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Month: January 2014

Jalilah Byrd | London, England | Post 1

Jalilah Byrd | London, England | Post 1

I ought to preface my first post with a little about myself, and how I first approached the idea of JYA. From the get-go, I was fairly sure I was going to be a proud member of the JYStay crew.  While my friends know that in the right situations I can be a bit of a motor-mouth, sharing a bit too much and talking a bit too fast, if I’m not with a group of close friends, I tend to be as quiet as a computer mouse.  That said, I naturally shy away from entirely alien situations, especially without the moral support of a close friend or two.

Thus I’m sure no one was surprised when I, even before moving in to my freshman room, had pretty much decided against JYA.  Yet as with almost everyone, many things have changed about my personality since settling into the Vassar community.  Not to say that I’m not still a shy person, but as months passed and sophomore year rolled in, I began to question my knee-jerk rejection to studying abroad.  My freshman roommate, now my sister in all but blood, also helped along this process every so often by extolling the many virtues of JYA, which she had set her sights on from the beginning.  I’m glad she didn’t see the futility everyone else seemed to recognize in suggesting the venture, as one day my response to her prompting abruptly changed:

“Yeah, okay. Maybe London.”

Fast-forward to roughly a week before boarding a delay-guaranteed flight to the UK, thanks to the spontaneous Arctic climate of New York this past month.  My pre-college self must have fought tooth and nail to finally breach the surface of my often misinterpreted stoic veneer, as I was, to eloquently put it, a fucking wreck.  I had visited London once before, for a few days with several high school friends after our senior graduation, but I had never flown anywhere alone without invariably knowing someone who would meet me in the airport the minute I got off the plane.  I was so terrified, naturally, of moving to a new city—a new COUNTRY—without the comfort of knowing a single person when I got there.  I heard distantly that there would be one or two other Vassar students studying at University College London, but I had no idea who they were, except that they were in the vast selection of people at VC that I definitely didn’t know at all.  So I boarded the small Ottawa-bound plane for the first leg of my journey with nothing but terror and dread in my heart, sure in my mind that my 21st birthday, a mere five days into my stay in London, would be spent entirely alone, with only the well-meant but ultimately heart-breaking birthday wishes of friends and family thousands of miles away.  I didn’t even know how to covert that into kilometers.

Thus, introductions aside, I seek with these posts to chronicle an introvert’s six-month journey through circumstances completely antithetical to anything resembling a “comfort zone.”  I do hope, and have increasingly come to expect, that my posts will (counter-intuitively) present unwavering proof that it really doesn’t matter who you are, or how adventurous you tend to be—JYA can be a fun, exciting experience even for the most introverted of individuals.  Granted, at the time of writing this, I’ve only been here for a week (and about 4 hours), but as introverts will certainly tell you—assuming you have gained their hard-won confidence—the distressing, nerve-wracking part of an unfamiliar situation is just that: it’s unfamiliar.  That may seem plainly intuitive, but never underestimate your mind’s ability to find patterns in chaos, and routines in disorganization.  Once settled into an environment or situation you find familiar (i.e. one single new friend you can talk to, a memorized path to the dining area, classes in a subject you know well) an introvert can make their own comfy little nest in any college, city, or country, the same as any extrovert.  Sure, your nest may not be as big as an entire soccer (ahem, football) team, or all your classmates, or even everyone on your hall, but the minute you can find one single thing to feel comfortable about, that feeling will multiply in unpredictable ways.

Hence I preface my subsequent posts with these reassurances, in hopes that I can convince even one person that shyness or introversion need not be a hindrance to studying abroad.  If you’d humor me, and take the time to navigate my tenebrous and convoluted writing style, I hope I’ll be able to impart some sort of helpful tidbits that can help you either decide on a JYA program, or aid in the adjustment process that can seem so daunting upon one’s arrival in a new country.

London Top Tips #1-3:

1. Just walk to the kitchen: Many dorms seem to have sinks in each room. Awesome, right? DO NOT DRINK FROM THESE. There is a reason “traveler’s diarrhea” is a phrase—not saying it happened to me (it did) but it can definitely happen to you (it will).

2. Dip vs swipe: British cards have electronic chips that you dip instead of swipe, and don’t have to sign for. That said, invest in a traveler’s debit or credit card with a chip, unless you LIKE getting dirty looks from every cashier.

