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Month: March 2014

Jalilah Byrd | London, England | Post 3

Jalilah Byrd | London, England | Post 3

So, academics. That’s what I’m here for, right? Obviously—with no hint of sarcasm.

(No hint.)

I really didn’t think studying abroad would be that different from Vassar. To be honest, I thought it’d be exactly the same, just with easier assignments. Not really sure why I thought that, really, seeing as people here don’t even know which side of the road to drive on. (Sidenote: a friendly elderly man on the bus informed me that this was because of jousting, back before cars existed. Huh.)

But indeed, it was quite a culture shock. Right off the bat in the UK, you need to choose your major when you’re APPLYING to college. What?! You’re not even a person yet. How are you expected to make such a significant decision? Well, okay, fair enough. Look on the bright side—at least if you’re not fond of your major once you’re in it, you can take classes outside your major.

Oh wait, you can’t. Seems so natural that as an art student, I can still take a few psychology courses on the side—from what I’ve heard, it’s entirely out of the question here. You study law, you take law courses. Maybe you can add a bit of law on the side, and mix it up with a bit of LAW. Frankly, I’m not quite sure how every single one of these upperclassmen isn’t completely insane.

But there are advantages to this—did I mention a third of the year has no class? No, I’m not talking about summer. I’m talking about a third of the school year, from the end of March to June, there is NO CLASS. Granted, it’s reserved for exams—but I have, what, three exams this semester? From the descriptions given, they don’t seem to be much more injurious than those at home: some short answer, plus one or two essay questions. The only rationale I can come up with is that with no other courses to distract them, they get through the material they need to know for their major much quicker, and can thus afford far more free time to… study. Yeah, that’s what they do with those several months of break leading into several more months of break.

Also: grading. Now, lots of things in the UK, despite my fondness for “the way we do things back home,” just make more sense—free healthcare, paying for college only once you have a job, the like. Grading is not one of these things. A 70 is an A, or a “first.” Anything above that qualifies as excellent, going above and beyond, surpassing expectations. Basically, I haven’t met anyone who’s gotten an 80 or above–79 is the highest I’ve heard of, and they were ecstatic. Needless to say, I wonder at the purpose of the extra few dozen points that no one ever seems to achieve—they say it’s so that students are reminded that they can “always do better,” but I’m fairly sure that’s just an attempt at rationalizing something no one knows the purpose of.

Finally, essays. Certainly at the forefront of my mind at the moment, as all of mine were due this week. That’s the thing—absolutely no coursework over the course of the year, except for one or two essays that make up all or most of your grade, all due at the end of term. Needless to say the final week is a maelstrom of all-nighters, stress eating, and binge-watching shows you’d never choose to watch except to procrastinate, but boy, if the night out on the last day isn’t absolutely worth it.

London Top Tips #6-7

You’re not done yet: read essay submission guidelines carefully. Each department’s are different, and sometimes teachers within them differ as well. Generally, you’ll need two hard copies, due at 5 p.m. on the day of the deadline, with a copy due to Turnitin (the anti-plagiarism service) by midnight. Some departments don’t allow you to write your name on the essay for anonymous grading purposes, some have a 5 p.m. deadline for Turnitin as well, and I’m sure some require you to draw a tiny horse at the bottom of your bibliography so they can identify you by your drawing skills. Just pay attention.

Count ’em: word count guidelines are strict. Generally, if your essay surpasses the word limit within ten percent, you get a ten percent penalty on your essay’s grade.  Any more, and it’s an automatic zero. I’m not sure how strictly these rules are followed to be honest, but I’m certainly playing it safe…

Angela Della Croce | Australia | Post 1

Angela Della Croce | Australia | Post 1

Before studying abroad, I had only camped once in my life, when I was ten. We slept directly underneath the star-laden Arizona sky and watched a rare meteor shower until the summer breeze lulled us to sleep. It was truly terrible. I had no tent—no protection—from the endless unknowns of the wilderness. It seemed as though every insect from the Sonoran Desert was out to get me. And where was the bathroom? Was I expected to simply relieve myself behind some cacti? How does a girl even do such a thing without being exposed or peeing on her own clothes? The evening ended with me encasing myself in my hot pink sleeping bag and vowing that if I ever made it out of here alive I would never go camping or do any extreme outdoorsy activities again.

