Seven papers, twenty-plus hours of lectures, and the difficulty of choosing between several classes made my first trip with the Tramping Club perfectly timed. Adding to the promise of relaxation was the fact that the campground we were headed to was called Paradise—freakin’ Paradise!
Philosophy 101’s “Mind and Reality” was the first class I had taken in over two-and-a-half months and lived up to the brief online description of “How the brain constructs reality” with its interesting content. It was also the first class I had taken with over 150 individuals enrolled. Yes, that is right—one-five-zero. This is a fairly large lecture, and it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. However, the size also makes it difficult to find a group to study with, or to even really know anyone.
My English class was similarly sized, but had less appealing topics, making it easier to narrow down what I wanted to write about for the paper. “Human Body Systems” was already in my schedule for sure, despite the massive number of 300 students in my class—and that’s not including the two other sections of the course that were going on at the same time, as well as the three other sections in the morning.
I had already chosen “Sensation and Perception” as a class for which I would transfer the credit back to Vassar. Moreover, it turned out to have a great lecturer with phenomenally impressive slides.
Next on my list of classes was “Sports Nutrition,” which was okay, but a bit too rudimentary for my particularly hard-science nature. However, that class was still better than “English Communication.” Learning the Maori language was for sure not happening with a very boring lecturer and particularly unexciting material. Seeing as I had to decide between the seven classes soon, my choice was becoming clearer.
Finally, after taking “Improvisation in the Theater” with a small group of fellow students, I found another class I definitely wanted to be in. At this point, I had chosen my four classes: “Mind and Reality,” “Human Body Systems,” “Improvisation,” and “Sensation and Perception.”
During the week, there was a great brewery tour and dinner provided by IFSA-Butler at the fantastic Speight’s Restaurant. The good food continued throughout the week when my first rugby practice excitingly involved some sausage rolls at the end of one practice. It was great to learn rugby from other athletes who have such a comprehensive knowledge of the game.
By the end of the week, it was time for some good old tramping!
While London is a treasure trove of shopping, historical sites, and killer Thai food, one of the city’s best assets is undoubtedly its location. As a metropolitan hub, London is only a short train, plane, or even bus ride away from most major cities in continental Europe, making travel within the continent easy and somewhat less painful than journeying to Europe from America. Because flights across the English Channel are significantly less expensive than flights across “The Pond,” I decided to take advantage of my location (and my month-long Easter break) by trekking across northern Europe with a few good friends.
The first part of any adventure starts with actually planning the adventure. It was Danielle—my best friend, traveling companion, and fellow transplanted Vassarian—who originally suggested that we travel to countries that we would otherwise have little inclination to visit if we were back in the States. Because we could envision our older, richer selves planning weeklong trips to France and Italy, those countries were out of the running. Eventually we settled on a route that would take us across northern Europe with stops in Belgium and the Netherlands before leading us up to Denmark.
When booking our trains and hostels, we found that thorough research and extensive price comparisons saved us hundreds of Euro, allowing us to travel relatively inexpensively. For example, although we both heard much about the Eurail pass—which, for €288 would allow us to travel through up to five countries on certain pre-selected days—we both found that it would be less expensive to buy our tickets individually and directly from the train companies. We also decided to take an overnight train from Amsterdam to Copenhagen, saving us fifteen hours of daylight as well as money on hostels. Although price and cleanliness were two of the primary factors we considered when choosing our overnight accommodations, we also looked for hostels that were within walking distance of the city center, ultimately saving ourselves money on public transportation costs. We also looked for hostels that included breakfast in the cost of our stay. Even if it meant paying a few extra Euro, we both decided that not having to scrounge an unfamiliar area for food and caffeine first thing in the morning would be a good idea. Reviews on the websites HostelWorld and HostelBookers.com were invaluable in helping us decide which hostels would best meet our criteria.
