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Month: September 2013

Moorea Hall | Santa Maria di Leuca, Italy | Post 1

Moorea Hall | Santa Maria di Leuca, Italy | Post 1

Aqueducts, Grottos, and Cliff Diving

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Today was unreal. The morning went by pretty quickly: I ventured out on my own for the first time to the bar around the corner from my apartment for a cappuccino and a pasticciotto (a small pastry). I then walked to the panetteria (bread shop) to buy my daily roll of bread, and came back to the apartment before anyone else had awoken.

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At 3:00 p.m., I and the rest of the students in my study-abroad program boarded a lovely air-conditioned bus for the hour-long ride to Santa Maria di Leuca, a gorgeous little town on the very tip of Italy’s “heel.” The houses in the town were all white and crowded around a harbor full of brightly painted yachts and fishing boats. When we got off the bus, I first noticed two giant sets of stairs leading up a hill and to a lookout point over the bay. What looked like a dried-out waterfall stood between the two sets of stairs; our program director, Nella, told us that this was a Roman aqueduct that the town still opens once a year to release a flood of water down into the harbor.

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We practically ran up the stairs…until we got to the third flight, at which point we slowed to a sweaty trudge, taking lots of breaks for pictures. When we reached the top, we saw a breathtaking view. Even at 4:30 in the afternoon, the sun was high in the sky, and the breeze was strong at the top of the hill. We made friends with even befriended some Italians while taking pictures. Among the most useful Italian phrases, and puoi fare un foto di noi (can you take a picture of us?) is definitely one of them!

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When we got back down the many flights of stairs, our teacher, Paolo, was waiting to whisk us off to a lovely little boat in the harbor. Sitting on wooden benches, and we looked out over the waves as the stereo system played American music reminiscent of our middle school days. We passed many other crowded boats whose passengers waved and cheered from across the water as we sailed by. I’m hoping that they’re all normally friendly to fellow seafarers, and weren’t just taking pity on us obvious tourists.

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Rounding the edge of the harbor, we saw a breathtaking view of the grottos and cliffs along the coastline. The water was electric blue and clear straight down to the bottom. We anchored the boat just offshore and jumped right in! The water felt like a very salty swimming pool, and was surprisingly easy to swim in— the salt made us float like buoys. We propelled ourselves toward the face of the cliff and then straight through its grottos, which were cool and blue, with vaulted white ceilings covered in salt deposits. The floors were made of soft stone smoothed by the waves and covered in carpets of purple-and-red spongy algae. It will be one of the great disappointments of my life that I couldn’t take picture of the inside of the grottos, since swimming through them was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had. Thankfully, I have 20 friends who were there with me shared the experience with me, otherwise I might think that it was all a dream.

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When we had had our fill of the grottos (as if that were possible)—and after those Disney-inclined girls had sung a few choruses of “Part of Your World”—we raised the anchor and sailed back out into open water in search of cliffs to climb. Miles, one of the only two boys in the program, is a rock-climber, and he found a spot for us to clamber up the 20-30 foot crags. A few of us, after seeing him jump fearlessly off the cliffs, hurried to climb up after him; Paolo led the way and helped us find footholds. I cut up my feet a little on the sharp rocks, but boy, was it worth it. Standing on the cliff’s edge, alone, looking down into the crystal-clear waters in which bobbing faces yelled encouragement was a perfect moment—and the stomach-plunging drop right after was even better!

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We swam back to the boat to enjoy fuzzy towels, white wine, and rosemary cookies while watching the sun set over the water. When we returned to shore, the bar right across the street from the marina had attracted a huge crowd with live music. We stopped and after a moment realized that the singer was our teacher, Francesca! She was performed incredibly, and we watched her while sitting amongst the crowd of locals, sipping iced almond espresso, and listening to Italian jazz.

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It was about as close to a perfect day as it could get.

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Olivia Harries | London, England | Post 1

Olivia Harries | London, England | Post 1

Culture Shock On Top of Culture Shock

I have been in London for a little over seventy-two hours, and have spent even less time at Goldsmiths College. My first few hours in the city were certainly not the best; grumpy, hungry and exhausted, I was more than prepared to go to sleep, but the intrepid and energetic Lisa Brawley marched us off to explore the shores of the Thames, complete with a stop at Borough Market for lunch and then at a café outside of the Tate Museum for tea and coffee. The rest of the weekend passed in a blur…Let’s face it, I was tired and overwhelmed and really just felt like going back home. In the preceding week and a half, I had experienced three entirely different cultures, two American and one English. I had spent my entire summer at home in Tampa, surrounded by cars, suburbs, fishing, and frozen yogurt. Before leaving for London, I visited Vassar for a week, where my experience was significantly influenced by intellectual debates, non-heteronormativity, and mason jars.

