early morning classes, I can take full advantage of Cardiff’s clubs, pubs, and bars. I’m pretty thoroughly cheating on the Mug, although certain things about the club experiences at Vassar and in Wales are eerily similar.

Overall, Cardiff and Wales are amazing and I love them! I miss Vassar, of course, and I’ll be with you guys in spirit on Thursday for the WBC protest.

Emily Dowling | Paris, France | Post 2

Emily Dowling | Paris, France | Post 2

Paris is an incredible city, filled with more monuments, museums, and restaurants than I could possibly see in one semester. During the week, I am constantly moving, trying to schedule museum visits around French university classes and lengthy meals. The weekends provide the perfect opportunity to escape the busy city for a day trip to other beautiful, famous locations in France, most of which can be easily and quickly reached by train or bus.

For my first French excursion outside of the city, I decided to go on a group trip to the Château de Chantilly, a historic castle located in Chantilly, France, about 23.9 miles northeast of Paris, which is about a 25-minute train ride. If you choose to take the TER—the high-speed train line that serves over twenty regions of France—you can buy a round-trip ticket to Chantilly for as little as 16 euros, making it an ideal day trip for students like myself who are working with a limited budget. Since my program had planned the entire excursion, I just had to drag myself out of bed and arrive at the Gare du Nord train station at 9:00 am, ready for a long day of sightseeing.

The château is surrounded by fields and woods, and can only be reached by walking down a long path flanked by trees on either side—a sight which I am sure is far more beautiful in the spring and summer than in the winter. We reached an enormous building, which many of us thought was the chateau, surrounded by statues of horses; to our surprise, our guide told us that this building was the Grands Écuries, or the Great Stables, where the château’s owners had kept their horses.

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The château itself is an imposing structure of turrets and terraces, surrounded by a wide moat. The castle is actually composed of two joined buildings that date from different time periods: the Petit Château—built for the Constable Anne de Montmorency around 1560—and the Grand Château, which was destroyed in the French Revolution and completely rebuilt in 1875 by Henri d’Orléans—duke of Aumale—and transformed into the Musée de Condé. Upon his death, the duke left the entire château, as well as its impressive collection of artwork, to the French Institute, thereby ensuring that the castle, the museum, and the stables would remain open to the public.

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The inside of the castle is stunning. The walls are covered with intricate designs in gold leaf and wall-length paintings chronicaling the Duke’s military triumphs in Algeria. The furniture is a mixture of pieces from the age of Louis XIV and Napoleon. The castle also contains a library, filled with hundreds of rare and ancient books, as well as a chapel—if you had the good fortune to live at Chantilly, you would never have any reason to leave. The château is also renowned for its lush park, landscaped by the gardener of Louis XIV in the same style as the famous gardens of Versailles (some of the previous owners were cousins of the king, a position that clearly had benefits). The park is composed of four different gardens: a formal French garden—which features numerous fountains, statues, and a grand canal—an English garden; an Anglo-Chinese garden; and a rustic hamlet area, a great favorite of Marie Antoinette. In the French garden, we befriended the resident cygne (swan), but our relationship quickly soured when he started trying to defend his territory. We walked through the garden to reach the cottages in the hamlet, bracing ourselves against the bitterly cold wind. Unfortunately, our tour of the park ended rapidly as hail started to fall at an alarming rate, and we sprinted back to the castle.

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Chantilly’s most stunning feature is the Musée de Condé, which is considered the most impressive collection of paintings in France, after the Louvre. The museum features works from many different time periods and painters, ranging from famous French tableaus to priceless works by Raphael. The collection is also known for its extensive selection of rare portraits: one room is entirely covered by paintings of French monarchs and nobles. Since the death of the Duke, the paintings have remained in their original locations, allowing visitors to see the works as they were arranged in the nineteenth century. My favorite pieces were two full lion pelts that adorned the walls, decorated with weapons and paintings of the hunt.

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If the château’s beautiful architecture, gardens, and artwork aren’t enough of a draw, Chantilly is also the birthplace of Chantilly Cream, which is essentially a French version of whipped cream that is far superior to anything available in America. When I tasted it at the castle’s restaurant, I thought I had just bitten into a delicious, strawberry-flavored cloud.

Although I love being in Paris, it is wonderful to be able to escape to a picturesque castle in the countryside for the day. My only advice: plan your visits to the castle later in the spring so that you can enjoy the beauty of the site without fear of winter weather.

 

Ruth Bolster | London, England | Post 2

Ruth Bolster | London, England | Post 2

When I first learned of my study-abroad living situation in the northwest London neighborhood of Camden Town, my stomach dropped. As a New Jersey native, I only associated “Camden” with the city on the Delaware River that runs parallel to Philadelphia and boasts gang violence, the highest crime rate in the United States, and lots of murders. Needless to say, the Camden I knew was definitely a scary place, and I hesitated to move anywhere that remotely resembled it, even if only by name.

