Here and now, in a different part of the world, there are always things that I promise to do, trips to slot in to my our busy schedule, and places that I vow I won’t miss. Being in Edinburgh, I sometimes think of the countless adventures that I haven’t had and the sights that I have not seen. There is simply too much to do—even simple things, like visiting every street and seeing every monument. With limited time in a new and fascinating city, I at first felt like I should be traveling constantly; everyone else I knew who was abroad was in a different European city every weekend, blogging about new places and new people. Meanwhile, I was forming close friendships and becoming a regular at local coffee shops. While at first I felt guilty for not taking advantage of the great European continent at my fingertips, I started to realize that I was getting the most that I possibly could out of my city and my university. Other students studying abroad aren’t doing it wrong if they’re not doing it like I am—every JYA experience is different—but I’m doing it right in my own mind. Creating my own little life in Edinburgh was my perfect study-abroad experience.
If there is one thing that I don’t want to be, it is a typical American tourist. I do love sightseeing, but I would much rather get to know a city for its details and unknowns than for its fame. Edinburgh is an ancient city; there are parts of this metropolis that are centuries older then my home country. It is full of underground chambers, archaic pubs, medieval castles, and time-honored traditions. As a country, Scotland is like a prehistoric wonderland. It is a naturally gorgeous region filled with timeless stories and places. From the cities of the lowlands to the wilderness of the highlands, this country has so much to offer. I have seen a generous amount of unforgettable aspects of Scotland—the rocky, windy coast; the sheep-spotted countryside; the nightlife of Glasgow; and the many-layered beauty of Edinburgh, where I live. But after visiting these key places, I have discovered that what brought me closest to this new place was actually living in it. I feel like I have become a part of this city, and while I may not have traveled all over Europe, I am much happier knowing that I am close to one place than merely friendly with a dozen more. I spend my spare time walking around streets nearby my flat and trying new restaurants. I have gotten involved in a couple of societies (campus organizations) and spent adequate time in the library. I have made close friends and gotten to know people from all over the world. I have gone to the movies, out for American food, and to concerts. I have done everything that I would do at home, but from a Scottish perspective. My goal was to live life here like I would if I were from here. With a few touristy extras, I feel like I’ve accomplished this.
Some of my favorite memories from my time abroad have come from everyday happenings: people-watching from the window of a coffee shop on a Saturday night; movie nights with my flatmates; weekly, rainy trips to the Castle Terrace Farmers Market; reading a book in the Princes Street Gardens; going out for a beer at the local pub; and eating my first deep-fried Mars Bar with three other Americans. These may seem like insignificant memories compared to the far and wide travels of some of my other Vassar friends, but to me, they make my study abroad experience real. These memories have made Edinburgh a home, a place to which to return, and a place that I know like the back of my hand. That, more than anything else, can never be replaced.
Daylight savings, for me, has had the curious effect of compressing time. In the last few weeks, the hours of sunlight in Ireland have shrunk, so that I wake up to blueish-gray dawn, and leave the community school in the pinkish-purple of dusk. Time itself seems to be slipping away faster than usual, too; recently it occurred to me that I have less than four weeks left in Ireland, and this came as a genuine shock. When I relayed this information to the students with whom I have become quite close, they responded with an aghast, “No, Miss!” Leaving them will be bittersweet in the extreme.
With the shortening days comes the sense of the holiday season fast approaching. Already the windows of shops and houses lining the streets of Clifden are collecting tinsel and other such decorations–walking around, I overhear chatter about Christmas shopping and visiting relatives. Being abroad for the holidays is strange. It makes me miss my own friends and family, of course, but it also draws me closer to the web of the Clifden community, as many families offer me a place at their dinner tables. Only now do I realize how much dinner with my family at home and with my friends at Vassar has meant to me. Over the clinking of cutlery, the stories, and the laughter, we share our days with one another. Meals are one of the first things that pop into my head when I think about “family.”
I’ve had the good fortune of meeting two lovely Oberlin graduates here–one of whom happens to be Jewish, like me. The fact that we celebrate both Hannukah and Thanksgiving while no one else in Clifden does has drawn us together, and we have spent many happy hours making and eating food, reminiscing about the things from home that we miss and wish we could have taken with us. It’s funny what ends up becoming important to us when we travel. Usually, I put so little thought into celebrating Jewish holidays because, well, it just happens around me, whether I think about it or not. In Clifden, where the Jewish population, including me, is two people, I suddenly find that I care very much about lighting the menorah, playing dreidel, and eating delicious latkes (potato pancakes). Doing these things feels like sending a tiny message across the ocean, a little connection to those in the U.S. who are celebrating together in ways I’ve taken for granted.