In London, I don’t really have any of the aforementioned things that make me feel comfortable or at home—or at least, I don’t yet. There’s nothing in particular that I can hold onto to define my experience, no familiar points of reference. I have to learn how to navigate public transportation, decipher the spidery map of the train routes, figure out how to mail letters, and adopt an entirely new routine. More than anything, this discomfort serves as a reminder of just how much of a foreigner I am.

However, one of the benefits of doing this program through Vassar is that I have a group of people that essentially serve as travel companions, and it’s been nice to figure things out with people who are equally as disoriented as I am. For the first few days, we mainly did activities as a group. Thus far, my favorite excursion has been to visit the city of Dalston, which lies twenty-five minutes by train directly to north of New Cross.

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Although initially the purpose of this visit was to purchase cell phones and SIM cards at the glorious Carphone Warehouse, it became more of an exploration of the hidden gems tucked away behind nondescript storefronts. After waiting in line for far too long to figure out my cell phone plan and SIM card, I met up with the rest of the group at the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, an impossibly charming café constructed on the edge of an expansive garden. The garden/café is removed from the road, so it’s easy to overlook, especially if you’re oblivious to the massive mural painted on a high-rise adjacent to it.

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Once inside, I can honestly say that the garden took my breath away. The words I would use to best describe it would probably be “quaint” and “whimsical”; it’s an eclectic composite of artwork and architecture, complimented by the overgrown flower and vegetable beds. One can sit close to the café under the awning, in the garden itself, or in a serene converted greenhouse complete with books, magazines, and markers. Maybe I am just so infatuated with Dalston Eastern Curve Garden because nothing like it exists in my hometown, but I think that this is a special respite from the bustle of city life. It really is an oasis—surrounded on all sides by tall buildings and construction—and it’s easy to forget that you aren’t in a much more rural area when inside the garden. I definitely plan on going back as soon as I find the time; I can already tell that it’s going to be an ideal study spot, as well as somewhere to spend a lazy afternoon. I think that my visit to the garden is what really solidified the reality of this trip for me, as well as got me really excited for what lies ahead. Places like the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, which could be classified as just another coffee shop, was something that was new and different enough to pique my interest.

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Candidly, my first few days in London were relatively miserable. I don’t cope with change and disorganization well, and I’m not particularly good at going with the flow. But as I’m starting to figure things out, I’m quickly growing accustomed to the drastically new lifestyle that I’m going to have to adopt while I’m here. Upon initially arriving, I felt disappointed in the London that I saw. It’s nowhere near as pristine nor idyllic as it is perceived in the States, and I was naively expecting something out of a romanticized British novel from the nineteenth century. But the more time I spend here, I’m realizing that I’m truly glad that London isn’t so perfect. I came here to learn and get out of my comfort zone, and above all to explore the city that I’ve been dreaming about for so long—and that’s what I plan on doing. Every day is starting to be more exciting than the last, and I am quite confident that my time here will fly by far too quickly.

Kevin Ritter | London, England | Post 1

Kevin Ritter | London, England | Post 1

Before I left for London, I spent a few days travelling around the United States visiting various friends. I saw Philadelphia, Poughkeepsie, and New York City, saying goodbye to people I care about pre-departure. I started to notice that my friends all said similar things to me as I left:

  • “I’ll miss you!”
  • “This is a really great opportunity for you!”
  • “I’m so jealous! You’ll have so much fun!”

After all these encouraging words, my friends inevitably met me with a look of pity, an empathetic pat on the shoulder and, “but the food…it’s going to be rough. Good luck.”

I arrived at London Heathrow airport, armed with an umbrella, plenty of sweaters, and a steely-eyed distrust of fish and chips, bangers and mash, or anything with the word “pudding” in it. I wanted no part of any of that so-called “gross” food. On the plane, they gave us conversation heart candies, and the most helpful one read, “Just Say No.” I made a mental list of all the foods that I should “Just Say No” to: anything with liver in it, meat pies with undisclosed ingredients, black pudding for breakfast. I chanted my new “Just Say No” mantra all the way to Goldsmiths University, where I was studying for the semester: “Just Say No. Just Say No. Just Say Nooooooooo!”

As we drove through London on our way to Goldsmiths University, I looked at every restaurant with intense skepticism. But, I did start to notice something interesting. Unexpectedly, the city-scape was littered with seemingly infinite fried chicken restaurants. I had no idea that the British had such an obsession with fried chicken, and assumed that every restaurant would be a perfect spot for pudding fanatics (aka, not me).

The other night, some of my friends and I were in a pub a few blocks away from our dormitory. We shared a few drinks and stared out the window at the shining white beacon that was “New Perfect Fried Chicken.” The glaring signage called out to us in the night and eventually lured us in with its starchy siren call. We all ordered chicken and gobbled it down. It was probably the best decision of the night. The chicken was moist and truly perfectly fried. And oh! The chips! (Fries to us Americans). The chips were possibly the best potato product I have ever consumed. They were fresh out of the fryer, hot and crispy. And to think that I was worried about starving to death in London.

