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Month: October 2013

Gwen Frenzel | Hanoi, Vietnam & Rabat, Morocco | Post 2

Gwen Frenzel | Hanoi, Vietnam & Rabat, Morocco | Post 2

After I fell sick in Hanoi for over a week (the entirety of my stay there), I was glad to have a change in scenery once I was finally in recovery. Studying with IHP requires a lot of stamina in order to travel so frequently. For someone like me who has not traveled much, our travel days are exhausting. Our journey from Hanoi, Vietnam to Rabat, Morocco began on a Friday afternoon. We checked out of our hotel at 1:00 p.m. and drove for an hour to the airport, where we had to wait for another hour before checking in, since the ticket desk was not yet ready for us. Each of us spent extra time waiting at the check-in desk, attempting to get our luggage checked through to Rabat in order to prevent having to recheck our luggage along the way. Once we got through security, we were not left with much time before boarding our plane. The first leg of our journey was to Kuala Lumpur on a relatively small plane. We then had a short layover before boarding our overnight flight to Paris. Luckily, this flight was on a much larger plane that offered many amenities. Once in Paris, we had a six-hour layover that was primarily spent moving to the correct terminal and waiting in line at the ticket confirmation desk. Once we had free time in the airport, we bought overpriced cheese and chocolate— things that are fairly difficult to find at such a high quality in Vietnam. We finally boarded a full plane to Rabat. After checking through immigration, we arrived in the city. The journey took a total of about 30 hours—and it’s not our longest travel day of the program.

Moving from place to place as quickly as we are has many disadvantages and problems that I acknowledge, but I would prefer to focus on some of the great things that I am experiencing from having moved around so much during the past two months. Probably the best thing for most of the students in my group is that we are able to experience the excitement of a new place so frequently. We loved the weather when we first arrived in Vietnam because it was so warm and tropical, but after a couple of weeks it became tiring to sweat so much. Moving to Morocco presents weather that is much dryer and quite a bit cooler—a welcome change from Hanoi. Additionally, switching from a rice-based diet to a wheat-based diet of bread and couscous satisfied our diverse palates.

Another aspect of the IHP program that I find intriguing is the chance to experience living in different cultures. Of course, we only really experience one household per country, and one home is not at all representative of an entire culture. Coupled with the information we learn, though, we can make some inferences about cultural differences. In Southern Vietnam, the beds I saw in houses were primarily wooden frames, with mattresses only a few houses. In Rabat, classmates and I do not sleep in beds at our homestays. Most families sleep on large couch-like pieces of furniture that line the edges of most rooms. Our home in Rabat is also much more open than in Hanoi, with curtains instead of doors.

Day-to-day life is quite different in the two places, as well. In Southern Vietnam, people typically wake up early in the morning, nap in the afternoon, and go to sleep before 11:00 p.m. In Morocco, my host family wakes up at 10:00 a.m. and goes to bed well after midnight. Their sleep schedule seems a little different from those of my classmate’s families, as does their eating schedule—for example, it is common to eat dinner at 10:30 p.m. My stomach is struggling to adjust to eating dinner right before bed. Additionally, the Moroccan government is much more lax with travelers than is Vietnam, which allows us to have free time to travel the country on our own.

Although I wish I had more time in every individual city in which I am studying, I enjoy the ability I have to live so comparatively. This is not just a perk for learning about societal differences, but also for learning about differences pertinent to my research. My independent research focuses on local food systems. Being able to immerse myself in numerous places that are so different provides me with additional knowledge about each place and allows me to have a better comparative approach. I am excited to continue to learn about Morocco and compare my life here with my time in Vietnam.

Rebecca Shubert | Clifden, Ireland | Post 2

Rebecca Shubert | Clifden, Ireland | Post 2

A few weeks ago, I decided to start a creative writing group at the secondary school where I’m teaching for a semester. The decision was born in part out of the realization that, compared to the students at my high school, kids here have little opportunity to express themselves creatively. I wanted to help fix that.

Five girls showed up in the library for our first session; I knew a few of them already. We started off the meeting with a prompt for a short writing exercise: “Tell me about something you’ve inherited.” One girl wrote about her strange dreams that often seem to predict the future— something she’s inherited from her mother and grandmother. Another wrote about a necklace that’s been passed down since before anyone in her family can remember; it’s tradition that each generation invent a new story of its origins. As we shared the results of the writing prompt, began talking about ourselves and what we planned to write as the semester continued, we became more comfortable as a group. I’ve described this feeling to friends in the past as “classroom magic,” during which the atmosphere transforms from stilted and formal to relaxed and engaged. In my experience, “classroom magic” is where real, memorable learning happens. It’s also crucial for any creative group endeavor; people need to trust one another to be able to workshop each other’s writing.

At the end of that session, I felt great. We agreed to meet as a group twice a week during lunch. As I was cleaning up, one of the girls came up to me (I’ll call her Shelly). She seemed nervous, explaining in a rush that she had the first few chapters of her new novel written in her notebook. Could I read it and tell her what I thought?

“Absolutely,” I said. “What’s it about?”