Eleven years have passed since that scarring moment of my childhood and, prior to 2014, I can safely say that I largely abided by that promise to myself. Aside from the occasional hike and labs for class, I strictly appreciated nature from afar, preferably behind some barrier blocking me from the plethora of bugs and animals that called the landscape home. Some would call it sad and sheltered; I called it safe and clean. Thus when it was time to look for an appropriate study abroad program, anything remotely close to the wilderness was out of the question. I was initially set on a finance program in the heart of London; I couldn’t get more urban. Yet as time progressed, I realized that finance and England were not areas I wanted to indulge in for a semester. That, in conjunction with my recent and increasing interest in environmental policy, ultimately led me to an environmental policy and sustainability program in Australia. Yes, Australia AKA the land of snakes, exotic animals, and insects. Spiders are so common that they’re often embraced in the Australian household. Aspects of the program itself focused on the very things I could never see myself doing: having an intimate relationship with nature, being spontaneous, partaking in various types of outdoor physical activities, packing so lightly that it impeded my ability to primp and prime, and so forth. The experience would be the antithesis of the persona I embodied for years; it was completely out of my comfort zone.

Yet if experimentation and the pushing of one’s boundaries are seen as underlying themes of the college experience, then there is no better time to accomplish this than Junior Year Abroad. Thus I left behind my favorite glitter sweater, took one last longing look at my bookcase full of hair products and left for a country, environment, and experience entirely foreign to the life I lived so safely. Though the first week was filled with many firsts—first time sleeping in a tent, first time 9000 miles away from home, first time in a hostel—and it was all rather overwhelming, I can say with certainty that stepping out of my comfort zone was one of my best life decisions thus far.

Firstly, my entire learning experience was not bound by the confines of a traditional classroom. Until this year, ‘education’ meant well-structured lectures in a cramped room with tables or desks and students furiously taking notes. Yet this program has expanded my view of different styles of learning. Here, the focus is on experiential learning. We are able to see, hear, touch, feel, experience the topics we learn about in class. We are living in our subject matter, which provides for a more intimate connection to what is being taught. It’s less about getting an ‘A’ and more about becoming enthralled in the material. The detachment many feel between class material and real-world applications is lessened with hands-on learning, making for a more rewarding educational experience.

Though I have learned much about sustainability and environmental policy, I have become educated in much more than the topic at hand. Not only have I gained greater comfort and appreciation for the natural world, but the extent of my personal growth during this trip has far exceeded anything else. Throughout my adventures here, my principles and abilities have been questioned and tested, and my future aspirations were put in the forefront of my mind. You end up pondering your place in the world and questioning the values you once took for granted. Studying abroad and living more simply and independently have opened my eyes to how insidious many aspects of mainstream society—consumer culture, neoliberal thinking and capitalism, corporate takeover, etc.—really are for the environment and humankind. Only by being encompassed in the natural landscape have I realized how mentally and emotionally detached we are from our surroundings and how vital it is to reconnect with our environment.

If these ideas were written out on a chalkboard in a well-lit, air-conditioned room with plastic chairs, and wooden tables that were likely not sustainably manufactured, I would jot down the main points, revisit them during study period, and never think about them again. There is something magical about the effectiveness of hands-on experience, as it fosters a long-term and often life-altering connection between your memory and your emotions.

If I hadn’t taken that initial step into the unknown I would still be taking 45 minute showers and obsessing over gold glitter and exfoliating my legs, which would be an absolute shame. Thus, if you’re not already a lover of the environment, take the chance and plan an excursion into nature, even if it is not far, long, or exotic. Surround yourself in a location where experiential learning is an imperative part of the experience. Any natural environment is worth delving into.

