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Month: February 2014

Bethan Johnson | Oxford, England | Post 2

Bethan Johnson | Oxford, England | Post 2

“Alkdnasdlkfnadsl.” This delightful collection of letters characterizes almost every message I have written home thus far, and also the truly great and terrible beauty of studying abroad at Oxford. I will warn readers that this blog may be somewhat hard to follow, as the writer is still dealing with the constant screams of Oxford students in the aftermath of the JK Rowling interview, most of which sound something like the word I used above; this holds particularly true for whoever lives below me, who expresses the depressed feelings of an incorrectly completed Ron-Harry-Hermione love triangle through morbid piano at 8:00 a.m.

While it may seem like an odd decision, (particularly to people who have observed what I consider high fashion these days: flannel, jeans, and more flannel) I am going to spend some time breaking down the fashion at Oxford. My week has, for a reason understood only by a higher power and Anna Wintour, revolved around navigating the art of dress codes, so I thought I might clue curious minds in to this hidden, but apparently very important, aspect of abroad living. Before I begin I will remind readers of two things: I do not enjoy shopping or spending any substantial amount of money shopping, which means that everything I advise you to do can be done on a budget that would make even Ron Weasley’s mum happy; and secondly, while many of these anecdotes at first glance may appear to be Oxford-specific, in reality many can be broadened to include abroad experiences in various nations, so feel free to cite me when someone asks you for the name of your fashion icon.

This week Lady Margaret Hall received the honor of hosting the Princess Royal at our college, meaning that for one night every single Englishman transformed from a royalty-ignoring student to one filled with stars in their eyes and dreams of courtly living. With approximately two weeks notice that a member of the royal family was to dine with us, students took to Skype to request rush deliveries of dresses and tuxes from back home. This is where being a student studying abroad requires extreme foresight: with an ocean between you an your closet, the time window proves small and the cost is high when it comes to shipping things to your new university.

Lucky for me, my parents had the wisdom to insist I pack a few dresses that could be defined as “nice enough to be worn in the same room as royalty.” I am not advocating that everyone going abroad should rush out to invest in the latest in haute-couture; instead, find a formal outfit that you have worn in the past that looks nice on you, that you feel comfortable in, and that you don’t mind slightly dribbling white wine on (it will happen; experience has shown me that either you or one of the people at your table will try to be classy and say a toast, only to spill wine everywhere). Personally, following the lead of one of my icons, Dutchess Catherine, I recycled my junior prom dress and no one was the wiser. So long as you look smashing and are prepared for and unafraid of the principal of your college looking you up and down and addressing you by name in whatever you have chosen, go for it.

Lesson from me to you: Pack at least one formal outfit that is uniquely you. Even if you don’t wear it to anything particularly fancy, you will avoid any need of having to buy something nice while abroad if an unexpected formal event occurs. What’s more, it may even be more fun than sitting in a Hogwarts-looking room filled with people reciting Latin prayers and seven pieces of cutlery, if no formal event transpires, just have your friends all get dressed up and go out on the town in your nicest kits! Be a royal for the night!

The closest I will ever come to a royal photo-shoot, standing rooms away from the seventh in line. What’s the chorus to that Lorde song again?
The closest I will ever come to a royal photo-shoot, standing rooms away from the seventh in line. What’s the chorus to that Lorde song again?

Speaking of dressing up with friends, I must confess that two nights ago I broke one of my cardinal rules: never dress in costume. I will freely admit, I never liked Halloween and actively avoid any mall Santa/elf/Easter bunny. Ever since I was a small child, the appeal of people dressing as someone else never made sense. But, this week the hall where I lived heard about a college-wide Disney-themed club night and decided to dress up. In the spirit of joining in, something I advise all people studying abroad to do, I decided to go as Alice, complete with the puffy skirt and the goofy bow. To my surprise and total enjoyment, I was legitimately the person who most closely resembled normalcy.

While most people get the impression that the English are reserved and proper, I can proudly say that this is not necessarily true at the great institution that is Oxford. Here at LHM, (apparently) we commit to getting dressed up and having a good time. Among the characters in my gang of friends were: a Buzz Lightyear (complete with a helmet and wings); a face-painted green alien toy from Toy Story; Scar from The Lion King (an outfit that used layers of dried coffee stains to dye his hair and gloves); the genie from Aladdin; Ariel sans the red-hair; and what can only be loosely described as Pongo from 101 Dalmatians (as some face paint and a black and white spotted cardigan from Delias that I bought 8 years ago hardly makes a 20 year old man look much like a puppy. As such a cast of characters, and hopeful for a prize, we embarrassed ourselves in a cab and then waiting in line, only to discover they had moved the date, and thus we were 8 people in a regular club dressed like children. The rest of the night only got more entertaining, which I can tell the world involved me watching Buzz and Scar dance to Flo Rida’s “Low.”

Lesson from me to you: Bring something that could be transformed into part of a fun costume, be it Disney or decade themed. More importantly, dress up with everyone else, even if the sight of people in costume makes you want to literally become Peter Pan and fly off to Neverland. Give it a go and have a laugh because you never know what sights you may see!

The library looks cute now, but after more than 7 hours living underground you will almost fail to appreciate how old the columns are outside!
The library looks cute now, but after more than 7 hours living underground you will almost fail to appreciate how old the columns are outside!