On the flip side, being welcomed into school Christmas preparations has made me feel very much at home, though I have no real ties to those traditions. I’ve been taught Christmas carols–and even stumbled through one in Gaelic–and learned how to make mince pies and fruitcake. These moments make me feel like a part of the community in ways that I hadn’t anticipated.
Recently I had a conversation with my students about the value of religious rituals in general. We ultimately agreed that whether or not you “believe” literally in a particular doctrine, the value of these acts lie in the connections they create between people, and between past and present. As I find myself enveloped in the warm welcome of the Clifden community through Christmas preparations, and as I momentarily transport myself home by celebrating Hannukah, I know this to be true.
I hope you all have holiday seasons filled with people and traditions that take you home.
I’m actually really starting to worry about how little time I have left here in London. It feels like only yesterday that I was frantically typing up my last blog post, talking about how “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” (Crilly, 2013). Now it’s suddenly mid-November and I’m having trouble reminding myself that I’ve actually experienced a lot during my semester abroad.
One of the plus sides of having only two papers to write and one exam to take this term is that I have much more time outside of class to participate in school activities. I’d really recommend that Vassar students studying at UCL take advantage of such activities, because if students are living in a less active dorm like me, participating in school activities is the best way to meet people. The school activity that I chose to join was UCL’s Model United Nations Society and their Debating Society because:
1. I thought clubs that require members to argue with each other would mean that the members are more outgoing and social,
2. The different debate and Model UN tournaments throughout England meant that I could travel during the weekend while still pretending to be productive, and
3. This is apparently my idea of fun.
It turned out that I was mostly right. A neat part about England’s lower legal drinking age than that of the U.S. is that literally every club has a post-meeting hangout at the student bar, which– assuming that other students ignore their coursework as much as I do–means that everyone really get to know other club members. It helps that most of them have amazing backgrounds; 40% of UCL’s student body is made up of international students, and that percentage is even bigger in the Model UN society. For example, here’s a group photo of the UCL delegation at the Oxford MUN conference:
Out of these 13 people, we have the UK, the US, China, the Netherlands, Indonesia, Portugal, France, Singapore, and Lithuania represented. Not to (intentionally) sound pretentious, but it really has been amazing getting to know these incredibly intelligent people and how they view the world. It’s been a little weird to figure out just how much of an influence that the U.S. has on people all over the world (along with how crazy that we seem to everyone in the process).
Travel-wise, it turned out that both societies don’t really go anywhere that is more than a 2-hour train ride away, but I have still had the opportunity to visit both Oxford and Cambridge. I’m actually going to Cambridge again in a couple of weeks, but based on first impressions, Oxford definitely feels like a more commanding, regal town, whereas Cambridge has more of a village-y, student-friendly vibe to it. I’d really recommend at least seeing Oxford, because I’ve found its air of refined elitism really interesting. It seems to me like it could beat out the “Vassar bubble” in that it’s cut off from other big cities, but there’s actually enough to do in the city to persuade students to study there for the rest of their lives.
Probably one of the classiest moments of my life so far was attending a Masquerade Ball (strict Black Tie policy) in the Oxford Town Hall, with a complimentary glass of champagne and a jazz band playing in the background.
Sure, the jazz band only played for one hour, and yeah, the illusion of sophistication was a little ruined by the fact that we were all wearing the same £4 masks that we found in the Oxford costume shop. On the other hand, free champagne. Eat your heart out, Dormal Formal.
Besides my escapades with Debate and Model UN, I’ve done a little more sightseeing and museum-visiting within London. The British Museum is basically a gallery of various artifacts from the last few millennia that Britain wants to show off. As someone who owned a shirt of the Rosetta stone for most of my time in elementary school, that moment when this suddenly popped into view…
…was pretty overwhelming. You can’t really tell it by this this photo, but the well-preserved stone is truly breathtaking: every carved character looks like it was written yesterday.
Deciding to forgo the London Eye, I instead went into St. Paul’s Cathedral. Even though the ticket is absurdly expensive, I absolutely got my money’s worth, especially when I considered that I didn’t pay the even more exorbitant prices for the London Eye. It’s quite frustrating that photos are not allowed to be taken inside the cathedral, because the mosaics above the choir space are worth the price of admission alone. However, the view of the London skyline at the end of the several-hundred-stair climb to the top of the dome made up for the lack of photos taken inside.