Hannah Snyder-Samuelson | Sligo, Ireland | Post 3

Hannah Snyder-Samuelson | Sligo, Ireland | Post 3

It’s almost 8:00 on Monday night, and I’m writing this from a 2nd grade classroom in an elementary school just outside of Sligo, Ireland. I’m having one of those fascinating moments in which you wonder how many chance occurrences it took to lead you to this particular time and place. (I’ve been having quite a lot of those this semester.) This moment, at least, is a result of my coming here with the farmer that I’m volunteering with during my spring break this week, whom I found through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). We only met once I arrived in town about an hour ago, at a fancy-pants little wine bar that the farmer delivers produce to every week. I’m in this classroom right now because he’s running a rehearsal here for the half-professional-half-amateur Sligo Baroque Orchestra, an ensemble that he started and now plays harpsichord for, and I’m shamelessly eavesdropping in a back corner of the room, huddled in a small wooden chair painted bright red that sits about a foot off the ground. They’re doing a fantastic job of sightreading Domenico Cimarosa’s double flute concerto right now, and I’m getting nostalgic for the days when I fumbled through rehearsals with my own high school orchestra. So yeah, I’m liking this Ireland place so far.

It’s been brutally cold since the moment I got off the plane in Dublin this afternoon, but it’s an altogether different sort of cold from what I felt when I was in Greenland with my glacial history class three weeks ago. I had some idea of what the drizzly, mercilessly windy weather would be like here (though my expectations of Irish and U.K. weather may or may not have been informed almost exclusively by a certain bestselling J.K. Rowling series…). Greenland’s version of cold weather, however, was unlike anything I’d ever experienced or heard of. I don’t think we felt almost any wind at all that week, but the raw, dry Arctic air plainly didn’t need to come in gusts in order to settle deep into our bones and numb our thickly socked toes for hours. People told us that it was a rather mild week for where we stayed in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, though (not dipping below -20F or so while we were there), which my professors said could potentially be a reflection of the same jet stream eccentricity that has simultaneously plunged North America into a freakishly snowy winter and northern Europe into a boringly warm one (I’ll never forgive you, Vassar, for having so many snow days without me). As we took samples from Greenland’s majestic 1,710,000km2 ice sheet, we learned a bit about the central force that the size and bright whiteness of this ice body plays in stabilizing the Northern Hemisphere’s climate. Greenland and the eastern half of Antarctica are the only major bodies of land ice in the world; as they have melted and refrozen over the past ~45.5 million years, the extent of their white surface area has determined the amount of hot solar energy that Earth is able to reflect back out into space. While Greenland’s ice has been melting at record rates over the past few decades, the presence of its underlying land mass is expected to insulate it from melting as quickly as the western half of Antarctica, which does not have the continental foundation that its eastern half does and therefore continues to be much more vulnerable to changes in ocean temperature. Antarctica’s water-buoyed western half has been the site of the majority of the unprecedented ice melt that usually makes the news these days, with ice mass loss there increasing by 75% between 1996 and 2006. But the melting that has been happening in and around Greenland over the past few decades has steadily been making it easier for energy companies to access and exploit the region’s oil reserves, and, in a few cases, has brought about sudden, disastrous flooding in coastal towns over the past five years…yippee.

When we weren’t specifically talking about ice that week, we gathered a very cursory overview of the role of geopolitics and colonial forces in Greenland’s recent history. By pure virtue of its proximity to both northern Europe/Russia and North America, Greenland became a prime location for U.S. military bases and observation of intercontinental ballistic missiles during the Cold War, though the Greenlanders’ consent in the matter seems to have been quite questionable, if at all existent. We were also able to meet with a Greenlandic-Danish political activist who lives in town, where we learned a bit about Greenland’s history as a colony turned autonomous country within Denmark and the current conversation in Greenland surrounding the question of independence from the wee Scandinavian country. Greenland has made many efforts to begin reducing Danish cultural influence in favor of renewing Greenlandic unity, from teaching Kalaallit again (the main west Greenlandic dialect of Inuit) instead of Danish in schools, to diversifying the economy and shaking off the many awkward development attempts that Denmark has made on the island. A large portion of Greenland’s population is currently in favor of Greenland becoming its own independent sovereign state, but as of now, Denmark still has the final say on the matter.