Driving through Camden Town on my first day in London this January, I was relieved to discover a simultaneously eclectic, diverse, edgy, and homey neighborhood. Pressing my nose against the car window, I spied consignment shops owned by OxFam and the British Heart Foundation, a gritty-looking pub called The World’s End, a couple Halal markets, and two barber shops advertised as “Embassies for Afro-Caribbean Hair.” Further up Camden Road were flats with tiny gardens, churches, Sainsbury grocery stores, corner cafes serving breakfast and lunch, and finally the University-owned building I would soon call home. Though police officers moseyed around the streets and giant signs on the side of telephone booths warned pedestrians that “thieves see your possessions differently,” I saw no warnings of gun violence or gang activity, much to my obvious relief. Camden Town did not even harbor the stuffy British aura that I expected to hang over London as does the smog over Los Angeles. Unlike in the neighborhood of Westminster, one cannot go out for high tea or rub elbows with the cousin of some Duke in Camden. No, real people with real lives resided here.

The iconic Camden Road Overground Train Overpass.
The iconic Camden Road Overground Train Overpass.
A glance up Kentish Town Road.
A glance up Kentish Town Road.

Camden Town garners fame mostly from its six markets, which blur together on both sides of Chalk Farm Road along Camden Lock. With many storefronts along the southernmost area of Chalk Farm Road attached to giant dragons and larger-than-life shoes (I kid you not), one can easily spot the beginning of the markets. Part flea market, part crafts fair, the markets bombard patrons with any and every good under the sun, including hand-bound leather journals, vintage records, scarves from India, frilly dresses, Victorian corsets, and hemp clothing and lollipops. Patrons must remember to not buy something the first store they see, for the further they venture into what I can only describe as a consumer’s wonderland, the more likely they will find the exact item they wanted for considerably less money.

Camden Lock Market and the Hemp Store.
Camden Lock Market and the Hemp Store.
Camden Market.
Camden Market.
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I was not kidding about the giant dragon. Courtesy of unordinarycustomer.wordpress.com.

Although one could find plenty of cheap, quickly made food at the market, Camden features dozens of inexpensive restaurants that do not skimp on service or ambiance. Taste of Siam, located on Camden High Street near Mornington Crescent Station, boast three-storefronts, all of which lead the customer into a different restaurant operated by the same company. A noodle bar comprises the first restaurant, in which two or more patrons can choose any combination of ingredients to enjoy in a noodle soup or hot pot. The second restaurant serves more substantial meals under dim lighting and among walls decorated with pits of framed antique and Tiawaneese fabrics, some dating from the Second World War. Featuring inexpensive yet satisfying food, the menu includes highlights such as the Kang Keaw Wan chicken—a green curry with coconut milk, green chilies, and herbs—and the Pad Si Ew—stir-fried noodles in a dark soya sauce with your choice of meat and a green vegetable; both meals cost a mere £6.50. Finally, the third storefront is a Thai grocery store for the adventurous few who want to stir-fry at home.

Taste of Siam storefront.
Taste of Siam storefront.

Those seeking a more traditional English snack should visit the teahouse Yumchaa, located on Camden Parkway. In this perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon reading, tea is served loose in individual white pots for only £2.55 each, presenting a more pleasant alternative to the comparably priced Starbucks mocha-whatever you may be tempted to purchase. Pleasantly mismatched, the armchairs and tables compliment the antique wall lamps mounted in the far corner to impart a cozy décor to the teahouse. Although the large tea selection can seem a bit overwhelming, the owners keep samples at the front counter and encourage first-timers to smell and compare teas before they order. Each tea differs substantially from its counterparts; for example, though the Enchanted Forest blend takes on a bitter flavor surprisingly fast, the Chelsea Chai remains smooth and light for a long time. Yumchaa has an additional storefront at Camden Lock, as well as in Soho.

Tea at Yumchaa.
Tea at Yumchaa.

Although mostly residential, Camden pops to life at night. Proud, one of the neighborhood’s more popular dance clubs, is located on Chalk Farm Road in Camden’s Stables Market. A 200-year-old former horse hospital, the venue’s original stables are intact and can be rented out for private groups starting at £0 if you book early enough. The drinks are pricey and there is a cover charge that varies depending on the night’s event, but if you email Proud ahead of time to reserve a spot on the guest list, you could enter for a reduced price.

If, like me, you would happily rather thrash around to “Blitzkrieg Bop” than sway awkwardly to House hits, BarFly plays excellent rock. The venue where artists such as the Killers, Muse, Franz Ferdinand, and Adele got their start, the club gains plenty of attention for promoting up-and-coming talent; you should certainly check out the club you are into boasting about how you saw someone live “before they were famous.” The club itself contains two stories—the first floor houses the stage and a bar, while the ground floor harbors a more pub-like feel thanks to its booths and tables. Tickets for live shows vary in price depending on the act, but you can purchase most online for £5.95-£10.00.

After a little under two months here, I can appreciate Camden for its vibrancy and, despite my initial hesitations, can finally call it my London home.