Bright-eyed despite our lack of mascara and coffee, we left our dorm at 5:40 the morning of our departure, leaving plenty of time for us to go through security and immigration before boarding our 7:10 Eurostar train to Antwerp via Brussels. I had been told by a number of reliable sources that Brussels was somewhat “sketchy,” so naturally when we transferred trains at the Belgian capital, I kept my eye out for any evidence of illicit activity. However, after witnessing none, I imagine that these sources were referring to an illegal waffle and chocolate trade.
Around noon, Danielle and I finally arrived in Antwerp, a glistening Flemish city situated on the banks of the river Scheldt. The name Antwerp—or as it is referred to by the locals, “Antwerpen”—comes from “werpen,” the Dutch word for hand. Legend has it that long ago, a giant who lived on the banks of the Scheldt used to terrorize locals by forcing them to pay a hefty toll to cross the river. Sick of the giant’s cruelty, a young hero named Brabo killed him, chopping off the giant’s hand and flinging it into the rive in the process. This mythical scene is immortalized by a fountain, which stands in front of the Town Hall in the Grote Markt. Statues and icons featuring the giant’s hand can be found throughout the city.
As well as for its mythology, Antwerp is perhaps best known as the hometown of Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. His house and workshop, which feature his private collection as well as paintings by his students, is open to the public. For individuals under the age of 26, admission is €1. Other attractions in Antwerp include the Cathedral of Our Lady, the tallest cathedral in the Low Countries, and the Plantin-Moretus Museum, which houses the collection of rare manuscripts and printing presses used by renown printers Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus. Admissions are €3 and €1, respectively.
After three days of museum hopping and eating our weight in French fries, mussels, and other Belgian specialties, Danielle and I packed our bags and caught another early morning train to Amsterdam, where we met up with our friends Samantha and Alex. To say that Amsterdam is a beautiful city does not do justice to its breathtaking system of canals and adorably crooked houses. Although it is perfectly acceptable to tour the city by foot, most Amsterdammers—approximately 600,000 of them—prefer to pedal alongside the canals by bicycle. However, when our friend Alex revealed that he never learned how to ride a bike, we instead decided to tour the city by boat, and were consequentially treated to spectacular views of the city’s neighborhoods and landmarks.
Although our visit to the city occurred exactly one week before the Rjiks Museum reopened after a ten-year closure, we were able to see the city’s collection of Van Goghs at the Hermitage. Due to its high level of tourist traffic, it is recommended that you buy your tickets to the exhibit beforehand to avoid standing in line. Fortunately, our hostel sold tickets to this and other attractions in the city at a discounted price.
While Amsterdam may be famous for its coffee shops and for producing Heineken, few people realize that the city is also one of the best places to get Indonesian food in the Western Hemisphere. Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands until the late 1940s, and Dutch sailors naturally brought many of the country’s cultural practices and cuisines back to Amsterdam.
After bidding farewell to Sam and Alex, Danielle and I clamored aboard our fifteen-hour overnight train to Copenhagen. In addition to sharing a cramped sleeping car with four random strangers, our train screeched to a halt at the German border and all passengers were forced to present their passports to a German police officer combing the train for illegal immigrants. Needless to say, I’m glad I had the experience, but do not look forward to repeating it anytime soon.
With its clear blue skies and endless views of the Øresund—the strait that separates the Baltic from the Atlantic—Copenhagen is even more beautiful than Amsterdam, if such a thing is possible. After initially getting lost on our way to the hostel, we eventually found our friend Breanna and began exploring. The first thing that all young women apparently do when they enter Copenhagen is search for the Little Mermaid, a statue erected in tribute to Danish author and folklorist Hans Christian Andersen. A native of Copenhagen, Andersen is buried, along with Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard, in Assistens Cemetery in the Nørrebro district of the city.
In theme with fairytales and princesses, the Danish monarchy, led by Queen Margarethe II, has a vibrant presence in Copenhagen. Visitors can watch the changing of the guard outside of Amalienborg Palace, or can view the Danish crown jewels on display at Rosenborg Castle.