“Well, it’s an alternate universe type thing. There are ‘specials’—kids who have, like, supernatural powers, and they get chosen and put in a special boarding school, and then they have this ceremony called ‘inspection’ when they turn sixteen, and people from the outside come and they get to show off their powers and see if they’re good enough…” Shelly became increasingly excited as she spoke, then got embarrassed. “Anyway,” she continued, “yeah, just, if you want to read it.”

“Obviously I do,” I said. “Actually,” I told her, I was writing a very similar kind of story when I was your age.” Shelly was intrigued by this. She sensed that we were kindred spirits. The fact that she shared her novel with me was an enormous act of trust. When I looked at her face, I saw myself at thirteen: reserved, ambitious, and wildly excited about the universes contained within my head.

However, when I was thirteen, I had access to a writing workshop outside of school that changed my life. I learned the art of crafting stories, and also the art of opening up. I learned how to give and receive criticism, how to take risks and be rewarded, and also how to fail. And then how to bounce back from failure and begin something new. I was extraordinarily lucky to have had this experience. Shelly and the other students have not had this advantage. There is no opportunity to “write whatever you want” in school, since everything they learn is geared towards the tests that determine whether they will be able to continue on to university.

What does it mean for me to tell them to “take risks! write from your own imagination! go beyond your comfort zone! share your work!” when they’ve likely never been told to do that by a teacher before? Furthermore, who am I to demand that level of intimacy from them when I’m giving them nothing in return?

Someone once told me that real solidarity means a sharing of risks and responsibilities. With this in mind, I decided that I’ve got to take the same risk that my students are taking and share a bit of my writing with them. At our second session two days later, that’s exactly what I did.

Too often at Vassar, I have felt that classrooms are sites of competition for who can seem the smartest and most insightful, rather than sites of meaningful collaborations in pursuit of learning. It’s integral in cultivating “classroom magic” that students and teachers work in solidarity with one another. With a bit of luck, our new creative writing workshop will grow closer and closer to that ideal.

Brooke Robsinson | Edinburgh, Scotland | Post 2

Brooke Robsinson | Edinburgh, Scotland | Post 2

The Doric Dictionary

I chose to study abroad in Scotland expecting to find it vaguely similar to America—after all, Britain and the U.S. were once one in the same, weren’t they? Both countries speak English, and both generally enjoy meat, potatoes, and beer. I knew that Scotland would be different from home, but I never expected to experience the culture shock that awaited me in the rainy, windy, and beautiful city of Edinburgh. The grocery stores are miniature, with teeny bags of flour and no tofu. The crosswalks are confusing, since the cars drive on the “wrong” side and pedestrians have roughly five to ten seconds to get themselves to the opposite sidewalk before potentially being hit. Pumpkin, whole or canned, virtually does not exist in the same large quantities as in the autumn-obsessed states. I became lost trying to read a short story in a traditional Scottish dialect, in which a line literally reads, “Let a tinkler marry a tinkler, an’ the ane is a king an’ the ither a queen; but to mate wi’ a dependednt being! Figh, fie! A crust o’ cheese an’ moss water to that.” To put it simply, I was a wee bit lost.

Interestingly, most of the students who I’ve met in Edinburgh are English, American, or only mildly Scottish. I was absolutely thrilled that I understood most accents and slang. Everything changed, though, when I got close with my first Glaswegian (hailing from Glasgow). Erin Crockett is a true Scottish native, from her ridiculously thick accent to her wonderful freckles. She pronounces her name “Errrrrin” and mine “Brroooke”—rolling the “R” in both and elongating the “O” in mine. More than anyone else, she has taught me the Scottish way of speaking and conversing. We laugh at each other’s odd accents—mine, a strange and very subtle mix of north-Eastern fast-talk and slurred southern; hers, a strong Glaswegian, or as she (only slightly seriously) says “fae Glasgae.”

Erin and I have put together a list of words and phrases, mostly Scottish with a bit of general British thrown in, that what we like to call “The Doric Dictionary” (Doric being a northern Scottish dialect). Some are useful, some are humorous, and all are real.

Affa: an awful lot
Bahooky: bum, butt, ass
Biscuit: cookies of any kind. Not to be confused with chocolate chip cookies (which are “cookies”) or shortbread cookies (“shortbread”).
Blether: to talk or chat
Bobble: hair tie, scrunchie, ponytail-holder
Braw: great
Can’t be bothered: I don’t feel like it, I’m too lazy
Chavy: a sketchy person
Chips (and cheese): (cheesy) fries
Cottons: sweats/sweatpants
Crisps: chips (i.e. potato chips)
Dawner: a casual wander
Don’t get your knickers in a twist: Don’t get your panties in a bunch
Dressing gown: bathrobe
Fanny: vagina. Also, a person’s name, usually female.
Fringe: bangs (e.g., hairstyle)
Gai: very, i.e. “it is gai windy outside”
Haud yer wheesht: be quiet
Hoover: vacuum cleaner; to vacuum
Jumper: sweater
Kirby grip: bobby pin
Lad, laddie: boy
Lass, lassie: girl
Minging: nasty, grody, unpleasant
Mink, minger: someone who doesn’t or can’t afford to wash
Nae, naw: no
O’er: over
Palava: fiasco
Pants, knickers: underwear
Pavement: sidewalk
Plaster: band-aid
Pleat: braid
Quid, squidly: money, same as “buck”
Rat-arsed: “drunk off your ass”
Rucksack: backpack, book-bag
Scaffy: someone who doesn’t look after himself or herself or who is dressed horribly.
Scumdee: a negative nickname for the city of Dundee
Shop: (grocery) store
Soya: soy
Sleekit: sly
Steamin: drunk
Tea: dinner (although dinner is still a word that is used to describe a nighttime meal)
Wee: small, little