Jessica Tarantine | Oxford, England | Post 1

Jessica Tarantine | Oxford, England | Post 1

Unless you’re my parents—in which case you’ll happily read anything I’ve written—you’re probably reading this to gain further insight into studying abroad, either at Oxford or in general. Thus, instead of waxing poetic about English architecture and cuisine, I’ll lay out some of the basics of studying here at Oxford.

The College/University System:

If you wish to study abroad at Oxford, rather than applying directly to the University, you must first apply to one of the 30-some colleges included within it. If you’re like or me or most of the other Vassar students studying at Oxford this term, you’ll probably choose the college to which you apply rather randomly. However, while there really isn’t a “right” choice when deciding to which college to apply, your choice of college will affect your experience at Oxford in a variety of ways. For example, your college largely determines where you live, with whom you interact, and what you eat. Each college is run by a Junior College Room (JCR)—an organization similar to the Vassar Student Association—responsible for representing the college’s students, organizing college-specific clubs and societies, and hosting biweekly “entz” or parties. The JCR also refers to each college’s common room, complete with the college’s own bar.

While professors (often called “tutors” at Oxford) are assigned to specific colleges, students can take courses (or “tutorials”) with any tutor and at any college, allowing you to take the tutorials of you choice, regardless of with which college you are affiliated. Most colleges boast their own library, often used only by students at that particular college, but there are also University libraries not affiliated with a specific college; these libraries tend to be the largest and offer the most selection. At first glance, you might think that colleges are simply Oxfords versions of dorms with their own dining halls, but in reality, colleges are much more than that; they offer their own academic support and retain their own faculty.

I like to think of Oxford’s college/ university system as a version of the United States government. The university represents the federal government by offering certain programs and implementing certain regulations, while the colleges parallel the individual states with their own programs and rules that fit into the larger institutional framework. Engaged in a codependent relationship, the federal government cannot exist without the states, while the states depend on the federal government for logistical support.

Academics:

Though difficult to describe a “typical” Oxford tutorial due to their great variety, a couple basic similarities remain across subjects and tutors. As a visiting student, you take two tutorials per term. One meets weekly and the other meets biweekly, both for about an hour each. This term, my primary tutor has assigned a substantial reading list and expects students to turn in a paper at each tutorial session, which constitutes the oral argument students pose during each class. Rather than an end product, the paper serves as a means of preparation for the tutorial.

In addition to attending tutorial sessions, students also have the option of attending lectures. Lectures, except when specifically assigned by tutor, are completely optional. Some lectures occur weekly while others are special events held by departments that feature visiting academics. The lecture system allows you to experience any subject, so despite formally studying only Classics and Economics while at Oxford, I can also learn about Middle Eastern politics or Virginia Woolf.  While Oxford students traditionally take tutorials only within their majors, the lectures help to foster a liberal-artsy atmosphere.

Food:

The type of food at Oxford is pretty similar to that of most American universities, though it includes more Indian and Thai cuisine. However, food distribution constitutes a major difference between the Oxford and U.S. college systems. Oxford has one pay-as-you-go dining hall, where breakfast and lunch are self-service, but only offered during a limited time each day; breakfast, for example, is served from 8:15 to 8:45.

Dinner functions slightly differently—there is a self service option at 6:00 pm, but most students choose to partake in the real highlight of the Oxford dining system known as “Hall.” Hall refers not to the place in which dinner is served, but rather to the meal itself. Hall consists of three courses followed by tea and coffee, all served by a professional waitstaff. Each college sets different dress codes for Hall—some require formal attire—but certain Hall practices are universal among colleges, such as when students stand while professors enter and remain standing until the Master has said grace in Latin.

Nathan Tauger | Oxford, England | Post 2

Nathan Tauger | Oxford, England | Post 2

The Usual Suspects

For the short of mind, allow me to sum up the story thus far. I’m a PI—hard-boiled, etc—in a bad spot in a foreign country with limited options to crack the case, get the dame, and save my skin. How’d I get there? Like I said in my last brief reflection, I had just arrived in Oxford, England to retrieve some kind of treasure stolen from my home turf of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. I got to work immediately and found out that a few suspects were traveling to the Ashmolean museum…

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I knew my fair share of memorable characters back in Poughkeepsie—the sort that make you wish you were born with eyes behind your back, and maybe an extra nose, too. I once had to cool down a nearly spicy situation between the Bacio’s boys and a rugby gorilla; I’ve fallen out of love and into heartbreak on the floor of Matthew’s Mug with the sweetest siren that side of the Atlantic; hell, I’ve had some close calls with Noyes Wellness. The Vassar folk that escaped to the Queen’s country are something else, though; from the start, there was something shady about each of them—a jewel-thief kind of shady.

‘Til one of them slipped up, I had to ease my way into their world. First, I had to make them all comfortable. I knew they were heavy into the brains, but I never met an owner of a medulla oblongata who snubs the day of rest at a museum. My first week here and I leave the Friday night pub dames to the Brits. What can I say? Sacrifice is part of the package when you’re a PI.

