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Month: September 2014

Belle Shea | Paris, France | Post 2

Belle Shea | Paris, France | Post 2

When I left for Paris I got 4 different messages from friends and family all with the same still from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast included. You know, this one, where Belle is swinging her way into a French library on a ladder, singing and on the prowl for new books.

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 3.29.39 PM.pngSomewhat fitting, I’ll admit

It turns out that this is a fair representation of my time so far in Paris. You have to understand, Belle may not be my favorite Disney princess (for one thing, she stole my name. For another, Esmeralda has more grit), but I have always loved books more than anything. I’ve been known to walk around reading books, take baths reading books, ride a bike and rollerblade reading books. I can recite most of PG Wodehouse for you if you ask nicely enough, and have been known to cuddle with books at night as opposed to stuffed animals. They’ve always been a huge part of my life, but books have also always been an escape. They’ve gotten me through two divorces, multiple hurricanes, countless long car rides and chemistry classes and so many other moments I’ve been desperate to leave. So in a way, it surprised me that I found myself missing, even craving, books to read in Paris, the city of my dream escape. I just never expected to need them here, in a city where I planned on never wanting to miss a single view or night out. Turns out though, not only did I miss them, but Paris felt lonely as all get out without them.

Luckily, Paris may be the best city in the world to find books. This is a city that will not let you forget its literary tradition, which is only fair, since it’s a city made for reading, writing, and generally contemplating existence. Living among this much art and history will do that you, I figure. No matter where you go, some of the greatest authors in the world have left their footprints ahead of you. Not only have they written or smoked or drank endless cups of coffee in the same cafés and gardens that you are in, but their books are everywhere and available often for as little as 20 centimes, or about 40 cents. Paris is a city full of oddly specific bookshops, with specialties that range from collectible editions of TinTin to a selection of translations of F. Scott Fitzgerald to the Librairie Théâtrale right next door to my apartment, which offers an entire shelf of secondhand copies of Roméo et Juliette. Speaking of which, secondhand books are also widely and readily available here, not only from the green bouquiniste stands that line the Seine, but also in giant heaps outside every book store. Even the monolithic Gilbert, captain of literary industry (whose 7 or so locations can be found lining the streets opposite Nôtre Dame all the way to the Jardin de Luxembourg) puts endless copies of used books (à occasion or petit prix, as they’re called) alongside the new copies, meaning that my 11 schoolbooks for this semester cost me under 20 euros. These 11 books are in addition to the giant stack of books lent to me by my host mother, who has an extensive library herself and who, upon gauging my feminist leanings as appropriately radical, promptly bestowed upon me George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Virginie Despentes, and letters from Calamity Jane, with the promise that we would discuss each in detail.

This is all to say that, for those of who you have seen the movie, Woody Allen’s “Midnight In Paris” might actually be onto something. It feels like the authors who have lived here, whether they were born here or traveled here or were exiled here, have each left a little bit of breath, a pencil stub or signature, somewhere in this city, as well as all of their books. And it turns out that that’s how Paris has opened its gates for me. For now, not only is Paris home to Hemingway’s favorite bar, Sartre’s old classroom, Victor Hugo’s birthplace, Gertrude Stein’s grave, but it is also home to one small girl sitting by the Seine, reading from these people’s books, and finding that she might have found a place where she absolutely belongs after all.

IMG_1106.JPGParis, in a nutshell (at an event at the Theater Library next door)

 

IMG_1242.JPGInside Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, where pictures are technically not allowed, so this is an exclusive.

 

IMG_1167.JPGPère Lachaise Cemetery, where authors such as Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, and Molière are buried.

IMG_1165.jpgThe author and friend, right before kissing the grave of Oscar Wilde in Père Lachaise.

 

IMG_1577.JPGThe library inside the Hôtel de Ville, one of the many libraries visited so far.

IMG_1652.jpgReading in Place des Vosges, a park in Le Marais, the same district as Victor Hugo’s birthplace.

 

IMG_1187.JPGView of the Left Bank from my favorite place to read by the Seine.

Zach Rippe | London, England | Post 1

Zach Rippe | London, England | Post 1

As the beginning of September approached, I slowly began saying goodbye to friends from home, ended my summer job, visited some friends at Vassar and…waited at home on my couch. Unlike all my friends going to school at Vassar or abroad, I had to wait until September 20 to fly out to London. Alas, on the morning of September 21, I along with twelve of my classmates stumbled out of a rather cozy charter bus onto the streets of New Cross. It was loud, we were tired, and there was a “mandatory meeting” we probably should have attended. Oh well – we registered eventually. We hiked past the public toilet in the middle of the road and through the gates of Loring Hall to our rooms.