Sophia Rutkin | Transylvania, Romania | Post 2

Sophia Rutkin | Transylvania, Romania | Post 2

Transylvania: A Weekend With Vampires

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We go on many excursions with my study abroad program. So far this semester, we have made day trips to Esztergom, Visegrad, and Eger, and a weekend-long pilgrimage to honor the Kids of Pest (Hungarian Revolution of 1956). This past weekend, we embarked upon our final and most involved excursion: staying with host families in an ethnically Hungarian village in Transylvania.

Although my title makes reference to Vampires, to no one’s real surprise, we encountered none. We did, however, climb a “mountain” to visit a medieval fortress, eat more delicious Hungarian food than I can possibly relay, visit many small villages, and bask in the unparalleled beauty of the Transylvanian landscape. For those of you who did not know until now, Transylvania is a real place located between Hungary and Romania, long contested by the two countries. For a large part of its history, the area was officially Hungarian. After the end of World War I, however, the land was partitioned and became part of Romania, though the majority of Hungarians remained in their villages. This is why there are many ethnically Hungarian villages in Transylvania; it was in one of these villages that we stayed.

Kalotoszentkiraly, which means “the village of the saint king,” is a Hungarian Reformed Presbyterian village of approximately 1,300 people, 200 of whom are Orthodox Rumanians. I stayed in an absolutely gorgeous home with my host mother, Kata, her husband, her in-laws, four of my fellow students, and our program leaders. Kata welcomed us into her home, fed us until we could eat no more, and patiently listened to us struggle our way through conversations in Hungarian, the only language spoken in Kalotoszentkiraly. Our host house also had a small farm, pigs, chickens, and even buffalo. Everything we ate came from our host family’s garden, including the rose hip jam for which our host mother is famous.

We stayed in Transylvania for two full days. On Friday, we went to a salt mine that has been renovated into a museum and recreational area. By recreational area, I mean that at about 200 meters below ground, there were pool tables, tables, chairs, wifi, and a lake with paddle boats. Of course we commandeered the paddle boats, and I—being the super obnoxious nerd that I am—quoted riddles from The Hobbit as we paddled around the underground lake. That afternoon, we went to a beautiful village and hiked up to the ruins of a fortress, where we played until dinnertime.

We spent Saturday morning in Cluj, the biggest city in Transylvania, before returning to the village to watch the Harvest Parade. Afterwards, we ventured to an artisan market village, where we watched a man hand-carve chess pieces. That evening, we attended the Harvest Dance, a celebration of the autumn harvest hosted in the village’s community center with live traditional music and dancing. Just as we had spent the rest of the weekend struggling through conversations, we spent the night struggling through dances. It was the perfect end to a fantastic weekend.

Colin Crilly | London, England | Post 2

Colin Crilly | London, England | Post 2

While writing my previous blog post, I was in the reception area of a cheap hostel in Cologne, France, with a game of football playing on a nearby TV. Now, I’m typing in my luxurious single dorm room in London, more than twice the size of the closet-sized singles in Jewett into which I’ll most likely get thrown next semester. Seeing as the setting of my writing is dramatically different than last month, I’m having difficulty recounting everything that has happened to me over the last few weeks. I’ll give it a try, though, for the sake of my (three) readers. (Hi, Mom!)

THE GRAND METROPOLIS OF LONDON

Upon first arriving in London, I had a love-hate relationship with the city. I loved the insane amount of history that had taken place where I walked—just about every three blocks in London boasts a blue, circular plaque on a building signifying that [insert famous individual here] lived, studied, or just hung out there.

My first photo in London, 20 minutes into my cab ride from Heathrow. I think my driver was a little confused by how excited I was. I guess liking Rosalind Franklin isn’t as hip and happening as she used to be.
My first photo in London, 20 minutes into my cab ride from Heathrow. I think my driver was a little confused by how excited I was. I guess liking Rosalind Franklin isn’t as hip and happening as it used to be.

I didn’t so much love the actual process of walking around in London, in that getting from point A to point B usually involved detours to points C, D, E, Q, X, α, etc. It became painfully apparent to me that the simple grid-like street system of New York City was the exception to the rule of city planning; compounding the problem was the fact that half of the streets’ names changed every two blocks. Throw in speeding cars and pedestrian crossings that required more luck than skill to survive unscathed, and London initially struck me as one of the least friendly cities I’ve ever been to.

