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Month: December 2013

Sabrina Sucato | Bologna, Italy | Post 4

Sabrina Sucato | Bologna, Italy | Post 4

How is it that I have only one week left of my JYA experience?  I’m not ready to say goodbye to Italia yet!

This past month has been absolutely fantastic. To start, I took two amazing trips: one to Venice and the other to Rome. Venice is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. There are absolutely no cars or vespas.  Instead, there are tons of boats and bridges to connect the city and its inhabitants. I loved getting lost on the tiny streets and stopping in cafes for a quick pastry or two. I was freezing the whole time, but it was worth it.  Besides, there was cioccolata calda (aka melted chocolate in a cup) to keep me warm. By far my favorite spot in Venice was the Jewish neighborhood. I was charmed by it at first sight. My love grew after tasting their local Venetian pastries and stopping by the adorable jewelry shops that lined the streets.

Returning to Rome, though, was perhaps the best trip I took during my time abroad. Don’t get me wrong—I had an amazing experience when I first visited Rome in September. It was warm during that trip, and I got to see all of the sights for the first time. However, visiting Rome when it was decked out in twinkling lights and Natale decorations was just perfect. I went to all of my favorite food spots, including Giolitti for Oreo gelato, Aristocampo for the perfect panino, and La Carbonara for (what else) pasta carbonara. I also enjoyed simply walking around the city with my friends and feeling amazed when we saw the Colosseum down the street or the Roman Forum around the corner.

However, some of my best experiences abroad have been the little ones. At the beginning of the month, I was able to go to a makeup event at a local beauty school with my housemate. Not only did we get our makeup done, but we also got free prosciutto and cheese. Needless to say, the combination of makeup and cured meats was pretty great. I’ve also been cooking a ton, which is probably from which some of my most enjoyable memories come. My friend and I made some of the most amazing burgers ever for my roommate, complete with Tabasco sauce and guacamole.  We’ve also whipped up Nutella cookies, apple cake, meatballs, and tons of pasta dishes. I’m aware that most of my diet now consists of pasta and pizza, but I have absolutely no problem with that. There are tons of possible variations on those two dishes, and I’ve had fun coming up with as many different meals as I can.

Now that it’s almost time for me to start packing my suitcase (horror!), I’ve become even more appreciative of my time here in Italy. This has been the first point in my life that I’ve really been able to travel, and I’ve loved knowing that I can take the train to an amazing Italian city whenever I have some free time. I’m quite proud of the choices that I’ve made here, such as choosing to travel only throughout Italy and making friends with both the Americans in the program and the Italians in my dorm. I will definitely miss my lifestyle here.

It will be nice to come back home and to Vassar, though. I’m beyond excited for Christmas at this point, now that twinkly lights are everywhere and I’ve done a decent amount of shopping for my family and friends. I’m also looking forward to a Harry Potter movie marathon and eating chocolate chip cookies with my sister. Getting back to Vassar will also be great; I’m counting down the days until I can make Sunday morning Babycakes runs with my friends and check out the plays and acapella performances. Before any of that can happen, though, I have two tests to take, one suitcase to stuff, and quite a few more pasta dishes to eat. I want to take advantage of my remaining days here and make each one of them count.

Alana McCraw | Mysore, India | Post 3

Alana McCraw | Mysore, India | Post 3

Coming Full Circle

For the past three weeks I have lived in Mysore, India, studying yoga and comparing the philosophy and practice of Ashtanga Yoga to Zen meditation. While I had a wonderful time, I am quite happy to be back in my original study-abroad home of Bodh Gaya, Bihar—something I didn’t think that I would ever say. However, my time away from Bodh Gaya has allowed me to reflect upon the three months that I spent there. While it is a spiritual place, it is also full of hustle and bustle everyday; the streets are filled with cows, goats, rickshaws, and people running to and fro in order to get things done. It was definitely a challenge to maintain the patience necessary to handle this new environment, but I can definitely admit that it has helped me to grow.

I am most grateful for my time spent here in India. While it was not always the most wonderful thing in the world, and always pushed me beyond limits that I didn’t know were there, I would not change or trade this experience for anything. I will not cry on the plane this time (or maybe I will). I most certainly will rejoice at the fact that I will shortly be reunited with my loved ones, but I will always value and cherish  the lessons that I learned in India. I am coming so close to completing the circle that I started in late August.