I decided to do a bit of research into the chicken shops of London and found this helpful article. I was surprised to learn that fried chicken restaurants are quite contentious in London; the government is attempting to crack down on them for fear of creating a large mass of obese people fed by such locations as “Tennessee Fried Chicken,” “Perfect Fried Chicken,” and “New Perfect Fried Chicken.” Fried chicken is not the most healthy option available in England, but then again, neither is black pudding or chips for breakfast.

As an American abroad in London, I was expecting to have to stomach all sorts of unappetizing pies and livers. While I will definitely sample all sorts of British cuisine, deep down in my heart, I may have already sworn allegiance to New Perfect Fried Chicken.

Gwen Frenzel | Berkeley, California | Post 1

Gwen Frenzel | Berkeley, California | Post 1

IHP, or International Honors Program, offers study abroad programs unique in the sense that their programs all begin in the United States for approximately two weeks. My program—which focuses on the impacts of climate change and policies on food, water, and energy—began in Berkeley, California.

As my two weeks in the Bay Area come to a close, I am nervous and excited to begin travelling to Vietnam, Morocco, and Bolivia—the other three destinations in my program. My time in California has been interesting because the ease of communication with people at Vassar makes me feel like I should be on campus with them.

The past two weeks have been packed with activities, primarily lectures and typical orientation team-building. The group with which I’m spending the semester consists of 26 students, three professors, and a trustees fellow who functions kind of like our babysitter/mother. All the of the students take the same four classes together, and our professors travel with us to all of our international destinations. Each class meets about once a week for two hours, and our school days usually last from 8:45 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Today we started the morning by taking the Bart (Bay Area Rapid Transit—the region’s train/subway system) into San Francisco where we met with Kevin Danaher, a co-founder of Global Exchange. He was extremely engaging, giving us a lecture about building alternatives as well as the importance of youth involvement in the climate change movement. The group then split up, and I went to a deli and ice cream shop with four others before taking a train to Oakland. We wandered around the city for a bit before heading to a meeting with Bhavik Lathia of 350.org, an environmental group well known for their work with college-aged people. Founded by Bill McKibben—famous for his Rolling Stone article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”—the group’s work has been vital to the nationwide divestment movement, including the branch at Vassar. It’s invigorating to speak with activists who are making real progress in the environmental movement. After our informal talk with Bhavik, we dropped by a social gathering at a church and headed back to Berkeley. Talk about spontaneous living!

Some of my most interesting experiences have been with other students outside of the classroom. The group of students in my program are very diverse, coming from a variety of schools ranging from UCLA and Denison University to Bowdoin and Cornell. Majors in economics, political science, engineering, and, of course, environmental studies, many of my classmates are much different than any student I have encountered at Vassar. This motley group creates an unfamiliar dynamic that has been both fun and difficult to experience. For example, only two other students knew what I was talking about when I mentioned preferred pronouns, we used gendered bathrooms, and some people didn’t know what heteronormative meant! We are staying in a hostel, which has introduced us to some interesting characters. A man down the hall has lived in the hostel since 1998, and many students from a nearby English language school also live here, coming from a variety of countries including Russia and Japan. One of my neighbors is a friendly dentist from Brazil. I’ve never experienced such a diverse group in the Vassar bubble.

Although I may possess a little more gender education than other students, most of them are much more outgoing than I am. Early on, we found ourselves with numerous pounds of extra ribs left over from a group dinner (yes, ribs—I thought that all environmental studies majors were at least vegetarians?), so we decided to give away the leftovers. There is a large homeless population in the Bay Area, so we found plenty of gracious people to feed. I don’t think that I would normally have the confidence to talk to strangers like we did!

It’s strange to leave so soon, just as I am getting familiar with the Bay Area. Hopefully I will learn to adjust to places more quickly as my journey continues!

 

Rebecca Shubert | Clifden, Ireland | Post 1

Rebecca Shubert | Clifden, Ireland | Post 1

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This past Wednesday marked the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Whether you’re a New Yorker or not, whether you lost a community or family member or not, I’m certain that that day had a huge impact on many of your lives.

For me, spending September 11, 2013 teaching in Clifden, Ireland was an eye-opening experience that inspired a lot of reflection. I spent the first two periods of the day sitting in on a fifth-year modern U.S. history class. The students were learning about the Vietnam War, covert operations by the CIA, and “Banana Republics”—heavy, complicated stuff. About halfway through the morning, I was called upon to lead a short discussion about the parallels between U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and the current situation in Syria.

I mentioned that I am from New York City, and thus piqued the students’ interest. “Were you there when 9/11 happened?” One girl asked. Yes, I was. “Do you remember a lot of it?” Not too much.

“Is it true that over a million people died in the Middle East because the U.S. military went in, but only 3,000 people died in 9/11?” a boy blurted out suddenly. It was less the question itself that threw me than the way he asked it. It was accusatory, bitter, distrustful.