Unlike in the U.S. the red pedestrian signal ranges in meaning, from “stop” to “I’m not going to change to green for the next five minutes, so you might as well cross since all the cars stopped” to “You feeling lucky, punk?”
Unlike in the U.S. the red pedestrian signal ranges in meaning, from “stop” to “I’m not going to change to green for the next five minutes, so you might as well cross since all the cars stopped” to “You feeling lucky, punk?”

After a few days of exploration, however, I grew used to checking the city maps placed on the sidewalks every five minutes, and I slowly learned to love London, enamored by the beauty of Big Ben, the grandeur of Buckingham Palace, the bustle of Trafalgar Square, and the imposing London Eye.

Combining my two favorite aesthetics: Gothic architecture and shiny metal.
Combining my two favorite aesthetics: Gothic architecture and shiny metal.

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Even though a lot of the main attractions like St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London carry huge price tags to enter, the outsides of such tourist spots are spectacular themselves; there are also discount passes available for those who plan ahead. Also, many museums such as the Tate Modern and the British Museum are completely free of charge. I haven’t even come close to finding everything that London has to offer, so I’m definitely glad to have two more months of exploration ahead of me.

THE ESTEEMED UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON

After having already spent a month in Europe, I finally began “modules” (what the Brits call “classes”). Most universities in the UK don’t start fall term until October 1, meaning that everyone at Vassar will be four weeks into school before I’ve even sat down in a classroom. You can’t even imagine the amount of gloating potential this gives me.

The UCL campus was about what I expected: big and sprawling, with some nice-looking buildings (though nothing compared to Main Building, Thompson Memorial Library, or Rockefeller Hall). While the concentration of cheap cafès and bars run by the UCL Union was a nice surprise, the main campus showstopper is the Wilkins Building, a stately building with architecture inspired by ancient Greece that houses the library.

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My favorite campus building, though, is the Cruciform, which houses labs for the division of biosciences.

View of the Cruciform building from Wilkins. If we could take this building and put it oh, I don’t know, right on top of Olmsted Hall, that’d be perfect.
View of the Cruciform building from Wilkins. If we could take this building and put it oh, I don’t know, right on top of Olmsted Hall, that’d be perfect.

Being a bioscience student at UCL has definitely been a fish-out-of-water experience. Most UK schools require students to choose a major before the beginning of the year, after which fellow majors take the same fixed sequence of modules for at least the first two years. This means that the first week of my second-year Animal Physiology module was composed of a quick “review” over all of the hormones that the Biomedical Sciences students had learned last year.

My Animal Physiology experience, however, pales in comparison to my ill-fated decision to take Classical Mechanics. While I assumed that it was an introductory physics class, it turned out to be an “introduction to physics” for physics majors, meaning that the students enrolled in the module already been studying physics for the last two years. I would tell science students studying abroad in the UK to be extremely careful when selecting courses, as what looks like an easy first-year class could suddenly become your worst nightmare. But hey, at least I got to see a first-edition copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica!

That makes this module worth it, right? Right?!
That makes this module worth it, right? Right?!?

While I wouldn’t want to be in a lecture hall of 100 to 200 students for my entire time in college, I think the novelty such class sizes here at UCL will keep me content for three months. In any case, most humanities courses are divided into lecture classes and discussion seminars (kind of like Intro to Art History at Vassar) so it isn’t like I won’t get face time with my professor if I want it.

My Neurobiology of Neurodegenerative Disease lecture hall. Isn’t it pretty?
My Neurobiology of Neurodegenerative Disease lecture hall. Isn’t it pretty?

Dorm Life!

Probably the hardest transition I’ve had between Vassar and UCL is the changed dorm experience. I chose the self-catered option, which means that I share a hallway and kitchen with five other students and fend for myself in terms of meals.

My dorm, Langton Close.
My dorm, Langton Close.

 

The kitchen, in which about a third of the appliances actually work.
The kitchen, in which about a third of the appliances actually work.

As an abroad student, I’m guaranteed student housing, as are “Freshers” and postgraduate students. This makes for unusual flat dynamics, as mine is made up of a fellow study-abroad student from the U.S., three Freshers, and a postgraduate student from China. Although some of us are more open than others, it’s been a great experience getting to know them and comparing British customs, systems, and slang to their American counterparts. Plus, my hall-mates baked me chocolate chip treats for my birthday!

I say “treats” because no one could really figure out what they were supposed to be. We suspect cookies, but nobody had measuring cups so I think the ratio of ingredients was a little off…
I say “treats” because no one could really figure out what they were supposed to be. We suspect cookies, but nobody had measuring cups so I think the ratio of ingredients was a little off…

Compared with my freshman experience at Vassar, there is not nearly as much focus on dorm cohesion here. Oh sure, people party in the dorm basement, but I don’t think that most people have socialized beyond their floor, and there’s really no “dorm spirit” going on. That might be because all of our “spirit” evaporated when we realized that our dorm was a 20-minute walk from campus.

Pictured: The only student running for the only “House Team” position open to students. I guess it’s nice that someone cares.
Pictured: The only student running for the only “House Team” position open to students. I guess it’s nice that someone cares.

Even considering the issues I’ve had with UCL (let’s not even talk about my “attempts” at cooking), I expected to encounter most of them before coming to London, and I’m still convinced that studying abroad here was the best decision I’ve ever made.