Another critical note on the dress code when you are studying abroad: the act of studying also requires somewhat fancier attire than at Vassar. While I found, through personal experience and observation from my special desk at the library, that at Vassar, students feel very little inhibition about rolling into the library wearing spandex, a ripped Van-Halen that makes people think they are cool enough to listen to classic rock, and half a face full of leftover glitter from who-knows which party they attended last night, at Oxford, that outfit does not fly. I am not arguing that people will actively bar you from the Bodleian or attempt to cover you with their spare jumper (read cardigan). Rather, you will get stares the likes of which Maggie Smith would be moderately impressed with.

While this may seem restrictive and old-fashioned, there is a critical benefit to wearing a nice pair of jeans and a respectable long-sleeve shirt while studying: warmth. As I think most JYA students who are living in a temperate to cold climate would agree, the libraries here are cold. Not the Vassar kind of chilly where you can pop down to get a warm drink from the Bean or discover that super secret and very hot room (I am not telling you where it is because I don’t want to return to Vassar as a senior only to find that my secret hide-out has been taken over by wide-eyed freshman and sophomores complaining about their workload), I mean it is actually cold. Many of the libraries in these institutions are hundreds of years old and pre-date the heating system. You know that your university will not be properly equipped for students in the winter when you see small radiators or space heater tucked in the least convenient places or when your tour-guide informs you that certain books are so old their bindings are attached to the wall by a chain forged before America was even a country. (both of which have happened to me) After weeks of trial and error I have found a formal that I find works across the wide range of libraries here at Oxford. Out of a desire for all future JYA students to survive studying without being forced to lose digits to frostbite, I will share this formula with you.

Lesson from me to you: For every portrait of a war hero, bust of a benefactor, or golden inscription written in Latin, observed within 15 seconds of entering the room add one piece of clothing to your outfit. If the number exceeds 6, decide that no amount of your tutor judging you is worth freezing in the book-laden tundra that is the library.

 

Other mini-anecdotes that will make you love Britain:

-Assume that you are always too young to purchase items. Just when I thought I figured out the rules about purchasing-ages (no knives until you are 18 and have ID) I got blindsided with the knowledge that you cannot buy more than 30 Advil at a time. I tried to buy Advil from Tesco in an attempt to curb the Norse apocalypse that was supposed to happen, only to be forcibly told that the purchase of more than 32 tablets of pain medication was not to be. Maybe it was the desperation in my eyes, or maybe it was the fact that I looked like I hadn’t slept in days (because I actually hadn’t) but for whatever reason the cashier assumed that 3 small packets of pain medication was more than I deserved and had the manager confiscate the rest of my small stash.

-Curling is the best winter Olympic sport, and maybe even the best sport ever. No further discussion is necessary because I will brook no dissent.

-Invest in a bicycle. As a person with a supreme dislike for bikes and who only road them on the roads of Wales in the summers, I never thought I would give this advice to anyone. But after six weeks of grocery shopping at the nearest location, a mere 20 minutes of walking away from the dorms, I will declare to all listening that a bike will save you looking like you have been on Splash Mountain with all your clothes on. It will also save you literally crying over the spilled milk that may coat someone’s driveway thanks to a broken shopping bag.

-When your tutor says you have one week to read 33 texts and describe the importance of imperialism to twentieth century British history, do NOT laugh. It isn’t a joke. It may feel like a joke, but what will happen is he will look at you as though you have done something highly inappropriate and you will wish the earth had swallowed you whole already.

This is what happens when you try to actually do the research for the 33-text assignment. I found that hour 5 was my breaking point and thus I took my first semi-selfie.
This is what happens when you try to actually do the research for the 33-text assignment. I found that hour 5 was my breaking point and thus I took my first semi-selfie.
Jesslyn Mitchell | Gulu, Uganda | Post 2

Jesslyn Mitchell | Gulu, Uganda | Post 2

Home Away from Home

My home stay family calls me Laker (Lah-kay). The first day that I was with them, my mommy sat me down and told me she was going to give me a new name. Most people in Gulu have a name that follows the same pattern: traditional name-Christian name-family name. The traditional names all have meanings. For example, one of my host sister’s names is Aber (Ah-bay), which means beautiful. For me, Laker means “coming from a royal family” or “princess.” For so many reasons that I probably don’t need to get into, that made me very uncomfortable. Honestly, it made me uncomfortable to have an African name at all, but for some reason they find Jess to be an impossible name to say. Therefore, I literally have a new name, as Laker is the only name they call me. As if I wasn’t already having a weird existential “who am I” kind of last two weeks, I have actually embodied a new identity. Well, a new identity by title, at the very least.

Gulu has become my home. People on the streets shout my name and wave. The people in the stores that I frequent ask me how my momma is. Most importantly, I have Acoli friends. We hang out on the weekends, and we get dinner sometimes after school. Actually, the most important part of my stay here so far has been the love and support that I found immediately after moving in with my host momma. The uneasy feelings that I had during my first weeks here disappeared when I settled in. When I arrived with my mummy, the kids in the house were a little disappointed because she had been telling them she was bringing home a new baby. They were expecting an infant, but alas I am not that. I am my mummy’s last born, as she likes to remind me when I come home too late. The house is full of women and girls, save for my brother who is 22. His girlfriend, who happens to be our paid helper around the house, is my best friend there. She’s 19 and we listen to Reggae, dance around the house, and go out together to take beer.

jesslyn2aThis is my home. And some of the people in it. There are other little houses behind this that my mommy rents out.

jesslyn2bThis is my Bedroom. I sleep in the little bed, and whichever little girl wants sleeps in the big bed.

jesslyn2cThis is my Momma. She is an elegant woman who takes care of the majority of her grandchildren. She is a retired teacher, and currently farms chickens, has a brick making business, makes and sells chapathi and samosas, and rents houses to people. She is constantly forcing me to eat more food.