With its historic link to the Vikings and its proximity to the Baltic Sea, the Netherlands unsurprisingly boast a cuisine that consists primarily of fish. However, Copenhagen is also famous for Smørrebrød, a piece of dense brown farmer’s bread covered in butter and topped with pieces of fish or Danish meatballs. This specialty is naturally best paired with Carlsberg beer, brewed in Denmark.
After three full days of exploring, walking, and eating, Danielle and I left Copenhagen and returned to London, exhausted but thoroughly pleased with our journey. It is tempting to end this post with brain-numbing clichés about it being “an experience of a lifetime” and “a trip I will always remember.” However, I will say that I realize my time abroad will in all likelihood be the only opportunity I have to travel extensively within the next ten or so years. For those who plan on studying in a foreign country, I recommend seeing as many places as your budget will allow, trying as many new foods as possible, and never taking your opportunities for granted.
My study abroad program CIEE follows the Japanese school year. This means that we exchange students entered the university at the same time as the freshmen did, which also meant that we were able to share in their orientation week activities, including their club fair, and that I continued to feel a bit like I was a freshman again myself.
Joining a club in Japan is a much stricter affair than back in the States. Clubs are divided into two groups—bukatsudō (部活動) and circles (サークル). Both demand an attendance commitment to the group and often hold multiple meetings per week, with the bukatsudō being more stringent than the circles. Keeping this in mind, I dove into the jam-packed campus on the first day of the job fair. I immediately had flyers foisted upon me from all directions, and as I barely discerned the club representatives’ pitches over the din of shouted advertisements in both Japanese and English, I decided to base my decision off of the initial newcomers’ meetings.
By the day of the club fair, my program’s two-week-long orientation had finally come to a close, with the grand finale being a group trip to the historic city of Kamakura, the birthplace of samurai, located about an hour-and-a-half south of Tokyo. Groups of seven abroad students were assigned local tour guides, who led us along a predetermined route. My group’s guide, an older lady who spoke in halting English, had an enthusiastic yet grandmotherly attitude, and walked with a limp from a recent injury as she took us to a raised unpaved pathway in the center of the city. Apparently we had just missed the area at its most beautiful, when all of the trees lining the side of the path were covered in sakura blossoms.
We passed under the large red gate for purification, a torii, and were on our way. As we progressed, the path narrowed—an ancient defensive mechanism against belligerent forces. My group shuffled into single file, slowing down for our guide.
At the end of the pathway, we crossed the road before coming to three stone bridges. The curved center bridge was historically reserved solely for the shogun, while all other passerby had to use the flat ones at the bridge’s left and right. After traversing a wide pathway lined with booths selling various fruit-based sweets, we arrived at a large Shintō shrine. The shrine had a great stone stairway with 100 steps; our guide waved us ahead to join with another group, as her ankle held her back from partaking in this particular section of the tour.
At lunchtime, our groups reconvened at a restaurant near the train station, where preordered meals awaited us. After the meal, we were released for a short shopping break. Having just eaten, I was still not dissuaded from sampling some of the local specialties, such as a sweet purple potato ice cream and a croquette of the same flavor. While weaving through the crowd in the shopping district in a rush to catch up with my group, I noticed that many students wore middle school uniforms. It seemed like Kamakura was a popular location for not only foreign tourists, but also for school outings.
From the main train station, we took a local train line to an area of Kamakura closer to the seashore. Here, we wound through backroads, crisscrossing the railroad tracks and making our way through a residential area that felt peaceful compared to the background noise-filled Tokyo. We arrived at Kotokuin Temple, within which we saw a tremendously large Buddha statue built in the 1200s and measuring nearly 44 feet high. Tourists were all around, using typical camera tricks to pretend that they held the giant Buddha between their fingers or within the palm of their hand (at my guide’s urging, I had her take one of me, as well). For a 10 yen fee, we were allowed to walk inside the hollow statue. After just a few seconds climbing a dark stairway, we were on the inside, which was brightly lit from the sunshine coming through two squares of the giant Buddha’s back propped open to serve as windows.