Kiran Chapman | Hanoi, Vietnam | Post 4

Kiran Chapman | Hanoi, Vietnam | Post 4

Our flight from Cape Town to Hanoi was tedious to say the least; we flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg to Doha to Bangkok to Hanoi in the span of twenty-four hours. Flying from South Africa to Qatar was quite an amazing experience, knowing that I was passing over dozens of countries that I’d love to visit. Our bus ride from the airport to the center of the city showed the progression of agriculture to urban density as rice fields were slowly taken over by homes and shops. I spent my first night exploring the area known as the Old Quarter, which was the original walled-in portion of the city. The nightlife is really fun and incredibly accessible. Shops and bars open up onto the street and a draught beer costs $0.25. My friend Chris and I went to the “oldest” bar in the city called Mao’s Red Lounge, which one could describe well with the stereotype “oriental.”

Mandeep is my homestay brother once again, which I’m very happy about. Our family consists of our brother (ainh in Vietnamese), a second brother, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, and aunt. The home, which is narrow and four stories tall (typical for homes in Hanoi), is located in a nondescript alleyway in the midst of a network of winding side streets. We have class at a hotel that is a ten-minute walk from our house.

View from the hotel.
View from the hotel.

The city is amazing. Its heartbeat is palpable and the vibrancy and chaos of its streets create a consistent narrative. Hanoi is a welcome departure from the heavily divided (physically, socioeconomically, racially) cities of Cape Town and São Paulo. People here seem happy and as though they truly belong here. While that is a strange thing to say of one’s home, I really believe that Hanoians live in a city that reflects their own values and has been shaped by their presence in ways that other cities have not been.It has been hard to update this blog as much as I would like given how much has been going on. Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines during our first week and reached Hanoi by the weekend. Classes were cancelled since the typhoon caused flooding in much of southern Vietnam. Once school was back in session, I contacted Ngoc, a mutual friend from Hanoi. She works as an assistant at a photography company and was eager to show me around the city. She picked me up after class one day on her moped and took me on a three-hour tour of the city. Weaving through traffic, past beautiful lakes and markets and around towering temples, Ngoc gave me a firsthand look at the many elements and neighborhoods that make Hanoi such an exciting place. We ended up at her house on the north end of Ho Tay lake. There I met her husband, Ricky, who made an impromptu move to Hanoi from Texas. He now runs a dog training business from his home; upon arrival I was greeted by about ten dogs, from beagles to hounds, at the front gate. We went to a bar near their house and Ricky told me some pretty amazing stories of his travels through southeastern Asia. They included but were not limited to having his motorcycle break down in the middle of some random road in the countryside of Laos at midnight, arriving at the border of Cambodia without a visa but getting in because it happened to be their New Year and all of the border police were drunk, and getting kidnapped in Luang Prabang and managing to escape and ride back on the kidnappers motorcycle. All in all, this man has had some bizarre experiences.

Biking around the city.
Biking around the city.

The site visits in Hanoi have been good, but not amazing. What was amazing, however, were the weekend trips that we took as a group. On our second-to-last weekend in Hanoi, a group of about twenty of us booked a “junk boat” for the weekend in Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The bay, just off the northeastern coast of Vietnam, was completely indescribable. First of all, the boat was not what we were expecting. It could have easily been a four-star hotel thanks to its all-inclusive meals and proximity to caves, kayaking, beaches, and cooking class all for $90. I happened to be staying in the bedroom that Mark Zuckerberg booked with his wife; they allegedly bought up the entire boat for the weekend and had bodyguards stay in the rest of the rooms. Just a fun fact.

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On our first day in the bay, we enjoyed a wonderful three-course lunch in the dining room followed by a cave exploration and hike. The views from the peak of one of the bay’s thousands of islands was unreal. The green mountainous islands dotted the horizon, emerging from the bright blue water like the spine of a massive sea creature. It was awesome. Waking up on Sunday morning and looking out of the window as we passed within yards of rocky cliffs and overhanging trees was an incredible feeling. I was awestruck the entire time.

Our boat in Halong Bay.
Our boat in Halong Bay.