jesslyn2dThese are some of the girls, Ayari, Tyra, and Abe. They are pretty shy, but they always greet me warmly when I come home. They love to watch the Mexican show La Patrona, dubbed in english. The next little girl that you will see took this picture. Actually, when I first came they all grabbed my camera and started snapping pictures and giggling like crazy.

jesslyn2eThis is my best friend in the house. Her name is Kaluma Tracey. She is, as they say here in Gulu, very stubborn. They say stubborn whenever she does anything. By that I think they mean that she is the most mischievous little thing ever. My mommy and older sisters say the same thing about me, though, so I think that is why Ms. Kaluma and I get along. She sat me down during my first couple of hours here, and showed me all of her school work. She literally got every single answer correct throughout all three books, except for one that was marked down because she wrote her six backwards. She runs around naked and constantly jumps on you. If you can’t tell, she is the best.

Jalilah Byrd | London, England | Post 2

Jalilah Byrd | London, England | Post 2

My rather preachy last post spent an unnecessary amount of words directed toward those back at Vassar who may be frightened, or at the very least daunted, by the concept of going JYA.  With all that high and mighty posturing, what have you got to show for your efforts, Jalilah?  O teach us, enlightened one–tell us of your rad adventures.

Well, hypothetical and overly-sarcastic reader, the outset of my journey was anything but rad. Burdened with unexaggeratedly the WORST sore throat I had EVER experienced (much thanks, boyfriend), it would seem that the first impression people would have of me would be of a hoarse, baggy-eyed, silent girl who never knew where she was going, and who came out of her room only to fill up a tiny Sprite bottle with water (after learning my lesson with the sink).  That certainly put a damper on my social graces at first, seeing as my new hall mates probably wouldn’t appreciate immediately receiving a demonically-persistent head cold, notwithstanding it being a souvenir from another country.

So, pumped full of cold medication, I dragged my poor, unfortunate self to orientation.  Orientation is a funny thing.  They spend all this time and money trying to integrate you into British life and culture, yet seeing as everyone in an international students’ orientation is, well, international, and most full-term students haven’t yet returned from break, you really are still only surrounded by other students from the US, who I can only assume so greatly outnumber students from other countries because ‘Mericans don’t like learnin’ no new languages.

In terms of meeting people, it happened entirely by accident, as most acquaintances do.  Leaving Ramsay Hall, my psych-ward of a dorm, I found a huge group of people heading towards central campus, without the posh British lilt I really hadn’t become accustomed to at all.

Americans!

I asked if they were heading to orientation–obviously they were, but there’s the ice breaker–and I awkwardly joined the ragtag group from the colonies.  They had already gotten to know each other by that time, as I eventually learned they’re all from the same hall, but I doggedly attempted to make friends.  Though I quickly learned at Vassar that for some reason, asking “Where are you from, what’s your major?” is akin to asking someone their sign, it was a common echo throughout the streets and halls of UCL’s campus.  It was like job seeking–sure, you’re probably not going to end up hanging out with even half of the people you meet during orientation, but getting your name out there helps, somehow.

I stuck with these guys for awhile, learning (still from an outsider’s perspective) the ins-and-outs of the alarmingly widespread drinking culture that pervades literally every part of English society. It’s amazing, the difference a three-year-earlier drinking age makes–no one in college is under the drinking age, so the culture of hiding your pre-drinking in your room is non-existent. Pubs are the go-to, though still expensive, way to start a night of drunken shenanigans.  Which, also, seem to be every night.

That said, as the weeks passed, my third-year American friend group slowly dissolved into hanging out with the English freshmen on my hall. While both my illness and shyness seemed to have temporarily put them off, I was quickly integrated into the daily madcap shenanigans that so characterize any freshman year, no matter the country.  Joke kidnappings, sneaking into people’s rooms to scare them, hallway food parties–all the amazing memories of freshman year, but replayed with legal access to alcohol and accents.

Needless to say, this has been an amazing month.

Stay tuned for a newbie rundown of academic differences between the UK and US.  Hint: it’s weird here.

London Top Tips #4-5

4. It’s not alcoholism, it’s England…: The American precedent for drinking mostly on the weekends? Out the window.  In this neighborhood, at least–as I believe it’s indicative of the cheapest club nights–the big drinking days are Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and sometimes Thursday.  Saturday, oddly enough, is often spent sober, for reasons I haven’t yet gleaned.

5. …because they have no class: Obviously British people are classier than we are, it’s genetics–that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m taking four classes, but I only have 8 hours of lectures a week! I don’t know if that’s odd only because I’m not doing work study (plan your visas properly!!) but it seems like they just don’t have any work to do.  So they drink!

Hannah Snyder-Samuelson | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 2

Hannah Snyder-Samuelson | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 2

I’m really surprised to realize that I’ve already been in Denmark for a whole month. It’s been feeling a lot like my first month at Vassar did — meeting so many new people at once, needing to learn how to navigate new buildings and spaces from the get-go, and feeling like each day has surely lasted more than twenty-four hours. With all the newness, though, it’s been comforting to be taking classes that are so similar to Vassar classes, in terms of class size, discussion format, and workload.