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Natalie Gerich Brabson | Madrid, Spain | Post 3

Natalie Gerich Brabson | Madrid, Spain | Post 3

I am now very much immersed in life in Madrid, and a significant part of my life here is my university studies. The process of choosing and enrolling in classes took an unusual amount of time for me, because I decided to take two classes at a second university that had a later start than the program’s home university. In total, I am taking five classes this semester. Three are at Universidad Carlos III—the university where the Vassar-Wesleyan Madrid program is based. These classes are all through the Hispanic Studies Department, which is exclusively for foreign students, but still taught entirely in Spanish by university professors. My language class in this department is obligatory, but I chose to take two more classes in this department because the content interested me more than that of the grado (direct enrollment with Spanish students) classes at Carlos III. Most grado classes are professionally oriented and antithetical to a liberal arts education. (For example, Humanities is only one major, and offers a sparse mix of literature, film, and art history classes. Most majors here are the sort in which your career is determined by placing an “ist” on the end of your subject: Journalism, Economics, and many sciences, including twelve majors in Engineering. I tried classes in Journalism and Political Science for one week, and found both subjects and the pure lecture method of teaching quite dry.) In contrast, the Hispanic Studies department offers culture and arts-based classes. I am taking a short story class—a combination of a literature and writing class. The professor is excellent, and gives lectures sprinkled with poetic metaphors. For me, creative writing is more difficult in Spanish and certainly a less fluid process than in English, but I enjoy the class and appreciate the opportunity. I am also studying Spanish art history; I have never taken art history before, and I find it an excellent way to learn about general history and cultural periods, and simply to discover new fascinating artists and works. Out of artists we have covered thus far, my favorite is Joachim Patinir: in his El paso de la laguna Estigia (Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx): I believe he captured shades of the indefinable color of the Mediterranean Sea.

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http://josamotril.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/caronte_atravesando_laguna_estigia.jpg

The most delightful part of the class is the series of museum visits. We have gone to the Prado three times, and will visit the Reina Sofia next month. I look forward to seeing Picasso’s Guernica.

Beyond my Carlos III classes, I am enrolled in two classes at Universidad Complutense, which is one of the oldest universities in the world (founded in 1293), and is considered Spain’s best and most competitive university. The Vassar-Wesleyan program is not based here, but due to an agreement between universities, we can enroll at Complutense in addition to Carlos III classes. I have chosen a difficult path, and cannot attest to junior year abroad seeming like time off—I spend slightly more time commuting than my peers who are only at Carlos III, and I currently feel inundated with work. However, my classes at Complutense are fantastic, and I am so glad I enrolled. I am taking a figure drawing class in Bellas Artes (the Fine Arts department). I have only drawn horses and dogs with any seriousness, and have not taken a drawing class post-9th grade. I am excited to be learning about proportions and shading, and trying to capture expressions without losing an academic, accurate approach to my work. We have a very neat final assignment to draw paintings described in Jane Eyre (one of my favorite books). I am really enjoying drawing, and look forward to continuing after this class.

Lastly, I have enrolled in a Latin American 20th century literature class, which I find quite challenging, as we read one book each week, and write a small essay on each book. The books’ syntax and content are quite complicated; we have read a couple of psychological novels that resemble Dostoyevsky or Kafka. I currently feel overwhelmed by that fact I do not yet understand everything in the texts, but because it is my most difficult class, I imagine I will learn the most from it. And, I am really looking forward to the second half of the semester, in which we will study novels from the Latin American Boom.

A last plus about Complutense—there are lime green Monk Parakeets that chirp at me as I’m on my way to class. (Parakeets! In Madrid!)