The only issue at the top of the dome was how windy it was, which meant that my thoughts were constantly switching between, “This is so beautiful!” and, “There’s a 50% chance that I’m going to drop my iPhone 300 feet above the ground.”
Being at the top of the cathedral, though, really made me think about the vast size of London and all of the things that I could explore. I only have four weeks left during my program, and my weekends are already scheduled with a trip to Dublin next week (with a Polish Model UN friend named Marta), Cambridge Model UN the week after, and potentially Essex the weekend after that. In spite of these planned excursions, I know that I’ll be leaving London with some form of regret that I did not get to do even more during my stay here. What I’ve learned from studying abroad is how much there really is beyond the U.S.–in terms of cities, in terms of arts, in terms of people and the ideas and experiences they can share. And no matter how much you see, or how many people you meet, there will always be the potential for more. I would recommend studying abroad at UCL to everyone, because it’s in a thrilling city, is filled with extraordinary students, and has given me experiences that I just could not have had in the US.
My blog post this month unfortunately won’t focus on life in Paris.
While French universities don’t have fall break like Vassar does in October, we had about two weeks off at the end of the month to celebrate La Touissant, or All Saint’s Day, which falls on November 1st. I had booked tickets in early September to go on a whirlwind trip to three different cities in ten days with two of my close friends from the program–a trip from which I returned last weekend.
It’s surreal to think of how it all began now that the trip is over. Our first flight was at 6:00 a.m. from the Paris Orly airport to Athens, Greece. Since Orly is closed for a few hours in the morning, we all slept at Becca’s house before taking a taxi at 4:00 in the morning to catch our flight. Four hours later, we were in Athens. Having napped for a few hours at Becca’s and on the plane, we had our first meal in Athens, where our love affair with feta cheese started. Feta in America brings to mind brittle, stinky crumbs of cheese that dot salads. Feta in Greece is milky, creamy goodness made of sheep’s and goat’s milk. Eating this feta was an almost divine experience. We spent the rest of the day in the ruins and the Parthenon which was, not surprisingly, swarming with tourists (and also not surprisingly under renovation).
I’d been to Athens before, so I wanted to do something unusual, to take advantage of the newness and excitement that came with “euro-tripping” for the first time with friends. We decided to go to Lake Vouliagmeni–a large cavern that collapsed into a lake. In addition to an underwater cave, a constant warm temperature year-round, and its mythical “healing waters,” Vouliagmeni is also home to “doctor fish,” a fish species that eat dead skin cells. After a solid half an hour of freaking out, I was brave enough to stand in the water while hundreds of tiny fish swarmed around my arms, legs, feet, and stomach. I even saw a woman with psoriasis covered by maybe thousands of fish. She insisted that both the fish and the water helped immensely with her condition and that of her husband, who also had a skin condition. My friends and I left the lake feeling extremely relaxed after our (unconventional) spa day.
Thank goodness, because our next city was Istanbul, a bustling metropolis where crowds of people pile into the streets, markets, and city squares, yelling and laughing and arguing. There was so much to do in Turkey and so little time. We stayed at a hostel by Taksim Square, Turkey’s main square, which is connected to an immense shopping street. The first day, we decided to spend the morning at a hammam, or a Turkish bath, where we were scrubbed down, lathered up, and then given oil massages. Then we were off for a day of sightseeing, visiting the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the beautiful Blue Mosque, where women are required to cover their heads. We finished our day with a visit to the Grand Bazaar, where you can find everything from scarves to lamps to little handmade, decorative boxes.
The next day, we took a boat ride on the Bosphorous River to Anadolu Kavagi, a small fishing village, and capped off our day at the Spice Market, where we sampled different kinds of Turkish delight–a small gelatinous dessert.
Our final city was Vienna, Austria. Our hostel was located right next to the Naschmarkt, a very popular outdoor market, where we happily devoured falafel sandwiches before starting our day. We visited Schonbrunn Palace where a young Marie Antoinette lived with her family, and its sprawling 435-acre gardens. We also managed to get standing room tickets for 4 euros for a ballet at the Viennese opera house, Wiener Staatsoper. While we had to stand for two hours, watching a ballet in Vienna for just four euros was a surreal experience. Our hostel was not only huge, but also a really popular with young traveling students like us, so we ended our nights at the Wombar (our hostel), making friends with students from the US, Canada, Romania, and Australia, to name a few.