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A step through the door of this place and it’s like I fell into some movie-esque time machine. We weren’t in Poughkeepsie anymore, but the Ashmolean didn’t feel too unlike the Villard room after one too many berry rumbas—a lot of uncomfortable-looking folk dressed in bed sheets with underbrush in their hair.

Bas-Relief commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Insanity Extreme Home Workout ®, estimated 250 B.C.E.
Bas-Relief commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Insanity Extreme Home Workout ®, estimated 250 B.C.E.

Around all these brawny stone fellas that made a PI want to stop deleting his “In the Pink” emails and cut down on Julie’s blueberry crumble, I chatted up the first suspect.

Jessie Classic ‘14 majored in Economics and GRST back in Poughkeepsie. She acted relaxed and friendly, especially when it came up that I was also a Vassar expat. She couldn’t play it coy enough for me, though; I could tell she was ruthless, trying to size me up for the quick con. Forty-five seconds into that conversation, my hand found my wallet and didn’t leave it ’til she was more than a javelin’s throw away. Her alibi for skipping the pond was to meet the stone gents surrounding us. She yapped on for a while about some ancient history, Cuneiform B, but I kept the conversation going like I knew my stuff. I told her that I learned a bit of Latin growing up, and she wanted to converse. I said, “isthay tupidsay idkay,” and she stormed off like I had offended her or something. Some stuffed head at Vassar used to greet me with the phrase—probably has something to do with good looks.

Jess Classic posing in front of the labors of Hercules.
Jess posing in front of the labors of Hercules.

Lady luck finally threw me a break: I found the next suspect eyeing up some porcelain.

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Oriental Eddie says he spent last semester in China and knows nothing about jewels or Vassar. Likely story. This character has a bit of a reputation as a Jewett, a drifter, a wanderer—that sort who would easily turn to the jewel-thieving kind of life if the price was right. He looked the part of a European. Had a scarf and a jacket that screamed, “Condescend on Uncle Sam”. His clothes couldn’t keep the rest of the body cool, though—the look on his mug eyeing up the museum’s hard earned treasures was a bit too hungry for me. I began to introduce both myself and my good friend, Mr. Clenched Knuckles.

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Before I had the chance to make the acquaintance of my soon-to-be dear friend Edward, I saw a glint of pink-and-grey out of the corner of my eye. Hey, I didn’t get this far in the PI business by tripping over the best clues that fall in my lap, and I followed the hunch. I don’t know how for long or how far, but I was on that light’s trail like white on rice. Next thing I know, I’m waking up bruised and cold in a real seedy Underground. My vision’s all blurry, but I still make out a few shapes—most of which make me wish I were still unconscious.

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In a pinch, my wits never let me down, so I followed my intuition (and a green “Exit” sign) to freedom. The pink-and-grey light was nowhere to be seen, nor were the two characters I met earlier. Shaken and upset, I shuffled back to Oxford, stopping at a few pubs in between. After making it back to my home-base, I calmed my nerves and devised a plan.

I remembered the oldest PI trick in the book: imagine yourself as the jewel thief and ask, “I’m the jewel thief. What would I do right now?” One obvious answer appeared: tour Europe. I grabbed my travel necessities, suitcase, and a book of stogies, and made my way to the first streetcar I saw. Next thing I know, I hear, “Fasten seatbelts, please,” and I’m half asleep—always with one eye open—40,000 feet above the old country.

I had slipped up big-time.

Next time: Europe, revelations, and the hidden in plain sites.

Andrew Jdaydani | Dunedin, New Zealand | Post 1

Andrew Jdaydani | Dunedin, New Zealand | Post 1

The activities in which I’ve participated within the past few days astounds me. After an entertaining and food-filled 13-hour trip to the wonderful city of Brisbane, Australia, I flew a couple more hours southeast to Auckland, New Zealand. On the flight, after ten minutes of attempting some frustrating sudokus and word searches on my own, I struck up a conversation with two fantastic people—Cara and Valter. Breaking bread together, we laughed and enjoyed the tasty Lebanese delicacies that my mother had provided for the remainder of the flight.

Full of more energy than the Energizer Bunny himself, I arrived in Auckland. Luckily, customs allowed me to retain all of the comforting food my mother had sent with me—score! After customs, I spent a couple panicked moments searching for my ride from the airport—the friend of my friend’s sister, whom I had never before met. She finally spotted me with my two new friends, and together we commenced our Kiwi adventure. We visited the beautiful bays, ate delicious fusion foods in the renovated Victoria Market, sipped on mugs of melted chocolate, and drove through the streets of Auckland on the left side of the road.