Later that week, the entire group went to a retreat in a small village about four hours from Hanoi. The area where we were staying was clearly aimed at visitors, both foreign and domestic. The streets were full of two-story wooden buildings that served as hotels. The second floor of our “guest house” was just a huge room with about 35 mattresses lined up against the wall. It was quite the snuggle-fest, especially given that the temperature dropped into the 40’s every night. Most of the village was made up of shops that occupied the open-air first floors of each home. The shops boasted goods ranging from scarves to weaponry to artwork, and sprawled for streets and streets. I probably bought about 15 scarves and, with the help of my Vietnamese friends, was able to haggle down the prices quite a bit.

Visit to a pottery village.
Visit to a pottery village.

Today is my last day in Vietnam. Tomorrow I leave with Chris to fly to Bangkok. I will be traveling through Thailand for the next two weeks, staying with families via Couch Surfing. I can’t accurately explain how I’m feeling about this experience yet. It has been truly amazing and I have found a new family in the group of students with whom I’ve traveled. Once I am home, I think that I will have a better understanding of how I have changed and benefited from this experience.

Marie Solis | Madrid, Spain | Post 4

Marie Solis | Madrid, Spain | Post 4

As I write this, the familiar scent of mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie is probably filling up your house, inspiring you to be nice to your parents even though they’ve already asked you too many questions about school and your love life. Or maybe you’re bickering with your sister. Or maybe someone forgot about the vegetables roasting in the oven. In any case, I’m sitting in class in Spain right now, and the only thing I smell is my own unpreparedness for my impending final exams.

Though I’m admittedly a little bummed that I’m not home for Thanksgiving this year, last night I had my fill of turkey, wine, sweet potatoes, cranberries (okay, they were Ocean Spray), and warm and fuzzy feelings. Our program directors, Ana and Pepa, made reservations at a restaurant in Malasaña that had prepared a special menu just for us Americans celebrating white colonialism. In typical Thanksgiving fashion, we went around the table and said what we were thankful for.

“Estoy agradecida por nuevos amigos que se convirtieron en familia,” I said:  “I’m thankful for new friends who have become family.” Yeah, it’s cheesy. And my mom would probably cry if I told her I referred to Ana as our collective mother. But there it is.

I have about three weeks left in Madrid and the fact that my abroad experience is coming to end is becoming increasingly real. This week, two of my classes ended, and next week I will take three final exams. My spring housing form is submitted. My flight home is booked. Soon my sister will be frantically returning all of the clothes she borrowed to my closet.

I still haven’t figured out what to say about my time abroad as a whole, or what I’ll say when I get back to the States and everyone asks about it. I don’t know how I’ll feel when I leave, though I suspect the cliché “bittersweet” will be involved. And though it’s all almost over, I’m still here in the thick of it all. There are still exciting things to come and some final things to cross off of my to-do list. However, as far as wrapping up this blog mini-series, I’ll reflect on some things I’ve learned, some things I’ll miss, and some things I’m looking forward to.

First and foremost, I can’t wait to be reunited with my family, friends, dog, bed, and shower. Since my immediate family and childhood home is located so close to Vassar, this has been the longest I’ve ever gone without all of the aforementioned things. I’m also excited for spring semester at Vassar, when maybe I’ll finally feel like a junior (which will be both thrilling and terrifying).

I’m excited to be able to drive wherever I want to go instead of taking public transportation.

I’ll miss taking public transportation.

Does it take me 45 minutes on the metro to get somewhere that would take 15 if I were driving? Yes. Will I miss the guy in the green jumpsuit who raps on the train when I’m en route to my class at 9:00 a.m.? Not the least. But there is definitely something to be said for being surrounded by strangers for most of the day. As an aspiring journalist, I’m always thinking about stories, and on any given day, the metro holds thousands of them.

I’ll miss big group dinners. The ones that last over two hours with a long sobremesa afterwards. Sobremesa is a word that doesn’t have an English equivalent: It refers to the time spent after a meal when everyone remains at the table talking. This concept certainly isn’t a completely foreign one, but for me it’s something that I’ll always associate with Spain.

I’ll miss spectacular views. Even if I threw up in a plastic bag from altitude sickness on the cable car ride while seeing them.

I won’t miss political incorrectness.

I will miss long walks in the Retiro and lying in the grass.

I learned that sometimes school can come second.

I’m excited to go home to my usual haunts—my favorite coffee shop in Beacon, the sandwich place down the road where I work (where I’ll get a huge salad with vegetables because I probably have a vitamin deficiency of some kind due to their absence from my diet for the last three months). But I’ll miss finding cozy cafes tucked away in Madrid where I can do homework—or not—all while sipping on a café con leche and watching the bustle of the city from my hideaway.