Our next stop—the Hase-dera Buddhist temple—was but a short walk away. Home to a giant wooden statue and a beautiful view of the Kamakura Bay, the temple also featured a quite somber area filled with small statues that my guide explained were placed there for the protection of children who died prematurely.
The tour ended at the train station, where it had begun. My group thanked our guide, who urged us to return on Sunday for a festival that would display Edo-Period-style mounted archery and other such historical delights. We had free reign to stay or return to Tokyo as we pleased, so I opted to linger a while with two friends. We struck up a conversation with a fellow manning a small taiyaki stand selling miniature versions of the sweet fish-shaped, pancake-like, filling-stuffed treats. The traditional filling is sweet red bean paste, but the stand had a much greater variety, of which we purchased a sampling.
Although I am a Japanese major, the department’s focus on literature rather than culture meant that I had yet to take a single class on Japanese history. I appreciated the chance to have this experience in person rather than from a textbook, and hope to seek out more places to explore, perhaps on unguided wandering with friends or even on solo ventures.
My study abroad program seeks to immerse its students in French language and culture to the greatest possible degree. Indeed, we live with French host families, take courses in French at Parisian universities, and even have the opportunity to work at a stage—a French internship. The first week, we were presented with numerous internship options, ranging from working in a wine store to taking photos of French cheeses for a fromagerie to hanging paintings at a Parisian gallery. Since I have been a tutor in Poughkeepsie schools during my time at Vassar, I chose to try a stage as an English teaching assistant in a French elementary school. “How hard could it be?” I thought, “I’m fluent in English!”
As it turned out, I greatly underestimated the challenges of my new job. After expressing my interest in the position, my program director called me into her office to discuss the details—I would be working at a school on Rue Lepic, a street in the northernmost part of Paris, in the wee hours of Friday morning, giving English lessons to two fourth-grade classes. The next day, I snoozed my alarm several times after being jolted awake at the painful hour of 6:30 a.m., and set out to find Rue Lepic, giving myself ample time to spare in case of Metro disasters or wrong turns. After a lengthy, crowded journey on the Metro, I emerged at Place de Clichy, a stop in the eighteenth arrondissement right next to the famed, hilly Parisian area of Montmartre, former home of many famed artists, such as Picasso, Van Gogh, and Dali. I navigated the winding streets until I found Rue Lepic, a tiny road leading up the side of a steep hill.
One of the professors met me at the door of the school and led me upstairs to the classroom where I was met by the stares of 25 French fourth-grade students who were waiting, pencils in hand, to start their English lesson. The next thirty minutes were a blur of anxiety and stuttering as I tried to teach them how to tell time in English by drawing clocks on the board and trying to explain why the United States doesn’t use a 24-hour time system in a combination of English and broken French. Every time a student whispered to a friend or laughed, I was convinced that they were ridiculing me, already aware of my painful awkwardness and lack of teaching experience. Their teacher spoke very limited English, and thus could only watch as I bumbled through the lesson, smiling encouragingly at me when I looked especially panicked. After the class, he gave me a book of possible ideas for my next English lessons and told me to try not to be so nervous.
I came back to the Lepic School week after week, gradually growing more confident in my lessons and teaching skills. I searched online for simple worksheets about body parts, pets, and clothes that I could use to teach the students basic vocabulary. Each week, the students grew more and more comfortable with me, maybe a little too much so; they became no longer afraid to ask me questions or speak up in class, and started correcting my French as I tried to explain English concepts. They even started getting up in the middle of the lesson to chat with friends, smiling slyly at me when I told them to return to their seat.
I started searching for fun, easy games I could use to help the students practice vocabulary while also engaging their competitive, social energy. I brought in simple lyrics to English songs and had the students learn them and sing them to me—having a group of fourth-graders serenade me with an off-key version of the Beatle’s hit “Yesterday” definitely made the weeks of difficulty seem worth it. When their professor suggested that I teach the students about “American” foods, I created a lesson about S’mores, which do not exist in France (perhaps due to the non-existence of graham crackers in the country). After repeating the ingredients and steps to help the students practice vocabulary, we made a “French” version of the S’more, using Speculoos cookies and German chocolate to replace the graham crackers and Hershey bars.