One of my favorite things about DIS (Danish Institute for Study Abroad) is the way that my academic schedule allots so much time for travel, both in conjunction with my classes and independently. My program includes two week-long study tour trips with my core class throughout the course of the semester, and I will have two spare weeks of unscheduled vacation after that. Last week, I embarked on the first of my two week-long study trips with my core class, Environmental Science of the Arctic. We drove to the island of Møn, in southeast Denmark, to explore Møns Klint and Stevns Klint, two beach-side cliffs that have retained a superbly clear sedimentary record of the past 70 million years of glacial and interglacial history. During the week, we hiked along the cliffs, studied beautiful coral fossils at the Faxe Limestone Quarry, and visited two local geological museums. At Stevns Klint, we were thrilled to be able to see the ~66 million-year-old K-T boundary (Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary), the marker of the mass extinction event that we now associate with the end of most dinosaur life.

In two weeks, my Environmental Science of the Arctic class will take me to western Greenland to take ice core samples and study Arctic glacial history. For a taste of what we will be investigating, check out this clip from the 2012 documentary Chasing Ice — it’s breathtaking and dangerously-captured footage of the recent calving (breaking apart) of Greenland’s Jakobshavn Isbrae Glacier.

In addition to these longer study trips, we also have Wednesdays free every week for day-long field studies. Three weeks ago, I visited Folketing, the Danish Parliament, with my Environmental Policy class; there we met with a few members of Parliament to discuss the chess game that is environmental policy making in the EU. The week before that, we took a frigid and blustery boat ride to Middelgrundens Vindmøllelaug, the 20-turbine offshore wind farm that provides ~4% of Copenhagen’s energy. And this Wednesday, my Renewable Energy Systems class will visit Lynettefællesskabet, the sewage treatment plant that processes my neighborhood’s water. These trips have not only been tremendously informative as we examine the politics of sustainability in Europe, but they have also provided really fun opportunities to explore new corners of the city.

Taking such fascinating classes has made it hard to find a balance between studying and spending time with my truly wonderful host family, though. Adjusting from living in a dorm to living in a home stay has been a trickier transition than I expected (planning around a late, nearly two-hour dinner every night, for example, and not disturbing people if I stay up late to do work), but every moment has been worth it. This weekend, we hosted a big birthday party for both of my host parents–seventeen people crammed into our tiny apartment! I’ve been to a few extended family gatherings now, and each one has been marked with an enormous amount of laughter and ardent conversation, with people listening to each other so intently that they frequently seem to forget to eat and end up having to reheat their food! Each family member has been eager to welcome me, and I continue to be both impressed with everyone’s fluidity with languages here and humbled that almost everyone I meet is excited to speak with me in English even though I cannot speak to them in Danish.

If nothing else, getting to know four people in particular will be my motivation to keep learning Danish: my host parents’ nieces and nephews. Kids begin learning English (and, later, French and/or German) as early as first grade in most cases, but even the oldest of my host cousins has barely begun English in school. So far, the five of us have been able to entertain ourselves for hours by pointing out different objects and naming them in our own language, and teaching each other numbers and letters. Toward the end of dinner this weekend, two of the younger cousins left early to go to bed (dinner lasted late into the night, of course!), and the older two invited me to watch Frozen with them in the living room. We watched the movie in English, but with Danish subtitles, belting out every song in both languages at once, and I nearly melted from the cuteness. There really is nothing like being able to share an experience like that with people you’ve just met, especially when those people happen to be some of the cuddliest and giggliest 6 and 9 year old people that you’ve ever met.

I’m off to do a bit of grocery shopping. Until next time, Vassar! Stay warm in the snow!

windmill

nyhavn

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Folketing, seat of the Danish parliament

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fossils

beach

babette

Natalie Gerich Brabson | Madrid, Spain | Post 2

Natalie Gerich Brabson | Madrid, Spain | Post 2

I have been in Madrid for almost a month, though I cannot decide if it has seemed much longer or much shorter than that. Because of the nature of constant learning that is part of studying abroad, time has felt blurry. Each day, I learn new Spanish words, customs, and mannerisms, and because a couple classes I plan to take will not start until next week, I have yet to fully figure out my schedule. I still feel far from settled in to my life in Madrid. Though figuring out my schedule and how to navigate a new culture has left me a bit drained this month, I continue to be excited to be here for all I can see and learn.

In my last post, I wrote I would address Spanish culture in this post, so I will begin with that topic.

The most noticeable and delightful change I have noticed upon arriving in Spain is that people move about their days more conscientiously than in the states. This was especially true in Granada: a medium-sized, historically oriented city. In Madrid, the pace is fast as in many large cities, but when not commuting or working, Spaniards tend to move unhurriedly. This is most apparent in meal culture. Excluding breakfast, Spaniards tend to savor their meals for at least an hour, and use time during and after meals to catch up with friends or family. I have not seen one person eating while walking. (There are snack stores in metro stations, but it seems people must put the food away to eat after commuting.) As someone with the tendency to try to get as much done as possible during the day, I am glad for this opportunity to be more mindful about refueling and relaxing.

A more specific sort of culture: As with living with a roommate, living with a host family requires adjustment from both sides. I live solely with an elderly señora. The last month has had its ups and downs at home; I look forward to becoming more settled soon, and to getting more acquainted with my señora specifically and with Spanish culture as a whole.

She has been very accommodating regarding my food. I am semi-vegetarian and lactose intolerant, meaning I do not/cannot eat red meat and milk products, which are quite prevalent in Spanish food. My señora makes sure I get adequate nutrition each day, and after learning that I really like fruits and vegetables, she has given me a salad and a piece of fruit to have after the main part of dinner. As salads are not a mainstay part of diet in Spain, I really appreciate her thoughtfulness.