This alone made London totally worth it.
This alone made London totally worth it.

Next blog: The social life in London, extracurricular activities, and hopefully some more traveling!

Lily Choi | Paris, France | Post 2

Lily Choi | Paris, France | Post 2

It’s hard to avoid the French language when in France. Yes, I am fully aware of how idiotically obvious this sounds.

What I mean to say is, it’s hard to commit to learning and speaking French all the time while in France—and you must commit, because everything is all French, all the time. But in order to commit, you have to want to commit. And thus far, in my study-abroad experience, the wanting (which conversely means giving up the English) has been the hardest part.

A truly Parisian night is spent in front of the Eiffel Tower.
A truly Parisian night is spent in front of the Eiffel Tower.

About two weeks ago, when we were just getting our footing in Paris, the VWPP (Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris) directors made us sign a contract of sorts, promising that we wouldn’t speak English—not in the VWPP building, not at school, and most importantly, not with each other. For the most part, this request seemed pretty unreasonable, and therefore not at all feasible. How could we be expected to speak only French with each other when that meant our conversations would be frustratingly impaired and restrained?

It became a running joke. We would speak English in whispers, in tucked away corners of the VWPP building, stashing away our contraband language when a professor or adult walked by. We joked around when, on the bus ride back from Claude Monet’s house in Giverny, Pierre, one of the assistants at VWPP, took over the speakers to formally reprimand us for speaking English. I imagine that he and the directors have to deal with the same situation every year.

Every hour, the Eiffel Tower puts on a sparkly light show.
Every hour, the Eiffel Tower puts on a sparkly light show.

But after a few weeks, I realized that speaking English was, in fact, diminishing my study-abroad experience. Walking around with my VWPP friends and speaking in English made me feel like I was in a safe little English-speaking bubble rolling around Paris. The thing about that bubble, though, was that Paris couldn’t penetrate it. I could feel that I wasn’t taking away as much as I could from living and being in Paris, all because I was refusing to immerse myself fully in the experience that studying abroad is supposed to offer. I think that most people would agree that that’s a horrible shame.

The thing is, you do get tired of hearing French all the time. During the first few weeks in Paris (and this is embarrassing), I was hooked on Gilmore Girls. I was so tired of hearing a language that was too fast and impossible to understand and simultaneously everywhere, that as soon as I got home, I just wanted to hear as much quick, verbose, garrulous English as I could, and everyone knows that Gilmore Girls serves that up on a piping-hot platter.

Giverny was home to Claude Monet and his jardin, which is full of strange and diverse flora.
Giverny was home to Claude Monet and his jardin, which is full of strange and diverse flora.

But last night, I was sitting in my Contre-Utopie (Dystopia) literature class listening to the professor analyze Nous Autres (We) by Eugène Zamiatine and its critique on Soviet Russia in beautiful, flowing, witty French. Though I could only understand about 85 percent of it, I realized that I love this language. I love the way fluent French speakers speak French like it’s completely natural to have this gorgeous language—full of breathy r’s and slippery s’s—fall off the tongue so easily. I imagined what it would be like if I were to be fluent in a few months.

That’s the thing about studying abroad—maybe you won’t be ready to open yourself up to the experience right away. Maybe it’ll take a few days, or even a few weeks. But there will come a point when you realize why you chose the country or the language or the program. The most important part is taking the initiative.

One of our first activities in Paris was taking a bateau-mouche on the Seine.
One of our first activities in Paris was taking a bateau-mouche on the Seine.

It’s not easy, but the more I get involved in the Parisian life I am creating for myself, the more hopeful I feel that my French is indeed improving. And there are so many opportunities to improve my French here. The classes that I’m taking here are on prostitution and sex work, women and institutions, and the aforementioned utopian novels, and it’s easy to have a dialogue in French about topics that interest me. Additionally, every week, we each have half-hour meetings with French language tutors, which sometimes feels like a French language therapy session in that you basically talk about your thoughts and feelings on a certain topic for thirty straight minutes. And I’ve met a girl in my French kickboxing class who makes speaking French not feel like a chore.

I’m really excited to see how far I’ve come in a month. Here’s hoping I can continue to open myself up to my JYA experience!

Parisians have been trying to figure out American holidays, as evidenced by this book my host mother, Bernadette, showed me in her library after I tried to explain to her American Halloween.
Parisians have been trying to figure out American holidays, as evidenced by this book my host mother, Bernadette, showed me in her library after I tried to explain to her American Halloween.
Heather Ingraham | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 2

Heather Ingraham | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 2

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Before I left for Denmark, one of the main goals I had for my study-abroad experience was to meet as many Danes as possible. I wanted to experience the Danish culture and get a sense of what real life in the country was all about. When I first arrived, achieving this goal seemed like a bit of a challenge, since I was living with and going to school with Americans. However, in the last month-and-a-half, I have slowly been branching out, trying my hardest to interact with my Danish teachers, RAs, and random people on the street. By far the best experience I’ve had with meeting Danes has been through a program for which I signed up, called “Visiting Family.” The program gives students not living with a host family the opportunity to be matched up with a Danish family to visit and spend as much time with as you would like.