3. Find your nearest…: If you don’t know where anyone is, they’re at the pub.  Brunch?  Pub.  Dinner time?  Pub.  Casual Monday drinking?  Pub.  Hardcore Friday ragers?  Pub.  Need free wifi?  You get the idea.  Look for cheap, college-subsidized pubs—they’re generally found near the central campus.

Hannah Snyder-Samuelson | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 1

Hannah Snyder-Samuelson | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 1

One week ago, I was squeezing the last of my sweaters into my suitcases, double and triple-checking the weight of my luggage, and trying to figure out which Danish cell phone plan to buy, in final preparation for a semester studying at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS) in Copenhagen, Denmark. Very suddenly I was in the car with my family, driving to the airport – a drive that I had been picturing over and over again in my mind for weeks with unbounded enthusiasm. This drive would be the transition I needed, and the 7-hour plane ride would give me plenty of time to sleep, learn a few more Danish phrases and prepare myself mentally for all the newness and adventure that the next four months would bring. As the plane would land, I’d be completely ready, and I’d walk out of the plane energized, confident, and absolutely stoked for anything and everything that the semester would bring. I’d heard a lot of my friends talking about the major last-minute misgivings they’d had in the days before they’d left for their JYA programs, but I knew that wouldn’t be me. I’d wanted this opportunity for so long, and I’d finally be beginning a semester studying climate change and sustainability in one of the most environmentally progressive cities on Earth! Leaving would be liberating, no doubt, and I was sure that everything about it would feel right.

As soon as we pulled out of the driveway, though, I completely surprised myself by starting to second-guess everything. Why was I doing this?! The past semester at Vassar had been my favorite one yet, and I was finally starting to feel like I had a handle on what I wanted to do for the rest of my Geography degree. There would be fantastic courses offered at Vassar this spring that I would never be able to take if I went abroad, and I’d be cutting short the precious time I’d have with friends before we all graduate. Before we all graduate…shit. The next time I’d be at Vassar, I’d be a senior. WHAT.

Scrambling for reasons to justify my decision to get on the plane, I slowly thought through what I’d planned for the semester. I’d be taking a class about Arctic glacial history, which would take me to Greenland for a week of independent ice core research. I’d also be taking courses excitingly titled “Environmental Policy,” “Renewable Energy Systems,” “Waste Management Systems in Europe,” and “Sustainable by Design,” all classes whose syllabi promised a challenging and critical investigation into some of the most pressing issues that my generation will face. I’d also be taking a music elective that would take me to Vienna in the spring for box seat tickets at the Vienna State Opera, later taking me to the St. Charles Church to hear Mozart’s Requiem. Maybe this whole thing would turn out to be pretty cool, after all…

I’m sure those second-thoughts will come and go throughout the semester, just like the occasional moments of doubt that I have had every semester at Vassar. For now, though, my worries have been slowly but surely drifting away with each hour I spend in Denmark, especially as I get to know my host family, begin digging into my textbooks, and slowly acquaint myself with Copenhagen’s public transportation system. I’m lucky to be staying in a very cozy and beautiful apartment in a neighborhood 12 km (~7.5 mi) northwest of Copenhagen, with my two fantastic host parents (who are expecting a baby this summer!). We’re situated right next to a train stop, where I can catch a 25-minute train ride directly into the downtown area, only a few blocks from where my classes are.

I’ve never lived in a city or used public transportation much before, so my commute to classes has been fascinating, and really quite fun. The introverted, suburban American in me definitely gets a bit claustrophobic when I see big groups of people moving toward me on Copenhagen’s narrow sidewalks, especially when five bikers zoom past me in the bike lane right next to us (I may or may not have already had some very close calls…), but I’m feeling more and more certain that I will get used to the speed and volume of commuters around me every day. Bicycle traffic is very regulated here, and heavily prioritized in the city’s traffic patterns, and I’m hoping that I will soon become familiar enough with all of the rules that I will be able to join the 35-40% of Copenhageners who commute every day by bike, even in this blustery and bitingly cold weather!