Bright and early the next morning, I journeyed back to the airport for an IFSA-Butler group orientation and New Zealand tour. Hours later, I and my soon-to-become close friends landed in the beautiful scenic peninsula of Whangaparaoa, where scenic mountaintops filled with sheep and adventure awaited us. Every day of the trip seemed like two considering the amount of activities we crammed into a mere 24 hours. Nearly an hour after arriving in Whangapraoa, we hopped into kayaks and paddled out to sea, and over the course of two days, we mountain biked, swam, rock climbed, played rugby, did ROGAINE (Rugged Outdoor Group Activity Involving Navigation and Endurance), visited hot springs, enjoyed water slides, and bonded with 40 fellow students on the mountaintops and under the stars. After two full days, we had only completed the first half of this orientation; the next activity comprised of a true Maori welcome. The Marae, the Maori house and cultural center, provided a venue for an incredible experience filled with cultural education and great food. We experienced a traditional welcome, chose chiefs, watched a Haka, and learned a Maori greeting.

After returning to Auckland, my study abroad group finally headed to our final destination of Dunedin and the South Island. Our first couple of days in Dunedin were similarly packed with active undertakings, during which I roamed the city, university, and flats I would soon call my home. Much of the week included a period of acclimation as I settled into my first house-style living. Grocery shopping, banking, bedding, writing, and exploring filled much of my time, but I still managed to see the most gorgeous scenery and realize the extent to which Kiwis are spoiled with the peninsula’s beauty. While on the peninsula, I stood a foot away from a sea lion, saw the mighty albatross and their ten-foot wingspan, and fell in love with the country’s landscape—and all of this happened just in my first three days in Dunedin!

On Thursday, I traveled to Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world and center for adrenaline junkies everywhere. Staying in a hostel, climbing trees that hung over the ocean, and eating a famous Ferg Burger before street luging filled only half of my day-trip. The night’s experiences included visiting the local bar—which brimmed with thrill-seeking world travelers—horizontal bungee-jumping, participating in a billiards tournament, and experimenting with acrobatic stunts that ultimately required the relocation of a couple fingers.

With so much of my trip left, endless adventures await.

Skyla Lowery | Bologna, Italy | Post 1

Skyla Lowery | Bologna, Italy | Post 1

Gli Italiani

When you move to a foreign country for six months, you expect to learn about the people and the culture there, as well as to temporarily adopt their way of life. In my case, I’ve adopted Bologna, located in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, Italy, as my international home. The perfect place to study abroad, Bologna is filled with college students and people who refuse to speak English to foreigners—as opposed to locals who cater to tourists in major cities like Florence, Rome, and Venice—which forces visitors to familiarize themselves with the language. Small enough to redner walking almost anywhere feasible and large enough to provide a constant stream of new faces, Bologna also provides an excellent sampling of the Italian population since the students who study here—apart from the many international students like myself—come from all over the country. Even though Italy is a fairly small country—roughly the size of the state of New Mexico—each region boasts fierce differences in language, culture, and food. In the past month or so of learning firsthand about the Italian lifestyle, I think the most important aspect of Italian culture is how the locals’ emotions have shaped almost every aspect of it.

Italians are like the Opera: they’re all about emotions. But not just any emotions—the feelings expressed in the Opera are always isolated and extremely intense. When angry, the soprano sings her aria with the most forceful feelings of vendetta possible. When pining for the soprano with his everlasting love, the tenor exudes an affection so strong that he would die for her in an instant.  The Italians live their daily lives in a similarly exaggerated manner: they eat with ferocity, laugh with joy, love with all the passion capable of a human spirit, and cry with the pain of a thousand broken hearts. Their hand gestures only aid in the expression of these emotions. This vivacity constitutes a characteristic of the Italians that is vastly different from those of Americans. Perhaps we tend to numb ourselves to the world with all of the technology and medications constantly at our fingertips—Italy’s technology is stuck in the nineties and getting your hands on adderall proves more difficult than acquiring large quantities of Roofies—but I feel that Americans may never experience the world with the intensity that Italians do.

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A friend of mine who studied in Italy last semester told me that the one thing he regretted was not spending more time with actual Italians, so when I arrived in Bologna, I set out to do just that. Since that Italians are generally very friendly people and that I’m a pretty likeable person myself, making Italian friends has been quite an easy task. Chiara, the adorable girl who works at the gym I frequent, studies Art History—like myself—and has introduced me to a number of other interesting people: Luca #1 plays music and is loaning me his extra guitar while I’m here. Luca #2 accompanies me to the gym, where we help each other learn our respective languages. Davide, Maria, Massimo, Giacomo, and a few others have also woven their way into my Italian friend circle. The woman who runs the vintage shop down the street, her adorable dog Zene—who I can pet when I miss my own puppy—and Max, who serves me coffee every morning, round out my group of Italian acquaintances.