I won’t miss hour-long commutes to class. (At heart I’m just a good old-fashioned wake-up-15-minute-before-class kind of girl.)

I’ll miss going out for a glass of wine on a Monday night. Just because.

Well, there are a hundred more things I could mention, but the big thing is the friends of made while here, 21 of whom will return to Wesleyan in the spring.

Thinking about how much I’m going to miss them reminds me of what my high school drama director would tell us before every show: At some point in the future, we might perform in the same production. But it will never be with the same people at this same point in our lives.

That’s kind of how I’ve come to think about being abroad in Spain. It’s likely I’ll travel to Spain again. If I do, it’s likely I’ll return to Madrid. But never again will I be a 20-year-old living in an apartment in Moncloa exploring the city with the people on my program. So for now, all I’ll say is that I’m glad I did it.

Moorea Hall | Bologna, Italy | Post 4

Moorea Hall | Bologna, Italy | Post 4

Home Sweet Bologna

Last night as I Skyped my mom, she asked me what my favorite Italian city has been during my study-abroad experience. I had to think about it for a second, and found it rather strange that the obvious answers of Florence or Rome didn’t come to mind. I then recalled last Sunday night when I was getting off a four-hour train ride from Napoli and the Amalfi coast, bone-tired and freezing cold in the December air. As I climbed down the three stairs to the platform, I turned to my friend behind me and said, “Thank god we’re home.” Bologna is my home, and it is incredible to feel like I belong enough to this Italian city to say that. The feeling only intensified when I returned to my apartment thirty minutes lature to find all eleven of my roommates chattering in the kitchen. They jumped up when they saw me, showering me with hugs and asking how my four-day trip had been, as though I’d been gone for a month. They also saved me a piece of warm chocolate cake right out of the oven.

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I figure a lot of people on this blog are interested in finding out about the different study-abroad programs in Bologna or the pre-departure anxiety of moving overseas. Similarly, before I traveled abroad, I absolutely craved information about life in Bologna. Thus, I want to talk a little bit about my daily life here.

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On weekday mornings, I wake up and head to the centro, a half-hour walk or ten-minute bike ride on my lovely new bicicletta. I visit the little bar/café down the street from our program’s office, where I’ve made friends with Alessandro the bartender. He lets me sit at my table for hours with my thimble-sized cup of café macchiato and will come over when there’s a break between customers to show me pictures of his new Vespa or a dish he made while practicing for his restaurant. I love to sit there reading, munching on a Nutella croissant, and listening to the best of Frank Sinatra.

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My classes are wonderful, and all taught completely in Italian. Right now, I’m taking an 19th-century Italian literature course called “The Pathos of the Body”; a contemporary history course of the new republic of Italy from 1948-2008; a writing course based on Italo Calvino’s short stories and fairytales; and a class at the University of Bologna called Semiotics of Art, which focuses on the scientific reading of symbols in paintings and their effect on the spectator.

On Wednesday afternoons, I walk to a gorgeous apartment on a piazza, where I tutor two little girls in English. Beatrice is 6, Angelica is 8, and they are both quite the sassy ladies. I spend most of my time there tricking the girls into responding in English, drawing flashcards of apples and princesses, and teaching them American pop songs.

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On the weekends when I don’t travel, it’s fun to explore Bologna as if I were a tourist here. It’s so easy to take the city for granted, so I try to do something new as often as I can. A few weeks ago, some friends and I hiked up miles of porticos to the Sanctuary of San Luca, a gorgeous church overlooking the city. It’s a beautiful spot to sit and think, even if you’re not the slightest bit religious. The hike up is worth it both to see the spectacular church and to enjoy the incredible pizzeria down the road.

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Nights out are wonderful, and completely different depending on my mood. There’s the classy aperitivi place with giant Aperol spritz’s and cheese plates with honey, fig jam, and warm bread. Or there’s the Irish bar with Guiness on tap and soccer flags covering the wood-paneled walls. Then there’s a wonderful jazz bar with Brazilian food, where we saw an Ella Fitzgerald tribute concert. Finally, there’s a discoteca with special Erasmus nights for foreign students every Wednesday. It’s like being a kid in a candy store!