Goldsmiths College grouped all of the study abroad students into the last two buildings on the block, filling the halls with kids from Muhlenberg College, Lafayette College, and Oslo, Norway.  My room is complete with plenty of closet space, its own bathroom, and a beautifully stenciled phallic symbol on my bulletin board. I of course mentioned this on my room maintenance sheet because I, like anyone else, would be ashamed to take credit for such a masterpiece. This morning, maintenance knocked on my door and wanted to see the artwork. Upon seeing it, the worker chuckled, told me he’d “seen much worse,” and pulled out his phone to snap a picture for his friends. Then I ate breakfast.

Being on the Vassar Media Studies London program means that I only take two classes at the College, along with one on Print Culture in London taught by Vassar’s very own, Professor Bob DeMaria, and an independent study project that uses London as a medium. Classes here don’t start until the 29th, giving everyone here some more time to get adjusted (and go out exploring). However, we will be going to see Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors on Friday. This will be a great precursor to an awesome semester. Professor DeMaria will be taking us to places like the Victoria and Albert Museum and The British Library where we’ll get to examine the Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio, and the Beowulf manuscript. For my independent project, I hope to examine British humor and the stand up scene here in London to see what it has to say about British identity and culture. I plan on visiting various comedy clubs and venues throughout the city, giving me a chance to get out and explore even more.

After settling in, drudging into a local pub for some food and a drink, and sleeping off my jet-lag, I decided it was time to explore. So naturally, I was as touristy as possible. I went with a few Vassar students to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. We then walked past Hyde Park to the Museum of Natural History. I concluded my afternoon with terrible, overpriced fish and chips and a ride back on the tube.  I’m working my way to slightly “cooler” things. Like the other day, I hung out in Hyde Park and had a picnic. I guess that’s still pretty touristy.

After taking the tube a few times and getting familiar with the system, I began to realize just how far out of Central London we were. As a Vassar student staying around South Kensington confirmed to us, we really are “out in the sticks.” Fortunately, the newly built overground rail allows us to reach London Bridge in five minutes. The entire tube system is extremely straightforward and easy to navigate, ensuring that while at times I may get lost in London, I will never get too lost.

But New Cross really does have its own charm. The New Cross Gate station is directly across from our dorms and right down the road are both the Sainsbury’s supermarket and everyone’s favorite, TK Maxx. Yes, that’s right, I said TK. There’s also Gateway Chicken, the place to grab some dirt-cheap chicken strips and fries in the middle of the night, and several great pubs. New Cross even boasts the infamous Hobgoblin pub where none other than Shia LaBeouf made his mark. After someone at the pub made a comment about LaBeouf’s girlfriend, Mia Goth’s, mother, Shia head-butted the man. A similar altercation occurred in 2012 when he got into a scuffle at Hobgoblin after a customer stole his hat. I’m still puzzled as to why Shia LaBeouf is at this pub so often.

With classes yet to start I still have much to experience here on my trip abroad. There are still friends to be made, countless places to explore, and bank accounts to run dry. I hope to join either rugby or basketball here and I would love to rent a bike to become much more mobile. Greenwich is only about a mile and a half from Goldsmiths and I have not yet attempted to make the trek. I’m sure that the next time I write, I’ll have plenty more experiences to rant about and a much broader perspective of London as a whole.



 

Carrie Plover | Paris, France | Post 2

Carrie Plover | Paris, France | Post 2

I’m a big believer in signs.

Growing up, in my desperation to confirm whether or not my crushes “like-liked” me, I ascribed meaning to our most insignificant interactions. If the object of my affection glanced at me in the hallway as we crossed paths, for instance, I could safely start planning our future together. At Vassar, too, I routinely took the presence of my favorite mushy, tasteless cantaloupe in the dining hall to mean I’d have a good day.

My time abroad has apparently made me no more rational. When the illustrious Nicki Minaj’s song “Anaconda” came on the radio while I drove into Paris two weeks ago, I once again found meaning in happenstance. The appearance of the pop anthem – my obsession for the past week (which I admit with no guilt, thank you very much) – could only mean good things going forward.

Luckily, I was not to be deceived. I spent the next four minutes enjoying the sublime awkwardness that was listening to the uncensored ballad inches from the male, English-speaking bus driver transporting us to our home-stays. The following weeks, too – my first living in Paris – have proved nothing short of incredible.

As if I weren’t lucky enough to be living in Paris, the lovely people at VWPP placed me in a home-stay in the city’s sixth arrondissement. For reference, Wikipedia (an ever-veritable source) refers to my neighborhood as one of the city’s “most fashionable.” Le sixième is not all beauty and no brains, mind you; in the twentieth century, it served as the stomping ground for the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. As I navigate its winding streets, I’m at once thrilled by its rich cultural history and painfully aware of my intellectual inferiority.

Surprisingly – given all that my neighborhood has to offer, as well as my deep-seated fear of getting lost in the subway for all eternity (the theme of this week’s post is apparently Carrie’s Neuroses) – I’ve explored a decent chunk of Paris in the last two weeks. Some of my ventures into the Great Beyond have naturally been for tasks of a stereotypically touristy nature. I’m of the belief that no trip to Paris would be complete without picnicking adjacent to the Eiffel Tour or violently elbowing through the hovering, fifty-person thick human smog that shrouds the Louvre’s Mona Lisa at all times.