Speaking of dear Max, he’s easily become one of the most vibrant characters of my daily life in Bologna. An older man, probably in his late fifties, Max sports a protruding belly, a balding head, and kind blue eyes that sparkle behind the glasses that slide down to the end of his nose.  Every morning when my four friends and I stumble sleepily into his café, he knows each of our orders by heart and recites them to us as if we were his oldest, dearest customers. Max wears a crisp blue suit on weekdays, but on Saturday and Sunday, he breaks out his sweat pants, pullover sweater, tennis shoes, and scarf—the universal European accessory—for a look that I like to call “Relaxed Max.” Since my friends’ classes as well as my own have begun and we’ve gotten on different schedules, I’ve started going to Max’s café by myself more often, and have fostered a special, more personal relationship with him. All a tad jealous, my friends assure me that I’m clearly his favorite, making me absurdly happy.  Sometimes when I’m sitting by myself at the bar, drinking my cappuccino and eating my brioche alla marmelata, Max will look over at me and stick his tongue out teasingly as if I were a small child (admittedly, I do usually react like a small child would). He also gets quite a kick out of the fact that I hail from Hawaii, attend school in New York, and now live in Bologna; Max sometimes brags to fellow café patrons about his “favorite customer’s” worldliness.

I have this theory about Max: he might be Bologna’s biggest mob boss. Only based on a handful of evidence, the theory seems to make sense—in a ridiculous sort of way. One day as I sat alone drinking my cappuccino, I overheard Max giving another customer extremely detailed instructions. I was only half listening until I heard Max say something about a car, followed by his setting a pair of car keys on the bar and pulling out 300 crisp euro notes from a much larger wad of bills folded in his suit pocket. After taking the keys and the money, the customer left the bar quickly. In addition to this suspicious scene, Max’s sons, who are roughly my age, provide the only hired help in the bar—clearly, he wants to keep the business in the family. Further, a café could provide a cover for a number of secret operations! Or maybe I’ve just watched one too many mafia movies.

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Another character involved in my Bolognese adventure, I like to call Stalker Steve, whom I met one Saturday night in a bar while I was out with some friends.  The encounter was as innocent as any: he bought me a drink, I watched him like a hawk to ensure that he didn’t Roofie me, he walked me home, and that was that—the night was completely unremarkable. Stalker Steve, however, saw this night as the beginning of a love rivaling that of even the most melodramatic Hollywood films. A few days later, I attended an art show to which Stalker Steve had invited me, making sure to bring a couple friends for safety and support. After the show, my friends and I went out for a drink with Stalker Steve and his two buddies. As we walked to the bar, Stalker Steve began proclaiming that he was falling in love with me, that he couldn’t stop thinking about me, etc. Seeing as we’d only known each other for less than a couple hours, I started to get severely creeped-out.

After that night, I decided to ignore Stalker Steve until he got the hint that I wanted nothing to do with him.  Unfortunately, he never got that hint. Instead, Stalker Steve took to bombarding me with calls and texts. I finally replied, stating my discomfort with the situation and my insistence on not seeing him again. Mistakenly thinking that the whole situation had disappated, I returned home from the gym that night to find him waiting for me in the hallway of my dorm. I took him outside, told him as forcefully as I could—in both Italian and English—that I didn’t want to see him anymore, and commanded him to leave me alone. To this, Stalker Steve meekly replied with pathetic attempts to once again profess his love. I later discussed the situation with the building’s doorman, only to discover that Stalker Steve had waited for me for over two hours. I instructed both doormen—both of whom are named Guido—to threaten to call the police if Stalker Steve returned, and promptly blocked his phone number.

The most unfortunate outcome of the Stalker Steve fiasco was that it robbed me of the comfort I had just started to feel toward living in Bologna, replacing that sense of belonging with anxious fear. Stalker Steve returned to my dorm once more early last week with a bouquet of flowers, but thankfully Guido #2—the older, angrier Guido—directed him to leave. I don’t know what exactly Guido said to Stalker Steve, but it must have had an effect; the last time I saw him, as I was out having lunch with friends, he rounded the corner, seemed genuinely shocked to see me, shot me the most hurt look I’ve ever seen, and quickly ran away. Though I’m sorry he feels crushed, I don’t place the blame on myself; his own illusions and misguided feelings ultimately broke his heart.

If I’ve learned anything from the Italians, I’ve learned that when you feel an emotion bubbling up inside of you, you should wave your hands violently in the air and scream in the street until you’ve sufficiently expressed yourself. Whether that emotion is one of sadness, happiness, or anger, you should sing an aria about it and think of nothing else but that one feeling. Just as is true of the Opera, you can conflate even the smallest things to seem like the end of the world. Considering this, perhaps I’ll retain a bit of my American perspective and reason to prevent myself from falling in love with the next person I meet on the street—Stalker Steve, take note.

Perhaps we Americans can never experience the world with the fiery intensity that the Italians do, but perhaps we’re also better off because of that. The Italians seem to view life collective rose-colored glasses, romanticizing every aspect of the country from the art and architecture to the food and the landscape. This is not without good reason, for all of these features of Italy are just as beautiful, romantic, and delicious as depicted in movies and books. I can’t yet tell whether this passionate outlook on life ultimately hinders or helps Italian society; for now, I’m sure of my happiness as a semester-long tourist in this rose-tinted world, eager to experience the romance of walking down small cobblestone streets on my way to class, eating my lunch with a glass of wine, and feeling the daily euphoria of my new Italian life.