“Yes,” I said, “it is true.” The air in the classroom became tighter. The teacher cleared his throat. Most of the students looked away, embarrassed. Did they think I was going to take offense at their criticism of U.S. foreign policy?

“It’s just,” another girl said after a long pause, “a lot of us think America should, ah, stay out of things more.”

“I certainly agree with you,” I answered, still nonplussed. The classroom atmosphere suddenly relaxed again.

“Does that mean that you’re a Democrat?” a student inquired. I froze; a million possible answers each varying in complexity crowded each other out. The voter registration card in my wallet says Democrat. Yet our Democratic president is currently attempting to take military action in Syria.

“It’s a bit complicated,” I said pathetically. “I’m certainly a leftist.”

“What’s the difference between left and right?” a normally quiet student suddenly burst out. “Is it the same as in Ireland?” I was about to launch into a (surely inadequate) lecture about the two political stances when I remembered that the time was not mine to take up, and that for all intents and purposes I was a guest in this classroom. I told them that it was a fascinating and knotty issue, and that we could absolutely talk about it more after class (which we did). The teacher resumed the lesson.

I left the school building that afternoon feeling both exhilarated and emotionally turbulent. Foremost among my tangled thoughts: Why wasn’t I talking about this stuff when I was sixteen? I was fortunate enough to attend one of the best public high schools in New York City. We read Faulkner and Malcolm X, we constructed models of cancer cells. But when it came to talking about current political situations at home and abroad, I remember a gaping silence where difficult and important conversations should have been.

It is uncomfortable to think that the Clifden students saw me as an ambassador of my country’s violent history when I, of course, don’t see myself in that way. It is also startling to realize how far ahead they are in terms of the “critical thinking skills” that we at Vassar love to talk about so much. I hope that as an educator, I can one day open up my classroom to discussions during which students challenge me and each other, as well as the norms that are invisible to us.

Brooke Robinson | Edinburgh, Scotland | Post 1

Brooke Robinson | Edinburgh, Scotland | Post 1

An American Girl in Scotland

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I spent some of my last days in America preparing for Vassar’s freshman orientation as well as getting ready for my own “Fresher’s Week” in Edinburgh. That’s right – after days upon days of conflict coaching, leadership training, and house team bonding, I was off to become the very person that I was training to help. If that sounds confusing, imagine actually living through it. This twilight zone of a week began with me sobbing continuously to my Vassar friends, practically begging them to lock me in the basement of Blodgett so that maybe I could just stay at the school I love so dearly. Don’t get me wrong: I am thrilled to be abroad, but leaving Vassar after house team training was like leaving a middle school slumber party—I simply didn’t want to go. After pulling myself together, packing two suitcases until dangerously full, and boarding a plane to the UK alongside my mother, I was ready to start my adventure. My transition between Jewett and Hermit’s Croft (it sounds so Scottish, doesn’t it?) was spent in a comfortable hotel room in the center of Edinburgh, playing tourist with my mom. In between buying school supplies, we toured castles, ate pub food, and listened to ghost tours in “haunted” cemeteries. Finally, my mom returned to real life, and my real life in Scotland began.

The first day without my mom (I’m an adult, I promise) was scary at first. It was Freshers’ Week at University of Edinburgh, and the questions swimming through my head included, “What do people do here? Are my social skills going to work in Scotland? Will they think I’m a loser from some unknown location in the States, or will they think I’m a really cool American?” I started off well by going to the grocery store and looking completely lost. I wandered the aisles, wondering why everything seemed smaller in size—the milk cartons, the bags of flour, even the apples were all miniature. Even though I didn’t quite know how to instantly become a natural UK grocery shopper, my trip ended pretty well, despite the fact that I could not—and still can’t—find tofu anywhere. In fact, I had to explain to the store employees what tofu is, and they led me to the cheese section, which didn’t quite have what I was looking for. They wished me luck in finding my tofu, deemed me a “unique lady,” and off I went, groceries in hand.

As soon as I returned to my flat (a suite with five singles, a kitchen, and two bathrooms), I heard a friendly “helloooo!” and in skipped two lovely Scottish women to clean our kitchen and bathrooms. Yes, you heard me—University of Edinburgh has housekeeping in the dorms. With Scottish accents so thick that I could barely make out some of their words, the women chatted to me about Edinburgh, the weather, and how messy the boys across the hall were, all the while mopping, dusting, and scrubbing. After spending two years dealing with the dinginess of the Joss kitchen, I have to admit that I was both shocked and overjoyed.