It’s so strange to think about all the experiences that I racked up on this trip. I can say that I went to a healing lake in Athens, a Turkish bath in Istanbul, and a ballet in Vienna. It’s definitely not exactly what I pictured when I started my study abroad experience, but it’s a lot more fun to have lived it.
When I visit a foreign country, I’m always pleasantly surprised when I find out that I will be there to take part in an exciting national event. I was lucky enough to be in Copenhagen to experience two such important cultural events celebrated in Denmark. The first was Culture Night (Kulturnatten), which took place on October 11th. The second was J-Day (J-Dag), which takes place on the first Friday of November, this year falling on November 1st.
Culture Night is an evening on which cultural institutions throughout Copenhagen open their doors to the public, offering not only free access, but in many cases some kind of special exhibit or behind-the-scenes tour. The institutions involved include museums, libraries, educational establishments, theaters, musical venues, churches, and more. With over 650 organizations participating, it is almost guaranteed that Culture Night will have something of interest for people of all backgrounds, interests, and age groups. In fact, there are many events organized specifically for kids, making Culture Night a popular event for entire families to attend.
Since there were so many things to see and do on Culture Night, it was impossible for me to experience all of it. However, I was very impressed and delighted with the visits that I made. My first stop was to the famous Copenhagen icon The Round Tower (Rundetårn). The Round Tower is a 17th-century tower that was originally built as an astronomical observatory. Not only can visitors climb to the top of the tower for a beautiful view of Copenhagen, but they can also peruse the beautiful Trinitatus Church, attached to the tower. When I reached the tower, the outside was covered with lights flashing in patterns to make images on the side of the building. When I first walked inside, I was met by the beautiful sounds of a choir singing in the church. The best part, though, came at the end of the trek to the top of the tower (and the long line in which I had to wait). At the top, the old telescope was available to use, even though it is normally closed to the public. It provided a beautiful view of Copenhagen all lit up at night.
Another memorable stop that I made during Culture Night was to Copenhagen City Hall (Rådhuset). City Hall is a massive, beautiful building that I pass every day on my bike to class, but have never taken the time to admire up close, or step foot inside. Culture Night finally gave me the opportunity and motivation to check it out. In honor of the special night, City Hall was filled with Copenhagen’s top politicians. It was interesting to wander around to different tables, trying to figure out the Danish party system and understand the platform of each politician. I hope that wandering around gave me enough knowledge to be able to follow the upcoming elections in Copenhagen!
Closely following Culture Night, J-Day is another night on which all of the Danes flock to Copenhagen in celebration. Officially, J-Day is the annual launch of the Tuborg Christmas Brew in Denmark, but unofficially it marks the start of the Christmas season. At 8:59 PM on J-Day, Carlsberg employees drive around to bars and cafés singing a traditional Tuborg Christmas Brew song and handing out free beer to the guests. These “Tuborg Elves” are dressed up like blue Santas, and their appearance is cause for much joy and singing. The J-Day event in Denmark was established in 1990 as a small tradition, but it has expanded over the years and is now one of the biggest events in Copenhagen. Although Tuborg Christmas Brew is a seasonal beer and is only on the market for ten weeks each year, it is still Denmark’s fourth best-selling beer.
J-Day made me realize that the Christmas season truly does begin in Denmark on November 1st. Not only was the night of J-Day festive–along with Tuborg’s elves there were bars creating fake snow and playing non-stop Christmas music–but the following day, holiday items had popped up in every store in the city. Now, a week later, I cannot walk down the street in Copenhagen without seeing a shop window filled with reindeer ornaments, angel candles, and every other holiday trinket imaginable. It has definitely gotten me in the Christmas spirit–maybe a little bit early for American standards!
Culture Night and J-Day are just two of the wonderful traditions that the people of Denmark celebrate in Copenhagen, and I am very lucky that I was able to be a part of them. Seeing people so excited about the holidays helped me see the true Danish spirit!
I honestly don’t know where the past three months have gone. Yesterday a friend told me that we have less than 50 days left in Italy. How did that happen?