I really feel that I lucked out with my visiting family. They emailed me before I even arrived in Copenhagen, introducing themselves and expressing their excitement to meet me; they even invited me to spend a night at their house during the first weekend that I spent in Denmark. My family consists of the Mom and Dad, named Max and Inge, and their four kids: Anders, Tine, Bente, and Lise. At first we emailed back and forth, but now I am Facebook friends with all of them, and I mostly make plans with the family through Facebook messages.

The first weekend I was in Denmark, I took a train to my family’s house in Roskilde, which is a 30-minute train ride from the center of Copenhagen. Max and Inge met me at the train station, and we walked to their house. The first thing that struck me when we arrived was their beautiful yard. It was small, but filled with countless apple trees, tomato plants, and even a small chicken coop with four chickens in it. Most surprising of all was the fact that they keep bees! They have a small apiary enclosure and out front, they have a sign advertising that they sell honey. When I left the next day, they sent me home with a big jar of their delicious homemade honey.

Everyone in their family takes turns making dinner each night, and the night that I visited, Bente, who is 16, was making lasagna from scratch—including the pasta. I was amazed and excited to watch as she made the dough from eggs and flour and then carefully fed it through a small machine that flattened the dough into thin slices as she cranked the handle. The lasagna turned out to be delicious, and I loved the fact that each member of the family, including the kids, all took turns cooking dinner. It created a more equal environment where everyone was happy to help one another.

The next day we had a traditional Danish breakfast, which included a layout of dried cereal, a type of oatmeal called muesli, yogurt, bread, cheese, and various jams and sandwich meats. Afterwards, we rode bikes over to a forest in Roskilde. Inge and Max had planned for us to go orienteering, which is a popular activity in Denmark. Orienteering is a kind of scavenger hunt in the woods where, equipped with a map and a compass, you must run to find certain checkpoints at which you stamp your map to prove that you have visited each spot. Being in the forest was a nice breath of fresh air compared to Copenhagen where, as in any big city, there is lots of noise, lots of smells, and not so many trees. After biking along the beautiful rolling hills of Roskilde for a few more hours and stopping to pick elderberries, we returned home to have a mid afternoon snack of “pancakes,” which is what Danes call crepes.

Needless to say, this first experience that I had with meeting Danes gave me the encouragement I needed to put myself out there and meet more. While I love my living situation because it allows me to live right in the city with only a small commute to class, I feel that spending time with a real Danish family is a very important cultural experience to have while abroad, and I am so glad that this program gives me the opportunity to do so. Although I don’t live with the family, I still get the chance to practice my Danish, try Danish foods to which I would not otherwise have been exposed, and to find out what it is really like to be a part of a family in foreign country. I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

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Sabrina Sucato | Bologna, Italy | Post 2

Sabrina Sucato | Bologna, Italy | Post 2

This morning I woke up and felt like I was actually in college. Before today, life in Bologna had been pretty easy. I only had to worry about one class each day, left with most of my waking hours to explore the city and travel. Real classes started this week, though, and I am feeling slightly overwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong—the program classes at the E.C.C.O center are great. I’m taking a theater class and an Italian literature class, and I love them both. What’s freaking me out a little is navigating streets packed with university students and taking a lecture class at the University of Bologna with at least ninety-nine other native Italian speakers. I’m excited to be in the middle of it all, but I’m also nervous that I’m going to forget to do something or miss out on some important piece of information.

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Today I tried to buy my first textbook, which I’m supposed to read by the end of the week. When I went to the bookstore, the woman I asked said that the store doesn’t carry any books published before the year2000. Needless to say, I was very confused. I returned to my apartment for lunch because, in stressful times, food is always the cure. I also emailed my professor in the most formal way possible about where to buy books; in Italy, professors and students do not communicate in casual terms. As a rule, I’ve learned that it is always better to keep correspondence professional.

I know that I will find my routine sooner or later, but for now I have to settle for living in a perpetually frazzled state. I guess I can’t complain too much, though. While I do have to read a different book every week for the university class, it concludes on October 30, and don’t have to take the final until November or December. In some ways, the Italian university system definitely rocks.

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After my mini freak-out session, I calmed myself down and headed to my university class on contemporary Italian literature, which I am really enjoying. I sat next to a girl from Sweden who is also studying abroad. We talked about how awesome the professor is and how weird it is to be taking a class taught entirely in Italian.

I really needed to treat myself after such a trying day, so I went with a friend to some of the amazing vintage shops in the city. There are two stores really close to my dorm, and I’m in love with them both. My favorite one is called Zenobialand, where the owner brings her adorable dog to the store every day and specializes in clothing from the 1940s and 70s. Needless to say, I’m in heaven. After shopping, my friend and I went to the fruttivendolo and bought a ton of vegetables for 5€—produce is so cheap here! From there, we returned to the dorm and made a delicious antipasti platter with avocado, tomatoes, prosciutto, and olive oil. Ok, so maybe the avocado is not a traditional part of antipasti, but I was really craving it. We watched America’s Next Top Model: British Invasion and ate everything on the plate.