As my stay in Paris and my time as an English assistant come to a close, I realize that I have had a unique opportunity to observe the workings of the French elementary school system, which are structured much differently from the experiences I remember from my early school years. French students, even at age nine or ten, take meticulous, color-coded notes, studiously writing down everything the professor says with lightning speed. Their English is impressive—even though Lepic has less funding and fewer resources than other Parisian schools, it is evident that the students have had considerable exposure to English. Learning other languages is a huge part of a French education, and the system’s dedication certainly pays off—my host mother speaks French, English, and German, and all of her children speak at least two languages at an advanced level. I am happy to leave knowing that I could contribute to this education, and am thankful to have been welcomed so readily, despite my inexperience.
Though culturally England is fairly similar to the United States, one of the most unfamiliar aspects of studying abroad at Oxford is the academic experience. As I’ve explained in a previous post, Oxford features a tutorial system which necessitates a fair amount of writing, averaging about a paper-and-a-half per week.
As a humanities major, I’m not a stranger to writing papers, and as a writing consultant in the Writing Center, I’m used to reading a wide variety of papers and prompts. It took me a while, though, to realize that Oxford requires a different type of writing than what I was used to. At Vassar, creativity is prized and originality can go a long way in earning a good grade on an assignment. Thus, for my first assignment at Oxford—a paper on internal labor markets—even though I was assigned a straightforward question, I tried hard to make my thesis something interesting and creative.
As the weeks went by, however, I realized that my tutor was not interested in how I managed to make her fairly bland essay questions into exciting papers. Rather, she was only interested in how thoroughly I understood the assignment and the larger topic for the week. So I started to change the way that I was writing. Sure, in one of my last papers, I attempted to engage with a discussion of the nature of “inevitability” by asking if the decline of trade unions was inevitable, but overall I stuck more closely to only answering the prompt.
By my final paper, I had abandoned my attempts to make my essays creative and exciting. I wrote that paper slightly grumpily, knowing that when I returned to Vassar, my writing would be bland and formulaic.
While my papers may have been slightly boring, I’ve realized that Oxford’s writing demands have improved my writing in some ways. In short, my writing assignments have taught me how to write in a clear and concise fashion. If I could answer the question in four pages, I could stop after four pages. At Vassar, when a professor told me that I could stop after answering the question, he/she really meant that I should answer the question and then derive some sort of larger meaning from that answer. At Oxford, I only had to answer the question. Even more strange was that fact that there was a right answer to the prompt. I didn’t need to be creative, I only needed to be right. Sure, the resulting papers were far less nuanced, but it was not something that I had necessarily been asked to do at Vassar.
Moreover, I learned how to write quickly. At Vassar, I’d often write, obsess over, and perfect my essays before turning them in. At Oxford, I’d have to get my papers completed in a far shorter time, forcing me to turn out papers in a few days.
Although I’m only halfway through my time at Oxford, I’ve come to the conclusion that Oxford not only has a different educational system, it also has different educational values. Yes, Oxford wants its students to be independent and articulate; its tutorial system forces students to learn by themselves and then make arguments on the spot. This past term, I’ve taught myself more than I have in any Vassar class. But, at its core, I don’t think Oxford is an liberal arts institution.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with not being a liberal arts institution. Oxford has advantages that liberal arts schools could never give its’ students. Next term, I’m taking The Ancient Roman Economy and (Greco-Roman) Cultural Heritage Law, courses I’d never be able to take at Vassar. There are also far more networking opportunities at Oxford, as well as an emphasis on postgraduate skills. But as a liberal arts student, I value—and sometimes miss—the freedom and academic latitude that liberal arts institutions give to their students.