On the bright side, I do have about two months left of my stay in Bologna, and I definitely plan on making the most of them. Future excursions include sightseeing in Milan, spending the day in Ravenna, and maybe even returning to Rome. A lot of my friends in the program have been making trips to other European countries, but since coming to Italy has been a life dream of mine, I’ve been trying to see as much of it as possible. There are so many Italian places to visit, and most of them are only a short hour away by train. I’ve also been taking the opportunity to discover new spots and visit different places in Bologna. There are so many fun things to do in this city.
For instance, the other day my friend Sam and I took advantage of the nice weather and went for a stroll around Bologna. During the weekend, the streets in centro are closed down so that pedestrians can walk and hang out in them. Sam and I browsed through the stores in the area and did a bit of shopping ourselves. We then visited Cremeria Funivia, which is, in my opinion, one of the best gelaterie in Bologna. I get the flavor “Alice” every time, and with good reason. It is an amazingly creamy mascarpone gelato. The real kicker about this one, though, is that when you order it, the lovely people at the gelateria pour Nutella into the bottom of the cone. Nutella! I don’t think you can get any closer to heaven than that.
Some of my best, non-gelato-related experiences this month have related to Halloween. In Italy, Halloween is a relatively new holiday, and is only really celebrated by young children. However, their enthusiasm for the holiday is quite adorable, and I am sure that the celebration will become more popular in upcoming years. Two weekends before Halloween, my friend Lily and I volunteered to work at the children’s Halloween party held every year in a local park by a group that teaches English to Italian kids in the community.
The night before the party, Lily and I met up to create the different activity stations and make the park look spooky. The next day, we all arrived in costume (Lily and I were glitter fairies because we thought loads of glitter and fairy wings would make a good combination) and went to our respective stations. I got to paint faces, which turned out to be a fabulous experience. The kids were incredibly cute, and I loved speaking Italian with them. By the end of the party, I became pretty fantastic at painting la zucca (pumpkin), il gatto (cat), and la ragnatela (spiderweb). I was quite the artista, if I do say so myself.
After the party wrapped up, we all stayed around to clean up and eat the leftover food. However, Lily and I ended up playing and running around with some of the kids who were still there. All in all, it was definitely one of the best things I’ve done in Italy.
On Thursday (Halloween), I had a cena (dinner) for my Italian housemates and a few of my friends from the program. My roommate and I decorated the kitchen with some cutesy decorations that I found at the 99 cent store. Later, we all sat down to an amazing dinner of Gorgonzola-stuffed tomatoes and pasta with broccoli, breadcrumbs, and anchovies. For dessert, we ate sugar cookies and tiramisu. Then we all sat back and watched Jeepers Creepers to get us in the Halloween mood. By the end of the night, the food was gone, the decorations were drooping slightly, and we were all scared that something was going to jump out at us from around the corner.
During my program’s last week in Brazil, we had the week off of classes. It was wonderful to have the executive power to choose where to go; I settled on spending five days on an island named Ilhabela off the eastern coast of the country. I and twelve other students booked rooms at a hostel on the island right on the beach. With the moon still bright in the sky, my friend Alex and I left our house at 4:00 a.m. to catch the 6:00 bus to São Sebastio. We took the train from our local stop, Vila Madalena, to the bus depot. Partygoers from Friday night were still up and about, some waiting to take the earliest train of the morning (the stations all open at 4:30) back home.
We arrived at the station at 5:30 along with our ten fellow groggy-eyed companions, and boarded the bus fifteen minutes later. In a semi-conscious state, I glanced out the window to see the landscape transform. One moment we were traveling through the cement sprawl of São Paulo, and moments later, it seemed, we found ourselves high up in the mountains as we descended upon the coast. Every now and again, I would catch a glimpse of the beach and the sparkling bright blue water between the trees. The man sitting next to me was wrapped in a brightly patterned shawl and smelled strongly of marijuana. He spoke some English and I later saw him editing a video on his computer. Classic stoner/documentary filmmaker.
Upon arriving in São Sebastio, we hopped on the first ferry we saw. While there was no indication of its destination, it seemed that there was nowhere else it could possibly go but the island of Ilhabela, situated directly across the water. As we approached the island, we saw huge clouds enveloping the mountain chain that stretched along its center. The water below us was blue and sparkling as the sun broke through the thick clouds overhead. After arriving on the island, which indeed was Ilhabela, we took cabs to the hostel, which totally exceeded my expectations. It was beautifully decorated with courtyards, gazebos, and a pool overlooking the ocean.