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Of course, the antipasti platter was just the start. For some strange reason, I still had not bought myself a slice of legitimate Italian pizza since arriving in Bologna. As such, my two friends convinced me that we had to go to a pizza place down our street, and I am so glad that we did. We split two pies—one with tons of veggies and another with mozzarella and what looked like mashed tater tots. Those pizzas disappeared no more than thirty minutes after they were delivered to our table.  It was, hands down, the best pizza I have ever eaten, and I have the food baby to prove it. You only JYA once, right?

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Alana McCraw | India | Post 2

Alana McCraw | India | Post 2

Battleground 

“One may conquer in battle
A thousand times a thousand men,
Yet he is the best of conquerors
Who conquers himself.”
~Buddha, Dhammapada 103
I’ve noticed that I tend to identify with certain quotes at particular points in my life; the one above is a perfect summation of my first month in India. I handled the upbringing of my siblings after my parents’ divorce, worked my way to the top ten percent of my high school graduating class, and got accepted to Vassar College, now my home away from home. All of those things were pretty difficult, as I’m sure many of my peers can tell you, because in this day and age they have probably gone through similar experiences.
India, however, poses an entirely new set of difficulties; first and foremost, I chose to come here, to get up and meditate at 5:00 a.m. each morning, to cut meat out of my diet, to distance myself from everything and everyone I know and love. With the decision to come to India, I quite unintentionally started a new battle within myself. I came here looking for answers; answers about Buddhism and its traditions, the people and culture of India, and about myself. Well, whoever gave the warning to be careful what you wish for…they sure knew what they were talking about.
So far I have discovered that the Buddhism I have come to know and appreciate is merely a westernized ideal of the actual tradition (at least that of the Theravada sect, anyway). I’ve also come to realize that I take so much for granted back home—not just hot water, coffee, clean spaces, or technology. I mean having the right, as a woman, to walk around town by myself when I want to without having tons of friendly guides following me trying to have a conversation; having the ability to tell some guy off when he pushes me out of line at the post office because he has a penis; or just being able to wear capris and shorts when it’s extraordinarily hot and muggy outside. It would also be nice to not have to fear for my life each time I’m in the street, because there is no sort of traffic control or order here.
Despite being overwhelmed, at least initially, by all these things, I have not given in to that part of myself that wants to fall over with anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. Quite the contrary—I’ve actually learned to handle it quite well. First and foremost, I have an opportunity that quite a few are lucky enough to experience. It might not be a basket of roses all of the time, but there are definitely positive aspects. I have a good support system, people I can actually acknowledge as real friends; my professors and faculty members are grand and never let us wander astray; and I’ve actually discovered a few of the answers I originally set out to find. I’m ashamed to say that it took leaving the entire continent of North America to realize it, but the thing that I cherish most in this world is my family. I needed to leave the world that I knew in order to fully appreciate it and everything that lies within it: my family and friends, my school, the seasons, air conditioning, coffee—basic things that I know I take for granted. But it’s okay now that I’ve realized this—I have acknowledged and accepted this little skeleton of mine. There are surely many more to realizations to come.
Kiran Chapman | Sao Paulo, Brazil | Post 2

Kiran Chapman | Sao Paulo, Brazil | Post 2

Sao Paulo is huge. Flying over the city, I thought I had a sense of its scope, but I didn’t at all. You can never see where it ends. Standing on a mountain in the forests above the city, the urban landscape seems to stretch forever, with atmospheric perspective engulfing the horizon.

I am living with a family in Villa Madalena, which is one of the nicest areas of the city, in my opinion. It’s located about fifty minutes away from Mackenzie University, where our classes are held. My roommate Alex (who is also in my program) and I can either take a bus or two trains to school. The trains are a little faster and less crowded, but there is more of a walk involved. We’ve probably taken a different series of routes to get to school everyday for the past week.

My host parents.
My host parents.

There are very quaint and clean bars and restaurants in Villa Madalena located about a fifteen-minute walk away from my host family’s house. Most of these bars seem to have a European influence, which makes sense considering that Sao Paulo has the largest Italian population outside of Italy. They can accommodate thousands of people on a weekend night without feeling too overwhelming. To celebrate Alex’s birthday last night, we went to a bar that had a host of liquors I’d never heard of, including cachaça, which is the primary ingredient in a caipirinha (muddled lime, sugar, ice and cachaça). These drinks really knock your pants off. After leaving the bar, we went to a nearby club called Favela, which is also the name for Brazilian shantytowns, so I’m not really sure what I think about the name…There was a live band that was really good, although I couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were singing. But after a couple of drinks, I don’t even try to speak or understand Portuguese, and don’t mind stooping to the level of gestural communication when I speak to Brazilians.

A few days ago, Alex and I spent the day with Silvio de Abreu, who is a family friend of mine and happens to be a famous telenovela writer and director. It was a very surreal experience to be picked up in his Mercedes on the quaint street where I’m staying and be driven through Sao Paulo’s bustling downtown behind tinted windows. We ended up going to a restaurant with food from Minas Gerais, which is an area north of São Paulo. It was supremely tasty. The host at the restaurant addressed Silvio by name even though he’d never been there before. Silvio then took Alex and I to a nearby mall, which was definitely not like any mall I’ve ever seen. There was a live orchestra on the mezzanine, each clothing store and its own café, and many people came up to Silvio to shake his hand or just stare at him. Next week, Alex and I plan to take Silvio up on his invitation to stay at his beach house in Guaruja next weekend.