Many of my most satisfying experiences, though, have been those that have taken place off the beaten track, and far away from middle-aged Americans sporting fanny packs. These include, but are not limited to: visiting an authentic Jewish bakery in the Marais (the boon of which I eat while I type this); ordering Mexican food from a restaurant only slightly bigger than my modest bedroom, and relocating to a palette on the street to eat the delicately seasoned taco I purchased; and browsing the adult stores lining the streets of Moulin Rouge (red leather galore).

Deviating from the road most traveled hasn’t been the only way that I’ve pushed myself outside my comfort zone so far. My experience going abroad bears a strong resemblance to my first year orientation: I hardly knew anyone coming in, and it feels like everyone around me speaks a different language (be it French or Vassar vernacular). Being thrown into a new social scene, I’ve been surprised to discover that many people I’ve come to call friends initially perceived me as aloof. Me, aloof? I was in tears within the first 2 minutes of “The Notebook” and my mom is featured embarrassingly prominently in my list of most recent calls. Discovering the discrepancy between the way I perceive myself and the way I’m perceived has, it turns out, been one of the most interesting lessons I’ve learned abroad thus far.

Unfortunately, I have to cut this post a bit shorter than I’d like; my first day of classes at Paris 4 is tomorrow, and I have a long night preparation (re: unnecessary stressing) ahead of me. But truly, I’m happy to report that all is well. Paris, je t’aime (Bordeaux, you were alright).

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Mija Lieberman | Madrid, Spain | Post 2

Mija Lieberman | Madrid, Spain | Post 2

I am now officially in Madrid living with a host family in an apartment that is only a five-minute walk from Puerta del Sol, the center of the city. I couldn’t have asked for a better location, and there is a metro stop right outside my apartment. The rastro, the biggest flea market I’ve ever seen that takes place every Sunday, is also just a couple of blocks from my home. I have my own room with plenty of space. I’m sleeping on a pull-out couch, unfortunately, but I’ve slept on a cot for multiple months in a shared room before so I can’t complain. My host family consists of a mom, a dad, and a six year old son. I requested a family with children and am really happy to have a little brother. We play a lot of games together and he’s obsessed with soccer and Star Wars. The mom lived in New York City for a few years back when she was in graduate school, so she speaks some English. My host mom is a concert pianist and my host dad is a composer, and their son will grow up to become a musical prodigy, I’m sure. The dad travels quite a bit for business so often it is just the mom, the little brother, and me at home. I eat breakfast at home and usually have lunch or dinner with them depending on the day. They’re all very welcoming and I practice speaking Spanish with them everyday.

After a week of orientation in Madrid, I started my classes at Carlos III University, named after a very influential king of Spain. It’s on the outskirts of Madrid, so my commute to school is about 45 minutes including walking, but luckily the metro and train are very reliable and easy to navigate (way simpler than the subway). I’ve only begun three of my five classes, which are introduction to sociology (since I haven’t yet had the chance to take it at Vassar), a half-semester course on social rights, and a required Spanish language class for international students. I’ll also be taking another half-semester course when the other one ends on professional ethics, as well as psychopathology for my major, which starts at the end of September at another university because psychology courses are not offered at Carlos III. I’m actually really enjoying the Spanish language class because I’m learning interesting colloquialisms about the culture, and I’ve made friends with other Americans besides those on the Vassar-Wesleyan Program. The reading for my social rights class is pretty difficult but I’m going to take it pass/fail. Sociology here is taught in an oversimplified fashion compared to Vassar, and I hope that we start to have deeper discussions as the class progresses. Unfortunately, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other forms of oppression seem to be much more blatant here, and as a woman of color I’ve experienced it a lot. But I try to keep in mind, of course, that it’s a very different, homogenous culture.

I’ve been in Madrid for about three weeks now and have visited the Prado Museum and the Reina Sofia Museum each once, but I certainly need to go back because they’re too large to make it through in one go. I also still need to visit the Royal Palace and go to Kapital, the seven story discoteca. There is a really nice park called Retiro that I’ve run through a few times, and my new favorite restaurant is El Tigre, where customers pay for drinks and food is free. The monitores, students from Madrid who help show us around, have taken us to many cool restaurants, bars, and clubs, and they come with us on program excursions. All of us went on a day trip to Segovia a couple weekends ago where we were able to visit old churches and had an extravagant lunch to welcome us to Madrid. This last weekend three friends and I went overnight to Alicante, a beach town on the east coast of Spain in the region of Valencia. We stayed in a hostel and climbed up to the Castle of Santa Barbara, which is on top of a hill that overlooks the entire city. We went to two beautiful beaches and I was able to swim in the Mediterranean for the first time. We ate paella, drank mojitos, and went on a pub-crawl with other people visiting. Next weekend I have plans to go to Barcelona with eight other people from Vassar. Then the following weekend we have a group excursion to Sevilla and Cordoba. I’m trying to plan more trips to other countries, too, because who knows the next time I’ll have the opportunity to come to Europe again, although I am also still continuing to explore more of Madrid.