Ultimately, in addition to challenging me to write in different ways, Oxford has shown me some of the values of a liberal arts education that I hadn’t noticed before. In short, it’s given me a new perspective and made me realize that one of the best things about a Vassar education is not only that it teaches you how to think, but also that it gives you the freedom to think about whatever it is you want to think about.
Sometime at the beginning of March, I became infected with the travel bug. I was also, unfortunately, infected with a real bug, which kept me in bed for almost two weeks. After spending almost all of February in my beloved city of Bologna, I woke up one morning at 6:00 am with a jolt and a sudden urge to go somewhere, anywhere, despite the fact that I was still pretty ill. That day, I went on a ticket-buying spree and booked three trips to Florence, Brussels, and Barcelona, the latter of which I will embark upon at the beginning of May. While it was a wonderfully, chaotically fun month, I have to say that I’m exhausted.
My trip to Florence was brief but insightful. I’ve been to Florence twice before, but I decided to go again because wasn’t busy and the price of the trip was right. My travel-mates and I found a hostel for 20 euro per night, while the roundtrip train ticket cost less than 40 euro. Florence was just like I remembered it: crowded, touristy, and a lot more Anglo-Saxon than I’d like it to be. Don’t get me wrong—Florence is a gorgeous city. The art is incredible, the architecture is breathtaking, and the rich history of the city saturates the streets. However, sometimes it really does feel like some kind of amusement park, or at least that’s how people treat it. After dropping off our belongings at the hostel, we went off in search of food and Italian leather. We filled our bellies with fresh panini and lasagna from an open-air market, and after about an hour of being hassled by leather vendors, we decided to take advantage of the fact that Italy has no open-container law by drinking beer in the piazza. One thing led to another, and we wound up with a bottle of wine by the river watching the sunset. We soon found out that we had actually trespassed on a private community (I guess there was a sign, but we chose not to see it) and were politely asked to leave. The time spent down by the river, however— drinking wine and listening to music coming from a couple of boys’ boombox down the shore—might have been the highlight of my trip.
Later that night, we experienced a little bit of the Florence that I’m not quite as fond of. The streets and bars were filled with people from all over the world, but predominantly with Americans. I understand that Florence is a very touristy city and that you really don’t have to know Italian to live there, but it really rubs me the wrong way when I see a loud, obnoxious American who acts like the world is their Disney Epcot and doesn’t even try to speak Italian. It really made me miss Bologna, where I can go out and not feel so extremely, supremely American. Florence has morphed into a kind of caricature of the American-abroad-experience in Italy.
The next weekend, I took my first international trip since I arrived in Italy. I had never really thought of going to Belgium before, but when my friend said that there were tickets to Brussels on Ryanair for 68 euro round-trip, I said, “Hey, why not?” That Thursday afternoon, I boarded my first Ryanair flight. For those of you who don’t know, Ryanair is basically the travel equivalent of buying two pounds of peanut butter at Costco for five dollars—it gets you really far for as little money as possible, despite the slightly cheap taste. You can usually find round-trip flights on Ryanair for 20-80 euro. They make up for their insanely cheap prices by trying to sell you other things every chance they get, but for that price, I can deal with any amount of soliciting.
With my mind on waffles, fries, and beer, I definitely hadn’t prepared myself for how cold it was going to be in Belgium. The temperature wasn’t that much lower than in Bologna, but the wind was strong and freezing, piercing through my coat; this is probably why the typical foods of Brussels are so heavy and fattening. All of the food in Brussels seemed to be fried and covered in deliciousness, and I didn’t hold back until I reached my absolute limit after eating a diet that consisted of almost solely waffles, french fries, chocolate, and beer for four days.
Moving on from the food for a moment, Brussels is an absolutely amazing city. It has a great mixture of large French boulevards organized by a German architect, beautiful Neo-Gothic architecture from the 18th century, and a gorgeous Art Nouveau influence on the exteriors of residential houses. The primary languages spoken in Brussels are French and Dutch, but nearly everyone also speaks English, meaning that essentially the entire city speaks three languages. The public transportation was also one of the most well-organized systems I’ve ever seen. The city is on a hill that separates the lower part of the city from the upper part. Between all of the hills and the cable cars, Brussels almost had the feeling of a European San Francisco.