One noticeable difference from the states is that I am not allowed to do more than basic cleaning or my own laundry. After years of trying to do my part around my house or dorm, it feels funny to revert to required non-helpfulness. In Spain, more than in the US, señoras tend to do much of the housework, and many seem to claim this as part of their identity and role in the family. My señora is no exception. In my first weeks, she insisted on doing all housework outside of my room. However, in recent weeks, I have been allowed to do a little more (she has accepted my doing my dishes after meals). On one hand, I am hoping that as I become more integrated into her current household, she will feel comfortable with me helping to maintain the house. On the other hand, if she sees housekeeping as part of her identity, I don’t want to step on her toes.

In some ways, we have conflicting worldviews. She grew up during the early Franco regime, and I am sure her formal and informal education influenced how she views people outside her culture and ethnicity. We also have very different beliefs regarding animals as pets/family members or food. Although it has been uncomfortable at times, I look forward to getting to know each other more, so that we will be able to discuss our backgrounds and come to a deeper understanding of each other.

To conclude on an unrelated note, one highlight of the last month was a day-trip to Segovia with the program. We visited the Alcázar de Segovia, which is a beautiful castle on the outskirts of the town. Our tour guide mainly talked about the Catholic monarchs who resided here, but it was initially an Arab fort. The interior was somewhat interesting, complete with a frieze of life-sized dolls of former monarchs and a stained glass googly-eyed horse…

brabson17_1

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However, I found the view from the top most extraordinary. To quote a friend from the group, what you could see between the battlements of the tower was a “postcard-worthy view if there ever was one.”

In the foreground is Segovia’s cathedral. This is surrounded by the city, which is surrounded by the Guadarrama Mountains.

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From the tower, I was lucky enough to see a few storks, including this pair. They were most beautiful in flight, but easier to photograph when in their nest!

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A last note about the Alcázar de Segovia: this castle served as one of Walt Disney’s inspirations for his Cinderella Castle.

In my next post, I plan to write about favorite spots in and out of Madrid, food, and Spanish university life.

Feliz día de San Valentín (belatedly, once this post is up)!

Eliot Cowley | Kyoto, Japan | Post 3

Eliot Cowley | Kyoto, Japan | Post 3

Well, I’m finally here! This is my second full day living in Kyoto. The day I left Tokyo I had to get up at 5:30 AM to make the shinkansen (bullet train). I wasn’t sure if I would be able to because the night before I had suddenly become very sick. I have no idea why, but thankfully I was well enough to travel the next day. Kayla, who also attends Vassar, is doing the same practicum as me, and we both boarded the shinkansen. Truthfully, I was still feeling pretty sick and counting down the minutes until I could get off.

We got off at Kyoto Station, and met with two of the program directors, Katie and Michiyo. The station itself is amazing–huge, pretty, and equipped everything you could ever need. As soon as we stepped outside, we were greeted by the sight of Kyoto Tower, which I definitely want to go up sometime. We were also greeted by adorable elementary schoolers who asked us some pre-written questions in English for a class. The cutest one was, “how do you say ‘hello’ in your language?” To which Kayla replied “Hello!” Katie and Michiyo took us around the area, to a couple cafes and then to our apartment building. I was immediately impressed. I’m living alone in a place called a monthly mansion, which is a small apartment with accommodations that you live in for a month. Pretty sweet arrangement. I’m happy to finally get some real alone time. A month seems like the perfect amount of time for it, too–any longer and I’d probably get pretty lonely.

Then we went to visit both of the places where we’ll be working for the next month. The first was the day center for mentally handicapped people, which is where I’m working for the first two weeks. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pretty surprised. After that, we went to the Bazaar Café, where I’ll be working for the latter two weeks. It seemed really chill, and there weren’t many people there at all. Apparently it’s mostly frequented by students of the nearby college, and because they’re on break the café wasn’t getting many visitors. The guy was so nice, he gave Kayla a nabe pot because she mentioned she needed one!

After that we said goodbye to Katie and Michiyo, and Kayla and I went shopping at the 100 yen store in the basement of Kyoto Station. We both bought a ton of stuff that we needed: towels, soap, etc. I was about ready to crash after that, so I went home and Kayla continued shopping. I watched a ton of Homeland in nervous anticipation of the next day.

But I really had nothing to be nervous about. After being introduced to a few of the staff, I was ushered into a big room where all the staff sat in a circle to discuss the plans for the day. I was introduced to the director, who could speak some English, apparently because he spent some time in New York. They all tried to make me feel welcome, because they probably knew I was kinda scared. I mean, I was the only person there not fluent in Japanese, I didn’t know any of them, and I was in a place I’d never been to before. But that’s what this year is about, right? Doing new things, becoming independent. I do wish I had just one other ryuugakusei (foreign exchange student) with me, though.

First, I went with some of the staff to pick up a couple patients in our handicap-friendly vans. It’s pretty incredible what these people are doing, and with such good moods through it all! I watched them slide tubes down some patients’ noses and throats to feed them liquid food, attach respirators through their necks, and other really tough stuff, all the while smiling and laughing. I’m really lucky to be in their company.

They were all incredibly nice to me, but to be honest, I felt pretty useless. Whenever I offered to help, they usually told me to just wait and not do anything. The few requests I got were easy but at first hard for me to understand with my terrible Japanese. I don’t want to be mendokusai (troublesome) while I’m here–I want to lighten the burden, not add to it. But I guess it was my first day, and it’s to be expected that I’d just be watching most of the time. Plus, they know I’m bad at Japanese and not from here, so they’re very kind and patient with me.

I took a couple pictures when I got back to Kyoto Station, below. There was a water show going on, which was pretty cool. That Auntie Anne’s made me feel better.