Michael Gambardella | Madrid, Spain | Post 2

Michael Gambardella | Madrid, Spain | Post 2

Greetings from Madrid! We touched down in Madrid two and a half weeks ago after a general orientation in Galicia, an autonomous region in the northwest corner of the country. Life in Madrid has made a few major changes in our day-to-day lives. First and foremost, we’ve all moved in with our host families, which was an experience in and of itself.

Su Casa es Mi Casa

I lucked out with my host family. It’s just Mama Tata, Don Juaquin, and me in our cozy apartment in Upper Salamanca (Salamanca Heights as it has come to be referred amongst some of the students on the trip). Not only have they opened up their hearts and home to me, but they are super generous and lenient with me. They only have three rules—put the bathmat back up to dry after getting out of the shower, let us know before you invite friends over because we’d like to straighten up the house before we have company, and absolutely no running with bulls—, which is next to nothing, especially compared to some of the stories I’ve heard about other students’ strict parents that don’t allow Vassar-Wesleyan students host visitors, use the kitchen, eat the family’s snacks, or, worst of all, take long showers. At first there was a bit of a language barrier between the three of us, but it’s slowly breaking down with every family dinner or heart-to-heart that we have with each other. They’ve also taken a liking to my friend and fellow Brewer Kate, inviting her over for family dinners and to go to the running of the bulls before Monday morning class. To be honest, they may like her more than me; when I hear Tata talking on the phone to her friends, she refers to Kate as “the enchanting and intelligent friend of the America.”

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Swipe Right for Spanish Tinder

We all know how funny Tinder can be, especially when used in a group of friends to pass the time swiping left and right. If you’ve every used Tinder in the US, you haven’t experienced anything like Spanish Tinder. For starters, all of the men are guapisimos (hella hot)—we’re not sure what’s caused this phenomena, but no one’s complaining. Not only is it a fun group pastime to “play Tinder” at a café or Metro station where we can find Wifi, but there’s also the “educational” aspect of talking with locals in broken Spanish. We’ve gotten pretty good at picking up the local slang that wasn’t part of our curriculum back in the states. These impromptu language lessons vary from sayings like, es la leche, which literally translates to “it’s the milk” and means that something’s super cool, to tacos, and some bad words in Spanish that may be a little too risqué for the Misc. I guess it’s just a matter of cultural immersion!

 

Universidad Carlos Tercero de Madrid: Class, Class, Class

The Vassar-Wesleyan program requires that students a full course load, so about 4.5 to 5 classes a semester, all of which must be in Spanish. We’re taking a combination of courses for international students and regular direct-enrollment courses alongside Spaniards, which is a little intimating to say the least. I ended up lucking out and enrolling in a film class that analyzes Breaking Bad and other American TV series, which was a complete surprise and a godsend. While some of my friends are preparing for one and a half hour long presentations, my homework this week was to watch Boyhood in English and write a review on it. This might not really seem that great, but after almost a month without Netflix or any American television, it is indescribable how great it was to watch something in a language that I could fully understand.

I can’t say that I don’t miss Vassar’s gorgeous architecture when the campus’s austere, simple buildings greet me after my daily hour and a half commute to school each morning, but I know it’s just going to make me appreciate VC’s killer campus once I’m back. However, it’s definitely not all bad. There’s a great gym that we go to almost every day after class to work off the bread, wine, beer, and olive oil that seems to flow so freely in this city. Plus, the Getafe campus has got a pretty sweet library—it may not be as swag-licious as Vassar’s, but it’s not too shabby.

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La Comida y La Bebida (Food and Drinks)

Spain is definitely a country that knows a thing or two about food and drinking. Evidence of this is can be found in the simple fact that the Spanish language not only has three separate verbs for eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but they also have about half a dozen ways for saying “go out,” each of which express a different action or set of actions that will be performed. There is also an amazing bocadillo place—bocadillos are sandwiches on baguettes—named Productos Extremeños right off campus that seems to be counteracting against our time in the gym, but it’s totally worth it. We’ve become something of regulars at this little hole in the wall joint, which is literally covered wall to wall in pieces of paper bearing the names of patrons past and their favorite sandwich. My goal is to one day have my name up on that wall too, but alas, it is but a dream for now…

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Sarah King | Bocas del Toro, Panama | Post 1

Sarah King | Bocas del Toro, Panama | Post 1

First, I missed my flight. Well, not actually. I made my connecting flight, I was there, the plane was there, but the doors were shut and they would not let me on board. I had sprinted across the Houston airport to no avail, only to be told my efforts were pointless simply because of a technicality of someone being too stubborn to re-open the door, a door that had shut merely four minutes prior. The reality of what I was doing, where I was going, and what I would be doing for the next three months was to be delayed for more six hours.