The closest beach to the hostel, while supposedly not comparable to other beaches on the northern and southern coasts, was beautiful with views of São Sebastio across the bay. On our second day, we ventured out on the island’s public transportation system, which was confusing at best. After hours of uninformed walking, we found the entrance to the national park. We did a quick loop of the major trail, which led to beautiful waterfalls and natural pools. The park, a national preserve, was all dense rainforest with a thick canopy of leaves.
The next day, we rented bikes and rode along the beach in an attempt to reach the northern coast. We didn’t make it. The bike path along the water quickly turned into local roads, which were hilly and hard to navigate. We ended up finding a small beach along the way with spectacular views that was virtually empty. Alex and I consistently bought calabreza (sausage) pizza from the nearby supermarket and cooked it in the oven at the hostel. It was the equivalent of about US$5.
Our third night on Ilhabela, Caio came to visit and brought his guitar and some drums. We bought some local beer and sat on the beach singing for most of the night. He knew just about every Smith’s song on guitar, and we probably sang about twenty songs before moving on to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The following day, Caio offered to drive me back to my homestay in Vila Madalena before I headed to the airport for South Africa.
The trip to Africa was incredibly long. We flew out of São Paulo at midnight and arrived in Johannesburg at 8:00 a.m. with a five-hour layover. We eventually made it to Cape Town at 2:00 the following morning (Cape Town time) and stayed in a hostel. The next morning, I decided to climb Table Mountain, which we could see dominating the horizon from our hostel. I went with four other students (Chris, Zoe, Alex and Louis). If we had done more research, we probably would not have attempted the three-hour climb, culminating in below-freezing winds and icy waterfalls. Once we reached the top, however, we had some of the most amazing views I have ever seen. In one direction was the Atlantic, with no landmass until Antarctica. In the other direction was the coast of Cape Town with grassy hills and bright blue water. On the top of the mountain sat a beautiful café literally overlooking the end of the earth. I had an Irish coffee to warm up.
We were hoping that a cable car would be operating to take us back down the mountain, but the winds were too strong. Thus, we made our way back through the jagged ridges and under the freezing waterfalls until we descended back into the open valley at the base of the mountain. A week later, my thighs are still sore.
Later that weekend, Chris (my new roommate, we have a different one for each homestay) and I were picked up by our host family at the Bo Kaap museum. Bo Kaap is a Muslim community of primarily Cape Malay descendants. It is known for its colorfully painted homes and beautiful backdrop of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. Our host mom, Meryl, was very sweet and very conservative. She picked us up in a bright pink headscarf and dress, sharing with Chris and I many examples of some of the awful behavior she’s received from study-abroad students in the past. She then proceeded to show us the numerous letters of praise written to her by students she had hosted. It was very clear that she valued her reputation in the community very much and wanted us to know that she was important and respected. Her house, 39 Jordaan Street, is always busy with family and friends passing through.
It has now been almost two weeks since we first met Meryl (who we now refer to as “ma”). She has opened up a lot, and I have had many interesting discussions with her about everything from religion to travel. She is 69 years old, a widow, and very involved in the Bo-Kaap community. She is very caring and although she makes her opinion known, she is open to my opinions even if they question her own. We talk about the value of keeping one’s home clean and the importance of being hospitable. But she sometimes presents some questionable perspectives. She often blames black Africans for many of the problems that her community and the city at large are facing. As a Malay woman with a very mixed-race background, I find it peculiar that she is so quick to blame another minority group for social ills. Even though her ancestors were from Malaysia (like much of the community), she considers herself very much South African.
Moving on. This city is absolutely incredible. Being able to see the ocean, the mountains, the sandy beaches, and the bright blue sky all at once is breathtaking. Last weekend, I took a trip down to the Cape of Good Hope and saw whales, baboons, ostriches, penguins, flamingos, and zebra. The cape itself was incredible. It is the most southwestern point of Africa, facing Antarctica in one direction and the South American coast in the other. The story of the penguins is an interesting one. About twenty years ago, a bunch of them decided to swim from Antarctica, making it to South Africa and establishing a colony here. They now swim in the bright blue water of the African Atlantic and nest on the beach. It was quite a sight: hundreds of penguins waddling around the beach and into the water.