Outside of school, I have been enjoying getting to know Madrid, but as with my previous posts, I am approaching the maximum word count sooner than expected. I apologize for this post’s less exciting subject, but I hope it is helpful for those considering the Vassar-Wesleyan program.

Happy spring to all! It has been consistently in the 70s Fahrenheit here, which is lovely but very strange for me. I hope it warms up soon for those in colder climates!

Harper Cleves | Santiago, Chile | Post 1

Harper Cleves | Santiago, Chile | Post 1

I ended my first day in Santiago washing strawberry cake off of dishes at a sink built for a woman a foot smaller than me. I kept thinking someone should take a picture of me, oddly tall, occupying too much space in the tiny, rectangular kitchen, while a petite, 75-year-old Chilean woman buzzed around me insisting I drink more tea, and finish her cake.

Eres bastante flaca, Chiquita.

“You are too skinny, little one.”

I declined politely for the fourth or fifth time, enjoying the irony of the situation, and the word chiquita, as I hit my head (again) on the low-hanging ledge over the sink.

This funny little scene actually ended up being the perfect metaphor for how I have felt in Chile thus far; a little awkward, a little out of place, but happy nonetheless.

Growing up comfortably in a white, middle class background in the United States has had its perks. I have a warm, supportive family. I have financial security. I have been able to travel, play club sports, and attend a private university.

I enjoy the luxury of being part of the majority; the dominant class. I blend in with the masses, while walking down any given middle class neighborhood. I speak the same language, and understand the idioms of my teachers, friends, and co-workers.

This background has given me an incredible amount of opportunities, and without these privileges I would have never been able to study abroad in Santiago. I recognize that I am incredibly fortunate in this respect. But these advantages have also left me ill-prepared for certain experiences. I think one of the most interesting parts of studying abroad thus far has been relinquishing some of the comforts I have become so accustomed to. When I walk down any given street in Santiago, I instantly stand out as una extranjera (a foreigner). I am tall, and pale, and have blue eyes. I pull over-sized maps out of my backpack, and ask for directions in Spanish with a thick accent. I walk down the street with my other friends from the United States, speaking a comical version of Spanglish as we piece together Chilean modismos and colloquialisms. It has been difficult to remain inconspicuous.

For the most part, people have been kind, understanding, and open. They slow down their rapid-fire Spanish, sometimes even switching to English, and tell me the parts of the country I must visit while I am abroad. They tell me to wear my backpack on the front of me siempre, mihijita (always, my daughter). They offer to walk me to the nearest bus stop, while telling me which barrios to avoid at night. An old man with blue eyes even offered me his hand in marriage so that I could become a Chilean citizen and stay as long as I wanted in this country. “Voy a morir aqui,” he said, “I will die here. It will always be the home I love.” Perhaps the most obvious example of the kindness of the Chilean people can be seen in the way they greet one another, with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, thus greeting even strangers with a simple and open expression of affection.

When I consider the role that the United States has played in the history of human rights and governance in this country, I marvel at the way the Chilean people treat me. They have every reason to despise the US government, and me by extension. We deteriorated the validity of their Democracy. We allowed awful human rights violations to occur at the hands of a man we supported both financially, and ideologically. We conservatized and privatized a country that was trying to stand on its own. And then, with the wealth we have gained through such exploitation, we send American students to the Chile, expecting the very people we destroyed to take care of our students without any qualms. The paternalism is palpable.

And yet, when I ask for directions in broken, gringa Spanish on the street, they smile, point me the right way, and welcome me into their beautiful country. Whether this is the result of a rupture in the collective memory of the nation, or simply indicative of the generosity of everyday people, I am extremely grateful.

I try to remember this when being a foreigner becomes a nuisance, because, of course, sometimes the process is incredibly frustrating. Chilean Spanish is what they call picadero. They speak very quickly, and hardly ever pronounce the s’s in words. Furthermore, the slang is abundant. Many words are different than the Mexican version of Spanish I grew up learning, so I often miss the meaning of entire sentences and conversations. As such, I have found myself in a constant state of apology; apologizing for bad grammar, maldichos, and for continually asking people to speak “un poco mas despacio por favor,” (a little more slowly, please). My Chilean alter-ego, it would seem, is a polite, self-conscious, shell of my self. Luckily, una taza de vino Chileno (a glass of Chilean wine) usually helps to ease the nerves.