You see, in the months and weeks leading up to my adventures abroad, every time I discussed my upcoming semester, I was posed with the questions, “What will you be doing in Panama? Are you excited? What is the School of Fieldwork Studies?” My well rehearsed answers described a strange aloofness. I was immensely excited, yes, but oddly detached from any comprehension of what it would mean or look like for me to have this experience. The nerves had not set in. The mysterious nature of what Panama culture and life was like protected my brain from fear…until I was forced to sit there in the strange limbo of travel until my plane finally arrived at its destination eight hours later. Sitting and waiting, waiting and sitting, I began to realize that I was about to be set in the most out-of-place position of my life. I was about to be living in one house with twenty other college students on a small island for three months – I had seemingly signed up for the latest reality TV show.

Now it has been two weeks.

I can honestly say I feel a bit disoriented – but, I feel comfortable in it. Panamanian history, especially the history of the Provence of Bocas del Toro where I am living, is an accumulation of disorientation. Colonized by the Spanish, owned by Colombia, severed by the French construction of the canal, occupied by the United States for most of its nationhood, invaded by the banana industry since 1899, assailed by tourism, and set in one of the most bio-diverse sections of the tropics, Panama is an accumulation of many seemingly disconnected parts. Here in Bocas del Toro, the population is, to say the least, eclectic. Bocas del Toro is a region of islands, including the island of Solarte, where I am living, and five more. Our home is a former inn set amid muddy hills and a dense forest not a ten minute walk from the village of Solartedos, home to the Ngobe people. The Ngobe tribe settled on the islands of Bocas del Toro after being hired by the United Fruit Company in the mid-twetieth century. Before them, English and American banana scientists and business men followed by the cheap labor of the Afro-Antillean people occupied the land. And the Chinese and the former Panama Canal workers came. Previously undiscovered quiet towns were uncovered by ex-pats, retirees looking to live off their social security checks in paradise. And then tourism came and the environmental scientists came. And here I came.

The School of Fieldwork Studies runs a program in Bocas del Toro studying the underlying effects of tourism as seen through the lens of marine coastal ecology, resource management, and socio-political environmental struggles. The program itself is as eclectic as its home. My first fourteen days have involved playing soccer with the kids of Popados on an island twenty minutes from our own, snorkeling in mangroves for hours identifying seagrass, anemones, and any little creature that pops its head or tail through the branches, hiking down paths to peer into the lives of leaf cutter ants, golden weaver spiders, and any strange plant that crosses our attention, then going to Bocas Town on the Isle of Colon for a three and a half hour Spanish class, and walk the shops and grocery stores of the half-residential-half-tourist city. I feel like I have been here for forever.

I feel like there is no break to the learning and that in itself is disorienting. The twenty of us are still learning each other. We spend every waking moment together and we spend every waking moment in a world we do not know and that strangely does not really know itself. It’s a beautiful confusion though. It’s a constant community of learning and evolving: exhausting, but something I have never known before. Most people would say it will get better after more time has passed, but I do not think it will. At least in the sense that this is a place on the brink of constant change, at the tipping point of understanding, but accepting of the fact that maybe it is dangerous to be completely settled. I have never lived so entirely in this mode of thought and it’s an odd mental place to be…but it’s a gorgeous place to be, and though it is frightening to jump into the unknown and live here leaping for three months, I am smiling at the potential consequences.

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Playing Tag at Popados

 

 

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Red Tart Frog

 

 

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A Social Feather Duster
Camille Delgado | Rome, Italy | Post 1

Camille Delgado | Rome, Italy | Post 1

JOURNAL RAMBLINGS #1: En Route to Umbria (Orvieto)

Note: The cheapest flight from the Philippines to Rome, Italy, was scheduled about a week before I was allowed to move into my program. Considering the fact that I was going to be living in the Ancient City, I decided that I would travel around the region of Umbria in the extra week, meaning that I could not easily wander around rolling a giant suitcase. Thus began my weeklong backpacking trip carrying everything I would own for the coming three to four months.

Apparently, the adventure begins in China. Well, I suppose it technically began the moment my older brother decided to help me pack my backpack.

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I figured I’d never survived four months on one backpack before, so I might as well take all the help I could get. “Help” turned into multiple screaming matches in my room as we decided items I could and could not bring. General consensus for the ambitious Italia-bound backpacker: you only need one pair of pants, one pair of shorts (though they will probably only be worn sparingly as Italians don’t wear the kind of shorts we do), one pair of comfy travel bottoms (read: jazz pants), one sweater, one sundress, one to two fancier tops, maximum five everyday tops, one set of sleepwear, sneakers, flip flops, and wearing your winter shoes on the plane. TIP: Sling your big winter jacket over your arm for the flight. It’s just going to take up precious backpack space and will make your bag seem bulky. You don’t want airport security to be suspicious of your definitely overweight and probably wrongly dimensioned hand carry.