The next day I went to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for eighteen years. I found it difficult to decide what I thought about the commercialization of such an awfully racist and corrupt period of history in South Africa. As people pushed past one another to get a picture of Mandela’s cell, I waited and talked to the tour guide, himself a prisoner during apartheid who served time in the same prison complex as Mandela. I couldn’t imagine being back in a place in which I had been forced to live for multiple decades, let alone giving a tour to a bunch of European tourists leading very privileged lives (including me). There was a man very eager to keep the tour moving and as the tour guide waited for everyone to gather around him, the man said “Can we get a move on? This shouldn’t be taking so long.” I turned to him and gave him the most disgusted scowl I could and said “Mandela was her for eighteen years, I think you can deal with it.” Comments like these made me very wary of the entire enterprise.
School is going well, but there are days during which I have so much stimulation that I really can’t commit anything to memory. We learn about the history of the country from lecturers and through documentaries. When we stay in the township of Langa, which was a very explosive area for protests and violence during apartheid, we will be privy to some of the entrenched inequality we’ve heard about. Maya, one of my fellowees from Vassar last year, has a cousin, Yaz, who lives here. I’ve met up with her a few times so far. She has an apartment that she shares with fellow students from the University of Cape Town. Last night I brought some friends from my program, IHP, over to her place and we went out to Long Street (aka party central). I bought a bottle of wine for Yaz, but the process of getting it out of my homestay was a bit tricky. There are two other guys besides Chris and I staying in the same homestay. Artur is from Angola and Wassid is from Turkey. Artur has been here for a few months already and speaks English, but Wassid’s is virtually non-existent. Unfortunately, Artur was out of the house. I brought Wassid into my room, where there is a small balcony overlooking the street below, and spent about ten minutes explaining to him that I wanted him to throw it off the balcony to me once I was outside. And that he did. Once I was outside, he threw the wine straight off the balcony and I had to leap into the air and catch it before it smashed right outside of the living room window, where Meryl was hosting a bunch of family.
This weekend, we transferred homestays to the township Langa. I think we’re staying with some of the wealthiest families in the area, but it’s nonetheless a huge departure from Cape Town. Many families still live in informal shacks, and the standard of living is very low. My family is really great and while our host mother (grandmother, really) can be wary of our presence (I’m in a homestay with two other guys from the program, Jake and Mandeep), our host brothers Chuchu and Ife are both adorable and eager to spend time with us. Last night I played Michael Jackson and they both came into my room and danced with me. Chuchu, who is seven, has MJ’s moves down from all of the music videos that he watched growing up. Every morning in the homestay, I am woken up by the sounds of Xhosa, which is the indigenous language of the Western Cape and the primary language of the black townships, of which Langa is part. Xhosa (pronounced *click – osa), is a click language that evolved, I am told, from hunters who used clicks to communicate in order to avoid scaring away wild animals. My host mother always has family over for coffee at 7:00 a.m., and they animatedly discuss current events in Xhosa in the living room.
We have classes at a nearby community/tourism center, but for the past few days we have been working on projects that require us to commute into the city. There is a very large network of informal minibus lines that function as commuter transport for people living outside of Cape Town. I think it is a very efficient process and a surprisingly successful balance of formal and informal procedures. There is a bus depot in Langa where the buses all pick up passengers. They hold about fifteen people each and have their destinations written in the window. Once the travelers find the line going to their destination, they pile in. Once inside, they work out payment other passengers and pass the bills to the front of the bus to the driver. It costs us R8 to get into the city ($0.80). The Cape Town depot is huge, with hundreds of busses navigating through the mass of human traffic and informal vendors. A vast majority of those who use the busses are black and some coloured (these are the terms that people use in South Africa, not my own description), but there are virtually no white users. Entering the city through minibus, you really experience the “black” side of Cape Town and only once you enter a wealthy neighborhood away from the station do you begin to see white people again.
Right now I am in the most beautiful house I have ever seen in the most scenic location I have ever experienced. My friend Nicola invited me to her aunt and uncle’s beach house in the nearby wine lands of Benguela Cove. We are in a modern mansion right on the water with views of magnificent mountain chains and lush grassy plains to either side. The swimming pool snakes along the wooden patio surrounded by the beautiful indigenous fauna fynbos (a plant species found only on the southern tip of Africa). As it is early spring, all of the plants are flowering with brilliant yellows and purples attracting all sorts of colorful birds I have never seen before. Last night, we barbecued and watched the sun set behind the mountains. Once I got the surround sound speaker system working, we (Nicola, Jake, Alex and I) opened up all of the glass walls to the patio and made breakfast. Alex drove us here yesterday in Nicola’s uncle’s convertible (we’re not supposed to be driving, so don’t tell anyone). He got used to being on the wrong side of the road quickly and there were thankfully no accidents along the way.