Now, let me tell you about beer. Belgium is known for having the most extensive selection of beer in the whole world. I knew this fact before going there and, as an avid lover of exotic beer, I was excited beyond belief. Brussels definitely exceeded my expectations in the beer department. There’s a bar called Delirium in the center of the city with three floors and over 2,000 different kinds of beer from which one can choose. Brussels specializes in fruit beer, so I made sure to try the bar’s cherry, raspberry, and strawberry beers. I also had a beer called Orval that’s made by monks for only a couple months out of the year. I honestly can’t count how many beers I had, but it was worth every penny and every burp.
Last week was our study-abroad group’s spring break, and we all took a trip down south to Naples. I’ve never been to southern Italy before, but I have friends from the southern regions of Calabria and Puglia, so I had an idea of the cultural and geographical differences between the north and south. It’s hard to explain exactly how they differ, and I’m certainly no expert on the matter, but from my experience, the main differences between the north and south seem to be based on the locals’ attitudes. Southerners are proud, strong, stubborn (even by Italian standards), and extremely playful, and they speak with vulgarly thick accents, but they make the most incredible food. There’s quite a bit more poverty in the southern regions of Italy, and the city of Naples is especially famous for the amount of pick-pocketing and theft that takes place every day. Thankfully, none of the students in my program were targeted victims, but the sights and smells of poverty were everywhere, from the narrow streets lined by tenements with laundry hanging between windows to the stray dogs that seemed to rule the streets like packs of hungry thieves.
We took a couple day trips, one to Pompeii and another to a couple of small coastal villages on the Amalfi Coast. Although they were full of tourists, the streets of Pompeii were absolutely incredible. The city was like a piece of the past frozen in time and filled with the dust of thousands of years that never really settles. It was all so perfectly preserved that it was hard to believe that any of it could really be real. Standing on those stones that millions of feet have touched and looking up at daunting shape of the volcano Vesuvius, looming like a sleeping monster in the distance, I felt closer to history than I ever have before.
If you’ve ever seen or read Eat, Pray, Love, you’ll probably remember that scene where Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts) eats an entire pizza by herself as she declares, “I’m having a relationship with my pizza!” I’ve already been in a pretty committed relationship with my pizza for a few months now, and have definitely polished off a couple pizza pies all by myself, but we took our relationship to a new level in Naples. The pizza napoletana is the classic margherita pizza that we all know and love: tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil—a combination so simple and yet so exquisitely delicious. The story behind the pizza goes that Queen Margherita was coming to town, and the people of Naples decided to make her something special with the colors of the Italian flag. Thus was born the pizza margherita, and for this we should all be extremely grateful.
Now, let me get back to Elizabeth Gilbert’s relationship with her pizza, and consequently my own. The restaurant in which she consumed that glorious margherita was the same restaurant in which I consumed my own pizza napoletana, L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. As soon as the clock strikes the hour of Italian dinner time around 8:00 pm, there’s a nearly two-hour wait just to get in the door. The pizzeria only has three kinds of pizza on the menu: pizza pomodoro, pizza margherita, and pizza margherita with extra mozzarella di bufala. Once you get inside, you sit at a crowded table while touching elbows with strangers, place your order with a rather rude napoletano man, and then wait as you watch countless pizzas go flying by your face with mozzarella cheese resting teasingly upon the tomato-covered plateau of perfectly cooked extra-thin crust. I feel like the experience of actually eating my pizza is a little too explicit to divulge in this blog post (a lady never chews and tells), but it was unforgettable.
It felt good to get back to Bologna after my weekend in the south, like a pleasant homecoming, but I’m desperately missing the sunshine of the south. This has been an especially cold spring for Italy, and the entire country seems to be holding its breath for the day when we can shed our coats and play in the gardens. Until then, we continue to wait expectantly for the sun to shine and the budding flowers of the primavera to bloom.