 My suggestion is to feel out the clothing styles when you get there, find one of those cheap piazza markets, and go fit in. Otherwise, you will stick out like a sore thumb. You’re probably going to get a lot of things during your travels regardless, so don’t waste bag space by filling it up with things you will end up throwing away or paying exorbitant amounts to ship home because, surprise, you can’t get it on the plane.

So I begin my semester-long adventure with a crick in my neck, absolutely no sleep (courtesy of my 4 a.m. flight), and an eternal gratefulness for hips because this bag is heavy and the waist strap is the only thing keeping it up thus far. I don’t know about anyone else, but my general experience with airports (which, considering my international status, is rather extensive) is that they accept U.S. dollars as payment. Try your luck in Europe because if you ever end up in Shanghai, they only accept Yuan and only do exchanges to and from Yuan. No USD to Euro tomfoolery here, so forget having money upon landing. Careful doing money exchanges in Europe as well: This is where pick pockets often loiter to execute their next business endeavor. Alternatively, I suggest you change your money in a bank. Unicredit only has 5-euro commission and a fair exchange rate, while the money exchange in the airport charged me a 50-euro commission. That’s roughly $75 ($1.50 exchange rate).

The hostess for my hostel in Roma was a Filipina. She decided that I’m young and foolish and had taken it upon herself to tell me ‘everything there is to know’ about being a Filipina in Roma. I wouldn’t mind so much if she didn’t look at me like I was a complete idiot. After finding myself a sim card the next day and smiling through manang’s new lecture on how girls frequently get abducted on the streets of Rome—and coincidentally all the places I planned on going—I made it on the train.

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Nothing will force you to learn a language quicker than getting on the wrong train.

I suppose this heart attack was a fair trade as my day was fairly ideal until that point. After almost missing my stop in Orvieto (but jumping off at the last moment), I made it to the Duomo and sweet talked the tourist office into letting me leave my giant backpacks (which are wider than I am tall) behind the desk. Apparently, this can be done.

On my way to Perugia, I made it to the Orvieto station with plenty of time for my train: and that is where the trouble began. Turns out, I was so early that I managed to get on a train that was scheduled to come in on the same track as my own and, not checking the time, I boarded it. Thank goodness for the kind, though irritated, lady and her man friend in front of me.

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In broken English and liberal hand gestures, they were able to direct me to the right stop and communicate the right train to jump onto after that. Note: Regionale trains almost never check your tickets. That isn’t to say don’t buy a ticket, because the fines are ridiculously steep. I just wanted to iterate that I failed to have a ticket for my accidental train, as well as my second train, and I accidentally got on the first-class car, but I still made it to Perugia without any additional troubles. But yes, trains in and out of Rome check tickets.

Following this fiasco, I went out for dinner alone in the nearby city center and watched people watch me eating a whole pizza on my own. Thus started my shame spiral.

Ciao, bella.

 

Lily Elbaum | Edinburgh, Scotland | Post 1

Lily Elbaum | Edinburgh, Scotland | Post 1

Somehow, this is only my fourth day in Scotland, but it feels like I’ve been here for a long time, even though the days have flown by. I arrived Tuesday morning expecting it to be at least drizzling, if not pouring rain. It is raining in the United Kingdom, after all, and it rains here constantly if everything I had ever heard is correct. Apparently it is not true, because four days later, I have yet to see a single drop of water fall from the sky (besides off the sides of buildings). Having now said that, it’s going to immediately start pouring rain in the next five minutes.

When I got here and had dragged myself through immigration and customs, I realized that I had not told my bank that I would be abroad, as I had been reminded to do every day for the previous two weeks, so I would not be able to use it to get any money. At least not then. Fortunately, I had two ten-pound notes given as a last-minute gift by a friend, which was enough to get a bus into the city from the airport, and then to get a taxi to my flat. I could have walked, I now realize, from where the bus dropped me off, but it’s a twenty minute walk, and I had about one hundred pounds of luggage. Plus, I got to ride in one of the famous black cabs, which was well worth the few pounds it cost.

I was pleasantly surprised by my apartment, and even more so by the flatmates I’ve gotten to know over the past few days. All of them are international students, but only one is from the United States, so it’s quite a varied group. It’s been an adventure trying to furnish a flat for the first time, and a couple days ago I went grocery shopping by myself for myself for the first time. I don’t think I did very well, but I’ve managed not to starve yet, so I consider it a success, even if my room still looks a little low on decoration.

At Vassar there’s orientation week, but at UK universities there’s Fresher’s Week. It’s basically a week-long party with at least twenty different events held each day to choose from. At night there are concerts and pub crawls and ceilidhs, a type of social where Scottish dancing is performed and there’s singing of traditional songs. They are the social event and a must-do while in Scotland. Needless to say, sleeping is not a priority except to recover from the night before and to be ready to get up in the morning and do it all again. It doesn’t help that Edinburgh is a “walking city” – people rarely take buses or cabs, one simply walks everywhere. I’ve ended up walking at least four or five miles each day, just in the old town where the university is.