So I guess I should return to that scene in the kitchen. (I know this is cheesy, but sometimes you cannot help but make use of life’s most obvious metaphors.) Like the kitchen, Chile was not a country created for my benefit. I am often too tall, too white, too rich, too gringa. It is not my home, and I will continue to feel out of place. But even as I continue to hit my head on the metaphorical low-hanging ceilings that confront me on a daily basis, I will continue to learn and thrive. Chile may not be here for my benefit, and it may not be built to my size, but it can serve to teach me a few lessons just the same.

Jesslyn Mitchell | Kitgum, Uganda | Post 3

Jesslyn Mitchell | Kitgum, Uganda | Post 3

My Excursion: Leaving Home Again and Reculture Shock

This past week, we had a group excursion to Kitgum, Uganda. Kitgum is a district in Northern Uganda that was particularly hard hit by the conflict with the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). It was also the site for many IDP (internally displaced person) camps. One reason that it was so affected by the conflict is its very rural setting. The majority of my time is being spent in Gulu town, the second most populated and urbanized area in Uganda. That is not really saying much, as the town itself is still pretty small. However, when I arrived in Kitgum town, I got some real perspective on rural versus urban Uganda.

I really did not want to leave Gulu for a couple of reasons. I had just started making some great friends in Gulu, and our excursion to Kitgum marked the beginning of a month long series of trips out of Gulu. Gulu has really become my home, and my friend and I joke that we never want to leave. Alas, SIT made us leave, and to Kitgum, of all places. The town is really small, and it was mostly frustrating that I had no idea where anything was. More frustrating was that in Kitgum, my peers and I, from the United States, were even more of outsiders than in Gulu, where the NGO, and therefore western, population is much higher. We stayed in a place called Little Palace. Despite the outside gate, which was a little shabby and had barbed wire around it resembling a prison, the inner compound was amazing. It really was a little palace. We had running water again, and I finally felt like I got most of the solid layer of dirt off of me. I was also lucky enough that a friend of mine from Gulu was promoting his friend’s rap concert in Kitgum, so he came to visit me and took me out.

After 3 days, however, our reign in Little Palace ended, and we were placed in a rural homestay for 4 days. I was fortuitously paired with my closest friend on the trip, which honestly was the only reason I made it through the excursion. That’s not to say that I did not enjoy my time in the homestay overall, but the living conditions were so drastically different from Gulu, where I actually live with a rather affluent momma who takes very good care of me. We did all of the things that you would think of when you think of “White Girl in Africa.” We stayed in huts, which are amazingly cool on the inside. We fetched water from the boer hole 300 meters away. Most importantly, we hung out with a baby cow, some chickens, and all of the goats. I mean all of them. Our father, who we called “Baba,” was often gone, and most of our siblings spoke little to no English. They laughed at us a lot, mostly because of our poorly spoken Acoli, but what can you do.

Getting used to the daily activities in rural Uganda was so different. At home (both in the United States and in Gulu), when I get bored, I can go to town or go find a friend. In our village, we were miles from town, and knew almost no one around us, nor the language. Sitting is an activity. So I sat outside and got myself a nice little sunburn. I did finally wash my clothes though, so that was cool. I will never look at bananas the same way again, though. I was unaware that there were so many ways to prepare bananas. Raw, fried, and boiled. All so good, but not meal after meal. After completing a research project and getting to know some of the people in the village, everyone came together and we had a traditional party, where they taught us to dance, and then they drank. On day four, I was happier than ever to go back to Gulu, and when I got home to my Gulu momma, I got the warmest welcome. Thank goodness for Gulu mommas, am I right?

Our hut.
Our hut.