Ruth Bolster | Stratford-upon-Avon, England | Post 1

Ruth Bolster | Stratford-upon-Avon, England | Post 1

As one might imagine, London is January is dreary, cold, and damp. While these characteristics do not detract from the city’s quirky red busses and gothic spires, they do, unfortunately, make for shit pictures. However, there was one spectacular day when the sun did come out and I was finally able to trade in my polka-dotted wellies for my more stylish pair of brown boots with a three inch heel. Fortunately this magnificent weather corresponded with a day trip I took to the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, located in the county of Warwickshire.

Suburban and quaint as all English towns tend to be, Stratford-upon-Avon is approximately 75 miles northwest of London, which equates to a two-and-a-half hour train ride from London Kings Cross. Train tickets can be a bit pricy at £51 (or $82.62) one way. However, if you are willing to sacrifice some sleep and pay for your ticket in advance, it is possible to take the 6:17 a.m. train for only £6 (or $9.72). Tickets for roundtrip journeys must be purchased separately, so planning ahead and price shopping on the National Rail website could end up saving you money that you would rather spend someplace else (like on lunch, or on your spring break trip to Barcelona). In addition to taking the train, many university student unions sponsor subsidized bus trips. At University College London (UCL), the student union hosts “Give-It-A-Go” jaunts to various cities, attractions, and regions in the United Kingdom, including Cambridge, Stonehenge, and Wales. Ticket prices vary depending on the trip; however, tickets for the Stratford-upon-Avon bus had cost me only £16 ($25.92).

Stratford-upon-Avon is perhaps most famous for being the town in which William Shakespeare lived and died. The town’s tributes to the bard range from Shakespeare inspired coffee houses and bridal shops (aptly named “The Bard” and “Shakespeare in Love,” respectively) to the Gower monument, which features a statue of Shakespeare overlooking his most memorable creations—Lady Macbeth, Falstaff, Prince Hal, and Hamlet. The Royal Shakespeare Company is also headquartered in Stratford, with the troop’s home theater located on the banks of the sparkling Avon River.

The most historic buildings associated with the playwright have been preserved through the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and are open to visitors year round. The buildings include the house in which Shakespeare was born; the home of Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, which is now a working Tutor farm; and Hall’s Croft, the house of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna. Shakespeare purchased his final home, New Place, in 1597 after establishing himself as a playwright in London. This house is believed to be the site at which he penned The Tempest, and is also the place in which he died in 1616. The house was demolished in 1759 and, over the past year, has been the site of an archeological dig sponsored by the University of Birmingham. Through this dig, treasures such as jewelry presumably owned by the Shakespeare family have been unearthed. The foundations of New Place, as well as the adjacent house of Shakespeare’s granddaughter, are also open to visitors.

Shakespeare's birthplace and childhood home.
Shakespeare’s birthplace and childhood home.

The cottage of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway (no relation to the woman who recently “Dreamed a Dream,” I assure you), is located about a mile outside of the town’s center. While it is possible to get there by car, those looking for a more scenic experience may want to take the narrow footpath that winds through people’s backyards and across grassy fields. In one such backyard, I was surprised to discover two ponies, casually grazing. The dog walkers and mothers with small toddling children who also frequented the path were incredibly friendly and willing to give me directions when I thought I was lost. Although the grounds were surprisingly lush for mid-winter, Hathaway’s thatched roof cottage is surrounded by vegetable and flower gardens, which I have been assured are most beautiful during the spring and summer months. The lavender maze, which has been the site of many a marriage proposal, is also a fragrant, highly sensory experience recommended for anyone who is not too allergic to pollen.

Anne Hathaway's cottage and gardens.
Anne Hathaway’s cottage and gardens.

A ticket to tour all five sites cost £19.35 if purchased online and will grant you unlimited access to houses owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for twelve months.

Horses on the way to Anne Hathaway's cottage.
Horses on the way to Anne Hathaway’s cottage.

Although not associated with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Church of the Holy Trinity, at which Shakespeare was baptized, married and buried, still stands on the banks of the Avon. Built in 1210, the chapel’s grounds are covered in grave markers dating back to the seventeenth century, offering a morbid yet fascinating testament to how long the church has been a staple of Stratford community. The church is still heavily used by the townspeople, and there are portions of the chapel sectioned off for private prayer, bible study, and Sunday school.

Rather charmingly, the door leading into the church has a clearance of only 5 feet, forcing even the most petite visitors to duck inside (three inch heels were not the most appropriate for this one). While there may be something unorthodox about charging people to enter any church, the fee to enter Holy Trinity, being only 50 pence for students with a school ID, is negligible and, as I repeatedly told myself, should not warrant a complaint. Inside, visitors will find a facsimile of the church register recording Shakespeare’s baptism and burial. In the chancel at the very end of the aisle lie the tombs of Shakespeare, his wife Anne, his daughter Susanna, and her husband John Hall.