The scenery, however, is the consolation prize.

Edinburgh works hard to make sure that the city maintains its character, and it succeeds brilliantly. Most of the bigger buildings look they could fit in at Hogwarts, and the rest look like they never left the eighteenth century. There are shops and pubs on the ground floor—what we Americans call the first floor—and above there are flats, all in stone buildings that seem to be the same yet different from each other. Basically, the whole city is utterly and delightfully charming. Fortunately the city is relatively flat, or the more than a mile walk from my flat to the campus would be exhausting.

During my brief time here, I have gotten to know a few Scots. Enough to know that they are quite nice and chipper, and also that while we may both be speaking English, it doesn’t mean that I understand even half of what they’re saying. Sometimes it seems like I only catch every other word, but it feels rude to ask them to repeat themselves when they are, in fact, speaking English. Instead I just nod and smile and pretend I have a clue what they’re talking about. Chances are, they’re probably talking about the referendum on Scottish independence happening next Thursday. “Yes” and “No” signs are everyone, showing the divided opinions of Scots. It’s a decision so close no one is willing to say how the vote will go; instead they argue over what minority group will be the deciding factor.

Really the main thing that my time so far has taught me is that many Scots like to drink, they’re friendly, and they would really like not to talk about the referendum anymore, thank you very much. Also that people actually do wear kilts, it’s not just something you see in movies. I was walking down the street and a man casually strolled past deep in conversation with the person next to him, wearing a kilt and the traditional jacket that goes with it. It was surreal, sort of how I imagine it would be to be walking in Paris and see a mime in a beret. And it perfectly sums up Scotland, delightful but just a touch odd.

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One of the streets at dusk.
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The view of Old Town and New Town from the top of Calton Hill on a sunny day.
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Edinburgh Castle from below.

Emily Mitamura | Prague, Czech Republic | Post 1

Emily Mitamura | Prague, Czech Republic | Post 1

As Audrey Hepburn tells us, “never a briefcase in Paris and never an umbrella. It’s a law.” And, let’s face it, what more perfect human will ever exist? So we (a we that may just include me, a third year Vassar student thrust into a new city and continually in the throes of a love of old movies and impractical but beautifully articulated travel advice) believe her. So basically, if I was in Paris I would be underdressed and soaking wet as I tried to pick up my belongings from the streets and Parisians would look on with delicately creased brows. (They all have umbrellas. They don’t listen to advice given in 1954.). Luckily for me, I’m in Prague. And in Prague if a girl’s going to get along she needs an umbrella. Needs. But more on my clumsy adventures in torrential rain sprinting later.

In the last day or so before I left for Prague I decided to read everything: every embassy page, every (prettily written) travel book, every internet page certified by the Center for You’re Going to Die in a Foreign Country Control Even Though You’re in a “First World Country.” Both my parents are doctors and I have hypochondria/paranoia in every cell I possess. Now, actually being in Prague, I realize I didn’t bring enough shoes, but let me tell you, I have enough hand sanitizer to perform open-heart surgery on the Charles Bridge. Though the CYGDFCCETYFWC is obviously a reliable and prudent source of travel information, I would probably have better secured my nomination for the practical human award had I learned some Czech. Alas. As I sit now, watching a dog down a beer larger than the one I’m currently drinking, writing this blog post, and clearly not studying for the Czech intensive final I have tomorrow, regrets are more than a little hard to keep track of in the dim bar lights. Let’s try the opposite:

I don’t regret listening to Vienna about eighty thousand times as I sat in the Austrian airport waiting for my connecting flight to Prague to finally arrive. I don’t regret the small herd of Prague-bound Billy Joel fans I met.

I don’t regret how I’ve gotten lost pretty much every day, because every time I end up at some different museum. It’s like the buildings can smell me coming and rearrange themselves so I never go to the same one twice (exhibitions of Dali paintings, and violins, and love elixirs to name a few).

I don’t regret seeing the US Soccer Team beat the Czech team in what was probably the most underwhelming display of nationalism to ever occur (We may or may not have been the only people in the US fan section). I sat right behind Petr Čech if that possibly means anything to anyone, maybe? I don’t sport, but a boy on my program screamed so loud trying to get him to turn around he lost his voice, so I gathered the moment was grave.

I do not regret drinking Tslivovce (Palinka in Hungarian) with an orthodox rabbi after going to Shabbat services in a converted hotel lobby (I read Hebrew prayers while seated on barstool).  When a respected rabbi brews apricot moonshine and personally comes to your table to toast life with you, you will regret not raising a glass no matter how much your head is absolutely going to spin as you attempt to traverse the cobblestone terrain later that night. I don’t regret meeting his family: his wife, oldest daughter, and youngest daughter who looked like animate Russian nesting dolls whenever they stood in a line, all wearing almost the same conservative dress and running the show in the women’s section of the “synagogue.” If you haven’t been hushed by a five year old who speaks fluent Hebrew, English, and Czech, all in high-pitched singsong voice, you have not felt true shame.