Fountain light show timed to classical music in Kyoto Station.
Fountain light show timed to classical music in Kyoto Station.
Kyoto Tower.
Kyoto Tower.

Anyway, thanks for reading. Today’s Sunday, my day off, but I’m back to work Monday. I don’t think I’ll do any exploring of Kyoto today, just relaxing and taking care of things I need to do, but maybe I’ll have something interesting next time!

Juliana Struve | Paris, France | Post 2

Juliana Struve | Paris, France | Post 2

The All-Carb Diet
For the few weeks leading up to my departure, I was exercising like crazy. Images of impossibly thin and chain smoking French girls kept running through my head. I made it my goal to keep off the holiday weight as much as possible. All I really wanted was to fit in!
Anyway, in the three weeks or so that I’ve been here, something quite unexpected has been happening. I have been actually slimming down. Never mind that I haven’t exercised once since I got here. Never mind that the three most prevalent foods in my daily diet are carbs, cheese, and chocolate. The jeans that I brought that were tight on me at home are actually loose now.
While we were waiting at JFK for our group flight to take off, I was talking to a friend of mine about the mystery of French people’s diets. We couldn’t figure out how a country that is known specifically for its bread and its cheese could have relatively low (especially compared with the US) obesity ratings. I think I might be on the track of discovering the answer. So I present…
The Parisian diet:
Only eat three meals a day, space them out considerably from each another.
Dinner can and should always be followed by dessert of either a piece of fruit or chocolate yogurt
Dinner should be eaten 8-9:30 pm.
Liquids: San pellegrino and Evan, coffee can only be served in cups the size of your thumb
No exercise required, just walk as much as possible.
Some cardinal rules of Parisian eating:
Eat in small courses
Avoid trans fats at all costs
Use small plates, glasses, cups, etc.
It’s okay to indulge in small treats, like tiny shavings of dark chocolate on your cereal.
And voilà! A Parisian regime or, as I call it, the all carb diet.
In other news:
One of my host sisters has lice. And everyone in the house has to get their hair treated.
Some French people asked me for directions to the metro earlier this week and I was able to direct them completely in French, disguised successfully as a local!
Last week, a bunch of the people in our group went and sat right near this thing:
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And drank cheap wine.
And, here is a photo of the street where I live. I just found out that one of France’s former presidents lives on this street:
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And a selfie in the foyer:
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Jesslyn Mitchell | Gulu, Uganda | Post 1

Jesslyn Mitchell | Gulu, Uganda | Post 1

All the Feels of Being Far and Away

My first week in Uganda was the biggest roller-coaster ride of my life, both emotionally and physically. I had never left the United States, and for some reason I decided that going to Uganda for my first outing would be a good idea. On January 31st, I left on a plane to meet the other students participating in the SIT Uganda/Rwanda Post-Conflict Transformation program.  Pictures and words will do no justice to what I am experiencing, but nevertheless, this is an experience worth communicating.

My roommate and I cried our first night. Culture shock did not even begin to experience what we were feeling. We talked about why we were here. We talked about what we wanted out of the trip. We talked about our existences and about God.  We talked about how silly we felt to be crying over our anxiety while sitting in a hotel preparing to study a genocide and a war that were very real for the people around us. We probably would have held each other if we hadn’t just spent fifteen minutes tucking our mosquito nets into our beds.  The first day was the toughest, and our only solace was knowing that in just three and a half months we would be going home. We discussed, quite seriously, the possibility of going home then and there, and what was stopping us from doing so. The answer was unsatisfying; it was stubbornness. It was more than that, though. It was about giving up an opportunity that, as she pointed out, many people don’t get, or that they do get, and pass up. It was about giving up on a personal challenge that we had already put so much effort into. We’d come this far. And in this discussion we had realized that the solace we had found in our inevitable return to the comfort of home was being replaced by the remarkable friendships we were already making on this journey.

I am one of eight American strangers on the trip of our lives together. We opened up to each other immediately, with the bond of cultural intimidation forging itself instantly. Whether we chose to or not, we were going to be friends, or at least each others’ emotional lifelines. As the week proved, we were going to be close like a family, which meant we would be laughing and bickering, angry and affectionate. Luckily, we have an amazing academic director, whose real title should be something like, “Adoptive Mother of Scared American twenty-something year olds.”

I sat next to an older American man on the connection flight to Uganda. He was traveling for business, and was very friendly. He drank 6 shots, and tried to ease my nerves by making pretty insensitive jokes about Ugandans and Africans. While this was incredibly frustrating, it was at least a reminder of the many lovely Americans back home who expressed misinformed concerns. As a Vassar student, I am hyper-aware of the neocolonial phenomena that manifest themselves in tourism. I constantly question why I chose the place I did, and how I can both experience the culture in a respectful way, and communicate my shock to my friends back home. I had to try, though.

The ride from Entebbe airport to the hotel in Kampala was exciting, to say the least. Was I excited? Well, clearly my feelings were more along the lines of fear and anxiety. I rode down the left side of the road with Pamella, the driver hired by my program, and watched amazing numbers of cars, trucks, and boda bodas (dirt bikes that function as taxicabs) speed past each other. They swerved into oncoming traffic to get a couple of feet ahead, like an expert game of Mario Kart sans bananas. Store front after store front, shack after shack, I thought the dirt road would never end without our car getting into a mild accident like the two we had already seen.  Finally, we had arrived at the Bativa hotel in the heart of Kampala. Finally, I had arrived. I had been hatching this egg for more than a 14 months, when I applied to study abroad the fall of my sophomore year. I was as ready as I would ever be.