 

The goat wanted to help me with my laundry.
The goat wanted to help me with my laundry.
This is my baby cow, Simon. I named him after my academic director, Simon.
This is my baby cow, Simon. I named him after my academic director, Simon.
Cow selfies.
Cow selfies.
They taught us to dance the traditional Acoli dance, and laughed at us when we our hips didn’t live that way.
They taught us to dance the traditional Acoli dance, and laughed at us when we our hips didn’t move the correct way.
Juliava Struve | Paris, France | Post 3

Juliava Struve | Paris, France | Post 3

Tips for going out in Paris and the best secret gelataria in Rome 

 

I’ve been going out every weekend in Paris since I’ve gotten here and I have discovered an undeniable fact: every weekend that my friends and I go out, we get a little bit better at it.
Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned so far:
-Pregaming on the subway at night is slightly socially acceptable, the same can be said for drinking in parks in broad daylight.
-Carrying a lighter, even if you don’t smoke, can be a great way to meet people, and also a great way to score free cigarettes.
-If you do smoke, it can be a great way to kill time if you are waiting for your other friends to meet you.
-Often, a place you find that is really awesome during the day or on a Thursday night will turn into a bar/club with an impossibly long line that doesn’t move or the sketchiest area ever when you return to that same location on a Saturday night. Read: this is the Bastille area in a nutshell.
-Even though everything starts later in Paris, to avoid the lines it’s often best to stick to an American college going out schedule and arrive at your destination before midnight, because everyone else will arrive around one.
-Bring some spare coins for coat check because sometimes even if there isn’t a cover charge to get into a place they will still make you check your coat for two euros.
That’s all for now because I am actually vacationing in Italy right now. Taking a break from Paris to go to a place where people actually smile is quite nice.
So I’ll close with a pretty picture of the Colosseum.
photo-7 copy
Oh, and if you are ever in Rome, this is the best gelateria. Think: homemade whipped cream and a fresh dipped wafer cookie on top.

COME IL LATTE GELATERIA –  Via Silvio Spaventa, 24 26 – ROMA Tel. 0642903882 [email protected].

Eliot Cowley | Kyoto, Japan | Post 4

Eliot Cowley | Kyoto, Japan | Post 4

First Two Weeks in Kyoto

A lot has happened in the past couple weeks–I’ve finished my first job at the Airinkan, the day care center for people with cognitive disabilities, and I’ve started my next job, at the Bazaar Cafe. I’ll do my best to neatly sum up how it has been.

February 11 was a Japanese holiday, National Foundation Day (Kenkoku Kinen no Hi). This day celebrates the ascension of Japan’s first emperor, Emperor Jimmu (Thanks, Wikipedia!). For some reason, however, on National Foundation Day everyone talks about leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease in Japan. I guess it was a huge problem, not just in Japan, but all over the world, although I’m not sure why they chose February 11th to talk about it. Anyway, everyone gathered in the building next door to the Airinkan, where we sang loosely religious (Christian) songs. I realized that the people I was with were probably all members of a church, and volunteered at the center as part of that community. Apparently, the café is the same way. It’s not like they make me go to church, so I have no problem with it. Some guy from outside of Kyoto came and gave a long presentation about the history of leprosy. The parts that I understood were pretty interesting, though I admittedly stopped listening about halfway through.

Afterward, some of the staff and I were invited to go to Fushimi, one of the districts of Kyoto, with the sensei who had talked to us about leprosy. We visited a couple of museums that he wanted to see, and we were all surprised to learn that some of the staff, Kyoto natives, had never been to the museums before. The first museum, Teradaya, was an inn where, in 1867, delegates from the government met with some radicals to try to dissuade them from enacting a coup d’etat, which failed–the radicals pulled swords on them and killed several of the delegates. The second museum, the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, was about the history of the sake company, Gekkeikan. Fushimi is a traditional sake-brewing district, so there’s sake everywhere.