Time is escaping me, Vassarinos! Here we are at the beginning of November. In Madrid the leaves have finally changed, the temperature has cooled down, and everyone can calm down because my mom finally sent me a bag of pumpkin spice coffee. This post marks the halfway point of my abroad experience, further amplified by the spring housing applications and pre-registration reminders sitting in my inbox. However, these are realities I choose to ignore.
Since I’ve last written, the most surprising thing about being in Spain has been how normal it now feels. I find myself on the platform for the train not remembering how I got there. I strategically weave past the salespeople soliciting in the metro station all while listening to my iPod, fishing out my metro pass, and maintaining the perfect pace and disinterested gaze so they know that I’m not worth approaching. I haven’t walked on the street and thought, “Wow, I’m in Spain” in a while. That is not to say that I’m no longer an active participant in my everyday life, soaking up every moment of my time here. It’s just to say that living in Spain has become extraordinarily normal.
A couple of weekends ago I took my first extra-Spain excursion to Amsterdam. Upon boarding the plane, where the flight attendants spoke only English or Dutch, it was jarring to realize that suddenly Spanish, and my understanding of Spanish customs, had become virtually useless in my current context. While sitting down at a table outside by the canals, waiting for a server to notice us and come take our order as they do in Spain, my travel mates and I realized that it might not work like that in Amsterdam. We had entered the Netherlands with a Spanish state of mind. When we landed on the tarmac Sunday evening at the Madrid airport, it felt a little bit like home.
I also feel as though I’ve really gotten inside of the Spanish language. As any linguist will tell you, language is inextricably tied to culture, functioning as both a reflection and manifestation of our ideologies. As such, both my required language class and my linguistics class have been a huge help in getting a better sense of Spanish culture. In my language class, we’ve been learning phrases the Spanish use to greet each other, say goodbye to each other, wish each other good luck, and other phrases of a similar nature. Not only have these been a huge help when communicating with my señora on a daily basis, they’ve also helped me to understand how people here relate to each other in general. Essentially, for me, it’s meant learning the difference between denotation and connotation. For example: everyone knows that “si” means yes. However, if someone asks you a question, and you want to affirm what they’ve asked you, “si” isn’t the way to go. Responding with “si” in that context would mean something closer to “fine.” Important stuff, guys.
This week in my linguistics class, we’ve started talking about sexism in language, which is a particularly interesting theme when talking about any language in which every single word has a gender. Additionally, there are some double standards which are just way too sexist too ignore. Examples include the word “esposa,” which happens to mean both “wife” and “handcuffs.” The phrase “un hombre público” means a man who holds public office. “Una mujer pública,” however, means prostitute. Some things just aren’t coincidental.
In other news, some October highlights include taking a group excursion to Sevilla and Cordoba, going to a Real Madrid fútbol game, taking several day trips, and receiving a visit from two of my best friends from Vassar, Lorena and Kiran. It was so awesome to have them come to Madrid—mostly because I hadn’t seen them since May. But it was also really great to be able to show them around with a kind of double consciousness. I was their tour guide, showing them around a city that now feels so familiar, but also a tourist, seeing Madrid with new eyes. It also gave me the excuse to check out a few sites I hadn’t yet had the chance to visit. On the first day of their visit, we went to el Matadero, an old slaughterhouse that’s been converted (not recently) into a kind of cultural center, with art galleries, a bar and restaurant, film screenings, and spaces where anyone can hang out and do work—almost all for free. My favorite installation featured three huge sculptures of women’s heads with their eyes closed all facing each other. The way the stripes are painted on them creates an optical illusion that makes it hard for the viewer to focus on them, and makes it seem like they shouldn’t exist in real space.
I also took Lorena and Kiran to the Reina Sofia—Madrid’s modern art museum and home of Picasso’s “Guernica”—and the Caixa Forum, a museum right next to one of Madrid’s vertical gardens. The forum’s exhibits are all temporary, so we saw a George Méliès film exhibit which was incredible and really interesting. It had costumes, projections of his films, interactive components, and even the automaton they used in Hugo, which was a gift from the director.
Saying goodbye to them again was a little tragic, but it felt nice to merge my worlds for week. That is, the piece of home that my Vassar friends represent, and the city that’s become a new home to me.
Film Festivals and City Hikes