My classes started Thursday, but I am already getting the sense that they will be comparable enough to Vassar courses to be compatible with the research I’ve been studying at Vassar but also different enough in their very open-ended structure to allow me to take deeper responsibility for the directions that my own learning takes while I’m here. I’m really looking forward to learning more about myself as a student, environmentalist, American, and world citizen while in Denmark, and I am very optimistic that this semester will inspire me to do extraordinary work when I return to Vassar for my senior year. Det er dejligt endelig at møde dig, Danmark! It’s so nice to finally meet you!

Natalie Gerich Brabson | Madrid, Spain | Post 1

Natalie Gerich Brabson | Madrid, Spain | Post 1

This semester, the Vassar-Wesleyan Madrid program started on January 7. Due to the polar vortex that hit most of the U.S., which manifested as a blizzard with “Arctic cold” temperatures in Western New York, my original flight out of Buffalo was cancelled. Rescheduling my flights was stressful and tedious—I spent about eight hours trying to reach someone at JetBlue. (Thousands of people’s flights had been cancelled, and the lines were so busy that the phone operators generally cut you off after a couple minutes.) I finally spoke with a weary-voiced but kind assistant, and was able to reschedule my flight for only two days later.

The snow was quite heavy and the temperatures nose-cracklingly cold until the night before my flight, but miraculously, January 9 held lovely weather. All three flights were fine, and when I arrived in Granada (spring semester students spend a one-week orientation in Granada), our directors Ana and Pepa warmly greeted me with hugs and a bocadillo (a sandwich with baguette-like bread—a very typical Spanish lunch). I met the other students (there are only two of us from Vassar this semester), and fifteen minutes later, we set off to the Alhambra. The Alhambra was initially built in the 800s, and was reconstructed in the 1000s by a Moorish king. It stood as a fortress and palace until los Reyes Católicos (Ferdinand and Isabella) drove the Moors out of Granada. It was used on and off by Christian rulers, and now is one of the most visited sites in Spain for its history and its beauty. From the top tower, one can see all of Granada and the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada.

View from Alhambra with lots of mist. Granada seems to have rain about every other day!
View from Alhambra with lots of mist. Granada seems to have rain about every other day!

The inside of the Alhambra is also remarkable. Most rooms are covered in vibrant Islamic tiles, and the outdoor passages between rooms are often surrounded by cove-like gardens. I found the various fountains and gardens most enchanting; the meditative trickling sound of water, bird songs, humid air (it was chilly but the air felt heavy as in summer), and fruiting trees provided a wonderful commencement to my studies abroad.

The rest of our orientation week was packed: we took intensive courses in Spanish language and history, and visited cultural and historical sites most days. Our classes were in the Centro de Lenguas Modernas, a part of Universidad de Granada. The language class was quite helpful, as we discussed rules and irregularities of usage of the infamous subjunctive. I found the history class to be more interesting and enjoyable; we sped through modern Spanish history, starting from the Second Spanish Republic of 1931. As Spain has had an incredibly turbulent last hundred years, there was not a dull moment in class, and we covered quite a lot of material in four classes.

Apart from classes, highlights included trips during which we could explore and learn for ourselves, rather than listen to our tour guide and passively observe. We took a bus into the Sierra Nevada (Andalucía’s mountain range) the day after our visit to the Alhambra. In two hours, we travelled from hilly but low-lying Granada, through the arid cactus-covered mid-mountains, and finally to the level of clouds. We stopped in various charming towns along the way. In a town called Pampaneira, we popped into an incredible underground chocolate shop. The proprietor had apparently learned chocolate-making techniques in Argentina, and returned to this tiny town of 355 inhabitants to sell chocolate made with a mix of European and Latin American techniques and flavors. The dark chocolate with lemon was especially zesty with a perfect balance of warm and cool notes. After chocolate-eating and later lunch, we hiked awhile up a trail that was probably originally for sheep. The afternoon clouds and mist had rolled into the mountains, and both the earth and sky had a wonderful blue glow.

Because this program is based in Madrid, I knew much more about Madrid than Granada, our one-week orientation site, before coming. The beauty of this region surprised me, as did the expansiveness of the Sierra Nevada.