Later that evening, I found myself at a freshers’ flat party. I was the sole junior in a room full of just-turned-18-year-olds. This wasn’t exactly the type of party that I’m used to, especially after becoming a committed Vassar queer lady party attendee. Nevertheless, I chatted with some meek freshmen, tried to understand their British slang, and left after 45 minutes. I followed my flatmate, Caroline—a wonderful Londoner—to an improv show wonderfully similar to “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, where the cast tried many times to imitate a southern accent (something I know only too well, coming from rural Virginia). Before the show, I had tried to order a cup of tea from the theater café; it was in this moment that I learned how to correctly order tea in Scotland. I asked what types of tea they had (how American of me). The man laughed, and informed me that if I just asked for “tea,” I automatically meant English Breakfast, and if I wanted anything else, I needed to specify. I failed to explain how in the States, there wasn’t a go-to type of tea to order, and ended up asking for a glass of water to calm my foreign nerves.

The improv show had ended, and after Caroline and I left, she realized that she really needed to use the “loo.” Unfortunately, our flat is a good ten-to-fifteen-minute walk from the theater, so naturally, we ran home. We literally skipped, galloped, and jogged through the cobblestone alleyways and quiet nighttime streets of ancient Edinburgh—Caroline muttering about how badly she needed the loo, me laughing, and every passerby awkwardly eyeing. It was in that moment that I realized how happy I was to be somewhere completely new, different, and breathtaking. I was surrounded by lovely, friendly people within an old and beautiful city. Everything that lay ahead was for me to discover. As we ran home, I foresaw all of the things that I would learn and all of the adventures that I would have, and I smiled.

The view of Arthur’s Seat from my bedroom window at Hermit’s Croft, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo Credits to Caroline Elms.)
The view of Arthur’s Seat from my bedroom window at Hermit’s Croft, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo Credits to Caroline Elms.)
Saul Ulloa | Amman, Jordan | Post 1

Saul Ulloa | Amman, Jordan | Post 1

This semester, I am living in Amman, Jordan this semester with SIT’s Modernization and Social Change program. I decided that I wanted to go somewhere completely out of my comfort zone rather than to a comfortable Western European country, and thus headed to the Middle East for my JYA experience. I have been learning Arabic at Vassar for nearly two years now, and I really wanted a place in which to practice the language and become more confident in speaking it. This post is a bit frazzled because so many thoughts are rushing through my head, so please bear with me.

My journey to Amman was certainly a long one, totaling over 21 hours and making stops in three different countries. Luckily, when I flew into Vienna, Austria, there were eight other students in my program who were on my same flight. It was comforting to know that I would be spending a lot of time with these people while I was in Jordan.

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Once we finally arrived in Amman, we were eagerly greeted by the SIT staff who brought us to the where we would be based for three days. Despite being in airports and hearing many different languages, it had not really hit me that I was actually in Jordan until I got to the hotel. We were greeted by the hotel staff in Arabic and my mind was pulling blanks. (Keefik? Al-hamdulillah, shukran. Wa anta?- How are you? I’m very well, God willing. And you?) It was real. I was in Jordan, and I would be living here for three and a half months.

Fast forward a week, and I am much more comfortable here! I’ve moved in with my host family, and they are absolutely wonderful. My host mother (mama) is from Russia and my host father (baba) is a Jordanian of Palestinian origin. I also have a brother (akh) who is twenty-eight years old. My family speaks both Russian and Arabic at home, so I am certainly getting a linguistic experience.

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We have classes from Sunday through Thursday (Friday and Saturday are the weekend), and the theme of my program is Modernization and Social Change. In short, we will be studying Jordanian society in the face of an influx of Western values and norms, and the unique ways in which the country has dealt with its own development. Topics of discussion could range from environmental issues to gender expectations to tribal relations and more. Our guest lecturers will range from leaders of NGOs to government officials. This will certainly make for very interesting lectures. I’ve found that while students at Vassar are interested in international affairs, few students have an in-depth knowledge of the Middle East. In contrast, I am currently surrounded by thirty other students who are deeply interested in the region and are passionate about learning more. Our discussions are always lively, and I’ve really enjoyed classes so far.

The possible conflict in Syria has overshadowed a lot of our activities here in Jordan. While Amman is far from the Syrian border, Jordan is currently overwhelmed with refugees from Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. About half of the population of Jordan is registered as a refugee. This has placed huge constraints on Jordan’s economy, infrastructure (traffic is horrible), natural resources (Jordan is the third most water-poor country in the world), and politics. While Jordan has traditionally been very hospitable to refugees, its government and people can only handle so much.

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While classes are exciting, the real learning has been happening outside of the classroom. My fellow students and I challenge ourselves everyday by speaking a language that we only marginally understand with taxi drivers, our host families, professors, friends, and restauranteurs. There are two registers of Arabic—FusHa and Amiyya. FusHa is an incredibly formal language that every foreigner is taught to speak in schools across the world, while Amiyya is the language as it is actually spoken. While the two languages are both Arabic, they can sometimes hold vast differences in both grammatical constructions and expressions. This has been a fun challenge to overcome and I can already tell that I’m learning a lot about both languages.