Tea room in Teradaya.
Tea room in Teradaya.
Sake Museum.
Sake Museum

After, we went to a little street that makes up Fushimi’s only shopping area, which made me kind of miss Tokyo. Sensei bought some omiyage (souvenirs) for his family, and I almost bought a t-shirt that said “Omotenashi,” which means “hospitality,” which is relevant now because it’s the word the Japanese representative used in Japan’s acceptance of Tokyo as the location for the 2020 Olympics. It’s sort of a running joke among the Japanese now–here’s the video. (From 0:15-0:22.)

On the 15th, in a break with what I usually did at work, I went with a group, Yurin, who take children with cognitive disabilities to do fun things. They meet every Saturday, and they’re in the building right next to the Day Center, but I never knew about them. It’s too bad because that day was the first and last time I would be with them. They’re quite an entertaining bunch. Mori-san from the Day Center came with me, so there was one person I knew. There’s a guy in Yurin that has a pink mohawk and is the singer in a Japanese hardcore punk band called Warhead. Definitely the most interesting person I’ve met in a while. They’re coming to Tokyo in April so I said I would try and see them live. It’s interesting that a guy like that also volunteers to play with children with cognitive disabilities in his spare time. There were also two guys and a girl around the same age as me, which was a nice change from all the older people (well, adults) that work at the Day Center.

We went to a sports center where there were a bunch of rooms, each one outfitted for different activities like swimming, basketball, and ping-pong. We had a room with a floor covered in mats, an air trampoline, a ball pit, and a bunch of big bouncy balls. I’m pretty much five years old at heart, so needless to say, I was in heaven. It was great being able to enjoy myself and have fun with people without having to communicate much. There were only about four children with us, so most of the time I was just playing by myself or with the other staff. It was so much fun, but by the end of the day I was pretty exhausted. Getting up at 6am every day is difficult.

I had the following day off, and after several hours of procrastinating and loafing around, I went to Kiyomizu Temple. It’s an easy 35-minute walk from my apartment, only a couple of turns. I took a lot of pictures (below). Everyone there was with other people, whether they were friends, couples, or part of a tour group, so it was kind of weird being alone, but I didn’t care after a while. I’m actually pretty surprised how okay I am with being alone in public. For so long I was scared to go out to eat alone or do stuff on my own.

Anyway, to get to the temple I walked up a hill lined with cute (but overpriced) cafés and omiyage shops. I went into a couple of the shrines, and watched people pray in front of them. I also did this thing where I shook a box until a stick came out through a little hole, which has a number on it, which corresponds to a certain fortune, ranked by varying degrees of luck. Somehow I managed to get dai-kichi, which is the best luck you can get. I don’t understand, usually I’m the unluckiest person ever, literally never won anything luck-related in my life. I also did this thing where I held out a cup attached to a long rod to catch the water sprinkling down from above, then washed my hands and drank some of it. I guess for good luck?

Entrance to Kiyomizu
Entrance to Kiyomizu
A shrine at Kiyomizu.
A shrine at Kiyomizu.

On Thursday, my day off, Tsuya-san (a co-worker), two of her friends, Noah (Kayla’s boyfriend), and I went to Sanjo, the main downtown district of Kyoto, to do some shopping and eating. I felt kind of bad for Noah since he doesn’t speak any Japanese, but I was able to translate a little and one of Tsuya-san’s friends spoke some English. Tsuya-san is in an all-girl punk rock band, and the two friends were her bandmates. Pretty out there, not-at-all ordinary Japanese, to say the least. They’re really into manga and otaku, so we went to the Kyoto Manga Museum, which is more of a library than a museum, with virtually all manga ever published. People can browse and read them there. There was also a student exhibition going on from a special manga university, where students showed off their work. There was one collection of a ton of monster trading cards that I thought was Digimon at first, and was impressed when I learned it was a student’s work. I got a free card out of it, which was cool.

All in all, I’ve been having a pretty good time in Kyoto so far, and I’m excited to see what else it has in store for me. I plan on visiting some more temples before I go back to Tokyo, so stay tuned for that. Sorry for the long post, and thanks for reading!