As part of our program’s numerous site visits, we journeyed to an abandoned office building that was part of the Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra). The program, mostly centered in the abandoned offices of downtown São Paulo (the buildings emptied when offices began to move into residential neighborhoods in order to shorten commutes), offered much insight into a seemingly informal and perhaps even illicit/criminal initiative that is in fact extremely successful and well organized. The building that we visited, which was about ten stories tall and designed in the 1930’s, housed over 150 families from around Brazil and Latin America. The families paid a sum of about R$200 (approximately $87) each month for utilities including water, electricity, and wifi. The program manager, Miguel, made it very clear that this was not a rent payment, as no one other than the business owners (who let the buildings sit abandoned) actually owned the property. Here is where the process gets very interesting: the Brazilian Constitution stipulates that it is illegal to own property that does not serve a social use. One cannot buy empty land and let it sit vacant, nor can one let an office building sit abandoned. However, somebody can sell the rights of land development to another person/company so that they can further develop their own separate piece of land, effectively fulfilling the quota of development for the land that no longer needs to be developed.

Community organization in Cidade Tiradentes.
Community organization in Cidade Tiradentes.

Yesterday, Silvio picked Alex and I up from school with his wife and took us to a classic Brazilian Barbeque restaurant with food from Rio Grande do Sul (kind of the Brazilian equivalent of Texas). Everyone wore traditional outfits from the area and came around with huge cuts of meat and cut off slices for you. There was a coaster that you could flip over to the red side to indicate that you didn’t want any more food. It was absolutely delicious. Later that night, about 20 people from our IHP group went out to a small bar in Vila Madalena that had beers from around the world, and I finally enjoyed another IPA (although with import taxes, the beer turned out to cost about $10, which is a crazy price in Brazil).

Today we went to an initiatve in the peripheral community (synonymous with favela? I’m not sure, they look pretty similar) of Brasilandia. The program was about gardening and environmental education, and we helped repaint a geodesic dome that was being built. We made paint by extracting the pigment from clay dug at the site, which seemed like a very sustainable process. The total commute from my house to the favela took over three hours, even though Google Maps says it’s only thirty minutes away by car. These are the types of issues we encounter when interacting with the built environment and infrastructure of São Paulo, especially within peripheral communities.

Cabuçu de Baixo favela
Cabuçu de Baixo favela.

I just got back from a very long day. We went to a favela in the north of the center of São Paulo and it was extremely moving. We have been to a lot of initiatives within the peripheral communities, but they don’t accurately portray the real story. Today we saw how the other half actually lives, in garbage and sewage. While it was very alarming to see such poor conditions of human existence, there was hope. The reason we were in the area is because it is a site that has been chosen for redevelopment and is receiving a lot of architectural input. A river runs directly through the community, which has been deemed unsafe given how much flooding occurs. It will be cleaned and the banks will be made into a public park. This will prevent homes from being built too close to the banks while also offering public space and beautification.

Cabaçu de Baixo.
Cabaçu de Baixo.

After the site-visit, we went to a bar near our school. It is actually two bars on either side of a street that merge on Friday nights to create one huge party for college students from nearby Mackenzie University. I met students from the university through a Portuguese friend and staff member, Caio. Unfortunately, a knife fight that happened halfway through the night. No one was seriously hurt, but the incident reaffirms the idea that nowhere can be deemed totally safe. There are always reasons to be on your guard.

Children playing in the favela Cidade Tiradentes.
Children playing in the favela Cidade Tiradentes.

This weekend Silvio took Alex and I to his house in Guaruja, which is a peninsula off the south-eastern coast of the country. It was ridiculously beautiful. His house was in a gated community of luxury homes that looked like Hollywood Hills (Silvio said “Welcome to Hollywood” as we passed through security on our way in). Alex and I biked to the beach after we arrived. The beaches are nestled between the mountains, which are covered in dense foliage. The white sand of the beach, the green of the mountains, and the blue of the sky and the water create a stunning combination of colors. Most of Silvio’s house guests were friends and personal trainers who were all really nice, and maybe a bit too beautiful.

However nice Silvio’s home was, it was hard to ignore the favelas that we passed as we drove along the highway from São Paulo. They were huge informal settlements made exclusively with the goal of housing the poor service industry workers near their jobs in the wealthier communities in the area. We passed dozens of communities that sprouted up from the side of the highway and continued for miles along the road. Even upon entering Guaruja, it was clear that we had not yet reached the wealthy area. This experience of clear poverty upon entering made the beach town itself seem much more artificial and maintained.

Now, I’m sitting in bed, preparing a presentation about transportation in South Africa to present before leaving Brazil. “Blue Monday” by New Order is being blasted in the street outside, which makes me remember being in Costa Rica four years ago and cherishing the feeling of hearing someone play music I knew that wasn’t Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga. It makes the world seem smaller and more accessible, and makes me want to keep traveling!