There is so much to do in Amman. The main touristy area is called Rainbow Street. While it clearly caters to foreigners, it still provides a fun experience. Yesterday, some friends and I gathered on Rainbow Street to watch a Lebanese documentary about student protests at the American University of Beirut. Along with watching films, one can purchase a falafel sandwich for less than a dollar, smoke argeela (hookah), purchase souvenirs, watch a soccer game, and eat lots of really good food. Of course, one can also go to any of the many souks around Amman such as Souk Jara and Souk Al-Abdali. These are great places to practice Arabic as well as bargaining skills! There are also many historical sites such as the Roman Amphitheater and the Citadel. Both are equally incredible and beautiful.

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I’ve only been here a week, but I don’t regret the decision to study here in the slightest. Yes, I am constantly challenged with my Arabic skills, a little homesick for English and shorts, and frustrated with the dry heat and the presence of meat at every meal, but I’ve fallen in love with this city. The people have been incredibly welcoming and understanding of my Arabic skills, the food is delicious, and most of all, I’m being challenged in new ways and expanding my horizons beyond the Vassar bubble.

Until next time!

Colin Crilly | Paris, France & Munich, Germany | Post 1

Colin Crilly | Paris, France & Munich, Germany | Post 1

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Hi, everyone!

My name is Colin Crilly and I’m a junior Biology major (with a possible Political Science correlate). This semester, I’ll be studying at University College London. It’s kind of like Vassar College…except that it’s the complete opposite of Vassar College—large, public, in the middle of a bustling metropolis, and without a fire-spinning circus group on campus (not officially, anyway).

Interestingly enough, UCL works on a trimester system, which means that classes don’t start for another week. But instead of spending September at home in California, I decided to use my summer stipend money to take an eleven–day trip through Paris, Munich, Cologne, and Hamburg before heading to London.

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I’m actually still in the middle of my trip, currently writing this post in a small hostel in Köln surrounded by snoring tourists. But after exploring Paris and Munich mostly on my own, I already feel that I’ve experienced more in the last six days than I have in the past year.

To begin with, I’ve lived on both sides of the hostel spectrum in terms of quality. The first hostel I stayed at was in Paris, called St. Christopher’s Inn, located next to a major train station, and only ten minutes away from most Parisian landmarks. I opted to stay in a more expensive hostel because most others provided no wifi and an increased risk of both bed bugs and mice. The rooms at St. Christopher’s were clean, the hostel had its own café and bar, and almost all of the residents I met were college students taking a couple of weeks to explore Europe.

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Quite different from St. Christopher’s, the hostel I stayed in Munich—titled The Tent—was literally just a tent.

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Combine 100 mattresses, some lockers, and a few mediocre decorations, and bam! You have the cheapest hostel in Munich.5

Obviously, such a basic living situation wouldn’t appeal to a lot of potential travelers. I’ll admit that by day three, I was pretty sick of the flimsy mattresses, lack of heating, and random alarms that would start sounding at about 6:00 a.m. But in terms of social experience, I actually much preferred The Tent to St. Christopher’s. Every night, there was a group of talkative tent-dwellers crowded around a campfire, each with unique backgrounds and stories. There were the typical traveling college students, but there was also one girl from Galveston, Texas who had married at sixteen, moved to Mexico City, divorced her husband five months later due to domestic abuse, and saved up her money for four years with her new boyfriend so that they could explore Europe and eventually live in Thailand for as long as they possibly could. It was really moving to see how liberating international travel could be for people. Between the two hostel extremes, I would say that St. Christopher’s was much more comfortable, but The Tent was much more memorable.

I also explored two historic and striking European cities. Since I only had a few days to visit each city, I planned my trip as extensively as possible. Walking around with a copy of Rick Steves’ Paris may have been the most touristy thing that I’ve ever done, but it also meant that in one day I saw Notre Dame…

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…a memorial for French citizens killed during the Holocaust…

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…the prison that housed those awaiting the guillotine during the French Revolution…

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…the Mona Lisa at the Louvre…

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…(along with some strange, mildly uncomfortable Italian paintings)…

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…Napoleon’s Tomb…

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…and the Eiffel Tower…

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…all before dinner. Granted, after dinner my nine-hour sleeping deficit finally caught up with me and I completely passed out. The point is, though, that with only three days in a major city and a bare-bones budget, planning ahead was very valuable.

While seeing the cities themselves has been incredible, I’ve also visited sites just outside the metropoli. Doing so was surprisingly easy since the public transit system in Europe is both cheap and extensive.

From Paris, I took a train to Versailles, where I visited King Louis XIV’s extravagant palace and garden. My favorite part of the palace was the outdoor area designed by Marie Antoinette, which was stunning, serene, and showcasing of how incredibly out of touch with reality she was.