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Other trips included visiting the Catedral de Granada, the Basílica de San Juan de Dios (an extremely ostentatious church of the baroque era—the walls and most decorations inside the chapel were covered in gold leaf), mountain-biking near the Alhambra, and visiting the house of poet Federico García Lorca. Most days ran from about 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. The weakness to this schedule was that it was impossible to sleep enough, and we were exhausted for our morning classes. However, I feel that for a week’s time, we got to know Granada quite well. We also were able to get to know each other and become friends before coming to Madrid, where we live all over the city with our own host families. (We will see each other sometimes at school, but I think because we bonded during the orientation, it will be easy to keep in touch.) Last but not least, orientation certainly gave me a better sense of Spanish culture and more confidence in the language. At Vassar, I felt academically strong in Spanish, in that writing essays has become relatively easy, but I did not feel as comfortable in colloquial conversation. After orientation, I feel much more confident with my speaking, partly from intensive learning and partly from truly using what I have learned in the past. For those looking to study abroad in the future, I recommend looking for a program with ample “pre-academic” orientation. (Our orientation was academic but not part of our university studies.) I am about to take my language placement test and register for classes, and feel more at ease with Spanish than even a week ago.

In my next post, I look forward to writing about the experience of delving into Spanish culture and of life in Madrid!

Juliana Struve | Paris, France | Post 1

Juliana Struve | Paris, France | Post 1

Notes on Paris

I cannot believe that I’ve been actually living in Paris for a week now. I feel like I’ve been here for so much longer. But of course, I know that the days will start to go by really fast—too fast, in fact—once my schedule is set and I fall into a routine.
There are so many things that I want to say about Paris, but for simplicity’s sake, I will only write about the two that surprised me the most.
The first is how quickly I grew to like Paris. I’ve found that moving somewhere and just visiting that place produce very different emotions at the beginning of each experience. I know that I really have to make an effort to adjust to this new place where I will be living for an extended period of time, and learn to genuinely like it—or else I will be miserable. Doing so takes time…or so I thought before I fell in love with Paris upon arrival. Maybe, though, I’m still just in the honeymoon phase of my relationship with Paris, in which everything is perfect and I am gladly willing to overlook certain things like the sometimes snobby and often cold Parisians and the fact that they don’t pick up after their dogs.
The second is how much I’ve been thinking recently about love. It is literally the biggest cliché in the book to say that the word for Paris is love, l’amour, or whatever, but everyday that is the word that keeps running through my head, and seems to be running through everyone else’s heads here, too. It’s the unspoken word on the street, in the fleeting moments of eye contact betweenyoung men and women on the metro. My life is absolutely perfect right now. The only thing that could possibly be missing, an amant. I keep telling myself, “girl, you need to stop. You have been here for a week,” but this city really seems like the perfect place to fall in love.
The problem is that I don’t really know how to read French boys yet. I mean for the most part they are so put-together and metrosexual that it can be difficult to tell sometimes who is straight and who isn’t. (A gay friend of mine who is also doing the Paris program mentioned this to me, adding sadly that most of them turn out to be straight). French boys also seem very demure, but then again, most of the French guys I’ve been observing have only been on the metro and in the street—stone cold sober, tired, and in the midst of their daily grind. So we will see how they act in the bars and clubs this weekend. Stay tuned…
I’ve found that there is a bit of learning curve when it comes to adjusting to life in Paris. Here are some of the lessons that my friends and I learned last night:
1. Bring your own bottle opener, because the only liquor store open in the whole Bastille neighborhood will not sell them.
2. Keep at least one hand on your bag at all times.
3. Avoid making eye contact with strangers unless you want them to come over and talk to you.
4. Plan out exactly how you are going to get home that night if you stay out later than the metro runs (read: know which night bus you are going to take).
5. Maybe the Bastille is actually better on Thursdays…
Eliot Cowley | Tokyo, Japan | Post 1

Eliot Cowley | Tokyo, Japan | Post 1

From September 2013 to August 2014, I’ve studied and will study at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. I’m a junior, double-majoring in Computer Science and Japanese. The program in which I’m enrolled is Japan Study, through Earlham College in Indiana. There are about twenty other students in the program, one of whom is also from Vassar. I’m living with a host family in Shibuya, which is a very wealthy and popular district of Tokyo. My host dad is the president of his company, so the family is also pretty wealthy. My family includes the dad, Akio-san; the mom, Nami-san; the six-year-old son, Ryo; and the grandpa, Tatsuo-san.