Gravestones outside of Holy Trinity Church.
Gravestones outside of Holy Trinity Church.

Adjacent to them is the Shakespeare’s funerary monument, which features a wooden carving of the playwright with a Latin inscription that translates to “A Pylian in judgment, a Socrates in genius, a Maro in art. The earth buries him, the people mourn him, Olympus possesses him.” Perhaps to the people of Stratford, and, in many respects, to the entire English-speaking world, Shakespeare was an Olympian resident on earth who was more in tune with the Greek Muses than anyone else ever will be.

Although Shakespeare’s presence is keenly felt throughout the town, those who are less excited by the playwright’s life will find Stratford-upon-Avon delightful for its tiny china- and tea-shops and its attractive cafes. The Avon is also a picturesque river filled with swans and other wildlife, and it is perfect for both rowing and long scenic walks along the banks. This tiny town, with its literary heritage and distinctly English architecture is worth a visit for either a day or a weekend and will not disappoint those looking for a slower-paced way to spend some time outside of bustling London.

Emily Dowling | Paris, France | Post 1

Emily Dowling | Paris, France | Post 1

The Cheesier Side of Life

When I first arrived—jetlagged and surrounded by unfamiliar people—at the Charles de Gaulle airport, I could only think about two things: the next time I would get to sleep, and the moment I would get to eat my first piece of real French cheese. As a lifelong cheese-lover and admitted Francophile, cheese had become one of the central elements of the elaborate Parisian fantasies preceding my journey abroad—what type I would buy, which wine I would drink it with, which monument I would visit while eating it—but I have rapidly seen that the French cheese scene is even more impressive and culturally important than I first imagined.

During our first lengthy meal together, my host family wasted no time in explaining to me the significance of cheese in French cuisine and culture. After the meat course (yes, all of our meals include at least three courses), my host mother emerged from the kitchen with an elaborate cheese platter boasting five different varieties of cheese. We then proceeded to enjoy an entire course that consisted solely of slices of cheese and bread—an experience that, for me, may have eclipsed the entire rest of the meal. As I stuffed myself, my host mother informed me that there are over 400 different types of cheese in France, and she encouraged me to sample them all during my three-month stay in Paris. Challenge accepted.

In addition to the incredible bonus of dining on artisan cheeses during all of my meals, France’s love for and meticulous production of cheese has enhanced my abroad experience in many other ways, most notably in terms of money. In the United States, nice cheeses are certainly prized, but function as more of a gourmet food item due to their high price. In France, however, since almost all of the cheese is made locally and exists in considerable abundance, quality cheese costs surprisingly little—ideal for a college student’s budget. As I stood for the first time in Franprix, my neighborhood supermarket, my infatuation with cheese overwhelmed me and I ended up buying five different varieties of cheese, since I naturally required a cheese from each milk-producing animal—cow, goat, sheep—as well as a selection of hard and soft cheeses. Tempted to hug the cashier, I ecstatically discovered that this bout of indulgence cost me less than 20 euros, thus becoming the most cost-effective purchase that I have made thus far during my time abroad.

This week, my love for and understanding of French cheese was taken to an entirely new level when I had the opportunity to attend a degustation de fromage (cheese tasting) with my study-abroad program. After arriving at the fromagerie—the French term for a cheese and wine shop—we were greeted by a man carrying a tray heaped with numerous huge blocks of cheese. As we eyed the cheese, he explained the entire cheese-making process—a veritable culinary art form. The following is what I gleaned from his description, although I suspect that some information was lost in translation: once you have obtained high-quality milk and allowed it sour, you then curdle the milk so that it begins to clump together into curds, which are then cut, heated, and molded. The cheese is then left to mature, often in a cave in which bacteria and humidity help to impart a specific flavor into the cheese. At all stages of the cheese-making process, supposedly minor changes result in notable differences in texture, taste, and rind; the French have perfected the minute details of these steps to produce hundreds of different types of cheese.

The old fromager then gave our group ten varieties of cheese from numerous regions of France to sample—five hard cheeses and five soft. He paired all of the soft cheeses with a red wine and all of the hard cheeses with a white, and instructed us to eat half of each piece of cheese before tasting the wine and half after tasting the wine in order to “open” the flavor of the cheese. We also tasted the same type of cheese at multiple ages to see how the maturation process altered the flavor and texture of the cheese—the young chèvre (goat cheese) that we tasted, for example, had only aged for a few months to yield a soft texture and mild flavor, while the older chèvre, aged for over a year, was so hard and salty that it sucked all of the moisture out of my mouth.

The cheeses all tasted amazing—the aged compté, though, was my favorite, and I’d highly recommend that you try it—but the fromagerie owner’s knowledge of cheese-making and flavor was truly astounding. The fact that a Parisian can base his entire livelihood around cheese speaks to the product’s importance as a staple of French cuisine and culture. In my experience thus far, the French’s love of cheese has proven pleasantly accurate—hopefully, I can continue to fulfill all of my cheese-inspired dreams in the upcoming months of my studies abroad.