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Above, you can see one of numerous quaint, faux-peasant houses that Marie Antoinette had built in her “backyard” so that she could experience the romantic life of a village commoner herself…without actually doing any work. She mostly just wore white clothing and watched her servants toil in a delusional dream-slum.

I was far more impacted by the trip I took to Munich, during which I visited the first Nazi concentration camp in Dachau. After reading literature about the Holocaust, discussing it in numerous classes, and even meeting a survivor of Dachau, it felt unreal to walk in the bunkers and barracks that entrapped the victims. To stand in the middle of a gas chamber and then proceed to the crematorium was mind-numbing; anyone even remotely interested in the Holocaust should experience this chilling sight at least once, if possible.

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Though careful planning definitely benefitted me, I developed some of my favorite memories of this trip by straying from my strict schedule. One Parisian afternoon, I was walking to the Pompidou museum with a friend of mine when we saw a building across the street with this unique facade:

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We decided to go look inside and ended up spending an hour exploring the 59 Rivoli Aftersquat, a six-story set of art studios used as a workspace as well as a display of amazing artwork by the residents themselves. I honestly enjoyed some of the artwork there more than what I saw at the Pompidou.

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Finally, I have learned what it is like to travel both alone and with a friend. Although I enjoyed traveling on my own and exploring different sights at my own pace, having a companion meant having a support system when I was trying to order a sandwich in French. It is also much less uncomfortable to eat in a restaurant or drink a half-litre of the local brew at a beer garden with a friend than alone. Best of all, I didn’t have to resort to selfies to take pictures of myself in Germany…

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…like so.

In my next post: Cologne, Hamburg, and then actually going to school!

Lily Choi | Paris, France | Post 1

Lily Choi | Paris, France | Post 1

Salut, tout le monde! I write this blog post from the apartment of my home-stay host Bernadette—a nurse who lives with two cats in the 2ème arrondissement of Paris. I’ve been in Paris since Saturday, September 7 after spending the previous two weeks in Bordeaux, France.

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The Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux houses the National Opera of Bordeaux as well as the Ballet National de Bordeaux and is a busy central square in the middle of the city.

My study-abroad program left on August 24 for Paris, and after a three-hour layover in Charles De Gaulle airport, we continued on to Bordeaux. Twenty-one jet-lagged students from Vassar, Wesleyan, Swarthmore, and Tufts arrived in Bordeaux on Sunday morning. We’d been advised to start speaking French upon meeting at the airport in order to ease our transition into the French lifestyle, but with twenty-something students and no chaperone, this rule was hard to reinforce. It was pretty clear that no one was ready to start speaking only French quite yet.

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The “miroir d’eau” (mirror of water) in Bordeaux lets out steam from little pumps in the ground and reflects the cityscape of Bordeaux. The weather was so nice that little children could be found running around this miroir d’eau, usually sans clothing.

When I finally arrived in Bordeaux and saw my host-mother—or as I affectionately called her, my host-grandmother—holding up un petit panneau (sign) with my name on it, the whole experience felt surreal. (Of course, it didn’t help that it was 5:00 a.m. back in the U.S.)  The only conversation I was prepared to have with Madame Corre upon our first meeting in the airport were the stilted, curt responses I gave to her enthusiastic questions. I had a massive brain fart, constantly stumped for French words and phrases. That first car ride to Mme. Corre’s house and the consequent lunch I had with her, Monsieur Corre, and Steven—another home-stay guest from Switzerland—were the biggest moments of culture shock for me. I couldn’t believe that I was in France and completely immersed in the French language and culture. That is to say, I couldn’t believe that everything was French.

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A view of Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux

The next day, our study-abroad program began classes at Alliance Française, a program/school in Bordeaux that offers intensive French language courses and organizes home-stays, as well as various excursions and activities, for students of all ages and nationalities. During the two weeks we spent in Bordeaux, we had four-hour classes from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. five days a week. We spent the rest of our afternoons taking a cooking class, tasting wine (la dégustation du vin-Bordeaux is world-renowned for its wine), and taking a trip to Arcachon and Dune du Pyla, the largest sand dune in Europe.

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Place de la Bourse is a square by the Garonne River that is lit up at night.

Bordeaux is an absolutely wonderful city—the perfect place in which to ease into my upcoming semester in Paris. Every morning, Maria—a student from Spain who was also staying at Madame Corre’s house—and I would take a 40-minute walk to Alliance Français, during which we would cut through Parc Bordelais, a big park dating from the 19th century. Alliance was near Place Gambetta, a busy square in the center of Bordeaux and the meeting spot for most of our outings. If you walked down the boulevard from Place Gambetta, you would hit the river and the quay (quai in French) where you could walk along the Garonne River. Place de la Bourse, by the river, was beautiful when lit up at night.

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The fountain at the historic Place des Quinconces has two sides. Here, “Le triomphe de la Concorde,” or “The Triumph of Agreements.” The other side is called “Le triomphe de la République.”