The next morning, we left for Gulu in Northern Uganda, where we would spend a good part of the next 15 weeks with a host family. After a six-hour long van ride down a pothole-ridden road, a run in with some baboons, and crossing the Nile, we pulled up outside our hotel. Everything somehow became even more real for two reasons. First, at dinner at the famous Acholi Inn, we bumped into the president of the Democratic Party of Uganda, Norbert Mao. This is a man who communicated with Joseph Kony, hoping to get him out of the Bush and who also ran for president against alleged dictator, Yoweri Musevini. The true potential of this trip was presenting itself to me slowly, but surely. My second reality check was the singing that called for Muslims to pray, which was coming over the whole town on a blown out loud speaker at 5:30 am, followed immediately by the incessant howling of a rooster. This was real, but I still felt like a tourist.

A week of orientation went by, and tomorrow I meet my homestay family. So far we have had orientation to SIT classes and been exploring Gulu. We went to the market, to the churches, to the prison, and to the university. My favorite part was going to BJz. BJz is the local bar recommended to us by the alums of the program, which we had been talking about all week. The atmosphere was amazing, the people were fun, and we got second place in trivia, winning a bottle of local rum and half a case of local beer. The experience was incredible, and I look forward to feeling like a local. I need to get some beauty sleep now, for I’ve been told that first impressions with your host family are the most important.  At least some good came from waking up at 5:30 AM.

jesslyn1My newest friend straight chillin’.

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My home before my homestay, and a boda boda.

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At least some good came from being awake so early.

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BJz bar; if only you could hear the Dido and Coldplay jamz.

Eliot Cowley | Tokyo, Japan | Post 2

Eliot Cowley | Tokyo, Japan | Post 2

Ryokan

The past few days have been a mix of crazy and relaxing. On Friday, my program, Japan Study, had a final meeting about our upcoming cultural practicum, which, if I haven’t explained it before, is something that everyone in the program has to do. We each go somewhere for a month and volunteer, intern or something similar. There are several options provided by the program, and what I’m doing is working at a café and a day center in Kyoto. The café is supposed to be open to anyone, so I think the idea is that people who feel discriminated against and want a safe place to stay can come. I will work there for two weeks, and the following two weeks I will work at a day center for elderly and handicapped people. I’ll be living alone in an apartment. So we got more information about our cultural practicums, and then had a little reunion party. I got to see people I don’t normally see, which was nice.

After, I went with Cory, Kayla, and some other people to this place called Cat Street in Harajuku. It’s a cute hidden street with a bunch of unusual shops, as well as sporty clothing stores. It took me a while to realize that it was right near the apartment where I stayed with Erika, my girlfriend, during winter break. It was there the whole time and we just walked past it every day.

After that, Jon, Cory, Vageesha, and I filmed part of a music video that the Niji no Kai girls are going to present to the guys on Valentine’s Day. The way Valentine’s Day works in Japan is that on February 14 girls give guys stuff, like chocolates and cards. The next month, on March 14, which is called White Day, guys give girls stuff. I think you give milk/dark chocolate on Valentine’s Day and white chocolate on White Day, though I may be making that up.

Then we all went to Dragon Men, a gay bar, to get drunk for cheap. 1000 yen for two hours, not bad! Again, I got hit on by multiple guys, two of whom friend-requested me on Facebook, which I don’t understand because I didn’t give them my last name…

That night I was invited to go to a club where Kyary Pamyu Pamyu was supposed to be, since she was celebrating her 21st birthday. I was incredibly excited since I’m kind of obsessed with her. If you don’t know Kyary, here’s one of her music videos to give you an idea of how insane she is.

I kept pestering the guy who invited me, Joey, about whether it was happening or not, but he and the people who were planning ended up not wanting to go because it was too expensive. But, that’s ridiculous because it was only 2600 yen (about $25) per person, which is about the same price you would normally pay to go to a club, maybe a bit more expensive. But, a world-famous pop icon was going to be there, so of course it was going to be pricey. We ended up all going to this club called Adam, which was supposed to be famous but I don’t see why because it wasn’t all that great. However, I was absolutely hammered so I couldn’t care less. In fact I think that was the drunkest I’d ever been. I talked way slower than usual, and the next day people kept telling me all these things that happened that I didn’t remember at all. Kind of scary since I’ve never really blacked out before. I ended up falling asleep on the train home and missing my stop by over an hour, so I didn’t get home until 8:30 in the morning. My host family was already up, but luckily they were very cool about it and told me to sleep. Definitely one of my worst experiences.

The next day I had agreed to go to a ryokan, or Japanese-style inn, where they had onsen, which are these really hot outdoor baths. Of course I overslept and felt awful but I rushed to meet my friends. I thought I was going to have to bail, which would mean I would be out 7800 yen since they had already booked me, but I ended up getting there in time, thank god. At first I was kind of hesitant and awkward about going into the onsen—I’m not exactly that comfortable being naked in front of other people. But after a while, I did get used to it. The baths were so incredibly hot I thought my insides were going to boil (which they apparently do after about half an hour…).

Our dinner was incredible—perhaps the single nicest meal I’ve ever had. Each person got two nabe, which is like a pot of vegetables and meat in boiling water, plus all these really fancy foods like snail and sushi. We went into the onsen again after that, and then got cozy with a bottle of vodka and hung out in one of our rooms, telling ghost stories, riddles, and just generally having a great time. Zack and I roomed together, which was pretty hilarious, because we were both still hungover from the club and acted incredibly stupid the entire weekend. I’m pretty sure I lost a good amount of my brain cells because that might have been the stupidest I’ve ever been. Forgetting things, not knowing what’s going on…but it made things pretty funny, to say the least. I forgot to take pictures, but here’s something close to what our room looked like:

The next morning we got up bright and early, went into the onsen, had another nice meal, went into the onsen again, and went to this nearby beach that, even though it was very cold and early, was filled with surfers (see below). At first I thought all those black shapes were shark fins, but nope, surfers.