So far, the most difficult part of my JYA experience has been just trying to get to Tokyo. Flying from New York to Chicago went without a hitch, but the two planes provided for my connecting flight—the second one after an hours-long delay—were both unusable due to mechanical issues. Luckily, I was able to find and band together with three other students, participating in the same CIEE program as me, who were booted off of the same flight to be placed in the same hotel and on the same rescheduled flights to Tokyo.
Upon arriving from our Chicago-Dallas-Tokyo journey, CIEE staff members assured our traveling group that we hadn’t missed much by being absent for the first day of orientation. I joined the rest of the students in a hotel until we were placed into our housing choices. I had opted for a homestay rather than a dorm, and while both were valid options for trying to have the Real Japanese College Experience, I wanted to be sure that I would be forced into speaking and thinking in Japanese.
I have spent time in Tokyo before, as a high schooler just becoming interested in Japanese language and culture. That summer, I had also done a homestay in Japan, and had taken courses at a local language school. As we were lead from the hotel to the university, I was slowly overcome with a sense of recognition of the streets we walked and suddenly I realized—I already knew this neighborhood! I received this with mixed feelings. On one hand, I had wanted to have a completely new experience (having chosen CIEE for its type of program rather than location) and would probably feel as though I was already comfortably familiar, but on the other hand, I would be able to do much more in Japan now than as a high schooler who barely knew any Japanese, including travel to other places.
We took a campus tour of the school that I will soon attend, Sophia University. The Japanese school year starts in the spring, just around the time when the cherry blossoms have bloomed on the trees. Sakura petals floated down around me, just as flakes of snow had in New York a few days ago. Here, the the petals symbolize the cycle of life. It wasn’t the full traditional cherry blossom viewing experience, which includes sitting down under them for a picnic and drinks, but since the blossoms had bloomed earlier than usual this year, I was glad that I had arrived in time simply to be able to see them.
I spent my second night in Japan exploring the streets of the Ikebukuro neighborhood with a few other students in my study-abroad program. We spoke English to each other but decided to change that within a few days after classes had begun and the rust on our Japanese from three months of disuse had finally been scrubbed away. Nestled between two tall modern buildings, we managed to find a small ramen shop at which to have dinner. The meal we were served didn’t taste anything like the instant ramen with which you might be familiar. The ramen dish I chose had succulent slices of pork, bamboo shoots, a soft-boiled egg sliced in half, as well as a filling, meaty broth. The shop owner was merciful and spoke Japanese slowly to us, providing us with complimentary cups of coffee at the end of our meal. I didn’t remember to take a photo of the shop itself (nor do I even recall the name, as I wasn’t yet able to read all of the characters), but here’s a quick cell phone shot of the noodle soup before I devoured it!
While the program’s students who were to live in dorms had already checked out of the hotel, it was the homestay students’ turn on the third day to do so. We met at Sophia to receive our cell phones, and then set out to meet our host families. I was apprehensive. According to the information that I received upon arriving in Tokyo, my host brothers were very young and cute, and my host parents seemed welcoming, but had a beginner-level proficiency with English. I had prepared some topics to talk about ahead of time, but was unsure about how well the unfamiliar—and hurriedly studied—Japanese vocabulary would remain in my memory.
My worries toward meeting my homestay family turned out to be unnecessary. I was warmly welcomed first by my host father and five-year-old host brother, and later by my host mother and two-year-old host brother. While I was already cognizant from my previous time in Tokyo of the many cultural differences I would encounter when living in a Japanese household, I did have to work hard at trying to understand my young host brothers.
I’ve only been in Tokyo for a couple of days so far and haven’t yet gone out looking for things crazy and new. Rest assured, I won’t just sit around for the remaining week of orientation activities! I greatly look forward to ending orientation by really getting into the swing of things of my life in Tokyo.