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Last but not least is the incredible food. Bologna is known as the food capital of Italy—quite the high praise and completely well earned. I love lunches of the pasta specials at Osteria dell’Orsa, dinners that weirdly always fall on Mondays at the famous Spacca Napoli pizzeria, and trips to trattorias all over town to compare tagliatelle, gnocchi, and Bologna’s famous tortellini. Then, of course, there are the late night walks in the rain to get a bombolone donut filled with Nutella and mascarpone, and the sunny afternoon stops at my favorite gelateria.

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My favorite nights, though, are the ones in my big apartment kitchen. On Tuesdays, my foodie friends Ari and Alex will come over to experiment with making something new (our current favorite is goat cheese and red pepper linguine). On nights when she doesn’t have soccer practice with the local women’s team, my friend Evie will come over and make me eat vegetables before we watch New Girl. Then there’s Josh, universally loved by my roommates and much appreciated by me for his ability to eat four servings of whatever pasta dish I’ve invented that night. Dodging all of my roommates in the kitchen in an intricate dance around our two stoves, teasing each other in Italian, forcing everyone to try our respective dishes with smug smiles, and then serving eight people at once from a large pot of my signature penne arabbiata—it’s my heaven. Fondue night, burgers and beer night, “I have no idea what’s in my fridge but come over anyway” night—they’re all the best.

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It’s a wonderful life, and if you’re considering it, all I can say is come! Bologna is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and I feel so lucky to return next semester.

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Kevin Ritter & Olivia Harries | London, England | Post 3

Kevin Ritter & Olivia Harries | London, England | Post 3

Being in a foreign country can mean missing certain things about home; these things can be small and simple (good peanut butter) or large and complicated (the Great American Dream). One thing that I definitely knew that I would miss was the best American holiday, in my humble opinion: Thanksgiving. I have so many pleasant memories of spending a Thursday in November with my family—sharing turkey, vegetables, muffins, and all sorts of other food (although, to be honest, I mostly eat the muffins). The great thing about Thanksgiving, for me, isn’t necessarily the food (which, to be fair, is totally delicious) but more so the social context that surrounds it. My favorite Thanksgiving memories aren’t about the act of eating, but about preparing and eating food with my family, as well as learning a little more about them. What Thanksgiving does really well is bring people together and enable meaningful conversation.
At the end of October, fellow London JYA-er and “Far and Away” blogger Olivia Harries and I went to a community cooking event, which was a part of the “Talk to Me London” program. The aim of this series of events is to instigate conversations between strangers who may not speak to each other on a day-to-day basis. The program activities included some bus-stop interventions, an event in a library, and several community cooking events, all of which I found to be incredibly effective at starting a dialogue.
The particular event that Olivia and I attended was pumpkin-themed. Generally speaking, food is perhaps one of the most personal mediums. It is deeply tied with memories of family and childhood, but can also differ greatly from culture to culture. Food also structures our daily lives; we must eat to survive. It was great to hear about the foods that people enjoy making at home, and the differences between German foods, Italian foods, West African foods, etc. As a group, we made roasted pumpkin seeds, pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, and pumpkin jam. All of the food that we made together was very tasty, but, like a good Thanksgiving, we found that the best part was more the conversations that we were having with the other people attending the event with us.
Olivia and I found the event very inspiring, and were subsequently interested to see how we could continue to enable dialogue and conversation in New Cross, the community in which Goldsmiths is situated. At the pumpkin event, several of the attendees were curious about Thanksgiving. Olivia and I knew that we would really miss spending the holiday with our family, so we decided to organize a Thanksgiving potluck for the New Cross community at large. We spent a while making posters, hanging them up around the area, and corresponding with various organizations that seek to enable conversation and community through food, most notably Talk to Me SE London and GrowWild. Finally, on the night before Thanksgiving, we had our event at Cafe 178 in New Cross, and we would definitely call it a rousing success. We had about thirty attendees—some of them British, some of them American—and all of the food was absolutely delicious. Some of the foods that were brought would be unexpected at my family’s Thanksgiving table (we’ve never had falafel), but those dishes ended up really adding to the evening. The great multiplicity of cuisines represented made for an evening of great dialogue, thanks to the conversation-starting capabilities of good food:
“What dish did you bring?”
“Oh, I made the cornbread over there.”
“Really? I’ve never had cornbread before.”
“I mean—this isn’t the best cornbread ever. My dad makes the best cornbread; I’m still learning. What did you make?”