Even though I was incredibly tired by the time I got home, my host family had people over so I had to drink and talk with them. It was fun though, as always.

Thanks for reading!

Moorea Hall | Napoli, Italy | Post 5

Moorea Hall | Napoli, Italy | Post 5

 10 Things to Do in Napoli

I like to think of Napoli as my drunk great-aunt, who wears fabulous dresses, chain smokes, and says inappropriate things about her lovers at Thanksgiving dinners. You can see how beautiful and charming she must have been as a young girl, but you can’t help but love her more now that she’s a little run-down with a lot of personality.

(Disclaimer: I don’t actually have a great-aunt like this, but if I did she would be awesome.)

This is to say that I went to Napoli for Thanksgiving, ate three pizzas at once with my small friend, and wrote a poem to a street donut. I decided to write this post as a list. So here we go:
1. Find a good hostel

Ari (my friend) and I stayed at the Hostel of the Sun. Although the Hostel was located somewhat sketchily on the seventh floor of an office/apartment building that required five-cent coins to operate the elevator, it ended up being fantastic. The best thing about this place, aside from it being walking distance from everything, is their reputation for having the most friendly and helpful staff in Napoli. Over the three days we stayed there, the desk clerks gave us some really fantastic recommendations to places we would have never have discovered on our own.
2. EAT PIZZA

We dined at Pizzeria Sorbillo in the university district. The pizzeria is one of the most famous in Napoli – and wow. This was our Thanksgiving dinner, and we went hard on three whole pizzas. It was one moment in my life I wished my mouth was as big as Julia Roberts’, because I was eat-pray-loving the hell out of that pizza.

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3. Try some pastries

For our first dessert we had baba au rhum (rum-soaked pastries) with thick mascarpone and sour cherries. The next day, we received a fantastic recommendation from our favorite clerk to check out his favorite pasticceria (pastry shop) in the entire city – high praise from a Neopolitan. We let the clerk pick a small assortment of pastries and ate them while we sat atop marble slabs on the beach, listening to music on our iPod speakers and napping in the sunshine.

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4. Check out the stores and street markets

We were lucky enough to catch a bunch of the Christmas markets during the holiday season, but there are many year-long markets as well. The stalls sell everything from rudely-shaped magnets to toilet paper with soccer team logos on it. I found the miniature and Nativity markets most interesting. Almost every stall had differently sized, elaborate little scenes with light-up grottoes, dolls of the holy family, and even tiny painted food.

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5. Eat at a hole-in-the-wall 

Another gem from our favorite hostel clerk, Luca. He was so happy that we spoke Italian in a hostel full of English speakers that he sent us to a practically impossible to find local haunt, located in the back corner of an indoor market outside the city. The Neopolitans call it Dalla Nonna because the tiny restaurant and kitchen are ruled by a 90-year-old grandmother, who doesn’t actually cook anymore but sits in a chair in the corner ordering around her harried generations of offspring.

We were a bit overwhelmed because we were the only Americans in the bustling place, so we asked our friendly waiter to bring us whatever he thought we’d like. Gino did not disappoint. I have no idea what any of it was, and it wasn’t plated fancily, but it was one of the best meals I’ve had in Italy.

6. Watch the sunset from the castle

We walked along the ocean back toward the center of the city, and just off the coast there sits Castel dell’Ovo on a tiny peninsula. It’s open to the public, and you can walk up to the very top where the canons sit overlooking the bay to watch the sunset with Mount Vesuvius in the distance.

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7. Go dancing

If you’re in the mood for a night out, head to Piazza Bellini, where there are a ton of cute aperitivi places and bars. We found an underground cavern with a huge bar, leather couches along the walls, and great DJs.

8. See a Caravaggio

I’m the biggest Caravaggio fan you’ve ever met. I’m like a 13-year-old and he’s my Justin Bieber. One of his works resides in Pio Monte della Misericordia in Napoli, so of course my only request was to drag Ari in front of it to stare for a solid half hour.

9. Eat a street donut

I can honestly say that this is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever put into my mouth. I smelled the graffes (donuts) the first night, and spent the next two days searching for the source. When you go into this tiny little shop, two nice gentlemen will greet you like family and grab some dough to make a single donut. Just for you. They fry it right there, cover it in sugar, and then pump hot Nutella into it, handing it to you like the nurse will probably hand you your first-born child. The first bite I took made it hard to believe that I could ever love a child as much as that donut. I had to stop in an alleyway to eat it and make weird sounds.

10. Head to the Amalfi coast

Our last day, we took a train up to Positano. It was windy and grey, but the city on the cliffs is heart-stoppingly gorgeous. We stayed at a bed and breakfast with a private balcony and a view of the green cliffs and perched houses. We kept the French doors open and mostly laid in bed all day, reading, talking and enjoying the sea breeze.

We left the hotel twice to climb down to town for food. Our first meal was homemade ravioli and orecchiette with rabe and sausage, and our second was sausage manicotti and mussels. The next morning we had breakfast in bed, explored the town a little more (and ate lemon pastries), and then headed back to Napoli to catch our train home.

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It was a fantastic, food-filled vacation. If you can get down to Napoli and Amalfi, go!