After my time in Bordeaux, I’ve already formed some really great friendships. Doing so is easy when you have two weeks together to explore a quaint little city that has so much to offer. Even as I type this entry in Paris, where my four-month journey begins, I’m missing Bordeaux. It feels like I’ve been in France for longer than two-and-a-half weeks.

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A picture of the hike up Dune du Pyla, the largest sand dune in Europe.

Even so, there are still some aspects of living in Europe that I have yet to get used to. For starters, the 24-hour clock. I can manage to tell the time until after 14:00 (2:00 p.m. by the 12 hour-clock), which is when I get confused. I find myself constantly having to subtract in my head just so that I can tell what time it is in terms that I can understand.

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Students from Vassar, Wesleyan, and Tufts pose on the top of Dune du Pyla, the largest sand dune in Europe.

Truthfully, when I left for France, I wasn’t exactly sure why I chose to study in Paris. I’m not a French major, and even though I’ve taken French since the seventh grade, I  hardly had a truly valid reason to choose to spend my junior semester abroad in France. So why the trouble?

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While in Bordeaux, we took a cooking class and made this culinary masterpiece: salmon in bourguignon sauce with mashed potatoes.

I can’t say that I know for sure at this moment. All I know is that after two-and-a-half weeks, I get excited when I can say something really quickly without thinking, or without first direct-translating in my head what I want to say in English. At dinner, I have conversations in French with my Parisian host about feminism, Jane Austen, and Frida Kahlo. They’re brief and simple, but I can tell that my language skills are improving (especially after Bernadette complimented my French). I Skyped with my parents last week and had the strongest inclination, without even thinking, to respond to their questions in French. I might not know exactly why I chose Paris, but I’m loving the effects that my study abroad experience is having on me thus far.

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My host-grandmother, Mme. Corre, and I after our last dinner before I left for Paris.
Heather Ingraham | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 1

Heather Ingraham | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 1

This semester, I am living and studying in Copenhagen, Denmark. Having never lived or spent much time in a big city, moving to Copenhagen has been a series of huge adjustments, filled with new learning experiences every day. So far, my favorite part of living in Copenhagen is the ardent bike culture here. Fighting with Amsterdam for the title of “Most Bicycle-Friendly City in the World,” biking is a dominating feature of life in Copenhagen. Everywhere you turn, there are bikes—parked by the hundreds in front of apartments, cafés, and train stations; leaning against random light posts; and whizzing by you from the bike lanes of every street. Rain or shine, the inhabitants of Copenhagen rely on their bikes to commute to work, school, shopping, and everything in between.

The biggest difference you will notice when looking at a street in Copenhagen versus one in an American city is that there is a bike lane on each side of the street. These special lanes are on practically every road, many of which even include their own turning lanes. Given just as much priority as the cars—much more than the pedestrians—these lanes have their own street lights that change with the flow of traffic.

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In an effort to join the Danish culture—and to give myself an alternative to my boring commute to class on the bus every morning—I rented a bike for the semester. The first day that I joined the morning commute on my bike was more than a little bit intimidating. You have to be extra aware of the people around you, because everyone is in a rush and will not hesitate to squeeze by you, with little more than a small ding of their bell as a warning that they are coming up on your left. I found myself peddling hard to keep up with the flow of people, many of them dressed for work in fancy clothes and shoes, others with babies strapped in a seat on the back or a basket in front. The most challenging part for me during the first few days (and even still now) was getting used to all of the stopping and starting. Bikes follow the same traffic laws as cars, and thus have to stop at each stoplight and move into the correct lanes. When the light turns yellow, the bikers quickly start moving again, not even waiting until it turns to green. It definitely takes some practice to get from a complete stop to full speed in a matter of seconds!

It amazes and impresses me how many people in Copenhagen use biking as their primary mode of transportation around the city. Even those with long commutes from outside of the city will favor their bike over a car or train. The prevalence of biking in Copenhagen has reduced the amount of cars being driven on the road, contributing to their status as one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the world. Not only does this help the environment, but it allows the money saved due to biking to be spent on important things such as healthcare and medical research.

It has been about three weeks now, and I would like to think that my city biking skills have much improved. I still get a little nervous when a car passes me by very closely, but no longer do I get frazzled by the many bikes in such close proximity, and I have gotten used to staying on the right side of the lane and signaling when I have to turn. The best part is that my 20 to 25-minute bus ride to class has now turned into a quick 15-minute bike ride, which wakes me up much more effectively than any other commute I’ve experienced before. Not only is it great exercise, but the feeling of fresh air on my face in the morning readies me to face the day, and never ceases to remind me of why I chose to live in this wonderful city. I feel truly grateful to have been introduced to this culture, and although there are nowhere near the amount of “bike-friendly” accommodations in America as there are in Copenhagen, I hope that remembering my experience here will give me the motivation to dust off my old bike at home and to start using bikes as the incredible resources that they are!