Since I’ve already been in Tokyo for about four months, a lot has happened! I’ll try to summarize the important stuff in this post. If you’d like to read in detail about all that’s happened to me, check out my personal blog.

I’d never traveled outside of the country for more than two weeks, so naturally I was pretty scared to be living in a completely foreign country for a whole year. That, however, was why I had decided to study abroad for an entire year—I’ve always been pretty dependent on others, never the adventurous type, and I wanted an experience that would make help me become more independent. I’d been to Tokyo once before, two years ago, with my (sort-of) stepmom, Motoko, and her daughter Molly, who’s my age. I’ve also studied Japanese for two years at Vassar, and have always been interested in Japan, so I wasn’t completely blind to the culture before living in it for a year. But nothing could really have prepared me for what was in store.

The first mini-adventure in my study-abroad experience was actually getting to Tokyo. Saying goodbye to my family was harder than I thought it would be. It was touching to see how much they really cared about me, especially my dad—he accompanied me to the airport, and for one of the first times in my life I saw him near tears. The plane was delayed several hours because of a typhoon that had hit Tokyo that same day, and then the plane had some mechanical issues that needed to be sorted out, so it was a long time before I actually got on the plane. Once I did, and noticed everyone around me was speaking Japanese, the nervousness started to kick in. This is actually happening. This isn’t just some far-off dream anymore.

I’ll spare you the rest of the details, but  it was a pretty stressful time trying to figure out where to go and what to do once I landed in Japan. But I eventually made it to the hotel in which our program was hosting orientation, the Sakura Hotel in Ikebukuro. I got my own little room and fell asleep immediately.

A week after orientation, we students in the program moved into our host families’ homes.

One of the most important things to know about Japan is that there is a huge drinking culture; most aspects of social life revolve around alcohol. You think American college students drink a lot? You don’t even know. Even though Japanese peoples’ tolerances are generally lower than those of Americans, they still drink as much as, if not more than, me and my foreign friends. Japanese colleges have their own version of clubs, which they call saakuru (“circle”). These circles are outwardly about a certain hobby or interest, but in reality, most of them are just fronts for drinking—and romance. I’m in an international circle called Niji no Kai (“meeting of the rainbow”) but its nickname is Nomi no Kai, since pretty much all we do is drink (nomu means “to drink,” and nomikai means “meeting to drink”). Almost every weekend we go to a nomikai, coming up with some excuse to drink.

The way drinking works in colleges in Tokyo is very different from in America—or at least at Vassar. Most Japanese college students live with their parents, since their homes are usually located about an hour away from their college. Instead of paying for a dorm, they commute every day from home. This means that when students party with friends, they go out to a bar or club, usually doing what is called nomihoudai. With nomihoudai, you pay a flat fee (usually around 2,000-2,500 yen, or roughly $20-25) and can drink as much as you want for a specified amount of time (usually two hours). Because the drinking age is 20, it’s not as much of a problem to go out to drink as it is in America, and people are much more relaxed about checking ID. An example of this is when you go to combini (convenience stores) and buy alcohol, a message flashes on a touch screen asking “Are you 20?” You tap yes, and then you’re all set. Does anyone actually ever press no?

My host family loves drinking, especially my host dad, so every night I come home and they offer me a beer. Their house is stocked with beer, and they get shipments delivered every week. Having that much alcohol so readily available is pretty dangerous, in my opinion.

Here’s what my average week in Tokyo includes: I have classes six days a week. This may sound like a lot, but I have at most three class periods in one day, each period being an hour-and-a-half, so it’s really not that bad. I’m taking the following classes: Comprehensive Japanese, (definitely my hardest class), Let’s Enjoy Talking (we learn conversational Japanese) Generational Change in Modern Japanese Literature, Sociology of Japanese Culture and Society, and Linear Algebra. The last one is for my computer science major—other than that, it’s all for my Japanese major. The only classes that are taught in Japanese are my comprehensive class and my conversational class—the rest, thank goodness, are in English.

When I go to school, I stay there the whole day, since the commute is forty minutes. In my free time, I study or hang out with friends. On weekends, there’s usually some Niji no Kai event going on (more often than not, it’s a nomikai) so I usually go to those, or go out with friends to do karaoke or clubbing or go to a bar.

More about my study abroad adventures in my next post!