Surprisingly, I don’t really regret knowing less than no Czech going into my first intensive class, even though that meant attempting to coerce my lazy American mouth muscles into performing previously unimaginable acrobatics. I would guess that to my lovely Czech teacher I sound something like the unfortunate child of a horse with a lisp and Kurt Cobain, but I’m trying.

I won’t ever regret, despite the build up, running in rain (the light kind of milky grey atmosphere that shakes itself loose at least once an hour in Prague). Sun showers, slippery as they make everything as you climb a platform that used to support the weight of the communist regime (namely a ginormous statue of our [least] favorite comrade), really are beautiful. They make the city, forcing you to pop into nooks and alleys and dusty coffee shops populated by odd casts of characters. At one table old ladies with hair in shades of pastel blue and violet are gossiping about I have no idea what (the only word I can confidently identify is coffee). On the high stools by the window, long-limbed university students are preparing for exams, already aesthetically prepared for the ’90s in combat boots and boxy sweaters. At another table an American, very clearly an American, attempting to process that she lives here now.

All you need is love and spray paint at the Lennon wall.
All you need is love and spray paint at the Lennon wall.

 

Kafka as a problem on his own neck.
Kafka as a problem on his own neck.

 

View from the top a.k.a. what Stalin saw before they tore him down.
View from the top a.k.a. what Stalin saw before they tore him down.
Taylor Thewes | Prague, Czech Republic | Post 1

Taylor Thewes | Prague, Czech Republic | Post 1

I think that it is important to be nice to everyone. However, I do not think that I need to be friends with everyone. A lot of people on my study abroad trip are into the latter idea. Sadly, I have found that this has translated into a situation extremely similar to freshmen orientation or summer camp.  Everyone wants to meet-up to go to dinner together, or the bar, or to the bathroom. Every time I tag along with the group, I feel that I am setting myself back. To me, it is an example of holding on to a piece of America that does not let you fully become integrated with your surroundings. When you go out with a huge group, wherever it may be, you are noticeable; you stick out. You are not living in a foreign country, but simply being a visitor.

That’s why I cherished the evening of Friday, September 5, 2014 so much. I had just finished the scheduled three hour tour of Prague with about thirty fellow sweaty, hot, uninterested students. I had caught wind of a monastery-turned-microbrewery in the near vicinity. My interest was piqued beyond belief. I love a good beer, but even more so, I love exploring something so interesting in such a rich city.

Naturally, I did not want to shout out my intentions of visiting the spot, but I did not mind a few people joining the adventure. A fellow film collaborator but more so a newfound good friend named Hudson was obviously down. Chilling and drinking brews with the homie is not something to be passed up by him. Then, one more person decided to join, a girl named Cassidy. Neither Hudson nor I knew her very well, but we both initially found her physical beauty infatuating and later discovered that she had a personality to match. It was to be a solid crew.

The transit system is highly efficient and readily accessible in Prague. Getting on is easy, but getting off can be quite difficult when all of us are still struggling to comprehend everything related to the Czech language. After two different trains, though, we finally found ourselves at the right stop.

This place was different. There was no bustle. There were no McDonald’s. There were no beer swigging tourists, sans us. There was an unblemished European countryside with such gentle charm that Woody Allen could only ever dream of evoking in his recent Euro trip films. With this, we knew we had found our newest spot that would yield frequent visits.

We walked a little and in no time found ourselves within the walled monastery. It was absolutely brilliant. The walls had seemingly kept the monastery intact, in its centuries old form. Apparently, these monks liked to party, too, because exactly as we had been told, we found a quaint microbrewery tucked into one of building’s basements. The beer was tasty, albeit a little pricey – which means its still cheaper than a glass of soda back in the States. The trip was not necessarily about the beer though. Cassidy, Hudson, and I were able to open up and get to know each other, attempt to speak Czech with the locals, and almost completely cut ties from anything in the States. We were immersing ourselves into Prague.

The monastery was so well executed in its placement that it happened to be located on a giant hill. This offered some tremendous hiking that could not be passed up. We got a fairly decent workout in, I freaked out over a cute dog I was able to play with, and we happened to see the first real woods of our trip in Prague. It was peaceful.

Then as we got to the peak of our hike, we happened across my favorite thing so far on my abroad trip: the view. There have been some breathtaking views at just about every point on the trip. None of them can compare to this.  It is something that I wish I could describe, yet I feel I lack the ability to give it justice. The entire city was in view with such clarity. All I could think about was how the city must have changed so much. Everything has become so affected by time and in a gorgeous city like this, tourism. I thought about how, eventually, I would have to climb down from the hill and go back to the town, to where all the Starbucks are, to my giant group of Americans taking pubs by storm.

It is nice to know, though, that this spot will still be here, and to know that I can readily return. Bogart and Bergman might always have Paris, but we will always have that monastery, that top of the hill, and that view.